Monday, November 29, 2010

Securely Yours,

Phone: The FBI reports that there is an attempted burglary in the US every 17 seconds. You can help protect your family and belongings by purchasing a security system. If you take advantage of this offer and place our sign in your yard, we will waive the installation fee.

Dude: Hello.

Me: Hey.

Dude: Can I help you?

Me: So, there’s a burglary every 17 seconds?

Dude: According to the FBI, there’s an attempted burglary every 17 seconds.

Me: Are you saying that you don’t believe that information yourself, or just like can’t confirm or deny, or…?

Dude: Yes. I can neither confirm nor deny.

Me: Ha. Nice – neither confirm nor deny.

Dude: So, are you interested in a securing your home?

Me: Well, but, how recent is that information? Which report is it actually stated in? Do you have a name, or…?

Dude: It’s pretty recent.

Me: OK, pretty recent. OK.

Dude: So, are you interested in a security system.

Me: Yeah, sure. I mean, every 17 seconds, right? I’d like to learn more.

Dude: OK, so, do you own a home?

Me: I do not own a home.

Dude: …

Me: But my parents do. I could talk to them. I bet they’d like to secure their home.

Dude: OK. And what state do your parents live in?

Me: Well, now that you know their home isn’t secure, I’m not sure I should be telling you that. How can I be sure you won’t try to exploit them using this information?

Dude: Well, it’s up to you, if you want to take advantage of this offer…

Me: OK, well, I can tell you which state, but I can’t tell you more than that. It’s not a state, actually. It’s a Commonwealth. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Dude: OK. We offer installation only in the continental United States.

Me: Does that include Alaska?

Dude: No. Only in the continental United States.

Me: Well, but, do you mean the contiguous United States? Because Alaska’s still in the same continent - North America – right?

Dude: Well…

Me: I mean, I think. I think

Dude: OK.

Me: So, can you give me some details about what’s being offered?

Dude: We’ll provide wireless transmitters on all of the external doors and pet-friendly motion detectors. We’ll install three panic buttons. We’ll provide you with a crest and window stickers to prevent a break-in altogether. And, since this is a special promotional offer, we’ll waive the installation fee in the hope you’ll tell your friends about it.

Me: OK.

Dude: You’ll have a connection to us that is active 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If any alarms are tripped, we’ll be notified and can have the police on their way within 36 seconds. Since you won’t be charged any installation fee, you’ll only have to pay for the maintenance and monitoring contract, which is about $1 a day. And, if you move, we’ll move the system with you for free.

Me: OK.

Dude: …

Me: Hello?

Dude: …

Me: Hi?

Dude: Yes. Sorry.

Me: OK, so…

Dude: Do you think your parents might be interested?

Me: Yeah. I’d have to go over it with them, though.

Dude: OK.

Me: So, do you have a number, or…

Dude: Yeah…866…

Me: 866…

Beep beep beep

“Signal faded.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Pink Oasis

Upon entering the Pink Katalyst head offices in Mumbai Central, seated, as they are, at the head of the hallway and behind their glass door, the vibrant pink letters championing the company’s name, and its preeminent product, Singchana.com, visible from one side of the seventh floor to the other, a visitor can expect to be soothed by the smooth, gurgling sounds of a miniwaterfall. A new acoustic addition to enhance the aural aesthetic? Perhaps a natural counterpoise to the columnar concrete honeycombs that rise unnaturally straight from the paved earth, batting the music of the metropolis - the battling braying of horns - between their walls like unholy, unyielding badminton champions?

Perhaps.

The origin of this particular sound is, however, and however prosaically, the temperamental toilet that lies just inside the entrance to the home of those brothers who love you never more than when you play the singer in you. A simple jiggling of the handle can render the device mute—but, I ask you, especially in such a temple where daily gather adherents of the ancient art of soul-healing through the medicine that is melody-making, "At what cost, brother? Oh, at what cost?"

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Harvest/24-Hour Short-Story Contest

I wrote this for the Fall 2010 WritersWeekly.com 24-Hour Short-Story Contest and was mentioned as having lost with honour. I used the prompt that was given as the first two paragraphs of my story. The story had to relate to it, though not necessarily include it. And the story had to be 900 words or fewer, and finished within 24 hours of the prompt having been sent out. The rather original title is my work, and wasn't included in the word count, which, for mine, was 896.


The Harvest

He stood on his tiptoes at the small cabin's rear window, staring out at the deepening dusk, sensing the excitement in the town's air. The cold wind seeped through an old crack, tickling his chubby cheek, and a whirlwind of red and orange leaves made him laugh. The corn stalks rustled in the brisk breeze, waving to him. He waved back.

Behind him, Mommy was busy in the small kitchen and delicious smells wafted his way, making his tiny tummy grumble with glee. She was making lots of treats to tempt the town's children. After all, she'd promised him a new brother or sister.

That promise inspired in Johnny glee of perhaps an-even-more-intense strain than the aroma. After all, he’d been bugging Mommy for a new brother or sister since, in fact, his very first words to her: “Do I have a little brother or little sister?”

Of course, such may seem an unusual inaugural verbalization to one’s mother, but, then again, it was the unusual child who met his mother at the age of three. She encouraged him not to see himself as “adopted.” She always used the word “chosen.”

“You’ve been chosen,” Marcus had told him on that day Johnny initially discovered he’d be staying. Marcus was his first brother—first sibling of any kind. An older brother he’d acquired at the age of three—that was another unusual piece of Johnny’s family history.

That day, the harvest festival attendees had flooded the yard and first floor of Mommy’s cabin, with the pond of people lapping at the edges of the corn field, squealing young children and whispering young lovers trickling in and out of the stalks, families and neighbors concentrated at the wooden picnic tables and large picnic blankets that had condensed into a communal hive, where, by dusk, the jagged grass footpaths in between had atrophied to mere memory and a trek through them become an act of contrition.

From this, it was difficult to notice a subtraction of one. Certainly one like Johnny.

Thus it was that Marcus, eight years his senior, had easily corralled him into a corner of the cabin and down a minimalist flight of stairs half-hidden behind a large wooden trunk.

Down there, Johnny had encountered a heaping basket of candy apples, an artful arrangement of circus-sized lollipops, and various toy vehicles, balls, and blocks.

Marcus almost found words superfluous in convincing Johnny that that would be his new home.

Not that he was likely to be missed. His father had a problem with sobriety that consequently caused him no end of difficulty with work, relationships, and child-rearing. The last sighting of the man had been weeks before. Johnny had been subsisting on scraps of food and kindness from a neighbor who already had too many children of her own.

The light transitioned from the dusk that decreasingly permeated the darkening air to that of the sulfur-yellow bulbs that hung at regular intervals and irregular locations from the line strung over tree branches, around fence posts, and off of roof corners. The scene could have almost undetectably been swapped with the one two years earlier, when
Johnny had been ushered into the house and down the stairs.

Though he hadn’t eaten one since, nor even desired to, a sudden craving for lollipops seized Johnny. From his position on the porch, he ventured to the head of the stairs, pulling aside the curtain that now obscured the descent, and saw the boxes and plywood that, most of the year, barricaded the way were cleared to the side. Fitting easily on the half of the stairs that remained, Johnny followed the map still so clear, though not once refreshed, in his memory—down the stairs, to the left, down a short hallway, and right, into a room.

As he approached, he heard voices. As he paused just outside the ajar door, they were clear.

Johnny’s heart leapt as he listened.

“You heard me, Marcus—I promised him a new brother or sister!”

“But Mommy,” Johnny heard Marcus say, his voice disconcertingly supplicatory, “she was the youngest I could find. They guard the little ones so closely!”

“It’s taken me months to prepare this, Marcus. Last year, nothing. And this year, with so many new parents, all you can find me is this antique?”

Johnny peeked through the opening between door and jamb to see a girl a little older than he sitting in the corner, chewing on something and combing the blonde hair of a doll.

“Maybe this is a clear sign you’re ready to go from acquirer to producer, Marcus. If you can’t find Mommy a little one, you’ll soon be old enough to make her one.”

Johnny pictured Marcus assembling a baby, snapping together arms and torso, as he’d had to do to dolls such as the one the girl now played with on some occasions when he’d been less gentle than intended.

“Mommy, no!” said Marcus. “I’ll find you one! I promise! I just need more time! I’ll go out looking! Just give me until winter!”

“Fine. Take this dinosaur away,” she said, and Marcus swiftly approached the girl. Johnny moved to the dark corner of the hallway as Mommy turned to leave the room.

“But remember—until the first snow, Marcus—that’s how long you have.” She laughed. “You’d better pray for an Indian summer.”

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Necessity of Bears?

(Editor's note: If you enjoy this story, I urge you to view the first comment for an inspired remix.)

The most outrageous thing has happened in my apartment building — on the ground floor, where, for the longest time there was a closed-up, unoccupied space, it seems that someone had the bright idea to open a Bear Shop.

Yes, you read that right. Do a double, even a triple take if you want. I know I did, when I saw the sign, but every time I looked back, there it was, same as ever: Now Open! Bear Shop!

What? A Bear Shop? In this neighborhood? There are stray dogs everywhere!

Not for long, I suppose.

And children just wander around. Even if they stayed home, there’s a slum of about 20 families not 50 yards from this ursine-animal vendor.

The shop is done up nicely, I must admit. The last I’d seen of it, maybe a month ago, it was a large plastered room with various debris scattered about. Now, the walls are stylized, textured, dark-pink tile. The ceiling fan’s speed recalls a jet engine. And various spirit containers sit in a hollowed-out shelf along the back wall and in a shiny new glass display case in the front counter.

True, it seems like a safe place. Not only did I fail to spy even a single loose bear—I saw no signs of any. Not one bear, nor a hair or paw print. I didn’t even hear what could be considered a gentle roar.

Nothing.

Obviously, the bears have been well contained.

So far.

Now, admittedly, I’m no bear expert, the most extensive study I’ve done of that kind being some heavy petting in my dad’s Olds up at Procreation Point during a spell of low self-esteem back in high school. However, it seems to be common knowledge that the bear is a difficult animal to manage. Not for naught are they considered powerful, ferocious creatures.

“Run! It’s a bear!” is a saying every child knows. There’s a reason you won’t hear “Run! It’s a hare!” And, outside of those from Berrian DC and Dalian Chicago, I bet none of you’s ever heard “Run! It’s the mayor!”

No, there seems to be a general consensus that bears are more than a handful, which makes it suspicious that they would be peddled from a shop that is probably 200 square feet on a dry day, less when it’s humid.

The other suspicious observable is the partiality of the place toward alcohol. And whom’s the alcohol for? The bears? Their handlers? Complaining neighbors? Pesky officials? Victims’ relatives?

That, I have yet to discern. Also, the shop seems devoid of any brandy, bourbon, whisky, gin, vodka, rum, wine, schnapps, cider, liquor, liqueur, arrack, or even toddy.

A lot of cans. And some bottles, I think.

I can tell the neighbors are on edge—they definitely seem to have been drinking more than usual. And that isn’t just an imagined correlation—those who are drunkest are those milling around the Bear Shop the most—obviously, putting themselves in danger for the safety of their fellow man, ready to sound the alarm and provide the first line of defense.

Thankfully, so far, disaster has been averted. No tragic maimings. Nary a close call. Still, something doesn’t add up. Dog shop—sure, this place is filthy with filthy dogs, and some people even own a few of them. Goat shop—yeah, a couple of my favorite upstairs neighbors are goats. Cow shop—now there’s a moneymaker if I ever heard one. Even a monkey shop—sure, you see the occasional Mumbaikar with their monkey on a leash—even in the general compartments of the commuter trains—but you never actually see any monkeys around. Not wild, and certainly not for sale.

Any of these, and I’d have no problem. The raison d’ĂȘtre would be obvious. In fact, their absence puzzles me, now that I’ve given it some thought. But bears—the only bear I can even remember associating with any part of this country is a talking specimen named Baloo.

No, something doesn’t add up, and, as a responsible member of the community and a reasonable member of the human race, it’s my responsibility to pay heed my hunches, and mind my instincts.

For now, this citizen remains wary.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Two Gentlemen of Baroda

Weighted down by sleep but kept conscious by hunger and the three hour nap I’d apparently just finished, I groped for the remote and turned on the TV to find Braveheart.

Half an hour later, when the cute chick’d been murdered and I was more hungry and less sleepy, I groped for the room-service menu. Its terminal hour was 11. My clock read ten minutes past. Summoning energy that can only be mustered when one has already verified that the minibar has nothing but water, I grabbed my card from the let-there-be-light slot and made my way to the front desk.

Doubtful that I could get something from the kitchen, thinking maybe a nearby restaurant would be open, and confident in the reserves of the well-stocked vending machine I’d noticed when arriving, I addressed the kids working reception.

“Hey, is there anywhere I could get food here?”

“Sorry, sir. The kitchen is closed.”

“Any restaurants?”

I pointed at the door, but, in a way that, I knew, indicated I meant “beyond the door”.

“No, all closed.”

“Oh. Ok. Well, how about the vending machine?”

“Vending machine is closed.”

What? Was I in one of those Kafkaesque novels by Kafka? Was this some kind of comedy of the absurd? For what purpose vending machines, if not to vend? And to vend like hell, as long as there be electricity? And preservatives?

I stared at him with unbridled contempt saturating my glare. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so angry. Not irritated, but angry — usually, I just get irritated. And frequently. But this was something else.

Typing a text message on my cell phone, I walked to the door that leads into the accommodation area, having just finished keying in ‘the vending machine is closed’ — for those were to be my motivation — as I turned around and headed for the door.

“I just hope it’s not raining,” I thought as I exited through the thin, motion-triggered, sliding double glass doors.

The drops fell steadily and confidently upon my head and shoulders, and I quickly realized that if I didn’t find an eatery shortly, I’d be soaked. I headed toward a top-of-the-building sign a few doors down that looked to advertise a food-provisioning facility, but the illuminated sign proved to be the sole source of light in the building. Seeming to have reached the end of the road in terms of nourishment possibilities in that direction, I continued on without altering course — I'm nothing if not hesitant to backtrack over verified food-free territory when seeking immediately sustenance.

However, just then, by me passed two gentleman of Baroda who seemed tentatively interested in offering help, so I asked the less tentative and more interested-looking one where I could find food.

This more-bold one simultaneously pointed in the directions whence they’d come and whither I headed.

“No food that way,” he said.

Duh, I thought, I could’a told you that…

“We are going to the station for food. (He pantomimed feeding himself some granola mix, for clarity.) Would you like to come?” (He tilted his head, presumably, stationward. For clarity.)

“Yeah. Sure. Thanks.”

As I accompanied them, I twice learned and forgot their names. One may have been Arjun. I think the other’s name began with an “A” and ended with a “J”. I learned that they were firefighting trainees from Gunjapuh.

I later learned they were firefighting trainees from Mithapur who looked at me with confusion when I asked questions about Gunjapuh.

I decided the less bold one, AJ, was only necessarily less confident with English. I appreciated him because he, as I, lacked any kind of rain barrier like the mackintosh Arjun wore.

We walked in a row along the empty, dimly lit streets, collapsing into a column along the left side of
the road as cars approached from behind.

Arjun motioned toward the lights above the wall we approached that ran perpendicular to our direction of travel.

“Station,” he said, as we followed AJ to the left.

Here, there was some activity — some buildings; hotels, mostly; had lights on inside. Roadside vending carts were often attended by their roadside vendors, and the street-center lights were more-closely placed.

As I sought to avoid an approaching bus, I followed Arjun’s lead and realized we’d be exiting the edge of the right lane for the middle of the left, which was submerged in water.

As we waded back toward the recently departed shore of the right lane, I asked Arjun and AJ why only Arjun had rain gear.

“Yes. Raincoat.” Arjun said.

Sensing a hint of miscommunication, I amended my query to something resembling Hindi.

Uske pas raincoat nahin hai,” I think I said, motioning toward AJ.

A murmur went up.

I tried again.

Uske pas…

“Uske pas…no. No raincoat,” said Arjun, motioning toward AJ.

Kyun?” I asked, asking why.

“No, no raincoat,” repeated Arjun.

Kyun nahin?” I asked, asking why not.

We collectively moved closer to the banks of the left lane to avoid an approaching truck.

Reconvening back at the right lane, Arjun explained.

“In Gujarat, in the barish, in the rain, many people like to…” (He motioned with open arms toward the sky. The water.)

“Walk in the rain?” I asked.

“Yes.”

And then we had arrived.

In front of the Indian railways interstate railway station, which, as luck would have it, was celebrating 150 years of service, as noted on its facade, many people, mostly men, gathered at food stalls, huddled under the upward-opening sides of the stalls like prospective entrants to a 1940s proto-DeLorean.

AJ pointed out a vegetarian pav bhaji place where he and Arjun set me up with some bhaji, buttered rolls, and chopped onions before walking over to Naseer’s Omelet cart. I ate the hot, spicy bhaji as quickly as possible, asked for some napkins or water with which to clean my hands, received newspaper, thanked the bhajiman, paid him 20 rupees, and forded the parking lot over to A&A, trying to stick mainly to an impromptu stone bridge-path.

As I arrived, Arjun received his egg fried rice from the chef, who was aided, I noticed, by a man wearing a black, collared shirt with MTV written in shiny yellow-green on the left breast.
Arjun several times forcefully encouraged me to order some rice for myself, but it looked hot, I’d just eaten, and I didn’t want to wait for it to be made. He offered me some of his, to which I began to accede, then hesitated, asking if it was hot.

“Yes,” he nodded, as if it were a desirable quality under the circumstances.

I spooned a forkful, tossed it into my left hand to avoid dirtying his fork with my mouth, then, wondering if everyone watching me (and, yes, everyone was watching me) would think me uncouth for eating from my traditionally rear-end-wiping hand, quickly tossed it into my mouth.
It was hot. Instinctively, my tongue, cheeks, and the roof of my mouth retreated from the hot rice, but it followed my tongue and mouth-bottom unfailingly. All there was left to do was open my mouth and try to let the stream outward flow.

Eventually, I swallowed and assured Arjun that I’d found it very agreeable, though, in truth, the intense heat of it had burned from my memory any taste that may have registered.

At one point, as they ate and I waited, AJ disappeared to another stall and came back with three half-litre, clear, polyethylene sachets of water.

When Arjun and AJ had finished, they used some of the water from the sachets to rinse their hands, then drank most of the rest, throwing the bags on the ground. I fished my sachet out of my pocket, where I'd stored it, and tore at the corner with my teeth, managing to rip a hole but failing to severe any plastic, so that the water just dripped down the stretched plastic corner as it would a melting icicle. After a bit of moral debate and level-headed reasoning, I figured this wasn’t too much worse than anything else I seemed to be consuming, so I held the plastic icicle over my mouth and squeezed the sachet.

Folding up the empty sachet and shoving it in my pocket, I followed A&A. We went to a chai stand, where I think I was successful at communicating my ambivalence towards tea. As always, that required an explanation, and a lengthy one, if my hosts were to not be insulted by my refusal. Then arose the inevitable coffee question, to which, as usual, and because I do, I said I hate it.

Let me tell you, friend — a foe of coffee is understood and respected. An enemy of chai can find acceptance. But a friend of neither — well, there's a man without a beverage, and such a man just isn’t to be trusted.

“What do you drink?” they’ll usually ask.

My reply of “water” is met with skepticism, as if, fine, water, yeah, but, wouldn’t you really, in your heart of hearts, prefer it to be heated to very high temperatures and flavored using either beans or leaves?

If the conversation continues, I’ll be asked if I smoke. Since I don’t, the next question is (and, why wouldn’t it be?) whether I drink. Sometimes the gesture of “thumb to mouth, little finger in air” is exhibited in order to make sure I understand the implication is alcohol, although I don’t know that I drink other beverages any differently than placing them in containers whose bottoms I proceed to tip above mouth level.

When I tell them I don’t do drink, either, there’s really nothing to save me. If they somehow find out I’m a vegetarian, it only confirms what they already know. I’m given a knowing nod and told I’m “a good guy”.

This vexes me, mainly because I’m not. But is such a situation either the time or place to delve into an unsolicited list of my vices, shortcomings, and failures? I almost always find myself deciding that it’s neither. I offer a simple, “Well, no. Not really,” and leave it at that.

Luckily, this conversation lacked the steam to surpass non-alcoholic beverages, transitioning to where I was from in the U.S. soon after I made eye contact with the pair of guys who were sitting next to us under the tea cart-rain tarp, and they inquired as to my origins.

Having finished the chai (they, not I), I waved goodbye my new friends — the pair of guys, and kinda the chaiwalla — and we hit the road.

Asked by Arjun if I wouldn’t like to take something back to my room with me, I said I could probably handle some jalebis. We went to the jalebi cart, and Arjun ordered me what looked like a typical order. I looked in my wallet and was reminded by the sight of the 500-rupee note there that all I had was a 500-rupee note, which, while sufficient, probably wouldn’t sit too well with the jalebiwalla, who was probably going to charge 15 rupees.

He charged twenty, and I looked guilty and showed Arjun the 500-rupee note. He waved it off and paid for it himself.

The rain had all but ceased, and our walk back was quiet and pleasant. I tried to explain what it is I do in Mumbai, and why, and I asked them a few questions about their hometown. When we got to my hotel, I gave them my card, telling them that if they’re ever in Mumbai, to tell me so I can pay them back for the jalebis and we can hang out. They thanked me several times, said “Goodbye,” and walked on.

I re-entered the hotel lobby a little after twelve a.m., happy that I hadn’t shouted at or assaulted the desk clerks over the whole vending-machine debacle. As that occurred to me, I turned to the source of my earlier frustration to see it there, shining bright as the midday sun, happy orange and yellow wrappers half-full of preservative-laden food staring welcomingly out at me.

I thought, “Oh. Maybe the vending machine reopens at midnight.”

As I walked past the front desk, the clerk told me that the machine was now open.

“There was a problem with the machine, but we fixed it.”

I wondered if they’d fixed it just for me, and I felt a bit guilty.

“You can use it now,” he continued.

“Thanks,” I said, nodding sheepishly, and sidestepping toward the hallway door. With a pocket full of jalebis, I didn’t see much need for the vending machine at the moment.

Plus, I only had a 500.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Man Named Haynes

Dedication: In honor of my mom's birthday, this entry is dedicated to her. Happy birthday, Mom - no gift, but...here's a post?

We got our tickets from a man named Haynes. Not Hayes. Haynes. My wife kept confusing the two, and for good reason, I thought – you want to trust a man who sells you tickets, and a name like Haynes just doesn’t lend itself to trust.

Not a car, not a dog, not licorice – you don’t really want to buy anything from a man named Haynes. Maybe you wouldn’t mind knowing him in passing – pat him on the back as you walk by him on a barstool – “Hey, Haynes, how’d you like the Chicago game? Fourteen points in the final five minutes – I told you your D wasn’t built to play a full sixty.” Maybe see him on the street – “Hey, Haynes, how’s the lawn? Drought’s been vicious this year, what?” Maybe even get culinary tips from him – “Now, you want to chop the onions very finely! If you’ve done that, you’re in for one fine bouillabaisse, or my name isn’t Haynes! (applause)” Sure, any of that might be OK – “Haynes” doesn’t have to make a man a pariah – it just makes him an untrustworthy vendor.

But we were hard up and he was willing – a not-uncommon complementary relationship in many business deals. So we completed the transaction and walked the half a block to the concert hall.

“I wonder why Mr. Hayes didn’t need his tickets,” my wife said as the snowflakes began to linger a few seconds on the snub-nosed brim of her black, felty hat before melting.

“Haynes,” I said. “Was it Mr. Haynes, or just Haynes?”

“I don’t really know. Anyway, I wonder why he didn’t need them.”

“I don’t know – he looked dressed for it. Especially those shiny, tasseled shoes.”

“Yeah – maybe his wife was sick.”

“Or his husband,” I said, thinking as much about egalitarian mindsets as I was about his shiny shoes.

“Maybe. He had a gorgeous wedding ring, though.”

“That’s no guarantee.”


Well, wouldn’t you know it, we got to the theater, and the tickets were rejected.

A look of pity settled into well-worn grooves on the ticket-taker’s face.

“I’m sorry, sir, but these tickets seem to be counterfeit. Where did you buy them?”

Haynes!

I could feel my face going red. I turned and ran the half a block to where we’d done the deal with Haynes, knowing full well that he’d have to be less than an idiot to still be there. I found the spot – everything was as it had been, except for Haynes.

I made my way back to meet my following wife, who, though upset herself, had to play consolator to my much more upset psychology.

“It’s OK. Don’t worry about it, David. We’ll find somewhere nice to eat, and we’ll forget about it.”

“Son of a bitch. If I ever find Haynes…”

“Who?”

“Haynes – the guy who sold us the tickets.”

“Was that his name?”

I couldn’t believe it – she hadn’t remembered his name. Probably hadn’t even made her suspicious!

“Of course that was his name. I knew we shouldn’t have trusted him.”

“It’s OK, dear. It’s my fault. We’ll buy them on time next time.”

“It’s not your fault. It’s Haynes’s fault!”

“Honey, please. Don’t make it worse than it is. We’ll be fine. Let’s go get something to eat. You’ll feel better.”

But I didn’t want to feel better. I wanted Haynes to feel worse.

We walked along the wide brick paths under the Christmas decorations – white, lacey, and irregular wide-gauge nets of insulated wire strings hung above us, in some kind of whole-street-consistent decorating motif, looking like the branches of a bare tree flattened to two dimensions, with a light at every intersection. There were fake-candle lamps and fake oil lights in store windows. It was like a stage set for a Christmas play, and I began to think of Haynes as the cockney-accented swindler in a dirty top hat with a deteriorating ribbon around it and crooked fingers reaching out of a jacket with too-long, too-wide sleeves.


We sat down in a concert hall of a restaurant that was part Victorian sitting room, part ski lodge. The lights were low, and there were gas lamps on every table. Huge wood pillars cobwebbed this way and that twenty feet above our heads, and the tables and booths were set so far apart you could walk four across between the parties. Some booths were hidden behind a large, attractive piece of drift-tree art that sat on a waist-high stand across the middle of the room. A fish tank near the wall was the brightest thing in the place and cast an ethereal light across a quarter of it. We were seated next to a wall of windows that looked out onto the cement pathway and, beyond that, to the calm black waters of the bay.

We looked over the thin menus inside the thick leatherish covers the hostess had left us as going-away presents. I thought the clam chowder bread bowl looked like it might be my order.

“He probably didn’t even give us his real name, you know,” my wife said to me, not looking up from her menu.

Of course he wouldn’t have given us his real name! It dawned on me that all we really knew about Haynes was that he’d sold us fake theater tickets and that his name wasn’t Haynes. It could be anything else imaginable – Andrecovich, Chevalier, Ramachandran – anything but Haynes. It turned out that you couldn’t trust a man not named Haynes, either. But how could you know if he indeed was or wasn’t Haynes until you’d tried the tickets? Yet I realized that we'd known, when buying them, that they must either be real or fake – therefore, that his name must either be, or definitely not be, Haynes.

“Hi, my name’s Wendy, and I’ll be your server,” said our server, Wendy. She was an attractive brunette in her mid-thirties.

My wife ordered a White Zinfandel. I hadn’t even known we were ordering wine. So I didn't.

I ordered an apple juice.

I saw my wife’s eyebrows rise, but she didn’t say anything.

“The water looks like the sky,” my wife said, and I felt as if I’d just dived out of the hot sun and into a cool swimming pool. I hadn’t even realized I was still so tense.

I looked out at the bay and saw how the lights from the boats, and the dock, rested in it like very large stars.

“Yeah,” I said. “It does.” And I looked at her, into her wide, dark eyes, the irises so dark you can’t tell where they end and the pupils begins, and that’s kind of like looking into the dark night sky, too. And the smile that forms below isn’t unlike the stars that make the night sky beautiful and wonder-inspiring instead of foreboding and despair-inducing.

And it’s a smile that’s surprisingly small – boxier than you’d expect. And that sometimes annoys me when I’m irritated, but makes me smile when I’m not. And right then I wasn’t. I was, at least, had been, tense, and shaken up, and angry, but not irritated. And so I smiled. And put my hand on hers. And it didn’t feel silly or irritating or forced, but welcome and happy and easy.

We ordered jointly, as we do when we’re happy. We ordered a salad and mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce and, for after, a small steak with steamed asparagus and, yes, the chowder in the bread bowl.

We spoke a bit – not about the ticket fiasco, or the play, but about other things. How pretty and neat the salt and pepper shakers were (the salt shaker was yin, the pepper shaker yang, and they fit together to complete the symbol). How the driftwood art reminded us of the beach vacation we’d been casually discussing taking. How cold the feet of the little white Pekingese being walked along the path outside must be.

Following the dog’s paws bouncing along the sidewalk, my eyes landed on something, and I felt my stomach go tight. I realized it was a shoe. A shiny, tasseled shoe. I looked up to see Haynes. He was still in that fancy getup, the low-down, simple thief.

I knew I couldn’t take it sitting down, though a part of me wanted to stay with my wife, in the beautiful restaurant, eating our dinner. But I couldn’t just sit here and watch him stroll by. How would I live with myself afterwards? I sprang up and ran out of the place.

I found Haynes not twenty feet from where I’d seen him. He smiled at me when he saw me.

“Hello, sir,” he said, smiling – too forcefully, I thought.

“Give me back my money,” I said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The tickets were fake. Give me back my hundred dollars.”

I noticed, past Haynes, that the Pekingese and its owner had turned around to watch the festivities.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir. Maybe you confused me for someone else.”

“Give me back my money, Haynes!”

“My name isn’t Haynes, sir.”

“Right. Of course it isn’t. So why’d you tell us it was? What is your name? John Doe? Mark Twain?”

“Listen, friend, I’m sorry, but I’m sure you’ve confused me with someone else.”

I smiled the confident smile of the beaten and desperate. I sensed my wife somewhere back behind me – she must have followed me out.

“You…” I laughed. “You sold us fake tickets, Haynes! Now just give us what we’re due, and you won’t have any problem!”

“Listen, sir, I’m sorry about your situation, but I’m not the man you’re looking for.” He held out his hands and turned them palms up as he finished, emphasizing his empathy. “You should probably go to the police.”

And that’s when I saw the glittering gold on his left ring finger. It was a beautiful ring – not just a typical wedding band, but thicker, and intricately carved.

Though he stood a few inches taller than I, my rage had overcome any physical fear I might have had. It was all I could do to stop from punching him.

“Friend…” Haynes said, as he inexplicably reached out to touch my shoulder.

I pushed back, instinctually, but willingly. He may have been off balance reaching for me, or standing on some ice, or my rage may have been too much, but when I pushed, he lost his balance. He fell backwards, not getting his hands down in time, landing on his hip and letting out a moan.

“Bark!” exclaimed the Pekingese.

In a moment of inspiration, I saw my chance for redemption. A chance to recoup my losses. I reached down and grabbed it. It slid off as if he wore buttered socks. He looked up at me, holding his shoe in my hand, with incomprehension. But what he didn’t do is move his still-shod foot. So I reached down and snatched that shoe, too.

I looked over at my wife. Her expression was almost indistinguishable from that I’d just seen on Haynes. It was not the look of someone to be counted on.

I took off alone down the walkway, the bay water on my right, the cold air a welcome sting in my throat, cooling the fire in my head. I was totally alone. I began to fixate on the bay – on how its placid sheen reflected the occasional shore light like a flawless black mirror.

Like the polish on my new shoes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I've got a bridge in Lake Havasu I'd like to sell you...

In Oklahoma, the grass and fallow fields began giving way to ground that was barer, with small shrubs scattered about. Also, it became hillier—and not gently rolling hills, but more abrupt changes in altitude, with microplateaus and nanocliffs.

Hungry for breakfast and having seen only dull golden grass contained by miles-distant bluffs for the past couple of hours, I searched for the location of the nearest food on the Garmin. It was 48 miles in front of me. Forty-eight miles later, where one state route crossed another, lay some kind of town amputation—as each piece of a singly cleaved earthworm often begins to grow into a new, whole worm, this collection of buildings seems to lack some of the basics of a whole, healthy town while possessing some extraneities. I didn’t see a town center, or any municipal buildings, but I did find a restaurant and what seemed to be a junkyard.

I entered the restaurant and was told “Hello” by an AARP-qualifying white guy in a mesh hat and flannel sitting at the table near the door next to a similarly dressed and aged man. After I sat down, a man who would win the part of Sitting Bull in any local theater production entered and greeted the two older white men, indicating that the enmity between the white man and the red has eased significantly. However, he did communicate with the waitress in Spanish, so my suspicions have not been completely alleviated, and I fear there may be a rebellion stirring.
Santa Fe is like one of those all-too-short, over-too-soon levels in a video game. It’s surreal. It’s bright and blue and Mexican and Amerdian (Amerindian) and surrounded by mountains so close that an errantly tossed tortilla might get caught on a peak.

As I drove down the blacktop, the afternoon sun was white hot in its aggression, transforming the tar lines on the asphalt into visual lightning bolts.

The diversity of the southwestern states was encouraging to see. Nowhere was this culture of inclusion, acceptance, and tolerance more apparent than in Albuquerque, which, if you can believe it, contained not only a Whataburger but also a Lotaburger, showing that there’s enough room for a rich, diverse citizenry, some prefering quantity of burger, some more highly prizing quality.

Another encouraging discovey I made was of a certain, apparently popular, type of Mexican music that sounded a lot like polka to me. It made me happy to know that such a tradition is still going strong in 2009.

The lack of any natural barriers out here really is amazing. The roads just go on forever - you could run a marathon blindfolded.

Others are deceptively marked, at least on the computer map I had. One of the “county roads” my Garmin recommended I take was pretty much just two tire tracks in the dirt separated from each other by grass. It ran along a rancher’s fence. My Camry, I assume, would be flattered by the Garmin’s faith in it, but some of the potholes looked like something only a flatbed truck or SUV could handle them, so I backtracked the way I’d come.

Driving into the mountains, approaching Yuma from the east at sunset, was beautiful—the sun setting behind the mountains left the sky above a brilliant rainbow of low-frequency visible wavelengths, all suddenly obscured by the monolithic, monochromatic, monodimensional, jagged-edged range that looked like someone had torn off a piece of black construction paper and pasted it to the base of the horizon. However, like one of those dual, mutually exclusively messaged illustrations, where it’s either a young girl or an old lady, depending on what you’re brain is categorizing the lines as, as I stared at this truly magnificent explosion of color and contrast, I realized that, approached from an inverse point-of-view, it was fear-inspiring, as it could also be conceptualized as resembling a beautiful color palate whose bottom portion had been torn off to reveal a black no-man’s-land beyond, from which the headlights of escaping cars dimly appeared and other cars foolishly entered, their brake lights disappearing into its gaping maw of voidity. Alternately, it looked as if termites had eaten through the bottom of the horizon on the set of The Truman Show, and true night slipped in for the first time. Additionally, it should be noted that one should not have been embarassed to admit that it struck one as if the end of the world had been blasted through, and now travel to and from whatever else was out there was possible by automobile.

Having headed north from Yuma and then turning east at London Bridge, I was driving through weather in the mid-seventies, headed for the snow falling up in Flagstaff.

Nearing Flagstaff, I passed a guy driving a car with New York plates, and I got the same kick-in-the-gut feeling of humility I get when I see some guy wearing shorts in weather so cold that I’ve yielded to pants. It’s the same feeling I’d get when I’d see a white guy from a non-English-speaking country getting by living in India—he’s not only white like me (the title of my autobiography, perhaps?), but he’s also getting by with a foreign language. I nodded at this man from New York and said, with grudging respect, “You win...You win.”

I also saw a car with Ontario plates...but those people are crazy.

Having pulled into a rest stop somewhere above 5,000 ft, I got out and took some pictures of the snow. Returning to the car, I passed a guy wearing a flannel shirt with a shirt underneath, pants, boots, and a hat. He said to me, “You get the award for being inappropriately dressed,” as he looked at me in my winter coat, tennis shoes, and shorts. So that was nice. It was still 33 degrees, though. Still, after the New York-plate incident, I was taking what I could get. (It was 70 when I’d l begun climbing that mountain an hour before, and it would be in the mid-sixties when I’d return to the base a few hours later. )

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Of Gettin' Out of Dodge, the Gang Dalton, and Adventures Courtesy of Sam Walton

Stopped in to the Carr Audio store in Larned, KS, where I had been told they might have some kind of camera repair kit—dust had finagled its way onto an inner lens and dirtied almost all pictures taken using the zoom. I found two women in their 60s there. One asked me if I needed help.

“Yeah,” I said, “do you know if there’s a camera shop around here?”

“In Larned?” she asked. Then she laughed. So I laughed too. Then she told me maybe I should check Wichita, which I found out is where she does her boutique shopping. A guy in a Dodge City Radio Shack would later confirm Wichita as the camera-shop capital of Kansas, at least in popular opinion among those living along a three-hour radius of it.

“I think what you’d need to do is go to a specialist, like in a camera shop.”

“And there aren’t any...?”

“No, we haven’t had one for five years. I think the closest one’s in Wichita.”

Finally, I got the hell outta Dodge, although after spending more time than was in any way conceivably necessary in the Dodge Wal-Mart. Especially the parking lot. Hunted for the power cord to the GPS navigation unit for about half an hour. At least it was 60 F outside, or the repeated trips between the interior of the car and the trunk would have been even less pleasant.

Finally found it on the backseat underneath a bag.

Saw where the Dalton gang hid out—well, probably only used it a few times, said the curator. Until most of them were shot dead. But they were bank robbers, so that’s an occupational hazard. Something about the whole town coming out and shooting them on one of their heists—must have been a red state. I didn’t do much research, first of all because I was in a hurry to move before the sun set, and secondly, because the place freaked me out. The gift shop/former barn was fine, but the house was done up as if it were 1900. As far as I can tell, the gang consisted of three brothers and possibly a sister and her husband. And maybe one other guy. A couple of the brothers had been federal marshals, but then a third brother had been arrested, and, they claimed, mistreated while in jail. They used that to justify their engagement in some after-hours train robberies. And I guess it paid better, so they went into it full time. Anyway, the barn was connected to the house by a tunnel (really a ditch that had been covered with plywood and then dirt) through which they could escape to the barn, and thence, on horseback, if the police showed up at the house. It is obviously neat to have a secret tunnel in one’s house, but, as I said, I didn’t stay in the actual house very long because the only other person around was the employee, who was at the other end of the tunnel, in the barn, and the house was completely silent and made up as if the Daltons had just left. That was weird enough—with pictures on the table and some fake food in the kitchen—but the horror movie coup de grace was a little baby doll sitting on the made-up bed. I don’t know why five or six adults hiding from the cops would need to put a baby doll on their bed after having made it, but in this recreation, at least, there it was.

The guy manning the barn/gift shop wore a cowboy hat and vest and talked with a strong and kind-of-overdone western accent. When he greeted me I proceeded to reply somewhat hesitantly, in order to let him know that I wasn’t a five-year-old who needed to be patronized with the Old West accent. Then, as we began talking about his old sports cards and the book “The Physics of Baseball,” I realized that the accent was gen-you-wine. He was a nice guy, though, and we bonded over baseballic futility. (I told him I was a Pirates fan, and he admitted to rooting for the Royals.) Maybe that’s why he let me walk down the tunnel without having to pay the $4 charge, although at the time I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t so that he could viciously murder me, in keeping with the decor of the place.

Also, “yegg,” meaning a burglar who robs safes, or a safecracker, was dictionary.com’s word of the day that day. Here was one of the two accompanying quotations:

"A train robber is better than a public yegg" has been the campaign slogan of A.L. Jennings, train robber and member of the famous Dalton gang, who was nominated in today's primaries for County Attorney over a half dozen opponents.
-- New York Times, 1912-08-08

I told the curator that I was on my way to Albuquerque, and he had about a thousand suggestions of what to do in New Mexico—he was a big fan. He did admit, however, to having yet to see one of the state’s (main?) attractions—the burial place of Billy the Kid.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Of Quietude, the Cosmos, and Manure

Nebraska state bird? Western meadowlark. State motto? “Equality before the law.” State smell? Manure. Seriously. OK, I didn’t smell it in Omaha, but I stopped at two highway-side gas stations, and each time there was a distinct manure scent in the air. I’d stopped at gas stations all along the way. I’d stopped at gas stations in Kansas. I’d stopped at gas stations in Iowa. I’d stopped at many many gas stations in central Pennsylvania. I’ve never noticed such a scent. Each time I stopped in Nebraska, I did. (Also, the Internet seems to think that Nebraska’s state soft drink is Kool-Aid. Do you maybe mean “state fun drink” or “state pasttime drink,” Internet? When did Kool-Aid become a soft drink? Aren’t they carbonated? (dictionary.com says they are usually carbonated, but we all know it’s just covering its rear.))

Roads in Nebraska are also audacious. Maybe more so than Iowan roads. They just go where they want— no curving around anything. No weaving or diverting for hills or mountains or bluffs or buttes or anything.

An amazing thing that I photographically documented—I found a gas pump that had no pay-at-the-pump credit card facility. And I was able to pump first and pay later...AFTER DARK!!

Kansas may have even more stars than Iowa. It was amazing—on an unlit state route that ran through farming fields, I stopped and got out of the car and stared up at the sky. I could see more stars than I’d ever seen before—a big swath of them across the night sky. And even with a bright, though crescent, moon. And it was amazingly quiet. Not even any animal sounds. With fields that stretched for miles on each side. I don’t know what makes so much noise where I usually hang out outside, but it was noticeably much quieter than I’m used to. It was very impressive. You give up some things when you live with light and noise pollution from all the modern conveniences. I wondered what it would be like to camp out in those fields. I was kinda afraid a buffalo would sneak up on me and attack, however.

It woulda’ had to have been really quiet, though.

Driving through Kansas at night was disorienting. I had to keep squinting and unsquinting to try to get my bearings. I felt as if I were at sea—the fields stretch so far and are so flat that you can eventually see light in most directions—kind of like staring off into the cosmos. Some light sources are probably twenty times closer than others, but they all look equidistant, just of varying size or brightness, just as some people have imagined stars to all be on the edge of the same sphere (or hemisphere) surrounding us. It was also kind of like being at sea but in sight of the lights on shore—all blackness except for dots of light on the horizon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Inequity! The Inequity!

Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards is so upset, he went so far as to criticize Roger Goodell after learning the NFL commissioner made $9.759 million in 2008.

"I don't see him out there getting hit or nothing like that. The commissioner makes $9 million, so you tell me where the balance is? He doesn't put his life on the line, he pushes a pen.
from Ross Tucker at si.com (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/ross_tucker/02/17/freeagents/index.html)

"To what is this prelude?" I wondered with eager anticipation. "Finally, the hard-hitting statement we've needed, from that spokesman for egalitarianism, defensive end Ray Edwards, that will lead the way to a state where financial remuneration is based purely on the danger of the occupation! Finally, timber cutters, fisher(people (including kings)), and pilots (and navigators) will get the money they deserve for putting their lives on the line each day they go to work! Pizza delivery people, truck drivers, and farm workers will be compensated for the risks they take to perform their duties."

"What was that title again?" I asked as I scrolled to the top of the page.

"Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards pushes to raise hazard pay for military personnel"?

"Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards to launch campaign promoting fight club for successful Wall Street bankers"?

But no, it was just "Free agency is changing, and NFL players aren't happy about it". And Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards was just promoting a pay raise for Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards (and, presumably, others like him who must wait another year (one more than had been customary) before becoming unrestricted free agents unless a new NFL collective bargaining agreement is reached before March 5.)

Oh well. Let's wish him luck. The last player to die on the field was Chuck Hughes. That happened in 1971. Of course, Korey Stringer died of complications brought on by heat stroke while practicing in 2001, and Chicago Bears defensive end Gaines Adams died of an enlarged heart during his team's offseason. In 2005, Thomas Herrion collapsed after a game and later died in the hospital. His death was attributed to ischaemic heart disease, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. And others have suffered permanent injuries, including spinal cord injuries, while playing.

If we count all presumably football-induced deaths (and therefore, Stringer's), and even those due to pre-existing conditions that were exacerbated by the physical exertion required by playing the game, like Herrion's, (but not those, such as Adams's, which have no clear link to playing) I estimate that we maybe get a maximum number of one death every two years (or 0.5 deaths per year). If there are 32 x 53 = 1,696 players on active NFL rosters at any one time, then we have a rate of 0.5/1,696 = .000295 NFL players dying per season. I would assume it's less than that, but let's say, worst-case, that's what it is. That is higher than truck drivers, at a slightly lower risk of .00025 (according to this Money Central report: http//moneycentral.msn.com/content/invest/extra/p63405.asp). Are NFL players paid more than truck drivers? Mostly, I would guess they are. But the NFL death-on-the-job rate is four times less than that for loggers (at .00117). Are loggers paid more than NFL players? One would certainly have to assume so. And, of course, the average American worker has a chance of dying of .00004, which is about 1/8th the risk of the average NFL player. But how much does the average NFL player make? Around $900,000/year. (http://www.ehow.com/facts_5005211_what-average-salary-nfl-players.html) and (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_average_salary_of_an_NFL_football_player) Is this more than the U.S. national average salary of $45,600? Yes.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_average_salary)

Is it more than 8 times the U.S. national average salary? Yes. In fact, it's over 19 times as much.

And every NFL player makes at least $325,000/year, which is 7 times the average U.S. salary.

So, if we're equating salary to death risk in order to judge fairness, then the average NFL player is doing much better than the average American. And, as compared to the average truck driver, or the average logger...well...

But that damned Goodell! When's he gonna earn HIS money?!!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Oh, so I'M the Asshole?

1:20 a.m., Bombay

Ring. Ring.

“Hello?” I say as I pick up my American phone and wonder who would be calling me on it.

“The recent financial crisis has put many hard-working people into debt. If you are in debt and have been looking to consolidate your debt, we are here to help. We offer…”

“Beep.” (‘Cuz I pushed “1” on a hunch.)

“…”

“Hello? Is anyone there? You can’t plant me in your penthouse – I’m goin’ back to my plough…back to the howlin’ old owl in the woods, huntin’ the horny-backed toad…”

“Hello. Thank you for holding.”

“You are welcome.”

“So, you are having problems with debt?”

“With debt?”

“Yes. You held on the line to receive help consolidating your debt?”

“Yes I did.”

“OK, let me tell you that this program is supported by the federal government, and this call is being recorded for quality assurance. By the federal government.”

“OK.”

“So, how much do you owe?”

“I owe…lots.”

“OK. How much is that?”

“Like…many dollars. Lots of pounds. A whole lotta euros.”

“And how much – can you give me a number?”

“Seventeen.”

“Seventeen thousand?”

“Seventeen thousand?!... Yes!”

“OK, and…”

“Euros.”

“Seventeen thousand euros?”

“Yes.”

“How much are you paying now?”

“For what?”

“Are you covering the full amount for your bills now?”

“Well, not for the ones I don’t pay.”

“OK, and…can you tell me how you got into this situation?”

“Well, you see, what happened is…I bought things…I used my credit card. I bought a lot of things…but I didn’t earn enough money to pay for them. Now, I don’t have to tell you what happens when you go on like that for a while…”

“…right. OK. My name is Joshua, and I work with a program supported by the federal government that helps people consolidate their debt. We work with a group of 17 or 18 lawyers to consolidate your debt and lower the amount you have to pay. What if I told you we could get your seventeen thousand dollars down to nine thousand?”

“Pounds.” (I know I said euros before – European money confuses me.)

“Pounds?”

“Yes. Seventeen thousand pounds.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Pounds sterling. British pounds.”

“What?”

“British currency.”

“…OK. So what if we could get your debt down to nine thousand dollars?”

“Nine…OK. That would be nice.”

“And you would pay two hundred dollars per week. If you did that, you could be out of debt within a year.”

“OK.”

“And if you paid more, you could be out sooner.”

“Yup.”

“If you paid three hundred dollars per week, you could be paid off just over six months.”

“OK.”

“So you would be able to pay two hundred dollars per week?”

“Umm…how much is that in pounds?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Pounds. British financial currency. British money.”

“I’m talking about America.”

“And when did we say I was…”

“America. Dollars. English.”

“…Umm…Wait…What language do you think they speak in England?”

“You know what? You’re an asshole.”

“When – at what point in the conversation did you ask me if I was in America?”

“I’m hanging up.”

“Wait. I just…no one told me I had to be in America…You’ve…hello? You’ve left me, haven’t you? Hmm…”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Frank and fries

Stopped in to Omaha to lunch. I’ve seen Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Krakow, Warsaw, Rio de Janeiro, and Mumbai, but Omaha amazed me—mainly due to the fact that it looked younger than I am. The city, frankly, looked like it shouldn’t quite have its learner’s permit yet. It didn’t even have any stubble...of course, it didn’t look as if it had completely filled out yet, either. The major downtown buildings—more than a few of whose exteriors consisted mostly of glass—looked new and free of grime...or really any deterioration at all. I can see why the Denver-based sports reporter who came to Pittsburgh when the two cities’ teams played in the AFC Championship Game before Super Bowl XL described Pittsburgh as old and dirty—compared to pubescent Midwestern or western cities, it is. That’s much the same reaction I had to Pittsburgh when I first visited after having spent the first six or seven years of my life in the suburbs—that it was old and dirty. But I had never been to any municipalities of such size, so I figured maybe with size came grit. But if this guy’s from a city as clean as Omaha, he must know that that’s not the case. And according to Wikipedia, Omaha has about a 25% higher population than Pittsburgh.

Upon parking my car on the brick road upon which sit shops in a higher-class, commercial area of Omaha, I heard the sound of the Gator Bowl, where the Cornhuskers were taking on Clemson, emanating from speakers perched above a couple of bars across the street. I avoided the bars, which looked to be filled with former frat boys on beer number five, and walked to the nice little boutiques. I was looking for a restaurant to my liking and found one, but unfortunately Ahmad was serving none of his Persian cuisine on New Year’s Day. Disappointed, but still hungry, I continued on, seeing an East-Asian mother and two children being photographed crossing the street by their father. I laughed at such people who must photographically document everything, then took out my camera and snapped a picture of the street.

Walking by the Spaghetti Works, I found that it didn’t open for another three hours. Then I ran into a blond man, about six-foot-one, wearing a winter hat and a jacket. He stuck his hand out and asked my name. I thought of how much money I was willing to part with in the name of interstate relations. I told him I was Mike. He told me he was Frank. I assume only one of us was lying. He asked me where I was going. I said I was just looking around. He said we could do that together. I looked to see who could help me when he began mugging me—the East Asians, along with everyone else, were nowhere in sight.

He suggested we sit down at the Spaghetti Works outdoor tables. This is where I learned that he has been living in the shelter for about a year. This is also where I noticed he wore three jackets over a button-down shirt and a T-shirt, two winter hats, and a small 2” x 2” x 2” clock somehow secured in a chaotically wrapped string that hung from his neck. This isn’t too make fun at his expense, as he was either maybe mentally retarded, certainly mentally ill, probably a combination of both, or the best actor I’ve ever met. This may sound callous, but I wasn’t completely convinced the latter wasn’t the case throughout our shared time. However, I was pretty sure he was sincere, especially after he greeted a stranger who was walking by, then, later, walked over to an old safe that apparently belonged to the Spaghetti Works, asked, “Should I open it?” did so, then said, “Look! There are millions billions dollars inside!”

Sufficiently confident no subterfuge was at hand, I thought it would be nice to buy him lunch and spend some time with him, so we got up from the bench, heading for a coffee place he knew. As we went to turn the corner, a police car being driven in an agitated manner crossed the intersection in front of us. Another one honked agitatedly at the car that was blocking him from following his friend. A third police car approached from the orthogonal street. They came toward us and converged on a man who was just leaving the ATM after having looked as if it was not cooperating with him. He tried to walk unsuspiciously away, and, when they approached him, he looked at them innocently enough for my tastes. However, not for theirs, as they had him stand against the wall and handcuffed him. One of the policemen motioned across the street to a shop, which made me think maybe something had happened there and someone had identified the now-manacled gentleman—however, I had been over there earlier, and all the shops had appeared closed.

Whatever it was, I didn’t want to stay around long enough to find out. Who knew what would transpire next? Frank, however, felt as if entertainment had been dropped into his lap, evidenced by his suggestion that we sit down on a bench about thirty feet from the action and take in the drama. I wouldn’t have wanted to remain there if I had been alone, but I especially didn’t want to be near that with someone who was in the habit of talking to strangers and touching things most people wouldn’t.

When we got to the coffee shop (Starbucks), he ordered conspicuously but fairly competently, and we sat down. That’s where he recommended to me a song by Roy Buchanan called “Running Out,” and also whistled a few bars of it. Several times.

He also told me his father was a German scientist.

And a cowboy.

After a lunch of French fries in a nearby diner, I told Frank I should be leaving. He asked if I
could spare any change because, as he put it, “I’m poor.” I gave him the change that remained from the ten we’d purchased his coffee with, and he took it and quickly said goodbye the way I’d probably done a hundred times to my parents. I felt a little insulted, but that I'd helped out a good guy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Following the Straight and Narrow

I just realized my goal is to get to LA via Omaha—although it’s a little different if you’re not starting in Alabama.

I noticed that, in Illinois, all they seem to do when plotting a road is choose a starting point and an end point, and then carving out the space in between. Sure, it’s easier than elsewhere, but the laws of nature extract every red cent due them in the end. And who pays? As usual, it’s humanity. Because the poor souls who drive that road can see their destination coming—or that it’s not yet visible—for miles away. And they must make the long, slow trek toward it with nary a barrier or obstruction to take their mind off the work to be done. Just think if we could see all the work we have to do in our lives stretched out before us at this very moment. How many of us do you think have the psychological fortitude to then go ahead and immerse ourselves in it? To even take the first step? But that’s what those Illinoisians? Illinoiscois? Do every time they take one of those roads. Maybe that training is what enables the Cubs to show up at the top of every first inning and get to work.

It might have been a better trip to make in a more pleasant season, but then I’d miss out on the 28-degree temperatures and the freeze-your-fingers-in-under-sixty-seconds mile-per-hour winds.

I learned there are more Mexicans/Latinos/Spanish-speakers in this country than living in Pittsburgh would lead you to believe.

I learned that middle America loves Bible talk and Christian rock a lot more than any other place I’ve ever been.

I also learned – and I think I may have heard this in a stand-up act – that there are two types of Christian songs – those about loving the Lord, and those about being in love with the Lord. The latter's always creeps me out the first time they substitute "Jesus," for "you."
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