Tuesday, November 25, 2014

ghosts of Christmas past

One of my co-workers turns 30 next month. I can't tell if she's fretting over the age or not. Thirty isn't the milestone it used to be (if it ever was), but she joked about having a month to get to Africa and run a marathon. She was looking for an adventure.

I offered to take her shoplifting. 

Across the aisle, another of  my co-workers, who is a good five years from 30, said she could get the 29-year-old to Africa for about three grand. All she had to do was harvest some of the eggs from her ovaries.

That sounded good, except, of course, it sucked. There's pain, weirdness, loss of eggs...

The 25-year-old told the 29-year-old she could sell plasma.

"It's a waste of time," I said. "I did that."


"Yeah," I said and then spent five minutes fielding questions about the process, explaining what was done, showing the scar in the crook of my arm and fending off disinterest and disbelief.

"I could never do that then," the 25-year-old said. "I've been to Africa."

I nodded and pressed down the sad envy boiling through my guts.

I tried to tell her that didn't really matter. There were rules. You couldn't use drugs, show up drunk, have a criminal record or be a gay man (lesbians, however, were apparently welcome), but nobody was really checking. I'd see plenty of guys come in who were either clearly drunk, high or were sporting the kind of tattoos you only get from a guy who gets paid in candy bars and postage stamps.

Plasma donation is on the honor system, which is absolutely nuts.

I told her they'd take her as long as she could prove she had an official residence. They don't let you "donate" if you're homeless.

In the end, she wasn't all that interested in the subject and I was maybe a little too interested. I don't know why I wanted to talk about it, why I wanted to prove that I had done this --maybe because she said she'd been to Africa, maybe because my girlfriend has been to Germany, and I've only been to Ohio a few times.

Finally, I sort of shrugged and said it was something I could write about next year. Maybe.

I don't want to go back there again. I still dream about the plasma center sometimes: the needle in my arm, the clinical, contemptuous way some of the drones looked at me as they harvested my dark, red blood to make rich, golden plasma.

Sometimes, I think about what I did with the money I made there. I converted it into gas for the car, spent it on cat food, bought Christmas presents nobody gave two shits about, and paid phone bills, water bills, gas bills, daycare.

Just remembering makes me feel so cold and alone all over again.   

I don't know what to give the 29-year-old for her birthday, to acknowledge this milestone that may or may not signify anything, but it ain't going to be much.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


It was just a couple of bored cub scout dads sitting off in a corner while their kids played some game only amusing to children under 10 or drunks on their fourth or fifth double.

Nobody was paying attention, though the scoutmaster was all smiles, encouraging the kids to try harder, work together or some such.

To be truthful, I don't recall the game. It didn't hold my attention, but that's nothing new. Most nights in that church basement, I find myself compulsively looking to my phone, hoping for a message from just about anyone and willing to invent one of my own to send to someone else, if it comes to that.

My best friend in Virginia believes my son's cub scout troop is populated by the children of strippers, meth addicts, and circus freaks, and he believes this because I have described it that way in loving detail.

These are all mostly tall tales --mostly.

The fathers in the corner, talking in low voices, had my attention. I couldn't turn away or tune them out.

"They said the whole building was full of ATVS," one of them said. "It was an Quonset hut. I'd like to know how they even got that thing up there."

Nobody seemed to know who "They" were, but they had a vague idea of who owned the property --some woman who owned the land, maybe even had a house somewhere on it, but lived in Florida and never came around. Whoever owned the hut never bothered to buy or rent the land, but had counted on the lingering absence of people with enough sense to move away, but not enough luck to sell what they had. 

The ATVs were, of course, all stolen, but they didn't know by who or even who the ATVs belonged to.

One of the other fathers talked about the rash of break-ins in the area.

"I spoke to a deputy," he said. "He told me 200 houses had been broken into over the summer."

Aghast, I wondered how many houses there were in my little corner of the county. Two hundred sounded like a lot. Two hundred sounded like maybe a third of the houses that could be found.

A third man had heard about the break-ins. He knew someone who'd been hit.

"They went in, took the gun safe and then went into the bedroom and found the box where he kept the serial numbers for his guns." He looked around and like he was giving away great secrets, said, "That was an inside job."

"They're looking for guns, I hear."

Who, I wanted to know, who?

"If this keeps up, somebody is gonna get hurt," the second man said. "They're gonna come up on somebody who ain't supposed to be there."

Bullets would fly.

While the kids played on, they talked about meth labs in the trailer park --I didn't know we had a trailer park --and shadowy figures seen at night, up to God knows what.

Everybody knew something, but nobody really knew anything. It all seemed like chatter.

Coming home, for the hundredth time I counted the "For Sale" signs in the yards until it became too depressing and drove past the "For Rent" sign that's been in the same place now for six  months. I wondered why I hadn't heard from my realtor in a while.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon --part three.

From the little brick reststop, we rode along toward Bedford, Virginia. They put a movie in about the town that described the why of what we would be seeing when we got there. About half of the flat screens worked. A few of the others flickered and struggled, but couldn’t keep a picture. One screen had been peeled off the plaque like an old bandage to reveal a shiny, plastic scar.

It was a moderately moving documentary about the D-Day invasion and the terrible losses of Bedford, Virginia, a town that had lost more men per capita to the invasion than any other town in America.

They lost 19 just on that day.

Bedford had a local reserve unit stationed in town. A lot of the farm boys, all poor as church mice, had enlisted in the years leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor to make a few extra bucks one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. When the war came, they were called up. When the allies invaded Normandy, they were part of it and many of them were killed.

Only a scant handful made it back after the war and not all of them saw the loss of their brothers and school friends as a noble sacrifice. One of them very pointedly said they’d died in vain.

Among the children of the Greatest Generation sitting on that bus, people gasped and complained that the makers of the documentary shouldn’t have let that guy speak, that he wasn’t patriotic.

Jan, with her military son, was the most vocal about it, but all of us, I think, had been raised on the notion that World War II was the last good war. There were very clear bad guys: the Nazis with their death camps and pulp fiction experiments; Imperial Japan with their sneak attacks, kamikaze pilots and death marches; Fascist Italy and their… well, Mussolini was a dick.

I think we can all agree on that. Benito Mussoline might have been less of a monster than Hitler or Hirohito (or Stalin, for that matter, who was on our side for most of the war, but a murderer of incredible proportions), but he was still a giant, Italian dick that nobody really misses.

Over the years, I've come to take the hero worship of the previous generations with a grain of salt. The Greatest Generation was just the first generation to have really good publicity. History these days isn't written just by the victors, but by assholes with marketing degrees who work for advertising firms and political think tanks.

Still, it was a little refreshing to hear someone honestly say that the rest of the world (or about half of it anyway) could go to hell, if they could just have their friends, their family and maybe their innocence back. 

In Bedford, before we got to the D-Day Monument, they herded us into another rest stop, this one more modern with lots of glass, a little gift shop with crap to buy and a meeting room where they fed us quarters of chicken and a nice selection of starches.

The peach cobbler was thoroughly disappointing --like something served in a middle school cafeteria. I felt tainted for putting it in my mouth.

Funny thing, I ran into the brother of my high school government teacher. He managed the restaurant that provided the catering. We didn't talk about the food, just how his brother, my former government teacher had at the age of about 45 had gone back to school and gotten his law degree. 

Running well behind schedule (because we needed to see the walls of pamphlets and visit the gift shop before the actual attraction) we only got about 30 minutes at the actual memorial, which was pretty amazing.

Opened in 2001, the memorial is a solemn and moving tribute to the sacrifices made in the name of freedom that spans over 88 acres, represents every country involved with the invasion and the property includes a garden, sculpture and space for reflection.

Visitors can wander the grounds at their own speed or take one of the guided tours. According to tour coordinator, Jim, the full tour can take up to two hours.

Jim was full of stories and in his half hour made the morning drive almost worth it, but we only got the 30 minutes and then they wanted to get us on the bus. We needed to get to Wytheville in time for dinner.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon --part two.

Just about everyone on the tour was retired, semi-retired or planning to retire in a year or two. Only a few of them did travel as a full-time gig. Most of them were from the Midwest.

Bob from Minnesota (now living in Florida) put in 30 years with the 3M Corporation before he and his wife 
Mary started working for a tour company that specialized in group trips for seniors.

They were a nice couple who'd met in a bar over 40 years ago. Bob had kind of been a schmuck back then. He didn't call, but they still found each other. 

It was his second marriage; her first and Mary said that had been a terrible scandal at the time. She was raised Catholic and he had kids, too. 

"My mom didn't like it one bit," she said.

But circumstances changed her mind. She wanted to see her little girl married and after a terminal cancer diagnosis, Mary's mother made peace with her daughter's choice. 

Forty-plus years and a daughter together, it looked like it had worked out OK.

They liked to go on cruises. Bus tours were ok, but it wasn't as much fun for them. 

Jan from Chicago spent years teaching art before starting a website based business through Expedia. She was almost 70, had a daughter older than me and a son in his 20s who'd just gotten out of the military. 

Jan dressed like a cheerleader for Aerosmith, wore black nail polish and a black, leather trench coat. Her hair was a suspiciously authentic-looking dirty blond and she spent the first two hours on the bus talking almost nonstop about her nice house, her Porsche, her husband's former fantastic job and how he was going to pull some strings to get her son a job in Chicago.

She just wouldn't shut up. Nerves, I guess, but after the first hour, I sort of wanted to stow her with the luggage.

She was semi-retired and was on the substitute teacher roll for the Chicago school system. The travel business was a sideline. She got most of her bookings from online, but also helped arrange trips for the teachers she encountered in her day-to-day.

The way she talked about it was like she was a pot dealer.

Fae was a former social worker and somehow worked in dentistry before coming to work at her father-in-law’s business in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A small, round woman with short, curly hair, she laughed easily and seemed like she might have been a fairy godmother in a previous life. She had no idea how she'd wound up doing this sort of job. It wasn't what she wanted to do, but she liked it well enough --maybe because some of the places she took her clients were far, far away from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

She really loved the west coast, northern California and, I think, Oregon. The scenery was beautiful and the people seemed very nice to her.

The three-day Post-Fam tour of scenic, rural Virginia (during the desiccated, dead of winter) was just an extra 50 bucks a head after they’d paid their fees for the convention in Charleston. It included motel accommodations, a couple of shows, a few attractions and practically all meals –plus a seemingly never-ending line of people ready, willing and practically begging for the chance to kiss your ass.

As far as getaways go, if you weren’t too particular, it was pretty decent deal.

There were plenty of stories on the bus about much better deals and insider only trips, but generally, the gravy days of travel were all over for these people.

Donna, an agent from got a deal to go to Singapore for two-weeks because she knew somebody in another office who was just looking for warm bodies. She had to pay $500 for that one, but it included airfare, accommodations, meals and who knows what else.

“It was too good to turn down,” she said.

Nobody was getting those kinds of deals now, though sometimes if they booked a certain number of clients onto a cruise somewhere, they got a free ticket.

They shared their horror stories. A couple of them had spent nights in hospital rooms, sitting with clients who'd taken a vacation only a couple of weeks after a heart attack or major surgery. A few of them had seen people die.

All of them seemed to be struggling to keep on doing their jobs and living their lives. Competition was fierce. Nobody thought much of a tour company called Diamond.

A guy named Tim, who knew more dirty jokes than any man alive, called them the K-mart of the touring business.

"They get the cheapest rooms, use the cheapest buses and the customer gets dick."

Just across the Virginia border, the bus stopped at a welcome center manned by a couple of grandmothers who'd brought cookies and cake to welcome us to the middle of nowhere. It was supposed to be a scenic rest stop, but it looked like the sort of place bored, middle-class homosexuals might stop for anonymous sex in the bushes with other bored, middle-class homosexuals.

There were also vending machines if someone wanted to grab a diet coke or maybe some skittles afterwards.

It was a clean, if sort of non-descript location. Inside, dull-as-shit travel pamphlets, brochures and maps papered the walls. I found myself wondering, who in the fuck would stumble in here and be inspired to drive from here to Monticello, to see how the third President of the United States might have lived --you know, if you took away all the slaves and replaced them with poorly-payed state employees in polo shirts with name tags?

I pretended to look at the pamphlets then bolted for the bus after the stop was concluded. I left the cookies, which were a little bland, and grabbed a spare bottle of water out of reflex.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon -part 1

The snow started falling in the gray, early hours before dawn and continued to call to fall even as the bus pulled away from Charleston’s newly remodeled Sheraton.

It was a little after seven o’clock in the morning. Tour South’s three-day convention had finished in the city and there I was sitting in the back of the bus with about 20 travel agents and tour planners from 12 different states, on route to Southwestern Virginia for what was called a “Post-Fam” tour.

"Post" meant after the event. "Fam" meant familiar. Someone had to explain that to me.

The convention had been a big deal for Charleston. Travel planners had come to meet with convention bureaus from dozens of cities and counties from all over the south –places, like Charleston, that wanted tourism dollars.

Charleston had hosted and done its best to put on its best face –not an easy task with a chemical spill in the water supply still very much on everyone’s minds.

How that all went, I have no idea. Everybody was very polite about Charleston, but nobody openly admitted they'd be bringing busloads of tourists to take in the dubious scenic beauty of a place usually referred to as "chemical valley." 

I was not invited to attend that part of the show --or the pre-fam tour which wandered around parts unknown. 

The Post Fam tour was something else. The bus headed to Southwestern Virginia, to Wytheville, Abingdon and Bristol with a few stops in between.

Tour South asked if The Gazette wanted to send someone along –and I jumped at it like a dog begging for bacon. It hardly mattered that I’d been to Abingdon, Wytheville and Bristol; had practically grown up there. Winter had been horrible in Charleston, what with the bad weather, potholes and whatever weird shit was in the water.

Slumped down toward the back, crowded in a narrow seat with a backpack stuffed with an aging laptop, two cameras of suspect quality, plus an assortment of pens, pencils and notebooks, I tried to blend, but I stood out. I didn’t have a badge with a travel company’s name on it. My clothes were all wrong: no cruise ship or airline logo. My bag was a generic. Everyone else had one tagged by a leisure company, resort destination or mid-range city nobody thinks about seeing.   

Also, virtually everyone on the bus was at least 65 --discounting the driver and the two people from the convention bureau. A couple of people were around 80, but most hovered somewhere in the low 70s.

I'm 43 and had never felt so young in my entire life.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cash out

The realtor contacted me to say that she couldn't make our meeting Friday. It was Good Friday and I should have seen it coming. The whole day was a waste --nobody wanted to be on the phone, nobody wanted to do any business.

We rescheduled for Tuesday and I'll probably move it. The week after a holiday weekend, even Easter, tends to get a little harried.

Still, the meeting will take place this week and the house will go up for sale. It's been a long time coming. I've said I was going to do it and then pulled back. The last time I half convinced myself that I needed to take some time to make some improvements, make it more attractive for sale.

That's sort of crazy talk. Most of the improvements the books want you to make when you're planning on selling a house cost more than whatever money you'd get out of it: buy new appliances, get a 70 or 80 percent return on that; put down new carpeting, get 50 percent of the money you put into it back.

It's ludicrous --particularly when money is the chief reason I'm selling the old place.

There are layers to that.

Part of it is the cost of living; that's gone up. Everything is more expensive. Part of it is that my wages are stagnant; I work for people who have no trouble raising the prices for the items in the snack machines every other year by ten percent or so, but can't add half that to my wages every other year.

Instead, they seem to begrudge every penny paid to us, which is demoralizing.

Part of it is the Affordable Care Act. I have no beef with getting health insurance and think everyone needs it, but the reason I didn't have it wasn't because I didn't have access to insurance or because no one would insure me. It was because I just couldn't afford the coverage.

I'm tired of waiting for it to get better. I'm tired of fidgeting over the monthly bills, trying to balance the mortgage with the utilities and the grocery bill. I'm tired of wondering if I need to get a third job just to keep up.

Piss on this.

So, I'm scaling back. If I get rid of the house, it's less money out of my pocket every month. I can maybe move closer to where I work, where I shop and where I invariably end up. Less fuel and time spent.

And if I get rid of the house, when somebody out of the area offers me a job, I don't have as much trouble taking it.

That's a possibility, too.

I love what I do, but what I do doesn't give me much love back.

So, the house is going up for sale. We'll see if there are any takers.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ice Age

The kid called me on his cell phone to tell me he'd slid the car into a ditch. Coming up the steep hill near my house, he'd run over a patch of ice. The Impala, an ungainly tank made by Chevrolet, had slipped then lurched to the right and half dove into a trench two feet across and about three feet deep.

The car, he thought, wasn't damaged; just paralyzed. "What should I do?" he asked and me, blind with rage and a crippling sense of despair and disappointment, told him bitterly, "You wait there. I guess I'm on my way."

I hung up in a rage.

He called back. "You just need to call a tow truck," he said.

"I need to see what you've done. I'm on my way." I hung up on him, then grabbed my coat and stopped out of the house.

It was Saturday before noon. I was freshly showered, shaved and dressed --all pretty unusual for a Saturday morning. Usually, I'm in shorts and a sweat shirt, looking like a bum, but today, I was cleaned up and already had my boots on.

Forty-five minutes before the call, the kid caught me on my way to the shower with a request to take the car.

"Ten minutes," he said.

He wanted to run some errand, not an important errand, but I'd barely argued about it and said, "Fine. Ten minutes."

I didn't much care and had other things on my mind.

On my bed, laid a packed dufflebag with a change of clothes, a toothbrush and a few odds and ends for my girlfriend: a bottle of tums, some aspirin and a box of Pepto Bismol tablets --the same stuff we'd brought when we'd taken our trip to Kentucky.

I'd promised a trip away with my girlfriend for months. We needed to get away, if only for a day. After the chemical spill and the roughest winter most of us remember, she and I hadn't spent much time together. Bad roads, a bad reaction to the crap in the water, the stresses of a new job and she'd stayed away from the house.

So, for weeks, I'd been planning, making phone calls and looking at websites, just to come up with a short overnight trip to somewhere a little interesting where the water didn't smell like licorice and make her skin burn.

Things had come together and then they'd started to unravel a few days earlier with the latest storm. As part of the trip, we'd planned to check out a show at the local performance hall, but the band had postponed due to the weather and the forecast for the weekend wasn't encouraging.

Fate, it seemed, was against us.

The roads were slick and even in my boots, I half skated the way to the car. I found it thirty yards from the main road, tipped to the side at a weird angle.

Breathlessly, the kid said, "I checked. The car doesn't look damaged."

"That you can see," I spat. "Give me the keys."

I looked around. The right side front tire was deep in a hole. The back tire wasn't even on the ground, but no body damage. I worried something on the underside was broken or he'd snapped a tire off. I'd just put $1500 on my credit card for repairs and new tires and jeez, where was I going to get the money for more?

Ranting and shouting at the kid, saying everything but bluntly accusing him of driving it into the ditch on purpose, I took the keys and tried to drive it out of the ditch anyway. The car, as might be expected, went nowhere.

"What do we do now?"

"I guess I get a fucking tow truck," I said and then went on yet another rant about how this was entirely his fault or my fault for being decent enough to let him use the car to run what amounted to a stupid errand.

Finally, he said, loudly, "You never asked me if I was OK?"

He glared at me, hatefully.

"I did good to end up in that ditch," he said. "If I'd gone the other way, I could have been dead."

I ignored him and stomped home to try and find a tow truck.

At home, we slammed doors and went online. I went looking for someone to get my car out of a hole. He went to Facebook to denounce me for being a piece of shit, which, of course, I was.

It took me a minute to get that, to really get that.

At my desk, I put my face in my hands and wept out of despair, shame and disappointment. I was upset about the crashing disaster of another one of my great plans coming apart through no fault of my own. I was mortified at the things that had come out of my mouth and that the kid hadn't given me a pass on what seemed like understandable fury. I was embarrassed and hurt and angry at a world where things sometimes just don't go right.

I took a good long minute to process everything before getting to the truth of the day's events: Trips can be rescheduled. Cars can be repaired and girlfriends (if they're worth anything) will understand when plans have to change because of unexpected circumstances.

Sons are irreplaceable, even accident prone ones.

I'd love to say that the epiphany was instant, but it wasn't. The apology was slow coming, but it came and it was real.