As a toddler, I might as well have worn a hat that said, “C-Section Baby” to remove all doubt from anyone who cast their eyes upon my giant head and thought, “How did mom birth that kid?” On second thought, I would have to wear a T-shirt–they wouldn’t be able to find a hat large enough for my gargantuan grape. My small mouth only accentuated the problem. Growing and keeping my hair longish helped for a while until I began to lose it. Then, after I got married, I began to gain weight followed by my receding hair graying. So the images below are not intended to impress. “There but for the grace of God go I,” I suppose.
Sometime in the mid-70s, we saw Rich Little at a casino in South Shore or Reno, Nevada. Rich Little inspired me to become an impressionist, but like everything else, once I found out it took a lot of practice and hard work, I dumped it. Leasure suits? Good God! Were my brother and I feigning senior citizens?
I’m not sure if this was taken in 1987 or 1988 since I lived with my future wife and her kid, Peter, for a year. Call it a test drive. Of course, it worked out swimmingly. This is one for the images from a photo booth at either the Pizza Hut or the Time Zone arcade across the street in Old Sacramento. I spent countless hours and quarters on Peter at the Time Zone. First Pizza Hut then, when Ely was a toddler Chuck E. Cheese’s. I was once a pizza snob before this time in my life. Now, it was whatever Peter and later Peter and Ely wanted no matter how shitty the pizza. Parenthood.
In high school, I fell in love with CliffNotes, not because it helped me read the classics. Ha! Right! I read the CliffNotes on our assigned readings and skipped the books. Needless to say, I did not do well in my English classes. Here’s another solution.
Wrong Hands illustrator John Atkinson blends cartoons, literature, and humor in his new book, Abridged Classics.
I’m sitting on my scooter in a traffic jam at least two full city blocks long. I can see the light half of a block in front of me turns from green to red to back to green and red again. Within each light change, I move a little more than one car length towards the inevitable intersection and my turn to crossover into another block of gridlock. I deal with traffic jams every time I ride my scooter home after work. The difference this time is this size of this jam and that it is pouring down rain. If this were the midday, late evening, or weekend the ride from where I work to home would take about fifteen minutes. Add another fifteen minutes during a usual five o’clock rush, but this is the Mother of all Traffic Jams, and I’m guessing that’s because it is raining buckets of H2O. I can hear the occasional unfruitful honks by frustrated drivers. What are you guys bitchin’ about–you’re dry in your climate-controlled vehicle, idiots!
If I were on my bicycle, I would, unless I ignored the forecast, have rain gear on and I would be home in thirty minutes. Why have I never worn rain gear when commuting via scooter on rainy days? I have no idea. I’m a moron. I bought the rain gear for my bicycle commuting and for some reason my brain associates the bright yellow hazmat-wear exclusively with my bike, not my scooter. As I feel the water run down my back and chest, and my jeans are soaked through, I know I will never make this mistake again. There’s also the path I insist on taking home when I am on my scooter. I know two motorcycle commuters from my work that park away from the congested areas. One reason I didn’t care for where they park is that the slots are about a three-block walk from our office, whereas the place where I park my ride is only a block from our office’s front door. But that is the point–they walk through the gridlock and are only slightly impeded by traffic after that. I blew off that idea because I get to my ride faster than they get to theirs. I know they would argue, “but you don’t have to take that route, Jack.” Meh, I like my way home, says the stubborn old scooterist soaked through. I see a city bus go by in the cross traffic. I bet those commuters are dry and toasty in there. I used to ride the bus. That was the best thing about commuting via mass transit.
Forty-five minutes later, I finally get home. I park my ride in the garage, and open the door to the dry and warm house, and yell for someone to fetch me a big towel. My wife is not home and my son is most likely in his room on the other side of the house with his headphones on playing a video game, I bet. I say fuck it and stripe down to my birthday suit, prance into the house checking the laundry room first, hoping for a towel–clean or dirty, damp or dry–in there, but the laundry gods do not favor me today. I tiptoe through the kitchen, crossing a large window looking out to the street–Hello neighbors!–and snag a clean kitchen towel. After drying my feet and legs, I chuck that wet towel and pick another clean, dry kitchen towel just to cover the dog and dice in case my son runs into me in the hallway and I scar him for life. I make my way to my bedroom. After I dry off, put on some dry clothes, I deal with the mound of soaked clothes I left in the garage. That commute was the worst of the three possible situations for me getting home in a monsoon. Another scenario is peddling home on my bike without my rain gear. I’ve done that too, though not so much these days–I’m a better-prepared bicyclist commuter than a scooterist commuter, I guess. The third scenario is getting home via the bus, but not being prepared for rain (thin or no jacket). Most days–rain or shine–I ride my bicycle. If it rains my rain gear inevitable leaks through the edges of the polypropylene, but I wouldn’t get as douched as I got riding home on my scooter on this early evening thanks to traffic like this.
In the thirty years I have worked in Downtown Sacramento commuting from either East Sac or South Sac most of the commutes were done on the Regional Transit District (RT) bus system, but in the last seven or so years, I have found bicycling and, occasionally, scootering more liberating. (The three years I drove into work by car I’ll leave out of this post. There’s not much to write about.) There are definitely things you miss by not being in a bus besides climate control and being able to relax: people, for better or worse. And unlike the 60s Honda ad, you don’t really get to “meet the nicest people on a Honda,” or a Vespa–you’re moving too fast and the engine noise gets in the way of any meaningful
Conversations at red lights outside of the “two wheels on the ground” gesture. Bicycling is only slightly better for that kind of thing, but if you need/want to get to work or home quickly, discussions are usually cut to a minimum. Also, for a recluse like me, blocking out the world and listen to my audiobooks and podcasts on my phone is ideal.
When I first got my day job with the State of California, I lived in East Sac near T Street’s scenic median park area. That’s where I picked up the bus. Fred, a gregarious bus driver, would greet me with a “Hellooo, JACK!” So outgoing was Fred that he seemed to ignore my head-down, “Don’t Bother Me, I’d Rather Be Left Alone With My Book” body language and introduced himself and ask my name early on when I was stuck struggling with the onboard ticket machine. After the first couple of Hellooo JACKs, I felt obliged to sit across from him usually reserved for the seniors. Within a week I knew his first name and that he lived only a couple of blocks away from my home with his wife, computer enthusiast son, and wheel-chair bound daughter. (An explanation of those descriptors is below.) I began to look forward to our rides and felt disappointed when the double doors would swing open and someone else was at the wheel, but only for a moment. Now, I could read. I don’t make friends easily, and I very rarely make close friends–the kind of friends who know my family, and I know theirs. (A product of my horribly reclusive junior high and high school years, I suppose.) I can’t say I wanted to become close friends with Fred, just that I treasured the short time we had together on the commutes. He also seemed to respect my boundaries and never attempted to take it to another level (e.g., invite my family and me to a backyard barbeque, dinner out, etc.).
The following Halloween when I was walking our older son, Peter, around the neighborhood picking up enough agents of tooth decay to make him happy, I noticed a house with a big institutional-looking traversing ramp in front of it. When my son knocked on the door, Fred answered and gave my kid some treats. I walked up and greeted him as a neighbor for the first time. He was surprised and–I think–a little embarrassed. If I pegged the embarrassment quality, I don’t know why. I hope it wasn’t the ramp or me seeing his daughter who was in an electric wheelchair behind him. We said thank you and moved on. The next day Fred was less animated but just as warm. We chatted all the way to my stop downtown. Inside of a week, though, he began to open up about the challenges he and his wife have raised a child who has a disability. Anyone who knows me knows I will never win any awards for empathy. I am far too self-centered. So when he began to sob, saying, “My poor daughter,” I felt like I wanted to crawl out the window and ride into town on the roof. When he spoke of his son it was in awe of how he built his own computers. When he spoke of his daughter, it was strictly about her challenges and her depression. It is sad when a parent describes a child in those descriptors, then again, I didn’t know what the young woman was like–she could have been in a permanent state of depression over her physical disability or she could have been suffering from clinical depression. Fred never talked about how many books she read, what a good writer she was, the beautiful art she created, etc. He never defined her in any other way but disabled.
Shortly after the sobbing incident, a new regular bus driver replaced Fred on my line. I don’t know if Fred got a new assignment or he requested a change, or maybe he and his family moved. I knew where he lived. I could have walked over to his house on the weekend to see how he was and what was up with his absence, but I felt awkward about doing that. I instead decided to capitalize on the extra time I had to read on my commute. This callous bastard finally got some good reading in. Shortly after I got a new bus driver, my family and I moved to South Sac and naturally, my bus route changed with the change of address.
The new bus trips were not as long, but the timetables were not friendly to my dawdling ways–I missed the morning bus often and because the bus stop to get back home was five blocks away from my office, I had either to sneak out early or get home late. I didn’t get to know any of the drivers, and that was fine with me, but by the time I got on the bus was very crowded, which was a pain. Many of the commuters were Sacramento High School and McClatchy High School students who were not rowdy but were loud and took up a lot of space with their backpacks. You had to ask them to remove their packs and they would rarely scoot over so the insensitive shits would make you climb over their legs to sit down.
By this time my youngest child, Ely, was a toddler the significant amount of weight I had gained while he was in utero had not come off. So, when the weather warmed up my wife told me I needed to exercise and on a Saturday we went to the local bike shop, College Cyclery, to pick up a commuter bike. It was a serendipitous affair: the bike shop owner, Chuck, was an old family friend. Back when I was a kid my family and his used to go camping together tearing up the Sierras in dune buggies my father made when he wasn’t making boats. My wife had picked out a Peugeot from the used bikes chained up in front of the store. I took the hybrid road/mountain bike for a ride and decided it was okay. It was the first time I had been on a bicycle since high school, so the only thing I could compare it with was my Schwinn ten speed I road back in 1976! I would later discover a bigger bike shop with more product in East Sacramento, but a friend encouraged me to patronize the local independent bike shop and I took that advice. With only one exception, I have purchased all my bikes from College Cyclery and have all my tune-ups/maintenances done at this shop, as well.
When I started commuting via bike the going was rough at first. My fat ass had not done the least amount of exercise since community college, ten years ago, and the extra pounds made the ride brutal–showing up at work sweaty and winded. I was happy when the rainy season began, but the bus experience had its rough moments. There were the altercations at the 7th Street bus stop near what is now Golden 1 Center when I was trying to get home. One time, standing out there waiting for my bus, a fight broke out. The punching and pushing had a mosh pit effect and a second after the fight broke out the innocent to my right slammed into me and I slammed into the young woman to my left who gave me a look like a started it. Another time someone pulled a knife on someone. In a minute, the fight ended up in the street stopping traffic. If I wasn’t so freaked out I might have started snapping my fingers singing “Boy, boy, cool it, boy,” but I doubt the two black guys ready to fight have ever seen “West Side Story.” They probably wouldn’t take kindly to a white guy calling one of them “boy,” either. A short time later, I walked around the corner at this bus stop to find three patrol cars and half-dozen youngsters on their knees wearing zip-tie cuffs. This wasn’t the first time patrol cars had been at this bus stop, but considering how far I had to walk and how crazy things could get there, I started taking the city’s light rail system to a bus stop outside of what appeared to be the “danger zone.”
From time to time, at this new bus stop, a different bus would stop that took me closer to home if not all the way. I would take it just to get moving. Chris rode this line, a guy who was a courier in my office. A cigar smoking, conservative, who lived on the dodgy side of town, I didn’t have much in common with him, but for the short bus ride, we would share a bench and make small talk. I would get off in front of the Tower Theatre on Broadway–my old job. From there, I would wait for my bus. On the last day I ever rode on Chris’ line I heard two people on the bench behind us talking trouble. I’m reconstructing the conversation as best as I remember including the couple’s vernacular:
Man’s voice: “Nes time I see dat bitch, I’m gonna cut her!”
Woman’s voice: “Yeah.”
Man’s voice: “She think I be trippin’, but I’m gonna cut that bitch!”
Woman’s voice: “Yeah.”
The man continued his threats with his companion always responding “Yeah.”
Scared shitless, I discreetly leaned over to whisper to Chris if he was getting all this. I got a loud snore back. He had slept through it. I guess that was commonplace where he lived. It was moments like these where I missed riding my bike.
As far back as I go as an RT customer, Sacramento’s public transportation had always transported high school students to the mild inconvenience of meek folk like me. Things got miserable, though, when my city bus began hauling middle school students. The bus was now packed and the relatively quiet ride turned into clattering anarchy on wheels. There were always problems with high school students on the bus, but the incidents were manageable. When middle schoolers started riding my line the cacophony and hijinks were annoying. After someone pulled the cord requesting a stop other teens would begin yanking the cords to see how many times they could make the bell ring. The bus driver would pull over and chew the brats out. I thought I was back in junior hi again, except I wasn’t so I had zero tolerance for this shit. Still, they weren’t my kids so I tried to stick to whatever I was reading or crank up whatever I had on my iPod. (The middle schoolers may have inspired RT to prevent the bell to ring multiple time because shortly after this hell, the signal would only sound once whenever two people would pull the cord requesting the same stop.) During one week a bunch of girls decided to play a variation on the Chinese fire drill prank. One of them would request a stop, when the bus stopped at the next stop, a bunch of the girls would file out the back door only to run up to the front of the bus and come back in, thinking they were so clever, and making everyone that much later to work. This happened a few mornings until the bus driver said fuck it and took off leaving the half-dozen or so teenagers on the sidewalk having to hoof it to school. I’m not sure if that was the safe thing to do, but he received applause from a few commuters. I should have complained to RT, but it didn’t matter, I guess enough people did protest, and the middle school contingency was gone next school year.
Around this time, my wife, a dedicated all-weather bike commuter, decided I needed a new bike. The days were getting longer and sunnier and she felt I needed an upgrade in the bicycle department. We went to a bike shop in neighboring Rancho Cordova and she picked out an aluminum-frame Bianchi Advantage for me. I flew to work on the Italian hybrid! I was still taking the same route through Downtown to get to work, but I must have shaved a good ten minutes off of my time. It felt great, but it wouldn’t last long. One early evening I made the dumb-ass mistake of leaving my bike unlocked outside a neighborhood video store and two teenage boys snagged it. I ran after them looking like an ass assuming I could catch up with them. When I returned to the video store out of breath and pissed off that the property owner didn’t provide a bike rack, the lady behind the checkout asked, “Didn’t you see the two kids riding in circles right outside the store–one of them sitting on the other’s handlebars?” I knew it was my fault for not being aware and for leaving my bike unattended. (Not to mention, if I had locked the rear wheel to the frame neither of the little shits could have run off while holding up a thirty-pound bike!) Regardless of my stupidity, I vowed to never go back to that store and got a Blockbuster account. Years later I got a Netflix account and I never checked to see if that store got around to getting a bike rack. I make it a point now to see if a business provides bike racks. I usually don’t patronize the places that don’t offer them despite how infrequent I use my bike outside of commuting.
My replacement bike was a relatively heavy Giant Sedona, but by that time, I was going through a medical condition that left me without a driver’s license and made me shy away from riding a bike. I was now entirely at the mercy of the city’s overpriced and underserved bus system year around. My Sedona collected dust until I loaned it to my son, Peter, who rode it to his work at a coffee house near Sacramento City College.
In my bus travels, I have met and befriended a few people–not something I do very well. There was Alex, the most negative person I have ever met. To any of my readers who know me personally they may conger up images of pots and kettles upon reading that last statement, but seriously, Alex made me seem like Zig Ziglar. As far as how Alex made me feel, watch the short video below from the 1980 film “Airplane!” I felt like anyone or all three of the poor bastards sitting next to Ted Striker (played by Robert Hays) when Alex got going about his life.
I had the misfortune to end up on the same buses with Alex in the mornings and the afternoons. There he was with his copy of the day’s San Francisco Chronicle in his lap. His paper of choice since The Sacramento Bee was a “liberal rag.” I don’t like to mix it up with people, but as a student of journalism, I knew that most West Coast press analysts calling The Bee one of the best newspapers this side of the Mississippi while The Chronicle was often criticized for its poor editorial judgment. I just listened to him complain about the world. The refrain that dragged me down with him was his beef that his boss had blackballed him from making it into an analyst classification. Poor Alex and poor me, too: I was tired of my job running a warehouse and was trying to get into the analyst class, also; albeit, I wasn’t really applying myself. I was just feeling sorry for myself. This made the bus trips with Alex toxic.
Then there was John. Unlike Alex, he was an inspiration. Because he got on the bus after I did we almost never sat next to one another. The first time I noticed him he was yelling. A couple of Sac High male students were seated knees to knees blocking the aisle–like they often did, intimidating fellow commuters from walking past and nearly all of them would place their backpacks on the adjacent seat so you had to ask if they would remove it so you could sit down on their bench. The first time I saw John, he stopped at the blockade, looked straight down, the students returning his gaze as if to challenge, then John bellowed, “MOVE,” as if the slight man was a football coach. They moved. I was impressed.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but there was a third high school represented on this bus every morning. The Met is a small experimental charter high school in Midtown. The students on my bus who attended the school seemed relatively quiet, courteous, and unassuming compared to Sac Hi and McClatchy students. I noticed John striking up conversations with them. He always wanted to know what they were doing, what video games they were playing at the time, TV shows they liked, films they had just seen. John was never judgmental, just inquisitive. On one of the rare occasions, he sat next to me. After exchanging greetings, he pulled out a devotional and began reading. I took that moment to tell him I was a fellow believer. As a Doubting Thomas, I am always impressed with people whose faith is strong. We had a lovely talk before parting. John continued talking with these high schoolers as the school year progressed. After our initial conversation, he seemed to make a point of saying hi whenever he walked down the aisle to find a seat, which was nice.
Unlike Alex and John, I met Mike at the bus stop outside my home one morning. He was open, but with enough distance to make me feel comfortable. His icebreaker was something like, “Hmm that sounds like a hawk.” Time past in silence as I noticed he was craning his neck to try to get a better look at the bird. “It is! Check it out: a Red-Tailed Hawk! It looks like she has a nest in that tree,” pointing across the street at the top of a tall tree of which he knew the species.
In fact, he seemed to know a lot about many things. I didn’t attempt to verify every assertion he made, but he did seem wiser than his years. (He was around 50 at the time I met him.) I don’t think he was trying to impress, just making conversation. Another thing, Mike knew Alex and he agreed with me when I confessed I thought Alex was friendly but had a soul-sucking personality. Mike was a Buddhist who raised Bonsai trees and a pharmacist for Department of Health Services. He regaled me with stories of inspecting pharmacies in California State prisons including the time he was caught during a lockdown. On one occasion, I was waiting at the bus stop and Mike rolled up in his 1972 Honda Civic and asked me if I wanted a ride to work. The man was so meticulous that the car appeared to be brand new. He was an avid bicyclist with a half-dozen different styles of bikes but didn’t ride to work because he felt the commute was too dangerous.
During this time my current bike was slowly going through waves of disintegration and renewal. Peter would start borrowing our second car (which was not a problem since I couldn’t drive). Whenever I asked him what’s wrong with my bike, he would say either the front wheel had been stolen, or the saddle was stolen or both. Whenever my wife and I drove by the coffee house, there was my old red bike locked to the bike rack, but missing a wheel or saddle/post. Giant bikes came with quick releases on the axils as one would expect at this time when bicycle thefts were on a steep incline. What was befuddling was the addition of a quick release on saddle posts. Presumably, the owner was supposed to remove the post/saddle every time the owner parked the bike and, maybe, carry it over the shoulder? What was equally as moronic was that I never got around to replacing that quick release with a bolt and nut which made this situation worse. (On subsequent Giant bicycle purchases, before I wheeled the new bikes out of the shop, I would have the quick releases replaced on the saddle post with a bolt and a nut and the quick releases on the axils replaced with security hubs.) In the meantime, I would buy him a new saddle post and/or front wheel and one or both would get ripped off again. I don’t think I ever showed him how to use a quick release, but he also never asked or explored how to mitigate this chronic problem. Presumably, he felt it wasn’t his bike, so he didn’t care. With my medical condition limiting my transportation options and RT continuing to reduce services (by this time they had canceled both Saturday and Sunday service for my line) my choices were whittled down to begging my wife and my son for rides. These were not happy times for me.
Later, Mike reported to me that he got a job working for the Department of General Services. He was especially excited because he had a safe route to ride his bike to work, riding along the Sacramento River, crossing the Tower Bridge, and parking his bike of choice that day in a secure bike room in the Ziggurat in West Sacramento. The Ziggurat (or the “Zig” as the locals called it) is without a doubt the ugliest building on the Sacramento skyline–a mustard-colored god-awful thing by day, and by night, it glowed gold like an exercise in pure kitsch architecture! Aside from the crappy outside, Mike said it has many amenities including a gym and a cafeteria.
Shortly after Mike started riding his bike, I received the green-light on getting my driver’s license back, and with that confidence, I also began riding my bike to work again. I had a new bike now, a Giant Cyprus–which was very similar to my last bike, except this one had suspension in the forks and saddle post. It just might have been the heaviest bike I ever rode. I’m not sure why I bought it, though it might have had something to do with the very comfortable ride. On one of my first days back riding to work, I ran into my boss, Rich. Rich was a tall, svelte man in his 60s. He worked on the seventh floor and always took the stairs taking every other step. (If he took the elevator that meant our director was chewing him out for something.) Rich’s passion was tennis and the Shriners. Work was somewhere pulling up the rear in that list. When I agreed to meet him at the Sacramento Zoo every morning to ride into work, it meant a cardio workout–the man peddled fast. “Pump it up, kid,” he would say whenever I started lagging behind him. Besides being in much better shape than me, he rode like Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious–flying through intersections as if stop signs and on-coming cross traffic did not concern him. One of the benefits of riding with Rich was I got the inside scoop on whatever accommodations our office was planning when it came to bicycles. I saw the early blueprint drafts of the new Lower Level floor that included a Bike Room with lockers and showers and I got my pick of lockers when they first were installed. These perks were not really that special, but Rich made me feel like I was a part of getting people out of their cars and off of the bus and to at least try to commute via bike. He was sensitive enough to let me suggest I lose my spacious office and move into a cramped cubicle. “We still need more room in the warehouse, kid. Hmm, I just don’t know where we are going to find that space.” His finger tapping near my office on the blueprint. “I know, Rich. I don’t need an office. We can gain space for two more cubicles if we demo my office.” “Really, kid. That’s okay?” “Sure!” Holding back the tears. “Use that space. I can work from a cubicle!”
When the rainy season started up, I was back on the bus. The first thing I saw to my utter amazement was all the Met kids holding Bibles! It seemed incredible, but when I had a moment to talk with John a few days later, he told me he had bought all those Bibles for them and ask them if they wanted to read The Gospel of Mark (presumably because it was the shortest and most accessible of the four gospels). Though there didn’t seem to be a proud bone in his body, I thought John was a remarkable man! When I complimented him on this grand gesture, he said it was the Holy Spirit. I wish I had that kind of faith. He also told me that none of them confessed to accepting Jesus, so he doesn’t know what is in their hearts, they may have just liked him and his gift of a book.
Shortly after my talk with John, two significant things happened. First, I got a scooter and found the freedom and self-respect I had lost some years back. I also started riding it to work from time to time. Second, and most importantly, I began to ride my bike to work–rain or shine. My wife and I took a weekend ride along the short, but serviceable Sacramento Bike Trail–the route Mike had told me about. From there we cut over to Front Street and crossed the R Street pedestrian bridge. We stopped here, but I could visualize my route to my office from that point. It was a much more pleasant and safer ride than the other ways I have ridden over the years. Of course, this does not mean I haven’t crashed and burned a couple of times including a time I got hit by a car, but it’s an excellent commuter path just the same. I bought some fluorescent-yellow rain gear and I gave my bike to my youngest son and bought a Giant Escape 3, the fastest, lightest bike I have had so far. It is still not as fast as the road bikes my wife and roadies who work in my office, nor has my garb changed–no bib shorts and a lycra top. I always look like a hot mess out there on the road: dress shirt with a safety vest over that, thermals with shorts over them. Also, people still pass me up like I’m riding backward, but I’m moving.
I rarely ride my bicycle around town, though I probably should. My bike is almost exclusively for commuting. My scooter is the way I get around when I am not commuting. My scooter has given me the freedom I lost many years ago when my driver’s license was suspended. Funny thing is I see people I remember from my bus commuter days. I live by Mike and wave to him when he is maintaining his immaculate lawn or is riding one of his many bikes down his street. I saw Alex at a grocery store on time. I was mid-aisle when we both noticed each other and I was too big to hide behind a box of Raisin Bran. As it turned out, he got an analyst job! I don’t recall if it was in the same office that he claimed blackballed him, but he was happy and that made me happy in more ways than one. Finally, there is John. I saw him talking with a rough-looking young man in a black tank top with sleeve tattoos in Vic’s Cafe. When the young man left, I was able to speak to John for a moment. Not surprising, he had recently led the young man to Christ and he was now attending John’s church. It’s hard to meet people like John or Fred or Mike or even Alex while riding your bike or scooter to work. Still, I’m glad I’m off the bus timetables no matter how wet I can get.
It’s the Post Season, and while my A’s aren’t in it, I am still excited. Excited in hoping the Cubs or the Nats do well. Excited in hoping the Yankees go down in flames. Excited in hoping the Astros do well. Excited in hoping the Indians go all the way, I guess. I live with a Cubs fan, so if it comes down to Chicago vs. Cleveland I’ll have to cheer for them both.
In the spirit of great baseball teams and in great baseball players I’m reposting an old piece on just how horrible a ballplayer (and runner) I was.
I didn’t remember hitting the three-bagger until Erik, an old college buddy and leader of the slow-pitch softball team the Dead Seagulls, reminded me in our first communiqué since those days. I hadn’t spoken with any of my old American River College or Sac State buddies for years, but lately, I have begun to search out old friends. For some reason, the details of that one summer I played on the Dead Seagulls have become a black hole in my mind. When Erik mentioned the triple, it was the key to many wonderful feelings, and one bad one.
The team got its name when Erik, his brother Paul, and other original members of the newly formed team found a dead seagull on the diamond when the players took the field for the first practice. Every subsequent practice, the dead bird was there, until finally it was removed. The team didn’t have a name before the seagull incidents, and on the day they registered the team, they couldn’t think of a more appropriate name. (See the image below for the only surviving team shirt in presentable condition. The design came from one of Erik’s high school friends, who drew it during a geometry class one day for $5.)
A year or two later, when I became a Dead Seagull, my father’s business sponsored the team. Usually, the sponsor’s names were on the back of the shirts, but as I recall, the shirts were already printed, and my father didn’t have a stencil. My dad didn’t care, anyway; he was just happy that his sedentary son was up moving around and, especially, playing a sport. As noted in earlier posts, I have never been good at sports, and my lack of dedication to any competitive game only made my clumsiness worse.
It seems strange that I remember so little of what was an enjoyable and virtually carefree time in my life. I was in junior college and had developed some very good friendships. Establishing and keeping good, close friends has always been hard for me. This time was also special because I was playing a “sport” for the first time since I wrapped a three iron around a tree at Ansel Hoffman Golf Course and walked off never to play the game again (unless you consider occasionally blowing off steam at the driving range a sport). I quoted the word sport about this softball league because it was more casual than most: For instance, the pitcher was an offensive position. Each batter would select his favorite delivery system, so to speak—whoever knew how to place the ball right where the batter wanted it.
When we were in the field, I was the catcher. Things hadn’t changed much since I had been in little league—what the right fielder was to little league, the catcher was to this particular brand of slow-pitch softball. I would lean against the backstop and pick up any of the balls the batter missed or preferred not to hit. Because of this, there were no strikes, no balls, no stealing bases, and no pitcher–catcher conferences on the mound. Play didn’t start until the batter hit the ball. The only times my position became important were plays at the plate, but that didn’t happen much. I only remember two times that the ball came to me faster than a croquet ball.
I once ran in front of the plate to hold the runner at third. The throw came hard, and I remember hearing Erik yelling my name—not in a “head’s up” kind of way but more like a mother yelling at her son to “get out of the way of that speeding car.” It was widely known that I was the worst player on the team and since this was not a very competitive league, my teammates would rather see me unhurt than depend on my ball handling to save a run or two. The ball came in low and fast, then took a high hop and I caught the ball right in front of my face—the mitt so close to my face that I could smell the shoe polish with which I recently broke it in. I remember Erik yelling my name through a deep breath of relief.
Then there was the time I blocked the plate—like a pro catcher would do. All I remember was concentrating on the ball coming in from the outfield and seeing through my lazy eye what looked like a horse coming toward the plate. Before the ball got to me, the entire diamond turned upside down, and I could see the backstop and the ball flying between my legs. Then I
came down—on my back. While I was getting up, I recalled the infamous play at home plate during the 1970 All-Star Game when Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse, permanently injuring the catcher. I wasn’t bowled over, though; the runner slid between my legs, and as his feet pushed my feet off the ground, I kind of did a somersault and fell on my back. Both the runner I was attempting to block and the runner behind him scored. I thought it was somewhat cool, though, not like the Rose-Fosse collision, which made me hate “Charlie Hustle” years before everybody else did for his gambling. Most of my teammates acted as if I did a foolish thing; this was casual competition, nothing worth getting injured.
My bat handling was no more stellar than my ball handling. I don’t remember doing anything but grounding out, although I know I hit safely to first occasionally because I remember being embarrassed about how slowly I ran. I was then, and still am now, a plodding runner. I remember running the pads, actually listening to the footsteps of my teammate behind me getting closer. I am not sure, but I think I recall the base runner behind me yelling to “speed up.” It must have been a drag to follow me at bat. If I reached base, the next hitter would be limited to a single or double because I couldn’t run fast enough.
All of these memories came back when Erik reminded me about “the triple.” He used the definite article as if there were only one ever hit in the history of the game. In this league, extra-base hits were as familiar as pop-ups and ground balls in the majors. What makes this three-bagger so memorable was that I had never hit the ball so far—neither before nor after that day. When I cranked this one, all I remember was that when I made first base, I could see I should take second. When I reached second, everyone was off the bench and advancing me to third; all the while, I continued to hear screaming from the bench. When I landed safely on third base, I looked over at our bench and saw all my teammates up and madly rattling the chain link fence like crazy monkeys, yelling at me as if I had driven in the game-winner in the final game of the World Series.
It was the greatest moment in my life as far as sports go. I never felt so triumphant, never so—at the risk of sounding maudlin—appreciated. Funny how I completely forgot this moment until Erik brought it back when he mentioned it in an email. Unfortunately, I also remember, after scoring and returning to the bench, the smiles on my teammates’ faces. They looked as if they were more amused than supportive. I sat down on the bench, basking in the afterglow, and then Ethan, who joined the Dead Seagulls with me, made a comment that may have defined all the looks: “Man, you run just like Ron Cey!” The all-star third baseman was known as “The Penguin” because of how he ran. The comment crushed me and might be the reason I forgot the longest ball I ever hit. All I could think now was that all my teammates on the bench rattling the cage had been falling out laughing about how funny I had looked running with a 2×4 up my ass. I know in my heart they were excited for me—we never cheered fellow players liked they cheered me, but I couldn’t shake the embarrassment.
I never played a team sport again, unless you count being assistant manager to my kid’s tee-ball team one season back in the early 1990s. Around that same time, a friend at work invited me to join his “sloshball” team. Sloshball, as he explained it, is softball with a keg at second base. Base runners cannot advance past second until they have drunk a red plastic cup of beer. There were certain dispensations to accommodate the slow drinkers: more than one runner can be on second at one time, and they can advance together when the ball is in play and they have finished their drinks. They also can be thrown out or tagged out together, creating some spectacular double-play possibilities, assuming the fielders were sober enough to turn them. Even if you homered, the runner had to drink a mug when he rounded second base. I passed on the offer, but considering my batting history, I don’t think I would have gotten very drunk had I joined.
As for the Dead Seagulls, they live on now as a fantasy baseball league. Erik, Paul, and a couple other original players still play ball, albeit vicariously through MLB players.
These days, I don’t play any sports; I work out at a club. I use a treadmill, but I never run on it! If I were to, I could envision the scene: I would program the treadmill and turn on my iPod. As I started running, I would turn up the music. I would think I heard laughter, but figure it was probably the pounding of the treadmills directly behind me. I would keep turning up my iPod, but the sounds behind me would get louder. Finally, I would hit the off button on the treadmill, kill the iPod, and turn around only to see all of my fellow club members on the treadmills and elliptical machines smiling at me. You know, not the kind of supportive smiles like “good hit, man, good hustle,” but more crazy monkeys falling all over their elliptical machines.
I was on my back, Judi was rocking on my pelvis when the window above us was shattered by a hurled stone. I reflexively pulled Judi close to me, chest to chest. Later she would say she felt safe with me as if I was protecting her, but let’s face Judi was in a more secure position in her previous “gitty-up” position than down on my chest where she was protecting my face and chest from any lagging shards of glass.
Over the last 30 years, I’ve asked myself the question who was I really protecting? I never think too hard about it because I might end up feeling ashamed by the answer. (Then again, perhaps that’s what this post is all about.) This memory usually segues to that morning–walking with my roommate, and best friend, Paul, to get some donuts at Winchell’s and running into an old boss. That meeting inevitably reminds me of the time I unintentionally ratted on him.
Gentle reader, be advised some of the names have changed here due to the sensitive material. In fact, all of the names except Paul and Judi have been modified. Paul because he doesn’t read my blog and I’m sure this post won’t kill our 35-year old relationship in the event he read this post, and Judi because, well, she’s dead. More on that at the end. Oops. Spoiler alert!
Some background first.
I have submitted many posts in this blog about my time as a member of the floor staff of the Tower Theatre in Sacramento from about 1980 to 1985, but I have never written about the time I accidentally ratted out one of my bosses. I have also never written about a codependent relationship I had with a woman at that time. Perhaps that story is best left untold. I admit I have wanted to consign that one-year relationship to words for years, but some people might think it’s too intimate or embarrassing. The one you are reading (so far) is a “Lite” version of a relationship and a couple of incidents dealing with work that I want to tell. The reader can stop here if they like. I won’t be offended.
At the time I was working in the theater, I had two managers: a Theater Manager, Wayne and a City Manager, Alex, who oversaw the operations of both the Tower Theatre, where I worked, and the Showcase Cinema, a repertory house that is now, sadly, a parking lot. While Wayne was my direct manager, there were shifts where Wayne would be off so I would answer to Alex. That last sentence is important because it was Alex who I unwittingly narced on.
Then there was Paul, who was my best friend, fellow Tower Theatre employee, and roommate. As movie theater employees we couldn’t afford the two bedroom apartment we were living in, so we moved into one of the rooms and sublet the other one. It worked out well enough for a couple of best friends who were virtually inseparable in those days. Between my makeshift desk–a 3′ x 6′ slab of plywood my father gave me which I placed over two file cabinets–and Paul’s two dressers, we maintained a nominal amount of privacy. We had created a “Wall of Jericho.” Paul and I would talk some evenings, staring at the common ceiling like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night.” Though there was no sexual tension between us like the Gable and Colbert characters, there was sexual frustration in spades. Neither of us was seeing anyone, and when it came to talking to women, we were both hopelessly broken. That is until I started dating Judi, an older woman from our work.
Dating Judi created many imbalances–I actually didn’t care for her very much. Before our first “date”–if you want to call it that–Paul and I would crack jokes about her. Not mean jokes, but we would poke fun at how hopelessly out of step she was with the current vernacular. She called horror films “spook shows,” and her attempts at humor were painfully labored. Paul and I loved to watch bad cinema and laugh at them both in the theaters (which we saw for free through inter-theater employee agreements) and on video (which we also got to rent for free through an agreement Tower had with the video store across the street). Judi would like to come along, but she apparently feigned laughter which kind of took some of the fun out of these events. Finally, while I was definitely no Rob Lowe by any stretch of the imagination, I didn’t find her physically appealing. I think it is fair to say, Paul felt the same way. So when I began to date her, Paul didn’t understand, and I could find no way to explain why I was dating her without revealing the truth–I was using her.
There. I said it.
She edited and retyped my college papers on her breaks at her other job using the office’s brand new word processor. These class essays including critical mid-term and term projects. There was something else–I was getting regular sex for the first time in my life. Feel free to judge me. If you have read this blog enough you will notice a self-flagellating pattern, so why not invite others in on it. Here’s the thing to keep in mind before picking up the whip–she used me, as well. Judi needed someone–always. She was possessive and could never stand being alone. Long before me and continuing after me, she hopped from one guy to the next without breathers in between. I recall driving her home from work the night we would begin dating. When she leaned in for a kiss I thought she was still dating someone else–I had just seen them together a day or two previous. She had to explain that Bruce had broken up with her a few days ago. I communicated–by receiving her second attempt at a kiss–“Okay then, I’ll be the next placeholder.” I was too hard up and horny to think maybe she needs some time to get over Bruce and maybe I should date someone I really liked.
She then asked me if I knew that she had cancer and that it was in remission. I said I heard about it from a staff member. She then told me the cancer was no longer in remission and she had about a year to live. Now, I don’t know how cancer works, but I could tell she was providing me an “out” so I wouldn’t feel trapped.
As a perennial wallflower, I marveled how she could work a room at a party or a club. Despite her old-fashioned ways, she could mix it up with twenty-five-year-olds with jet-black spiky hair, a multitude of body piercings, and ripped New York Dolls tees, soften up life-hardened fifty-year-old bartenders, and gay men seemed to have an affinity with her. However, just when the party or club got really humming, and I finally started to loosen up, she would turn to me with a pouty voice and say she was sick and wanted to go home. I’d drive her home, but we always ended up at a coffee shop and then had sex in my car in a stalled housing development, parked along a chain link fence with the Main Post Office at Royal Oaks Drive chugging away into the late night all flood lamps and steam.
We found various places to be intimate–her house when her dad was out of town (too weird), the occasional hotel room (too expensive), my car (way too often), and only once on this fateful night when the flying rock broke the window and our congress in my apartment. As Paul and I agreed when we decided to bisect the room by building the “Wall of Jericho,” whoever gets lucky would lock the door and post a note so the other wouldn’t bust in on the action. “What a joke!,” I thought to myself when we agreed on this plan. “Like either of us is going to get any pussy in this century!” As it turned out, I surprised myself and disappointed or disgusted all Judi’s and my mutual friends/coworkers.
So, I was the first one who got to keep out my roommate. I was hoping Paul wouldn’t get in until later, but things didn’t work out that way. In the middle of our horizontal refreshment, Paul walked into the apartment and jiggled the bedroom door nob. Then I could hear him rip the note off of the door with an audible scoff. Judi and I giggled, but I felt bad because he didn’t have a car and so I’m not sure where he went. Also, it reminded me how Paul disapproved of the union. Some time passed then the window shattered.
After the offending stone had settled on my plywood desk, we gingerly got out of bed, avoiding the sharp bits. Unlike a proper gentleman, I didn’t bother to examine Judi to see if a giant shard of glass meant for my torso had buried itself in her back. We got dressed and turned on the light.
My memory is fussy at this point. We must have picked up all of the large pieces of glass. I vaguely remember Judi being disappointed that Paul and I didn’t have a vacuum cleaner. (A vacuum cleaner? Ha! Lucky for her, her blouse didn’t get too wrinkled that night–no iron or the traumatic event didn’t trigger a need for her to toast some bread–no toaster or she didn’t bring some steaks over for some post-coital protein–all we had was one butter knife!) Now that I think about it, I just may have walked around that side of the room a couple of days picking up the remaining pieces of glass before we borrowed a vacuum cleaner either from Judi, my mom, or, the landlady. These post-smash events are very dim, as is when the glass got replaced.
One thing I do remember is when I first looked through the freshly broken window that night and realized the acute angle of the second-story window from any spot where someone could chuck a rock. You had to want to break this particular window; someone would have to stand near the building next to the apartment complex and throw the rock up to hit the second story window. If a mischievous kid wanting to get a rush from the sound of breaking glass, there were a plethora of windows on the first (and second) floor facing the street and the parking lot.
That’s when I remembered running into Alex driving a bobtail that morning. (Presumably, his was now a truck driver.) Did he actually stalk me so he could break my window in a “Fuck you, you dirty rat” statement? That seems like a lot of energy to spend for so little return on investment. I mean, he could have “cased the joint” until he saw my Honda Civic–Judi’s and my little fuckmobile. Then he could have done some damage to my property–not the innocent property owners. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. How did I end up ratted on Alex, anyway? That story reveals how absolutely dull I could be at times.
I came to work at the Tower one night and saw Edward, the Regional Manager for the theater chain who rarely paid us visits, there walking around with Wayne. (You’ll recall he was the Theater Manager). They were looking at the concession stand and in the back where the store room, freezer, and popcorn machine were. The floor staff was buzzing about how Alex, the City Manager, was put on administrative leave. Since I was Crew Chief of the floor staff, I was asked some questions about things that Alex may have talked to me about. Some of the staff were defensive of Alex. One guy would ultimately quit in protest, and the assistant manager would make a defiant statement in support of Alex.
Edward and Wayne called me into the store room to ask me some questions. I didn’t mind the questioning because I didn’t think I had anything of any importance to say–there was nothing for me to hide. At one point one of them asked something about soda or popcorn cups, and I queried, not knowing I was going to blow this case wide open, “Do you mean backup popcorn cups?” There was a beat of silence, then Wayne asked me what I was talking about. I said something like, “You know, backup cups. The kind we use when we run out of our regular soda or popcorn cups.”
For a moment, they both looked like idiots. How come they have never heard of this? In a split second, I envisioned Alex (or Wayne, for that matter) having to go to some restaurant supply store and buy some popcorn or soda cups because they knew the theater would run out of them before the next delivery. It made perfect sense.
One of them asked what the cups looked like. I said something like, “I think I can do you one better.” With that, I walked over to the freezer and pulled a sleeve of medium-size backup popcorn cups from behind it that I recalled seeing a couple of nights previous and showed it to them. They stared at it for a while then Wayne told me that we never have backup cups. I didn’t say anything, but wanted to ask, “But what do you call these? What do we do if we run out of a particular size of popcorn or soda cups? That’s what these are for.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just provided the theater chain the smoking gun to a suspicion they had about Alex and, I guess, solved some financial irregularities.
Brief explanation: At least at the time when I was working at this theater, film presentation companies didn’t get a dime from ticket sales. The only source of revenue was from concessions–the net sales kept the lights on, the projectors running, and the staff paid. Determining sales–when it came to popcorn and soda– was done by how many cups were on site at the beginning of the day (-) how many were left at the end (x) the price of that particular size of popcorn or drink. If you switch the cups before say the early evening screenings one night, all those backup cups sold (x) the price of each cup would go straight in the embezzler’s pocket.
That’s how it was explained to me. What was embarrassing is how I didn’t connect the dots when it was happening: how Alex told me on one or more nights to start using these cups that were stored in an odd place–behind the freezer–not in the locked store room where everything except for the ice cream was stored. And telling some new guy that yes, you can do inventory on popcorn and soda like you can Raisinettes and Whoppers–by doing simple math on the popcorn and soda cups “just like I used to do at Taco Bell with soda cups and Enchirito trays.” If I was so damn smart to the greenhorn how come I didn’t see the Alex thing coming? Amazing.
That’s how I became a snitch, a narc, a rat. I still think of that moment: me holding that sleeve of outlaw popcorn cups and those two guys staring at it incredulously. I honestly was not intentionally being a snitch. I was so naïve. It was unfortunate that I was so disingenuous to Alex sitting up in that cab of that bobtail that morning of the Night of the Broken Window. If I was older, I’m sure I would’ve said something to him like,”Hey man, I was the guy who accidentally ratted you out. I’m sorry. Edward and Wayne asked me a question, and I answered it, and I had no idea that it would precipitate in you losing your job.” Maybe that wouldn’t have been a smart thing to say. Maybe Alex would have said, “Hey man, that’s okay. Hey, wait a minute. I’ve got something for you,” reached into the glove box, pulled out a handgun and shot me. Then shot Paul, so there were no witnesses. Floor staff gossip said that Alex embezzled to feed a coke habit.
I don’t remember Judi taking a side in the Alex thing, and I never told her I thought Alex could have thrown the stone. (It’s safe to say I left out the part that maybe in the split-second of the window breaking I used her as a human shield against falling knives of glass.) A short time later I attempted to break up with her in the parking lot of the local Peppermill. It was late in the evening, she said something she often said that set me off and so I tried to terminate the codependent relationship. She said no, then criticized me about something I have long since forgotten. All I remember is, I relented. We had sex in the car on that ghost neighborhood near the post office, as usual, as we often did before dropping her off and I drove home feeling like shit, as I often did afterward.
I finally ended the codependent relationship; I’m not sure how. In the second half of the year-long relationship, Judi suddenly dropped the “I have cancer” story and switched to “I’m moving to Boston within a year.” I never asked her whatever happened to her cancer. By this time I didn’t care–I was now certain the cancer and Boston stories was her way of giving me an out or maybe it was her out. Judi was my first relationship lasting more than three dates, so I was a rookie at this stuff and a bad rookie, at that. Shortly after the breakup, I began dating the woman who has been my wife for thirty years. She made me a much better man than the guy in this post.
About a year or so after the breakup Judi moved to San Francisco. Paul moved East Bay. They would visit often. From time to time Paul would tell me she still thinks of me and would also poke fun at my immaturity. Fair enough, I guess. I would remember times in the thick of the dysfunctional relationship where I wished I would have gotten up from a restaurant table or movie theater seat saying I had to take a leak and just bolt. It would have been cruel, but I wonder if I would feel better about that exit as time moved on. Instead, I would just sit there eating my Eggplant Whateveritscalled from the vegetarian restaurant she insisted we visit far too often or watch some film she wanted (me) to see.
Perhaps the worst feeling of relationship regret/panic came when we were at the State Fair. I remember being stuck at the top of a stalled Ferris wheel. I was trapped there with her as she was going on about something I didn’t care about and I started asking myself, “What was I doing in this relationship?” I started going through the pros and cons of leaving, and the pros were winning by a landslide–at least at this moment. I began to panic and got this overwhelming urge to go home to my bed–my reset button. “Things will be better in the morning, Jack.” I started saying “Uh-huh” and “Right” to shit she was saying. All the while I was looking around to see just how I could climb down the two hundred foot ride and leave her up there.
My moral struggle with our relationship came down to me getting much-needed help with my class papers; having the regular sex (even if I felt crappy after each time) versus me feigning interest in things she said and liked so the above two things would keep going was slowly chiseling me down. And as the relationship dragged on it became harder and harder to look in the mirror.
And then there was her baggage: how domineering she was: going to places she wanted to go to while rarely asking me what I wanted to do along with her possessiveness and her fear of being alone. She could be in a crowded room surrounded by friends and acquaintances, but if she didn’t have a man with her, she might as well be in an empty hall. It was revealed by someone I knew from work that two days after I broke up with her this guy received a letter in the mail from her alluding that they should hook up. Wow, she must have been writing that one the night I broke up with her.
We made quite a couple–never acknowledging these things even though we were so transparent. When the inevitable break up occurred it was like a mashed-up quote from Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: We shouldn’t ask why our relationship ended, but how it lasted as long as it did.
The main players in this story of embezzlement, codependency, and vandalism have gone their separate ways. I haven’t seen Alex since the morning of the donut run. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again and if I do will I see the window breaker? Even if I did see him, he might never confess to breaking the window. In darker moments I think Paul might have broken the window in frustration of being locked out of his room, but that doesn’t sound like him at all, and if he did I would like to think he would have told me by now. Judi, after moving to San Francisco in the late 80s got breast cancer. She died in 2004. (Yeah, I know, I could make some comment about irony, but cancer’s a bitch.) Paul is still living in the Bay Area. We text each other nearly every day. He remained one of Judi’s friend to the end. As for me, well I’m an open book, as you can see.
In my current line of work, I often deal with personnel changes: office reorganizations, as well as individual employee hires, moves, and separations. So when I have to type that last word, Judi always comes to mind. I recall a time decades past blanking on the vowels in that simple word while working on a paper late at night at a coffee shop, Judi hovering over me ready to take it when I was finished so she could type it up for a class. I asked her how to spell it, and she gave me a mnemonic aid that–as mnemonic aids are designed to do–has never left me. “There’s always A-RAT in ‘separate.'” Coincidence or was she also trying to tell me something? Am I “a rat”? That stone on my plywood desk seemed to cry out something like that. As for Judi, she’s gone but haunts me in a word I see far too often.
We all remember our first job and the people we worked for and worked alongside. The first time we had disposable income beyond chump change. It may have been the first time we ever didn’t work alone to earn money–unlike the proverbial lemonade stand, babysitting or lawn mowing gigs or doing chores. I never was good at the chores thing. I did split mowing the front and back lawns with my brother, but when a developed hay fever my brother was stuck with mowing all the lawns. I did have the occasional Saturday job at my father’s shop cleaning up the wood chips around the band saw and (lamely) trying to learn his trade. This post is about those first jobs outside the supervision of my parents. It’s also about the friendships–albeit transitory–I developed. I’m excluding any journeymen posts, which I define as a career-entry position. (Not that I couldn’t have aspired to be the manager of a taco stand, but I didn’t.)
The Corporate Stooge
My first job, sort of, was issuing subpoenas for medical records in clinics around town here in Sacramento. The post was supposed to be easy: I showed up at an answering service where I was given a stack of subpoenas and a machine with which I was to “scan” (for the lack of the proper word) medical documents into. I had the day to drive around Downtown and Midtown Sacramento issuing subpoenas requesting copies of medical files by “scanning” them into the machine, and drop off the “scanner” at the answering service when I finish. It turns out I was working for The Man, providing copies of medical documents for a private dick who was employed by a corporate law firm defending companies against worker’s compensation cases. I was canned, anyway. Too many times I failed to get the “scanner” back to the answering service on time. Take that, local Corporate Oligarchs!
The funny thing is I didn’t know I was terminated until about a year later when our next-door neighbor who was a corporate attorney said he recommended me because he assumed I knew my way around town and that he was sorry I was let go. (Blast our city’s logical algebraic grid!) The official story from my mom was they no longer needed me. I was so dull that I assumed there were no more worker’s compensation cases. Labor had seized the means of production, and our brothers and sisters were helping all our fellow injured workers. Not quite, but I like that last part.
The Taco Dog
My second (which was my first as an adult) was working at the local Taco Bell. (I say “local” because back in the late 70s Taco Bell and all the other fast food establishments weren’t so omnipresent as they are today.) I was better at this job because the store was near my house and I couldn’t get lost commuting like I did with my last job. It wasn’t an ideal job for me, though. I learned here that I wasn’t cut out for customer service. I would occasionally wear my frustration on my sleeve and customers would complain–thankfully only back at me. “Hey man, what’s your problem? I just want two red burritos and a taco. Geez.” I only got mad when I was trying to prep for closing, or my break was overdue. Still, the writing was on the wall–I wasn’t good with people.
One of the nice things about my time at Taco Bell was meeting Matt. Matt and I were opposites in many ways, but we got along famously. At least at the start of the two- or three-year relationship and my parents loved him like a son. One thing I admired about Matt was how outgoing and gregarious he was. Not the register drawer-slamming, audible-sigh-in-the-customer’s-face me. I think our relationship ended because he went off to college, but also I became jealous of his relationship with his new girlfriend. They both attempted to hook me up in failed double-dates. He also was too generous with information about his girlfriend which only made me more resentful of him.
Years later I would hear from my brother that he lives in the old neighborhood and looks like he hasn’t aged a day beside a full head of gray hair. I looked him up on Facebook and found his scantly updated feed is filled with exotic beaches and sailboats. I clicked on Photos, and there he was: faded jeans, his hands tucked in a stylish activewear jacket with a crisp oxford under it. He’s slightly bent over, looking to the left, enjoying a laugh, his pearl-white, straight teeth showing. He’s fucking gorgeous. He might as well be a model. He looks better than he did back in the day. I burned with envy as I clicked through the images. There’s one pic of him sitting on a step-through bicycle with a flower-trimmed basket and makes it look good! Is this someone’s Facebook page or an online L.L.Beane catalog!
So there you have it. Not much about my taco dog days back then, but about what a jealous bastard I am now. Did I tell you Taco Bell used to have an “eat sheet”? No kidding! You had to write down everything you ate while on shift, but here’s the beautiful thing: all the food items were free! When my break came around, I built mega-burritos, titanic tacos, and I am shocked I didn’t develop Type 2 Diabetes the way I drained the store’s Pepsi machine. It’s funny that I was arguably in the best shape of my life at that time due to this kind of work. I started getting a gut when I left.
Mr. “Earnings Adjusted”
I think Matt figured out he could make more money with his good looks, personality, and brimming self-confidence selling shoes, so he got a job at the local Florsheim Shoes. Since Matt and I were best friends at the time when he suggested I would make more money as a shoe salesman than a taco dog I decided to follow him. I was mistaken.
The only thing good to come out of this job was the friendship I developed with the manager, Rick, who I originally met back in elementary school. We weren’t close in those days nor in high school where we ended up in a couple of P.E. classes together, but we became close here. If we hadn’t become friends, I don’t know what he would have done with me as an employee.
I was a horrible shoe salesman. I projected my lack of confidence in myself to the shoes I was supposed to sell. Some old guy would come in and try on a pair of shoes and complain, “In my day, ‘Florshim’ [as the oldsters used to pronounce it] used to make better shoes. So did Nunn Bush. They just don’t make ’em like they used to,” he’d finish with a sigh, as I just sat there giving up in slow motion. He’d say the shoe was too big. I’d have him try on the next half-size down, and that would be too tight. I’d go up and down on the width. I’d tell him–my mind wracked with doubt in my own words–“Well, sir, that is a kidskin shoe it should fit a little tight. It will conform to fit your feet.” But with the black cloud of self-doubt hanging in the air over us, I might as well have said, “Oh well, we tried. Maybe Weinstock’s down the mall has something to your liking.”
Rick would have weekly staff meetings. He’d be sitting on a fitting stool twirling a long shoehorn, his team in the chairs facing him. He would ask me each meeting, “Are you getting the hang of it?” What he meant was, when are you going to start moving product? I had come from Taco Bell where I was the crew chief. This meant I make, I think, about twenty-five cents over minimum wage which came to a little under three buck an hour. When I moved to Florsheim, I started at about $1.25 an hour plus commission. I should have been making much more than what I made at Taco Bell. It turned out I often made less. I couldn’t sell enough shoes to make minimum wage, so my checks showed how much I made base plus commission. Then there was another box that said: “Earnings Adjusted.” That’s how much Florsheim had to pony up to pay me minimum wage–about a quarter less an hour than I made stuffing tacos.
So, that’s what Rick meant by the refrain, “Are you getting the hang of it?” He didn’t say that to Matt, Leonard, or Kevin. Matt was an excellent salesman. Leonard was even better and had, I believe, the highest sales. He was a bullshitter, but the right kind: he would like anything the customer would like, but he was honest about the products he sold. It was how he agreed with the client on all manner of things that made him a genius. Disco was definitely dead at this time, but I once heard Leonard agree with his guy stuck in a time warp how “Disco rules.” He knew how to talk to the older generation, too. When they would drone on about the good ole days, there was Leonard right with them. “Yeah, I just don’t know what’s with my generation, Roger.” (Another thing he did: ask for the prospect’s name and use it.) When it came to shoes, he knew being honest would bring the customer back, even if it meant losing a sale on occasion.
Kevin was a different animal, altogether. I’m not sure he graduated from high school–he was a poor speller as illustrated below. On the other hand, he was charming and funny even if his look was a little unkempt. Where Leonard and Matt knew when honesty was the best policy, Kevin pushed the edge of the honesty envelope. For example, Florsheim had these horrible, cheap hosiery that had a lifetime guarantee to never wear holes. It was a win-win for the company: it helped bring prospective customers into the store and who was going to remember the guarantee when the socks eventually developed holes. Kevin changed the meaning: now these cheap socks would keep their elasticity–guaranteed. When the customer said, “Lifetime guarantee to never sag?” “Yes, sir,” Kevin would confidently reply. It was amusing the first time or two I saw Kevin making a sale on a lie, but sometimes he wasn’t around when the angry customer came storming in demanding his money back while nearly throwing the too-worn-to-restock shoes.
Despite some dubious sales tactics, Kevin was a good guy. Also, I could talk to him about music. He was a talented artist with a dark sense of humor I could relate to. When it was slow, and we could have been straightening up the stock room, or I could be boning up on our inventory, Kevin would doodle on the back of shoe order cards while we talked music. I kept one of his masterpieces and have included it in this post. It may seem gratuitously out of place here, but this post is also about the friends I developed while working these first jobs. Here, for your enjoyment/horror is Kevin’s “How I Killed My Self” [sic]
I loved showing the cards to other people. If my stint at Florsheim netted nothing beyond an embarrassing “earnings adjusted” minimum wage job, it helped me find fellow slightly bent friends. This little stack of cards became kind of a Litmus test for friendship with me. Most people failed the test as they flipped through the cards in horror. A few years later, when I showed them to Paul, a fellow usher at Tower Theatre, and he rolled over in laughter I know I found a kindred spirit, but that’s a different story.
While my sales continued to sag like Florsheim’s Lifetime Guarantee Hosiery, my friendship with Matt diminished. However, Rick and I were becoming close friends. I began taking journalism classes with him at the local community college as well as worked on the campus paper together. I attended some of the most memorable concerts thanks to him. And just like I followed Matt from Taco Bell to Florsheim, I followed Rick from Florsheim to Julius–a high-end clothing store in the same mall. He worked as a sales associate and became the stock clerk.
The Angry Young Stock Boy
From my very first day as the stock clerk at Julius, I had a bad attitude. I just resented the floor staff and the owners, and I never knew why. Maybe I just wanted to hang out with Rick, and when I got there, I realized I was in the back. Also, I was becoming a clothes horse (for what I could afford), and I didn’t get to wear the cool clothes back in the stock room labeling crazy expensive clothes. The chip on my shoulder began to wear me down. I found myself snapping at the floor staff or becoming sarcastic towards the owners. Finally, the floor manager rightfully chewed me out for talking back, and I knew I needed to shut up and work, but I also decided I would move on when I could find another job.
The Brief Return of Mr. “Earnings Adjusted”
From the stock clerk job I returned to Florsheim because it was an easy out, but I hated the work even more–Rick and Matt were gone and, for reasons I cannot remember, Kevin was fired. When our boss fired him, he blasted past me screaming obscenities. I thought of the once-funny images like the ones above and wondered if my mom was right–if he was a little off and, possibly, dangerous. I quit soon after that.
I think after Florsheim 2: Electric Boogaloo I spent time unemployed focusing on finishing my studies. I got a job at the local independent cinema–the Tower Theatre. My stint at the Tower was the longest and happiest of all my jobs until I started my career with the State of California. Actually, it was the most enjoyable job I ever had, but I had no interest in making a career in the film presentation business, so I moved on. I have posted many stories about this segment of my life on this blog, so I’ll leave it out here except for the time I narced on my boss! I’ll write about that some day soon.
So these are my adult lemonade stand stories–bitter-sweet with some TNT mixed in to hopefully give them a little “KA-BAM-O.”
“The man who has nothing to boast of but his illustrious ancestry is like the potato–the best part under ground.” – Thomas Overbury
Are you related to someone famous; a hero, perhaps? I am! Well, I’m not certain, to be honest. When I was in high school in the 1970s, my father told me that his dad–my paternal grandfather–once investigated his heritage in hopes to find a courageous soldier in the Civil War. After a lot of digging, he found two relatives who fought in the Confederate Army: one was a deserter, the other was captured by Union forces after falling asleep under a tree. So much for greatness.
When his wife (my paternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Chamberlain) tried her hand at this, she didn’t have to dig very deep. Her family connections in Minnesota told her she was related to the great Joshua Chamberlain! Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (September 8, 1828 – February 24, 1914) was one of the heroes of the Civil War. As a colonel of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, he played a critical part in the Union’s victory at Gettysburg.
His acts of valor at defending Little Round Top have been immortalized in the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning historical fiction The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and in the films Gettysburg(1993) and Gods and Generals (2003). He was a fighting officer with the wounds to prove it, and he had fifteen horses shot out from under him. In other words, he didn’t hang back like most officers during battle. As a general, he was at Appomattox where he was selected to receive the formal surrender of arms and colors of General Rober E. Lee’s army. He was a recipient of the Medal of Honor. After the war, he was a three-term Governor of Maine and the President of Bowden College.
When I first heard this information I was tickled: “I’m related to an American hero!” It never really dawned on me that this revelation didn’t change anything–it didn’t make me and better or worse than I already was. I was too old to use something like this as some kind of bragging cred. “Nana, nana, na-na, I am special. I am related to an American hero, and you are not!” No, the only thing “special” about me at the time was that I was taking a remedial math class with a bunch of Special Education students. Potential-Great, Great, Great Grampy Josh spoke nine languages fluently. I never went beyond introductory Spanish or German.
I read The Killer Angeles, and for a brief time lived vicariously through his ghost. Of course, I could have looked no further than across the dinner table for greatness, but my admiration of my father’s genius came at a price–I knew the man and saw his faults as well as his strengths. Perhaps if Chamberlain were my dad I would have felt the same way, but he’s not, and six generations and admiring historians have created a comfortable, cheap seat to watch his edited story unfold in front of me in books and film.
Over the next ten years or so I lost interest in Joshua Chamberlain, but was reminded of the man’s greatness. Minoring in History at California State University, Sacramento, I ran into the legend a couple of times–once in an Antebellum-era class and again in a History of the U.S. Wars surrounded by uniformed ROTC students. These guys would have appreciated General Horatio G. Sickels quote to my potential kin, “General, you have the soul of a lion and the heart of a woman.” Would these guys ever say something like that to me? No, the closest thing they would say to me is, “Jack you are such a pussy.”
I’d also run into a book or two on him while doing research. One time even having the chance to give an uninspiring paper on the Civil War hero. The irony of receiving a B- on a paper of a possible family member was not lost on me.
After college graduation, I became interested in Chamberlain again, but I wanted to know how did my immediate relatives know I (we) were related to the famous figure. Ken Burns Civil War had come out followed by a resurgence in books and films dealing with Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the Underground Railroad. I got that kind of proud feeling again about Chamberlain. Also, I was now a dad, and that added a sense of import. This was bigger than me and my shortcomings.
So, I asked my father how did he know that we were related to Chamberlain. He snapped back that it was looked into, but he didn’t have details, and I wasn’t satisfied. I also could tell I wasn’t going to get any further with him. What compounded this doubt was my lack of gumption when it came to the research required to find the connection between the Chamberlains of Minnesota and Joshua Chamberlain’s Maine family to get that “I’ve found you, Kunte Kinte!” moment, I just didn’t have it. Once again, I quite before ever really starting to look.
Fast forward many years to about a year ago. I was working at my desk doing some horribly boring data verification crap that, thankfully, I can do using precious little brain power. This is my rationalization for donning headphones and listening to music while I work–tuning out my fellow workers and making them and my boss have to tap me on the shoulder to talk to me. I’ve got my folk music channel selected on Pandora when the ghost of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain visits me after such a long hiatus in the song “Dixieland” by some guy named Steve Earle:
I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I fight for Chamberlain
‘Cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the wind
When the smoke cleared out of Gettysburg, many a mother wept
For many a good boy died there, sure, and the air smelled just like death
I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I’d march to hell and back again
For Colonel Joshua Chamberlain—we’re all goin’ down to Dixieland
I gave the song a thumbs-up, ensuring I would hear it again. Time passed with many listenings, and I decided to pursue this possible Chamberlain connection one more time. This time I employed my distant cousin Alan who is also a Facebook friend. I’ve meant to ask the ENT doctor from Seattle if he has any magic cures for my chronic Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo or BPPV, but ultimately knew better–we have only met once, and that was many years ago. The uncouth in me thinks I’ll ask him about our possible relative and maybe after he sys something like, “Yes Jack, we are so special to have Chamberlain blood running through our veins,” I would slip in, “Do you think Grampy Josh had BPPV? What would you recommend he do if he asked for help?”
When I finally got around to texting him, he called me back via Facebook video chat. He told me he thinks we are related to Chamberlain. He tracked his/our lineage from Minnesota all the way to the southern parts of Maine. At this point, he ran out of easily-accessible resources. Someone told him he would need to continue his quest in Maine. He decided “a spittin’ distance from Joshua Chamberlain’s place of origin” was “close enough” as far as he was concerned to consider Chamberlain, an ancestor. I’m not knocking him–he did more than I would have done, but a part of me still yearns to know for sure. Right now I lack the funds to pay Ancestry.com or the Mormons to do the footwork for me. Alan said something similar and suggested we make this a joint venture. Money is tight right now. I told him I would get back to him on this.
My next-door neighbor was fortunate in finding the ancestry he was curious about, and he had a much better reason to pursue his and his wife’s heritage than a false sense of pride. Some years back I ran into him at our local post office. He had letters and opened envelopes strewn across a table and was writing detailed notes on a pad when I asked him what he was doing. He told me he was tracking his and his wife’s lineage back to the Holocaust and that he knew for sure that they had lost relatives in the death camps.
Now a retired labor relations representative he spends his days walking his dog and working as a freelance family historian. I told him about this whole Chamberlain thing, and he asked me to let him know if I want to pursue this. He said he might be able to help. Now that is the big question. Do I really want to find my Kunte Kinte?