392. Baltimore Up

Gravel roads led to a rutted dirt cart path. The taxi bounced. I could see the headlights of a tow truck coming at us out of the low sulfurous landscape. ‘Maybe this guy does know something after all.’

“Sunzofbitches goin to make another $200. Someone ought to stop this.” He pulled slightly out of the truck’s path but with palpable reluctance mowing over the hip high river grass. We bounced. The gun bounced. Nevermind. My sense of reality had long ago dribbled out of bounds while jogging earlier in a sketchy neighborhood. Here we were in a modern day “gunslinger versus cattle rustler” story where the cows and horses had been swapped out for cars and vans. A showdown at the AAA corral lay just ahead. Someone’s gonna die tonight in Baltimore, I just know it.

In the headlights’ beams I saw an outpost, a double wide trailer surrounded by a fence that seemed to be 14 feet tall. Unscaleable. On the other side of this monstrosity I saw my van, an innocent victim in a concentration camp. An old Asian man squatted in front of the gates, a mysterious gatekeeper who could have been in Vietnam or Cambodia guarding POW’s. Deniro again came to mind, The Deer Hunter. We were going back to Saigon to rescue our Pennsylvania village buddy from a final game of Russian roulette.

“That’s my van,” I uttered, hardly believing that this whole taxi experience was real.

“Want me to ram it?” my diligent but deranged driver asked. I was sure he’d do it.

“No, I want to do this legally, ya know. The cops are not on my side already.”

“Suit yourself, man.”

I got out and walked up a half flight of stairs to the skanky trailer. Cheap paneled walls on three sides of a small room forced you into the fourth wall, two inch thick bullet proof glass with a silver speak hole. Many signs  were pasted there. The only one that mattered read, “CASH ONLY”. A large woman in a sparkly black cocktail dress came to the other side. Her hair was too black, jewelry too big, and she had only a few of her own teeth.

I tried to contain my rage. “You stole my van and I want it back.”

“Thir, there’sth no need for hosthtility. I justht need two hundred dollarsth cash and you can have it. Thimple.”

“This is piracy. You are thieves preying on baseball fans…”

“It’s $200 tonight. If we sthore it for a day, it’sth thhhhreee fifty.”

My head was exploding with rage. I thought I’d maxed out but apparently my earlier rage had carved out new caverns for extra rage capacity. “Aaaghggrafrickinshashkamuffinboogerschnatzelcrimeneay!!::”

“You won’t take a VISA?”

“Nope. Cash only.”

“It’s after midnite and I’m paying a cabbie to hunt for my car that you stole…”

She gave me absolutely dead eyes heavily caked in mascara and blue eye shadow. Even in my rage I knew this woman was a permanent resident in this hell. I was merely visiting.

“I’ll be back. Don’t sell it while I’m gone cuz I’m sure that’s totally legal too.”

“No need for tharcasm, thir.”

I got back in the cab. Marty was incensed and feeding off my bad energy. “I can shoot that lock off the gate. Nobody’s gotta know. I got nothing to lose.”

“No. Let’s go back into the city and find an ATM.”

“Okay, man. But I could…”

“Do it!”

We bounced back out of the swamplands and back toward the orange mercury vapor lights of Baltimore.

“Shit like this is why I’m going to Denver. It’s getting harder and harder not to kill someone. I think there’s an ATM on the other side of these warehouses if I remember correctly. I’m turning the meter off by the way. The rest of the ride is on me.”

“Thanks, Marty.” Suddenly that woman’s speech impediment was stuck in my head and I wondered if I should have said, “Sanks”. My joints were coming unglued. I wondered if I could even remember my security code, 3791, the four corners of the pin pad. Okay, I can do this.

Mercifully we found an ATM that only charged $2.50 per transaction. I withdrew 100 times that to cover the pirate extortion, Marty’s incredible ride, and expenses along the way home. Actually, after I got back in the cab, I realized that I’d have no cash left, but it was going to finally end.

We drove back to the swamp land auto concentration camp. I tried to not speak to the cocktail ostrich woman behind the bullet proof glass. I can understand why they need it now. It had crossed my mind to borrow Marty’s .45 and drop some lead, but I reeled my rage back in.

“Show this receipt to Kwang Lei. He’ll unlock the gate for you.”

Utter contempt beamed back and forth between us to no avail.

I started my van and slowly drove out of the compound as Kwang Lei locked it behind me. Marty wished me well and led me back to Pratt Street, then he honked his horn and was gone. I was exhausted as I  pulled into the hotel at 2:10 a.m. My wife was awake. We scooped up our three sleeping girls and settled them in for the two hour silent ride home.

I composed an incendiary editorial in my head on the way home. Eventually I did type and mail it. I retold the sad tale of modern thievery and concluded almost Biblically, “I tried to find even fifty good men in Baltimore, but I could not. So I’m gathering Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Frank Robinson, and Boog Powell. We won’t look back as God sodomly nukes Baltigomorra to nothingness.” I don’t think they published it.

The sun was coming up as we pulled into our driveway. I looked behind the yew bushes for No Parking signs and went to bed. The waking nightmare was over.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

366. Breathtaking

Walls of snow line the streets of Turtle Town. For some reason, lack of funds maybe, the Boro did not remove the snow as it usually does with an army of heavy equipment and dump trucks large enough to rival a Baltic nation’s. So it sits like instant mix mashed potatoes piled alongside the black macadam roads and alleys of our humble, shepherds pie kind of town. The rising temperatures help with the less than meager removal effort, which is actually counterproductive because this week is Ice Fest, a downtown merchants group idea featuring ice sculptures placed along two blocks of Main Street. Yep, frozen water sculptures in the middle of winter; and here the temps are warming up, threatening the entire enterprise. One year, oh fifteen years ago maybe, it rained the whole week of Ice Fest, which resulted in Slush Fest. The finely carved figures were turned into watery gargoyles and grotesques. Needless to say, it was not a breathtaking experience.

Which got me thinking:  what takes your or my breath away, Blog Breathers? Is it a tragic moment or a spectacular vista that pulls your breath out of you? Incredible beauty or incomprehensible grace? A letter from the IRS? Seeing your ex- with a new partner? Seeing yourself naked?

Breath is the essence of life. If a baby does not breathe at birth, no oxygen flows and brain damage begins. For adults it’s about three minutes, I believe, before brain damage commences. So whatever takes our breath away must connect deeply to our slice of humanity, for better or worse, way down in the brain stem where our automatic survival instincts and reflexes reside. Breath was tenuous 25 years ago for my then infant daughter. The die was cast. Which die? half a pair of dice or a metal form? Instead of the facts, your perspective will answer this question

Last night at the winery my lovely daughter was singing at her best. Lo and behold, her first grade teacher showed up, pushing her walker slowly across the floor as her husband steadied her gait. “I saw it on Facebook. I had to come,” she exclaimed. “I might have to leave before you are through because I’m older than dirt. Don’t let that distract you, Jessi. I just can’t stay out late any more. Do me a favor and let one rip full throttle, Angel, okay?”

Now I am used to my daughter performing at a high level, her lush voice paddling through rushing rapids and cute chutes of tricky syllables like a skillful kayaker in white water. I don’t get as anxious or rapturous at her gigs as I once did. The new and exciting have become the familiar and comfortable, a steady joyous cadence nontheless.

Lois sat next to me very comfortably like family should, oozing kindness, appreciation, and joy. Some disease was trying to take her breath away. She was having none of it. Instead she ordered red wine and sipped optimistically. She chatted up the connections, remembering twenty years ago when our precious daughter was the only girl in her first grade class. Having been an outcast at the parochial kindergarten the previous year, we had been anxious about how Jess would fare in a public school classroom. Lois was the Answer to our prayers. After a few weeks Jess came home with a big cardboard star covered with decorative stickers and positive adjectives. She was Star of the Week. That star hung in her bedroom for years, radiating love and acceptance over her as she slept, breathing quietly as a happy puppy curled against its mother.

I spent a morning in that classroom twenty years ago. It was so filled with love and acceptance. I recall that all ten kids played musical chairs at one point. Lois would hug the kid who wound up chairless. After a while I started to wonder if her hugs were more desirable to the kids than a silly chair without her in it. That day I saw more love and validation in an hour than I recall having seen in a lifetime around schools. I almost forgot to breathe because a big balloon of gratitude clogged my airway briefly.

At 9 pm Jess started singing. Lois lit up, put her hand to her mouth repeatedly as she gasped. “She’s beautiful!” “Oh dear God she is precious!!” “What a voice.!!!” Tears dribbled over her cheeks. She reached across me to grasp my wife’s hand. Deep down in her brain stem, I believe Lois wanted to jump and dance exuberantly as the musical kayak shot through her veins and all across the rivulets of her frame. “I love that song.” “I’m so proud of her.” Oxygen flowed; feet tapped; hands clapped; heads nodded; smiles spread; and warmth expanded solar plexuses. Another minor musical miracle occurred.

God is good.

Just like in the old musical chairs protocol, Lois had to hug Jess as she finished her set. She didn’t, no, couldn’t leave until Jess sang Carol King’s “I Feel the Earth Move”, full throated and beaming with joy. Music is her oxygen. Surely she would die without it.

Goodnights were shared and broad plans made for the next time. I felt the residual glow left behind from Lois and Don linger in the empty chairs beside me. I was sure now that those kids slipped out of musical chairs on purpose. Love and beauty are in the eyes of the beholder. And what power the beholder exercises over the loved one.

 

 

296. Eric’s Fountain

Image result for forrest gump picturesAs I was getting ready to take a late Saturday afternoon shower, I decided to jog. Actually I’d just stepped on the scale and saw I was still fat. Maybe a jog on a hot day would melt some of my doughboy belly. “Chasing the fat man” is my line when someone asks where I’m going with my running shoes on or why. Away I went, feeling too heavy for my feet, like I’d been in a holding cell for months.The rhythm came back, plodding on. The breathing came too fast and sweat began at my thin hairline.

Through the familiar neighborhood streets and down toward Norland Park. Not too many folks out today, which was fine with me. I could hear  the far off cheers of a girls softball game. Meanwhile I was listening to my body. Would my knee loosen up? Would my back seize up as it has from my unfortunate heel striker stride? Would my minor arthritis flare? Everything felt fine as I ran by the old train cars thinking about water at 1 mile. Image result for train caboose pictures

When I was younger I’d cruise through this circuit with no water and keep on going for several miles. Not today. I just wanted to do two miles without injury.

I started up the mild rise to the high point of the park. I’d heard that Eric’s family intended to erect a water fountain in his name. As I came around the turn I saw the blue and silver cylinder. Awesome! I had to stop and read the sign and just  pause to reflect on one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever known. There are three spigots– one for humans, one for dogs, and one for bottle refills. I bent down for a drink. There was a pause and then the cool water came out.

Nearby was a bench facing east. Altogether a nice spot to pause and drink in nature as well as water. I thought of Eric and his gappy smile, his bird swoop, his funny voice that always seemed to have a laugh coming up. His belt buckle and boots, his hat, cowboy shirts, and a big sigh when he’d sit down like he’d just  plowed the back 40. “Yeah, Buddy.” He loved dogs and they returned the favor. Dogs know who loves them and who just says they do.

I pictured the Sexy Cowboy sitting on his bench approving of the site. I thanked him for the drink and plodded on, downhill now. Off to the right was that girls softball game in progress. Neon yellow shirts in the field while redshirts batted. After a single to right there were runners on first and third. The next batter laid down a great bunt, scoring the run and moving the girl on first to second. Everyone was safe. It looked like the neon yellows were defeated and just hoping to get it over with. At least that is what I imagined. Winners and losers, that’s life.Image result for girls softball pictures

I jogged down and out of the park. It struck me that in Eric’s world there were no losers. He was just a happy and giving guy. Even in death he gives strangers drinks of water.  Winner, winner. I thought of Jesus’ words…

New International Version
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

And Eric will do God’s will in perpetuity. Simple but profound. I jogged on through the old farm on the hill and around the sharp turn toward the small shaded woods. I inhaled the incomparable scent of honeysuckle blooms. Lovely. Still thinking about Eric and simple gifts of nature. Red raspberries are almost ready to eat, and mulberries are littering the edge of the road. Pure and simple and good. And Eric could easily fit right in among these gifts of God.Image result for honeysuckle pictures

Up, up over the big hill behind my house. I’ve found many odd things along the side of this road –deer carcasses, ATM machines, clothes, beer, porn magazines, a bowling ball– so nothing surprises me. Any litter bothers me, but some is so ridiculous. As I hit the final hill I noticed a hypodermic needle on the side of the road. Not the first I’ve seen, but I got the instant belief that this was a heroin needle. I’ve known a couple of IV users and thought this hypo could very well have been used by one of them. What a contrast to the good of Eric’s life. Here we have folks killing themselves a few milligrams at a time. Their lives are no fountains of goodness. Instead they impatiently jam a needle in their veins in the vain attempt to catch a dragon they once rode long ago and can never catch again. Loser, loser.Image result for hypodermic needle pictures

Further on I came across the splayed open carcass of an opossum, its guts spread out around it in a deathly halo. I couldn’t help associating this scar of death with the needle twenty yards away. Shooting up is like a possum running across the road at night. Most nights it makes it but when it doesn’t, well, it’s a spot on the road, a crow’s banquet or a happy meal for the coyotes. IV addicts live highly complicated and unhappy lives as they withdraw, crave, make the run to Baltimore, cut the deal with a some shady guy, tie off, shoot up, and wait for the high that does not come again. Such a waste. Heroin takes and takes until the user’s last breath fails. All meaning dissolves in the flame of false promises.

So far from the life of Eric. His life mattered and still does. He simply loved and gave from that place. His living water still flows on hot days. God bless you, Buddy.

 

 

 

177. Pay it Forward, no, wait…uh, okay

So this morning was Coffee Nation. Gene was already there when I arrived early at 8 a.m. Pastor Kyle was in his corner whispering in tongues about the Detroit Lions. The new barrista Jim was on duty, solo for the first time without supervision. He’s a literalist, I think. Jim not Kyle. He combined an earth science undergraduate degree with a master’s in divinity so that he can do disaster relief work, i.e., a cross between an evangelist and a weatherman, or a preacher in a tornado… whereas Kyle is a water spout wrapped in a preacher’s skin, kinda like a wet burrito. In any event he did not know about the Coffee Nation and I did not take the time to educate him, again, Jim not Kyle. I simply said, “Jim, can you run a tab for me and my crew? We get together on Thursday mornings and I put it on my tab.” He assured me that he could do this as I handed him a twenty dollar bill.

Image result for pay it forward pictures“Oh sure.” I pointed to Gene and said hello to the guy behind me, a peripheral personality whose name I have forgotten. I got my coffee and sat across from Gene. We started chatting. About five minutes later the familiar dude whose name I’ve forgotten called my name, “Hey, thanks.” I looked at him and noted Jim’s smile and nod at me. In a millisecond I figured it out– Jim thought that No Name was with my crew. “Oh you’re welcome.” I smiled to myself. ‘I’m an accidental nice guy this morning… funny thing.’

For the next hour I chatted with Gene about this and that. I stood up to settle my bill with Jim. A nice lady was waiting for Jim to finish making her several fru-fru coffees. When she moved to pay him, he said “Ma’am, I have four dollars here to go toward your coffees…thanks to this nice gentleman.” I was stuck in a cognitive revolving door. I smiled my stupid guy smile again. She thanked me as Jim explained that I had started a pay-it-forward chain, and that over the past hour many customers had continued to pay for the next customer’s coffee. I was speechless and penniless. Again, I smiled like a monkey that had missed a vine and fallen 100 feet face first onto the jungle floor.

“So, Jim. We’re good?”

“Oh yeah, I just love it when folks do that. It’s inspiring.”

“Okay, well two thumbs up then. Pay it forward, Man.” I walked out into the cold rainy morning. In four years of Coffee Nation that had never happened, which has saved me a lot of money, come to think of it. I had to laugh at the untold story. Correcting the mistake would have taken longer than it was worth. It’s only four parking tickets, I thought. I can afford it.

Cryptically, as I sauntered over to my office, I remembered the story of David Brinkley, the old co-anchor of the Huntley-Brinkley News Report from the old, old days of black and white television. He was rushing through an airport when a fan stopped him. “Oh, you’re Chet Huntley”, the fan insisted. As Brinkley told the story, he had in that moment to decide between journalistic integrity or personal expediency. He chose the latter, realizing if he took the time to correct this fan, he’d miss his plane. So he agreed with her mistake for personal expediency.

“Yes, Ma’am, I’m Chet Huntley, and I’ve got to catch my plane.”

She replied, “Oh, good. I can’t stand that David Brinkley fellow.”

Oh Blogwads, we rip what we sew…and reap what we have sown.

Oh, Irony, why dost thou plague me? No one ever said this, but I wanted a dramatic segue to a third vignette. The problem is that I don’t have a nifty third vignette that somehow loosely connects to the previous two, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. Dang it! I’ve written myself into a corner… which demands extreme creativity to make it appear that this was my destination all along. Plus I can edit to make it seem that way.

In a dark corner near the bathrooms I heard strange syllables being uttered by a man in a caffeinated stupor. “Our year…it’s our year.”
“Verlander. Cabrera. Prince. No, no.” It was Pastor Kyle in a brief psychotic episode driven by sports grief. His Tigers had gone down in flames to Big Papi and the Red Sox during the ACLS playoffs. He had the all too familiar 1,000 yard stare of a multi-tour war veteran. He held his head up with both hands at his throbbing temporal lobes. Foam was forming at the corners of his mouth. I could not tell if this was residual macchiato foam or if he was self frothing. The situation was dire. I sprang into action.

“We’ve got a man down here! I need some help.” I threw Kyle down and loosened the top button of his shirt. I splashed cold water on his delirious face as he continued stammering, “It’s going, going, gone. Big Papi has cleared the bases with one swing.”

Jim noticed the commotion and recognized the unrelieved disaster. He jumped over the bar with one leap and sprinted the 30 feet back to where Kyle lay. All of his training kicked in. He was seeing things in slow motion. He pushed me out of the way and announced, “I’m a professional. Stand back.” I complied gladly. Not knowing where this might end and whose liability it was anyway.

Jim expertly cleared Kyle’s airway and began CPR. Three compressions, one breath. Kyle came back quickly. “Ewww. Why are slobbering on me? What happened? What’s going on?”

I stepped in to try to explain. “Kyle, this is Jim. He is a weatherman preacher. His hands are registered with the Red Cross. He noticed your sports disaster and jumped in to help resuscitate you. He may have saved your fantasy football season. You were choking and gasping. We had to do something.”

Still confused and dysphoric, Kyle said, “Why? Why did you save my sports life if all I’ve got to look forward to is more suffering and loss? I’m a Detroit fan.”

Calmly I put my hand on his trembling shoulder. “Kyle, I needed a third vignette to close my blog, man. You’re paying it forward. It’s all good.”