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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