Movie Night in a pre-Netflix world

An empty wooden bowl stained a dark brown collects dust on the shelf amidst other useless trinkets and knick-knacks in the name of décor. I looked at the bowl without really seeing it for years when suddenly the bowl is overflowing with the colors and smells of a twenty year old memory.

The room is dark and warm with the summer air. The windows are open and dingy lace curtains gently billow with the night breeze.  It smells like fresh cut grass and gasoline and pollen and earthworms.  Three feet of rabbit ear antenna are connected to an old tv that flickers in hues of green and pink.

It is Movie Night in a pre-Netflix world. There is a stack of VHS boxes from which to choose the evening’s entertainment.  First up, Cujo.  Perhaps, not the best choice for two kids who are scared of the dark, loud noises, cauliflower and clowns.  Nonetheless, the tape gets pushed into the mouth of the VCR and starts rolling to a limited but captive audience.

We pass the same smooth wooden bowl filled with popcorn back and forth, each taking a handful. I let a piece dissolve and shrink on my tongue before taking on another for the disintegration process.  It’s a complicated and slow way to eat popcorn, for sure.

Baby Bird stops passing the bowl and instead holds it between his hands, entranced by the scene on the flickering screen. As a massive black dog lunges almost out of the set, Baby Bird screams.  He tips the bowl over his head and eyes, and like an ostrich with his head in the sand, he feels safe.  Popcorn rains down onto his shoulders and gathers around his little body, like the falling of dogwood flowers around their tree in Spring.  It is a beautiful mess.

The bowl is back on the shelf, a retired relic of the past. However, the memory is wily, not to be sterilized or neatly labeled and categorized.  Instead it disappears into the shadows of the mind with days of red popsicles, puppies, summer breaks, and Baby Bird who is thousands of miles away from his refuge under the bowl.

Reading Non-Fiction

old books

In thirty minutes, I have to meet with a man whom I have been watching through the window. At first, I thought he was a passerby resting on the bench outside of the building.  It’s a fine bench positioned under an old tree with dappled shade.  With the light breeze that happens to be blowing today, there are few places in the area more delightful to take a rest than on that very bench.

Then I noticed that way that he leisurely dangled his tattoo covered arms across the back of the bench with his camouflaged bags resting at his feet.  He did not appear to be leaving and matched the general description of “a man” for my afternoon appointment.

He let his head tip back as the sun broke through the shade and warmed his face. It was an intimate moment suddenly broken like a stone hitting still water with the call of a cell phone in his pocket.  His body changed, becoming tight and tense, ready for combat when he looked at the number of the incoming caller.

A few words were exchanged on the phone, just enough to make the blood rush to his ears and neck, filling them with a red flush.   As he spoke, his free hand gestured wildly in the air, angry and ugly, consumed and transformed by his emotion.  His words were absorbed by the birds, traffic, and hum of the air conditioner unit by which I sat and continued to watch the man.

If I were to judge this book by its cover, I would have already slid this one back onto the shelf.  I would have searched for a book with a cover, spine and pages intact.  A little dog-eared, with a coffee stain on the edge of a few pages and an old receipt for lunch left between the last pages, no longer needed as a bookmark, signs of being well used and loved.

I never would have learned the history of his tattoos or that his son was about to turn one and that he was just on the phone with his child’s mother who was threatening to revoke all custody.  If I judged a book by its cover, I would have missed the most beautiful and terrible stories of heartbreak, survival and growth.  I would be nose deep in a world of fiction, unaware of the real life non-fiction that reads better than any novel on a shelf.

 

The Neighbors Get a Minivan

van

A sleek black minivan was parked between our houses after work.  It did not leave as expected, rather, it returned day after day.  A paper tag protected by a sleeve of plastic was attached on the back, stating the expiration date at the end of June.  The minivan was here to stay. 

We saw the neighbors boarding their new cruiser and all of the bags and baskets that are apparently required to take a baby anywhere.  The baby was strapped to his daddy’s chest, supervising the undertaking and keeping an eye on his mother who stood nearby in obvious discomfort.  She appeared to be 12 months pregnant.

Hipsters are trying to extend the average gestational period.  Or so I have heard.  It could be fake news.  In any case, our neighbor just had a baby and then was instantly pregnant with another one in a phenomenon that will make their offspring “Irish twins” when the second one is born.  The timeline is unclear but it definitely seems that they have been continuously pregnant for the past two years.

The neighbors started out like us, very cool and modern, engaged in work and exercise, friends, and family. We resolved to share a pizza and a few cold adult beverages but never got around to scheduling a date because all of a sudden, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, they were pregnant and went underground. They emerged this Spring, eyes weak and blinking under the bright sun, pushing a stroller with a round faced ooling, drooling baby boy and with a belly popping out like a snake that just ate Mousezilla. 

We walked up to the new van and B said, “Looks like you are just missing the decals on the back.” 

He was referring to the ever-popular cookie cutter stickers of each family member and pet, usually something like two parents next to a half-sized sticker of toddler or two, with the outline of a dog wagging its tail in familial bliss. 

The couple smiled together in a wholesome unity, clear that they were of one mind, and the man said, “That’s a great idea. We’re just glad we have room for everyone now, even the dog.”

They will leave the neighborhood soon, there isn’t enough room as it is for the current occupants of their home, let alone when the babies start to stretch out and grow.  Already, they are planting petunias and Hosta’s, laying mulch, trimming trees and power washing their siding.  It’s just a matter of time before the FOR SALE sign goes into their front yard and they pack their lives into a U-Haul truck.  When they move, it will be with a family double in size than when they moved next door to us.

Meanwhile, we remain in place, at the same address with the same number of residents, exactly three cats and two humans, as when we came to town two years ago.  We will be just as childless but still happy, healthy, well-rested and living relatively uncomplicated, minivan free lives.  For now, anyways.

     

The BBB

ges

The Bad Boys of Bloomington are gathering for the race weekend, so naturally I am clearing out of town.   The last time they congregated, the house was almost burned down from a late night attempt at making what was reported to be gazpacho, traditionally a cold, uncooked vegetable soup.

When I discovered the scene of a skillet of charred tomatoes and a crumbled pair of shorts on the countertop, two questions came to mind. Why was the stovetop needed and pants were not to make cold, uncooked soup?

It will forever remain a mystery as the BBB is a very close group, committed to holding secrets for each other and for a period of no less than life. A more dedicated group, I have never encountered, aside from a makeshift family of two raccoons and a baby opossum outside of a dumpster, which is a story for another day.

As I walked through the rest of the house after they descended on it for the night, I discovered the BBB sprawled out and sleeping with crumbs, empty bags of snacks and empty beer cans scattered around their comatose bodies.

Quietly, I called for my girls to emerge for their breakfast and began to look in their normal hidey-holes. A pathetic “mew” led me to find three little cats cowered together under a chair. Perhaps the usually the warring felines united in a one-time front for survival against the debauchery of the night?

Yet another unsolved mystery of the night.

What is not a mystery is that these men see themselves as brothers from different mothers, they are comfortable far beyond casual and gespacho and pants or not, they will wreck the place in their merrymaking.  My fervent hope is simply that the house is still standing when I return on Monday.

Reprieve

Many Hands Make Light Work

planter

Two large decorative pots stood guard outside of the apartment doors like stone lions, but cheap and temporary. Inside of the pots, weeds grew tall and unchecked with cigarette butts and trash as fertilizer.   This was an embarrassing problem as a volunteer group was currently en route to check on their beautification project from last summer.

The volunteers were a group of well-meaning housewives from the very far north side of the city where they almost certainly did not use planters as an ashtray or trashcan.

“You,” I shouted, “Stop right there,”

A man wearing a pair of basketball shorts with skinny legs froze in action, he was caught red handed or in this case with the glowing cherry of a nearly finished cigarette that was about to be stubbed out in one of the pots. He looked up with wide eyes, aware of his unmistakable culpability in the situation.

“I need your help, Chicken Legs.”

It was not a question but a demand and a sentence for his crime against potted flowers and beautification projects everywhere.

“Hey, Miss Puney. It’s not what it looks like; I don’t usually leave these here but just this one time.  Sure I’ll help; anything you need.”

Walking closer and peering into the pot, there were 15 to 20 white cigarette butts haphazardly placed as though seeds strewn by a careless farmer hopeful for tiny cigarette packs to one day grow.

“Just this once, huh?”

I shook my head at the discrepancy of his words and my observations.

“It doesn’t matter now. The volunteers are on their way and we have to get these pots ready for them.”

“The volunteers?”

Chicken Legs was unfamiliar with the women who were about to descend upon us, leaving a trail of Chanel No. 5 in their wake. They would not be pleased to find a butter knife, a discarded juice pack, a tangle of weeds of an uncertain number of cigarette butts.

“Please help me to clear these pots.”

Chicken Legs heard the anxiety in my voice and nodded, “You got it.”

Together, we set out on our mission under the hot sun of late May. By the time the women arrived, we were sweating and suspiciously dirty but the pots were ready for their petunias, begonias and ivy for a fresh summer look.

I gave wink and a thumbs-up to Chicken Legs when it was all over and released him from his sentence.

Many hands do make light work.

A Day in the Life

Notorious

Two men stood outside of the brick building, smoking cigarettes. The taller of the two kicked at a clump of weeds and inhaled at his Marlboro, while the other worked an orange, plastic lighter through his nicotine stained fingers.

“Did they install your A/C yet?” the taller man asked.

“Nah, they told me there was something going on with maintenance. You think we’ll have them by August?” the man said with a laugh and continued to practice with the lighter like an unlikely baton twirler before a high school football game.

“I put a fan in my window, but it’s just blowing the hot air around. It’s like the desert in there.”

Beads of perspiration popped out on the taller man’s forehead, he wiped it with the back of his hand.

“Whew, it’s hot,” he declared. “But its cooler out here than it is up there,” he gestured with his eyes in the direction of his apartment, too drained from the heat to lift his arm to point.

A woman emerged from the door of the house next to the apartment building. She wore a neon swimsuit top with white washed, cut-off jean shorts that were pulled up over her belly button. Perhaps most noticeable was the mean looking, black and purple bruise around her left eye.

“Hey boys,” she rasped to the men with a grimace that was as close to a smile as possible.

She fished out a lighter from her high-waisted pocket and uncurled her fingers from around a Pall Mall.

“How’s your old lady?” she asked the taller man.

Sensing a follow up question, the man answered with a reserved, “She’s ok,” and waited.

His companion interrupted the pause with a snort, “She’s been cooking again. I smelled the burned food all the way over in my place,” he chortled.

The woman lit her cigarette and took a deep drag with no small amount of pleasure.

Exhaling a dragon-like stream of smoke through her mouth and nose, she continued, “Does she smoke? You tell her to come over and visit anytime she gets sick of you. We can garden and smoke a little herb.”

A shadow darkened the doorway from which the woman had previously emerged and a man with strands of long gray hair appeared.

“Theresa,” he barked with a tone that threatened of another bruise, this time to her right eye.

The men outside stopped smoking and looked at each other; the reputation of this neighbor preceded him via the frequent bruises of his partner.

“That’s just my ol’ man, you know how he gets.”

Theresa took another long drag of her cigarette before dropping it onto the grass and walking away with a wave. Smoke curled from the end of the abandoned cigarette, briefly burning before it extinguished itself.

c

Lost Perspective

compass

Lifestyle

In working with people who spend the night on the streets or in a shelter and depend on food stamps and vouchers, it is easy to lose perspective. In fact, I may be writing from a lost perspective now.

I am in a world in which cigarettes hold more value than milk and employment is menial and miserable.  The kids are frequently reported for bruises and bed bugs.  There are no healthy relationships, it’s use or be used.  A survival of not the fittest, but the most street smart, the most savage and aware of the systems from which they must either decide to manipulate or leave for the unknown.

Those who stay breed the next generation who are certain to take up their parents’ torch.

It’s a dark realm, almost like an alternate reality that is better kept a secret, in the underground, or for movie settings from which an impoverished savant is able to rise from dregs of society to that of the rich and famous.

Only in that case, the fictional or the legendary-once- in a lifetime situation, is it an interesting place and the desperation is palatable for the rest of the world, knowing that there is a light to shine from the darkness, a ray of hope for those who have nothing other than plastic bag of raggedy clothes and a headful of lice.

The lost perspective.

Everything but…

Four missed calls turned into five, then six.  The joy of being on-call was overshadowed by the joy of being on-call with an absent supervisor.  However, I was a dutiful worker and answered the seventh missed call that came shortly after the sixth.  It was still early in the day; the sky was already filled with light and waiting for the sun to break through the morning clouds.

“Puney, we have a real emergency,” a man exclaimed.

Finally, I thought, a real emergency.  Not just that someone left their window open and a swarm of bees moved in or that smoke was filtering up through the floorboards from the boiler room.  It was a real live emergency, possibly something to make this on-call business worth-while.

“What’s going on?” I asked skeptical of his claim.

“We caught the big one last night,” the man rushed on excitedly.  “He been in there since about one this morning, he fought real hard at first.  We all heard him shaking the cage and hissing and slamming around trying to get out. Then it rained and now he’s just shivering.  You got to call the pest guy to pick him up, he’s really shaking.”

This did qualify as an emergency, Mr. Big was finally in captivity. We were to meet face to snout, at last.  I grabbed my bag, slipped into a pair of boots and headed out on a rescue/removal mission. 

Imagining the creature cold and wet all night, frantically trying to escape from his wire prison filled me with an irrational guilt.  We were at war, I shouldn’t have any feelings for the enemy.  Mr. Big knocked over the trash cans and dragged litter across the lawn almost every night, he taunted the neighbor’s cat and most recently had jumped out of a trashcan at a child.  Although provoked, Mr. Big scared the parents enough to get the neighborhood riled up and on the hunt for a raccoon of monstrous proportions and a luxurious coat.  He was at the wrong place at the wrong time but that didn’t matter, his fate was decided by the fear mongering crowd that day.  

Parking outside of the building, I ran around the back to the dumpster where half of a trap stuck out from underneath of a sheet of plywood.  A motionless, wet lump of dark fur was curled up in the back of the cage, like a pile of old grease rags.

“He’s dead,” I declared with no small amount of sadness and disappointment.  We had been at odds for so long, dealing with his mayhem was a part of the job.  For it to come to this cruel end, I felt responsible and regretted my part in hiring Gary, the self proclaimed answer to all pest problems. 

One shiny black eye was open but unblinking and there was no sign of breathing.  I pulled up my sleeves, pushed the fear of rabies out of mind, and prepared to start CPR.  You’re not going to die on my watch, Mr. Big.  Not after all this time.

Then the eye blinked, saving me from the life saving measures I was prepared to undergo to bring the creature back into the world.  The pile of fur began to inhale and exhale as it righted itself and shuffled to the end of the cage to greet its prison warden with a friendly wave.

To my shock, the animal was surprisingly small with thin fur, more of a miss than a mister, and almost certainly an imposter!

We caught the wrong one.  Mr. Big outsmarted the world that conspired against him, yet again.  I gave a little cheer under my breath, forever a fan of the underdog.  

In the words of Paul Harvey, “and now you know the rest of the story.”

mr big 

Mr. Big

Two grey trash cans lay uselessly on their sides, like a pair of beached whales. Their contents were strewn across the grass and the broken pavement of the parking lot.  Mr. Big and his crew had struck, again.

Mr. Big was a clever bandit with a luxurious coat that was thick and shiny from his rich cuisine of leftovers, stale cereal, cold French fries, wilted salad, moldy bread, and whatever else he could procure from his nightly raid of the local trash cans.

He lived at the top of a dilapidated brick building. The maintenence man was so busy trying to keep the walls together that he didn’t bother about the extra resident in the attic.

There was an unspoken agreement between man and beast that if given words would have been something like, don’t bite me and I won’t bite you. It was an understanding that lasted long enough for Mr. Big to grow from a ball of fluff into a healthy dog sized creature of 25 pounds or more.

On most nights, Mr. Big organized a gathering party with neighboring bandits to go out foraging, targeting different trash cans on the same city block. He found the greatest success on Sunday when the cans were at max capacity with plastic and paper bags, vegetable peelings, plastic cups and to-go boxes.  When the cans were filled to the brim they took more pushing to knock over, but the effort was rewarded without fail.  Mr. Big usually took Monday off to digest the massive amount of trash-can-food eaten during the previous night.

For years, Mr. Big was the perfect criminal, growing in confidence and size until one day, two Thursdays again, he made a serious error. Mr. Big lunged out after a snot-nosed kid who had the nerve to throw away a pop can into the very trash receptacle where he was rummaging through a discarded bag of half eaten Rally’s burgers.

I cringed when I heard the story from the kid’s parents without a hint of surprise.

You see, the maintenance man wasn’t the only one aware of the Mr. Big and his movements. I knew. I laughed off the stories about his escapades around the apartments. I listened to the ever exaggerated description of his size and strength.  I righted the trash cans and gathered up the trash or asked a loitering resident to do so.  Mr. Big was just another familiar face in the area trying to get a decent meal.

But when he messed with the kid, I drew the line and began to gear up for battle.

By Monday, a wire cage was dropped off and baited with an ear of corn to lure the greedy Mr. Big inside and then off to the great raccoon farm in the sky or at least the nearest state park.

Tune in over the next few days to find out what happened.

big

The Sweet Taste of Success

zen

A mysterious fist pounded at the door. Bang, Bang, Bang.  Without carpet or better insulation, the sound reverberated around the room and immediately annoyed me.

“Mrrwhaf?” I yelled through the door with a mouthful of peanut butter.

It was lunch time and there was a sign on the door stating in very neat and uniform letters, “CLOSED,” which did not leave much room for an alternative interpretation.

Bang, Bang, Bang. The knocking continued, shattering the golden silence of noon like an errant bullet through the front window of a retired school teacher, scattering a million shards of glass on the ground where previously there were none.

I bit into a fat baby carrot, severing it in half with my very sharp teeth. It broke with a loud CRACK that was surely heard in the hallway indicating the eating of lunch. Thoughtfully, I rolled the carrot chunk towards my molars for the most efficient mastication of the vegetable.

Then, I focused all of my energy on the door. It was made out of cheap and cracking wood, held together by a coat of white paint, scuff marks were at the bottom from multiple feet.   Narrowing my eyes, I stared with the intensity of a brain surgeon preparing to remove a tumor and fixated on whoever stood on the other side.

I was gratified with a few seconds of silence which were without a doubt too good to be true, as no footsteps followed. At first, I only assumed that the would-be intruder had not vaporized as I intended, which was then confirmed as fact when the aggressive knocking continued.

“Nobody’s home,” I yelled and launched into a period of self-reflection.

Was it selfish to want just one uninterrupted lunch? Was it wrong to take that time back for myself and to declare that it was something beyond want and was actually a need?  I struggled with the boundary of giving and balance of self-care with professional responsibility, recognizing only afterwards when I had nothing left but resentment that I was already to the emotional land of no-return for the day.

At last, the knocking stopped and the sound of footsteps were heard heading out the door.

It was a small victory, fleeting and hard fought which somehow made the rest of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich taste that much better.

Previous Older Entries

Blog Stats

  • 6,048 hits