Category Archives: Personal

A Personal Story

 

 

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This is a personal story. It explains a sensation that infrequently overcomes me. Maybe you’ll find something interesting in it.

I’m re-watching “Breaking Bad.” When the episode “ABQ” came around, it hit me like an anvil, exactly as it had during the first watch. Not only is the episode one of the best television episodes ever made, but it also resonates with me like a gong. It’s not just the contrasting complexity of circumstances in the show; it’s the familiarity I feel when I observe people around me as they incorrectly calculate risk and probability. On a long enough timeline or with sufficiently strange variables, darn near anything is likely to happen to any of us on a given day.

On Saturday, Sept. 28th, 1991, around 11:30 a.m., a plane crashed on the trailer I lived in. I was inside, watching a movie, and attempting to forget the fact that I had called in for the first time from work that Saturday. Like Walter White, I was deep inside my own head until the pilot crashed. I too looked up toward a crisp blue sky, seeing a jacket and parachute slowly descending toward the ground. It was surreal, unnatural, and moments passed before I saw the plane, followed by the pilot dead at my feet.

Every time I mention the story of pilot Joe Frasca crashing and dying, someone new comes forward with a crazy tidbit to demonstrate how intertwined we all are.

Because I watched “ABQ” again, I now find myself looking up like an OCD sufferer. It happens every time that something drags me back 29 years ago. The urge will pass, as it always does.

The concentric, albeit hidden, circles that surround us also bind us.

One lingering effect of the plane crash back in 1991 reminds me of the bewildering complexity of probabilities. It’s why I look at lotteries a little differently than most people.

We’re all on the timeline. Sooner or later, it’s going to happen.

Whatever ‘it’ is, it is coming.

Ready or not, the anvil awaits.

Parking Lot Oscar Goes To…

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We stopped at Conway to eat. Interestingly, I had an interaction with a homeless man wrapped in a large, dirty blanket. He spoke with such a soft voice that I could barely hear him. I gave him $5. He reminded me so much of Omar from “The Wire.” As I waited for my wife to go to the restroom again, I watched the cashier take the bill from the young man and hold it aloft with the very tips of her fingers of her left hand. She didn’t realize that she was also making a very disgusted face as she did so. I’m not judging her. The young man didn’t either. He was laser-focused on getting something to eat. Whatever else was going on, his hunger was real.

After departing Conway, my wife and I had another conversation about being careful around people. Being a hypocrite, I ignored my advice several times already. I used to joke that someone beating me up might accidentally render me better looking.

I don’t worry about getting killed by a stranger, either. It’s obvious to everyone that pepperoni and Mexican food will be my assassins.

As my wife and I arrived at the hotel, we heard a car horn beep a few times. I didn’t see anyone. My wife thought it might have been directed toward us. In general, I ignore all horns until I have reason to believe they’re directed at me, such as the case when the hood of another car suddenly comes through my windshield. This behavior will serve me well, provided I survive to an older age.

On the third trip back to the car, I heard someone shouting. “Hey, you from Arkansas?” I heard a deep male voice shout but couldn’t discern from where it emanated.

I heard it again. As I walked toward the exterior of the hotel, a large man exited his car. Jokingly, I said, “Yes, can you tell by how dumb I sound?” He responded by saying he was from Arkansas, too, and proud of it. He couldn’t be a hog fan. It seemed odd. We were both in Arkansas.

The man had tears running down the right side of his face. He held out his right hand. In it, his driver’s license. My alarm bells rang like they might at a fancy wedding. He began to weave a tale about where he was from, his brother, a pastor, and his mom in a hospice home somewhere in what seemed to be at least two different places.

It’s important to note that in general, I’m a softie. There is an element of danger in these encounters. There are unicorns – cases in which the person truly needs a hand. Honestly, almost all of them are scams.

I gave no sign that I was aware of the long con unfolding in front of me.

As he talked, I already imagined his turn at the podium as he accepted his Oscar for Best Actor. He made Jennifer Love Hewitt look like an amateur as he spun his verbal gold to me.

I love a great scam if it’s creative and intricate. I consider it to be performance art.

He proceeded to tell me about his mom in hospice. He turned and said, “____, give me that envelope.” I didn’t catch his wife’s name. Until he said her name, I didn’t realize anyone was seated in the front passenger seat, despite it being fully light outside. I didn’t need to see proof of anything. His license had blown up the facade of his performance for me. I would have been a fool to cut his act short, however.

Nevertheless, his wife made an angry face and fished an envelope out of the console. The man reached inside the car to retrieve it. He opened it and then pulled out a letter that had seen much use. Across the top, it read “Hospice” something. He then mentioned his daughter in the car. I didn’t see her. His speech then went up three gears, and he recapped his initial spiel and fluffed it up with an additional fifty details. It was impeccable. It’s the best such rehearsed plea I’ve heard.

I got out my wallet and handed him a $20 bill. On a whim, I stepped toward him, very close, and reached out to him with my left hand. As his hand came up, I crossed my right hand over to shake his hand and gave him the bill. It’s difficult to describe, but the veneer of desperation he had on his face disappeared for a split second. I was watching his wife from the corner of my left eye. As I stepped toward her purported husband, her head swiveled rapidly toward me; her disinterest vanished as she seemed to go on high alert. In her defense, with my head freshly-cut, I do look like a skinhead weirdo. The reactions of them both convinced me they thought their scam was successful.

“I just wanted food, sir,” he said, even as the bill expertly vanished into his right front pocket.

I shook his hand and nodded. “Good luck on wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing,” I told him. “I mean that.”

Before I even got back to my car, I looked back. Their vehicle was already disappearing around the backside of the hotel parking lot.

I don’t know how they’ll find him to let him know about his Oscar nomination.
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P.S. I hope his mom stops violating the laws of physics by being in multiple places simultaneously. Had it not been dangerous to bring up, I would have gladly critiqued his story for him so that he could adjust from the errors I caught and improve his act. Practice makes perfect.
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Cursed Crossed Crosswalk

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Due to a medical condition known as laziness, I didn’t take a bona fide pre-dawn walk this morning, as is my custom when I’m out of town.

I did take one later. It was coolly fresh and the riverwalk was mostly devoid of the pests otherwise identified as “other people.” It was divine. I listened to music and noted a few clever hiding places that homeless people had managed to find and use in the chilly weather.

Having miscalculated how far down I walked, I traversed an expanse of wet grass and exited onto a busy arterial street. Due to construction on the right, the entire swath of the sidewalk was gone.

Given that the road was marked with substantial 4-foot white letters, a series of bright white perpendicular lines, as well as signs on all sides indicating “Crosswalk” for both sides of traffic, I thought it would work like I’m accustomed to. The Indy 500 roar of engines proved me wrong. I waited. I waited some more. Because I’m brilliant, it dawned on me that I might have to dash to the middle and then proceed the remainder of the way if traffic abated. It was obvious no one was going to stop, despite the multitude of indicators they were supposed to.

I waited for a couple of minutes. As a considerable gap appeared ahead, I waited and stepped from the curb. Just as my foot hit the pavement, a car miraculously zoomed out of a parking lot on the left and took the right turn onto the arterial street, going at least 30 mph. It was very close when it popped out. The driver of the compact and ornately decorated Honda hit the horn and brakes. He came to a complete stop, a little inside both lanes.

As expected, his morning cup was filled with angst and cow manure. He opened the driver’s door and stepped out. He looked like his car if you can imagine what I mean. His hat was on backward. He, of course, wore a bright blue sports jersey advertising an unknown athlete.

“What the f you doing, man? This ain’t a crosswalk!” He seemed excited to see me – except for all the wrong reasons.

I pointed at the markings literally at my feet and then the diamond-shaped “Crosswalk” sign.

“Whatever. I got places to be. Get the f out of the road!” He started to get back in the car.

As he did, my mouth did what it does best: it overpowered me. I’m proud of it, though, if only because it didn’t get me killed this time.

“Jesus loves you!” I shouted.

“Yeah. And?” He asked. It was perfection.

“And everyone else thinks you’re an asshole!” I shouted as he stood there, shocked I had one-upped him.

Behind him, a driver honked his horn, which ratcheted up the man’s obvious anger issues. I hot-footed it across to the median as the Honda driver slammed his door and hit the gas, screeching away.

I’m going to miss him. Jesus misses him, too.

But really.

Everyone else assuredly thinks he’s an asshole.
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P.S. I’m glad this happened because it resulted in a great story. Plus, the Honda jerk will live forever on the internet. I sure hope he figures out what those strange lines on the pavement mean, though, if not those weird signs dotted along all the roads. It’ll save him some trouble.

Robin Hood of the Retailers, Version Aldi

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I’m not going to share the ‘why’ of my previous oath to avoid Aldi grocery stores. Suffice it to say that they earned my dislike. Unfortunately, I carried the prejudice forward for years. Once bitten, twice shy, at least for this guy. It’s for the same reason I don’t buy meat products at a Dollar General. Russian Roulette is a game I like to watch in action movies – not participate in when my gastronomical choices are at play.

Aldi has many fans. People like blood sausage, too, as well as watching baseball on television, so popularity doesn’t equate to sensible. The store chain does have a few things going for it. It’s like the “Frugal Hoosiers” made famous in the tv show “The Middle.” The chain does have the “Twice As Nice Guarantee.” I’ll take the expectation of a safe, quality product or my money back. You don’t have to sing and dance for me – just meet expectations. Anything else strikes me as a means to acknowledge that you’re cutting corners on a square house.

“There’s a sense of discovery at Aldi that you don’t find in a traditional grocery store,” say many fans.

Yeah, like discovering the off-brand version of the mustard I had to buy tastes like a chicken fart.

I don’t mind that an Aldi store doesn’t have staff answer the phone. I don’t need to talk to a head of lettuce before I shop. It’s stupid, though. Just my opinion. Any corporation which reduces a customer’s ability to interact isn’t customer-focused, no matter how prettily they paint such an arrangement.

Location quality varies, as is the case for many retailers. Even I often forget that it’s unwise to compare one location of a business with another. There’s too much volatility between managers, cleanliness, and adherence to quality standards. Sometimes, a great manager can rescue an otherwise failed store. The Kroger Superstore in Hot Springs, for example, is spectacular, while the Kroger in my original hometown is… not. One of the Springdale Neighborhood markets is operated as if it’s a psychological experiment geared to determine how much people hate themselves. Harps Foods is so inconsistent in quality that I’m still incredulous that the individual stores are operated by the same system. I dare anyone who visits the Gutensohn and Lowell locations to challenge me to a pie-eating contest to decide the truth of my opinion.

On a whim, I stopped at a local Aldi earlier in the year. I went home a different way, and Aldi was locationally convenient. It didn’t hurt that I had recently suffered blunt-force head trauma. I don’t know what came over me, but the urge to eat a bowl of fish aquarium pebbles and stop at Aldi penetrated my reptilian brainstem.

The smaller footprint of the stores and parking lots of an Aldi store make a trip less invasive than a similar trip to the airfields found at Walmart. The smaller footprint of the stores means you might not find everything you need, either. Like your sanity.

I didn’t have a quarter, so I did the hands-full shuffle. I found some interesting items. One of the items I bought was inedible. (No, I didn’t attempt to return it.) On the next visit, I had a quarter. I stuck it in the slot for the cart, and it literally stuck. None of the carts would come out. I went inside and waited a couple of minutes for an employee to make eye contact. I told them the cart corral was needing attention, and I couldn’t get a cart. Eye roll. “There’s no one to deal with it.” Back to checking. Aldi’s employees often must do multiple jobs simultaneously. It’s not their fault: it’s corporate’s fault. Like Walmart, they ‘save’ money by eliminating jobs. Many of those jobs lost would have allowed for attentive customer service and real-time listening when things go awry. I didn’t get irritated at the cashier.

I can only hope that this attitude of cost-cutting doesn’t one day find me in the O.R. needing a suture to sew up my own abdomen.

For my next trip to Aldi, I withdrew $20 from an ATM and then stopped by the car wash and made change for quarters. I drove back to Aldi and parked on the outer perimeter of the parking lot.

I then went to the cart corral nine times. Each time, I inserted a quarter and ‘rented’ a cart. I took each cart to the edge of the parking lot and used the nine carts to make a large arrow facing the store. I’m no Banksy, but I did feel a twinge of stupid pride when I finished my artwork with the shopping carts.

I then went back to the cart corral and took out ten more carts, one at a time, by paying a quarter. I left them loose to the left side of the return corral. Because I always carry white index cards, I left a card on the first few indicating, “Free Cart. Please leave loose.” People observed me doing all this but didn’t comment.

Was it petty? Yes. Worth it? Yes. I was also paying it forward, though, even as I entertained myself.

One of the women shopping exited the store and told me she had watched me assemble the arrow on the other end of the parking lot. “It’s stupid, isn’t it? Just hire a person and keep the store tidy.” Due to her appearance, I was sure she was going to scold me. Her face was pulled back so tight I could hear her ears yelling in pain. She was nice, in any case.

People saw the loose carts with the cards on them, and each smiled and grabbed their free cart.

I felt like Robin Hood of the Retailers.

Imagine. Free carts, with each of us leaving them for the next person. Like a typical store not corraling us into doing their jobs for them.

If I can enter a store and not worry about expired food or being unable to shop easily, I’ll pay for the entirely reasonable expectation of a normal shopping experience.

When people ask me, “What do you like best about Aldi,” the only thing I can tell them is, “I don’t have to go there.” The second-best thing is, of course, the feeling of walking out of one of them.

If I have to choose between Aldi and Walmart, I’ll choose a lobotomy.

If I make the mistake of going to Aldi again, I plan to take 500 quarters with me. I’ll let you imagine what I might do with such a quantity of quarters.
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P.S. If you’re a fan of Aldi, I’m not worried about you reading all of this. It’s a lot of words.
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Regarding Bathrooms and Other Trickery

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Because I have entered the wrong restroom many more times than I’d care to admit, I present this proof that I’m still an idiot.

My wife and I went to Crystal Bridges with people who’d never seen its mysteries. I worked hard to avoid tripping over the displays or falling on top of babies in strollers. I’m not a great driver and I’m equally prone to stupidity merely walking around. Whether it is symptomatic of Imposter Syndrome or merely an indication of my self-awareness of my own ability to do stupid things, nice venues like the museum sometimes trigger my survival instincts.

I’d rather not be on the nightly news for falling through a famous art display.

It’s going to happen, though. Seriously. I know it is. I’m going to be one of those dolts who walk into a fountain or back up over a railing into the Grand Canyon. Or hit the gas and hurl myself through a store window. It’s a question of when.

I waited a bit too long to use the restroom. The coffee, soda, water, and other beverages I’d downed sat in my gullet like a gallon of water.

I went around the corner and just as I was about to hit the magical “door open” square on the wall, I heard water inside. I froze. Was it one of those segregated restrooms with floor-to-ceiling stalls, or was it a devilish trick? The family restroom was on the opposite side of the vestibule inset, so I knew that I was going to run into some weirdness regardless of my choice. Because of my uncertainty, I stood, immobile, proving my idiocy to the stream of people passing by. My friend took a second to capture my indecision in the picture. My wife finally told me to go inside. I did. Luckily, there were no unprepared victims inside as I entered. Even so, I found myself to be in a huge hurry as if the door was about to burst inward with a swarm of chatting ladies.

My restroom visit was otherwise without surprise.

Yes, I know the emblem on the bathroom door is simple.

The problem? I’m simple, too.

Kvetch-22, Work Edition

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Last Friday, management put us in an impossible situation. It was a Kvetch-22. The details don’t really matter. It’s no secret that many people work in environments in which our humanity is an inconvenience.

Someone I work with got really angry and lashed out. I did what I do best and creatively turned it around on him. Because he’s a hothead, you can imagine how it escalated. Later, when I realized that he had fallen victim to being blind to how he had been manipulated by the circumstances management left us with, I reached out and apologized. We both then appropriately turned our disdain on the people who created the situation rather than each other.

Today, I presented him with a surprise gift. He opened it, his eyes went wide, and then he laughed. And then laughed some more.

I had printed a color 5 x 7 picture of myself making a god-awful face and smiling. In Spanish, I wrote: “With Love, From The World’s #1 A÷÷hole, X.”

Somehow, I don’t think he will ever forget my apology on Friday or the ridiculous follow-up today. Plus, he now has a beautiful picture of me, one suitable for a dartboard, the bottom of a urinal, or framing to put above his imaginary fireplace at home.
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Alcoholic: Episode 1,378

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Do not read this post if you are easily triggered or don’t want to inhale a topic not customarily laid out in plain view on social media.

Because I’m hoping that one of the people I know will one day get the courage to write a book of the insanity she’s lived with, I’m writing this public service announcement. She will discover that sharing what once was taboo will liberate her. She is not responsible for what happened to her. It’s a lesson I know better than most. You would think my exposure to alcoholics who refuse help would make me callous to the evil they spew into the world. To my surprise, I’m still surprised, though. Alcoholism only thrives in secrecy; everyone who has dealt with addiction knows this. Our most common reaction, though, tends to be protective until it is too late.

Our silence makes us traitors to ourselves on a long enough timeline.

Everyone deserves a chance, a helping hand, and a fresh start. Or two. Or three. Not twenty-three, though. And not at the literal expense of the friends and family around you.

If you’ve ever driven so erratically through a high school parking lot that students use their phones to record you, you’re probably an alcoholic. This is doubly true if you have no children in school, anywhere, especially on a random (and early) Wednesday morning. Triply true if you’re retired. It doesn’t help to throw all your alcoholic beverage containers out the window while you’re being filmed, either. If you top all that off by nearly killing several people, Betty Ford needs to see you. If a group of police comes to your door and you lie to them, even after they show the video that high school teenagers took of you, in your car, as you endangered the lives of several people, you definitely have a drinking problem – and not the kind popularized in the movie “Airplane!” By all means, though, keep lying and insisting that the world is against you. I hope that the students who were endangered upload the video of you careening through the parking area around them to YouTube.

If I sound a bit angry, it’s because I know someone whose career should have made it impossible for him to fight tooth and nail to keep drinking, even after it cost him his career, his health, and the sanity of those around him. His background was similar to mine. His childhood was filled with sociopathic, violent, and angry alcoholics. He continues to get into vehicles to drive, even though he is drunk. As far as anyone knows, he hasn’t killed or injured anyone yet. (Unlike both my parents, who killed and severely maimed people because their love of alcohol made them less than human. Their combined DWI tally is simply too high to be believable.)

As for the person in question, I fought hard to get him the help he needed years ago, even as my sanity slipped. His job protected him from consequences; in part, they are as responsible for his worsening addiction as he is. His career is filled with a markedly high concentration of addicts and alcoholics. Some of the bureaucracy that protected him from consequences suffer from the same addiction. It is ironic that these protectors failed to protect anyone and in fact worsened the addiction by being the ultimate enablers. Not surprisingly, I’ve found this type of concealing behavior to be universal.

I sit and wait for the final word. It will be an inelegant death, and hopefully, one not bordered by the tragedy of others continuing to suffer for his poisonous choices. Since nothing has convinced the addict that he must change, I now hope that those around him pull away and let him find the bottom that he has insisted upon. It’s impossible to swim to shore and save yourself with dead weight on your shoulders. Love both expands and constricts us into choices.

I have no sympathy in my heart for the addict and it is a painful admission. He used his career and his intelligence to assault and beat down anyone who called into question his misbehavior. Literally, anyone.

Recently, I again risked my sanity and tried to convince the alcoholic to get help. He has great insurance, a great retirement plan, and people who have supported him even through years of grievous indignation. He lashed out with some of the angriest, vilest, most personal hatred a human could possibly dish out.

98% of my sympathy lies with the people whose lives this addict has ruined. Their daily struggles, their failed optimism, and hopes, and their inability to live full lives. They are in a holding pattern, waiting for the worst, to testify and witness against a life that is imploding around them. They are victims without an expiration date.

I sit. I wait. I hope that those infected by those with addictions choose freedom over loyalty. Life is too short.

Now, whether you want to or not, you know a little more about me. There’s a good chance that you will recognize people you know in this story. It’s not a new story.
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Pizzaheimer’s Pants

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There’s nothing quite like the realization that you might not have any pants to wear. No one wanted to see me prancing around sans pants twenty years ago; the situation hasn’t improved any, especially as pizza became my closest friend. The only time being pantsless is a benefit is when door-to-door salesmen make the mistake of ignoring my “No Soliciting” sign. The neighbors haven’t complained about screaming people fleeing my house. Since I don’t answer the door, I wouldn’t know if they did. It’s a win-win.

As a minimalist, I have the least amount of clothing of any other adult that I know. I tend to keep only a bit more than I need. After my last long-term successful weight loss, I dropped my guard and discarded the pants that looked like MC Hammer had designed my wardrobe. I’m generally relentless about getting rid of clothes I can’t or won’t wear.

Like all idiots, once I lose weight, I assume that I will somehow defy years of forgetting my promise not to get too large again.

I name this tendency/disease Pizzaheimer’s.

Over the last few months, I’ve adopted a more care-free diet, one characterized by total surrender to the joys of excessive stuffing. I tend to wear work pants instead of blue jeans. No matter how bad you think I might look in blue jeans, it’s worse. Imagine Danny DeVito wearing jeans and roller skating.

Because I have to wear slacks at work and my job being very physical, I wear both the relaxed fit and stretchy version of my preferred pants. (Note: I’m not too fond of using the word ‘slacks’ in reference to pants.) These give me the ability to kneel or bend without accidentally hitting a high note – and from splitting my the seat of my pants in an impromptu show of agility and exposed anatomy. The undesirable consequence of this is that I can put on 20 lbs without needing to get a size bigger pants. George brand pants do indeed stretch without complaint. So do I.

Because I may have to dress above my normal sloth-like appearance in a few days, it occurred to me that I might need to try on my normal dress wear pants. As you might expect, none of them fit. Either a magical seamstress has reduced them in my closet, or my battle with fat has been an unnoticed defeat. I’m going with the latter.

As a result, after work today, I had to buy more clothes, ones that don’t expose me to the risk of public nudity if I bend over. The numbers are getting a little large, too. As a general rule, if walking the distance displayed on your pants would wear you out, it’s probably not a good waist size, either.

It’s not my fault, though. I suffer from Pizzaheimer’s.

Fried Chicken Amen

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*I was hesitant to post this. People tend to jump over subtlety and substance by unforgivingly bringing their own observations to things unsaid.

On a recent Wednesday, in a town which can be found in several states across the South, I entered a local eatery to pass a bit of the time away from the blistering reach of the summer sun. I gladly surrendered in the fight against it. I could tell that the little place was a hub for all manner of necessary human activity: gas, small groceries, food, and tobacco. The place was packed with smiling faces, each focused on satisfying their hunger.

I went inside, ordered a bit of deliciousness, and sat down at one of the dozen rectangular white tables scattered on one side of the convenience store. It wasn’t my intention to get another bite to eat. I’d already had lunch across the street. Overcoming the scent of the food filling in the air, however, was impossible for a man of my age and girth. Bacon and butter are my beloved enemies.

I casually watched through the glass as a young mom ignored her little daughter as she strained to reach over into the ice cream case. Her short arm stretched, and her fingers moved like scurrying spiders in their attempt to reach the unattainable buckets of ice cream. Her brother watched from the opposite end of the case, undoubtedly anticipating that she’d either reach the ice cream or fall into it. They were all behind the ice cream case on the employee’s side. The mom looked up and noticed my gaze. Without hesitation, she turned and struck the little girl forcefully on the back. It seemed like an instinctive reaction to her guilt at being observed. The girl shrieked in a small voice, and the mom grabbed her by the nape of the neck. The scream died. I could tell it was a long-rehearsed dance between them. The young mom then looked to her right, toward a stern older woman with a scream of a ponytail at the other register. It turns out that the young mom was an off-duty employee of the store, there to feed her four children. The old lady with the austere ponytail was undoubtedly the young mom’s boss. I later observed the family huddled around one of the tables, each devouring their pieces of chicken as their fingers became increasingly greasy. Watching little kids lick their fingers in deep appreciation is one of the minor joys in life. The little girl didn’t seem to recall being hit like an approaching tennis ball. I silently hoped that the hits weren’t frequent. I could easily see how much the daughter loved her mom. I hoped she could maintain that love as she grew.

Atop the ice cream case was a placard, one of those telling the world that the owners love their god and country, stand for the flag, and for anyone who felt otherwise, they should use the door as quickly as possible. I had a feeling that many visitors of different customs or appearance had seen the placard through the years and winced, many of them understanding that they weren’t welcomed there and were simply tolerated for the purpose of commerce. There’s no nuance in such signs, even if the owners believe there is. It’s the equivalent of a harsh, angry shout; this world needs more whispers and gentle examples of encouragement.

It wasn’t until I noticed the placard that I questioned much of the content of my experience there. My eyes wandered around the store, finding confederate flags in more than one place. Such flags are not a guarantee of other sinister inclinations; their presence, though, tends to accompany such attitudes. People can fly confederate flags and be good people. I’ve learned that the combination seldom proves the exception, leaving those without prejudice to be lumped in and suffer with those who use the symbols as shortcuts for unforgiving opinions. It’s unfortunate and unfair for all of us. Each of us in our own private lives tends to embrace ambiguity and understand that people are a spectrum of conflicting ideas.

Inside the store, the air was thick with the scent of biscuits, gravy, and fried chicken. While I was inside, there was a constant, impatient line, slowly shuffling forward, and the tables were filled with people, each bubbling with a conversation. Unlike my adopted hometown, there were no faces of other color or snippets of foreign languages. There was no rainbow there and no spectrum of humanity. Once noticed, such absences are hard to unsee. There should have been other faces, though, because despite the small-town population, there were industries and occupations which were comprised of a majority of minorities. I was curious to know where those people enjoyed their lunch. I would describe the mood of everyone as happy and concentrated on their own bit of life.

Because of the recent tragedies, many of the conversations were about guns and violence. I could hear two distinct conversations ridiculing those who wanted things to change. The conversations merged into one, with the participant’s voices rising in volume. We all became involuntary listeners.

At the furthest table, a man in overalls and a plaid shirt leaned back and cocked his head toward the bulk of the tables and said, “Ain’t no one here going to disagree. Not in this town. We love our guns and those who don’t can leave.” Even though I was in a distant place, I laughed, the kind of raucous, loud laugh that makes my wife cringe sometimes. The speaker looked toward me with surprise, probably in an attempt to gauge my allegiance. Externally, I looked like them. Maybe my bright purple laptop case signaled a departure. Nothing else about me raised suspicion that I might differ strikingly from most of them.

The loud-voiced man’s false bravado revealed his temperament, one not accustomed to nuance or differing opinion. It’s a common affliction in places where the realm is small, and the courage to speak up is often swallowed to keep the peace. I doubt he was actually as harsh as the situation implied.

“You think they should take our guns away?” He challenged me. Several people turned their heads to look in my direction. I could see the owner standing next to the food counter, waiting to hear what foolishness would jump from my mouth.

All I could think to say was, “If you drink and can’t stop yourself from driving, you should lose the privilege of driving. But I don’t know who ‘they’ are.”

An older woman wearing a bright red shirt seated with two very young kids said, “That’s right!” as if she were in church and reciting a well-worn and enthusiastic “Amen.”

The original speaker abruptly leaned forward again in his chair as the conversations in the room went momentarily quiet. He wasn’t expecting a response to his oration, especially to encounter disagreement among his own tribe. Each table resumed speaking in subdued voices. I’m confident that several people were wondering how a traitor like me had entered their eating-place without being noticed. Truthfully, it gladdened me a little bit. I couldn’t get the smile of satisfaction off my face. The old lady who had invoked the informal amen smiled back at me and nodded.

Regardless of our individual opinions, each of us continued to eat our delicious food. Differences over guns seldom distract those with fried chicken on their plates.

A little later, I listened as the owner pulled up a chair and sat at a table nearby with one of his customers. He smiled and exuded friendliness. After a few seconds of listening to his conversation, I realized that the smile was a little forced. He had a lot to say about guns and the attitudes recently expressed in his eatery. I tuned him out. It’s unwise to strive to overhear words that you know will only serve to bait you toward a base response. We all vent, sometimes to the point of letting our mouths outrun our honest hearts. I’m afflicted with the tendency too. It would be unwise for me to paint him in a situation where one’s self-defense mechanism might override his ability to express himself honestly.

Not all the signs and symbols for these places are visible. That ideas and differences weren’t welcome somehow pervaded the room, though. The divisive placard on the ice cream case didn’t help much. Each of us loves our lives, our friends, and our families. Most of us appreciate our community. We don’t need code words or exclusion to feel like our lives are full. When I departed the store, I noted vehicles with confederate flags and harsh bumper stickers with rigid, us-vs.-them messages. Strangely, people don’t stop to think that at a certain level, we are all ‘them’ to other people.

The smell of fried chicken and gravy should be a sign of welcome for all those who appreciate a full stomach. Such a thing is a unifier, drawing us to places where each of us brings our differences and yet somehow joins in the spectacle of community.

If I could, I would ask the owners to remove their placard and relics of the confederacy. I’d ask them to instead let their smiles and kind words serve as both example and proof of their living creator flowing through them. The placard and things like it can only serve as whistles of perceived prejudices. Armed with love and fried chicken, it’s difficult to imagine a divided world. We preach our best sermons by example. I think that so many people feel cornered into a defensive position when the world stops seeing that everything is intertwined and complex. Except for love, few ideas worth fighting for can be encapsulated on a bumper sticker, placard, or t-shirt.

It is possible to love your religion and customs while also openly loving other people’s opportunity to do the same. Acknowledging their choices in no way denigrates your ability to live a good life in the way that you see fit. Only when we demand allegiance to our choices does our society suffer.

Let the chicken and gravy be sufficient to unite us.

We live in the United States of America, a place where all of us have an equal voice to be as proud or as ignorant as our own hearts require. There’s room for ignorance and intellect on all sides in this crowded room of togetherness. Let the best argument always prevail, though. Losing respect for the best ideas leads us all away from the truth and fried chicken.

All those in agreement say either “Amen,” or “Fried chicken and gravy.” They both come from the purest of hearts.
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