Saturday, January 19, 2019

Tales of the Southwest: A Workin' Man in Albuquerque

Albuquerque...looking east across downtown toward the Sandia Mountains
  I mentioned in a previous chapter that 2019 marks 30 years since I landed in New Mexico in the state’s largest city Albuquerque.
  While I came to town with a little nest egg of under $1000 it was dwindling fast…I had to put down a big chunk of change on a groovy li’l hippie pad in an old motel on Central Avenue…The Duke City’s notorious “main drag.”
  I went to the temp agencies in town and within a week I had a gig at minimum wage assembling giant-ass shelves at a janitorial supply warehouse.  When that assignment was done it was off to one of the city’s malls of the day to work with a bunch of other temp agency folks moving a J. C. Penney store from one mall to another.
  In the meantime I had my application in at the construction firm that seemed to be working on projects all over the city…“Dos Picachos Construction*.”
  As the days passed still no word from Dos Picachos.  I wanted a job with those guys because of the good money…$12 an hour versus the $4 an hour minimum wage temp jobs.  At the end of every week after I budgeted for rent I barely had enough for gas and groceries.
  There were more temp jobs:  Washing cars for a rental agency at the Albuquerque airport, scrubbing dried snot and spit off the walls of a nursing home and working a collections gig at the Duke City office of a credit card company.
  Finally the call came from Dos Picachos…I was in.  I’d be running what construction folks call a “pan.”  Most folks probably know it as an earthmover…the thing moves along the ground gathering dirt from one place and dumping it in another.

  I had to go do a drug test.  It would be my very first.
  Back then there had been stories about this food or that everyday drug making the results positive for marijuana or other illegal substances.  When the construction honchos sent me off to the medical center for the test they gave me a piece of paper with some guidelines.  It told about letting the lab people know if you’ve taken acetaminophen (read that as “Tylenol”) and some other medicines and foods. 
  Into the drug test office I went. 
  I quickly learned that the drug testing people took their drug testing business pretty seriously because when I joked that I’d been studying real hard for the test I was greeted with a cold blank stare.
  Of course if I’d given it some thought I might’ve realized the drug testing people heard that same lame quip bunches of times a day.
  The next day I reported to the work site.  Dos Picachos was doing a job for the railroad south of Albuquerque in Belen.
  I caused a little stir when I got there, what with having taken my first drug test and all I had questions…I’m also the kind of guy known for speaking before I think. 
  Before the shift, there was a meeting to go over what we were going to do on the project.  Then Jim, the foreman, asked if there were any more questions. 
  I raised my hand.
  “Did I pass my drug test?” I asked.
  All the other guys whipped their heads around to give me a stare.
  “Why,” said Ben, a co-worker, “do you take drugs?”  Ben was a young guy who had just moved to the Duke City from Silver City.  In a matter of days he and I would end up carpooling to and from the city to the jobsite during which I learned his beliefs that America was on a downhill slide and “the liberal media” was to blame.  Looking back on some of the things he talked about I suspect he was an early fan of Rush Limbaugh.  He also had an affinity for Metallica and Andrew Dice Clay.  But right then he was eyeing me with suspicion.
  “No,” I said, “it’s just that I’ve heard stories about drug tests getting fouled up.”
  “That’s just something made up by the liberal media,” Ben said.
  “If you tested positive,” Foreman Jim said, “we’d talk to you privately before the shift and send you home.”
  “Drug tests are always right,” proclaimed Ben.  “If they test positive, you use drugs, it’s just that simple.”
  And so the project began.  There were two shifts…the day shift ran from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the night shift worked from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
  I was on the night shift…we worked under klieg lights and headlights.
  The crew was made up of a pretty good cross-section of the people of The Great American Southwest:  A handful of white guys or “Anglos,” the popular colloquialism for white folk in The Southwest.  There was a black guy who ran the bulldozer, a couple of Hispanic guys, a Native American woman blade operator from the Acoma Pueblo and Vicente, a Native American dude from the Laguna Pueblo.
  It was like the Chamber of Commerce propaganda said…Albuquerque was a place where diverse racial and ethnic groups work in harmony.
  Well…I wouldn’t call it harmony, but we all worked.
  I liked to listen to the Hispanic guys because of their language.  I found it fascinating how these two dudes would be talking in English and when they got excited about something they’d seamlessly switch into talking Spanish.  Spanish seemed a lot easier than the French I took in high school.
  One night the crew was sent home early.  It was Ben’s turn to drive us back to Albuquerque.  This night he got off the interstate on the city’s south side.
“Where’re we going?” I asked.
“This bookstore,” he said. “They have a peep show.”

  Ben went in.  I waited in the car…for a bit.  I always found adult bookstores a bit weird…I mean it’s not like there’s single women inside waiting for dates.  My curiosity overruled my…whatever…and soon I found myself in an itty-bitty room, strange stains on the wall,  a metal-covered window and a coin slot.  I put a quarter in the slot.
  Gears ground, the metal thingy rolled up to uncover a window that revealed a room with a lone dancer on pink shag carpet.
  Well, that dancer was missing an awful lot of her clothes.
  While hip-hop music throbbed in the room she danced over to my window and was gyrating this way, shimmying another way and twisting that way, thrusting her bare crotch and boobs at me.
  I started to laugh.  The whole thing was just flat-out funny to me.
  The woman stopped dancing.  She started laughing too…that made me laugh more.
  The laughing dancer backed up to sit on the lone chair in the room.  She missed and landed on the floor.  She laughed more.
  And then the metal thingy came down to cover the window.
I went outside and waited for Ben.
Minutes later he popped out the door.
We stood outside.
“YOU made the dancer laugh, didn’t you?” he asked. 
  “Yeah,” I said, chuckling.  “It was ridiculous. I’m in this creepy little room watching this dancer gyrate and shake on a pink shag carpet.  It was funny.  I reckon she thought something was funny too.”
  “You’re weird,” said Ben.
  “What the hell are we doing coming here anyway?” I said.  “You live with someone.”
  “Seeing this stuff makes me want her more,” Ben said.
  “And you call me weird,” I said as we got in the car and headed on in to town.
  I looked out the window.  I pondered the mostly naked chick in the peep show…she looked like she had a brain.  I wondered if she was working the peep show to pick up cash, working her way through college.
  In the days that followed we kept working on the project, dredging river dirt and building a new railroad bed with it.  The dirt was soft and mushy and I got stuck in it a lot.
  I had run heavy equipment in Florida and had no problem with getting out after getting stuck there.  This was not the case in the Rio Grande mud.  I’d get stuck and Foreman Jim would have to pull the dozer off its job and come over and push me out of the muck.
  One night I got stuck again.
  Next thing I knew a dirt clod exploded on the inside of my cab against the windshield.  Chunks of dirt flew all over me.
  I looked around to see where it came from.
  There was Foreman Jim, standing and glaring at me, his hands on his hips.
  I didn’t even think twice.
  I turned off my rig, got out and marched right up to Foreman Jim and stood there, towering over him.
  “What the hell was that about, boss?” I said loudly.
  “I’m God damned tired of you getting stuck,” he said loudly.
  “No need to throw shit at me, boss.”
  “I wanted to get your f*#king attention,” said Jim.  “You’re slowing down the project.”
  At mid-shift break I was eating and I heard the Anglo guy from the mountains talking about me.
  “I bet ol’ Stretch could’ve kicked ol’ Jim’s ass.”
  I turned to Mountain Man.
  “Talkin’ about me?” I asked.
  “Yeah, Stretch,” said Mountain Man, he called me “Stretch,” “Yeah, we thought you were going to kick Jim’s ass.  We were expecting a good fight.”
  “Ain’t no sense in that,” I said.  “I just wanted to know why he thought it was so damn important to throw shit at me.  Besides I’d probably get my glasses broke if I fought him.”
  Another night Vicente wanted to fight me…
  Just because he didn’t like me.
  “I don’t like you,” said Vicente during mid-shift break.  He was standing over me as I sat having my “lunch.”  “I’m going to kick your ass.”
  I stood up and towered over him.
  “So,” I said.  “Just because you don’t like me you’re going to kick my ass.  That doesn’t make any sense.
  I sat back down.
  “YOU DISSIN’ ME, ASSHOLE?” yelled Vicente.
  “No, Vicente,” I said.  “I don’t want to fight you.  I’ll probably get my glasses broken anyway.”
  I went back to eating.
  Vicente went away and left me alone.
  Three nights later Vicente walked up to me at mid-shift break.
  “You and I drive the same make car,” said Vicente.  “My tire’s flat…can I borrow your spare?”
  I laughed a bit.
  “Sure, buddy,” I said.  “We’ll get it when the shift’s over.”
  The project ended in January.
  There was no work for a few weeks.
  Ben called me one day, asked what I was doing.
  “Doing temp work, working at the credit card company, 5 bucks an hour,” I said.  “What’re you doing?”
  “Waiting for my unemployment,” he said.
  “I’ve never gotten unemployment,” I said.  “I didn’t know I could get it.”
  “Yeah,” said Ben.  “I won’t work for less than 8 bucks an hour.”
  I was just glad to get a job.
  That was the only work I ever did for Dos Picachos.
  Not long after talking with Ben I found out a bunch of the crew got called back for a project right in Albuquerque.
  I was not called back…didn’t know why...really didn’t care.
  I had gotten a job back in radio.
  Radio bosses don’t throw dirt clods at you.
  Not usually, anyway.


*All names changed.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Appalachian Tales: Whatever Happened to That Guy?

  I’ve only been truly challenged to a fistfight once in my life.
  I’ve worked at avoiding them mostly because I didn’t want to get my glasses broken.
  It was back when I was in the 8th grade, junior high school. What it was all about is lost in time to me. I do know I had gotten tired of the “jocks” hassling me and I stood up to a member of their clique, Reggie Howell.
  “Meet me after school, I’ll kick your ass,” Reggie said.
  “Where and when,” I said.
  He just stared at me.
  “Okay,” I said, “Four o’clock in the big field behind Berkowitz’s house.”
  Berkowitz was one of the school jocks, but he was more easygoing than the others. Berkowitz was standing there, so was Randy Thomas who liked to bounce basketballs off the top of my head when I wasn’t looking.
  When school was done for the day I rode my bicycle home, had a snack and went out to the big field behind Berkowitz’s house.
  There was Berkowitz, there was Thomas. 
  Reggie was nowhere to be seen.
  “You didn’t bring your pal?” I asked them.
  “This is all up to him,” said Thomas. “If he wants to wuss out, he wusses out on his own.”
  Berkowitz looked around and smiled. “I guess you win by default,” said Berkowitz.
  The two of them turned and walked away.
  “Maybe I won’t bounce balls off your head anymore, McGee,” Thomas said without turning around.
  And you know, he never did again. And Reggie never mouthed off to me again.
  Then one day here in the future I got to wondering whatever became of those guys. So with the help of the Internet, Great and Powerful, I looked them up.
  Berkowitz became a software information technology dude. Thomas runs one of those publication companies that make regional magazines.
  And Reggie Howell is dead.
  Reggie Howell has been dead for over 20 years.
  And he died in a fashion I wouldn’t wish on anyone: He was at the wrong end of a shotgun.
  The details were all there on the internet.
  Reggie at age 38 had become the boyfriend of a woman he worked with. She was married to an older guy approaching 50. That guy, Keith Wilson, had been in Vietnam, had worked for the railroad and become disabled.
  Keith’s wife Lorrie made it public that Keith was abusive and she’d had enough. Lorrie left Keith and took their two little girls with her.
  The old newspaper article posted in the local university’s archives was well written, it told the tale of Keith turning to whiskey after Lorrie left. “It was just to calm him down,” a brother told the reporter. “It’s not like he was a drunk.”
  Lorrie had been out of Keith’s house for about 6 weeks, she had filed for divorce and outlined the terms for child support. She was still letting him see his girls.
  It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in May when Lorrie went to a local bar to pick her girls up from visiting with their father. She took Reggie along with her because Keith made her scared.
  Two men inside the bar told the tale: They heard a “pop” outside. They went to the window and saw a man lying bloody in the parking lot. There was another man who had his over and under shotgun pointed at a woman…and he fired, she fell to the ground. While one of the patrons went to go call the cops the other watched as the man chased his screaming little girls, shooting one, then the other. The man then got in his car and drove away.
  Keith went home and as he sat in his car in his driveway blew his brains out with a pistol.
  Reggie Howell was dead, so was Lorrie.
  Keith and Lorrie’s daughters, ages 7 and 9, spent some time in the hospital but both recovered and went off to live with a wealthy uncle in Richmond.
  After reading all this I leaned back in my chair and pondered how life goes.
  I pondered Reggie’s fate.
  I pondered two children, now fully grown, and pondered the scars they must have.
  I pondered what would make a man decide that killing people, even trying to kill his own children, was an acceptable choice.
  And then I thought that I’m probably glad I don’t know.
*All names, except mine, have been changed.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Tales of the Southwest: Welcome to Albuquerque

  It’s 2019.
  This year marks 30 years since I arrived in New Mexico.
  I landed in Albuquerque with everything I owned crammed in a 1970’s station wagon and $900 in my pocket. I had decided to move to the Duke City after much thought and falling for public relations stuff that painted Albuquerque as a big city where everyone worked and lived in harmony.
  I read up on Albuquerque including crime statistics. New Mexico’s largest city had a crime rate similar to New Orleans. I thought that since people flocked to The Big Easy every year for Mardi Gras then the crime rate may not be as bad as the statistics showed. “So how bad can it be in Albuquerque?” I thought.
  In life I have learned when I utter the fateful words, “How bad can it be” I find out, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or a place to live. Its kind of like comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s joke, “What’s a redneck’s last words? ‘Hey, watch this.’”
  I quickly settled in to a cheap apartment off Central Avenue…an old motel where the rooms had been converted to studio apartments…then got right to work finding work. I went to a shop that offered a place to get my mail along with a voicemail service.
  Remember, this was 30 years ago, before cell phones were all over the place.
  Then it was time to get cleaned up for the job hunt. I went to a nearby barber shop to get cleaned up for a job interview. It was your average barber shop in an average strip mall somewhere in the vicinity of Louisiana and Montgomery in the Duke City’s Northeast Heights.
  So there I was sitting the barber chair with the barber apron on. I was looking through the shop’s plate glass window at the Sandia Mountains when I noticed a young man with his back to the glass. I watched as he raised his hands up above his head. He had a brown bag in one hand and a pistol in the other.
  I was trying to make some sense of what I was seeing when I looked out into the parking lot and saw several Albuquerque police cruisers with policemen standing in a familiar pose like on TV shows. You know, the one where they’re hunkered over and holding their pistols with both hands, each cop aiming at the suspect.
  But this was real, not TV, and the suspect was on the other side of that pane of glass right in front of me.
  “Guys,” I said with a raised voice, “I think something’s going on outside.”
  The barber and the customers looked up. It took them a few moments to take it all in too.
  Then came the megaphone voice.
  “I think we all better get in the back room,” said the barber. He lead the way and ushered us all into what was basically a large closet…me still wearing my haircut apron.
  A few minutes later a booming voice echoed in the barber shop. “Albuquerque police,” the voice echoed, “It’s okay, everyone can come out now.” We eased out of the closet to find a cop standing in the shop.
  “What happened?” asked the barber.
  Mr. Policeman told us how a customer walking into the bank across the parking lot saw this kid getting out of his car and reaching under the seat for a pistol. This was back in the late 80’s when the Duke City was seeing an average of two bank robberies a week. So the customer called the cops.
  But the kid wasn’t after the bank, nope, the kid had bigger fish to fry other than the bank: The pizza joint next door to the barber shop. When the kid popped out of the pizza joint, pistol and bag of cash in hand, the cops were out in the parking lot waiting for him.
  “Welcome to Albuquerque,” I thought to myself.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

That High Dollar Job Moving Bodies

We wanted to move to Florida so back in the late summer of 2015 The Lady of the House and I said “adios” to eastern New Mexico and “hello” to Pensacola, Florida.

The Lady of the House grew up there. Well actually she grew up in Fort Walton Beach about 30 miles east of Pensacola. Jobs seemed more plentiful and real estate was cheaper in Pensacola. Looking back I wonder if we would’ve had a better Florida experience if we’d moved to Fort Walton Beach instead.

Me? I lived in many places growing up…New York City, Honolulu, Baltimore…I’d ripped myself up and landed in Albuquerque and Phoenix with no job prospects and was doing well within a few weeks. In other words I never had a problem in moving to a new city.

Until Pensacola.

I suppose if I’d done some research I might have discovered wages in the area were low and the city was dominated by a class of people who sought to monetize every human encounter they had.

I have never been so quantified, scrutinized and rejected in my life when it came to landing a job. Pensacola is a young person’s city. Oh, and you damn well better have your college degree if you want a decent job there.

A car dealership hired me. I sold six cars the first two weeks I was there. Then the next month when I didn’t do jack in the first two weeks I got fired. The Lady of the House and I went and bought a box of fried chicken, had a picnic on the beach and pondered my next move.

My career has been in media…radio, newspaper. It was my lifelong work yet that experience mattered little to the folks who ran those things in Pensacola.

So while I kept looking for a gig in media I kept looking for a job in other fields to pay the bills.

I gave a shot at being a call center automaton…that lasted three weeks.

I had a fun gig driving cars back and forth between car dealerships and the local auto auction but it only paid minimum wage and the schedule was just for 20 to 30 hours a week.

Then came the interview with a Pensacola funeral home…a job that paid the princely sum of $10 an hour.

This wasn’t the first time I’d ever kicked around working at a Pensacola funeral home.

There was that time I put on a suit and tie and went just a few blocks down from my west Pensacola house to the funeral home right on the boulevard.

I walked right in and noticed right away that I was the only Anglo guy in the place.

Everyone else was African-American.

“Hi,” I said to a fellow in a suit and tie at a desk handing him my resume’, “I’d like to apply for a job.”

The dude reared back in his chair and looked at me like I had just farted loudly or something.

“One moment please,” he said. He got up and disappeared down a hallway, my resume’ in hand.

Moments later the fellow reappeared.

“Sir, if you’d come right this way,” he said.

I followed the guy down the hall where he pointed to an open door.

Inside, standing with the help of a cane was an elderly woman.

I stuck out my hand and shook hers.

“Hello, my name is Grant McGee.”

“Yes Mr. McGee, I have your resume’ here,” she said, “My name is Mrs. Miller.”

I was talking with the owner, I reckoned. It was called “Miller Funeral Home.”

“Close the door, Mr. McGee,” she said.

I closed the door.

“Have a seat,” she said as she went around to sit behind her desk.

“We do have an opening for a night receptionist,” said Mrs. Miller. “Someone to greet the deceased’s family and friends when they come in.”

I nodded my head.

“Mr. McGee, I’m going to speak off the record here…”

“Yes ma’am?”

“You DO know this is regarded in town as Pensacola’s premier black funeral home.”

“No ma’am,” I said. “I’m looking for a job and I live a few blocks west of here. My wife and I moved here from New Mexico a few months ago.”

“Oh, I see,” said Mrs. Miller. “Well, you speak pretty good English for someone from Mexico.”

I thought about correcting her but then I thought about that old saying, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

“Like I said, Mr. McGee, I’m going to speak frankly here,” said Mrs. Miller. “You don’t see anything wrong with a white man working in a black funeral home?”

“No ma’am,” I said. “Who we are in terms of race is just all about where our ancestors came from…Africa, Europe, Asia and such. Besides, I think one of the most overlooked news stories of 1997 was that the human genome shows no markers for race, per se. We are basically all human.”

Mrs. Miller looked me right in the eyes for a few moments.

“Well, Mr. McGee, your view is refreshing,” said Mrs. Miller, “But while you may not have a problem with being the only white man at an African-American funeral home my customers and their families and friends just might.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said. “I can understand that.”

“But now this is just you and I talking. You having been in management understand that I’m not actually allowed to talk about this with you. But I wanted to be honest with you about this.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Mrs. Miller stood up as did I. She extended her hand. I shook it.

“It’s been very nice to meet you, Mr. McGee. I will give this some thought.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

I went on back home where I found The Lady of the House in the kitchen.

“What happened at the funeral home?” she asked.

“They want a night receptionist.”

“Night receptionist?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s like that time I worked the front desk of a hotel. Same clothes too…a nice sport coat, khakis, nice shirt, tie.”

“You’re not really serious, are you?”

“Sure, you know, people would walk in and I’d smile and say, ‘Good evening, welcome to the funeral home…yes he’s right down the hall’ and I’d escort the visitors down to the parlor. I’d answer phones and make sure the coffee is made and all that stuff.”

“You? Working in a funeral home?”

“Sure. You know, if someone says, ‘She looks like she’s asleep’ or ‘He looks like he could sit right up and talk to ya!’ Or I might say, ‘Yes, here at the funeral home we do mighty fine work.’”

Mrs. Miller never called me for a job. The Lady of the House predicted she wouldn’t call and she was right.

So I kept looking for work. People couldn’t understand why a man of my age didn’t have my own business. Others thought I was overqualified and yet others thought I was underqualified for their management positions.

I was doing this while I waited for the local newspaper to call me telling me they were bringing me on board in the advertising department. I interviewed with them in October, I interviewed with them in November and again in December. They kept telling me they were working on deciding when they want to hire me. By the way, I never got that job.

Anyway, back to the $10 an hour funeral home job…

It was an ad in the Pensacola paper: “Drivers wanted” it read. “Flexible hours” it read. I thought it would fit nicely with the part-time gig I had delivering cars.

I put on my sport coat, tie and all the other stuff that is “de rigueur” for a job interview and showed up at the funeral home on time.

“Do you have any problems lifting?” asked the funeral dude as the interview began.

“How much will I need to lift?” I asked, I was looking for a poundage figure.

“That depends,” he said. “Some people can be pretty big.”

“Oh,” I said. “You’re talking about moving bodies.”

“Yes,” said The Funeral Dude, “That’s part of the driver’s position we’re hiring for.”

I flashed back to an incident when someone died where I worked. And yes, it was the funeral home dudes who showed up and had to take him away. I mean, SOMEBODY has to do it.

“Well how many people are sent out on the job?” I asked.

“Two people can usually handle the task,” he said.

“What about decomposition?” I asked.

He sat back for a moment. I don’t think he was expecting that question.

“I knew of this guy who was working for a funeral home in New Mexico,” I said. “Someone had died in the middle of summer in a mobile home and wasn’t discovered for days. When they went in to get the body they opened the door and the stench was incredible awful. Then they stepped through the door and the carpeting was squishy…that was from where the body’s fluids had oozed out and soaked the carpet.”

“We have body bags for that,” he said.

“And the drivers have to load the body bag?” I asked.

“It’s all part of your training,” he said.

“So when people die they express urine and feces, don’t they?” I asked.

He sat back for a moment. I don’t think he was expecting that question either.

“Well,” he said. “That happens but not that often. Our black body bags are for those who have decomposed or expressed shit because they have a deodorizing element built into them.”

It turns out it was an on-call job. When the funeral home got the call to come pick up a body the driver was expected to be at the funeral home in about 20 minutes. Attire for a body pickup was expected to be a sport coat and tie. Transporting a body to Orlando for those folks who donated their bodies to science was casual attire. And for those days when I’d be asked to drive a hearse or the flower van I was expected to dress in a suit….something I did not own.

I could be watching my favorite TV show and be called out to move a body. I could be enjoying a day at the beach and be called out to move a body. I could be grocery shopping with The Lady of the House and be called out to move a body. I could be enjoying a sound sleep and get the call. All for 10 bucks an hour.

The opportunity to take the job was on the table.

I told the funeral dude I’d get back with him.

And I did.

“Hey, thanks for your time,” I said over the phone. “But I need something with more structured hours. Thank you for your time.”

That was part of the reason I didn’t take it.

The other part was I didn’t feel like forking out over a hundred bucks for a suit for a 10-dollar-an-hour gig.

I eventually found a job in Pensacola in my career field for the princely sum of $11.84 an hour. My years of experience meant nothing, that pay rate was low… comparable to what I made when I started out in the broadcasting business. I put up with that for over a year until we had enough of the low wages and that unfriendly, money-hungry city in general.

We left Pensacola in September 2017 to return to eastern New Mexico.

I’m damn glad we did.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

It Happened One New Year's

As I have moseyed through life I was delighted to find that I was not the only dumb-ass ever born.

I should explain.

I have missed many “signs” in my life…signs in the form of “red flags” to warn me of people or situations I should’ve avoided, hints that I should have taken or signs that I just flat-out missed.

I don’t know how this happened, how I didn’t come equipped with something to see what the hell is actually going on.

I have offered up the excuse that I played by myself a lot as a child.

Maybe I'm just an idealist or i just don’t know what “normal” is. And then again, maybe I was supposed to learn this stuff as I went along.

Case in point: An encounter with a young woman at a New Year’s party at the dawn of 1976.

Some friends of mine and I had rented a huge function room at a hotel in the old hometown for “The Big Event.” Matter of fact that’s what we called it, “The Big Event.” We had even gotten rooms so we wouldn’t have to drive home that night. Friends I didn’t even know I had showed up for this big deal.

People strayed into our party dressed up for other parties in the hotel, they told me it looked like we were having more fun at our big bash. And they said the music was better. As usual I was the guy playing the music with a disc jockey setup.

Just after midnight this lovely young lady who was dressed in (what was to me) a dreamy Stevie Nicks-ish style came up to me.

Back then Stevie Nicks was the new lead singer for the band “Fleetwood Mac.” She arrived on the scene with an enchanting voice, winsome smile, dressed in shawls and flowy things and she danced round and round on the stage as the band played on.

She looked like she'd taken fashion hints from Stevie Nicks...

So here was this young lady at the New Year’s party and it looked like she had dressed for the occasion by taking some fashion hints from Stevie Nicks.

I mean I’d never seen her before and she was absolutely stunning.

To me, anyway.

After all I was a teenage boy and, at the time, thought all young women were stunning.

“Can I have the key to your room?” she said, looking me right in the eyes.

This was weird: why would she want the key to my room?

“Sure,” I said, “How come?”

“I…umm…need to use your bathroom,” she said, biting her lip, smiling slightly and looking off to the side.

“OK,” I said. So I gave her my key and she sauntered off.

Well, about a half hour passed by and I realized this girl had not returned with my key. I got my buddy Dax to take the DJ seat and I went up to my room.

The door was cracked open a bit and it was dark inside.

I pushed open the door and flipped on the light. And there…on my bed…in her clothes…lay this young lady. Obviously she had been waiting in my room in the dark.

“Hi, what’s up,” I asked.

She smiled at me, “I don’t feel like going anywhere tonight.”

With that she stretched out on the bed and put her arms back behind her head.

I guessed she was tired or something so I said, “Well, there are still plenty of rooms here in the hotel, they’re cheap tonight too…special rate.”

She sat bolt upright, looked at me and said, “I don’t believe it,” got up and left.

I watched her sashay down the hall.

“You really just wanted to use my bathroom?” I asked loudly.

She turned around and then was walking backward down the hall.

“You don’t look like a dumb-ass. I guess dumb-asses can look normal,” she said as she turned around and kept walking down the hall.

“You’re kinda weird,” I said loudly.

She stuck her hand in the air and flipped me the bird as she kept walking. It was a good bird too, knuckles forward, pointed at me.

I went back to the party to play some more tunes. Then by about 130 it was time to call it a night.

Afterward I was winding down, sitting around shootin’ the shit with my pals Dax and Dave.

“Man,” I said, “There was this weird chick…”

I then proceeded to tell them the tale of the girl in my room.

I finished the story.

My two pals just stared at me.

Then Dax started laughing, Dave was shaking his head.

“Dumb-ass,” said Dax, still laughing. “Does someone have to hold up a sign? She wanted to have sex…dumb-ass.”

“Man!” laughed Dave, “Offered up to you on a silver platter and you didn’t even realize it….MAN! I think she came to the party with Laura Whatshername. I think that was Laura’s cousin from around DC. You know I’ve heard about that. Chick comes up to you and asks for your room key you’re just supposed to KNOW, man.”

“Dumb-ass,” said Dax.

They stood up, still laughing, and walked on to their rooms.

I sat there for a few minutes by myself and thought about what I may have missed out on. I mean I MAY have missed out on a good time or I may have missed getting into trouble. I would never know.

I smiled…

It wasn’t the first time I’d missed out on “signs,” it wouldn’t be the last.

I don’t know if it’s a lot of people who miss hints, red flags and signs or just a few…

But since that New Year’s eve long ago I’ve found out at least I’m not the ONLY one.


*All names changed as a “cover my ass” maneuver…

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Best Christmas

To me, a good Christmas is about lifting your spirits.  A good Christmas is about smiles and sharing and stuff.  The presents, the food and all the other Christmasy things are just icing on the cake.
What was your “Best Christmas Ever”?
While I’ve had some great Christmases I’d have to say my best Christmas ever was 34 years ago. 
It was right after one of my famous trainwrecks.
Well, my trainwrecks aren’t exactly widespreadedly famous, just “famous” amongst my kin.
If life is like a river, well, I’ve paddled my canoe through some pleasant passages.  And then there were some treacherous stretches full of rapids and whitewater.  That “Best Christmas Ever” came at the end of a year where my li’l “canoe of life” had gone over a waterfall and all my supplies were lost, so to speak:  I had totaled my car in a wreck...taking a mountain curve at 60 mph when I shoulda took it at 30...went flying into a creek...ripped a hole in my butt cheek.  And because my gig was a traveling salesman I lost my job.  With no job I couldn’t pay my rent so I lost my apartment. 
.           I figured I could go home until I pulled things back together.
            Boy, was I wrong.
            I called my folks.  My mom answered the phone.
            “Hi mom,” I was smiling.  “Can I come home, I’m in a bit of a mess.”
            “Well,” she said, “you’ll need to talk to your father.”
            She put my dad on the line.
            “Hi dad, can I come live with y’all till I get on my feet?”
            “No, son.”
            Wow, I was amazed at how fast he answered me.  I think they knew I’d be calling.
            I was dumbfounded.  It took a few seconds to gather my thoughts.             I gave a nervous laugh.  “I-I thought that’s what home is for, dad.  A place to come back to when it all goes down the tubes.”
            “Well, son, we believe if you stay out there and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps you’ll be a lot stronger.”
            Now that I look back on it I don’t think I would have let me come back home to live either. 
Things started looking better, though. 
Mom and Dad did let me come home for the weekend, the same weekend my aunt and uncle came to visit from Ohio.  They had stopped on the way and picked up a local paper from a couple of hundred miles up the road.  There was an ad in that paper for a job and the guy to contact was a dude I knew.
I called the guy and got the job over the phone.  Soon I was settled in to a new town and some new digs…the second floor of an old 1920’s house.  No fridge, no stove, no furnace, no furniture, no TV, but I had four big rooms, an enclosed second-story porch that faced the sunny south, a sleeping bag, a trunk, my stereo and all my record albums.  What more could anyone ask for?
The job didn’t pay much.  What I did make went for bills, rent and setting aside some bucks to get a car.  I cooked ramen noodles on a hot plate…lots and lots of ramen noodles.  And there was toast, lots of toast.  Nowadays, when I look at a pack of ramen noodles I get a queasy feeling.
Folks at work would be having burgers and fries and stuff for lunch...I wondered if a jury of my true hungry peers would convict me for attacking a co-worker for some fast food.
Winter came and my apartment turned into a fridge.  When I filled a tub for a bath the cold, cold porcelain would sap the heat from the water.  One room was so cold for a couple of weeks I could keep ice cream in it.  One subfreezing morning I even woke up with frost in my moustache.
Looking back on that time I realize I was just a step up from living on the street.
            Then I got a call…my folks were coming to see me for Christmas. 
Mom and Dad were taking me to dinner and they had a surprise.  It was a good feeling, knowing they were coming.  Plus I’d get something other than ramen noodles and toast to eat.  I was happy.
            Mom and dad took me to eat at one of the nicest places around.  We laughed, talked and I caught up on what the rest of the family was doing.  My folks brought presents too, new clothes; new shirts, new pants.  Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad about my circumstances.  Before they left my dad told me not to feel so bad about having to start all over.
            “Yeah, but you’re not eating ramen noodles and toast every day,” I laughed.
            He had some other tidbits of wisdom to share before they left that day, including that it wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t have a car.  He was right, plus I found the walk to and from work kind of relaxing.   
            My father wasn’t with us much longer after that visit, that’s another reason I remember that Christmas.
            The following February he started having trouble standing on his right leg.  A trip to the doctor revealed a big ol’ brain tumor in his head.  By August he had “gone on to Glory.”
I always remember that December get-together.  I can still see my dad smiling from the driver’s seat as he and mom were about to drive away.
            “Things are a little tough for you now, son,” I remember him saying, “But someday you’ll look back on all this and laugh, maybe even write about it.”
            And so I have.


Saturday, December 15, 2018

True Tales From The Mountains

"He waited up in a tree with his rifle, waited for Ol' J.I. to get home..."

I find it strange how some folks don’t give a whit about their ancestors…what they did, how they lived, what they accomplished.

I once had a friend who had no idea of her ancestry or family tales of long ago and she didn’t care. I thought that was just sad.

When I think about “my people” who lived long ago…their genetic material still vibrates within us…I think how we are the culmination of those who have gone before. I believe we honor them by knowing a bit about them.

I learned a lot about some of my ancestors from my grandmother. My father’s mother was a great storyteller.

Grandma was one of seven children of an iron ore mining company manager that lived in the Appalachian Mountains in western Virginia near the West Virginia border.

Grandma was a cigarette-smoking, Bible-quoting, stern yet fun Virginia mountain “girl.”

My folks shipped me off to live with my grandparents for my last couple of years of high school. That’s how I came to hear Grandma’s tales.

It being Christmastime I got to remembering my Grandma.

One Christmas when I was a teenager my brother and sister didn’t come home for Christmas. It was just going to be my mom, dad, grandmother and grandfather.

I woke up Christmas morning and things were strangely quiet, not noisy and busy like many Christmases before.

I walked downstairs and found my mother and father sitting at the table having breakfast like any other day.

“What’s going on? Where’s Christmas?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” said my father.

“There’s no noise, nothing’s cooking, there’s no smell of bacon or coffee,” I said.

“We’re waiting for your grandmother to get up. Why don’t you make a pot of coffee and take it in to her and wake her up?” said Mom.

So I made a pot of coffee, unplugged the percolator and walked into her bedroom where she was sound asleep.

My plan was to wave the spout of the coffee pot with teenage accuracy right underneath her nose thinking that the aroma would wake her up.

I waved the pot under her nose not remembering it was a pot full of hot coffee. I didn’t give it much thought because this was the first time I’d made a pot of coffee.

So the waving action brought hot coffee up and out the spout into her ear.

Grandma sat bolt upright in bed holding her ear and yelling.

Grandma was a storyteller. She would sit in her easy chair smoking her filter-less Raleigh cigarette, watching her soap operas and offering up stories and opinions during the commercial breaks.

“You’ve got a double cowlick on your head, boy,” she told me. “You’re going to be bald when you’re grown.”

You know what? She was absolutely right.

My Grandma also believed that the wild weather she saw in her last years was because of the rockets we sent into space.

“We’re poking holes in the sky and we’re messing things up,” she would say.

Grandma told me of her mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Hill. That’s what they called each other, he called her "Mrs. Hill” and she called him “Mr. Hill."

Grandma told the story of her youngest brother, Teddy, who died in an awful industrial accident in the mine.

“The day Teddy died, his dog sat out in the back yard and howled, nobody at home knew anything had happened but my daddy knew it was an omen. He heard that dog howl and he turned to my momma and said, “Mrs. Hill, I don’t believe our boy is coming home anymore.”

About that time the booming klaxon horn from the mine went off, telling everyone for miles around there had been an accident.

Grandma talked about meeting my grandfather when he came to work as a bookkeeper for the mine. She said when she saw him come she knew she was going to marry him. They were married Christmas Day 1912.

Grandma told the story about their big wedding day. After the ceremony they dashed out the door and hopped in their one-horse buggy.

Somewhere in the rush of things my grandfather dropped the reins and the horse took off with them. “I yelled and yelled at him all the way down the road,” said my grandma.

“What’d you yell?” I asked.

“It didn’t matter,” she said, blowing smoke in the air. “He deserved it.”

My grandma yelled at my granddaddy a lot, it might’ve been where I got the notion in my early years that yelling at each other is a perfectly normal part of marriage.

Well, that and my mom and dad were always arguing and yelling.

Grandma told more stories of life in a mining town in the 1910’s, how “the meanest man in the county,” a fellow named J. I. Jones, met his death in 1913. Word was that Jones had killed two men. The son of one of the men waited in a tree at Jones’ place for the man to return home and when he did he gunned him down.

The area around the mining town was full of immigrants from Europe who worked in the mine. Grandma told the story of the time that she and my grandfather were out for a leisurely afternoon in a rowboat on the James River and as they rounded a bend witnessed two men kill another man for his money.

There was the story of the time the town doctor was called to a miner’s home, the whole family was sick. He finally got around to asking them what they’d been eating when the wife went outside and came back in holding a dead “American chicken” by the legs: A turkey vulture.

Then came the flu epidemic of 1918. By that time my grandparents had two baby boys…one was my dad…who wasn’t quite a year old. Grandma said my dad and the town doctor were the only two people who didn’t get the flu. Grandma believed the town doctor didn’t catch the flu because he had a drinking problem and my dad didn’t catch it because he crawled around chewing on chunks of coal from the fireplace.

The doctor would walk up and down the streets of the town, yelling into houses, asking what folks needed. He’d come back later and walk down the town’s main street throwing a chicken in the open window of a house here, some cans of food in another house there and so on.

I suppose the point is that no matter how small a story might seem to someone it may be a gem to someone else. It fires the imagination. It puts relatives, ancestors in a more real light.

I find it sad when a person knows nothing about their ancestry. Oh, not the kind that requires research and such, that’s more of a hobby. Just to know a little about those who have gone before. Their journeys are a significant part of how we got here.