The Rain Baptizes Indiscriminately…

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The late October weather had finally succumbed to the pattern nature intended. It was raining lightly when the man started walking and the temperature had dropped to the low 50s. Leaves left in clumps would cause his footing to slip unexpectedly as he glided across the pavement. The rain had baptized everything overnight.

Although it was lightly misting when he started, the rain had strengthened as he trekked across the innards of the city on a lazy Sunday late morning. His glasses began to look like the upper glass of an aquarium, beads of water obscuring both lenses. The man removed his glasses and headphones as the heavier rain fell. He continued on his way, head up, and frequently smiling though, as the brisk walk was even more enjoyable in the rain and cool air. Except for a couple of other older people enjoying the solitude, the man was left to walk in peace.

A couple of blocks away from the main street, vehicles were hastily exiting the modern and imposing protestant church. Its structures had made tentacles toward the sky and the surrounding urban landscape. Its recent history was one of success if such things were measured by the weight of the coffers and the number of worshippers filling the seats. The local eateries would soon be flooded with those who had just finished their services. The man could almost imagine each driver licking his or her lips as their respective stomachs rumbled. (Faith is difficult with a distracting appetite.)

The man neared the intersection blocked by a canyon of repair and excavation in the middle of the street. He passed a beautiful vintage theatre being remodeled as he approached. Its marbled exterior shone against the graying air. A large white Tahoe SUV approached from the man’s right. As both the SUV and the man reached the intersection, the driver’s window of the SUV lowered. A middle-aged man leaned toward the opening.

The man already had his polite “No” ready, as he imagined the man leaving church was going to offer him a ride, given the weather.

“You’re going to catch a cold, walking in this rain and cold,” he said. Without further comment, he put his window up and drove across the main street, leaving the man momentarily surprised by the driver’s words.

The man shook his head and couldn’t help but laugh, wondering to himself how the driver thought he might have survived so many decades of living if he truly had no understanding of the weather and one’s health.

As the man made his long return back down the main street, he drank in the birds chirping in the newly-installed trees lining the road, the darkened storefronts, and the myriad signs each business chose to place in its windows. After passing the excavated canyon in the street from the other side of the road, he could hear voices as he approached the corner storefront on the next corner. Outside, he noticed a table placed perpendicular to the front, with a flat propane-fueled stovetop next to it. On the table were covered dishes of food, plates, and various cooking items. Even at a few paces away, the man could feel the warmth emanating from the cooktop outside. Above it, the man noted that the storefront had been converted to a Spanish-speaking evangelical place of worship. Just as he crossed in front of the open door behind the cooktop, a small older lady stepped away from the inside wall where she had been leaning.

Looking inside, he noted row after row of metal chairs, some of them occupied by people, all of them animatedly talking to one another. The small lady bid him good morning in Spanish, then English. She waved her hand across the table and asked him in the softest voice whether he was interested in fellowship or perhaps a meal – or a snack to take with him as he walked.

Despite the chill of the air, the man felt his heart beat palpably in surprise from the woman’s kind offer. He took a moment to catch up to the surprise of her offer and then declined. “No, but thank you so much. You don’t know how welcome such an offer is. If you will permit, I will drop by some other day and join you all for conversation and several bites to eat.”

The lady smiled again and told the man, “Anytime. Where there’s food, there’s always an open invitation.”

As the man walked away, his feet seemed lighter and his heart unburdened.

He wondered how such a small place could easily put into practice one of the most basic principles of all the compassionate prophets: that all religion makes its appeal through an offered hand or warm smile and never through accusation.

In peace, he went; so too, that you might as well.

Drink It Forward

 

It was dark and I was driving carefully, unlike the demolition derby driver I impersonate when the sun is shining. As I pulled in to the Firewater parking lot, I had to unexpectedly yield to an older man riding his scooter across the parking lot in order to go through the drive-through. His face was one of determination. I laughed because I imagined that he had traveled far in order to get his liquor of choice.

By way of preface, Firewater is a strange little liquor store away from any residential area. A liquor store is a place where one can purchase, among other things, alcoholic beverages. Alcohol is one of those chemicals, when taken in moderation, which will drastically improve your ability to cope with everyone else but conversely will worsen almost every encounter you engage in with another living person, all the while blinding you to your own debilitating lack of judgment. A drive-through is a window at a liquor store in which all parties legally pretend that the person purchasing said liquor doesn’t have more than a 50% chance of imbibing on the way to whatever destination awaits him. (This paragraph will never be used in a Budweiser commercial.)

As I waited at the register to pay for my poison, the elderly gentleman on the scooter was outside, looking inside at the impatient manager, trying to find change to reach his quota in order to get his bottle of flavored vodka. The manager’s face told me the unspoken story of just how many times the man on the scooter had bottlenecked the drive-through like this. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that there was going to be insufficient change to pay for the bottle he had requested. I motioned for the man in charge to look in my direction and offered to pay for the bottle. He told the clerk helping me to add ninety-three cents to my total. I pointed out that I offered to pay for the entire bottle, not just the difference in change.

“Wow, that’s a nice offer. How do you know him? He’s a regular.” The clerk seemed to be asking out of curiosity rather than politeness.

“I’ve never met him. I almost ran him over, coming in as he drove his scooter across the street and into the parking lot. But I’ve known many, many people like him.”

“Well, he’s a character, that one.” The clerk laughed.

The manager at the drive-through window told the man on the scooter that I had paid the difference.

The old man froze and looked inside to see who I was. “Well, thanks, Mister.” He nodded his head in acknowledgment.

“Pay it forward,” I said, and smiled.

“I’ll most certainly drink it forward,” he quipped and cackled like someone who had just discovered a free pizza on his kitchen table, after already being handed a 6-pack of his favorite beer.

I nodded back and the clerk and I looked at each quizzically for a long second and then we both laughed, too. We had taken an awkward situation and made it one of frivolous merriment.

“Hey, you know what?” The clerk asked. “IF you want to pay for a bottle, I’ll give you an extra discount and hold it for the man on the scooter for next time. It will give him such a kick in the pants to be given a surprise.”

“As long as YOU don’t drink it forward, yeah, that will be great. And do me a favor when he comes in. Ask him how fast he can go on that scooter.”

“Will do. Have a great night out there, sir.”

So, on some future night, if you see an elderly black man riding his scooter, restraining an impressive smile on his face, you can think of me. Vodka can power a few smiles, for a little while.

May we all drink it forward as we pass through our respective places.

Orange, No Juice, Me, Steven Spielberg and Stephen King

I think Steven Spielberg and Stephen King were both with me this morning. As is usually the case, it was very early morning and most people were still dreaming of their own private universes as I meandered across a few miles of the urban landscape. Since I had such a nice adventure yesterday morning in a strange city, I had no expectations that this morning’s walk would be as interesting. The universe proved my assumption to be wrong, for which I’m thankful.

I thought that 6th Street in Little Rock, North was fascinating, coming west from Main Street. An abandoned church sat patiently on the corner of 6th and Main, and its steps were adorned with a small pile of brush and a tire. Perversely, I felt the pull to walk up the short steps and yank on the door. What I might do if it were open to me would have been an interesting conundrum. I’d like to think I would have entered.

There are so many interesting houses packed with peculiarities that it’s difficult to find enough time to swivel one’s eyes from one detail to the next. One house, in particular, surprised me due to the quantity and quality of Halloween decorations the owners had packed into the relatively narrow front yard. The porch roof even had a skeleton climbing down face-first, peering underneath the porch. I thought it possible that the owner himself might be a reaper and was using the astounding mass of decorations to conceal his identity, right out in the open. The house next to this decorated one was a beauty, too. Later in the day, I used Google Streetview to find the houses. To my surprise, the 2nd house from the abandoned church didn’t exist in 2013. Someone built it later that year; whoever did so deserves a clap of appreciation, as it is an astounding residence constructed to reflect the history found literally next door. It is a house of substance and evocative of so many elements we once loved and appreciate in our homes.

Turning south onto Orange Street, though, is where the orange glow of the morning blanketed everything. The lights in the area were dim, just bright enough to cast an eerie sheen on everything. Even the modern vehicles parked meticulously along the curb didn’t seem incongruous against the backdrop of pristinely-maintained historic homes. I felt like I’d been there before, truth be told. There were a couple of residences where the upper windows were left uncovered, as is often the case with higher floors, as people stop thinking that they could be observed through them. In one, a ceiling light was on and I could see the wide white trim and walls. As I looked, a woman passed by the window and as she did, she briefly looked down directly at me. For a moment I thought it was the actress Mary-Louise Parker. She had long, flowing black hair. The light went out in the upper hallway. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mary-Louise had turned back to peer down at me as I walked, wondering what I made of her presence. Since I’ve acquired the habit, I waved up to the window as I walked away, hoping that if she were indeed peering askance at me that she might wonder if I could see her. Early morning hours grant magic to a select few, of this I’m beginning to be more certain.

Passing further along the street, I could feel myself going back in time as I walked along that old street. By the time I reached the area with the community gardens west of the Presbyterian church to my left, the effect was palpable. I felt like Christopher Reeve’s character in “Somewhere in Time,” after he put on his anachronism of a suit and feverishly willed himself backward in time.

In my ear, I could almost hear Mr. Spielberg and King whisper, “This is your time. Stay and drown in this moment.”

And I could have resided there, in space and time, suspended.

Whatever confluence of decisions created and maintained this neighborhood, I will remember it. I almost loathe the idea of returning and seeing it in the duller light of day. The magician of the early morning will have departed, leaving me this memory.

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(I’ll put the pictures below if you are interested…)

 

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Abandoned church, corner of Main and 6th, taken later in the day today…

 

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Google Streetview from 2013, before “new” old house was built…

 

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Google Streetview from 2014, as “new” old house is being built…

 

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Today, the front of “new” old house…

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Mary-Louise Parker place, so to speak, from later in the day today…

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An Excursion in Little Rock, North

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Note to casual readers: this post is longer than the explanation for the finale to “Lost,” so embark only if sufficiently interested; otherwise, watch baseball or golf until anything suddenly seems interesting – and then come back to this.

To start, I’d like to say that I don’t feel ill at ease in North Little Rock. Despite its problems, the area near the Wyndham Hotel and the Riverside Trail is simply spectacular with its weirdly-mixed juxtaposition of contrasts. Now that I’m an old codger, I can appreciate the dynamic. For the record, though, I think all towns with extra geographical points are unimaginative: North Toledo, for example, has none of the charm of the actual Toledo. “North” Little Rock implies that it is simply another place North of Little Rock wherein the settlers couldn’t be bothered to devise another interesting place name for the area where they were going put down roots and live their entire lives.

I was up and out of the hotel room fully dressed in less than 5 minutes this morning. I knew that sleep was going to be an unlikely and impatient visitor last night and if truth be told my walk would have started at 2 a.m. had my wife not been with me to disapprove of such a plan. Now that I’m walking and discovering things at strange hours, I find myself anticipating the pleasure of these moments as much as any activity I might engage in later in the day, where the normal people of my day feel more comfortable.

As soon as I stepped out the side of the hotel, the white expanse of the bridge in front of me caught my eye. Although it may sound like I’m inventing details, there was also a Batmobile, complete with insignias parked alongside Riverside Drive. Later, I insisted that my wife look out the window to see it, lest she would once again roll her eyes and assume I was fabricating such a detail for my own amusement. Turning the corner near the main entrance, I noted a large NLR police SUV parked under the canopy. I resisted the urge to see if the driver door was unlocked, lest I become the unwilling passenger, plus handcuffs.

A man dressed in what appeared to be 6 layers of clothing sped past me on a bicycle. Despite his legs being covered in multiple layers, he was flying down the street. The very next person I saw was a solitary man waiting near a bus stop sign, adjacent to an empty parking lot. I went wide to the left so as to not startle the man, who I assumed was waiting to go to work. As I reached the next cross street a couple of hundred feet away, he repaid my consideration by shouting something incomprehensible into the early morning darkness. I looked to see who he was shouting at, but no one else was around. He shouted again, even louder. The words sounded the same as the first shout, although the words still eluded me. Toward Main Street I went, laughing, wondering what that man’s story might be about. I heard him shout a couple of more times before his voice was lost to the empty city streets.

As two buses passed me, running along the trolley route, I looked up and laughed, as I couldn’t help but imagine that the crosswalk silhouettes of a human figure, the ones used to convey ‘safe to cross’ or ‘danger,’ were running in pantomime, as if screaming and fleeing the scene.

Main Street at this hour was a long dual succession of double-globed streetlights, each of them conveying a gauzy white light. The street is so wide and the sidewalks so ornate that walking them absent other people once again gave me pause. With so many historic places along this route, all of it seemed perfectly preserved in the amber of early morning magic.

As I passed Capeo Ristorante, a large orange cat jumped from inside the ornate metal trash holder near the street, it’s morning breakfast within interrupted by my passing. Once out of the trash, the cat ran only a few feet away and sat, looking at me. His ears seemed as large as a rabbit’s, high and large above his head. The ears bent toward me as I wished him well.

As I passed the storefront of Ozark Escape I wondered what I might do if I had peered inside to see someone forgotten and trapped inside, a participant in the last escape scenario from last night. Sadly, there were no moving shadows within. It seemed incongruous to me to have such a business on the historic strip of Main Street in North Little Rock. But what do I know? Our last election proved to me that no one knows anything and even when they do, no one listens.

Without pronouncement or fanfare, the globed street lights ended and I was suddenly walking up an inclined overpass, a long arc of pavement reaching above the commercial industrial district below. The lighting seemed to evoke all the romance of a county jail or a dimly-lit back alley. As I reached the opposite side of the long overpass I realized that the mass of machinery below reminded me of a James Cameron Terminator sequel. The air seemed full of two possibilities: hope or dismal despair. Reaching the end of the concrete railing, I passed someone who looked like DJ Khaled. As big as he was, his body language indicated that he was way more concerned about me than I would ever be around him. I realized in that moment that I was dressed entirely in black, even wearing a black jacket, black shoes, black socks, and black shirt. Honestly, a white man wandering around in the dark dressed in all black does sound like the clichéd beginning of just about every crime novel ever written, or a Johnny Cash hipster revival in Oakland.

At the corner of Main and 13th, the ambiance took an Olympic dive. The large brick building opposite of me looked exactly like Hannibal Lecter’s first home. In front of the building, a large green rectangular sign indicated, “Waste Collection Facility This Way.” In my mind, I thought, “Of course it is.” As I crossed to take another direction, a police car stopped and waited for me to cross. Again, my overactive imagination dared me to take off running, as if running away from the police. Studies have shown that getting tased is much more effective than Folgers in one’s cup in the morning.

A few minutes later, I looked down and saw that I was high above a wide train switching yard, full of parallel silver rails below me. It was mesmerizing. Something my grandpa once told me came to mind. He had mentioned to me that such yards were godsends to those riding the rails to get back home. Switch yards with so many accesses points always were an indicator that wherever you were, that another train was undoubtedly headed towards the hearth you called home. I’m not sure how many times my grandpa hopped a train because I was young when he shared those stories, often against the backdrop of harsh summer sun or as the sun faded, leaving the explosive sound of insects to buzz and hum around us. Several years ago, when I visited my hometown of Brinkley, I ran several miles to stand above single set of train tracks below, the ones which ran under highway 49, close to its intersection with Highway 70. I ran all that way just to try to conjure that feeling of those stories my grandpa shared with me.  It was staggering to me to picture myself with the necessity and freedom to jump on a moving train. Those are the kind of memories which will fade into oblivion.

After the switching yard, I looked down and to the left and got to watch as another police SUV moved slowly along, its searchlight zig-zagging across the dirt and gravel. I look up at the road my feet are traveling and see another SUV parked at the intersection. It was at that precise moment I realized that I was coming up on the downtown police substation. The long canopy carport containing a dozen silent and waiting police cruisers convinced me of it. Never one to be silent for long, my inner monologue thought it would be humorous to pound on the door and demand to confess to someone that I was indeed guilty of some public crime – perhaps that of using mayo on french fries.

At Skinny J’s restaurant, I stopped and took a picture of the overhead neon marquee sign. Despite how suspicious it might look, I entered the recess of the main door from the street and leaned in, cupping my hands and resting my face against the painted glass. Inside, tables and chairs stood guard, waiting for occupants. I imagined that just 8 or 9 hours earlier I had sat along the side wall, eating and laughing with good people. For a fleeting instant, I could once again taste the pungency of the fried green tomato sandwich I had chosen. The overlap of my memory and looking at the dark and empty restaurant this morning created a delightful sensation of deja vu.

I turned and made a long pass around the horrendous Verizon Arena structure. The building looks like what an alien invader would leave after being driven away from this world, much like Verizon and AT&T did to Alltel’s loyal staff back in the day. I imagined that I could simultaneously hear the millions of conversations, concerts, and activities that had occurred in that place. Most people undoubtedly drive past it without much consideration, their minds preoccupied with other ideas and demands – and probably a few daydreams about throwing a deserving co-worker through the window once they’ve arrived to work. Looking at the NR Bank tower sign, the one digitally indicating the time in 3-foot numbers, I wondered how much agony that timestamp might cause. I could only picture some poor soul looking at it each day. “9:53 a.m.,” it would indicate upon the first glance. An hour later, it would indicate, “9:54 a.m.,” and in bright large numbers, too. Hour after hour, day after day. I think I would be shooting out the bulbs of that bank’s sign within a week.

Passing the Verizon behemoth, I watched as a man wrangled a portapotty next to a new drive-through restaurant being built there. He noticed me as I watched and he waved, probably glad to be distracted. I was hoping he’d knock over the portable toilet just to amuse me. Next to the new building, I noted that a branch of my bank was on the corner. It occurred to me that it seemed reasonable to get some cash from the ATM around the back. It seemed particularly wise to do this, as nothing seems safer than using an ATM card, on foot, in the dark, in a strange place. So I took some cash out for the day, as I loudly recited my PIN. (I’m just kidding about the PIN part. The rest is true.)

As I stopped to take a picture of the ascending trolley car tracks as they ran next to the on-ramp, I looked toward the distant bridge and in the direction of my hotel. I noticed a man dressed in green dart across the sidewalk, stop, and lean over and drop something near the bushes. At this point, he was directly across from the US Bank pavilion. Having seen “The Wire,” I assumed that something loosely described as “illegal” was probably going on. I crossed the street and as I walked, I tried to look with the corner of my eye toward where the man had been crouched. He seemed to have frozen there, perhaps in response to my presence. I turned away just for a second and when I looked back, he was gone, vanished, doing his own “fastest gun in the West” impression. I assumed he was crouched or hiding behind the bushes, probably on the side closet to the pavilion near the riverside. Invisibility didn’t seem like a reasonable explanation.

It was then that I noticed the large turtle sculpture there. My curiosity got the best of me, even overpowering my desire to avoid being bludgeoned to death a few paces from my hotel. I decided to make another pass around the block. It seemed likely that the man in question wasn’t concealing his favorite literary works in those bushes – nor a sack lunch for later consumption. Coming around the block again, I took a chance to walk by the turtle and the bushes again. A large bus waiting opposite the corner pawn shop gave me the excuse of having a witness. I quickly walked by and snapped a picture of the turtle and it was then I noticed what looked like a duffel bag behind it, in the gap of the bushes. It dawned on me that the man wasn’t a criminal, at least not in an interesting way: he was probably homeless and had devised an incredibly clever way to sleep right out in the middle of everything. You’d need to pass by very close or from the other direction, where shadows ruled one’s vision.

Without much thought as to safety or appropriateness, I took out my wallet and the two $20 bills I had just taken from the ATM by the arena. I placed them on the ground in the grass. I picked up a crushed water bottle lying on the edge of the road and placed it on top of the bills. “Mister,” I hollered. “Sorry to startle you. I left you something to do with as you want to. I hope you have a great day – I won’t say anything about you. Peace.”

As I stood up, my phone rang. Although I wasn’t listening to music during any part of my walk, I had headphones on. The ringer startled me, at full volume inside the headphones. It couldn’t have sounded off at a more inopportune time. Later, I discovered that it was my wife, who had called and texted repeatedly. As I had been gone walking a long time this morning, she had begun to allow her imagination to run wild, probably already to the point where I had been abducted by foreign mercenaries.

As I walked away, it occurred to me that if the man didn’t exit his hiding spot to retrieve the money, I was either going to have to go get it myself or leave it, knowing that the unexpected money on the side of the road was going to improve someone’s morning.

I stopped nearby at the corner of the Wyndham, where I was staying. I watched as the man emerged from the middle of the bushes and picked up the $40. He looked my direction and waved his arm high above his head. I don’t think he said anything. I raised my own arm and waved back without interrupting the silence. I’d like to think there was something magical about that moment, even if it was just a simple acknowledgment. What a strange and brutal urban landscape the man had chosen. No doubt, though, that he had chosen wisely.

As for my wife’s concern, she had every reason to be a little worried. Not for my safety, though, but rather for my humanity. In the midst of all this wonder and steel artifices, people were still just people. For me, I was prepared for anything, as long as it gifted me with a story.

Later, when I sat with my wife to eat breakfast, she jokingly told another co-worker about my penchant for giving everything away. It’s important that you understand that I had not shared any of my early morning adventures with her at that point. She didn’t know that I had given the homeless man my ATM gift this morning. As trite as it sounds, North Little Rock had reached inside me a little bit and as always, I changed imperceptibly because of it, even in the most mundane of circumstances.

I thought that it might be incredibly fitting to be remembered with a complaint, one which accused me of being a minimalist and wanting to give everything away, even my last dollar, the one which would have otherwise gone to the tip jar of the reticent man preparing omelets or to the waitress as a tip. My wife didn’t know that I had given a stranger $40, just because he might need it and because it would fuel my imagination for another long set of days.

 

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Later, before going to go eat lunch with my favorite cousin, I wandered some of the same sites, to ‘see’ them with a daylight perspective. In the midst of the bushes behind the sculpted tortoise, I found blankets and detritus from lives lived on the outside. Warm weather will soon turn to cold. I hope that the gentleman I surprised this morning finds a place of rest as the air turns lethal. Standing there, in the daylight, looking at the makeshift home, it was my greater wish that he might remember that not all people are to be measured by one’s expectations.

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Never Buy Chocolate From France?

Never Buy Chocolate From France

Last year, my cousin Wynona went to Europe. When she stopped in France, she spent a fortune buying candy and treats for friends and family. She hadn’t traveled much and wanted to get everyone something to commemorate her experiences outside of the U.S.

Surprisingly, she sent me some chocolate. She included a note to inform me that France was famous for its chocolatiers and confectioneries. (She doesn’t get out much, it seems.) She later sent me a t-shirt from Germany, one missing the right sleeve.

Whether she did so as a joke or not, I’m not sure, but one of the bags she sent me looked exactly like a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. Each candy was foil-wrapped and shaped vaguely like a pyramid, too. The writing was French, though. I hoped she hadn’t spent money on a common chocolate without realizing it. I put the bag in the pantry and forgot about it, as I was trying to avoid consumption of large amounts of treats and unhealthy foods.

A week or so later, I was craving something sweet. I pulled out my cousin Wynona’s bag of candy, opened it, and went to sit on the couch to watch a little TV.

I opened the first Kiss and threw it into my gaping mouth, letting it melt instead of chewing furiously on it.

After a few seconds, I felt something rub against my tongue, like a faint tickle. After another few seconds, it felt like a worm was brushing against the inside of my lip and on the tip of my tongue.

I leaned over the coffee table and spit it out without thinking. In the melted mass of chocolate was a wriggling bit of something which definitely looked like a worm.

“Gross!” I hollered.

Since my friend JoJo speaks fluent French, I grabbed the bag of candy and the melted piece expelled from my mouth and drove over to her house.

When I arrived, we exchanged pleasantries and then I told her about the candy and the ‘worm’ in the chocolate.

When I handed her the original bag that resembled a U.S. version of Hershey’s Kisses, JoJo burst out laughing.

“What’s so funny, JoJo? I think I ate a worm or something.” I’m not sure why, but her levity irritated me a little bit.

“X, read right here,” JoJo said, pointing to the bag.

“That’s a piece of tongue in the candy. After all, they are FRENCH Kisses.”

MoFo Coffee Pot Adventure

My wife should know better than to let me wander in strange towns. It’s like an opportunity to be inside a petri dish, watching – and sometimes commenting.

It’s the commenting part that will one day lead to my body being inside a chalk outline on the sidewalk, probably with onlookers pointing and saying, “He had it coming!”

While Dawn made good use of herself, I went to find a coffee pot. I decided to buy one for the motel room so that we could enjoy coffee-on-demand without the necessity of hiring servants or driving around like electrocuted squirrels. We leave the coffee pot when we leave. They don’t get discarded by the staff. The “coffee pots” provided by most hotels, in my opinion, are secret torture devices that neither make coffee or provide any service, unless it is to test one’s ability to hurl a small appliance out the window and into the parking lot.

As I wandered around the Dollar General store in North Little Rock, I couldn’t help but be amused by the antics of another shopper. His fevered chatter reminded of that time when I gave my Aunt Ardith 2 bottles of 5-Hour Energy Shots instead of whiskey in her coke. (The doctor said she needed to drink less alcohol; the fault is his for not being cautiously specific about this sort of thing.) Not since the early comedy specials of Richard Pryor had I heard the f-bomb and mofo grenade dropped with such frequency. There were so many I thought I was seeing them begin to fall from his mouth and hang in the air, like profane Zeppelins. No matter where I wandered in the store, the F-Bomb Man seemed to materialize, like impossible-to-remove flecks of glitter in one’s underwear drawer.

I finally succumbed to the realization that I had walked around the store so many times that I was about to be made Store Manager. I stopped and bothered a young male employee who was apparently trying to strangle the cash register on the left in frustration. I swear that he said, “Go to the last aisle and jump off the bridge there, where the zombies are.” When I went to the last aisle, there were indeed coffee makers there. There was also an errant display of Halloween merchandise. I surmised that at least some of the keywords in the employee’s reply to my question were reality-based.

Lo and behold, when I got the register, F-Bomb Man and his female companion were behind me. The two children with them were darting around like pinballs in a half-broken machine, one manned by a maniacal player.

After a few more Mofo Grenades, I couldn’t help but to laugh. The little boy with the couple behind me stopped in his tracks and stared up at me, his mouth open, as if he were witnessing a grown man about to lose his mind and/or vote Republican. It struck me as strange that my laugh startled the boy sufficiently to bring his frenzied stomp around the central displays to a halt – but that the impressive onslaught of profanity from the adult male with him hadn’t fazed him. I made myself a note to write that child’s teachers in the future, to let them know that he was in no way responsible for believing that some profane words were substitutes for common adjectives, nouns, verbs, and salutations. (And probably street names too.) I had grown up with world-champion cursers myself. I was quite old when I realized that it was possible to read the menu at a restaurant without inserting colorful and possibly ear-piercing obscenity in the middle of descriptive items.

Turning to make eye contact with the man behind me, I was surprised that he had stopped talking too.

“Hey. How are you doing?” I asked, loudly, as my voice had been amplified by a town crier from the Middle Ages. And I laughed again, possibly from brain damage at this point.

Surprised, the man said, “Just maintaining, man. Sorry about all the cursing.” Which proved he realized he was cursing.

In a moment never to be rivaled by any extemporaneous quip ever, I replied, “Dude, just call me Ritz.”

And I held up might right hand for a fist bump, something I never do.

F-Bomb Man immediately held his fist up and bumped mine.

“Why they call you Ritz?” He asked.

Without hesitation and looking him right in the eye, I replied, “Because I ain’t no common cracker.”

And then we both laughed and laughed, as the man’s female companion and the cashier looked at us like giraffes with top hats on our heads.

PS: This story isn’t about the cursing. It’s like ambient background music to me. Without insult or anger, profanity is just another means of communication; it is often uncouth and undignified, but so too are parts of this life, one which is too busy and too demanding to be derailed by a poor choice of words. Also, the F-Bomb/Mofo Grenade Man was a Rembrandt of his time with cursing.

Nailed It!

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People still take a moment to caution me about walking in the dark. It’s generally good advice, just as it is when someone tells you to not use a blowtorch to warm one’s nose.

I’d like to present further proof that almost all of my mishaps and near-misses have occurred in the bright of day, in maintained conditions.

In this case, I thought I had a rock wedged in the high-dollar treads of my Wal-Mart walking shoes. When I took a step, my instincts stopped my foot from hitting the surface flat. So, I did what I always do – I shot my foot out slightly above the ground to knock the rock out. Instead, the ‘rock’ jabbed my foot again.

Something in my brain stopped me from doing it again. I hobbled over to the brush to lean over and pull the rock out. Instead, my fingers pulled and pulled at something flat and metallic. It took a minute of back and forth motion to pry it out of my shoe.

It turns out that I was very lucky. Had the nail hit anywhere other than the arch of my right foot, I would have been a shrieking disaster.

As for my walk? I nailed it.

PS: The last line was for levity, in case my favorite cousin furiously hits the ‘eye-roll’ emoji that isn’t there.

A Quarter Past Halloween

A Halloween Story For My Friends:

I’m normally not one to attend parties, especially if drinking or dancing are expected. Or being awake past 9:01 p.m. There’s too much temptation for me to do an unannounced gravity check and meet Mr. Floor during these events. Especially Mr. Waxed Floor, whose most trusted friend, “Mrs. Lower Back Injury,” seems to be everywhere.

My wife Dawn insisted that I at least try to go and enjoy myself. A local club was sponsoring an event near Downtown Springdale last year, during the prolonged period in which Emma looked like year 2 of the Vietnam War.

Dawn wasn’t amused when I asked if it was an “either/or” proposition. In typical fashion, she replied, “It depends on whether there’s a scented candle to mask the smell of blunt force trauma.”

As is always the case, I spent an inordinate amount of time planning my costume. Attending a Halloween party without wearing a costume is akin to eating the label from a jar of pickles and discarding the contents: it’s amusing, but in the end, not very rewarding. I take these things very seriously, as older adults get fewer chances to mock other adults without the risk of a scuffle. The riskiest thing I had done all last year was cast my vote for president and it seemed like I was still doing time for that error.

As you would imagine, I got kicked out of the party. But not for a reason you would ever expect. These party people sure don’t have a sense of humor to match their drive to hold gatherings of strangers. I theorize that their thickening wallets cut off the blood supply to their cerebral cortex.

“Why are you dressed like a quarter, X?” Several people asked me this as I milled around the Halloween party near Emma Street.

To which I replied, “Well, Gandhi himself told us to “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.””

🙂

Armadillo By Morning

Last night, my wife asked me how I choose where to walk next. I answered honestly that I had no clue. Most mornings, I seldom end up anywhere that I had intended. I could point out that my life has taken the same course, but for the moment, I’ll skip the cliché of a life without compass.

This morning, I lay in bed with the cat nipping my shin and toes for at least an hour. It was too early to get up, so I used my other foot to pet the cat until my calf muscle was insisting that I stop. I felt guilty for having delighted in petting a neighborhood cat last night, one we alternatively name “Marsha,” or “DevilCat.” Last night, as my wife and I sat on the bench in the front of the house, DevilCat darted around the corner and demanded affection. Our own cat Güino peered suspiciously and contemptuously through the bottom of the blinds as the intruder greeted us outside. This is the very same cat who screeched and hissed at the office window yesterday morning at 4 a.m. startling me as I sat there trying to navigate the complexity of getting both of my shoes on the correct feet at such an hour.  DevilCat’s eyes are hilariously large in the dark, like a teenage girl getting to order her first mocha frappuccino at Starbucks.  Marsha the DevilCat, as it turns out, is quite the friendly feline, despite having a demeanor which would frighten Freddie Krueger.

Although I left this morning with the intention of going to Emma to walk and check out the new goings-on (including the crater recently added at the first stop sign), I ended up in Lowell, along Goad Springs Road. North Goad Springs has a beautiful stretch of trail extending for a long distance. For no reason whatsoever, I parked across from the convenience store there, on an empty and graveled area near the road, and walked South instead, on a portion of the trail I had never walked. The trail below my feet was a wide expanse of modern concrete, a vague grey ribbon marked with intermittent yellow dashes that I could barely see. If only life would take a moment to give us such direction, even if only in the most dimly-lit way possible. (I promised clichés, remember?)

The first portion of the road there is dense and people have little cause to drive the road near the trail at that hour. It was a wide open sky, one without clouds but decorated by a hazy sliver of a moon above, in the shape of a cookie bitten once by an overzealous 5-year-old. It’s scenic and quite beautiful during the day; at night it is magnified into something beyond. I think I’m going to need to coin a word describing the overlap of differences between scenes during daylight and night, one which conveys the magic of both isolation and of something just about to happen at every moment. If other worlds exist, they certainly exist in the margins of what we think we see and no time of day is more prehistoric than the swath of minutes before sunrise.

Off to one side of the trail a solitary yard light last cast an orange sherbet glow, creating a diaphanous haze like one sometimes gets over one’s eyes coming out of the pool. I couldn’t see what the light was supposed to be illuminating. For me, it was simply an unexpected orange beacon casting thousands of beams of light into the trees and brush as I walked by.

At the first bridge at the curve at the bottom of the valley, the temperature dropped precipitously as if 17 ghosts sneaked up on me to send a shiver down my spine. (Ghosts always travel in odd numbers, if you were wondering.) It was as the valley hadn’t gotten the message that it was still warm above.

As I exited the valley and began my slow climb it was startling to see on my left a huge reminder of civilization in the form of a multi-floor building off in the distance. It was comprised of 200 stacked and similar brightly-lit rooms, all of them lit unnecessarily.  I imagined that a mischievous janitor had run through the building, flipping all the lights on for his own amusement. In his defense, no one would stop him. Why all the lights were on was a mystery I thought about for a moment and forgot as I moved past.

And just like that, before I’d even settled into the idea of possibly being tired, a huge construction crane towered above me, against the night sky. I couldn’t believe that I had already reached the unlikely intersection of the trail, the interstate, and the area where the new East-West corridor above Springdale met them. As I walked under the interstate, the whump-whump of the vehicles passing above created the otherworldly post-apocalyptic feeling that I had anticipated. It brought to mind a period over 30 years ago in the mid-80s, when the interstate was being built and still referred to as “The Bypass.” We weren’t sure what it was bypassing. And we certainly had no idea that such a road would transform every aspect of our lives in this corner of the state. Even back then, in another incarnation, I spent many nights running, walking and biking on those unfinished lanes, even when they were still just miles of compressed gravel. It’s a memory that I cherish and one that is almost impossible to replicate in today’s more modern world, governed by strange ideas of safety and caution. I owned those roads then and in some way, I still own them. The great cycle of time has provided me with a way to relive those hours in the dark, all the while experiencing new incarnations of the same fleeting feeling of isolation in the midst of so much.

Before deciding to turn back, I walked under the mammoth overpass of the new road, stopping to look straight up and feel the dizzy recognition of immensity. The twinkling stars above it and me provided the perfect backdrop. It would have been the best possible picture to have somehow captured the perspective of it. Providing no catastrophe strikes, in a blink of an eye in the course of time, someone will stand in the same spot, years from now, seeing the same sight I did this morning.

Doubling back and retracing my steps I had forgotten that the cool valley would be waiting for me. It enveloped me in a cool haze. All I can compare it to is that first blast of cool air when you are 8 years old and you’ve been banished to the great outdoors for most of the afternoon.

I stopped to look up at the silver moon that reminded me of an older movie logo, the one with the small boy fishing off the cusp of a bright partial moon. On my right, there was a single solitary tree towering above a bench several feet away from the trail. I thought of some future afternoon, one with a cool breeze, when I might return and sit on that bench, a visit without real motive.

Apart from the impersonal interstate I only encountered two vehicles. One was a white truck which was being driven so slowly I speculated they might have been attempting to go back in time and the second vehicle was a police car out of jurisdiction driving so fast I thought it might be a DeLorean attempting to reach 88 miles per hour. It’s possible that the police car driver was also accumulating frequent flyer miles. I met several armadillos, too, none of which seemed interested in making my acquaintance.

There’s no message in this story, just moments.

As you slumbered, I walked with the moon and made friends with old memories. Or vice versa.

A Tongue-In-Cheek Travel Story

A Story For All My Friends:.

During my whirlwind trip to Europe last year, I was visiting a place unfamiliar to me. The locals had cautioned me but didn’t specify why I should be careful. At the time, it didn’t bother me at all. The fact that they served me the best baguettes and flavorful coffee I’d ever tasted made such concerns seem foolish.

My only morning there, I very much wanted to take a walk in the unknown hills and fields surrounding the tiny hamlet in which I was staying. It was my goal to see all the sights I could squeeze into my trip, and preferably on foot. I headed toward a large expanse of open field, one I could see from my quaint bed and breakfast. A light fog obscured all the distant edges, waiting for the sun to peek and burn it off an hour or so later.

As I passed the edge of the pavement, I encountered a large yellow and black-edged sign, one which indicated “Warning: Stay Out!” in 3 languages. The urge to get away from people and places overpowered me, so I ignored the warning sign, deciding that the absence of a fence or any other observable prohibition to entry meant it was a forgotten relic, left as an inside joke or an indication of a property owner’s laziness.

About 50 feet past the sign, I still couldn’t see anything which warranted feeling unsafe. The grass seemed relatively maintained and it was quite peaceful. I continued on, but started noticing little bits of black and white-striped fabric. Soon, there were many more scattered whimsically on the ground. After several more steps, I noticed that some of the strips now seemed to be stained with what seemed to be blood.

Still ignoring any sense of danger, I quickened my pace, following the trail of thickening fabric pieces on the grass.

Suddenly, I noticed a large group of thin people wearing unusually clingy clothing and dark berets on their heads. Most were waving their arms in the air, while some seemed to be doing so in patterns I couldn’t quite discern as if they were trapped behind a barrier I couldn’t quite see. Their clothing matched the black and white-striped fabric pieces strewn about the field.

I bolted toward the tree-lined edge of the open field, some yards away. As I approached its perimeter, I could see a large rectangular sign facing the opposite direction, away from me.

As I cleared the field, I swiveled to read the sign’s large black lettering.

My skin crawled and the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up, as the realization struck me that I had just survived the last remaining WWII French mimefield.