Burton

Burton — they call him Burd at home for short — is dressed in a black stocking cap and a dark canvas coat.  That’s not what you notice about him at first.  What you notice about Burton is the white beard wrapped around his gaunt face.  It fits with his tall, thin frame, slightly stooped.  The beard isn’t combed, but it is well-groomed.  Burton has a face filled with character and hardship.  By his appearance, you’d think him more at home on a fishing vessel than where he actually is.

When he speaks to you — and he wants to speak to you — you notice his sparkling blue eyes.

Yet what’s most noticeable when you stop to speak to Burton — and you can’t help but stop — is the overwhelming odor of stale urine around him.  When you live on the street, finding a public bathroom isn’t always your top priority, and even then, not everyone is willing to let you do what you’ve got to do.  Things happen.

“Do you think I can make it in this program?,” he asks me.  He is looking for some reassurance. 

Burd and I are both in the cafeteria of a homeless shelter, each for entirely different reasons.  I can’t answer his questions, and I apologize for not being the person that can help.  That doesn’t bother him any more than the odor does.

“I’m not from here either,” he says, looking me in the eye over the top of his cup of coffee, two spoons of powdered creamer. “I’m from way up north.”

That information fits better with his appearance.  How far north?  New York?  Maine?  Canada?

“Ever hear of Dahlonega?”

I have.  In fact, my daughter is in school there now, I tell him.  Just 60 miles away from Atlanta, it’s not very far north at all, unless you’re walking.  I tell him I used to live in Cumming, a half hour south of his hometown.  At this, he decides we are practically neighbors.

“I lost everything in 2015,” he volunteers.  “My wife left me.  She took our kids and our house.  She took everything.  I’ve been on my own since then.  I was a mean drunk.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I tell him, and I am.  I know the pain of divorce too well.  Does anybody ever really recover?

“I’ve never taken any drugs,” he feels compelled to tell me.  “I’m not an addict.”

That’s good, I tell him.  I’m not sure what else to say.  In truth, it matters not if I say anything.  This is a man that needs to be heard, acknowledged.

“I haven’t been here too long, but I’ve already seen more drug stuff than I think I should have to see.” 

It’s apparent that he doesn’t much care for addicts.

“Alcohol though, that was my problem.  I started drinking in 1990.  In 2015 my wife told me she’d had enough, and that was all.”

“I was a mean drunk,” he repeats to no one in particular.

He was a truck-driver by trade he tells me, and that’s what led to his downfall in a round-about way.

“I was smoking marijuana,” he says.  “Then, in 1990, they started doing random drug tests for truck drivers.  I had to quit smoking pot if I wanted to keep my job, so I started drinkin’.  I never missed marijuana after that.”

He drove a concrete truck, for a while. 

“After three years they discovered I had the wrong class of license, so they made me drive a tractor-trailer instead.  That wasn’t as much fun, because I was going to the same place and back day after day.  There and back, day after day.  I did that for 17 years.  But drivin’ ready-mix, I was always goin’ someplace new.”

He has aspirations.  There’s life in those eyes, an energy, a pride that remains unbowed.  Hope.

“I’d like to get Social Security,” he says. 

He has injured a leg, and walking can be difficult.

“I’m hoping to get disability payments.  That’s why I’m here in Atlanta.  I think I’ve worked enough.”

The Social Security Administration is three blocks away.

“I’m 58,” he tells me.  He looks 10 years older, easy.  Life and the booze have both been hard.

“I hear they’ll let you draw Social Security, and still work some.  That’s what I’d like to do.”

I don’t think you can be both substantially disabled enough for Social Security and yet gainfully employed, but it’s not my place to tell him that.  I wonder aloud what he’d like to do.

“Truck drivin’,” he says.  “I’m still a truck driver.  I need to get my license back this year because it expires next year, and I’d have to start over and take the test again.”  If he could get his disability payment it would give him the margin needed to get his license back.

I’m called away for a moment, and there’s disappointment in his eyes.  “I’ll be back in a minute,” I tell him.  “Hang tight.”

He does, and when I return his face lights up again.  I’ve offered him really nothing more than my attention.  I’ve had very little to say, and no answers for any of his occasional questions.

Nevertheless “I’m glad you’re back,” he says.  “I was enjoying our conversation.”

“I was too,” I assure him.

We talk just a minute or two more about what kind of a truck driving job he could get, but then roll call for the program attendees starts, and he needs to talk to the leader.  We say our goodbyes and I tell him I hope to see him again soon.  He excuses himself and limps to the front of the room.  As I look back over my shoulder I see him remove his stocking cap and bunch it up in his hands as he approaches the man with whom he needs to speak, a sign of his nervousness.  It’s the last I see of him.

A week later, I’m in that cafeteria again.  I look for Burd.  I’d like to know how he’s doing.

I’ll never know.  Burd isn’t there.  He’s not there the week after, or even the week after that.  He never returns.  Nobody knows where he went or why he didn’t come back.

When you live on the street, you do what you’ve got to do. Things happen. 

Freddie and Me

Freddie watches from the shadows. I’m not aware that he’s watching me, not at first.  Not until it is too late.

I had thought I could get my mind off of my personal problems by getting out of the house and having a laugh. It didn’t work. Show over, now my companion and I are walking through the city at night, invisible to the million-dollar penthouses high above, and I am once again rambling on about the hurt of a divorce that I don’t want and have tried to avoid. I am not coping well, and I know it.

Divorce is hard enough.  When the woman you love won’t even speak to you, it is unbearable. I try to explain this to my friend but choke, and the tears begin to flow again. I pause my walk and sit on a low retaining wall in front of a darkened building, as I try to compose myself.

My friend asks, “So what did she tell you?”

“Nothing. Not a damn thing,” I tell her.  “She had gotten her own place, but we were still working on things, you know? She refused my offer to come along with me and bring her kids on the trip for my daughter’s graduation, and so we reluctantly went ahead without her. That’s when it all changed.”

I can’t seem to stop talking. I ramble on, giving too much background information and never really answering her question.

“After I got back into town, my mother tried to reach her but couldn’t, so I called. I couldn’t get through either.  That was unusual. I got worried about her safety, so I went to her apartment.  She wasn’t there, but the callbox rings to her cell phone. When she answered, it immediately disconnected.  That was weird too, right? I had no idea then, but she was just hanging up on me!  I was worried about her.  I started to call the police; I even dialed 911, but before I placed the call, I realized it was Sunday afternoon, so she might be at the grocery store. That would explain the issues getting through to her phone, also.  I was relieved to see her car in the parking lot! The last time I’d seen her, we’d had dinner together. Now, just 9 days later, when she saw me she flipped out, telling me to stay away from her, causing a scene, saying she wasn’t talking to me anymore. That’s how she told me.”

My friend is silent.  There’s really nothing she can say even if she could find the words. Even then, nothing would make it easier. She knows this, and so for the moment she just listens, and shivers in the crisp November air.

That’s when Freddie spots me. My guard is down, and I’m vulnerable.

“She was just screaming at me,” I cry. “Screaming! Everyone in the store was staring. She told me not to speak to her.  She told me to get away. I had no idea why.  I still don’t even know what happened, and it’s four months later. I just stood there, stammering. She just changed, like overnight.”

I sniff and wipe the tears from my eyes yet again and look up.  That’s when I see Freddie approaching. 

Freddie is tall and broad-shouldered, but thin.  In the dark, with the streetlights behind him, his silhouette is imposing. He also lacks the awareness to see he’s intruding on a difficult moment. He’s either getting ready to rob me, or asking for a handout. I’m instantly on the defensive. He speaks, but I can’t tell what he’s saying, either because he’s speaking softly or because my mind is reeling.

“I’m sorry,” I respond before thinking.  “What did you say?”

From the looks of him, he doesn’t eat much.  From the smell of him, he doesn’t seem to bathe much, either.  I’m not sure what Freddie’s drug of choice is, but as I get a better look, it’s pretty apparent he has a favorite.  His uncombed hair and his shaky voice underscore the point. 

Realizing now that he’s probably only looking for a handout, for just a second I consider pretending he isn’t there, ignoring the interruption as I deal with my own issues. It’s too late for that though; I’ve already spoken to him.

Freddie manages a meager smile.  “First of all,” he speaks slowly, “thank you for acknowledging me.”  As he says this, he dips his head a little and raises his hands slightly, as if to say he’s not a danger.

His voice is soft and gentle, and now I realize he is also nervous.

“Thank you for acknowledging me,” he repeats with another nod.  “Most people won’t acknowledge me.” 

Perhaps he realizes that would’ve been my preference too, and I feel guilty for it.

“What do you need?,” I ask, a little annoyed. I’m still sniffling and embarrassed, trying to hide the fact I’ve been crying.

“I’m just trying to get a little money to get a train ticket home,” he says.  Do you have a few dollars that I could have?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any cash at all,” I lie.  I’m confident that if I give Freddie any money, he’ll be drinking it or smoking it or shooting it into his veins soon.

He looks disappointed.  He’s gentle, but jaded.

I’m not sure why, but there’s something about him that affects me. I get a sense of injustice about him, like I’m not the only one to tell him an untruth. I’m taken aback by both his thanks for a simple acknowledgement — as if it is a gift I have given him — and the guilt I feel for not wanting to give it. Before I have a chance to think it through, I’m compelled to make him an offer.

“I’ll tell you what: If you need a train ticket, I’ll walk with you to the station and get you one.”

I’m surprised at my suggestion and surprised when he accepts the offer; I wonder if I misjudged him and he really is trying to get home, instead of a fix. As we walk along my friend, now a little wide-eyed, holds on to my arm and stays close.  The silence is awkward, and I try to engage Freddie in conversation.  He’s reluctant to talk; I keep trying anyway. I don’t think to ask him his name.

“So do a lot of people just refuse to talk to you?,” I ask. 

“Most of them pretend I’m not there,” he says.  Again, this troubles and convicts me. He doesn’t elaborate.

As we near the train station, I ask Freddie if there’s anything else he needs.  Is he hungry?  Yes he is, and I offer to walk with him to a nearby grocery, but he declines.  Instead, he’d just like some noodles from the gas station if it’s not too much trouble.  I find this to be odd, because I’m offering what I think is a far better option. Nevertheless, he’s bent on that gas station. Very well.

We get the train ticket and he leads me up another block.  We enter into the glow of fluorescent lights, shuffle past the pumps, and step into the little store.  As we enter, Freddie’s arms are now folded across his chest; I think he looks anxious. As we enter, the clerk, with a heavy accent, shouts something across the store, but I don’t pay attention. It’s Friday night and the place is full of customers getting gas, buying beer, and taking a chance on the lottery.

Freddie is even more uncomfortable, it’s now obvious. Again the clerk shouts, and I realize it’s Freddie that’s the target of his anger.

“You know you are not supposed to be in here,” he shouts through a thick Caribbean accent.  “Don’t you come in here trying to steal anything!

I’m shocked at this. It’s both unprofessional and rude, and I ask Freddie if we are okay in this place or if he wants to go someplace else.

“I’m okay,” he says as if he’s used to it all, and he quickly makes a beeline for what he wants.

Another employee steps up to Freddie and just stands there, watching his every move. Every time Freddie takes a step, this guy shadows him.

“Is everything okay, sir?,” I ask.

“Yep.” He doesn’t take his eyes off of Freddie.

“Is there a problem?”

“Not yet.” His gaze is still fixed on Freddie.

Now the clerk, finished with his latest customer, steps from behind the counter and shouts again, heading our way.  There are still customers in line. “You get out of here right now!,” he yells.  “You’re a piece of shit, and you don’t belong in here!”

All eyes in the store are now on us.

I’ve had enough. 

“Wait a second,” I say.  “This guy is my friend, and he is here with me.”

“I am not talking to you,” the clerk says, never meeting my gaze.  He looks past me.  To Freddie he says “I am talking to this piece of garbage here.”

Freddie tries to defend himself.

“Don’t talk to me,” the clerk says.  “Get away from here. Get out.”

I do not know why, but I am suddenly hurt, stung by the callous uncaring of this clerk. It feels like he hates me as much as he hates Freddie. It feels wrong. It feels personal.

“No,” I demand.  “You don’t talk to him.”  I lean into his field of view so he has to look at me.  “You talk to me.”  I am suddenly angrier than I think I should be, and I’ve now determined that I’m in charge. A fire has been lit within me, and I don’t know where it came from. Not yet.

“I’m buying some things, and all you need to do is ring them up.”

“He can wait outside,” the clerk insists.

“No.  That’s not what I said. We can both leave and buy nothing, or we can both stay and buy whatever my friend wants. Your choice. Either way, I’m responsible. You talk to me, not him.”

The clerk frowns at this, but to my surprise shrinks back behind the counter to address the customers waiting in line. “Hurry up,” he says.

Freddie seems to stand a little taller. Now I get it, I think. Did he really ask to come here so I would provide him some cover? The argument over for the moment, he now takes his time, going to the back of the store to open his noodles and add hot water from the coffee maker.  There’s a little defiance in him, some confidence he didn’t have before. Dignity. We’ve overstayed our welcome, but he seems to be enjoying the delay. I’m anxious to get out.

The clerk rings us up and I pay, being careful to use a credit card, keeping my cash hidden. The total bill is less than four dollars.

We get outside finally, and my friend and I wish Freddie well.  He’s holding two hot cups of noodles and doesn’t have a free hand to shake. “God bless you,” is the best I can offer.  His response is a sneer, an annoyed look that conveys he doesn’t have a whole lot of expectation for coming blessings. 

Having gotten what he wanted, he ducks between construction barrels, takes a turn behind an old building undergoing demolition, and scurries down an overgrown hill, disappearing into the night.  I realize then that I didn’t even get his name, and will have to make one up to share his story.

My friend and I walk along, mostly silent.  We shake our heads at the abject cruelty of the clerk, and discuss the pain Freddie must feel at being denied that most basic human need of acknowledgement. We part ways soon afterward.

Alone, I am still bothered, disturbed by the cruelty that life seems to have handed Freddie. I walk back outside alone, into the night, and look up at the lights in the lofty residences. The people who live up above me are as different from me as I am from Freddie, but we all have the same basic needs. He remains on my mind the rest of the evening, as I think about the pain he has experienced, both at his own hand and at the hands of others.

At 2:00am I awake with a start. It suddenly makes sense.

I saw the pain it caused Freddie to cease to exist, to be denied that most basic of human gifts, simple acknowledgement.

I watched as Freddie, in a store, was yelled at, silenced, and embarrassed. He was treated worse than anyone should deserve.

The tears roll down my cheeks as I realize why I am so deeply affected by him, why it feels so personal.

I think about my own story, the way my own bride has refused to acknowledge me. I think about how she, in a grocery store, shouted at me not to speak and to go away. I think about Freddie and I feel his lack of hope, and know this is something else we share. My whole body shakes as I sob into my pillow.

We are from two different worlds. We have two different stories. We could not be less alike.

And yet we share the same pain. Rejected.  Denied. Shut down. Cast off. We are unwanted.

I am Freddie too.

Good Times at the Big Show

It’s Internationally Trademarked Professional Nationwide American Football League Championship Bowl Game Day, and I’m in the city of Atlanta, just a few blocks away from the stadium.  I grab a jacket, put some cash in my wallet, and hit the streets.

Outside, the only thing denser than the traffic is the air of excitement.  People are coming from every direction, side streets spilling out onto the throughways, everyone heading to ground zero for the big game.  They are all talking and singing and shouting and laughing.  I join in tentatively, and shortly am buoyed along by the teeming crowd.  Most have their cell phones recording every moment, and they are dressed in every conceivable way, the thinner they are, the tighter their clothing.  Big guys in loose jerseys, small girls in tight dresses or leggings. Sequins are plentiful on the ladies.

“Need tickets?,” I’m asked.  I decide to haggle a little to see what the going rate is to get into the game.  At the first offer of $2800, I say “I don’t want to waste your time.  That’s not in my price range.”  What it is, is the price range of a Yugo.

As we teem on towards CNN Center, I see a protest taking place.  Colin Kaepernick has been big news this week, and so I assume it’s political in nature.  Wrong.  The first sign I see reads “It’s Not Your Mother’s Penis.”  I have no idea what that means.  The group is protesting circumcision, and they claim that the barbaric process removes 16 functions.  Now I am baffled and a little self-conscious, because I can only think of two functions for a penis.  “What am I missing?,” I wonder. I have a Swiss Army knife with fewer functions.

Onward we teem, and I’m getting a little more comfortable with my teeming technique in this human wave of anticipation, just a few minutes before kickoff.  “There aren’t this many seats in that stadium,” I think.  All of these people can’t possibly have tickets.

“Need tickets?,” I’m asked again.  This time, the price is down to $2000.  I assume that the closer we get to game time, the lower the price will go.  $2000 is still too much.  Ten times.

A megaphone is blaring.  “… and all of you drug addicts, and you perverts, and you alcoholics, you’re going to be surprised on that day when the Lord tells you ‘I never knew you.”  There are a couple of groups of street preachers here.

“Wailing and gnashing of teeth await you, unless you repent,” another megaphone blasts.

It’s almost a competition to outdo one another with their condemnation, two teams in the Super Damnation Bowl.  Clearly, they believe that Jesus went from town to town with a microphone, criticizing everyone.  I watch for a little while as an older man first debates with one of them and then curses at them.  The preacher will only respond through his loud megaphone.  It reminds me of the dunking tank at the fair, where a clown taunts the public with amplified insults, but the only response he hears is the rubes who pay $5 for another three balls to throw. He wants to be heard — not necessarily listened to — and he again condemns the old man, this time for his language.  It is a middle-school playground argument.

There’s a young man here too with a piece of cardboard covered with black velvet.  On it, he has three soda bottle caps.  He is running a shell game with the crowd of young men circled around him.  There’s a lot of shouting and jeering as the latest victim ends up getting fooled.  Again.  Some things never change.  I can’t help but notice that both the sheep who can’t find the pea and the wolf who is fleecing them are having a lot more fun than the preachers.

The media says that Internationally Trademarked Professional Nationwide American Football League Quarterback Tom Brady is the polarizing figure of this event, and there are merchants on both sides of the street to prove it.  “TOM F’ING BRADY” appears on the T-shirts being sold on one side of the street.  On the other side, in the same font and in the same colors, guys are selling “TOM BRADY SUCKS” T-shirts.  Entrepreneurship at its finest.

“Tickets?,” I’m asked yet again.  This time, the price is down to $1750.  I figure if I can wait until after the kickoff, I might be a buyer for something south of $200.

The stadium rises up in front of us, as we reach the end of the street.  It is brilliant and blue and beautiful, and through its windows the crowd can see Gladys Knight singing the national anthem on the big screen.  Suddenly, the air shakes and the crowd collectively looks up as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds scream by, right to left, leaving long contrails behind.  The crowd cheers! This is fun!

We stand there in the middle of the street, 20,000 of us without tickets and about a dozen who have too many.  To get inside, it currently takes both $1750 and a willingness to part with that much cold, hard cash. As far as I can tell, none of us here has both. The kickoff happens, and after seeing the first couple of plays on the big screen through the windows, the crowd, now without a purpose, begins to break up slowly.

I watch the street preachers a little more, and then begin to be drawn away slowly with the crowd.  The wave, having crashed against the rock, is now receding.

I come upon another circle of shouting men in the middle of the sidewalk.  This time, it’s the three card monty going on, same scam, same sheep, different wolf.  He notices me and asks me to find the red card.

“Nah, I’m okay,” I say.  “I’m just watching.”  He tells the man next to me to find the red card.  He picks the center one and is wrong.

“Come on, my man.  You pick the card,” he says to me.  The odds are 50/50.

“It’s the left one,” I say confidently, and he flips over the red card.

“You got a good eye; let’s try that again,” he says.  I have no idea how he controls the cards, but I’m not interested in being fleeced.

“I can’t play, but I like watching.”  Then I bluff, “I do have a good eye.  And you’ve got a pretty good technique.”

“Yeah, you right.  You can’t play,” he says.  I smile and move along.

I pass a man heading back toward the stadium.  “You got tickets?,” he asks.  “No, no tickets.”

“How many you need?”

“Just one,” I say.  It’s $1000.  Still too rich for my blood.

“I’m looking for a cheap one,” I admit.  “No more than $200.”

“Shhhh,” he hisses, and spins on his heels as he strides away.

“Yo, you need a ticket?,” I’m asked immediately afterward.  Most ticket scalpers have a look about them.  They’re hustlers.  They look a little slick and a little untrustworthy, sort of like used car salesmen.  By contrast, this one looks disheveled and a little nervous.  “Only $500.”

I’ve looked at half a dozen tickets tonight, felt the raised lettering, seen the Vince Lombardi trophy towering over the Mercedes Benz stadium in the background, the bright blue and red inks crisp and sharp.  This scalper holds his ticket low, showing me only the front.  The picture on the ticket’s image looks like a high school field lit up at night.  “Super Bowl” it says in murky black letters.  I’m confused, wondering if this guy was foolish enough to buy the fake ticket he is now trying to pass off to me, or if he’s foolish enough to make a fake ticket this bad, thinking someone will pay for it.  As I chuckle, I decline his offer and move on again, headed back towards home.

In front of me, I see a set of the street preachers.  As I walk along behind them, I strike up a conversation.

“What I’m wondering,” I ask, “is why you want people to fear God?”

He stops.  “Proverbs 1:7 says ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,'” he quotes.  “Do you know the Lord?,” he challenges me.

“I’m just thinking that if God made each of us as unique people, and He wants to know us, and He loves us so much that He sent his only son to die for us, that maybe he doesn’t want us to fear him so much as love him,” I say.

He doesn’t wait for me to finish.  He quotes Paul in Phillipians, saying we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  He moves on to Luke, quoting that God’s mercy is on those who fear him.  After about five verse quotes, he asks, “Now isn’t all of that true?”

“It is,” I respond.  “But it’s only half of the picture.  In most of those verses you quote, ‘fear’ is used in a form that connotes respect.  You’re not quoting anything about Jesus and his love of people, or his message that God loves us all.”

He doesn’t let me finish before he’s off again, drawing closer to me, quoting scripture right through my body.

“Now wait a second,” I ask.  “You keep interrupting me …”

“We’re having a dialogue here, a back and forth,” he interrupts yet again.

“Yes, we are,” I respond.  “But you have to let me forth before you come back.”

His companion enters the discussion.  “Let him make his point, Jack,” he says.

“I know his point already,” preacherman says.  “You just want to tickle the ears,” he tells me.

“I guess we are done here then,” I say.  “Good luck to you, brother.”  I’m tempted to shake the dirt off of my shoes as I move on with a smile.

I pass CNN center, where the earlier protest was happening.  There’s an iconic 10-foot high CNN logo sign in front of the building.  About four feet up, there’s a new hole in the sign, the shape of a fist.  Someone must have taken the protest personally.

I cut through Centennial Park, and run into another T-Shirt vendor.  This shirt lacks profanities, and shows the two teams playing the game.  Yes, I’ll take one for $20.

“I need an extra-large,” I say.  He has maybe four shirts with him.

“Okay, I got you covered,” he says.  He holds the shirt up in front of my chest, the way a mom does to test fit something on a boy who’s eight.  “That looks good,” he says.  He folds it in half and tosses it over my shoulder, looking for his payment.

I pull the shirt off my shoulder and look at its tag.  It doesn’t say XL.  “This is a medium.”

“Oh, my bad,” he lies.  “I guess I don’t have an extra large.  How about a medium?”

Yeah, that won’t fit.  He wants me to follow him up the street for the extra large shirts.  I do.  At his stash, he still has only mediums, but he tries to convince me that they run large and they will fit.  Suspicious, I wonder if there’s a box of medium t-shirts that fell off of a truck somewhere this afternoon.  I grin and move on again.

A homeless man sees me put my $20 back in my pocket, and suddenly is very interested in talking to me.  He walks along with me, telling me about his troubles.  “I’ve been volunteering at the homeless shelter,” I tell him.  “Have you been there?”  Yes, but he doesn’t like the way the place is run.  The homeless run the place he says; this is largely true, but it’s part of the program of building discipline and accountability.

He tells me he can get off of the street and have a garage apartment, but he’s coincidentally just $17 short of the $480 he needs for the rent, and an employer will give him a job when he rents the apartment, he says.  He’s a nice enough guy, but his story is fishy.  When we stop at a crosswalk, he steps behind me so the police officer directing traffic can’t see him.  His voice drops to a whisper.  Too late.  The officer shoos him off.  “Didn’t I tell you to stop panhandling here?”  The cop tells me that Atlanta has a lot of resources for the homeless, and the biggest problem is that people give them money, which keeps them on the streets and gives them cash to stay drug addicted.

I walk on alone now, the crowd around me having dispersed.  I take a back walkway past the aquarium and the Coca-Cola museum, and as I cross the street to my building, I look back over my shoulder towards the glow of the lights and the orbiting helicopters.

The most-watched show in the world was held here tonight.

The best show was the one outside, that everyone else missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Better

She sits alone, at the top of the stairway, waiting.  Every afternoon, waiting.  And praying.

Positioned to one side, just down from the top of the staircase, she cranes her neck to see, and yet tries not to be seen.  She cannot hear the bus as it stops along the main highway, but she knows it is coming soon, and she will not allow herself to miss it.

“Please, Jesus,” she prays aloud again, her hands folded.  She doesn’t dare bow her head or close her eyes, lest she miss him.  “Please let today have been a better day.”

Soon she sees him.  Her boy comes running, always running.  He comes into view as he charges down the road, running with his schoolbooks under his arm.  With too much to carry, one slips loose.  He grabs at it, but drops them all instead; books fall and papers scatter across the roadway and fill the air.

She can’t quite understand what’s said, but she can hear catcalls and laughter that follow.

Her boy stops, turns, and stoops to gather his things haphazardly.  He doesn’t look up.  He misses a paper that the breeze carries out of his reach, but he doesn’t bother to chase after it; that would be more for the kids to laugh at.  He quickly heads for home, for his mother, for peace, books and papers jutting out in all directions, as he tries to hold them against his body in a hurried walk towards safety.

Behind her boy and further up the road, several kids finally come into view, three boys and two girls, all of them older, maybe 13 or 14.  The boys are ahead of the girls, with one a few steps ahead of the others; it is he that was doing the chasing, but only enough to make her boy run and only long enough to look tough to the girls.

She is filled with anger and with questions.  What could make this kid so mean?  What is wrong with these kids that makes bullying her boy fun for them?  What’s funny about hurting someone else’s child?

As her son comes up the driveway, safe, she moves to the kitchen, thinking she is unseen.

“Mommmmm!” the boy calls as he enters.

She greets him with some cookies and a hug.  She knows what is coming, but she asks the daily question anyway: “How was your day?”

What follows is a 20-minute stream of consciousness about how school is terrible and the kids are mean to me and I don’t have any friends still and nobody will let me work on the bulletin board like they did at my old school and Blake is not nearly as good of an artist but nobody will give me a chance to show how good I am and at P.E. nobody will throw me the ball even though I played baseball for four years before we moved here and they don’t care and nobody will sit with me at lunch and I don’t even like the food in this cruddy cafeteria like I like the food at my old school and Sean pushed me out of the way at the sink in the bathroom and I wasn’t even doing anything to him and the other kids laughed when I got all wet and I still don’t like my teachers and the way they let people work together and nobody wants to work with me because they think I’m dumb and I hate this whole town and I hate everything and I want to go back home where it was better.

She listens to every word, never interrupting, letting him get it all out.

“I’m sorry buddy,” she says.  She hands him some milk.  “But was it at all better today than it was yesterday?”

“Not much.”

“I’m sorry.”  She pauses.  “But it was a little better?”

“A little.”

What he can’t share with her, what he couldn’t even articulate if he could understand it himself is the profound sense of shame that he feels at not being able to fit in, the shame that comes from running from a bully, the shame of not turning and fighting, the shame that his mother knows that he’s a coward.  All he knows is that the kids don’t like him and he doesn’t like himself much either.

He cries.  It only compounds his shame.

“Why can’t we just go back home?”

“We live here now,” she says.  “It will keep getting a little better, every day.”

It tears at her heart to know that her son, her only child, is so miserable.  She feels responsible for it and helpless to fix it.  She feels like crying with him, but she does not, cannot.  That will come tomorrow, after he leaves for school and she is alone.

“Please Jesus,” she pleads through her own tears.  “Please let today be better.”

——-

“How was your day today?”  She knows what’s coming, again.

“My boss is impossible to deal with.  I don’t even think he understands what he’s asking us to do, and there’s no way I’m going to get that promotion.  There is far too much to do and too little time to do it, and I think I should look for a new job somewhere else.”

“Is it getting any better at all?” she asks, through the phone.

“A little.  Not much.”

“Good!  I’ve been praying it would get better.”

——-

“How did it go today?” she asks.  She knows what to expect.

“I just don’t understand why she won’t talk to me,” he cries.  “I know divorce is hard on kids, but to have your own daughter refuse to talk to you, that’s tough.  She won’t even answer the phone when I call.”

“She will come around,” she encourages.  “It will get better.”

“I don’t know, Mom.  I can’t see how.”

“It will get better.  I’ve been praying for her.  And for you.”

——-

A mother loves her son.

In spite of seeing him at his worst, she continued to expect his best.  She believed in him when he didn’t believe in himself.  She encouraged him when he needed it, and understood like no one else could.  Because of that, he spent three days writing what you just read.

A Mother Speaks

Ken001

LILBURN, GA – The parking lot is nearly empty as I pull in; ten minutes early, I sit in my car and wait until it’s time.  I had not expected a big turnout.  There are only two other cars here, and a limousine.  And of course, there’s the hearse.

As I enter, an older gentleman, a Baptist preacher, introduces himself like only a Baptist preacher would; he’s a little too glad to meet me and a little too eager to thank me for coming.  Ken was Catholic.  No, he never met Ken he says a little sheepishly, when asked.

“It must be tough to perform a funeral service for someone you haven’t met,” I say.

“The only thing tougher is doing one for someone you knew really well,” he replies, and it’s clear he speaks from experience.  He looks to me for some information that he can use in his eulogy, some golden nugget, some anecdote.

I’ve got nothing for him.  “Ken was kind of odd,” I offer as helpfully as I can, and the pastor’s shoulders fall in disappointment before he goes to seek better insights elsewhere.

Why did I come to this funeral?  Ken and I had not spoken much over the past several years.

———-

We were in 10th grade in Journalism class when I met Ken.  I was the new kid, uncomfortable, unsure, awkward, and out of my element.  Ken was all of those things too, and so we had that in common.  He said he’d moved from Brooklyn, but to a kid from the Georgia hinterlands, Brooklyn seemed a foreign country.  He talked of his old home with enthusiasm, and said he was already planning to return.  Someday.

Ken was interested only in the things that Ken was interested in, which is to say that he would gladly talk about places I’d never been and music I’d never heard, but he wasn’t concerned with  much else beyond his likes.  I found that, like the other kids, I couldn’t really connect with him.  We weren’t close, but I had a sense that he viewed me as being among his closer friends, if Ken ever considered himself close to anyone.

He showed me something he’d written about his memories of Brooklyn.  His writing was good.  Poignant even.  As I read his piece, I was surprised to learn that Ken wasn’t the new kid in school that I thought he was; he had moved more than five years prior.  He had apparently just never adjusted; he still felt out of place.  His writing gave me a feel for the love he had for his old home and alerted me to a sense of pain that he felt within his own skin.

I got lucky.  Something I wrote caught the teacher’s attention, and I was promoted to the school newspaper staff, big time journalism.  It also meant that I’d found my niche, a place where I wasn’t so awkward.

We were talking about what to do with a part of the paper, and I thought of Ken’s Brooklyn piece.  I shared it with my new friend Mark, the editor.  Mark read Ken’s story and thought it was good, too.  He even gave Ken his own column, arranged to fit at the edge of the page.  “Ken’s Corner” he called it, and Ken could write about any odd thing he wanted.  He did.

Ken wrote about whatever pleased Ken.  There were columns about alternative bands nobody had ever heard of.  He wrote about the challenges of getting a girl’s attention.  He wrote about television shows and radio stations and TV Guide ads and other minutiae that ruled the lives of 80’s teens, but always from a perspective that was a little outside the norm.  He seemed to enjoy that space, that place that was just out of reach of mainstream ideas of fashion, of culture, of life.

What he wrote about music offended some kids, and what he wrote about dating, some others.  Ken never flinched.  He would publish one column and immediately begin to think about ideas for the next one.  Writing his own column seemed for him to be an outlet. Ken shared with others – maybe for the first time ever – something about himself.  Kids began to see him in a new light.  He became a minor celebrity with that column, and he seemed to finally find a place where he fit.

I didn’t try very hard to keep in touch.  20 years later, I found by accident that we lived just 10 minutes apart in the rural South.  He hadn’t returned to Brooklyn after all.  I saw him a few times, to catch up.  He was older.  Like me, he was heavier.  Ken was still the same Ken though.

He had high blood pressure, and didn’t take it – or his medication — seriously.  Last week he was hospitalized and while there, had a mild stroke.  I visited with him briefly, the first time I’d seen him in three years, and he was optimistic.  He was going to take his medicine, he said.  He was a looking forward to losing weight.  He made all of the resolutions for a changed life that a man makes when forced to face his own mortality.  He went home soon after.

A few days later, he was dead.

———-

At his funeral, there are only seven of us present, including the preacher.  It seems like an awfully small number to reflect on a man’s 47 years.  The pastor, still looking to fill time, asks if we wouldn’t mind talking about Ken some in the service.

I don’t know what to say, but I stand before his mother, his sister, and his uncle at the front of the chapel.  “I knew Ken a lot less than anyone here,” I begin.  I talk of meeting Ken, of our journalism class, and of his high school newspaper column.  I speak about Ken’s unique spirit, the best that I can.  It’s not much.  I tell someone else’s story, the only funny anecdote I have to offer of Ken, of how he was surprised to learn that the Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles.

“Why didn’t I know this? When did this happen?” asks an incredulous Ken.

“1957.”

The story gets a laugh, and with it, I get his family’s confirmation that they too know that Ken was different.

Afterward, there’s a brief reception.  There’s food for maybe 25 people.  Most of it will go untouched.  His family politely thanks me for coming and for speaking, and I’m embarrassed about that, because I wasn’t a good friend.

A parent shouldn’t have to bury their child, no matter his age.  Ken’s mother is devastated, and the day is understandably difficult for her.  She speaks with me for a while about Ken.

“Oh, he was so proud of that column,” she remembers.  “He came home from school so excited, saying ‘Ma, they gave me my own column!  Can you believe it?’” She talks with the pride of a mother, and for a little while, the past 30 years are gone.

“Of course they did, because you are good!  You are a good writer,” she says.  She glows as she remembers the moment, and her face softens.  The encouragement I hear in her words makes me think she tried often to make her boy believe in himself more.

They had left New York for South Florida when Ken was 11 years old.

“He hated Florida,” she tells me.  “He always wanted to go back home to Brooklyn.”

I wonder if his desire to go back was because he couldn’t make friends, or if he wouldn’t make friends because he wanted to go back.  I see in her eyes the doubt of a mother who wonders if things couldn’t have been different for her son.

“There weren’t many people here,” she tells me, “but you know what?  I’d rather have a few people who care than a whole room full of people who were here because they felt obligated.”

It’s an indictment, but she doesn’t realize it.

“He was so smart,” she says.  “He had such a memory.  He could tell you what page an article was on in the encyclopedia.  If you wanted to know where ‘Animals’ was, he would tell you the page, and what pictures were there.”

She’s right.  That’s pretty impressive.

She’s thankful for those who reached out to her son when he was ill.

“When he was in the hospital, people wished him well over the internet.  He called me and he said to me, ‘Ma, all these years I thought people didn’t care about me, but they do.  They’ve been telling me they hope I get better.'”   Her voice echoes the excitement she heard in his.  She knows about my short hospital visit and thanks me for it, but I suddenly feel guilty for not doing much more.

She talks about how her son wanted to be a journalist.  He started college she says, but then lost interest; she doesn’t know why.  The question seems to haunt her, all these years later.

That’s not all that haunts her.  There are unanswered questions about why her son died, and whether or not someone could have done something to get help to him sooner.  Details are sketchy.  There are conflicting stories.

“I’ll never get the answers to those questions,” she laments.

Me, I get the answer to my question.  Now I know what I’m doing here.

A mother deserves the right to talk about her son, and to have someone listen.  For a little while, I can do that.

 

 

Open for Business?

“Harvey’s Garage Door Service, Harvey speaking!  How many I help you today?”

“Hi, Harvey.  I need to have a garage door opener installed, please.”

“Great!  We’ll be glad to do it.  We can do that work Friday, for just a hundred and ninety dollars.”

“No, I think you misunderstood, Harvey.  I don’t need the door and the opener.  I just need the opener installed.”

“Right.  Installing your door opener is one-ninety.  Will Friday work for you?”

“Wow!  Nope, that’s too expensive for such a little job, Harvey.   I’m going to call someone else.”

“Okay.  Thanks for calling.  We’ll speak to you soon.”

“Huh?”

<click>

 

“Thank you for calling the Home Depot.”

“Yes, hi, I’d like to speak to someone about …”

“Your call is very important to us.  For English, press 1.  Para Espanol, marque numero dos.”

“1.”

“Pour Français, appuyez sur 3.”

“1.”

“Voor Nederlands, drukt u op 4.”

“1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. …”

“Za Bonsanske, pritisnite 5.”

“1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1.”

“Gracias por llamar al Home Depot usted.  Has llegado a la mesa de ayuda española.”

<click>

 

“Thank you for calling the Home …”

“0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0.”

“One moment please.”

“Sigh …”

“Hi, this is Brittney!  It’s a great day at the Home Depot, where low prices are just the beginning.  How may I direct your call?”

“Hello, Brittney!  I’m glad to talk to a real person.  I need to find out about having a garage door opener installed.”

“What department is that in, sir?”

“Excuse me?  I don’t know … the garage door department?”

“Let me try Building Materials.”

“Wait, I don’t think …”

“Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.”

“Hi, this is Brittney!  It’s a great day at the Home Depot, where low prices are just the beginning.  How may I direct your call?”

“Brittney, you were just trying to connect me to someone to …”

“Did they not pick up?  Okay, let me try Lawn and Garden.”

“No, I don’t th—“

“Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.”

“Hi, this is Brittney!  It’s a great day at the Home Depot, where low prices are just the beginning.  How may I direct your call?”

<click>

 

“Thank you for calling Sears, home of the Sears Shop Your Way program for loyal customers …”

“0.”

“… and the brand names America trusts, like Craftsman, Kenmore …”

“0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0.”

“… and Die Hard.  Check out our new website …”

“0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0! 0! 0! 0! 0! 0!”

“… where you can find all of the great products we offer, at everyday low prices.  Your call is …”

“Aaarrrgh!”

“… very important to us.  Our store is located at 24 …”

“Why do you idiots not have a human answer the freaking PHONE?!?!”

“… and we are open weekdays from 10:00 am to …”

“I don’t CARE where you’re located.  I just need to speak to a real person!”

“… and Sundays from 12:00 to 5:00.  Now, what department are you calling?”

“Uh, garage door openers?”

“That’s … HARDWARE.  Is this correct?”

“Sure.  That’s correct.”

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t understand your response.  Please try again.”

“Hardware!”

“What department are you calling?”

“Hardware!  Hardware!  Hardware!”

“That’s … HARDWARE.  Is this correct?”

“Yes!”

“Please hold for … HARDWARE.”

“Oh my goodness.”

“Hardware, this is Jake.”

“Hi Jake.  I’m trying to have a garage door opener installed.”

“I don’t think we do that.”

“Don’t you sell garage door openers?”

“Yeah, I think we do.  Let me ask my manager.  Hold please.”

“…”

“Hello, Sir?  Yeah, we sell garage door openers.”

“Right.  I’m trying to have one installed.  I need to hire you to install an opener in a new house.”

“Oh, okay.  I don’t think we do that.”

“Are you sure?  You used to install them.”

“Let me ask my manager.  Hold please.”

“…”

“Hello, sir?  Yeah, we install garage door openers.”

“Great!”

“You just call our 1-800 number, and they can set you up.”

“Why do I call you for you to tell me to call someone else?  Can’t you just take my money now?”

“No, I’m in the store.  If you want to order from the store, you can’t.  You have to come into the store.  If you want to order over the phone, you have to call another number.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Let me ask my manager.  Hold please.”

“Wait, ask him what?”

“…”

“Sir?  I talked to my manager, and that’s our policy, sir.  You’ll have to come into the store or call our 800-number.”

“Fine.”

<click>

 

“Thank you for calling Sears Home Services.  My name is Frank.  Do you need help with a product warranty?”

“No, I need to have a garage door opener installed.”

“We have a special deal on product repair agreements today.”

“I just need to have my garage door opener installed.”

“Okay, I can see here that the fee for that installation is one-hundred twenty dollars.  Would you like me to set up installation for you?”

“Yes.  That’d be great, Frank.”

“And how would you like a way to save money on costly repairs for your garage door opener through our exciting new repair agreement program?

“No thanks.  I just need the opener installed.”

“Okay.  Let’s start with your name.  Your first name sir?”

“James.”

“Okay, and your last name?”

“Carver.  C. A. R. V. E. R.”

“Thank you mister Barber.  I’ll need your address and your method of payment.”

“Fine.”

“We have a one-time deal on Maintenance Agreements today, if you’d like to know how you can save $300 on maintenance and warranty calls, Mr. Barber.”

“No, thank you.  And it’s Carver, with a C.”

“I apologize, Mr. Carber.  Lastly I’ll need your ZIP code, Mr. Carber.”

“My ZIP code is 30028.”

“Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Carber.  I see here that we don’t offer installation services in your area.”

“I thought you had nationwide installation.”

“We do, Mr. Carber.  What country are you calling from?”

“I’m calling from ZIP code 30028.  In Georgia.”

“We don’t have an installer for your area, Mr. Carber.  I’m sorry.  I can save you hundreds in repair costs on your new gara–”

<click>

 

“Harvey’s Garage Door Service, Harvey speaking!  How many I help you today?”

“Hello, Harvey.”

“No luck at Sears, huh?”

“Nope.”

“Tried Home Depot too?”

“Yep.”

“Usted no habla español, ¿eh?

“Nope.”

“How’s Brittney?”

“Perky as ever.”

“Okay well, I still have a slot open for Friday, if you’d like it.  Can we install your door opener then?”

“Sure.”

“The price will be just two-hundred fifty dollars.”

“Two-fifty?!?  An hour ago, you said it was one-ninety.”

“Yes, you’re right.  It was.  Maybe you want to try Lowe’s?”

“Okay.  You’ve got me.  I’ll see you Friday.”

“Cash only, please.”

Hanging With the Ladies

I went away to college, once.  New town.  New people.  New experiences.  New terrors.  I was the skinny, shy kid.  I didn’t make friends easily.

It didn’t help that the college I was going to had the previous year only catered to upperclassmen, Juniors and Seniors.  This was the first semester that the school had admitted Freshmen, and I was among them.  There were not many of us.

I was nervous about meeting my new roommate.  I needn’t have worried.  When my parents dropped me off, he wasn’t there.  Gone home to visit relatives for two weeks.  I was a stranger, living with someone else’s things.  If you don’t want a stranger to go through your belongings, you definitely want to be there when they move in.  Before he’d returned to school, I knew my roommate’s favorite music (heavy metal), the medications he was taking (aspirin and muscle relaxers), his last semester’s grades (he was not a great student), and his underwear size (Hanes, 32).  He was 10 years older than me, according to his expired driver’s license.  And balding.

So that first week was a pretty lonely week for me.  Strange place, stranger situation.

“You’ve got to get out more,” I told myself.  “You need to meet some people.”

“Nobody wants to meet me,” I said.  A week alone will make you start talking to yourself.

“You don’t know that,” I countered.  “Besides, if you keep talking to yourself, you’re going to go batty.”

“What will I go do?” I wondered aloud.

“There’s a fraternity rush party,” I answered.  “You saw the signs for it.  There will be a lot of people there, and they’ll definitely want to get to know you if they’re looking for new members.”

“But I don’t know what to say to strangers,” I told myself.  “I’m not good at conversation.”

“You’re doing fine with me,” I said, and I meant it.  “Besides, if you’ll just look them in the eyes and give them a firm handshake, they’ll interpret that as confidence.  Confidence is the key to getting people to like you.”

I had a point.  “Okay, why not,” I agreed.  “I’ll go along and see how it goes.”

Now, I was not a party person.  Never was.  I hadn’t ever been around anyone who drank, much less tasted alcohol.  At 18, I had up until that point led a pretty sheltered existence.  “That needs to change,” I told myself.  “You need to loosen up.  Remember: confidence!”

There was a group of fraternity guys at the party, and a few girls.  I think they’d expected a bigger turnout.  There were five of us that were not fraternity members, me the only Freshman among them.    The fraternity guys made a point, every one of them, of meeting each of us, probing us about our future plans, asking about our drinking habits and other important details relevant to fraternity life.  It was clear we were all under scrutiny.  Still, I followed the advice I’d been given, and shook hands and looked into people’s eyes in as confident and manly a way as possible.  There was alcohol there, but I politely declined.  I was not yet ready to get that loose.

My advice about confidence paid off.  I managed to get through the evening intact, met a lot of new people — even a couple of the girls — and was suddenly feeling pretty good about myself.  I not only had human contact, but I’d done a pretty good job of being conversational.  Just as I was beginning to really get comfortable, the Campus Police showed up, and shut the party down.  There was an 11 o’clock curfew for alcohol on the campus.

“No big deal,” one of the fraternity guys told me.  “That just means it’s time to go to Dickie’s.”  Dickie’s was a bar, conveniently located a short distance from the campus.  “You comin’?”

I was not inclined to go.  “Confidence,” I reminded myself.  “Uh, sure I’ll come,” I answered, and before I knew it, I was in someone else’s car headed down the highway.  Only then did I wonder if the driver was in a good enough condition to drive.  About 20 of us went, including the four potential pledges.

Dickie’s was clearly the spot of choice because of its proximity to the school.  It was a dark, musty place with neon beer signs on the wall and the smell of stale beer throughout, or was that urine?.  There was music, and it was loud.  I could barely hear anything else, except the gentle cries of my eardrums.   There place was filled with other college students.  About 10 of us were pressed together into a large booth, me squarely in the center of the group.

“So I notice you don’t drink much,’ one of the guys screamed to me, over the music.   He was a large man, with a big belly and a thick, full beard.

“No, not at all, really,” I responded, and I was suddenly ashamed not to be a drinker.  “Confidence!” I reminded myself, trying to bolster my own.

“But I don’t mind if you drink,” I said.  “In fact, the less I drink, the more there is for you.”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” said the fat man.  “I like this kid.”

Clearly my confidence was paying off.  First the party, then out to a bar, and now they say they like me.  I was turning over a new leaf.

The waitress came to take our orders.  She went down the table one by one, and after each, she asked to see an ID.  When she got to me, I ordered my usual, a Coke.

“I need to see your ID, hon,” she demanded.

“I’m just having a Coke,” I said.  “No alcohol.”

“Doesn’t matter, hon,” she said.  “State law says you have to be 21 to be in a bar.  Where’s your ID?”

I was 18.  I knew that.  But still, I pulled out my license anyway, the one that was a special color to help identify minors.  “I’m just here to hang out with my new friends,” I protested.  “I’m not drinking.  I don’t even drink.  I don’t want to drink.”  It hit me that none of the guys present was under 21, and I was clearly the only minor there.

By this time, several other students in the place had noticed what was transpiring, and they were watching intently.  My confidence began to fade.

“Sorry hon,” she said.  “You got to go.”

Except she didn’t just say it.  She shouted it over the music, so she could be heard.  However, just as she called me “hon” for the third time, the band abruptly finished their song, so we were suddenly in a much quieter room, and her shouted announcement of “YOU GOT TO GO” was heard by every student in the place.  All eyes were on me.  So much for confidence.  I wanted to crawl under the table.

“You can’t do that,” I told myself.  “Be cool.  Stay confident.  Go out with your head held high.”

So I got up.  With everyone staring, I got up and started to exit the bar.  That meant making half of our tightly packed group slide out of the booth so I could get past them.  Still, I’d kept reminding myself to be confident all night, and it had largely worked.  I’d made new friends, been new places, had new experiences.  This was no time to quit being confident!  Even if I had to leave, I was going out with style.  Embarrassed, but not defeated, I shouted my goodbyes to the group and said I’d see them at the next party.

“Come back when you’re old enough, little boy,” someone else in the bar shouted, and the table around them broke out in laughter.  I didn’t let it bother me.  I was being confident.

Dickie’s was dark.  Really dark.  When I’d come in, I followed the crowd I was with.  I didn’t really think about which direction the door was in.  I pushed against the heavy wooden door and was in a brightly lit vestibule, another door in front of me.  I didn’t recall two doors.

“Hey, kid, that’s the –” someone behind me shouted, and there was more laughter that suddenly got quieter as the first door swung back closed.

I hadn’t been paying attention.  I had walked into the bathroom, by mistake, and some of the drunker patrons in the bar had gotten a laugh out of it.  I was embarrassed and felt a surge of panic, but I had to have confidence, I reminded myself.  I gathered my wits about me, and thought things through.  “They don’t know I didn’t have to go to the bathroom,” I thought.  “I can take my time, go back outside, and then leave by the right door.  This will be okay.”  I pushed on through the vestibule’s second door, and walked  in to the bathroom.

I washed my hands, and splashed some water on my face, eating up some time.  The sound of the running water made me suddenly realize that I had to pee, and so I shut off the sink, dried my hands, and turned around to find the urinal.

There was no urinal.  Instead, I suddenly noticed that there were only stalls in this bathroom.  There were also odd stainless steel machines on the wall, each of which took quarters, and each of which sold only one thing.  I had no idea what these machines were and wondered why they’d be in the men’s room.  And then it finally hit me.

I was in the ladies’ room.  Not only had I been too young and been thrown out of a bar in front of all of my new friends, and not only had I accidentally taken the wrong door and ended up in the bathroom with the entire joint watching, but I’d ended up in the LADIES’ ROOM.  My heart was in my stomach.  There was no way out.  I briefly considered living there, permanently.

“Okay,” I told myself.  “This is bad.  This is really bad.  You’ve got to get out of here.”

I took a deep breath.

“Maybe no one noticed,” I told myself.  “I just need to walk out, head held high, and head for the exit.  It’s all I’ve got.  Confidence, right?”

I took another deep breath and let it out.  I needed to go, before someone else came in.  “Here goes nothing.”

The moment the door opened, I could hear the applause and the laughter.  The entire joint somehow saw what I’d done.  They knew of my mistake.

“Door’s that way, hon,” the waitress pointed.

“It’s the one under the ‘EXIT’ sign,” the first heckler hollered, to more rounds of laughter from his table.  The fraternity guys I’d come with were pretending not to know me.

I hiked back to the dorms, and for the rest of the evening, went through my roommate’s things.

 

 

(Originally written April, 1990; Revised March, 2013)