Friday, January 18, 2019

A Real Cool Hand

For the life of me, I have no idea what made me jam the pedal down and take off running when the cop’s lights sprang to life behind me that night in September. I’d always been such a law-abiding citizen up to that point. You know, except for, like, two other times that I’d run from the cops back in Long Beach. But never when they were already right on my bumper, like this guy was. Because that would be idiotic. I don’t know, maybe it was the full moon. Or maybe it was because it was closing in on midnight, and I was schlepping my ass thirty miles home from the Roxy Theater in Bremerton and the last showing of the 25th Anniversary screening of Cool Hand Luke, and ol' Luke was just puttin' ideas in my head. As it happens, it was also the first time in my life I ever went to a movie alone. On a Tuesday night, no less. It wasn’t really by choice, I just didn’t know anyone or have any friends for a thousand miles in any direction. Literally.

So when the red, white, and blue lights of freedom popped up in my rearview, I guess it was all just a bit too much.

Honestly, I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t weigh my options, consider the pros and cons. Nope, I just made a break for it. Instinctively, immediately, without hesitation, decided to run from a cop who had me dead to rights with nowhere to go. I was three miles from home, doing 65 in a 55, down a dark country road in Middle-of-Nowhere, Washington, a state famous for having no sense of humor about speed limits. None, at all. The cop dropped in on my six out of nowhere, probably off a no-name spur in the woods along Bond Road, just lying in wait for some sucker like me to make his day. Or night, as the case may be.

It’s hard to explain how dark a road like Bond can be at the witching hour on a weeknight, when there’s no chance that anyone but me and the cops were awake. The Kitsap Peninsula is a bucolic mid-ground between Seattle and the Olympic National Rainforest. Sleepy little Kingston, where I was headed, is one of the smallest towns on the peninsula, and every place that humans live is either in one of the scarce clearings or else just a spot carved out of an evergreen canopy that would otherwise blot out the sun. In 1991, the population was seven-hundred-twenty. I upped that total to seven-hundred-twenty-one the day I moved to town, one-thousand, nine-hundred, forty-eight hours and an odd number of minutes prior to my run-in with Officer Bacon. That’s the best part of eighty-one days for those of you who have never lived anywhere in exile as a reviled pariah, and so have had the luxury of counting your life off in months and years.

Although the moon was really blazing in that inky rural darkness, the sky was only available via the narrow strips and patches, painstakingly carved from the stands of millennial forests by generations of hard men. So, with no street lights, the sparse smattering of houses invisibly nestled hundreds of yards back into the woods from the road, and only shards of moon and starlight making it past the canopy to the black-top, Bond Road was a long, dark gash winding between little Poulsbo and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Kingston. The only thing breaking up the meandering black ribbon of asphalt were the dots and dashes of glowing lane markers and road signs. It wasn’t too bad at a more reasonable hour, when one could count on other cars in either direction to provide ambient light and a sense of proportionate motion. But alone in the deep black, my headlights barely did more than stir the shadows fifty feet out in front of me.

With a V8 Police Interceptor just two car-lengths back, what chance did I have in my parents’ ’87 Honda Accord, a four-banger stick-shift? Before that thought could even form in my head, I’d dropped it down into fourth, and the pedal was in the firewall. As I surged ahead, pulling away from him suddenly, I don’t know which of us was more surprised by the impulse decision, the cop or me. In 1991, Nicole Brown Simpson was still alive and OJ hadn’t made police chases a thing yet, so somebody running from the cops in a podunk town wasn’t really a thing either. Thanks to that element of surprise, by the time he decided to flip on his sirens as well, I’d already increased my lead to four car lengths. Off to a head start, and already either home-free or prison-bound based on that one decision. Aces.

Of course, there was no chance I was going to outrun him on Bond Road. I guess you could say it’s a “major” thoroughfare for the area. I mean, you can do 55 on it, and you pretty much can’t get anywhere without connecting to it at some point. But it’s still only one lane in either direction, and over the span of nine miles, there’s only two intersections big enough to even warrant a traffic light. Otherwise, Bond was essentially a one-way trip that ended in the sea. Besides which, there were too many straightaways where I just couldn't compete with him on raw horsepower. Even if I could, his radio would always be faster, and there'd just be another flat-foot waiting for me somewhere down the road. But apart from Bond, everywhere between little Poulsbo and blink-and-you'll-miss-it Kingston was a labyrinth of gravel bi-ways, miles-long private drives, logging trails, unmarked spurs, and a warren of dusty backroads that took off into the trees never to be seen again. The only advantages I had were surprise, superb reflexes, and an extensive history of running for my life. And loneliness. Because you can’t discount the value of what loneliness can teach you.

And maybe that’s why I did it. I was an outcast in Kingston. A semi-goth freak from Southern California with a Robert Smith-lite hairdo, dressed head-to-toe in black in the mecca of lumberjacks and flannel shirts. The word “Grunge” had yet to be spoken, but its ethos was in the air and I was the antithesis of all of it. I’d only had two tax-paying jobs my whole life, and they were both in California, where I had the temerity to be from, which had rendered me an untouchable in Kingston. So far, I’d been looking for a job twenty hours a week, anywhere within a ninety-minute radius, for going on three months. By then, I had stooped to applying places that I swore I never would, only to discover that I somehow wasn’t even qualified to flip burgers or tear tickets at the local multiplex. Not on my merits, and not even after I’d fabricated a resume that was wall-to-wall bullshit and made me sound like the second coming of Lee Iacocca. I had run full-tilt into a wall of Shun, and it didn’t appear there was any way over, under, around, or through. Absolutely untouchable.

Meanwhile, deep in Deliverance country, with no college or job to fall back on, and still a year too young for the bars, I hadn’t met a single soul I could call a friend. The folks at the Kountry Korners gas station and convenience mart knew me on sight and wouldn’t give me the time of day. Kristin, the girl at Kountry Video, had rebuffed me with extreme prejudice, even though I was her best customer, coming in four or five days a week. In retrospect, it may have been because I had nothing to do but rent videos every day of the week…but anyways. There was just so much wide-open empty space, and after eighty-one days as an untouchable with no one and nothing to show for it, it seemed I also had nothing to lose. So, pedal to the metal it was, and off I went with no plan and even less chance of succeeding. You’ll never take me alive, copper! (Note: To be read in your best Jimmy Cagney voice.)

Kountry Korners. No, seriously.

Although I I didn’t have a prayer on Bond Road, I did have one advantage that I knew no cop could hope to match. By virtue of my extreme solitude, I’d spent the last one-thousand, nine-hundred, forty-eight hours and an odd number of minutes with no job, no friends, and absolutely nothing better to do than hop in a car and drive for hours at a time. Every single day, for eighty-one days. If I were in prison, that length of solitary confinement would literally be illegal, but whatever. Gas was just over a buck a gallon and I had enough mix-tapes to circle the earth and never hear the same song twice, so I'd head out on Bond Road and pick a street—any street—and just head down it.

Street have a weird name like Rova, Foss, Pugh, Gunderson, Stottlemeyer, Minder, Orseth? Let’s go down that one. Hey, where is that horse-trailer going with all those horses in it? Dunno, let’s follow them. Funeral procession headed into the woods? Hail Mary, full of grace. With no destination, I couldn’t really go astray, because that implies that I had somewhere to be. I did dead-end quite frequently—with cows and sheep staring at me quizzically as I did a U-Turn in their barnyard—because what had seemed like a road turned out to be somebody’s half-mile long driveway. Or when I just ran into a creek with no bridge, because why wouldn't you? Other times, a road would turn into gravel, then dirt, then back into a paved street and emerge in another town like Eglon, Suquamish, or Indianola.

The whole area was an insanely verdant patchwork of lean-tos, shanties, dozen-acre blackberry thatches, turn-of-the-century homesteads, million-dollar chateaus, slash-piles and deadfalls, Alpaca farms, frontier churches, and microbreweries. It was a topographic nightmare of hills, draws, arroyos, ridges, and hollows, all populated by aging hippies, scandihoovian crafters, First Nation Tribes, military retirees, and a surprising number of Russians. These backwater denizens were mostly a friendly lot, but could just as easily be surly preppers and hoarders, or outright hostile get-the-hell-off-my-land, the-federal government-is-the-beast-from-Revelations, fluoride-is-making-us-gay types. In these green and pleasant badlands, I was as likely to be stymied by a road that ended in a clearing where the locals held bonfires (or other rituals, about which the less I knew, the better), as I was to emerge into civilization again. 

I'd headed into the final frontier—seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no Goth had gone before—for two to three hours a day, every day, for eighty-one days and counting. Getting lost, found, and lost again, with nothing but time on my hands to do it all over and over again, world without end. No deeds to do, no promises to keep, and nowhere else to be other than wherever I found myself. So when, without warning, I pulled the e-brake and drifted through an obtuse hundred-degree right turn down an unmarked road, it may have seemed like a random choice, but for the first time in one-thousand, nine-hundred, forty-eight hours and an odd number of minutes, I didn’t feel lost.

That back road may not have had a sign attending it, but I knew that it was called United. I knew that it took off to the southeast and slalomed through a half-dozen switchbacks cut through an otherwise inviolable stand of old growth. Under the complete darkness of that canopy, without even a star to guide the way, we were in my element, diving into the heart of a no-man’s land that I knew like the back of my hand. Invisibility is a relative thing, sometimes all it requires are wits and a matchless knowledge of your surroundings. And I knew every swell and hollow, every curve and straightaway. Knew which corners I could take at 50, which I’d have to take at 25, where I could drift on the e-brake, and when we’d break out into the open again.

In my mind, I was already plotting how I could make it back to my folk’s place without ever getting back onto Bond Road, because there was sure to be an APB out on me now that I’d joined the ranks Dillinger and DB Sweeney as a fugitive from justice. I hoped that I’d pulled the trigger on my run before he thought to call in my plates as a part of a routine traffic stop, or even if I got away, I’d just find them waiting on my doorstep when I got home. No way of knowing, but I was already pot-committed, so I just turned up the tunes to drown out those annoying sirens. I watched the strobe of his lights recede back into the trunks as I left him to eat a rooster-tail of dust, sliding ‘round another corner onto Minder Road. From there I was out in the open again and easily visible to him across the distance I’d put between us, so I punched it way up and made for the trees again on the next leg of my rally.

That section of Minder was a five-hundred yard open stretch but seemed like a million miles, because it was where I’d lose my advantage, and he’d just chew up all the distance I’d put between us by virtue of his vastly superior horsepower. But it also meant that the moon could be my guide for about fifteen seconds, so I turned off my lights as I approached the next turn. If I could drift through the turn on the e-brake, my brake-lights wouldn’t give me away. And if I could just make two turns in a row that he didn’t see, there was no chance he could follow me through this rural Byzantium, any more than one of his fellow boys in blue could predict where the bottom of my escape route, miles distant, would be. That's a lot of ifs for an already terrible plan, but untouchables can't be choosers.

“Just two turns,” I said aloud to no one as I fishtailed through a blind left onto Port Gamble Road in the dark. 

With Love and Rockets’ “No New Tale to Tell” blaring from my speakers, I sprinted for the next tree line. Alas, I was overly confident in my strategy and underestimated his driving chops, as he easily made up the ground and followed me onto Port Gamble. Seeing him gain on me in the rearview, I felt like Wile E. Coyote watching an anvil drop from the sky. I could just hear the judge reading the charges, escalating from speeding, to evading arrest and reckless endangerment. I saw the ticket turning into handcuffs and the hundred bucks rolling over by an order of magnitude into thousands. Just two turns…just two turns. Again, the darkness and lay of the curves were my ally as my advantage reasserted itself and he began to drop back as he traversed roads he may literally never have been on before. Certainly not in the dead of night with the throttle wide open. Just two turns…

I hoped the next left onto Gunderson would do the trick, because it was a 4-way intersection and thus there were three paths to choose from. But he either saw me or guessed correctly, because I caught sight of him as he got air coming over the rise after me. Still, he was far in the rear which gave me a little hope. I was doing 90 in the straightaway, but also headed toward the water at a breakneck pace. I’d run out of roads if I didn’t double-back or shake him in the next minute. I’d had some success in my previous life ditching a cop by hiding in a neighborhood, just pulling into a driveway and parking seconds before he went by, which I was tempted to try again. But that was in a busy city of millions, and if Kingston had taught me anything it was that everything about my old life—everything I’d done, everything I’d learned, everything I was—was nothing here. I sensed the net closing in ahead of me as well as behind, and knew I had to get outside their circle, right now.

When I hit the long parabola in the road, I knew I’d found my best shot, and last hope. Gunderson was about to spit me out onto Miller Bay, and if he didn’t already have his backup waiting somewhere along that road, he was an idiot. It was another significant artery, and really the only way out of the midnight maze I’d been running headlong through, so in just a few seconds I’d have no choice but to take a right or a left onto it. But the end of Gunderson was a long, dark stretch that arced through two wide curves on a steep downhill right before I’d hit Miller Bay, and in those curves, I’d be invisible both to him and his unseen partner somewhere ahead. So when I hit the junction at Miller Bay I fishtailed the left, instinctively aiming for home. Turn number one. Then I clicked off my lights again and drifted through a blind right a hundred-twenty-degree into the dark, trusting in the moon as Indianola Road switched back sharply to the south. Turn number two.

I’d only been out in the open on Miller Bay for a quarter-mile but had seen the ominous glow of a set of headlights just about to crest the hill in front of me. So, when I made my blind turn onto Indianola, I had no idea whether that car had seen me or not. I stayed in cloaking mode, killed the stereo, and darkly crept past the saw-mill, where the graveyard shift was in full-swing and ablaze with light. From across the draw of Indianola Creek, I saw my pursuer through the trees as he made his left onto Miller Bay, hurtling through the intersection, just lit up like a Christmas tree. I held my breath, waiting. He might have seen me make my first left, he may simply have deduced that I was likely going to Kingston, Hansville, or Indianola. Or maybe the backup had seen me. When he shot past the Indianola switchback I’d taken, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The scenic route

I powered the lights and stereo back up, rolled all the windows down, and began a very leisurely, roundabout tour of the eastern promontory of the Kitsap Peninsula. Assiduously obeying the speed limit, I wended my way home, passing through eerily silent Indianola, past the abandoned Nike missile sites, skirting the wharfs in Appletree Cove, through the neighborhood behind the Kingston Café, and past the only McDonalds within twenty miles. The little game of cat and mouse had turned the last three miles of my trek home into a fourteen-mile detour. Who knows how much farther for them as they crisscrossed in the night, hunting me. Untouchable? You got that right. How ya like me now, bitches?

With no deeds to do, no promises to keep, and nowhere else to be other than wherever I found myself, I was in no hurry to discover whether they were waiting for me on my doorstep or not. So when the Jesus & Mary Chain song “Head On” started, I cranked it way up and just cruised.

“And the way I feel tonight
I could die and I wouldn’t mind
And there’s something going on inside
Makes you want to feel, makes you want to try
Makes you want to blow the stars from the sky
And I can't stand up, I can't cool down
I can't get my head off the ground

Nope, no hurry at all. Like the man said, sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.

Just Ol' Luke, waitin' on the Judgment Day...

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A Moment in the Shadows

In the Spring of 1991, I had the privilege of going to see Morrissey at the Hollywood Palladium, thus fulfilling a years-long dream. Sadly, our seats were terrible; so far to the side of the stage on the semicircle of seats ringing it, we were almost behind it. We had an excellent view of the drummer's footwork and the backstage stairs, but otherwise had to settle for a lot of Morrissey's derrière. Don't get me wrong, he's got a nice one, but those tix were expensive for a guy working part-time, minimum wage at a pet store, so spending an evening staring at a celibate vegetarian's arse was a little anti-climactic.

So in spite of how excited I was to see Morrissey perform for the first time, the seats just about ruined the entire experience, especially since I'd skipped a day of work to camp out in front of Tower Records to get them. It was hard to believe they even sold seating at such an oblique angle, although we were down front in the rows of elevated seating enough to see a lot of stage details clearly, albeit from a weird angle. The best of the worst seats in the house. Which is how my friend and I spotted the lone figure skulking about in the shadows at the bottom of the steps, like they were waiting some cue to go up and head out on stage.

Curiously, he was well-dressed and not holding any guitars or sound equipment, so he didn't seem to be a roadie or any part of the sound team. Just a lone guy in deep silhouette, pensively waiting, shifting from foot to foot, as though anxious to burst from the starting blocks. I nudged my friend and indicated the lanky, well-dressed man, but she seemed annoyed that I had distracted her from looking at Morrissey's butt as he launched into the crowd favorite "Last of the Famous International Playboys."

Much as I tried to focus in on one of my favorite tunes of all time, I kept seeing the lone figure out of the corner of my eye, so I immediately noticed him spring into motion as Morrissey sang the words:

"And now in my cell
(Well, I followed you)
And here's a list of who I slew
Reggie Kray - do you know my name?"

As he burst up the steps like a kid on Christmas morning, he took a proffered mic from a roadie and strode from the shadows into the limelight with a signature sashay and jaunty kick that revealed to my friend and I who he was several precious seconds before all the people with good seats could even tell what was happening. Those seconds belonged to us alone until, in an impossibly rich baritone that will live forever atop the Tower of Song, The Thin White Duke joined Morrissey in the chorus:

"Oh, don't say you don't
Please say you do,
I am the last of the famous international playboys
The last of the famous international playboys."

And the intimate crowd of just 4,000 people went insane. Seriously, we completely lost our minds for the next several minutes as Steven Patrick Morrissey and David Bowie duetted through "Playboys" and segued into a medley of "Heroes" and "Prisoner of Love".

And then the moment was over, just as quickly as it had begun. Bowie glided off stage and back down the stairs with that peculiar physical elegance he had, flipping us a jaunty wave and an open smile as he came by our wedged-in ghetto chairs. Such was the power of Ziggy that for one moment they became the absolute best seats in the house. And then, without fanfare or entourage, he slipped out the back door alone, and was gone.

Four billion years in the making, and I still timed it just right to not only exist in the tiniest sliver of civilization that contained David Bowie, but shared an unguarded moment in the shadows with him. Today that feels better and worse than I would have imagined.

"And I'm gone
Like I'm dancing on angels
And I'm gone
through a crack in the past
Like a dead man walking"

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Turning Toward the Light

The days have grown as short as the year, and the compulsion to analyze and distill the essence of the year has come upon me. I can’t even say where this instinct comes from, only that it’s as inborn as a bird’s instinct to fly south. Perhaps it’s the end to the ebbing of days, and our turning toward the light. The beginning of the great renewal as we climb out of the imbalance of darkness and back into the sun where we belong.

It’s always struck me as strange that Winter should begin on the shortest day of the year. Like it shouldn’t be the beginning of a great cycle toward the longest day, but the completion of the cycle toward the shortest. Yet the long, cold nights and the frigid, icy days seem to deepen as the time goes on, not lessen as the increase of daylight would seem to necessitate. Yet nature, in her infinite wisdom, has seen fit for these beginnings and endings to sit right next to each other in harmony, even as we kick and scream our way through. There’s an old adage that says that an ox and donkey know their masters and where they are fed, but men do not know it. How true that seems today, of all days.

Every year as I contemplate theses cycles, these wheels within wheels, I find something to bless, some grace and synchronicity that has chased along at my heels, and gratitude is all I find within me. But this year it occurred to me that though these cycles may be well-nigh eternal, they are only cycles for the world, not really for us. For us, each as individuals, the seasons aren’t part of a wheel, but of an arc, with an ascent, an apogee, and a waning to a close. Our lives following the Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter as we gather the rosebuds while we may.

I’ve been aware for some time now that I’ve stepped into the Autumn of my life, and I find it to be a wonderful season. Insecurities, fears, and anxieties have given way to graceful acceptance of what is, and the calm power to steady-on, come what may. I’ve never been better at recounting my blessings and rehearsing all of the good that attends the passing of my days here, and choosing to see the good instead of the bad. That’s been an especially good skill to have this year, as they closing of 2018 has seen some deep disappointments. A falling out with a dear friend, being passed over for a well-deserved promotion, and the sudden confrontation with the mortality of my loved ones have all served to put a damper on the season.

But we most often find what it is we’re looking for, only to miss all the things that pass us by unawares. And since I’m on the lookout for the blessings, for the abundance, and for all the ways that life is on my side, that’s most often what I find. The heartaches and disappointments were not all that happened this year: I traveled to Alaska, Arkansas, California, Oklahoma, and Washington in 2018, and while I may have missed this shot at the brass ring, I got a better raise than my boss did, because he made sure of it. I made amends for a grievous wrong done in my youth. I held my first niece in my arms and welcomed my first nephew into adulthood, along with his first tattoo. Listening to him play the solo from Master of Puppets meant more to me than any promotion could.

Holding my niece Jade for the first time at Thanksgiving, sitting in the living room as the extended family ate, was a highlight of a lifetime. A soft, warm little bundle that couldn’t hold her head up and barely open her eyes, she purred and cooed her way through the hour that I held her, her little cartoon snores almost more than my heart could bear. It was one of those moments that you reflect back on and realize that it was the whole point of our existence here, except that I was well aware of it as it was happening. That’s what I mean by the joy of the Autumn, I don’t wait for the moment to pass to appreciate it in the sepia light of nostalgic reflection.

As I was holding her, I was subsumed by the love of my wife’s family, listening to the music of their conversation, the clink of their classes, the ting of their cutlery, as the symphony of our lives together played. I perfectly perceived the subtext of the friction between them, as they disagree on matters spiritual, political, and cultural, as the bumped off each other in conversation, knowing well which of them is annoyed by the other and how hard they are each working to leave things left unsaid. But we have the rare gift of being able to vehemently disagree and then go right back to our meals, anecdotes, and fellowship. And I’m reminded again that none of it matters because love covers over the multitude of our sins.

And while my nephew Trevor got a tattoo that neither his Opa nor my wife approve of, he still helps his Opa up off the couch and kisses him atop his head as he towers over him, and thus the cycle completes itself. The boy that Opa held in his arms now hauls him to his feet with ease, as Opa is finishing the arc that Trevor is beginning. I like to think that I’m somewhere in the middle between them, but I know that I’m closer to Opa than to Trevor on the trajectory of our lives here. I don’t know how I caught up to him, but somehow I have, as every session in the barber’s chair reminds me, since I well recall when Opa’s hair was the salt and pepper that mine is now. But hearing Trevor tell Opa unbidden that he loves him completed a circuit for me, and I told Trevor for the first of many times to come what a good man he is.

Between Jade and Trevor, two moments have redeemed all others in this year. In the shadow of these things I can hardly remember anything else, even as I turn toward the light. Always toward the light. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Like most of the ginned-up controversies of our day, the tempest in a teacup surrounding the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” can easily be laid to rest by a moment’s Google search. But since so many social movements and politically correct philosophies rely on emotional energy and selective outrage—as opposed to logic and reason—it’s likely that no amount of history or perspective will change the minds of people that are always looking for something to be offended by. Just as to a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so to the offensensitive, everything is a reason to become more so. 

But hey, to quote the song, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried…”

"Baby, It’s Cold Outside" was written in 1948 by Frank Loesser, a Tony, Oscar, and Pulitzer Prize winning songwriter, initially penned to be sung as a duet between himself and his wife, actress Lynn Garland, at a housewarming party they’d been invited to at the Navarro Hotel in NYC. At the time, it was common for Hollywood entertainers to perform at such occasions, so actors doing scenes or singers performing songs out in “civilian” life was par for the course. The couple sang the song at the end of the party, as a humorous cue to the guests to leave. A musical “Get the fuck out,” if you will. It was so well received that Loesser and Garland were then invited to perform it at other gatherings, and it became a passport to the best parties of the day, which neither Loesser nor Garland would have had the star-power to gain an invite to otherwise. In fact, a number of such soirees were engineered just for the sake of having the couple as the closing act.

When the luster wore off of this momentary appeal, Loesser sold the song to MGM studios, much to his wife's annoyance. In turn, MGM incorporated it into a romantic comedy called “Neptune’s Daughter,” where it was again a smashing success, garnering Loesser his first of five Oscar nominations, and his only win. The song is performed twice in the film, between two different couples, sung once by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton, and again by Esther Williams and Ricardo Mantalban. Interestingly, the first time it appears in the film, the part of the pursuer is sung by the female character (played by Betty Garrett), whose affection for the male character (Red Skelton) is unrequited. It makes for an interesting reversal for contemporary viewers, as the innuendo and subtext are flipped on their head, especially when viewed in light of today’s #metoo climate. 

That same sector of society that recently savaged actor Henry Cavill for expressing his wariness of flirting with women in today’s environment, are also the people who have raised the faux alarm over this song. They said that Henry should be able to tell the difference between flirting and harassment, between wooing and assault, etc. But then with no sense of irony at all, they then turn and say that this song is too rapey, and encourages men not to take ‘no’ for an answer, or that the woman’s part (or Red Skelton’s, if you please) is purposefully written to make it seem like she was asking for it, so it’s her fault if she gets assaulted. As though none of us possesses the emotional intelligence to properly read the subtext of the song, or enjoy the flirtatious tension in the call and response repartee.

The song has been performed as duets and solos for almost seventy years, by such artists as Sammy Davis Jr., Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Norah Jones, Michael Buble, Cee-Lo, Christina Aguilera, Willie Nelson, Colbie Callait, Sheryl Crow, Amy Grant, James Taylor, and Dolly Parton. Meanwhile, the hand-wringing revisionist historians and overly-earnest intellectual luminaries of the Glitterati step right over everything from “Funky Cold Medina,” “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Get None),” “Blurred Lines,” “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” “So Much Better,” “King’s Dead,” and “Psycho,” to get to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and so find their virtue-signaling righteous indignation. Which is a bit like eating a bucket of warm shit and then complaining that there was a hair in it, but whatever.

Remember back in the day when the religious right, the Moral Majority, and all those sweaty Televangelists like Jim and Tammy Fay Baker, Jerry Fallwell, and Jimmy Swaggart were clutching their pearls and warning us about backward-masked messages from Satan in Led Zeppelin Songs, and trying to get George Michael banned for “I Want Your Sex?” They were actually able to force George Michael to change his video so that the word 'monogamy' was written on a woman's bare back in lipstick, as a nod to their censorious prudity. Thank goodness. In the midst of all that, they introduced the Parental Advisory warning, and other ratings systems which we still see today.

But at least back then, the counter culture revolutionaries on the left had a field day, mocking them in story and song, and shrieking about it all as though the sky were falling. Well, the shoe’s on the other foot now, and the cultural Thought Police are coming at us from the other end of the political spectrum. Only now, the people that used to defend us from the intellectual tyranny of this sort of enforced Groupthink are cowering before it. Just ask Kevin Hart.

Oh well, like the man said: "Don't get upset girl, that's just how it goes. I don't love you hoes, I'm out the do'." And a Merry Whatever-Doesn’t-Offend-You to all.


Well, it's official, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" has been returned to the radio after stations—both AM and FM—in San Francisco, Cleveland, and Buffalo conducted listener polls to determine the true nature of the outcry over the song. 

In all three markets, the song received at least 77% support or higher, and the remaining 23% were split between people who took offense and the undecided. The confirmed detractors averaged on 14% in those markets, meaning that 86% of the population either likes the song or doesn't care. 

So all that outcry was generated by 14% of the population, pretty much a complete non-troversy. That sounds about right, if not a bit high. Offensensitivity is a blight on our culture, because outrage gives people a megaphone. Like a satisfied customer tells 1 person, or less, but an angry customer tells 7. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, etc. It deforms our perceptions, and I view it as a kind of propaganda. Not quite as asinine as the whole Starbucks cup farce, but in the ballpark.

If your outrage be debunked in 90 seconds on Google, please try harder.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

A Devil Dog in the Dark

I met Keith Sullivan on a Friday in September, the last day of Summer. I almost met him every day for a month before that, but kept not doing it. Eventually, it started to seem stupid not to after so long, so that day I stopped at the bench where he sits on the corner of Broadway and High and stuck out my hand. I didn’t necessarily have time, because I was on my way somewhere else. But when wasn’t I? I’d passed him a hundred times—literally a hundred times—and never said a word to him. But a few days after he showed up, and kept showing up, we began to take note of each other as fixtures in the busy downtown corridor. The faces, the cars, the bikes, ever flowing, never slowing, a river of humanity constantly changing and always on its way somewhere else.

But not us.

Every day the same. Me coming to work, him sitting on his bench. I was to and fro from appointments on Campus, parking in the rear of the huge building and walking around to the front where my office is, because there are three differently-keyed security doors and an elevator ride between me and my office if I go straight through. Plus, the creepy basement I'd have to pass through is straight out of Silence of the Lambs, and to be honest, I avoid it whenever possible. So I’d pass Keith four or five times a day, sometimes as many as ten times. As the days wore on, we began to look each other in the eye and give with a nod, the way some men do. A tip of the cap in acknowledgement that we were sharing space and time in life as our routines brought us into proximity like two ships passing. Except that I was the only one doing the passing, because Keith never moved an inch from his bench on the corner of Broadway and High.

He had a backpack and one of those little upright suitcases with the extendable handle and wheels that you roll onto the plane as your carry-on, and if the bench had been a bus stop, I would have believed that he was waiting on his ride to be about his daily business. But his bus never came, because it isn’t a bus stop and Keith isn’t on his way anywhere else. He just needs somewhere to be, and the corner of Broadway and High has a nice wooden bench on it where you can sit and watch the world go by. You’re a block from the Greyhound terminal, two blocks from the library, across the street from a Whole Foods, and the University of Oregon’s Baker Downtown Center is a huge building with overhangs that make for a nice rain shelter. There are worse places you could be if you just need somewhere to be.

Keith is a nice looking guy, with the tan and weathered face of someone who’s walked the world. Trim and in his early fifties, he’s got the faded denim eyes of a gunslinger, but the staid manner of somebody who’s in on the joke. His silver mustache is just shy of epic, and with his cropped silver mane, he looks like he could’ve been a riverboat gambler in another life, or somebody’s savvy AA sponsor in this one. But of course, Keith Sullivan is none of those things. Keith Sullivan is homeless.

It took me over a week to firmly settle on this determination, based on the few second walk-bys I got each day. Nothing about his appearance or affect backed up this notion; he didn’t have a sign or a cup, and he never asked for money. On the contrary, he was quiet, minded his business, and never said a word to anyone. He didn’t have a shopping cart or a cardboard box, he had two careworn pieces of luggage, a backpack and a suitcase that looked like they would if he were a twenty-something trekking across Europe and staying in youth hostels. He wore a jacket with a hunter’s camouflage pattern, he smoked Pall Mall straights, and his hat marked him as a US Marine. 

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Marines. Growing up on military bases my whole life, Marines were a routine part of my life. They guarded the gates, played reveille and taps as the flag went up or down at the beginning and end of each day, jogged together in formation down the road rhyming their rhymes, and their Honor Guard attended every funeral. Because we were a Navy family, I always heard them referred to as Leathernecks and Jarheads, and our Polack jokes were Marine jokes instead, the punchline always about their diminished IQ. Although I never understood why, they were just stupid because we say they’re stupid. Except that every Marine I ever met up close knew a hundred different ways to kill you with a rolled-up newspaper—ninety-nine of which hurt—but they’d pick up a kid with a skinned knee and deliver him to his mama with all the tender care of a dog carrying her pups by the scruff. I can’t remember a single word to the Navy fight song, but I could snap off all three verses of the Marine Hymn—on key mind you—at the drop of a hat. Some of the men I respect most in the world and count among my closest friends are Marines, and I’ve yet to meet one I didn’t like. Keith Sullivan is no exception.

Baker Downtown Center is a hub of activity and attracts of a lot of the city’s homeless population. Consequently, we have a dedicated maintenance person who comes around every day to clean up all the broken beer bottles, cigarette butts, garbage, needles, and the occasional pile of human feces. Several times a year, the Police show up to roust someone sleeping in the parking lot, or passed out in the bushes on the nod from a heroin bender. And although Keith’s bench is bolted into the concrete in deference to this milieu, and has a center armrest to prevent people from lying down on it, he himself is the antithesis of all these things.

The area around his bench is cleaner when he leaves than when he came. Professionals working in the building will sometimes park beside him on the bench to enjoy a smoke, believing that they’re just sitting next to a fellow citizen of our fine town. He sometimes rousts the parking lot sleepers himself to get them going in the morning, because you can get sentenced to sixteen hours of roadside cleanup for that kind of trespassing and vagrancy if they have signs posted, which Baker does. I never knew that. But then there were a lot of things I never knew until I shook Keith’s hand on Friday, September 21.

By the time we officially met, I’d decided that he was for sure homeless. What finally convinced me was that his hands were always dirty, and it was the kind of dirt that you can’t wash off. The kind that gets ground into the pores by hard living, when you never come to rest on anything but wood, concrete, and steel. I’d had that kind of filth ground into my hands through decades of construction work, and knew that all you could do was wait for the skin to slough off and replace itself with the new stuff. Always assuming you get to stop grinding for any length of time. Of course, Keith never had that chance, and wet wipes and public restrooms are no match for the grime of all the world.

I was on my way to a dive watering hole by the name of The West End to tip a few back in celebration with a friend who’d gotten a promotion, but I just couldn’t walk past Keith one more time, and nod and be on my way without saying a word to him. So I stopped and introduced myself, shook his hand, and when he asked me for some spare change I took him back to my truck in the parking lot to get him one of the supply bags that the wife and I have assembled for distribution on just such occasions. On the way we talked some about his time in the Corps, the homeless outreach and fundraising efforts he’d lead in Seattle, and how friendly people are in Eugene. After I handed him the bag—which is comprised of a little folding cash, food, water, gloves, socks, and first aid enough for a day or two—he showed me some pictures on his phone of the people and organizations he’d been with in Seattle.

I was struck by how intense he was about his previous life, pride absolutely beaming in his eyes, like he wanted me to know that he hadn't always been this guy. He’d had his moments in the sun. In deference to that, I chatted with him much longer than I had time to, and then shook his hand again, wanting him to know that I saw him for who he is, and not just a statistic or charity case. Then I got in my vehicle and drove off to my real life, patting myself on the back for being a helluva guy, and then washing his homeless cooties off of my hand with the Purell that I keep in my truck. You know, because I'm a helluva guy.

I had a good time celebrating with my friends at The West End, and then went home and told my wife that I’d given another bag away and would need a replacement to put in my truck for the following week. I don’t remember a single other thing that happened until Monday. Why would I? I guess it was a pretty ordinary weekend. I probably puttered around the house on Saturday, making excuses to watch Netflix instead of mowing the lawn. On Sunday, I suppose we ran errands and went to the big family lunch where I played pillow fight and demolition croquet with my nieces. I couldn’t say for sure that all of it actually happened, but I’m guessing it did, because that’s pretty much how the weekends all go.

But come Monday morning, I went back to work and there was Keith again, sitting on his bench at the corner of Broadway and High. Only now I couldn’t just walk past him on my way to somewhere else. Now I knew his name, where he was from, and that he was a Leatherneck-Jarhead vet who had served his country—my country—only to find himself living outdoors. So in an effort to keep my self-appointed status as a helluva guy alive, I stopped and made some small talk with him. Have you ever been so stupid as to ask a homeless dude how his weekend was? I now have the dubious distinction of being able to say that I have. I may as well have asked him how it was sleeping on the sidewalk. Was the concrete to your liking?

I recently had to lay down on the concrete floor of my office to get under my desk and unscrew some attachments in preparation for moving across town to yet another location, my fourth in less than three years. I was probably on the floor, which has a quarter inch of industrial carpet on it BTW, for ten minutes. When I got up, I had a crick in my neck and a dull ache in my lower back that took two days to go away. When I was six years younger than I am today, I spent most of one night sleeping on a carpeted floor in the master bedroom of a vacant house I was helping my buddy to fix up for sale. That was the night I discovered that I don’t sleep on the floor anymore. Not even on deep pile carpet with memory foam pad under it. Now I’m six years older and have even less tolerance for that kind of thing, and Keith is yet another six years older than me, at fifty three. Well, he’ll be fifty three on December 13th. Close enough. I can’t imagine how he even gets a wink of sleep.

How was your weekend? Sweet, fancy Moses.  

Still, in my defense, I knew that Keith was a proud man, a veteran, a leader in charitable circles, and obviously didn’t want to be reduced to a one-dimensional demographic. So I made the conversation I would with any other contemporary I’d met on the street and somehow struck up a friendship with, despite the awkward mismatches that created sometimes. So as the days wore on, I’d talk to him about politics, about faith, about high finance, and a bit about whether or not Joe Bonamassa could really play the blues. Pretty much anything but homelessness. Some days he’d join me in my walk around the block on my coffee breaks, or over to Whole Foods to pick up bananas for the wife, and we’d talk about his life story.

He’d spent four years in the Corps and was honorably discharged with two purple hearts from injuries sustained in Beirut and Grenada. I knew plenty about the Corps because I grew up in the midst of Marines and could quote their latin motto, their favorite lines from Marine Corps Patron Saint Chesty Puller, and even do a decent rendition of the Hymn. Keith didn’t mind being called a Letherneck or Jarhead, though the first time I did it, he asked if my old man was a goddam Squid, because that’s the only way I’d hear dumbass terms like those. And, in fact, my old man was a goddam Squid, so I asked Keith how Marines would refer to themselves. He said they called themselves Devil Dogs.

I’d heard the term before, but always assumed it was derogatory, like the others. But it turns out that the term was given to them by the World War I German Infantry, who feared the Marines like no other force on Earth. Teufel Hunden might be more correctly translated from the German as hounds from hell, but a rose by any other name… The Devil Dogs got their fearsome reputation among the Krauts because they would advance through impenetrable fog-banks of mustard gas and blizzards of shrapnel and hot lead, only to emerge undaunted and bringing hell with them. The Marines took it as a compliment and appropriated the term for themselves with pride.

Some days when I’m in a hurry, I’ll walk past Keith with a quick fist bump and a “Give us a bark, Devil Dog!” To which he replies, “Oorah!” as we both go on about our day. Other days, we’ll share a couple of breakfast burritos and talk about his experience as an HVAC technician and metal worker in the SMART Union, Local #9 in Golden, Colorado. He wants to get back into that line of work when his doctors give him the green light, so he’s asked me for a recommendation when he applies at the University maintenance department. I guess I forgot to mention that he survived a bout of stage three colon cancer while being a homeless vet. In a cruel dichotomy, the VA paid for his treatment and then released him to the street to recover. He says Chesty Puller hasn't given him permission to die, so he’s got a medical marijuana prescription and drinks a half-dozen tall-boys a day to get through. I can’t say I approve of the tall-boys, because it’s fucking Pabst, but whatever gets you through, I guess.

Keith’s life has been shot through with cruel dichotomies. He’d been an advocate for the homeless for years, and then become homeless himself after his wife and son were killed in a car accident. He survives on about twenty bucks a day, culled from various sources. He texted me the other day, looking for some wire strippers so that he could strip a bundle of wires he found in a dumpster next to the chiropractor’s office they’re remodeling over on Pearl Street. You get more at the recycle center for stripped copper wire than for the insulated stuff. I didn’t know that. It makes sense, of course, but I’ve haven’t had much occasion to recycle anything for money since I was about ten. He collects bottles and cans in a given circumference around the Baker Center, but he told me that he can’t go west of Willamette Street, because the homeless people from that point on are all crazy meth heads and heroin addicts that will jack other homeless guys for everything they’ve got. A subculture I had no idea about.

Keith has a cell phone, an EBT card, a PayPal account, and a Facebook page, so I guess as homeless people go, he’s pretty high falutin'. He keeps telling me I should get back on Fb so that we can friend each other, but right now I’ll settle for being his friend in real life. Though I always demonstrate dutiful interest when he brings up his Fb page to show me the people who still email him and send a few bucks to his PayPal account from time to time. He can scroll through his timeline for days, showing posts and pictures of him with donors, volunteers, and lovely people from back when he was a Real Boy.

At times, Keith has disappeared for a day or two, and I started to worry that something bad had happened. After the first time he dropped out of sight, he showed me the Wonolo app he has on his phone that pings him for day labor, explaining that he’d been away stacking pallets and clearing out rentals for a property management agency. Other times, he’ll get a little influx of cash from one of his Seattle benefactors, or a particularly good haul of bottles, and he’ll save it up for a rainy day (or night, as the case may be), and spend it at the 66 Motel, staying until the last possible second for check-out. On those mornings, I can’t even lure him out with a texted offer of a chorizo breakfast burrito from Burrito Boy—our favorite breakfast place, just down the street from Baker—and I just have to eat both of them myself. Oh, the humanity.

I don’t mean to paint a Rockwellian portrait of homelessness. Keith is a bit drunk almost all of the time, his stainless steel water-bottle is full of beer, and his words are always slightly slurred. As a result, he tends to go on about the same things over and over, having forgotten what stories he’s already told. He has a bit of a complex about being looked down upon by the housed and the gainfully employed, so he cites his life-experience and triumphs often, becoming more and more belligerent and defiant about it the drunker he gets. He forgets that I’m there to work, and will sometimes stop me for a rambling conversation that I genuinely don’t have time for, and will continue in an unbroken stream until I put a stop to it by telling him that I have to get back to it.

Still, I wonder what I’d be like if our positions were reversed. I've lived in my car and a tent in Skinner Butte Park, but even then it was only so I didn't have to suck it up and ask my parents for help. And I was in my twenties, so it was kind of an adventure that made for an interesting anecdote. So even at my most delusionally self-righteous, I don’t imagine that I would have half the composure or grace that Keith demonstrates every day. I throw a fucking tantrum internally if I don’t get my favorite parking spot or somebody takes three days to reply K to one of my texts. One day he asked me if I read the Bible, and I said that I do. He told me that his favorite verse was in Psalms where it says: The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those whose spirits are crushed. He reads one Psalm, one Proverb, and one chapter from Acts every day. I guess it’s true that man does not live by bread alone…

One morning I didn’t find Keith at his bench on my way in, but happened to see him across the street, hurriedly tucking his stuff into his backpack in the alcove of the chiropractor’s office. Somebody had arrived on a motorcycle and wanted to park it in the alcove, so they were running him off. He saw me from afar and waved, so I stood waiting for him, shivering a bit in the chilly Fall air, a harbinger of things to come. He came over kind of sheepishly, still a little bleary-eyed. I poured him a cup of coffee from my thermos and we sat on the bench for a few minutes. He was cussing the alarm on his phone that hadn’t gone off for some reason. Then he looked and saw that his phone was dead.

“Close one! They’ve got trespassing signs posted over there and I know I gotta be up and out by 6:45a at the latest. Don’t wanna find myself on roadside cleanup again,” he said. “I’ll just hang out here for a bit until they open up over at the supermarket. They let me charge my phone if I buy anything, even if it's just a stick of gum.” As we sipped our coffee, he said that his backup sleeping spot, in the stairwell of the parking garage over on Oak, didn’t have such an early checkout time, but was just inside the circle of crazies who might just jack him in his sleep, so he preferred the chiropractor’s alcove. I nodded sagely in agreement.

The next morning I brought him my zero-degree REI sleeping bag that had been stashed quietly in the garage since it was last used for a camping trip, almost twenty years ago. Lindsay isn’t fond of camping, saying that we work way too hard all year to go and pretend to be homeless as a hobby. I always laugh at that joke, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. When I told him, Keith laughed, too, which I was glad about. That could have gone either way. 

Later that day, I found the yoga mat I bought from Walmart back when I was fooling myself into believing that I would use my coffee breaks to do some downward dog and get my lazy ass into a shape other than round. I think I actually used it twice in the year since I’d bought it, then stashed it in the chasm of shit I don’t care about in the alcove between my desk and the wall. I only found it again because they’re moving me out of my office and down to a location on campus, so most of my stuff is in boxes.I’m not thrilled about the move, or the reorganization they’ve got going on in our department. Although it does mean that I’m up for a promotion, which I’m kind of stressed about. It’s something that I talk to Keith about sometimes, one of those weird mismatches that could otherwise be so awkward. 

I gave Keith the mat on my way out of the building, and the next day he called me early in the morning to tell me how much he loved it. He’d actually been able to roll over in the night without waking himself up. I can empathize with that as one of life’s little joys, since I usually wake myself up every night doing that because of a bum left shoulder from my construction days, and I’m indoors. When I told him later about the move and possible promotion, he said that he’d say a prayer for me. I got a bit choked-up by that, but didn't want to let a Marine see me cry.

A week or two later, I was working late, trying to get a bunch of stuff cleared off the deck so that I’d look good when they went to check my stats before the promotion interview. I came out of the office around 8:00p, and realized that Fall was hard upon us. The night was chilly, and I was struck by how deeply dark it was, not a trace of gloaming left in the sky. I was walking down High Street—having never been on it that late, as I’m usually home and dry by then—wishing I'd gone through the building and the creepy Silence of the Lambs basement instead. The canopy of overhanging oak and maple trees blotted out most of the light from the street lamps, so I traced my way slowly through the darkened corridor, hoping I wouldn’t run into the denizens that run the Baker Center while the gainfully employed are away. I came up on the bench cautiously, until I realized that the silhouette sitting there was in fact Keith.

I don’t know why it had never occurred to me that he had the same number of hours in a day to fill that I do. Not just during the daylight hours, but at night while I’m having dinner and watching TV as well. It’s like I thought everyone else on Earth were all just figments of my imagination, and nothing happens in the world while I’m asleep. He was just sitting there, staring out into the street, and I was struck by how much he looked like a guy watching TV in a living room, except he was on a bench on the corner of Broadway and High, just watching the sparse traffic go by. I looked on for a full minute, unexpectedly heartbroken by the image of a decent man sitting alone in the dark.

I started whistling a tune so that I wouldn’t surprise him when I emerged from the darkest part of the tree tunnel. He looked up at me and gave with a tired smile. “Heeeeeyyyyy…what the hell are you still doing here?” he asked. He was fully in his cups and I-love-you-man-drunk, so I sat down on the bench next to him and cracked open my beat-up old thermos, pouring out the last of my stash for us to share together. It’s a good thermos, a warhorse leftover from my days in the field, so the coffee was still hot even twelve hours later, pluming steam in the chilly air. I told him I was bucking for that promotion and was working the OT to impress the brass. He laughed and made the kind of jokes about the powers-that-be that a Devil Dog Staff-Sergeant would make about the Platoon LT. Don’t call me sir, I work for a living! That joke is older than me, but I still laughed.

When I asked him what he was doing hanging out here so late, he informed me that the crew remodeling the chiropractor’s office was also pulling a late one and were just wrapping it up for the night. So he was stalling, waiting for them to go so that he didn’t have to sleep in his backup spot in the stairwell of the parking garage on the fringes of crazy-town. It turns out he had some good news: a woman named Angela that works in Baker had seen him around, the same as me, and been lending him the use of the trunk of her car to store his things in during the day, so he didn’t have to drag the suitcase, sleeping bag, and yoga mat around everywhere he went. Even better, she had offered to let him sleep on her couch on Friday and Saturday nights. I got a lump in my throat and was immediately mortified by how many times I’d patted myself on the back for giving him a bag of my old long-johns, some quarters for laundry, or a pack of smokes.

 Helluva guy, helluva guy. Just ask me, I’ll tell you.

We toasted with our coffees to his stroke of good fortune and the chances of my promotion, like any friends and brothers in arms would. He knew I was moving the next day, so we made plans to have dinner together the following night. Then I got a worried text from my wife wondering what was keeping me, so we got up from his bench, hugged, and I headed for home. I could smell a residue of stale beer and the grime of all the world on me as I drove toward the warm light of my hearth and the open arms of my wife. I added another to the million prayers I’ve said for Keith, and knew that he was saying one for me, too, because he promised he would. I've had a dozen people praying for me to get that promotion, but if I wind up with it, I know his entreaty will be the one that put me over the top. No doubt in my mind.

I wish I could say that Keith got back on his feet, but he was still sitting on a bench in the dark, staring into eternity as I drove away. He probably still is, even as I write this. I wish I knew what the endgame here was. I wish there was some sunset I could ride off into, my good deeds done and my promises kept. But there isn’t, there’s just the next day. I guess that’s life. Still, I’m comforted when, like Keith, I think of one of my favorite Bible verses: He who gives to the poor, lends to the LORD who will repay in kind. Sometimes I think about what it is I’ve been trading for with my spare change, wire-strippers, and leftover jackets and work-boots. Because rather than being rewarded with breakfast burritos and Pall Mall straights, I find a new grace for all the stress, disappointment, and anxiety of life.

I just think of Keith, and the rest is easy.