400 Crocs in Paradise

croc

The boat pulled forward slowly cutting through the brackish water without leaving a wake, like a pregnant snake, it floated low and heavy in the water loaded with tourists from around the world.  

At the front of the boat, the tour guide stood proud and tall at 5’5.   He was excited to have another captive audience on which to try out his comedy routine.  It was still early in the day and he was just getting warmed up on his act.

However, he was also quite literally warming up with the day.  It was already 85 degrees out and the sun shined brightly down on his coastal mecca.  His black hair was slicked back and drops of perspiration formed along the sides of his face.  The moisture glistened as it slid down his neck and was reabsorbed into his shirt.  He held onto a silver railing that lined the edge of the boat, steadying himself as the boat continued along the length of the scraggy beach.

“Bienvenidos, ladies and gentlemen, I am Jose and Marco is at the back steering the boat.”

Sure enough, at the back of the boat a man lightly gripped the steering wheel and lifted a hand to wave.  He gave a reassuring, toothy smile to the tourists.  Everyone on the boat who understood English craned their necks to confirm that there was a Marco steering the boat.  They assumed the boat was driving itself until Jose mentioned his coworker and then they had to see him with their own eyes, suddenly a most urgent necessity.

“At the end of the tour, please leave a review on our website, tell your friends and feel free to be generous with your tips.”

He held up a finger to emphasize his next point, “Unless you don’t like the tour, then remember that my name was Juan and Alberto was the captain when you go to tweet or leave a review online or don’t say anything at all.  Now with that business out of the way, are you ready to see some crocodiles?”

Then he started on the same spiel in Spanish; half of the crowd listened attentively while the rest gazed expectantly into the water.

An American couple laughed and looked at each other, passing an unknown silent message back and forth.  They held hands and sat thigh to thigh with matching sunburns and passport protectors around their necks.  

Jose continued, “Unfortunately, we did not learn German at university. So here goes. Hallo, guten tag, auf weidersehn and adieu.”

He winked and waved in a Sound of Music type of way at a pair of blond men with khaki colored hats sitting towards the front of the boat. 

“Are we ready for crocodiles, now?” Jose asked again.

The crowd laughed as they refocused and then cheered at Jose’s suggestion.

“There are 400 crocodiles out there but we are only going to see a few.”

The boat glided past a tangle of tree limbs and weeds.  Muddy clumps appeared from the dark water between patches of skinny reeds and debris.  Motionlessly, a log floated on top of the still surface and started to move forward towards the mess of the tree limbs sending slow ripples out from either side of it.  The log had eyes and suddenly a tail emerged from the water.

“This is very good, everyone.  Little Girl is out today.  This is a smaller, female crocodile who was just resting until we disturbed the her.  Do you know what this means?” 

Jose continued without waiting for the audiences’ response.

“Big Papa is around and we have to be careful because he will chase the boat.  He does not like us to mess with his girlfriends.  There is one guy and many girls, he is a lucky crocodile, no?” 

“But this is what you came for, to see the croc’s.”

Atop a scrub tree on the beach, a sleek bird of prey perched watching the boat creep along.   A long-legged crane picked its way through the water, stopping occasionally to stab at the water with its beak and unconcerned with the tour boat.  

“This area is home to more than the crocodiles, look up and you will see the birds.  Look down and you will see the fish.  We have to take care of it, we have to take care of the Earth because it is changing.  If we don’t do something now, it will be too late and there will be nothing we can do about it.  What will we leave to our children? What will be left for us?”

The tourists glanced around at one another and then out at the water.  It was a sobering moment.  Jose was serious and the tour was no longer fun, they were being raised to a higher level of accountability without relation to their country of origin.  They were equally responsible for the care of the world, from the inland brackish wetlands to the oceans and everything in between.  He made them think.

“Amigos, don’t look so serious.  Ok?  Today is a good day.  Today, you are all VIP because you are on this tour.  We normally don’t let people snorkel here, but this is your lucky day.  Americans, you can go first. Germanies, you are next.  Lastly, the Mexicans will go because we are delicious.”

Half of the tourists laughed while he said the same things in Spanish.  The tension was broken but the tourists were left thinking long after the boat brought them safely back to the rickety wooden pier.

 

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Disease State

phone

Michelle’s smooth white skin was interrupted by dark bruises as though a painter had dabbed her arms with a brush full of blue paint, using her thin bones as a guide.  She texted on her phone, punching in letters and emoticons with grubby fingers, ignoring the woman sitting across the kitchen table from her.  

Before everything changed, Michelle’s phone was merely a distraction, a way to avoid eye contact, and pass the time.  The woman across from her remembered how Michelle used to talk on her first cell phone, a big bulky device with actual buttons and an antenna; she snapped the phone shut at the end of a call and tucked it away for hours without once reaching for it.  It was a sweet time when they communicated with real interactions and conversations, before Michelle was sick.  

At the thought of it, the woman bitterly laughed to herself.  It seemed like a million years ago when health was wealth and they were rich.  Now, it was all symbols to represent words and emotions, entire sentences condensed into a frowny face next to a fire and a thermometer.  Sick again. 

The power of technology was a powerful addiction, one that had taken hold of her daughter along with the rest of the population, from toddlers to the elderly, it was yet to be formally declared as dangerous because the side effects were still accumulating and not entirely clear. 

However, the woman sitting across from Michelle was keenly aware of the addiction.  She shared the same wide blue eyes, pale complexion, and health insurance plan as her daughter and not much else now that the disease had taken root.  Planting her elbows on the table, she clasped her hands, interlocking long white fingers with well-shaped nails.

“Next month, we are going to lose our insurance because I can’t afford COBRA,” the woman said in a very matter-of-fact way. 

Her daughter looked up and connected with her mother’s eyes, “I know.  You have said the same thing every other day since you found out about the layoffs.”

“And you were listening?  All I ever see you do is twiddle and tweet on that stupid phone so excuse me for being surprised.”

“And I got a job, you’ll be happy to know. With insurance for both of us.  It’s online.”

Eggs for Dinner

Penchant

eggs

I am on a week-long husband holiday.  I get to sleep in the middle of the bed, use up all of the hot water in the shower, and eat whatever I want for dinner.  It’s like being back in college but with a house, a full-time job and responsibilities and without the drinking or late night pizza.  So not quite as fun.   

After work, I head out for a jog around the neighborhood.  Flashing lights draw my attention towards a work crew of sunburned men.  They look tired and dirty as they take down a power line with an end of the day carelessness that motivates me to run a little faster. Somehow getting electrocuted and spending the rest of my husband holiday in the hospital is not how I plan to spend this time.

Once home, I peel off my sweaty running shirt and drape it over the back of the couch.  I can be a slob during my holiday week, but it doesn’t suit me.  The thought of a perspiration soaked shirt on the furniture makes my skin crawl.  Some people can’t stand spiders and beg for their death or removal, others get queasy at the sight of blood. Me, its dirty socks and laundry where it doesn’t belong. I can’t handle it regardless of if I’m on a husband vacation or not.  I retrieve the shirt and carry it back to the bedroom to dry and makes its way to the laundry basket.   

Now the cats need feeding and so do I.  The thought of sampling their expensive kibble briefly crosses my mind.  Its nutritionally balanced and even boasts of nutra-bits; whatever those might be, the whole shebang would be nourishing and so easy to prepare.  However, the smell is too disgusting and the greasy, crummy residue left on my fingers after scooping out a serving is too gross to give more time to this as a possibility for dinner. 

Instead of cat food, I go in for my old stand-by.  Eggs.  It’s been a long time since eggs were a main staple for dinner and the poor nutrition years comes rushing back.  Scrambled, hard boiled, sunny side up, fried, burned, omletted, more often with a piece of shell than not, eggs got me through the lean, mean years and taste almost as good now as they did then.  Survival food, it’s much better when eaten out of preference than necessity.

Counting down the days until my “vacation” is over because I’m sick of eating eggs, taking long luxurious showers, and sleeping alone in the middle of our big bed.   

Traffic Trolling

time

Cruising home as the last light leaves the sky, I fiddle with the radio punching through the five preset stations.  The number on each button is starting to fade from frequent use.  I am searching for a song with feeling and words that I know in hopes of singing along.  As a musical simpleton, new songs are a little frightening unless sandwiched between tried and true billboard hits, lending credibility to a newcomer’s radio worthiness.  Nothing catches my attention and I continue in my possibly fruitless search for a suitable jam.  I roll to a stop at a traffic light and take my turn waiting for green.

It is completely dark now.  The street in front of me is illuminated by the headlights from my car and a dim light inside of a covered bus station.  I am alone with my thoughts and a whining voice coming through the radio.  Next.  I hit another preset button not tried in the last thirty seconds.  A commercial comes on with two sisters trying to sell used cars for “just pennies down.”  Next.  A radio dj reads the news, it’s all bad.  Next.  

I used to be so good at waiting, I waited for letters to come in the mail, I waited for the internet to dial up, I waited for my turn in our single bathroom, I waited to get older.  Now, I can’t even wait the minute at a traffic light without feeling impatient or the ability to remain present. 

I remember a pack of gum in the center console, unwrap a piece of hard Juicy Fruit and peek at the light.  Its still red.  Red as Dorothy’s slippers and I am uncomfortably bored, alone and back to changing the radio station.  Boredom is a killer.  It drives a need for distraction from reality and in between that wasted space, the minutes turn into days into months and years and suddenly there is a lifetime of waste and perhaps an awareness of how life could have been different. 

Then I am not alone or bored. Someone is tapping at my window and I shriek. 

A short, squat woman is tapping at my window.  The dim light from the bus stop is enough to outline her face, covered in sweat, with a broad nose and wideset eyes that are so dark they look black.  She is intensely focused inside of the vehicle which was previously no more exciting than an empty cardboard box.    

“Roll down the window,” she yells and makes a rolling motion with her arm.  

I shake my head.

“What do you want?”

She points at her wrist, “Time.”

“Me too,” I smile and give her a thumbs-up. 

Or maybe not, I sure have wasted enough of it to make a person wonder. 

She throws her hands up and yells something encouraging as I drive off.  I don’t look back, green means gun it and go.  There’s no time to waste.

Disobey

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.

The Cost of Healthcare

blood pressure

“Why don’t you just go to the doctor?” my husband asks after hearing my chest crack and pop.

“It’s complicated,” I moan in pain.

Maybe he doesn’t know about the extent of my white coat syndrome and that merely making an appointment makes my heart race and my palms get sweaty. Or that as a kid, I never went to the doctor outside of ingesting a battery or being covered with purple lesions.  And if we did go, it always resulted in the occurrence of something uncomfortable or more painful than the original issue.

As an adult, there is little difference except that now the pain comes from the initial cost of the copay and then later the portion of the bill not covered through insurance.

“It’s all explained in your insurance policy,” the customer service rep explains. “You know, in the really fine print. You agreed to pay for anything not covered when you signed in to see Dr. Gulash.”

Trickery and crooks! I scream in my mind, and then passively settle on a monthly payment of six months to pay off the balance.  It’s easier than taking a stand and getting sent to collections.   The bitter sting of that bill is still on my mind as I refuse to get the cracking and popping evaluated, not just yet anyway.

Let’s follow the journey of Papa Puney who decided not to wait until there were no other options and his proactive approach to his healthcare.

Papa Puney is fit man in his fifties; he sits in a hard plastic chair at the doctor’s office, off to the side and away from the sick people. There are stacks of germ covered magazines next to a pump bottle of hand sanitizer.  It’s a nice gesture but too little too late for most.

He calmly waits and peruses through emails and Facebook on his phone.   He has been working to lower his blood pressure through diet, exercise and limiting his views on the Donald’s latest tweets.   He moves his upper lip unconsciously and the mustache above it bristles out, not unlike a well groomed porcupine, as he flips through the online posts.

A young woman with dry, dyed black hair pops her head out of the door next to the receptionist’s desk.

“Mr. Papa Puney?”

She holds the door open with shiny, red nails. The man looks up in acknowledgement of his name.

“We’re ready for you now.”

Opening the door wider, she waits for the proactive patient to follow her down a tile hallway that smells of antiseptic cleaner.

The woman chews gum as she leads the man into his own room.   PP feels a seed of irritation begin to grow with each snap and pop of the gum.

“Sit right here and the nurse practitioner will be right in,” she gestured with her hand to another hard backed chair.

“Wait a minute, what about the doctor?”

“Oh, he is too busy to see you today. The NP will be right in,” the woman explains cheerfully and leaves before PP can say anything else.

PP waits and feels his heart rate increasing and the blood pulsing through his veins. PP waits and waits, keeping busy by cruising the internet until he reaches the end of the interwebs and still he waits.

Finally, the door opens and a chubby blonde woman in her early thirties with purple Crocs enters the room.

“Hey there, Bub, what’s going on with this blood pressure of yours?”

“Bub?” PP asks.

He feels a pounding in his head as his blood pressure rises like a tribal drum urging him on to stand and leave. No, this is not going to work.  There are other ways to lower blood pressure.   PP excuses himself from the clinic and takes a trip to Burger King to reassess his health goals and the price of proactivity.

Bub out.

Timely

What Spring Brings

Pleased

There are no leaves on the trees, but the grass already needs to be cut. Daffodils that survived a surprise freeze of early Spring are popping up and joined by red and pink tulips and green hostas.

A barefoot woman stands on the front porch shaking a plastic bag of trail mix. She takes a few steps forward and begins to yell towards a tree in a high pitched voice, usually reserved for things that are small and furry.

“Sneaky, come down here, Sneaky.”

On the street, a man slowly rides by on a bike with a wicker basket. He cranes his neck but only sees tiny green buds beginning to develop on the branches.  There is nothing to match the description of what he imagines to be a Sneaky.

You just never know, he thinks, and holds down the contents of the basket on the front of his bike. It is overflowing with a shrubbery that he acquired from the yard of his out of town neighbors.

“Sneaky, its snack time.”

The woman shakes the bag again and this time a man watches from inside of the house. With one finger, he lifts the blind up a little higher and peers out with a pair of blue eyes.   As much as he wants to look away, he cannot bring himself to do it.  He is running through his options on which family member would sign the involuntary commitment paperwork.

“Trust us, it’s for your own good.”

He envisions the woman being lifted up and carried out by men in matching white scrubs.  He sees her little legs kicking as she squirms to escape and feels a sense of guilt in the pit of his stomach for letting his imagination take his wife away in a straight jacket.

Laughter from the sidewalk brings the man’s focus back.

The woman’s hand is extended with a pile of almonds on her palm from which a little brown squirrel is selecting the best nut.

“Only the best for you, Sneaky.”

She looks back, intuiting that she had an audience of one, and raises one eyebrow.

“Told you so,” she says with a shrug and a smile.

She is most pleased; Sneaky returned as did her creditability, all in few, short minutes.

sg

The Guilty Witness

“Before we get started, I want to say that wasn’t a crack pipe in my suitcase.”

This was not a good way to start an interview, especially with a detective, I thought as I casually eavesdropped on the men. I peeked around the corner and then returned to my position, busily typing away at pointless notes, listening all the while.

A good natured detective sat next to the man. He held his thumb on the record button of a slender, silver device while the corner of his mouth tugged upwards. He had yet to ask any questions and already the information was pouring forth, and like a tipped over bottle of malt liquor, it stunk.

“Ok,” the detective agreed. “We are in agreement that the pipe found in the suitcase was not used for smoking crack. Can you explain what it was used for?”

They reached a consensus so quickly, I marveled. It is easier to swim with the flow of the stream rather than to resist it.  There is a Buddhist quote in there somewhere.  I made a search of the internet of swimming upstream and found reference to a crappy Australian movie.

“Weed,” the man said with a nervous laugh. “I smoke weed.”

Oh great, that’s much better than crack. I rolled my eyes and continued my search.

Found a better quote, “Three things cannot be hidden long: the sun, the moon and the truth.”

“I see, you smoke a little reefer,” the detective said with a nod.

The tugging at the corner of the detective’s mouth gave way to a smile. He had nice clean teeth, all accounted for in a straight line of healthy white.  He was really jiving now, pulling out his street lingo for drugs.

Suddenly, the man received a message on his phone. He got up and announced, “I’ve got to smoke a cigarette.  I’ll be right back.”

He went across the street, forgetful or unaware of the window through which the detective was able to watch him walk up to a car and make mysterious transaction and return without once lighting a cigarette.

Namaste, little brother, the truth will almost certainly not set you free and it will all be known soon enough.

 

 

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