On Notice.

A month or so ago I received a notice in the mail from the Long Beach Police Department. Unlike the typical parking ticket or traffic violation, though, this letter came in a nondescript white business envelope. Not overtly intimidating, perhaps, but still vaguely threatening, as I guess any unsolicited missive from the Police would be. Now I don’t know if you’re at all like me, but if you are, then any overture from the P.D., whether by mail or in person, would certainly elicit from within your soul no small degree of terror. It’s not that I’ve done anything wrong – well, not too wrong – it’s just that I tend to assume the worst.

What's this? An official letter from the Police Department? How nice!

At the time of its arrival I was puttering in the yard (being one of those outdoorsy types), and Lizzy happened to intercept the mail at the front door. It was she who brought the letter to me, so consequently I had to act pretty damned casual as I took the envelope from her hand.

In the few seconds subsequent to my wife’s words (“Here’s something from the Police!”) I experienced a quick moment of panic. I scanned my memory for any recent offense, but the more I thought about it the more it became clear that this letter could portend punishment for damn near anything. Was I caught on camera failing to come to a complete stop at an intersection? Could a vigilante-inspired coffee shop denizen have witnessed me helping myself to extra java without dropping a quarter in the little cup they put next to the urn? Did my ISP call the cops after learning about the video I downloaded – you know, the one with the dwarf, the bucket of warm mashed potatoes, and all the marmots?

Could they – oh god help me! – could they have found out about the chickens?

But as I say, I tried to remain nonchalant. I opened the letter, and sure enough, I’m told in plain, cold, accusing black lettering that I’m to report to the Long Beach Police Department on the date specified for something very, very serious.

A job interview.

Wait – what?

A bit of history here: a couple of years ago I started the process of interviewing for what was advertised as a municipal job with the Port of Long Beach. It seemed like just the thing for me – one of those clerical spots wherein the applicant need only prove that he or she can type around 10 words per hour, as well as display a proven ability to show up at work with a pulse.

Note the dreaded description "Perm/Full Time."

Having worked for about five years with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue – a job that not only required an absolute minimal amount of brainpower and effort, but also imposed upon its employees several breaks during the day, two or three “personal days” a season, a few sick days, some vacation time, and a nice, fat, holiday off a month even if there wasn’t an actual holiday (“Evacuation Day, anyone?) – I new that this Port thing would be right up my alley.

Long story short, several months of waiting, a background check, two tests, three interviews and one economic disaster later, and I didn’t get the job. It’s okay. I moved on.

But now it’s a couple of years later, and I’m suddenly being told to report for an interview for a completely unrelated government job. The letter was threatening in tone, not unlike a summons to appear in court or an order to pay a decade of back child support because of one little mistake you made in Chinatown during a particularly crazy Qi Xi festival. On reading it I got the impression that if I didn’t respond I would most certainly be physically removed from my home and thrown in prison for an extended stay, the duration of which I would no doubt spend as that prisoner who wheels the book cart around to all the other inmates, passing out copies of Mein Kampf and taking furtive orders for things like cigarettes and Rita Hayworth posters.

You are ordered to respond to this letter!

Now I know all these police officer-types tend to operate on the serious side, but was this really necessary? Frankly, it was damn unsettling. And what if I were to show up for the interview? Can you imagine what that would have been like? I can hear the questioning now: “So, Mr. Miller – have you ever been beaten with a bar of soap and a sock?” or, “It says here on your resume that you were once a Boy Scout. Could you, then, construct a shiv out of an 8-track cassette tape and a kitchen spatula?” or, “Mr. Miller, where do you see yourself incarcerated in five years?”

And whoever wrote this dreadful thing must have felt that it needed an extra dose of intimidation, because a little further down the page I was told in no uncertain terms that I had exactly two weeks to respond, or else there was a chance that I would never be allowed to work in municipal government again.

Scary prospect, I know, and such a tempting offer. But I steeled myself and decided to ignore this warm, welcoming invitation. I figured I’d be better off looking for employment somewhere else – perhaps a job less confrontational in nature. Somewhere where I’d be less likely to have my body and spirit beaten down on a daily basis while enduring humiliating verbal assaults and other indignities from my superiors.

Okay, so that rules out a Hollywood production company – but I’ll keep looking. I’m sure I’ll find something.

Screenwriting is Hard!

I know I haven’t been posting very much lately, but trust me when I say that I’ve been extremely busy. For several months now I’ve been struggling with the plot to my new screenplay, Satan’s Sputum, and although it’s hard for me to admit, I’ve come to the realization that I’m going to need some help. I don’t know if you’ve ever written one of these things, but if you have you know that they’re no walk in the park. It makes me wonder how these Hollywood types can bang out so many high quality scripts week after week.

Don’t get me wrong – I have sought out help. I’ve spoken to several screenwriters I know, read all the right books, and even rented Because of Winn Dixie (which has, you’ll find, a similar narrative), but still my screenplay needs some tweaking. I know it sounds crazy but I was thinking, as a long shot, that perhaps I could get some advice from you, the reader, about turning this little script that is so near and dear to me into the blockbuster I know it can be.

With that, here are some of the plot points I’ve been agonizing over:

First of all, when my protagonist, the washed-up taxidermist Tucker Starr, graduates from Community College with a degree in advanced Cetacean Psychology and is reunited with his long-lost sister Leticia McNabb outside the Tastee Freeze in Act One, how do I describe, realistically, his horrific flash-back to first grade (wherein his teacher, Ms. Stump, forces him to recite, in front of the entire class, the filmography of the character actor Dick Miller while jumping rope and wearing a coon-skin cap). This is an important scene, because if done right it will explain Tucker’s eventual transformation (in Act Three) from a mild-mannered loner to an internationally recognized, megalomaniacal neck tie designer.

Next, I need to solve the problem of how Leticia’s Ecuadorian house-boy Arturo, who had earlier been abducted by Sufi Dervishes while lying in a large zucchini patch and writing a free-verse poem about his favorite food (Quinoa), manages to escape their clutches. Specifically, how do I write a chase sequence that involves only whirling?

Here’s another: when, on page 93, Tucker learns that he must rescue his primary school sweetheart Soon-yi McGraw (now a grown woman with, mysteriously, a third arm growing out of her left foot) from the evil Matador Testardo, why, when learning of her plight, does he immediately run to the kitchen, empty every box of dry pasta onto the floor, and fall into the fetal position while mournfully singing “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat? Does this seem out of character, particularly when taking into account his issues with gluten?

Also, I fear I need a little help with some of the dialogue. For example – in the first few pages of Act Two, when the secondary character Beaumont Affleck-Smythe wakes from his coma and sneaks out of the nursing home by hiding in a bucket of expired beet puree, he has a poignant discussion with a Little Girl before stealing her trike. I need this scene to reveal, from Beaumont’s past, the source of his paralyzing fear of raw Kale. This is particularly important because it provides the motivation for his renouncing all worldly possessions and becoming a peripatetic Jazzercise instructor in the epilogue. Also, I need the proper context for him to use the word “effluvia.”

I’m also struggling a bit with continuity. For example, on page 159 Testardo is wearing a gingham poncho while vacationing in La Mancha with his blind podiatrist Randy (where he finds the golden penguin statuette buried under the windmills of Campo De Criptano). How do I reconcile that with the pivotal scene on page 62 where he clearly vows, after losing both his legs to the ravages of disease, to wear nothing but purple rayon until a cure is found for Tennis Elbow?

And finally, in the denouement, Tucker must retrieve the microchip embedded in his now-rabid marmot Gustavo, talk a suicidal Leticia down from the top of the refrigerator, find the courage to finally change the greeting on his home answering machine from Carl Kassel’s voice to his own, and still make it to the Umakweyana competition at his niece’s Waldorf school in time to win the rubber trophy he has coveted all his life.

Phew. See what I’m saying? This screenwriting business is hard work! Anyway, if any of you have any suggestions, I’d be happy to take them. I plan on getting Satan’s Sputum shot by some big-time Hollywood director, too, so if I use any of your ideas you can expect a pretty sweet payday in the near future (I’m thinking this material is perfect for someone like Terrence Malick, or maybe Vincent Gallo).

Oh, and just so you know, I plan to submit the final draft to the Göteborg Feminist Film Festival as well, and the submission date for their Screenwriting Competition is in eleven months. That means I’m really going to have to get cracking!

I Got Your Smile Right Here…

September 11th came and went last month, and for once I thought that I had found an appropriate event that we could take part in as a family. You see, for the past couple of years we’ve had to endure a memorial service of sorts put on by a neighbor up the block that resulted in our street being overrun by fire engines, foot traffic, and hundreds – and I mean hundreds – of bikes. And not the kind of bikes whose riders pump the pedals and occasionally jingle a tiny bell on the handlebar, either. I’m talking about Hogs. Big, metal things driven by men and women who would kill you without a second thought, though not before revving their engines aggressively and making you spill your Kombucha.

As you might imagine, all of these people and their machines need to park somewhere, and consequently the street is closed for several hours in the evening to accommodate all the ruckus. When we first moved here we were intrigued, and excitedly walked up the street to see what was going on. Sadly, the gathering proved to be less a heartfelt and touching memorial to those fallen on that day than an opportunity for jingoistic chest-thumping. Nice.

Anyway, we had already decided to vacate the area this time around, and while scanning the local paper the week prior I found what seemed to be just the thing for us: a drum circle.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been part of one of these things – I’ve sat in on a couple myself, once back in the 90’s with an assortment of older, ex-stoner types I knew from my aged, hippie landlord, and once more recently in the decidedly less substance-reliant environment of a work related morale-boosting session. The latter occasion was one of those non-spontaneous and, in fact, paid for orgies wherein two goofy, late-middle aged men in Hawaiian shirts and gray ponytails pass around an assortment of percussive instruments and whip up the reluctant attendees to beat their tom toms or djembes in order to create some sort of communal, cacophonic bonding session. That experience wasn’t all that bad, so I figured, why not again?

I know, I know –  I don’t know what I was thinking either. Maybe I expected it to be a more dignified event, with well dressed, educated and multicultural NPR listeners milling about.  Either way this one, advertised as an alternative to the typical September 11th memorial, seemed appropriate. So I signed us up.

What we got, unfortunately, was a gaggle of dread-locked and patchoulied trustafarians whirling about on the beach while a DJ bobbed over a large CD player and music blared obnoxiously over loudspeakers. There were drums laying about alongside mini-accordions, flutes and peace tambourines, but no visible “circle.” Even worse, some of the attendees had apparently been encouraged to wear costumes, the unsightly result of which was far more visible skin, piercings and Bob Marley tattoos than is traditionally appropriate at an event billing itself as “for the whole family.” Apparently to these hippie-types the words “wear a costume” mean “dress like a Gypsy stripper with a Meth habit.” And to think I was this close to having Sarah show up wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh suit.

Needless to say, it really soured my mood, and we left almost immediately. So much for unity.

I’m not quite sure why this kind of thing bothers me, but it does. I try not to be judgmental, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s habits. It’s just that I don’t like to be in close proximity to their display.

Another example: a few years ago when we lived in Arlington, Mass, I used to take a bus down Mass Ave to Harvard Square, where I worked. If the weather was nice, I would get off the bus several stops earlier than I needed to and walk the remaining half-mile or so.

Anyway, once as I was passing alongside the park just before the Old Burying Ground by Garden Street, I noticed, up ahead, a shadowy figure lurking furtively behind a tree. I could tell that the shadowy figure was waiting for me to pass, presumably to surprise me with some unwelcome assault. I wasn’t worried about being mugged – this was, after all, in broad daylight and in public, a stone’s throw from one of this country’s most prestigious Ivy League schools. I couldn’t see much, but something in the demeanor of the person suggested a fate worst than violence. Something, in fact, far more sinister.

He looked like a Liberal Arts major. And he looked like he was going to smile at me.

Sure enough, just as I approached the tree out popped this guy, dressed in sandals, shorts and a t-shirt. His hair was long and curly, his face rotund. He was, as I had feared, smiling. A lot. Now I’m usually pretty good at avoiding these types, having spent many years dodging Greenpeace workers and Lyndon Larouche supporters, but the absurdity of the moment caught me off guard, and before I could react he had positioned himself to my right and, pointing to me in an animated fashion, exclaimed,

“Hey man, you dropped your smile!”

Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty happy guy. Sure, times get tough, dark clouds occasionally gather overhead – these things happen. But I always keep the stiff upper lip and soldier on. What I mean to say is, I’ve had adversity just like the next guy, but I keep things in perspective. Once, for example, the Whole Foods near me was completely out of sprouted Kamut. For, like, two weeks. But did I waver? Did I give up? Nope.

But for god’s sake, people, if there’s one thing that interferes with my natural state of cheeriness it’s when other people feel the need to pop uninvited into my universe. I don’t know about you, but I have a visceral aversion to anybody, ever, trying to get me to be part of something they’re involved with. In my experience these things never end well. You know how it is – a nice couple you used to know cold-calls you out of the blue saying they’d love to catch up, and the next thing you know you’re enduring an hour-long, glassy-eyed Amway pitch, followed by a return visit thwarted only by the last-minute act of hiding in the bathroom until they’ve stopped knocking. You can feel your individuality and freedom of choice drip away steadily with every word. It’s the same way, I’ve found, with Mary Kay parties, volunteer work, toddler play dates, and any leisurely trip out of the house that involves more than two people.

So when faced with an obviously MDMA-saturated, parent-financed, Harvard Square-loitering goofball encouraging me to display happiness, the last thing I’m thinking about is picking up a smile that I had “dropped.” In fact, if I could have picked up anything at that moment it would have been a rock and bunged it at the guy’s head. I mean, come on! I was having a perfectly nice day!

Anyway, my experience with last months “drum circle” was similarly disheartening. Maybe it’s me, but if passing a sign that reads “Peace, Love & Unity” creates in the passer-by feelings of anger, repulsion and violence then something’s wrong.

But who knows? Maybe, upon reflection, the problem is with me. Maybe I’m not as mellow and happy-go-lucky as I think. Maybe I need to address my own issues before judging others based on their interests. Maybe I need to be less aloof.

Or maybe I just need more Kombucha. That I can do.

Don’t Go Out the Front Door (Or Under the Kitchen Sink)!

It’s funny how being a parent alters the way you look at things. If you’ve been there (or currently are there), you know what I mean – cleaning up traditionally repugnant substances like poop, vomit or any other of the vast variety of sputum becomes, through some reverse transubstantiation, as mundane and ho-hum a task as sweeping up cracker crumbs. The point being, if you’re a parent, then you just don’t get freaked out about the same things you used to.

The same could be said for situations that don’t involve the body’s by-products. For example, a couple of evenings ago while Lizzy and I were getting supper ready, Sarah popped out the front door unattended for a bit of pre-dinner running around. We don’t normally have a problem with this sort of thing, as long as we know where she is and we’re able to check on her every few minutes or so, so we let her do her thing while we went about setting the table.

Upon coming back into the house Sarah proudly informed us that she had made a “garden” on the front step (see picture). We went out to have a look, and, sure enough, she had gathered various flower petals and arranged them in a neat pile, surrounded by carefully chosen twigs, on the stone tiles in front of our door.

Lizzy and I both oohed and aahed accordingly while Sarah bounced into the house, proud of her achievement. And really, who can blame her? Look at her choice of color, the arrangement of the material, her selection of found objects – quite impressive, if you ask me.

“It’s my garden!” Sarah beamed, hopping about in the living room.

“How nice!” Lizzy beamed in response.

“That is beautiful!” I offered enthusiastically, beaming even brighter.

“Yes!” Sarah beamed some more.

If you haven’t noticed, we’re one of those families that tends to beam a lot.

We were just at the point where even the cats were about to start beaming when Sarah, buoyant as ever, added:

“Somebody died there!”

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those movies where the family moves into a new house and the littlest one – usually some dour, brooding type – stands at the top of the stairs and utters an ominous and foreboding non sequitur like “It’s in the cellar,” or “Why is the floor all red, Daddy?” and the parents brush the statement off with a distracted tousle of the kid’s hair and a casual “Aw, how cute…now go play with your new Heretic Necklace, Dakota!”  Well if you have then you know that the child’s announcement would have in actuality portended the demise of both the house and family, most likely at the hands of some ancient daemon or disgruntled Native American’s curse. Additionally, you’ve probably shaken your head incredulously, questioning how any adult could possibly have be so clueless as to have missed the obvious warning.

But there we were, all smiles in the living room as Sarah, skipping over to the dinner table, reiterated her statement that her creation commemorated some poor soul’s demise. Lizzy and I exchanged a chuckle, mused on our daughter’s creativity for a moment, then went back to the dining room.

I mean, are we crazy? Sarah’s flower and stick arrangement turns out to be not just a spontaneous and girlish burst of creativity but instead memorializes some imaginary person’s death and here we are, thinking, “Oh, kids….” Next thing you know walking out back and finding Sarah drawing chalk pentagrams on her Melissa & Doug easel while speaking in tongues will be a common occurrence, as will waking up in the middle of the night after some fitful dream and finding her standing over our bedside in the dark, brooding silently.

Of course, just this morning while getting ready for school Sarah amused herself by opening up the cabinet door under the kitchen sink, happily muttering “Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys…” so maybe the whole death-shrine thing is nothing to worry about. I mean, I’m certainly not going to believe a four year-old’s claim that there are anthropoids under our sink, so why give credence to anything else her healthy imagination feels like producing? Just encourage and move along, right?

I guess the desensitizing aspect of parenthood serves a pretty good purpose. Otherwise we’d be far too grossed out to clean up any of the messes, or too concerned about monsters in the closet – or, say, monkeys under the sink – to function properly. And while I may never know if anyone did ever die on our front door step, I can say with a pretty high level of confidence that there are no monkeys, under-sink residing or otherwise, anywhere in the house.

At least, I don’t think there are.

Aw, crap.

Run, Jason, Run!

I have decided to start jogging again. It’s no secret to those who have actually seen me swell in girth over the years that I’m not the spry, lanky chap I was around the time Lizzy and I were married, and while Lizzy seems unfazed by my appearance I myself am starting to get pretty fed up.

The story: the family and I recently returned from a short-ish trip to the East coast to attend a cousin’s wedding and visit, for five days, with my mother and her husband Neil at their home in New Hampshire. We had a great time, of course, but I’m afraid that while there I perhaps took too advantage of the freedom vacations usually allow the weak-willed. You know what I mean – you eat and drink like there’s no tomorrow, stay up late, rarely shower, that kind of thing.

I also made the mistake of looking over some old photos of myself that my mother had gathered in an old shoebox. Now I know that looking at twenty year-old pictures of oneself is inadvisable to just about anybody, but to say that I was thinner in those old high-school pictures would be a significant understatement, on par with saying that Al Pacino used to be a more nuanced actor or that journalism used to be a more viable career choice.

How thin was I? Well I’ve never been blessed with much muscle, at least none that didn’t require about a decade or so at the gym to develop, and I’m only five and a half feet tall. Add to that what must have been a raging metabolism and lots of bike riding and you get a teenager who graduated High School weighing about a hundred and twenty eight pounds.

Now in college, of course, that changed drastically.  The discovery of an almost unlimited access to all the food and alcohol any eighteen year-old could ever ask for resulted in the rapid addition of about forty – that’s right, forty – pounds onto the Miller frame, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that it was accomplished before December of my freshman year. Consequently I spent much of my ensuing college years in a state of rotundity not unlike that of your average Manatee or pot-bellied pig.

I lost the weight after graduation, and kept it off for years thanks to a better diet and an unshakably peripatetic lifestyle. But then came marriage. Then parenthood. Then a move away from one of the country’s most walking-friendly regions (Boston) to Southern California, where there is hardly any public transit system and where one can’t get anywhere worth going without hopping on a damned freeway and sitting in traffic for nine hours.

Gradually, I’ve seen my weight creep up since arriving in Long Beach, an inexorable and unappealing incline that has, as of this writing, engendered about twenty pounds of me that weren’t extant a mere three years ago.

I had already been contemplating a strict change in lifestyle, and had even, in the past couple of months, gravitated away from eating heavier foods and to a more veggie-centric diet. But apparently no one told my weight, which continued to inch higher. The once-reliable metabolism, it seems, must have decided to check out early.

So all this past week I’ve been running, sometimes with Lizzy and sometimes alone in the early AM. Nothing big, just a couple miles a day, but we plan on working our way up in the mileage department once the limbs and frame get used to the abuse. Also we’ve decided, being the trendy types that we are, to run sans footwear, an endeavor we’ve undertaken not just because the concept is intriguing but because, at least for me, it removes from the process the whole cumbersome business of putting on socks and lacing up shoes. I mean to say, when the act of getting up and jogging is already in a constant battle with the non-act of staying in bed, knowing that you’re going to have to struggle blindly with the footwear might just be enough to tip the scales toward the latter.

I’m still getting used to a couple of aspects of this jogging thing though, one of which is my mental state during the run. Now I know that a couple of miles or so is not nearly long enough to put any runner into an endorphin-induced trance or “zone,” but I had hoped that my thoughts might at least run a bit more strongly toward the positive. Exercise is supposed to help the mood, right?

Sadly, that has not yet been the case, as I have found that while jogging my mind is filled with an unending interior monologue. And what the interior monologue has to say isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s not so much a monologue as it is a diatribe.  If I’m not cursing the sidewalks or grumbling about politics, I’m thinking catty things about a friend’s interior decorating choices or fantasizing about besting the drunk guy who made fun of me at the wedding last week (because I was drinking a white wine and apparently looked “English”) with a barrage of searing insults before raining blows down upon his head.

Once, and I swear this is true, I lurched pass a sign outside of a church that read “Live Simply, Care Deeply” and thought, “Fuck you.” I mean, what’s up with that?

And as if that weren’t bad enough, I’m forced to deal with certain – how should I say it? – anatomical aspects of running. I won’t go into too much detail here, but let me just say that when one has just started jogging and is wearing a brand-new pair of running underwear under his shorts, one finds that after only a few yards or so one’s, um, male thing immediately misplaces itself and winds up pointing, under the force of the underwear’s vice-like grip, in a direction one is not typically accustomed to.

But all in all my new hobby had been a success. That is only if you don’t measure the success of exercise by the number of pounds shed; this morning, after almost a week of running and dieting, I ventured onto the scale to find that, give or take an ounce, I hadn’t lost anything.

Great.

I can’t wait to see what my interior monologue has to say about that one tomorrow morning.

War and Buffet.

A couple of months ago the family and I went out, as is our habit, to the Marriott hotel for their annual Easter Brunch.

Brunch is one of those meals that I can really get behind. For one thing there are an unlimited number of goodies to chose from, most more at home at the dinner table than the breakfast nook.  I’ve always been one of those guys for whom any category of foodstuff would qualify as appropriate A.M. sustenance; in fact, I can say with almost no shame that in the early hours of the day I tend to be more inclined to go for the dinner left-overs than for the traditional eggs/bacon/cereal cuisine anyways. I mean, who, when faced with the choice of either slurping a bowl of Grape Nuts or reheating last night’s Roasted Lemon Rosemary Chicken with Haricots Verts wouldn’t chose the latter?

Of course, I wrote “reheating” and “Roasted Lemon Rosemary Chicken with Haricots Verts” only to be illustrative; chances are that my breakfasts usually involve me standing in front of the fridge at 5:30 in the morning and inhaling, with my bare fingers, nutriments as varied as meatballs, leftover takeout, shredded cheese, raw hot dogs, innumerable pepperoncini, and even – on more than one occasion – clam chowder.  The point is, unlike my furtive, pre-dawn gastronomical indiscretions, attending the typical well-stocked brunch is a perfect excuse to eat whatever the hell you want – and lots of it – with almost no guilt at all.

And there’s even alcohol – that is, if you want to call champagne alcohol. Me, I prefer to call it Carbonated Headache in a Bottle. I generally avoid imbibing of the stuff, with some possible exceptions being on the occasion of a New Year’s Eve celebration, the rare wedding reception, or the even rarer ascension of a Democrat to higher office. But a brunch, well…when in Rome, right?

But while the experience of gorging myself in one sitting on about twelve pounds of eggs, pasta, meat, shrimp, cheese, and pastry should normally be viewed as without a single drawback, I have to admit that there was one gray cloud that threatened to dampen my otherwise perfect mid-morning: I’m talking about the often excruciating process of Waiting In Line At the Buffet.

Or, as I like to put it for brevity’s sake, WILAB.

WILAB is only one of several trials or ordeals that have recently been testing my outlook on my fellow man. Some other well-known episodes are Waiting In Line To Use the ATM, Waiting In Line For a Shopper To Pay For Her Groceries With A Check, and, perhaps the most egregious, Waiting In Line To Put Sugar and Cream In Your Coffee.

The latter experience has pained me the most over the years, as nothing puts the average person into such a pronounced state of casual languor and meditation, apparently, then doctoring his or her freaking mochaccino. I’m sure you know what I mean – you’re waiting there by the condiment station at the coffee shop while some thirty-something hipster adds his organic turbinado sugar one grain at a time. These people treat the process like something sacred and not to be rushed, on par with some hallowed ceremony like Catholic Communion or Buddhist Pirit. I mean, the Mayans practiced Báalchequicker, and with fewer spices, than these freaks. It’s damn frustrating, and nearly makes one despair of humanity.

I’ve often thought that the main problem here is that the environment surrounding your typical coffee shop is too idyllic. Warm, soothing music lilts inoffensively from unseen speakers, generic and unchallenging artwork line the walls – that sort of thing. It tends to put people into a kind of trance.  If I had my way, I’d set up a t.v. screen at the sugar and milk station that played, on a loop, something horrific and repellent. You know, truly nauseating imagery like World War II battle footage, videos of autopsies, Ethan Hawke Screen tests – anything the average non-sociopath would avert their eyes from. Trust me, people would be in and out of that coffee shop in no time.

But back to brunch. WILAB is its own special thing.  And I don’t mean the part where you linger in line while waiting to approach the buffet; no, I mean the part where you’ve finally made it and you’re standing there in front of a succession of chafing dishes, each one beckoning you to help yourself – yet you have to wait for the guy next to you to finish what he’s doing before you can continue.

Even if what the guy was doing, as was the case when I approached the buffet line displaying traditional savory fare like bacon & eggs, was absolutely nothing.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but I never thought of this process as a complicated one. I mean, the food is already paid for, and no one was going to monitor my selections. The way I look at it, all that is required of me is to approach the buffet, pop open the chafing dish, excavate contents within, and move on to the next tray. Not exactly rocket science. Plus, it just so happens that I’m known far and wide for my iron stomach; consequently the contents of the dish are immaterial and I can work the line indiscriminately. But if anything failed to catch my fancy, well then to close the lid on the offending victuals and move on down the line would be for me the work of only a second or two. That’s the way it should be – it’s what they call etiquette.

But on loading my plate with bacon and moving over to the next chafing dish, I was stopped firmly in my tracks by the presence of a fellow bruncher standing motionless in front of said dish. Strangely, he wasn’t doing anything – just standing there, looking straight ahead with a marked expression of vapidity. I gave him a second, of course, assuming that he would come out of his private reverie and either commence with the self-service or move on, but he remained idle.

Well, I wasn’t going to let this go on for long, not with all that unseen food there waiting to reveal itself. So, keeping with my habit of avoiding verbal communication when standing in line for anything, I respectfully reached in front of him – being careful not to encroach on his personal space – and lifted the lid to the chafing dish. The idea being, you know, that if Mr. Silent Reverie wasn’t going to be proactive, then I would quietly help myself and move on.

I opened the lid and was about to go for the goods when from behind me I felt him stir, and before I was able to register surprise he had shifted himself in front of me, taken hold of the serving tongs, and was piling the contents of the dish – breakfast sausage, it turned out – onto his plate.

That’s right – by all appearances the man wasn’t in a silent reverie at all, but was, in fact, waiting for me to open the chafing dish for him. And in case you were wondering, he was not infirm, significantly aged, handicapped or otherwise encumbered; nor was I wearing a name tag, chef’s whites or a funny hat, either.

Okay, so maybe I was wearing a funny hat – but it wasn’t that kind of funny hat.

Needless to say, the experience marred what would have otherwise been the perfect brunch. In fact, the prospect of having to follow this person around, opening chafing dishes the whole morning, handing him plates and cutlery and perhaps even slicing his Roasted Lamb, was enough to induce me to withdraw from that particular buffet line and instead queue up by the waffles and sweets.

Not my first choice, you know, but as I said – when it comes to brunch I don’t discriminate.

A Fowl Job.

I ain’t proud of what I did.

I’m gonna tell you all about it cause I figure, why not? It’s not like anybody gotta make a big deal out of it or nothing. I’m just sayin’ – there was some problems over here that someone had to take care of, and as you might imagine that someone in this particular case turned out to be me. If I had my choices, sure, I’d probably rather not mess around with bumping or whacking things, or what have you, especially with hatchets and knives and such, but that’s not the way things turned out. Way they turned out, I didn’t get a choice. Some thing’s just gotta be done.

Wait – now that I think of it you’re probably wondering what I’m even talkin’ about here.  I gotta remember that some of you guys need catchin’ up.  I’m warning you, you probably ain’t gonna like this story, but it is what it is. So here goes.

First, I’ll come clean: for almost a half year or so the wife and me had this pretty good racket going. I ain’t talking about diamonds or any other swag, nothing like that. What we done, was – let’s just say we was buying food at the market last summer when we come up with this idea. We happened to be gettin’ eggs from this one farmer, and I got to thinkin’ how sweet a racket these farmer types had going on. I mean, when you think about it, these guys spend, what? Ten, fifteen bucks on a hen? Then they sell their eggs to a bunch of phonies at farmer’s markets for like three dollars a dozen. And it’s not like one chicken puts out a handful of eggs and that’s it – the freaking things just keep pumping them out. Talk a bout a cash windfall.

So we figure we can get a piece of that action, right? So long story short, we get ourselves ‘couple hens from some guy up in the city, throw together a coop with a nest inside it, and baddabing, it’s done.  Two chickens, each laying ’bout an egg a day, give or take. Not enough to make any serious cabbage, you know, but enough to keep our fridge stocked. The way I figure it, that’s money we’re not giving to those other joints.

‘Course there was one catch: turns out our city has some kind of rules saying that we could only have one hen, and only if it’s a certain number of yards away from other people’s houses and some crap. You might ask, who’s gonna rat us out? Well the next-door neighbors on one side are straight shooters, so we didn’t have to worry about them, but the old timers on the other side – they’re the type that’ll turn canary in no time, believe me.  They’re always poking around in other people’s business.  They was gonna need…persuading. Personally, I was gonna go over there and set up the old lady for, you know, a little accident, but the wife put the kibosh on that pretty quick.  She tells me, why make things messy when you can use a little honey? Well, that made no sense to me, right? But I figure, maybe she got a point. So she goes over there and starts talking all nice as pie to the old biddy about how we got a chicken or two, and no, they don’t make no noise or nothin’, and how we’d love to give them some of the eggs – you know, crap like that.

Well, the broad must have known what she was talkin’ about, cause whatever she did it worked.  We never heard a peep out of them, even when the birds did make a little noise.

So things went pretty much like that for a few months, and we was happy as clams, eggs coming outta’ our ears, until one of the chickens got sick and stopped producing. I won’t go into the details, but lets just say we spent some serious cabbage taking it to the vet, only to find out that it was gonna have to be, you know, taken care of. That’s right – one of them doctors was gonna ice it for forty-five smackeroos. How’s that for a racket? Forty-five bucks and all they probably do is snap its neck like it’s no big deal.

So we paid the bastards, but I couldn’t get over how maybe we was robbed a little bit.

Well at that point we still had one bird, anyway, but it wasn’t long before we started thinkin’ that maybe one bird wasn’t gonna cut it. Sure, we still get some eggs, but nothin’ like we was used to getting. And okay, so maybe we got greedy, but we started thinking that maybe if we had three of them, then we’d get, like, eighteen, twenty eggs a week. And you know we don’t eat that many eggs, right? And what’ya do when you got too many eggs kicking around? Give ’em away for free? Of course you don’t. You get the picture.

Well the wife, she gets on the computer and starts looking things up, and wouldn’t you know it but after only a couple of hours she’s got a lead on some guys from up north who need to unload some birds, and quick. Course, now that I know what I know, maybe we shoulda’ asked more questions, but at the time we was just thinkin’ about getting it done.

Anyway, so we get Sarah and a couple of cat carrying cases and head out. I was expecting to see some real farmers with a clean joint, but turns out when we get there it wasn’t a nice farm at all, but this dirty, low-class borgata running some kind of livestock breeding racket out of their slummy back yard. I mean, they had everything – chickens, pigs, sheep, you name it. I think I even seen a turkey.

And animals weren’t their only racket, either – they were probably dealing smack or meth outta their house, too. I knew they was up to no good the moment we got out of the car, when from behind me some little cafone and his girl come pulling up in some Nissan, park right behind us, and run up ahead of us to the front door. I didn’t notice it at first, but the wife tells me later that some guy met this kid at the door and handed something off in exchange for some serious bread. Can you believe it? And us there with Sarah, not knowing if she was gonna get snatched up and trafficked, or whatever. Hey, who knows? Shit like that happens all the time.

But we go in and get the chickens anyway, against our better instincts. I figure, let’s just get the goods and get outta there before one of these knuckleheads gets some ideas or starts waving a piece around.

We get home, put them in the coop with the other bird, and that’s that. I figure, we should see eggs comin’ at us from all directions in no time, right?

Wrong. Very next day, if you can believe it, the first chicken – you know, the one we already had – starts coughing and hacking, sneezin’ like nobody’s business. Then we notice the two we just picked up don’t look so hot, neither. A few days go by and they don’t look any better, and get this – none of them are laying even a single egg. So the wife does all this research, makes a couple of phone calls, and long story short, it turns out those bums up north must have sold us some sick hens. Can you believe it? And we, knuckleheads that we are, put them right in the coop with the healthy one.

So over the next couple weeks we gave them antibiotics, and let ’em out every day so that they could get plenty of sun and dig up worms and such, but they didn’t get much better. And eggs? Fuggeddaboutit. We could kiss that racket goodbye.

And it gets worse. Turns out in situations like this one what you gotta do is – how do I say this? – you gotta whack every one of your birds and start all over again from scratch. What a mess. Me, I ain’t ashamed to tell you I wasn’t a bit happy about the whole thing.  I mean, I don’t mind putting hits out on things that deserve it, you know, like a snitch or something, but a few lousy birds? It just didn’t feel right. So we were delaying the inevitable, kind of hoping things would get better, when finally come last week we realize that it’s gonna have to get done, and quick, whether we like it or not.

Of course we thought about that vet, and how he can do the job for forty-five bucks a pop. But that’s almost a hundred and fifty big ones, when you count all three, and there was no way we was gonna cough that up.

So I figured it was gonna have to be me that does it.

I wanna come clean here – before this I ain’t never bumped nothing or nobody. It’s just not my thing. Don’t get me wrong – I know plenty of wise guys that do it without so much as breaking a sweat. I’ve even seen this one guy, as nice a guy as you’d see – gimpy from a broken ankle, too – whack a mouse with one of his crutches. Just like that, cold as ice. Me, I can’t stomach it.

But I had no choice, as I said.  So we picked a day. The wife took Sarah to school in the morning, rubbing out a bunch of chickens being one of them jobs you don’t want nobody hanging around watching, and I stuck around to do the hit.  It was gonna have to be quick, so as soon as they left I started setting everything up. I had a hatchet, a nice jackknife, and a brand-new meat tenderizer that I bought just for the occasion. I did some browsing on the computer, too, and watched a bunch of videos about the whole thing. Turns out for a lot of people whacking chickens is like second nature. Kind of gruesome, I know, but at least I got some ideas.

Eventually I come up with two ways of doing it that I figured would work: first, you get a bird down on a board or somethin’ and you whack it’s melon off with a cleaver; and second, you hold it over a sink, get it at the jugular with a shank, and hold on tight while it, you know, drains.

There were other ways, of course, but they weren’t going to suit me. I ain’t going into no details; you can use your imagination.

I wanted to do the first method, the cleaver one, because it seemed the quickest. Of course like I said before I didn’t have no cleaver – all I had was an old, dull hatchet.  I tried to give it a nice edge by running the blade over some brick I had out back, but even after several passes it still looked pretty blunt. Still, it was better than the meat tenderizer. My backup plan was gonna be the second method, you know, the one over the sink, so I made sure I had that nice, sharp jackknife on hand in case Plan A didn’t work out so well.

Which it didn’t. Not with the first bird, anyway. You remember that movie where the gangsters are on their way up to do a hit, and one of them says to the other one, “we should have shotguns?”  Well on the morning of the job I go out there with my hatchet and all I’m thinking is, “I should have a cleaver.” And I think it’s pretty well established that any time you got something to do that requires a cleaver, you should make pretty fricken’ sure that you got a cleaver when you’re doing it.  Not Einstein over here, though. Me, I’m armed with a hunk of metal so dull you couldn’t cut a loaf of bread in two.

But I gave it a go. It wasn’t pleasant. Let’s just say there was a struggle, and it took me a couple tries. I just thank god the old biddy next door didn’t happen to look out the window or she’d of had an aneurysm.

I decided to go with Plan B for the next two. The upside – no more violent whacks with a blunt hatchet. Downside? I gotta hold the thing in my arms over a sink and do the job with my own bare hands and a jackknife. Kinda’ personal, you know? Plus, I must be no good at finding jugulars, ’cause even that took a couple tries.

I’m gonna skip the details, and just say that I got the job done. I was a nervous wreck, though, and had to put down a shot of booze afterward just to calm down. Once I got my nerves in line I went back outside and cleaned everything up as quick as possible.

Now the last thing I needed was some screw finding out what I done and hitting me with a nice fine, or worse, so next up I was gonna have to, you know, dispose of the evidence.

When we first talked about doing this we figured we’d just toss them into one of those big, heavy trash bags and pop it into the trash bin out in the back alley. That would’ve worked okay normally, but of course in this case the trash was never taken the week before, on account of us forgetting to put the bin out where the truck could reach it. As a result the thing was already full to the rim – I mean, you couldn’t even close the friggen’ lid. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t gonna have a bag of carcasses sitting right at the top of the trash bin there, baking away in the sun until next pickup.  So we got to thinking about finding some other location to dump them.

Well, it just so happens that a couple days prior we had already cased out an alley a few blocks away, in order to dispose of a rodent we had found in the house, and had found a nice dumpster, right behind an apartment building, that looked perfect for the job. You know, not too well-lit or anything. The lid was even up. So I figure, I’ll stash the remains in the garage until nightfall, then sneak out after everyone was in bed and head over to make the drop. As long as nobody saw what I was doing, I figured it’ll be quick work.

So when night came around, I threw on some dark clothes, grabbed the bag of remains, and lit out for the alley. Just to be safe, the wife had found a large, pink shopping bag for me to bring along. She figured that way it would look like I was just carrying around some presents, or something, and not a heavy, black plastic bag filled with dead chickens. She’s always thinking, that one.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to sneak around your neighborhood after dark in order to illegally chuck a bag of dead animals you’ve recently whacked into some stranger’s dumpster, but if you haven’t, let me tell you it ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. First of all, the route wasn’t as dark as I was figurin’ it would be – I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it the last time, but the street lights lit the place up like it was noon.  Plus it turns out that the nearby shopping district had had what they call a “Stroll and Savor” event earlier in the evening, when all the restaurants peddle food outside on the sidewalk and all the locals hoof around stuffing themselves. It was supposed to have ended by then, but people must have still been hanging around ’cause believe me when I say I probably passed maybe twenty people, most of them walking their freakin’ Bichon Frises.  I even had to give a couple of teenagers directions, for god’s sake.

On top of all that, I couldn’t help thinking about what would happen if someone I knew drove by. I mean, what if they seen me walking, and pulled over for a chat. With my luck it probably woulda’ been someone that worked at Sarah’s school. Can you picture that? Try explaining that one to your daughter’s twenty year-old piano teacher.

Anyway, long story short, I made it to the apartment building and there of course is some broad standing outside her front door, smoking a butt. I breezed past her without even looking up, cut down the alley, and dropped the bag in the dumpster without missing a beat. I made a bee-line for the other end of the alley, and believe me, the whole time I was half expecting to hear some old biddy shouting “Hey, you there! – What you doing?” out of some second-floor window or something. But I guess nobody seen nothin’, ’cause I made it to the end of the alley just fine.

And no, I didn’t go right home – I went straight to the nearest watering hole and tied one on. You’d have done the same, too, if you was me. Believe me.

So that’s that. Thing’s have settled down here, for a while anyway. Nobody came poking around asking questions, and the neighbors haven’t made a peep, so we’re good there. It’s been over a week, so the dumpster we used must’ve been emptied by now, too. We figure, no news is good news, right? Plus, after a couple weeks it turns out the place should be clean enough for us to get some more chickens back in. This time, though, we figure we’ll get them when they’re chicks. You know what I mean – all cute and fuzzy little yellow things. Sarah’s gonna get a kick out of it. And then, when they get big enough, we’ll get even more eggs.

C’mon – you didn’t think we were gonna’ give up a racket as good at that one, did you?