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For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

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Gil C. Schmidt was born. Lucky for him and some 416 people, many of who don't seem to know it. Lives in Puerto Rico, which is convenient because he also works from there. Gil writes about dozens of real things (with relish) and dozens of imaginary things (like phantasmagoric pickles), in separate forums. Author of several books and a son, Gil gets in trouble when he's bored. Please head to the egress now.


Friday, April 29, 2005

Janet

She was in her early 30s, a woman with leathery constitution and enough oddness to populate a circus.

Janet was easy to spot in a crowd. A little over 5 feet tall and weighing a wispy 100 pounds, she was wiry, fidgety and loud, with hair the color of hay, flashy make-up and clothes that were made to be seen from a distance.

All of which made Janet both magnet and repellent. Magnet because you couldn’t help noticing her and she seemed approachable, if not downright invitational. Repellent because Janet was nobody’s fool, aimed her words like arrows and had a 16-year old daughter.

I never met Janet’s daughter. If there are sitcoms that glorify the odd couple relationship between one “wild” person and a “shy” one, Janet and her daughter would have served as role models. Of course, having never met the offspring, my only reference is her mother, but Janet spoke about her child with almost compulsive consistency.

First of all, Janet always said “my daughter” or, less frequently, “my little girl.” Never said her name. It got to the point where I wondered if said daughter existed, or if she did, whether she lived with Janet or not. My friend Tim did confirm that Janet’s daughter existed and lived with her.

Janet treated me like a child, ordering me around like I needed a mother figure. At first, I followed suit, but that wore thin quickly and I’d politely decline to get her purse (only a few feet away from where she was sitting), buy her cigarettes or do anything that saved her effort. She would then tell me about “the daughter” that was a precious angel and did all those things for her mother and more.

Eccentric as she was, Janet would cut clean to the heart of a matter, damn the consequences. Once while I was describing a story I wanted to write, she frowned at me. “You got a girlfriend?”

“No.”

“You get one by meeting girls, not by writing stories.” I actually blushed. She puffed on her cigarette.

“You know I’m right. Meet some girls. But stay away from my daughter. She’s too good for you.”

I tried to rally. “Maybe I should date you.”

She puffed again. “Nah. I’d use you and throw you out. You’re too good for me.” Damn me if I didn’t blush again.

One late night, as we drank coffee, Janet stopped looking at the distance and said “My daughter is going to college. Early entry.”

I nodded and drank coffee. She wasn’t finished. She tried to light a cigarette and for the only time in my life, I helped light one. Her hand was shaking severely. Her voice barely came out. “What am I going to do?” Tears started to fall.

She was hard as nails and soft as a dandelion. She was loud to fill her silences. She protected her daughter because she had no other shield. She demanded gentle truth. “Throw a dart at a map. Go there.”

She froze for long seconds. “Are you kidding? That sounds stupid.”

I sipped some more coffee, slowly. “I knew you’d like it.”

She tried to keep a straight face, then burst into laughter. “You got a map?” I shook my head and we talked for another hour.

Two weeks later, Janet was gone. She left me a note that said: “I threw two darts. The first one missed.”

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Elevator Drama

Shortly before 10 PM, I entered the West Tower elevator. As the door started to close, three guys and a young lady in evening wear rushed into the lobby. I pushed the “Open” button and waited for them to pile in. I noticed the young lady entered last and what little color her skin had faded to nothing under the harsh fluorescent light.

The door closed. I pushed 10 and one of the guys asked me to push 11. For a few seconds, the elevator pondered whether the trip was worth making or not. The guys were looking at me; I was looking at the young lady, who seemed more statue than human.

Taking in my jeans, sweatshirt and sneakers versus their full evening attire, one of the guys asked me “Don’t you feel under-dressed?”

“Don’t you feel over-dressed?” I replied and the elevator jolted upward.

It isn’t often that you see emotional extremes; raw, naked expressions of a person’s deepest feelings. The young lady in that elevator was terrified. Her body was stone, her hands white-knuckled clamps on a tiny purse twisted horribly out of shape. Her eyes were frozen wide, unblinking, unseeing, incapable of looking at anything except the polished metal door. She was barely breathing. We were passing the fourth floor.

I looked at the guys and none were paying her any attention. I opened my mouth to say something, but what was there to say? They either knew and didn’t care, or didn’t know and pointing out what was happening could be humiliating to her. At least she was holding herself together, though in so brittle a fashion that I felt she would shatter if I touched her.

She glanced up. Seventh floor. Cords on her neck were straining for escape. I fought down the urge to slap 8 and help her out. That wouldn’t help. I forced myself to accept that.

Finally, the 10 above the door lit up and the elevator grumbled to a halt. The doors opened, I stepped out and turned to watch as the doors closed. I stared openly at the young lady, both our mouths compressed into thin lines. Just before the doors closed, her eyes found mine and with the barest motion, she shook her head.

The door closed. I barely breathed, stock-still as a painting. I waited until the elevator reached 11, stayed there for a few minutes, then made the long trip down to 1. Then I walked to my room.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Hide and Seek

It was a serious game.

From beyond the Cafeteria, past Guyton Hall, one could walk along a tree-lined road that led to Rebel Deli, Mr. Quik, Pizza Inn, Kiamie Bowling Lanes and more distant points of interest. Once you went down the embankment that marked the edge of the main campus, you were walking on a stretch of road of about a mile and a quarter, maybe a mile and a third in length.

To your left as you walked away from the campus was Faculty Housing and the Chancellor’s Residence, hidden behind scattered trees. To your right was a wooded area, home for future development not yet envisioned. Ahead of you was a long—tunnel—with a slight curve to the left. From both directions, you could see the headlights and hear the engine noise of oncoming vehicles.

Plenty of warning to hide.

That’s what I did. For every solitary late-night walk along that road, and there were many, I’d dive into the brush or run into the trees as cars came along. The idea was to cover the entire stretch of road without being seen once.

Sometimes cars came in waves, several at a time, so hiding became waiting for an opportunity to make some progress. At other times, hiding was basically a quick in, pause, then back out on the road to keep walking.

On one occasion, as I hid from a stream of Homecoming visitors, the Campus Police patrolled the Faculty area. From that side, I was visible, so I lay down atop cool pine needles, arms behind my head and waited them all out. I had time to write a story and once the busyness ended, I made it down the road unseen. Again.

A couple of times, my disappearing act was too slow, and cars would slow down near my spot, or even stop to figure out if man or beast had taken flight. Those were defeats, as burning in my chest as any other defeat.

When I knew I was leaving for good, I walked down the road one last time. I dodged and hid, the movements as easy as if rehearsed. As it came time to emerge from the darkness for the last time, I waited. Several minutes went by and finally, one last car rolled by. I watched it pass, then stepped out into the light.

The game was over.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Pinball Demons

I’ve had a few addictions in my life. Nasal spray comes to mind, as does caffeine in various forms. But none was more compulsive than playing pinball.

I started in seventh grade, when school and I parted ways to mutual accomodation: My teachers hated me as much as I hated them and being apart was satisfactory. I would stop at the nearest bar/café/store with pinball machines and taking advantage of the 5-cents-per-play bonanza, I’d get some coins and play all day.

Literally. I’d get to the machines at 7 AM and play straight through until 4 or 5 PM. As I improved, I could challenge other players and win free games, money or even lunch. As my reputation grew, I’d have to handicap my play to find any takers, usually by me playing only one ball versus my opponent’s playing 2, 3, 4 or even 5 balls. I won far more often than I lost, but every loss was an inducement to rage.

There were times when I shoved machines across the room, bouncing them off walls, counters, other machines and even people. In one raging fit, I cut the cords on all six machines that had somehow managed to defeat me that day. I once kicked a machine so hard that I staved in a side panel and exposed the coin box, filled to the brim with quarters and nickels. I took the box out, plunked it in front of the bar’s owner and walked out.

Weekends and school holidays became nightmares as I simply couldn’t control my need to play. I’d stumble around, wondering who was playing what machine, recalling all the nuances each machine had in flipper strength, tilt potential and scoring spots. I even built a home-made version, with a large board, assorted hardware pieces, a steel ball I’d yanked from the innards of a machine I’d wrecked and my sister as scorekeeper.

At night I’d dream of playing, sometimes reliving moments of victory, but more often focusing on moments where I’d failed. One recurring nightmare sickened me every time: Needing only 100 points to beat a particularly loathsome bastard, with the ball on my right flipper, I flicked it carelessly up the middle, aiming at nothing as anything it hit was worth 100 points. It hit a rubber post that bounced the ball straight down and through my flailing flippers for no score and defeat. I’d never lost to him before and he refused to play me again. I’m still angry.

If school led me to pinballs, school led me away. More exactly, college did. One morning, seeing the most popular pinball place empty, I crossed the street to the local college. I wandered around until I found a classroom, sat down and listened to a lecture on Spanish literature. I was hooked.

My routine became playing pinball for some extra money then wandering the college’s classrooms for any class that caught my fancy. Soon I skipped pinball entirely. The possession faded until the sounds and lights lost their fascinating magnetism.

But ever so often, the rhythm and pulse of guiding a steel ball through high-scoring paces thrums in my mind. It was control where once I had none other; a challenge that was clean where others were dirty. It was rare moments of excitement in a world full of dull pain. It was an addiction…and maybe a cure.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Star Trek Solitude

The dorm's two towers had 11 floors each and shared a common lobby. To one corner was the snack room and directly across from that was a small TV room, the set mounted high on the wall.

The room was usually empty and I thought that was because the semester had begun and people were busy with fitting in, class schedules and catching up with friends. That probably wasn’t it, but I did notice a time when the room was usually not empty.

Channel 24, an independent station out of Memphis, had one sure-fire hit: Star Trek. Every afternoon, from 5 to 6 PM, the original series—Kirk, Spock, McCoy, et al—would transfix a room into silence. As I had yet to engage in exploration, the sight of old friends—even fictional—was a tiny relief.

We’d start filtering in at about 4:30, when either The Flintstones or I Dream of Jeannie was on. My first day, I sat near the far wall and noticed that no one caught my eye as they came in. Not one hello, to me or anyone else. As 5 PM loomed, one or two chairs were brought in and placed with almost geometric precision away from all the others. The episode began.

It was a good one: “The Wolf in the Fold,” a nod to Shakespeare and Jack the Ripper. It was suddenly very interesting to me, but more so became the behavior around me. Commercials came and went without a word. No sarcasm, no wise-ass quips, nothing. Star Trek was always good for starting an exchange of remarks for it was often a clever, well-written show that dared to have a message, but in this group, opinions went unpronounced.

As the show ended, the instant the last line was uttered, two of the group bolted out of their chairs and were out of the room before the credits were rolling. The others left one at a time, some even sitting back if someone got up at the same time. I waited until the next show started and walked out.

For a week, I watched Star Trek in that room. Although the group was never the same in composition and size, it was exactly the same in behavior: no eye contact, no remarks, no acknowledgement that anyone else was in the room. The TV as security blanket, speaking only to each person in the way he craved.

I never stepped inside the room again as I discovered other, newer, voices and minds around me…and I chose to sit amongst them.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Shogi

Brendan owned a comic book shop in Hattiesburg back during the early heyday of the comic book explosion. I practically lived there and because the place was more refuge than mere store, we played games.

The one I was keen on was Shogi, the Japanese version of chess. Slower to develop into a mid-game, shogi offers a greater variety of tactics than its Western counterpart. It also offers a higher level of complexity, leading to tension. You’ll see why.

I taught Brendan how to play and he took to it immediately. However, he had a store to attend to so he could never fully focus on the game. We played about 5 games and I won them all. Brendan may have seemed an amiable goof to many people, but he had a great knack for tactics and it was serving him well, as each victory was notably more difficult than the one before.

One afternoon, just past lunch, I brought the shogi board to the shop and set it up to play against myself. Brendan walked over and said “Let’s play. I’m ready!” And the most intense game we’d ever played started.

The opening was typically slower than Western chess, as pawns only move one space at a time and the board is 9 squares to the side. By nature and lack of guidance, I played the so-called “modern hyper-aggressive” mode, which means I go on the attack and don’t try to build a “castle” of pieces around my King. Brendan, knowing my style, chose to play a more traditional style.

As soon as I could, I captured a couple of pieces and leaned back. The genius of shogi, it’s true leap above chess in terms of excitement, is the fact that captured pieces can be returned to the game as part of your army…at any time. This “parachuting” effect gives shogi an extra dimension that makes the game very much a race to keep your nerve.

Brendan’s castle was strong, as he had figured out that my aggression would lead to pieces being exchanged, so a well-defended King would slow me down. I captured another couple of pieces, but Brendan pushed his forces forward and began limiting my options. Rather than seek a strategy, I dropped pieces aggressively and forced several exchanges. All of a sudden, both Brendan and I had pieces in hand, scattered forces and vulnerable Kings.

Brendan could not sit still. He paced, sat down, got up to pace, sat down and popped up again. He wasn’t hurrying me, but it was obvious he was eager to get something going. I stared at the board for what was for me an incredibly long time. In my mind, I could see two paths to a checkmate, but my hesitation hinged on how precarious each path was. I weighed my chances against Brendan’s skills.

I picked up a Lance and dropped it against his Knight. The game was on.

For almost four hours, Brendan and I agonized over each play. No time limits: the only limits we had were our imaginations and whether we’d be cool enough to take chances. With every drop and move, I reduced Brendan to simply defending his King. Time and again, just when it seemed he’d get the breather he needed to fight back, I’d come up with another twist and another battle sequence began.

Customers came and went and other friends of ours took care of them. Conversation, usually bright and edgy, was muted. Brendan paced, pumped his fists, mumbled to himself, talked to the walls and even opened a comic book to tell The Incredible Hulk I was going down. Out of the blue, he reached into the cash register and drew out a tattered pack of cigarettes and lit up. I gaped at him.

“I quit two years ago,” he said to me, a bit sheepishly. “But I need this right now to play this damn game.”

I almost felt guilty about driving him to smoke again. But I pressed on, only to realize that my fears were accurate: Brendan had played brilliantly and I was one, at most two pieces short to force checkmate. I had run out of forcing options, Brendan had several pieces in hand and now I had to play what I despised most: defense.

Brendan lit another cigarette and without hesitation, launched his attack. With keen deliberation, piece after piece clicked on the board, then slid forward. In a wise move, Brendan made sure my captures were few and even costly, extending my forces so that I had to drop pieces for defensive purposes only. As the pressure grew, I did the unthinkable: I focused solely on defense. Slowly, but with the growing inevitability of a tidal change, I gained a little space, a piece here, then another piece later in the battle. I knew Brendan’s offense was weaker than mine, but I knew I was still very vulnerable. Forced to move my King, Brendan made a series of brilliant plays and the game hung truly in the balance.

I had several powerful pieces and Brendan was facing my dilemma of a few hours earlier: could he finish me off? Time and again he glanced at the pieces I had, and we both knew there was too much for me to lose. All I needed was the chance. The moment I got it, the game was over.

Brendan’s shirt was soaked. The cigarettes were long gone and he had taken to chewing gum, adding pieces until he had a wad worthy of a baseball player in his left cheek. My heart hammered and I forced myself to breathe normally, my eyes taking in everything around me, but always coming back to the board. The sunlight was now almost horizontal through the picture window and in a flash, I saw it.

Brendan could win. In three plays. No matter what I did, he could win in three plays.

Brendan fingered his last piece to drop, a Silver. That wasn’t it. I saw where he could drop it and the countermove that would end his chances. For a moment, he looked at his King and I thought he would drop the Silver to defend it, a sort of pre-emptive shield.

Then, as if from a silent movie, I watched Brendan put the Silver back down and slide his lead Gold forward. Check.

I had to capture.

No attacking place to drop the Silver and now I had another major piece. But the next play was the key. He had to think “space” and he would see it. I glanced away, looked at the walls and wondered if The Incredible Hulk really knew anything about shogi. I had one chance: no piece could drop and give checkmate, so maybe Brendan would miss the more subtle route.

With a sudden lunge, as if the board would vanish in an instant, Brendan made the key play, cutting off my King’s only escape route. The next play ws my inevitable checkmate.

I stared at the board as my heart thrummed down. Brendan held his breath, looked intently at the board, then leaped to his feet with a loud “Yes!,” his fists in the air. I flicked my King off the board and stood up, my first steps since lunch. Brendan came back to me and grabbed me in a bear hug.

“That was the most intense game of my life! That was great!”

I grinned. “You played great. Wanna play another one?”

He shook his head. No, he shook his whole body. “No! I’m never playing shogi again! Are you kidding? I could die of lung cancer if I play a few more games like that one!”

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Comic Books

It started when I was 4 years old, with a fat issue filled with colorful heroes and a slim book with a blind hero and an evil frog.

Like most kids, I was aware of comic books, but lacked the money to buy any. That changed as I started doing odd jobs, saving my gift money and especially when I went to college and discovered direct buying through a number of mail order companies.

I started out buying a few favorite titles, mainly in the DC Comics line, with some Marvel titles thrown in. But this was 1980 and the comic book explosion—as collectibles, small-investment bonanza and creative supernova-- was about to leap into overdrive.

Always a Batman and Daredevil fan, I gained greater appreciation for old favorites such as Green Lantern and Thor, revived with skill by old hands. A young gun named Frank Miller took over Daredevil and made it the single-best reason to read comic books for over a year. He later moved to Batman, redefined the character and practically launched the graphic novel market with his incredible “Dark Knight” series.

From Great Britain, Alan Moore wrote comic book stories that defied the genre. He took a sad excuse for a character named Swamp Thing and gave it the depth one finds in classical literature. Alan then encompassed and reframed the entire comic book genre with The Watchmen, still the best graphic novel I’ve ever read.

Independent companies launched hundreds of titles and long-time independents gained a greater audience. Cerebus the Aardvark kept climbing the pantheon to greatness. John Ostrander and Timothy Truman created the unforgettable Grimjack, he of the leathery soul in the heart of Cynosure. Mike Grell moved from the fantastic Warlord to the amazing Jon Sable, a comic book that often let only the drawings and layout tell the whole story.

Every month I’d order about 100 titles and await the arrival of huge, heavily-stuffed envelopes. In a ritual as important as the reading itself, I’d open each envelope and carefully, methodically, sort the titles in the exact order I would read them. Then, after making sure I had something to eat and drink within reach, I’d start to read.

Sometimes Carol would be there as I was reading, and on occasion, she would pick one up to read. She read with care and a sense of absorption which I found endearing. (Another thing: she never messed up my order. How great is that?)

The stories were both escape and art, literature and playtime. Alone, I reveled in the wave of creativity I immersed myself in every month. With Carol, I felt I could share a thought or two that later would help me create a better story, or find a stronger phrase, as well as sharing what little connection I had with my childhood with her. If only for a couple of hours, I—or we—were in a colorful, kaleidoscopic cocoon that moved at breakneck speed, a trip through Imagination that would never be the same again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Trailways Trash

“See America” is a slogan often linked to riding a bus across the length and breadth of the nation. A more accurate slogan would be “See Ugly America.”

My biggest gripe is that in over 130 hours of bus-riding on Trailways, Greyhound and assorted lesser-known diesel dogs, I never once saw a pretty woman riding a bus. Nor one who may have looked pretty at the beginning of her trip. Now I know that “Beauty is as Beauty does” and “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder,” but that doesn’t change the fact that on my buses, Beauty wasn’t even Skin Deep.

Considering the surrounding cast of characters (excluding me, natch) and the locations, a pretty woman on a bus would be an unwanted anomaly better described as “target.” People seldom look their best on buses, and when they are not paragons of success and virtuous living before they get on the bus, it would take some sort of miracle (or several ounces of hard liquor) to suddenly make them attractive.

For one thing, a cross-country bus ride doesn’t encourage a high degree of self-interest in one’s appearance. The miles drag, the bus smells, your clothes get wrinkled and bathing suddenly drops off the list of daily activities with an ease that rivals a politician’s shutdown when he discovers you can give him neither money nor a vote.

For another, why worry about your appearance if the reason you’re on the bus is usually that you lack the wherewithal, attention-span or opportunity to worry about it anyway? It’s not like you’re riding in a church, right?

Then there’s the food. Bus stations are the last bastions of Medieval food left in the States. Food that is served regardless of the condition it might be in. It is served because it is there, it is meant to be eaten, someone will eat it and you have just ordered it so it’s up to you to make sure it doesn’t go to waste. It is prepared without care or fuss, as simply and as quickly as possible, with the least amount of personality to suit the plebeian surroundings. And this pleasure comes to you at a price that rivals fine family dining in some other corners of the city, corners that are quite far from the Medieval keep you find yourself in.

Sleeping on a bus is possible if one is deprived of it for 2-3 days, uses drugs (including alcohol) or has experiences that make riding a bus a potential pleasure. Some of these experiences are prison, combat, a busted drug deal three states back or a death wish. Some of the hardier souls prefer reading over sleeping, but they are only kidding themselves. Sleep will creep up on even the finest book and when it does, one is still left with the situation described above, only it’s now three hours later, those that can sleep are snoring and those that can’t—or won’t—are watching you. Very, very carefully.

The best part about the lengthy bus trip is the end, the moment you arrive at your destination and realize the long dark sojourn into the soft underbelly of America is over.

The second best moment is when you are about to begin the trip, when your imagination fueled by hope dares to envision moments of purity, enlightenment and Elysian camraderie. The doors close, the rumble rises, the diesel slices into your brain and you understand that imagination and hope have stayed behind. For you and everybody else on board.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Empire Strikes Back

On a warm summery night, I walked past the decrepit piss-pit of a movie theater that crouched across a gutted street from a church. As was my habit, I pushed the greasy door open, snarled a curse at the old man who asked for my ticket and made my way carefully down a sticky, steep ramp. I tucked myself in the first row, the screen towering above me into the scarlet darkness above. A few minutes later, with a rumble that shook the wall, a huge spaceship soared from behind me, passing heavily overhead as lasers fired in battle across a star-filled sky.

I was overcome with awe. The moment the movie ended, I ran to my house, got my sister and went back to see the movie again. I even paid for the tickets.

Star Wars was without a doubt the culmination of my childhood dreams. For all the pie-plate spaceships, rubber-suited aliens and wooden dialogue I put up with for years, George Lucas’s vision was my vision, space opera done with grandeur. The story echoed the fairy tales of good and evil we glossed over, but secretly longed for, as they made the world simple, dramatic and somehow more real.

But it was The Empire Strikes Back that catapulted the whole saga into the realm of permanence. Prosaically, sequels struggle to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle impact of the original, especially one so successful as Star Wars. So for all of us who had thrilled at the first movie, even with high expectations we were girding our emotions for a letdown.

It never came. The movie picked up the drama and energy of the first and deepened the story, raised the stakes and then closed with an obvious cliffhanger: Hans Solo in cryogenic freeze. What made it work was the confidence Lucas had in narrative, in telling a story the way it had been told for millenia. Yes, the story was set in space and the movie used much visual trickery (special effects are tricks to make you see what really doesn’t exist) as part of its stage, but it all hung together from a powerful story, oft-told.

At the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back, I left the new, air-conditioned theater with cloth-covered seats and carpeted floors and thought back to when I saw Star Wars. For a moment, I wished to be back on the wooden slats, lying down, the screen a towering wall above me, as the visionary magic of cinema carried me away for the last time.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Me and the Mrss.

One of the advantages that English has over Spanish is the distinction between “solitude” and “loneliness.” Solitude is a good thing, a reaching inward that connects you with yourself. Loneliness is pain, expressed or concealed. Spanish has only one word—soledad—with a heavier weight towards loneliness in its meaning, painting what could be a marvelous experience repeated throughout life into a murky corner best avoided.

Before I set foot in Oxford, I called my life one of solitude. I made it a point to revel in my isolation, to see the few interruptions as highlights in a journey, instead of oases. The sense of isolation increased in college, for though I found people I could truly share with, there was an entire world I wanted to explore: me.

My method was simple, but odd: I’d talk with older women. Much older, married women. It started with the white-haired woman I’ve called “Dorm Mother,” and continued with several other women. Three were bookstore employees, women in their late 40s-early 50s who espoused the bookish personality of librarians with the eager curiousity of avid readers. I visited these 2-for-1 bookstores as a way of exploring new authors, styles and genres, but I went just as often for the conversation. On occasion, I even helped stack or sort books, a great way to discover hidden gems.

Another of the conversation companions was Mrs. Smith, the Storage Room Supervisor of the AFROTC program. Her son was also in the program, and as her counter was at the end of a little-used hallway, we could talk with few interruptions. With her, the conversations ended as she became afraid that my lengthy stays could harm her evaluation. Unsaid was that it could harm her reputation.

For you see, I spent hours in these conversations. It wasn’t a rare thing to have me arrive at 10 AM and leave at 4 PM, having spent the six intervening hours talking about any subject that caught our fancy. To me the whole conversation was an expedition into minds, mine and hers. Unlike other conversations, for example, those of people who weren’t really my friends, I made no attempt to impress these women except in one way: I wanted to make them laugh. I succeeded often.

In the bookstores, clients would come in, browse slowly, make their purchases and leave. If the lady had to attend a customer or visitor, I’d wait patiently, read a book or go off to find something for me to amuse myself with. There were times when I felt the lady’s discomfort, impatience or unease at my continued presence. I pretended not to notice and made an effort to use my charm to get over the moment, to find another connection that would revitalize the conversation and make it special again. I always succeeded. The lengthy talks ended when I was done, when the energy of my exploration had ebbed to a tolerable dimming.

How much time, how many hours did I invest in these ladies, these vessels of my self-proclaimed exploration? I’ll never know, but it was certainly days.

From the deepest part of me, I can tell you I felt safe with them. My only requests were attention and appreciation, and that they gave me freely. I like to think I was a gift of time, energy and good humor in their lives and that they remember me fondly as a quirky character that passed through their lives. But somehow I can’t help but feel that maybe I left them with a touch of sadness, a remnant shadow of the melancholy I tried so desperately to hide.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Elizabeth

Tall and lanky, she was either a basketball player or a volleyball player. Turns out volleyball was her sport.

Elizabeth had straight, shoulder-length blond hair and she walked like an athlete, with springy steps and slouchy posture. I saw her playing racquetball a couple of times on the “outer” courts, numbers 2 through 10, where less capable players usually played.

I hung around Court 1, the showcase court with the plexiglass right-hand wall that extended up some 20 feet. Known as the “Challenge Court,” winner stayed and that was all that mattered to me.

Racquetball was a new sport to me, but taking advantage of my reflexes and sheer “I won’t get hurt” bravado, I quickly gained some basic skills and what was once “one-and-out” became “Uh-oh, here he comes” looks that I collected like trophies.

I was on a roll one afternoon, having easily turned aside five challengers, when Elizabeth walked over and said she wanted to play me. I nodded, tossed her the ball and went in. Several players gathered to watch and within a short time, I had won 21-6. Elizabeth had excellent reach and was smooth moving forward and back, but she was slow in lateral movement and unless planted, had very little power. So I kept her moving from side and side and changed pace so she was never really set for any shot.

We shook hands and I started another game. I won and she challenged me again. I won 21-8, but several points had to be replayed because she “crowded” my shot. Instead of giving me a clear line to the front wall, Elizabeth would partially “block” my line. The first time I hit a weak sidewall shot, but after that, I did what I did to other players: I drilled her in the back. And the right buttock. And her legs.

After each thwack, even though it had to hurt, she’d turn and get set for the replay. She didn’t change expression, didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at me.

We played a few more times and she never scored more than 9 points. One afternoon, with no other players around, she told me she preferred playing against me. As she was still crowding and getting whacked, I asked her why. “Because you play against me like I was a guy. You don’t give me anything.”

I almost gawked. “It’s the Challenge Court,” I said. “If I lose I have to wait to play again.”

She gave me a direct look. “What if we played on another court?”

I shrugged. “Same thing.” She smiled.

As we talked, a guy who beat me fairly often walked by, pulled himself upright and said to me: “She’s good, right? Beat me 21-19 last week.” He walked into the Challenge Court and was surprised to see me follow him in.

He beat me 21-17. Then he lost to Elizabeth 21-18, committing what I thought were at least 30 unforced errors. He challenged, then jogged off for water. She watched him leave. “And that’s another thing,” she said, “You never straighten up when you see me even though I’m taller than you.”

I grinned. “Wouldn’t help.”

She handed me the ball. “No, it wouldn’t.”

I beat her 21-1. That cut her down to size

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Sonja and Mary

One was good-looking in a voluptuous way, but wanted to be a nun. The other was squarely stocky and chased ideal “Mrs.” candidates. One had no experience leading a group, but learned the business of doing so. The other had no business leading a group and gained no experience doing so.

Sonja was a natural redhead (I guess) with unfreckled skin, generous curves, a quietly smiling disposition and a Catholic jones that rubbed me like steel wool. At first we treated her with kid gloves, but we learned the gloves could come off and she wouldn’t bruise.

Although we had our differences, there was mutual respect and even trust. On one occasion, Bill and I were tossing our mascot, Scuzzo, (topic for another day) like a limpid volleyball, making detours off walls, ceiling and desks, when Sonja snatched him to “save the poor thing.” As I darted and dodged around her trying to “rescue” Scuzzo for our game, Sonja suddenly stopped and plunged the little fella into her sweater, in whatever space existed between her ample breasts.

I paused. Sonja stared at me, arms at her side. Bill’s eyes bugged out. I twisted my mouth in disgust. “You wouldn’t do that if I were Bill,” I groused.

Sonja smiled and shook her head. I waved her away and accepted defeat. Bill’s eyes darted back and forth between us.

Mary inspired me to hateful heights. I called her “Plymouth Rock” as in “You are under the rock upon which we stand” or “Built like a Plymouth, head like a rock.” I lean towards chivalry with women, but Mary got the worst of my snide lip. She would often come in and say something like: “Guess how much I paid for this dress?” Ignoring the fact that she often looked like a loosely-draped toad, I had several options and I had chances to use them all more than once:

“Too much.”
“Four thousand dollars,” (to make her sound cheap.)
“Two dollars,” (to make her sound like a bad shopper.)
“Bird feathers.”
“You paid for that?”
“Not money, I hope.”
“Bottle caps.”
“Don’t need to guess: you’re wearing the price tag.” (She fell for that one several times.)
“Oh hush. The corpse wants it back.”

No, it wasn’t pretty. Mary once pouted that she wanted sympathy and I replied she could find it in the dictionary, between “shit” and “syphillis.” (I was way past trying to be clever.)

She stared at me for about ten seconds then replied: “So’s Schmidt.”

Nice try. Probably her best effort. Her absence in my life would have been a joy.

And speaking of joy, maybe I should have gone in after Scuzzo.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Lock and Chain

There are some summer nights when nothing moves. The air sleeps, the crickets chirp as isolated metronomes and it seems as if everybody chooses that time to stay put indoors.

I was walking from the bowling alley back to my apartment, an hour’s worth of exercise I was settling into. My habit on a jaunt like that was to amble along, thinking about nothing and everything, hands in pockets. The voice cut my reverie and I froze.

“Who you callin’ a nigger?” The voice was high-pitched, sharp, but strained.

I looked up. Seven young black men were arranged next to and against the dark-side Mr. Quik brick wall. Two of them pushed off the wall to complete a semi-circle in front of me. The speaker was a thin, gangly guy about my age, wearing a Dodger cap around his neck. He was glaring at me.

“Nobody,” I answered.

Dodger Cap feigned surprise. “You called me a nigger!” He looked around for support, agreement, chiming in. One guy, unbelievably wearing a leather jacket, nodded.

I shrugged. “No.”

He convulsed, affronted. “You callin’ me a LIAR?” he yelled.

“Yeah.”

The group moved, but stayed the same. Dodger Cap took a step forward. Only then did I realize I wasn’t an observer, but a participant. The radar I’d developed since childhood had faded to black. This was not banter and I had failed to act before it had gone too far.

Dodger Cap took a wild swing at me. I stepped back and when the guy on my right tried to grab me, I side-stepped and pushed him into the others. He and Dodgr Cap went down.

Suddenly heavy metallic clinks broke the muffled silence. Leather Jacket had a length of large-linked chain, a heavy padlock at its end. With two short swings he got it in motion, the others stepped back and he swung at me.

I saw the flash on my left and I ducked. I felt the padlock cut the air above my head and thud into the bricks, chunks and fragments flying. I pivoted and ran, bursting through the group into the parking lot beyond. I ran without looking back, without thinking of anything but distance. I heard vague jeers and a word or two. I didn’t look back. I ran until I was sure they couldn’t follow. I got home in under half an hour.

The anger I kept expecting never came. My usual pattern of self-abuse over any perceived failing never raised its ugly head. I’d fallen out of a useful habit because I had come to believe that the world had changed, that it was fundamentally different, that my past was an anomaly that the present would never enact.

I was wrong. I didn’t even shrug it off: the moment of recrimination simply dropped away like a dead leaf. The radar, that useful habit, came back, like retrieving the old flannel shirt that’s become a second skin. I kept walking, kept passing through the same area where once seven guys tried to make trouble and seldom gave them another thought. As lessons go, it was relatively painless.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

NBC News Overnight

It came on after The Tonight Show and The Tomorrow Show, NBC’s contribution to lineal time. NBC News Overnight was an experiment, a fanciful leap into the world of “24-hour news” that CNN had already launched. The thought was probably something like: People are obviously awake at 2 AM, so maybe we can keep them from jumping to cable by throwing news at them.

As obnoxiously banal as the thought may have been, the execution was brilliant. Linda Ellerbee and some guy named Lloyd sat at desks that faced each other, with a newsroom gently scurrying away in the background. And I’m not talking about “newsdesks,” those illegitimate pieces of furniture that have no useful function other than kindling: NBC News Overnight used real desks.

Over time, the desks started letting their hair down, as personal items began making appearances: mugs, photos, stuffed animals, stray paper, the stuff of working life. Lloyd, or whatever his name was, was a stuffed shirt in rolled-up shirtsleeves acting like his presence at that hour was the result of his agent’s ineptitude, but he was too much of a newsgeek to actually drop the ball. Linda was totally different: she twinkled, in on the fun of being up at 2 AM and watching a news show that—heavens to Betsy!—actually gave you news.

For you see, NBC News Overnight was the best newscast network TV ever presented. It didn’t try to shoehorn a topic into a 90-second segment: it followed leads, checked with less-known sources and offered viewpoints from around the world to give you context, not soundbites. It was pure TV journalism without the smarmy pseudodrama of news magazines, an hour that was worth a week’s worth of prime-time network news (and this from a guy who wanted to be Walter Cronkite.)

And above all, Linda had style. Her half-smile clued you in that the serious matters had ended and the lightness was coming. When Lloyd left and Bill came in, Linda explained that a producer had suggested she move from the viewer’s left to the viewer’s right, where Lloyd sat. With a verbal scalpel, Linda said: “The producer called it an idea off the top of his head, and ideas off the top of one’s head are very much like dandruff, small and flaky.” She stayed at her desk.

Linda hated doo wop music, nature pieces and pretty much all sports. Her crowning moment, rewarded by my ejecting cereal halfway across the carpet, was her brief: “In baseball today, the scores were 4 to 1, 5 to 3 and 7 to 2. You like it, you figure out who played who.”

Aside from wit, Linda had soul. She ended one show speaking about the difficult woman who challenged her constantly, never let up on her and never seemed to acknowledge her growth. She ended by telling us the woman was her mother, who had died earlier that day. Her voice broke and my tears emerged as she said goodbye to the woman who pushed her so hard and loved her so much.

One night, like a newsflash, Linda told us that NBC News Overnight was “going off the air.” With Bill nodding slightly as she spoke, Linda went on to say that NBC was canceling the show, not because of ratings, for ratings were actually fairly good, but because the show “was not making enough money.” She slashed at the parsimony that weighed news content versus profits and I got the sense she was closing doors forever. The sharp mind, curled smile and vivid eyes behind oversized glasses was firing away at dandruff thinking and scoring with every word.

I cheered her on and wrote NBC a letter that explained why stupidity reigns in network TV. I sent it with a pocket dictionary so the morons would understand it. I’d like to think Linda would have flashed a half-smile of approval, then skewered me for including a doo wop lyric as my opening line.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Chicken and Potato Logs

Fall, 1983. The days were pastel and vague, having lost their brilliance and sharp edges. Rather than driving myself energetically, I drifted from hour to hour, a high-charged battery losing power.

To amuse myself, I’d try to find different paths to walk to and from classes, often losing myself in the walks so that not arriving was the ultimate result. It didn’t matter if I got to where I was going: I didn’t want to be there anyway.

One afternoon, a warm sunny day that promised summer would return, I stopped at a gas station, one of those little spots that calls itself a “mini-mart” with the confidence a terrier calls itself a guard dog. There was no plan in my mind; I was just marking time.

A twenty-second tour of the place led me to stop at a glass case. Under heat lamps, arranged with the care of an art gallery, were large pieces of chicken and potato logs. I ordered a box of two pieces of white meat (a Southern courtesy to avoid the word “breast” not extended to words that are truly offensive) and some potato logs. With a Coca-Cola tucked in the bag, I walked away in some direction not leading to my apartment.

Food is food, in my book. It is not a passion, though I understand it is to some. I prefer simplicity, and it’s hard to get more simple than chicken and potatoes, dipped in batter and fried. But there are times, beyond physical need, when food becomes comfort, soul-affirming, a blanket on a chilled soul, a moment of pleasure that breaks a long dark night in the heart.

Or maybe I was just hungry. In any case, the chicken was a revelation: fried to crispiness, yet juicy, filled with flavor beyond just salty to encompass rarer spices and a touch of pepper. In a break from my usual habit, I ate the chicken first. Then I bit into a potato log and forgot my day.

It’s basically a large french fry, but this potato log was a work of art, well-deserving of careful display and appreciation. The batter was crisp and whole, not flaking or clinging. The potato itself was soft and firm, as spicy as the chicken, but with more subtlety. In minutes, all four of the revelations were gone, the Coke was slamming down my throat and the day sharpened in contrast.

My walks now crossed the path of this mini-mart every day. My lunch or dinner was the same box of two pieces of chicken and four potato logs. I always ate it while continuing my walk, enjoying the flavors, the moment and the slight but noticeable difference in my day.

I once asked for the recipes, but the guy told me the food was prepared by a woman at her house and she brought it in twice a day. I never asked her name, nor did I ever bother to seek the recipes again. I saw these simple items as gifts to my day and I wanted to keep them that way. One must learn to accept gifts as they come, when they come… without having to deeply explore why they come.

Friday, April 08, 2005

One Night in a Laundromat

Someone had spelled “Nadir” wrong and the sign said “Laundromat.”

Four loads of laundry stuffed into a denim duffel bag that also needed washing. Almost 11 PM and the place looked like it had been frozen in the 60s and smelled like it had been dipped in the sweat of greasy men with hairy backs and flabby women with hairy chins.

Usually, only a few machines rumbled, twitched and twirled. Paper signs decorated surfaces in never a discernible pattern. Tiny boxes, empty and gaping, dotted the floor and other horizontal surfaces like dead cartoon mice. Hangers were cast about like sprung snares. In a corner, ashamed, lay an article of clothing that could have been a towel, a shirt or a throw-rug. It wasn’t.

Next to Nadir was a small apartment complex boasting a menagerie of more than the usual oddballs: the guy who washed only jeans and blue T-shirts (I grokked); the gal who brought all her clothes, but pulled out underwear and socks and took them back; the guy that washed everything together and wore gray, except for his colorful bandannas, washed separately, and the gal that sat on her washer and leaned against her dryer’s door during the entire process. I asked her if the door got hot. She told me to mind my own business. I told her she had lipstick on her tooth.

That night, the menagerie had spilled over. Every available washer was churning its guts, the dryers were roasting and one had its temporary owner standing guard. A wasted trip was not an option. I actually started thinking about dumping the laundry and buying new clothes. As I calculated how much that would dent my budget, Hortense-at-the-Dryer yanked her clothes out and after giving me—or the wall next to me—a dirty look, I was alone.

With lots and lots of clothes.

I was moving even before the decision was made. I flung open every washer and dryer. With production line efficiency that would have made Henry Ford, Sr. weep, I carried clothes from one washer to another, from dryer to dryer, then from washer to dryer and dryer to washer. I danced, twirled and whistled, a busy dwarf named “Bubbly.” First lineal, then skipping every other, then as random as can be, I tossed clothes around with merry abandon until I was sure I had been generous to everybody. I even placed quarters in every machine, to keep the party rolling.

My duffel bag felt weightless. The night had cooled for everybody but me. I was free from Nadir, my heart was pure and all was right in Prankville.

I switched my laundry drag to another place, one called “Doldrums.” It too had its sign misspelled as “Laundromat.”

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Raiders of the Lost Ark

It begins with a climax, thrusting us directly into a sense of heightened drama, then danger, with an adrenaline rush that drops, surges, then drops again only to surge as Indiana Jones ecounters his one true fear: snakes.

But it is the next scene, the Professor in his classroom filled with dreamy-eyed coeds brought up short by a love note pencilled on eyelids, that the movie takes off. Our hero can be taken by surprise, thus so can we.

Raiders of the Lost Ark can be viewed in many ways, but it is, without reservation, pure entertainment. It rumbles along in rollicking fashion, at an almost breakneck pace, leavened with flashes of humor. I still remember sliding off my chair convulsed with laughter as Indy shrugs tiredly at the antics of the black-robed swordsman, then casually shoots him. (Later I found out that Harrison Ford had suggested the scene because he was feeling ill.)

Movies in the 70s had been dominated by disasters, epics and special effects, and in that rush for box-office dollars, the industry had lost sight of what really matters: the drama of one person struggling against the odds.

In Dr. Jones, we have the ultimate “one against the odds.” The special effects--and they abound in the movie--take a clear back seat to the central figure as Indiana tackles natives, snakes, death traps, puzzles, an irate jilted lover (“God hath no fury…” you know), Nazis and even infiltrating a submarine as part of his struggles.

With a wink to the serials my dad watched as a kid, Indy punctuates the movie’s pace and style with wit as he replies to a question about his plans: “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along.”

And therein lies the hero, the man who will find a way, a true American icon. In Indiana Jones, the collective will, energy and “can-do” spirit that exemplified what the world began calling “the American way” gained a new face, one that even so seems bland without its hat.

Raiders blazed its way into my mind, and the minds of so many, with sheer energy, an electric thrill that reached deep into the roots of our best stories and flashed its modern essence on the screens of what was then our newest art form. It was also pure fun. In a way, the second is much more important than the first.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Question of Faith

I was raised Catholic so I had a head start on becoming an atheist.

It is a cliché that one’s college years become a Period of Exploration, a form of mental and emotional trek into the wilderness of adulthood. Religion often becomes a large part of that trek, as assumptions are challenged, egos are buffeted and the need for reliable answers becomes an agonic hunger.

To GCSPrank, exploring religions was more an analysis of the thought processes behind religion, primarily the concept of “faith.” A professor once casually tossed off the “faith can move a mountain” reference, which led to this exchange:

“If the mountain doesn’t move, it’s because I lack enough faith?” I asked.
“Precisely,” beamed the professor.
“Well, the me of little faith gets tons of dynamite and an army of bulldozers and moves the mountain.”
The professor smiled beatifically: “Faith gave you the answer.”
“No,” I replied, “Common sense did. Faith would have me wait for the answer to drop on my head.”

My classmates thought it funny, but not Mr. Faith. He called my remark “a silly notion” and I shot back “Like yours is scientific fact, right?” Things got interesting then.

The concept of faith bothered me because I saw it as passivity, as a simple notion of “don’t think, don’t question, just believe.” Faith as the antithesis of Reason, the Denial of Thought for the dubious benefit of Comfort.

But then what was the power of the mind for? To be placed in the harness of vague concepts, like hitching a Clydesdale to a toy cart? Even the dumbest beast is smarter than a wooden toy.

On the other hand, isn’t faith a form of release, an acknowledgement of limitations that are real and that by accepting these limitations, one can truly accept freedom? Why then is faith used as a shield to rickety notions, so that when pressed, you get an almost-inevitable “It’s a matter of faith”? The fault may lie in the user, not the shield, but when the user is deemed an expert—-minister, priest, theologian, fanatic—-hiding ignorance or faulty arguments with a wall that tries to demean rationality is not a path to freedom, but to subservience.

Case in point: the Dark Ages.

From challenging the notion of faith to challenging what people often place their faith in was but a small step. Belief had long yielded to doubt and doubt became, slowly, non-belief. But in the spirit of rationality and search for freedom, my decision is my own. I neither expect nor want others to choose “my way.” As convinced as the religious feel about their choice, I feel about mine. For now. Rationality, unlike faith, demands that I keep searching, probing, questioning and challenging.

Maybe someday I can meld faith and rationality so that what is now a kaleidoscope becomes a clear window within and without. And no, I have no faith in achieving that result.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Spaghetti Ankle

A late night basketball one-on-one against Chuck, an overweight tyro who sweat from the moment we agreed to go the court. I had won the first three games by the usual wide margins, pouring in basket after basket from 12-15 feet. We’d played over 50 games against each other and Chuck had never come close to beating me. So I continued my shooting practice as the night grew chillier.

I was leading 9-3 when I decided to cut around Chuck and drive to the basket. I seldom did this, as even though I wasn’t really a good ballhandler, it was ludicrously easy for me to leave him in my dust. As I cut to my left, my weaker hand, he turned and instead of stepping back as he often did, Chuck stepped to the side and forced me to abort my move to the basket and drift left.

I put up the shot and came down. The court, a cement slab, ended just behind the basket. The ground, eroded from water and steps, was almost three inches lower than the cement surface. My left foot landed on the court’s edge, but my ankle bone, that large knob on the outside of my foot, touched the dirt. I couldn’t shift my weight and the knob ground into the dirt as the pain exploded up my leg.

I rolled twice in the grass and grabbed my leg. Chuck came over saying “Nice shot,” then knelt to ask me what had happened. I could only grunt, then gasp as I felt my ankle begin to swell.

Then those fatal words floated down: “Wanna play another?” Despite the pain, I said yes. Playing on one foot, cursing inwardly at my growing stupidity, I saw Chuck take the lead 8-7. With a final burst, I ended the game 10-8 and drove back to my apartment. I couldn’t feel my lower leg.

I lay down on my bed and within minutes, was about to drift off to sleep when my left leg relaxed, turned slightly outward and instead of moving a few inches, it stopped almost immediately and a blast of agony made me sit up in a cold sweat. Without my sneaker, the ankle had ballooned to an obscenity.

Fortunately, the bed and the bathroom were next to each other, so in seconds, I had propped my left foot in the bathtub and turned on the cold water. Fed by deep pipes and still wrapped in February frost, the water was harshly cold, exactly what I needed. For the next seven hours, I drifted in and out of sleep, sitting on the toilet cover, my foot in the bathtub and my eyes looking at my leg, but not my ankle.

The next day, I hobbled to my hell as vacuum cleaner salesman. Next door to the Electrolux sales office was a podiatrist’s office and in a coincidence, the doctor and I arrived at the same time. He took one look at me limping and told me to get into his office. A few minutes later, he gasped. My ankle was about the size of a softball, with swelling rising along the outside of my calf to just below my knee. Even gently, his probing fingers made me sweat as I fought to hold in my dignity.

Slumping back in to his chair, he told me that I had spaghetti surrounding my ankle, one of the most severe sprains he’d ever seen or heard about. In fact, he said, I would have been better off breaking it as then the mess could be put back together in some semblance of order. To top it off, he said it would take at least one year for my ankle to heal completely.

Yeah, right, I thought. I was 20, a fast healer and hey, I was me. I hobbled out and discovered that every step was a gamble. For months after that, my ankle would give out suddenly or blast pain for any slight misstep. And yes, despite my age, condition and being me, it did take a year for my ankle to return to normal.

It took me longer to forget the image of my ankle, water streaming over it, a bulge so big it forced my foot in and to the right, a visible shudder of pulsing rippling along the surface. That stayed with me for years, the ugly image of going too far to preserve self-image.

Monday, April 04, 2005

THGttG

The cover had the friendly words “Don’t Panic!” It made me smirk. Over a series of weeks, I’d walk into the Bookstore, peruse the titles and I’d never fail to smirk. The buzz about the book was slight, and if just knowing about the buzz places me in the nerd category, so be it. Finally, I plunked down my money for Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and read it that same night.

And I laughed my butt off.

Science fiction, up to that time, had had its dilettantes of humor, such as Lester del Rey, William Tenn and Isaac Asimov. But humor and science fiction don’t mesh well, as science fiction requires creating an artificial world and humor has its strongest basis in reality. We don’t care for contrived humor. And I personally believe that most fans of science fiction—writers and readers alike—are angry people, angry at the rejection they feel for being different and thus have very little sense of humor, unless it’s the cruel kind that belittles those they would consider inferior.

But Adams was just plain funny. His humor, based on some deranged Apocalyptic scenario that destroys Earth to make way for an intergalactic highway, has science fiction as its background, but human foibles and eccentricities as its forefront.

Take Marvin the Robot, seriously, seriously depressed for being incredibly superior to those around him but being seen and treated as nothing more than a glorified lump of metal. Yet all he does is act like a lump of metal. (Science fiction fans were both target and audience here.)

Or how about Zaphod Beeblebrox, a two-headed, three-armed egotistical mush-for-brains con man who somehow always gets his way? In an exaggerated way, we know people like that, who seem to live a charmed life despite obvious disadvantages in acumen. How pathetically funny is someone who utters and believes “I’m so hip I have trouble seeing over my pelvis”?

The Girl in The Story, as SF fans objectify the species, was Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend and all-around wishing-to-be-free spirit. She is disconcerting if not downright unfathomable, not only for the odd things she says, but for her choice of Zaphod (the creep) over Arthur (the nice guy.) Trillian is the only character with a level head, except that it works on some jarringly-parallel level.

It is in Arthur Dent, Earthman extraordinaire (poor slob) that Adams shines. Befuddled, bewildered, a babe in the woods and the woods are beyond weird. Arthur embodies the deep-seated feelings we have that the world is one big party and we’re not only not invited, but if we go, we’re the hired help. Arthur gives the madness a touch of the ordinary and the humor emerges from tweaked humanity, the kind that lets us laugh at and with each other.

But above all that, I owe Adams for hundreds of smiles and lightened moments when my patience and interest were strained beyond endurance, when the droning voice or insipid event dragged on and on towards infinity. Two words: Vogon poetry. Those who’ve read the novel will know what I mean.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Tattoo Parlor

A Sunday afternoon in the Big Easy. The French Quarter was napping just after lunch, the streets and sidewalks casual with traffic.

Brendan and I were roaming under the guise of exploring. He’d been displaying his inventory at a comic book convention at some hotel and I’d tagged along to meet Scotty. I had, pleased to discover that James (he insisted) was as big a fan of “Star Trek” as the rest of us, a man genuinely pleased to be remembered and recognized for playing a TV character.

Brendan had left his dozen or so boxes to the custody of his best friend and since he knew I was familiar with New Orleans, asked me to join him. We’d wandered down Bourbon Street, encountered some biker bars, visited a dingy museum, had joshed a fortune teller, laughed long and hard at the “I bet I can tell you where you got those shoes” gambit and, feeling thirsty, had stepped into a bar for a beer.

Now I seldom drink beer or hard liquor, but I was a lush compared to Brendan. A few years older than me, he stayed away from anything with alcohol. But, when in Party Town, do as the Party Townies do. So beer it was, a tall, tall glass of beer.

To my surprise, Brendan drained his. “I was thirsty,” he said sheepishly. I finished mine and we walked on. We hadn’t covered two blocks before he tells me he’s feeling a little woozy, but waves off my offer to stop and sit. Spying a tattoo parlor, I figure it would be a good place to stop for a few minutes, so we went in.

The walls and even the ceiling were covered with tattoo designs. The array of colors, swirls, jagged lines, stark monochrome and glittery neons almost floored Brendan. Then we saw who was behind the counter and we both swayed.

Petite. Long black hair framing an olive-tinged oval face with almond-shaped eyes. Full lips. A serene expression that, unless she moved, made you think she was a mannequin. She was drawing, leaning forward over the counter, the tip of her tongue just peeking between her lips, her eyes darting up and down, from us to her drawing and back.

Brendan staggered forward, an iron filling dragged by a magnet. His eyes bugged out and he slumped against the wall, entranced. I stepped forward to see the drawing. No, really, to see the drawing.

It was a dragon-butterfly, or a lizard-moth. I couldn’t tell as I caught a glimpse of what had stunned Brendan: the young lady had a blouse opened low, no bra and the view inspired a moment of silence. Or two. Two long moments of silence.

She kept drawing.

“Are you here for tattoos?” Her voice was honey. Brendan actually sighed.

“I don’t know about him,” I replied, flipping a thumb in Brendan’s direction, “But I have too many marks already.”

She smiled. Very white teeth. “You can always have more marks.”

I shook my head. “Nah. Mine are scars and if the FBI were after me, a tattoo would just make it easier to track me down.”

She cocked her head slightly to look at the lump that used to be Brendan. “And what about you?”

He babbled. Brendan was a cool guy and my good friend, but at that moment, I’d be a stone-cold liar if I described his sounds as anything except “babbling.”

A behemoth emerged from a back room, parting a curtain and sticking a head the size and shape of a buffalo’s butt into our suddenly-smaller room. He grunted and she shook her head. Three hundred pounds of grunting disappeared behind the curtain.

“My husband.”

Oh.

“Are you sure you don’t want a tattoo?” she asked me. “It doesn’t have to be visible, you know.”

Yeah, like I wanted BeastMan to puncture some intimate skin. “True. How many tattoos do you have?”

She smiled. “Seven. All over my body.”

I pointed at her chest, possibly a Freudian gesture. “You don’t have one there.”

Brendan groaned.

Slowly, very slowly, the lady sat up, the drawing paused, the view gone. “No. I don’t.” Her eyes held mine. I held hers.

“Not yet?” I said. Brendan groaned again.

She didn’t blink. “Maybe.” Her smile was somewhere deep.

“Then I’ll wait until that happens.” I turned, started to walk out, then turned to pull Brendan off the wall. She smiled at me like it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen.

Brendan started arguing with me the moment we hit the sidewalk and he didn’t stop for three weeks. I had ruined his view!