Sunday, December 31, 2017

Focus



“Think fast!” Joe says out of nowhere.

Joe is the Joest Joe in the history of Joe-dom. There has never been a Joe as Joe-ish as Joe Perruccio. He’s built like a fireplug; squat, but all shoulders with cinderblock hands and a considerable thatch of Disco-level chest hair escaping the collar of his tacky Hawaiian shirt. He’s got a Bruce Willis receding-hairline, and just has to be from Jersey or New York with that accent. Right now we’re driving up Shell Hill in Long Beach, the steepest incline in the city, made legendary by the routine deaths of skateboarders and bicyclists who brave the slope every year. It’s like going up that first steep rise on a roller coaster, just chinking along one link at a time. My inner ear is telling me we’re about to fall over backward, and that only the space shuttle should point directly skyward as we are. 

Which is why I find it so alarming when Joe reaches over from the passenger seat and turns the key to the OFF position and pulls it straight out of the ignition.

I instantly jam my foot down on the brake, only to discover that a Reliant K has power brakes and steering, which do not function when the ignition is in the OFF position. The pedal is unyielding as stone and the steering wheel has become inert in my white-knuckled hands. I don’t have time to wonder what the hell Joe is playing at before my hands and feet begin to act entirely on their own, with knowledge I didn’t know they possessed. My left foot hammers the parking brake into the firewall, while my right hand shoves the drive selector into park, and then both feet stand on the frozen brake pedal, leveraging my hands against the useless wheel, forcing the pedal down maybe half an inch. I turn to look at Joe, out of my seat and fully standing on the brake. He’s smiling at me from under an epic moustache, his chuckle a low rumble like distant thunder.

“Just wanted to see what you had in you, chief,” he says, and hands the key back to me. “Not bad.”

At that, I look around and realize that I’d instinctively done exactly what I was supposed to do; the car is stopped and resting "safely" on the fifty-degree incline. No one is more surprised than me. When class began three weeks ago, I was literally the worst driver anyone had ever seen. When I got behind the wheel, the other three students in the back seat held their collective breath, and I was often the reason for their gasps of barely-restrained terror. At fifteen, I was the only one of the students to have absolutely no experience behind the wheel. The rest were taking this Summer Driver’s Ed class—offered through our High School—as a perfunctory training to qualify for their license. They’d all been driving with their parents for months already. 


On the other hand, I got my permit the day before class began. No experience of any kind. I’d never even started the car to warm it up. Nothing. So for example, I didn’t realize that when one turns the wheel to take a corner, you must turn it back to straighten out. Apparently, they do not autocorrect as I’d somehow expected. Consequently, my early turns were usually somewhere around ninety-four degrees, and often involved encounters with curbs and innocent garbage cans. After three weeks of training in the “state of the art” simulator—housed in a double-wide trailer behind the gym—and some truly terrifying outings onto the streets, I’d finally earned the trust of Joe Perruccio.



It dawns on me that Joe has a brake on the floorboard of his passenger-side seat in the specially-outfitted K Car Training Vehicle, so we were never in any real danger. I should probably be a little more pissed than I am, but his approbation is hard to come by. He doesn’t just give those “not-bads” away. Usually, silence was the best you could hope for. Add to the fact that he didn’t try that stunt on anyone else and it finally occurs to me, this was actually a compliment of sorts. 

Joe is probably the coolest teacher in school, and Poly’s most celebrated baseball coach, too. But the fact that he was the only person in the vehicle to never break character, is the real reason I look up to him. He’s my Social Studies teacher during the school year, and was the kind of guy who had students show up in his class at lunch to eat, hang out, and episodically watch the R-Rated action movie of the week. Predator, Lethal Weapon, etc. He cussed in class routinely, but conversely had a very serious Catholic-based code of honor that he enforced strictly. You could say “damn” but not “goddamn.” He never seemed to pay attention to what the class was doing while he was grading papers, but would often walk the rows of desks looking over our work. A few times he threw people’s backpacks out the 2nd floor window if they were sleeping in class or were turned around talking to someone when they should have been minding their business.




One time, as he was stalking the rows, Joe discovered that a kid named Frank had brought a gun to school. He caught just a glimpse of the chrome .44 from down inside Frank’s backpack and then moved like lightning. Joe grabbed the bag first, and then Frank, and hauled him up out of his desk one handed like he was a feather. Joe was a former longshoreman and, with that gravelly baritone and noir-ish, hardboiled Mike Hammer-demeanor, for a second I thought both Frank and his backpack were going out the window. Because even though he was a teacher now, he still had the instincts and the stones to deal with a problem the roughneck way, like a Union Man should. Who knows what might have happened if he hadn’t?


Not sure why a hardcase like that would choose to become a teacher, especially on the heels of a lucrative union job. Could be he was in witness protection, or otherwise on the lam? I liked to think that maybe he’d killed a man. What can I say? I’m a romantic. He was a study in contradictions. Often terse, but loquacious when we got him off-subject, usually about some bar-fight he’d been in, or a skank what done him wrong.

But if he saw you about to make a dumb mistake in life, he went from a Guido to a proverb-spouting Yoda who’d occasionally refer to you as “Dumbass.” Usually because you were being a dumbass. He wasn’t above an endearing cuff upside the back of a guy’s head while he did it either. But he was always kindly and protective to the girls in class, often exhorting them dress and behave modestly, because boys only had one thing on their mind. When he was walking the rows, if he caught a guy with a comic book or a Playboy he’d tell him to put it away and focus, without embarrassing him. But when he caught me drawing pentagrams in my notebook and filling them with arcane Latin incantations, he ripped the sheet right out of my binder, held it up high and quite loudly inquired, “What the fuck is this?” 


So… tits and ass? Cool. The Devil? Not cool. Got it. Credit where it’s due, it did end the witchcraft phase of my life pretty much instantly.

I remember some of what we studied in class, but everything about the K-Car. Especially the times he told the candy-asses in the back seat to shut the fuck up while I was driving. Yeah, that was alright. While everyone else’s freeway test consisted of merging into one lane of traffic and then getting off at the next exit, Joe had me get all the way over into the fast lane to pass a bunch of cars in midmorning LA traffic, pushing it to almost 90, which is practically a miracle in an ’82 K Car. By the time we were done, I got my license with a 97 on the DMV driving test, by far the highest in the class. Thanks, Joe.




Within the year, I’d become quite the daredevil driver, my spatial judgment and reflexes making me a natural. Playing car tag with my buddy Phillip; outrunning cops and gangsters when we got ourselves into tight spots (which we did with alarming regularity); drifting through crazy turns riding the E-brake, mastering the old Starski and Hutch reverse power-slalom move. From humble beginnings to Fast and Furious in three easy steps. Not sure how he would have felt about me using those skills to ditch the cops so many times in my teens and twenties. Part of me thinks he would have said, “Nice one, chief.” But then I can also hear him calling me a Dumbass and telling me to respect authority, too. Joe’s passed away now, so I guess I’ll never know. 


I’m grateful though, because just this past Winter, as I was taking a cloverleaf exit from one freeway to another, all four of the wheels on our Camry lost traction with the oily, rain-slick pavement at the same time, and I took the old grocery-getter through the arc of the cloverleaf while pin-wheeling around backward. At the last second, I flipped the nose back around in the right direction two feet from the guardrail I was about to slam into. Never even came to a stop, just powered out of the backward slide and slalomed back into the lane. My hands and feet just did what they do, faster than a thought could go through my head. I saw on the news that day there were three wrecks at that same spot, one of which was a cop responding a previous accident, and winding up in one itself. Thanks, Joe. 

I guess the thing that stands out the most were his little aphorisms and insults. “Fell out the ugly tree, and hit every branch on the way down.” “Bad company corrupts good character.” “The Devil finds work for idle hands.” “Your mama got so many double chins she needs a bookmark to find her mouth.” “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” He was an endless repository of shit like that, which I always imagined him learning at the knee of his Mema—some hard-boiled, chain-smoking matriarch on the stoop of a Brooklyn tenement, as she cuffed him on the back of the head from time to time, for good measure. Probably while calling him Dumbass.

Of all Joe’s boilerplate proverbs, only one ever really made any difference to me: “Your focus determines your direction.” He didn’t mean it as a philosophical sentiment, but literally. Keeping the car headed straight, hands at ten and two, if you look out either side window for a count of five, invariably the car begins to slowly drift in that direction, no matter your efforts to the contrary. You move toward what you’re focusing on. Want it or not, like it or not.



I’d just about lost that thought to the sands of time, until I walked into a Church in Seattle, twenty years later. There, emblazoned in huge letters on the wall, were Joe’s words: “Your focus determines your direction.” Pretty sure it’s nowhere in the Good Book, but truth is truth, and it brought back that gruff, endearing old crowbar of a man with a wistful pang for the years gone by. It was odd realizing that I’d reached the age that Joe had been when he said those words in the old K-Car. I didn’t feel anywhere near as wise as he’d seemed to me then. Still don’t. But if I’ve gleaned any insight at all down the span of those years, it’s that nobody really knows what’s going on, and leadership is really just the ability to disguise your panic. We’re all pretending, clinging to traditions and folksy sayings, hoping for the best. Who knows, maybe Joe was, too? 

Then again, Joe sent twenty-six ball-players to the Majors, and one to the Hall of Fame. So maybe not.

“Your focus determines your direction.” I’ve thought about those words often since Seattle. Especially when the going was rough, when life seemed unfair, and the world threatening. I’ve just finished an especially challenging season, years filled with days like that. Hard disappointments, awful clients, dishonest business associates, and outright betrayals from longtime friends and mentors. Another dream down in flames. All things considered, a pretty awful chapter in life.

Or was it?

I mean, sure, my business broke up, but somehow the lights stayed on at my house. I found out that I’ve surpassed two of my mentors in terms of skill and integrity, and when my back was against the wall—the same as theirs before me—I made the choices that cost me dearly, while they just stole from people and moved on. And as bad a feeling as that truly is, finding out what you’re really made of is priceless. 

Joe used to say that in boxing, “Everybody's got a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.” Looking back, I think it means that we’d all like to think we’d make the right choice, but you never know who you really are until you’re down in it, and actually taking punches for real. I used to think that God brought tests into my life to see what I’m made of, but recently it’s occurred to me that who I am is no surprise to Him. Sometimes it is to me though, so maybe those tests are to show me who I really am instead. In spite of some pretty punishing challenges, I have to say I’m glad to have met the guy I was hoping I’d be.

“When you stop expecting life to be easy, it gets a lot easier,” Joe used to say. It’s easy to focus on all the negative things that happen in our lives. The monumental disappointment of losing my business, or all the travails it involved to begin with: Court proceedings to collect from some dirtbag clients who never even had the money to finish the project; or the trusted mentor who embezzled from us; the bungling morons at the IRS who wrongly seized the balance in our company bank account and virtually ruined us. The list of woes is as endless as I choose to make it. Or I could take a page from Joe’s book and say to myself, “The guy with no shoes complains until he meets the guy with no feet.” 

That same demoralizing season was also rife with surprising dividends I could never have predicted. I’ve renewed age-old friendships that I would have said were irrevocably lost to the ash heap of time and bad choices. I’ve seen the smiling faces, heard the sweet voices, and held in my arms those that I would have sworn I would never see again in this life. I come home every day to a house that resounds with laughter and love. And that’s either the metric you evaluate your life by, or it isn’t.

Right after I broke up with the first semi-serious (three whole months!) girl I dated in High School, Joe told me this story:

Two farmers met weekly at their fence. The first farmer says, “Heard your son fell from his horse and broke his arm. That’s terrible!” The second responded, “Who can say?” The following week the first says, “I heard the king is conscripting men for war with the neighboring kingdom. It’s good your son has a broken arm and cannot go off to war.” “Who can say?” the second responds. And again, “The war went well, and the men are already on their way home with an impressive load of spoils. A shame your son will bring none to you.” “Who can say?” says the second. Finally, “The king and army were set upon by ambush, ransacked for their treasure and killed to a man. How fortunate your son wasn’t with them after all!” 

“Who can say?” 

I’ve kept that one in my back pocket all these years, because I’ve almost always found that, in retrospect, the worst patches of my life were often a goldmine, yielding unexpected treasures of wisdom, patience, and humor. Not to mention some great stories to write about. During those seasons, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have given to fast forward through to a smoother piece of real estate. But afterward, those periods became precious memories of the people, places, and times that taught me who I am. Trophies that I wouldn’t trade for love or money. Like Joe used to say, “It’s good for you. Puts hair on your chest.”  

And he would know. My God, that man had a lot of chest hair. 



There’s no doubt that experience is a cruel teacher. The test comes first, and then the lesson. But if history is any indicator, the day is coming when even that dark season will be all sepia tints and fond nostalgia. Like a badge of honor from the moment my mettle was tested and, by God, I passed. I guess it kind of depends on what I choose to focus on. While I’m pretty happy to have that patch of ground in my rearview, all things considered, I still believe that our best days lie ahead of us. As for the last chapter, perhaps it can still be redeemed. It might be that I’ll look back one day and number them among the best years of my life. 

Who can say?






Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Echoes



"I understand. Good luck to us all tomorrow. Whatever happens, however we might disagree as a nation and a people, the truth that I keep in the front of my mind, always, is that whether we rise or fall, we meet our fates together." -Nov. 7, 2016

Those were the last words I wrote to a friend before she silently unfriended me. I'd say it was for reasons unknown, but I think I know the reason all too well. We disagreed on something. Not on whether women should have reproductive rights, equal pay, or family leave. Not on whether we should be focusing our national resources on creating renewable energy sources, or reinvesting in our failing infrastructure. Not even on issues of immigration, education, or identity politics.

Just on who I should vote for.

There's been a lot of talk lately about "Fake News" and "Echo-Chambers." It seems that what everybody wants is for somebody else to do something about it. Even in the 21st Century digital-age, we're still trotting that old chestnut out. Everybody's all atwitter about how Mark Zuckerberg needs to do more to combat it, how Google needs to do more to curb it, about how a censorship algorithm is the answer. Whoah, that escalated quickly.

But a 2015 study of over 10 Million active American Facebook users who self-identified politically as Conservative, Liberal, or Moderate, reveals a telling trend amongst us. The study investigated how "cross-cutting" news stories (stories whose ideological bent or subject were different than the reader's own perspective) were disseminated, and found that three factors were involved:

1.) Who our friends are and what stories they shared.
2.) Which stories are displayed in our newsfeeds by Facebook's algorithm.
3.) Which of the displayed stories we actually clicked on.

2 out of 3 of those factors are under our direct control, meaning that almost seventy percent of your echo chamber is self-constructed.

When these cross-cutting stories are acquired "manually" (meaning that we seek them out of our own accord) 45% of Liberals see them, as opposed to 40% of Conservatives. But barely anyone goes looking on their own, human nature being what it is we don't want to leave our newsfeed any more than we want to get off the couch. So almost 65% of stories come to us by way of our friends sharing them. When that is factored in, the numbers change dramatically.

Just 24% of Liberals get cross-cutting news when based on their friends sharing habits, while 35% of Conservatives can say the same. When the algorithm comes into play, it shaves 2% more off of the Liberal numbers, and 1% from the Conservatives. And by the time we drill down into the stories we actually click on, as opposed to just seeing in our newsfeed, it's a 20/30 percent split between Liberals and Conservatives, respectively.

Hate to say it, but the algorithm isn't much to blame for that. And even when it is, it learned that from YOU. From your habits, from your clicks, likes, gifs and emojis. From who you chose to interact with, and who you ignored. Really, all of media learns that from you, just slower than Facebook and Google do. You teach the media how to treat you by what you respond to; in ratings, in comment sections, and with the buying power of your dollar and how you respond to their ads.

Sorry, kids, it isn't fake news and echo-chambers. It's us.

"Wow! I just read Lawrence's essay on Facebook, and I am so impressed about his writing abilities. I knew he was a smart guy, but I didn't know he was such a beautiful writer. His soul comes right through." -May 25, 2016

This is what my now ex-friend said to her son right before she sent me a friend request. We made it six whole months together before she unfriended me, citing the darkness that had crept into me over that time. She was rabid anti-Trump, and I was just regular anti-Trump, so I wonder if it was really me that changed in that six months. Or if just a bit too much light was getting in through the cracks in a self-imposed echo-chamber, one made up of palatable myths and comforting lies. And so her world is just a bit smaller today.

Before you decide someone is a Libtard-Snowflake-Nazi who must be removed from your life, at least take a peek outside at the actual world for a few seconds—instead of the one made up and sold to you for the purposes of balkanizing your power and fleecing you of your dollars. If you unfriend people for disagreeing with you, please don't then be so obtuse as to look around and wonder what the fuck happened to the world. You happened.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Of All The Gin Joints...

In 1967, a psychologist named Stanley Milgram designed and executed an experiment to test the degree of connectivity between Americans across a wide geographic and socioeconomic spectrum. Long before social networking was even a thought in any of our heads, Milgram was investigating human networks via the permutations of association and happenstance, with surprising results.

He mailed packets of materials to people he’d randomly selected in Wichita, KS and Omaha, NE. He asked the participants to send the contents on to one randomly selected individual in Boston, Mass, but only if they knew that person on a first-name basis. If not, they were asked to send it to someone that they were on a first-name basis with, anyone they guessed might have a chance of knowing the stranger in Boston. Each person in the chain signed their name on an included roster so that when the parcel got to its intended recipient, Milgram could track how many people it took to complete the connection. On average, it took six. On a couple of occasions, it was as few as two, but never once did it take more than nine individuals. He dubbed it Small World Theory, although it’s more popularly known today as Six Degrees of Separation. Or Six Steps to Kevin Bacon, if you prefer.

I’m pretty sure my cousin wasn’t thinking about any of that when he invited me to come hang out with some of his friends up at a hot spring in Oakridge, OR during the Fall of 1996. Oakridge is a little town nestled in the Cascade Mountains—population 2,200—straight out of Twin Peaks, and not any place you go expecting to find the Nexus of the Universe. It’s where you stop for gas on the way to the ski slope, or where you go to find a natural hot spring where you can toss the Frisbee, drink some beer, and soak your bones. Which sounded like just what the doctor ordered, since my long-time girlfriend and I were on the outs for the millionth time.

My cousin Charles and I had always been close as kids, born just five days apart, and had grown up to be quite similar in many respects—easy going, philosophical, kind of given to hippie pursuits— although we had different upbringings. I’d been raised a Military Brat and had lived in six states and one foreign country by then, while he was the son of a blue collar working family, born and raised his whole life in the same house. But he had actually finished his master’s degree, while I was still a semester shy of a never-to-be-completed AA in Underwater Basket Weaving. He’d been wandering a while, traveling and finishing graduate school in Iowa, but had recently come back to Eugene to settle down in the place he’d been raised. I, on the other hand, had been wandering my whole life, and had decided to make Eugene my home and finally put down some roots. 

Charles returned from Iowa with a friend in tow, David, who was looking for new adventures in life. He decided to accompany Charles back to Eugene in search of a world more tolerant to his identity as a gay man, which apparently the Midwest is not known for. He and I had hit it off immediately and, along with Charles, we spent endless hours drinking coffee and beer together and hashing out the world’s problems. You’re welcome. So David was going to be in attendance as well—along with a couple of new friends from the apartment building he’d recently moved into—which kind of sealed the deal for me, since he had somehow become the go-to guy whenever I was having girl troubles. Go figure.

The bright Fall day was crisp enough to make the natural cauldrons of hot water a perfect counterpoint, and just what the doctor ordered. Everyone in attendance was a nice mix of laid-back but engaging, and it was an easy day of amusing diversions and effortless conversation. One person in particular stood out as being really bright and friendly. Her name was Leta.

As we lounged in the spring, it came up in conversation that Leta and I shared the same birthday, which got us going on a train of conversation that lead to a surprising revelation. I wish I could remember our exact path to this rather ridiculous sentence, but we said it together in stereo: “Keoki is Hawaiian for George.” We shared a sitcom moment of comic surprise, and then began tumbling over each other to figure out how two strangers meeting at a hot spring in Oakridge, OR—who shared the same birthday no less—could possibly both know a guy with the unlikely name of Keoki. The only thing more unlikely was the idea that there could be two guys in the world with that name. Probably there are, but we’ll never know, because it turned out we were both talking about the same one. Keoki Wells.

Keoki played Right Forward on my soccer team in Jr. High, while I played Left Halfback. He scored way more than me, though often on one of my passes. Leta knew him because he was her sister’s first serious boyfriend, back in the day. But the key element to this curious coincidence is that we both met Keoki in Naples, Italy. We two—strangers at a hot spring in a town that’s just a wide spot in the road on the way to somewhere else, where neither of us lived—shared a decade-old connection from 5,997 miles, and nine time zones away. When you’re faced with the staggering unlikelihood of something like that, it’s pretty hard to maintain a disbelief in… some benevolent design. 

I mean, we were only there because my cousin from Oregon met a guy from Michigan, at college in Iowa, who somehow made friends with a Military Brat who’d been stationed to the same overseas posting on the far side of the world as me. And if she and I hadn’t shared the same birthday, it still might never have come to light. The more links in the chain, the more ludicrous it becomes. But this wasn’t the first time something this preposterous had happened to me. Years previous in California, I met a girl from Wisconsin, who had grown up in Massachusetts going to school with a girl that I also knew from Italy, Betsy Bina, who had been my first real crush in life. For brevity, I’ve glossed over the intricacies of that discovery, but it was a doozy, and really hard to accept as mere coincidence. 

So to have a second equally ridiculous event occur just a few years later in a totally different State was compelling, if a bit disquieting somehow. Because it makes you feel like the Nexus of the Universe, or a spoke in some great, cosmic machine, but ultimately it reveals nothing of whatever Grand Design there might be. For a brief moment, life seems crazy beautiful and intricately meaningful in ways you can’t find the edges of, but then you still have to go back to your workaday life and run your errands. 

The following day, I was invited over to David’s place for his apartment-warming party, where I unloaded my Ficus plant on him as a gift. While I was there I got to meet Leta’s sister, Lori, who happened to be visiting from Seattle. Leta had already informed her of our interesting connection, and we immediately began to share memories of Naples. Their family had moved to there the summer that I was moving back to California, 1985. We were the same year in school, and the time overlap was close enough that Lori and I knew a lot of the same people. We discussed Keoki for a bit, and while my eighth grade memories of him were pretty plain-Jane, he was her first serious boyfriend, so things were considerably less PG-rated. 

The talk of first loves/crushes brought up Betsy, but Lori’s memories of her were sour, which bummed me out. Apparently, things changed quite a bit in my absence. People who I thought would be friends forever began hanging out in different crowds, circles drifted apart. I shouldn’t have been shocked to discover this—the center never seems to hold—but I still found it oddly unnerving to hear of people falling out, couples breaking up, and new players interjecting themselves into my narrative. 

It was naïve to think that a bunch of adolescent Military Brats who moved every thousand days would remain steadfastly in the arrangements I remembered so fondly. I guess we all want our childhood world to stand inviolate as a museum of our lives and a monument to our existence, but the diorama had advanced in my absence into something I couldn’t have predicted, and had no ownership of. Which left me with an incongruous sense of jealousy at having been left out of these changes. Like maybe I could have amounted to something if only I’d stayed in Naples instead of returning to the States.

I didn’t have the heart to hear any more, so I inquired about another soul uniquely dear to me from those long-ago days, Lisa Rizzo. Lisa was the first girl to say “yes” to me, granting me my very first dance at the tender age of thirteen. It was platonic by necessity, because she was soon to be my buddy Ethan’s girl. But that didn’t stop me from transferring that fervent original crush briefly—but with dizzying intensity—to Lisa for a several endless-seeming weeks. They say you never forget your first, and while Lisa wasn’t my first love, she was the first girl to endorse me as being an OK guy. Which is almost as good when you’re thirteen. 

After I related the story of our first dance to Lori—my eyes glazing over in rapt nostalgia as they do to this day anytime I can corner someone long enough to tell the story—Lori had the best response of all time: she instantly produced a picture of Lisa with her husband and baby daughter. There are few feelings in the world as gratifying as knowing that the people you’ve cherished in life are alive and prospering. Seeing Lisa as a grownup, still wearing that easy Italian smile, was immensely rewarding. And considering the preposterous lengths it had taken to get this information to me, it was all the more so. Although I was a little disappointed that she and Ethan hadn’t gone the distance from 8th grade, Lori assured me that Lisa’s husband Ray is a good people, so I let it go. I’m magnanimous that way.

One might think that two such experiences in a lifetime is at least one more than anyone could expect. How many times can the lines of coincidence converge in one person’s life, especially when you consider the huge geographic areas that we’re talking about here? From Italy to Massachusetts to Wisconsin to Michigan to Iowa to California to Oregon. Could even Milgram have conceived of such a thing? 

But wait, there’s more. 

Over a decade after this experience with Lori and Leta, having never seen either of them again, I sat down to write these stories, wanting to reconnect with old friends. I reached out to Lisa on Facebook, to share the tale of our first dance, “Last Dance in the City of Ruins.” It was well-received, to say the least, and virtually overnight renewed a friendship that really means a lot to me.

In exploring these memories with Lisa, several unexpected things came to light. 

First, her beau from back in the day—my old buddy Ethan—now lives in Washington State, not five minutes from where my parents retired. Ethan moved back to Kitsap County, WA after Naples, because that’s where he was originally from. We retired from the Navy in Long Beach, CA, having returned there after Italy, but moved to Washington for work after the aerospace industry went into the crapper. Consequently, I spent a thousand days in the 90’s living, loving, and working minutes from one of my oldest buddies from a world away, and never knew it. I could have walked to his house, we probably went to the same video store at Kountry Korners, and I never ran into him once. 

Second, in the intervening decade, Lori had moved from Seattle to Springfield, and married the brother of my wife’s best friend’s husband’s best friend. Which only sounds convoluted because it is. Shall I belabor the connection? My wife’s best friend, Kristi, is married to Tony. Tony’s best friend, Jessie, has a brother named Luke who is now married to Lori. As I was perusing Lisa’s pictures on Facebook, I recognized Luke from several parties we’d attended together over the years. Considering that none of my Oregon connections to Lori even knew each other, that’s a bit much. What a surreal feeling, sitting in my little Oregon town, looking at the pics of a long-lost friend in Jersey, and seeing someone I knew because of my wife. And by the way, just to keep it interesting, my wife is from Alaska.  

But wait, there’s more.

Since I published “Last Dance,” I’ve reconnected with numerous Neapolitan expats, and even made a handful more that I’ve never even met in real life into friends. One of the latter, Jen, represents yet another thread that converges on my life with a bizarre degree of specificity. 

Jen was three years behind me in school, but was stationed in Naples after I’d left. We became friends because of “Last Dance,” and over time I noticed some familiar names and places in her FB pictures and posts, including the Kitsap Regional Library in Poulsbo, WA, where my mom worked for twenty years. It turns out Jen went to NAHS, then to a rival high school in Long Beach, CA, and finally to the same community college as me, and we never once met. She then moved to England, returning to the US years later with a husband and family, only to settle in Poulsbo, just 10 minutes from my parent’s house. Upon further investigation, it turns out that our moms had been friends for years before Jen and I even met. 

It’s hard to consider all of this and not feel the invisible turning of clockworks in an incredibly vast and intricate machine. One whose overall workings may be unknowable, but whose exquisite synchronicity is beautiful to behold for its own sake. Italy, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska. My, what a tangled web we weave, Mr. Milgram. Or perhaps not so tangled after all. Because there have never been more than five people separating all of us from across six thousand miles and thirty years of silent distance. Milgrim had his six degrees, I have my stories. Either way, it’s a very small world, indeed. 


Charles once gave me a book purporting to explain the augury of the specific day you were born; it was like three-hundred-sixty-five individual horoscopes. I don’t put much stock in the metaphysical, but the one for the day of my birth has stayed with me: “You are the place where the lines converge.”

Okay, maybe I’m not the Nexus of the Universe, but seriously? Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…



Friday, November 3, 2017

The Measure of a Man

My first experience with death came when my Great Grandmother passed while she was visiting us at our home in Monterey, California. I was 5. I was outside playing in the back yard, showing off a new-to-me hand-me-down letterman-style jacket that I’d bizarrely paired with a turtleneck and shorts. Mom and Dad came out to tell us that Gram the Great—as we called her—had gone home to God. I didn't really understand what that meant, although I was instantly filled with a kind of numinous certainty that my sister’s bed would now be haunted because Gram had been sleeping there when she died.

That same vague certainty of her lingering presence haunting that bed stayed with me even into high school, although a dozen years had passed and we’d moved three times by then. Maybe it’s because of the awful prayers I was taught as a kid. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake…” Wait...what was that last part again? I could die in my sleep?! What kind of bullshit is that to teach a kid? I inherited that bed frame once my sister moved out, and took it because it was better than what I'd been using. But believe you me, I hadn’t forgotten for a second that it had been the portal from whence Gram had exited this mortal coil to whatever may lie beyond.

Not being especially superstitious, I pushed those preternatural instincts aside and for the most part slept easy in the bed, which was really just the same frame by that point, as the mattress had gone on to the great landfill in the sky by then. Even so, on the occasional uneasy night of slumber, I always had to push that same lingering uneasiness back into the dark from whence it came, reassuring myself of the nuts-and-bolts nature of the world. Perhaps owing to some racial memory encoded in my genes, handed down across ten thousand years of ancestral fears of whatever was beyond the guttering firelight.

CS Lewis said that if you were in a room and told that a hungry tiger was outside the door, you would feel a kind of apprehension specific to the level of danger that represents. But if you were told that there was a malicious ghost outside the door—and you actually believed it—the kind of feeling that might induce would be entirely different. The latter is the kind of fear that we reserve for Death—Capital D—as the great unknown. Not necessarily for a specific death—lower-case d—like cancer and car accidents, which would be akin to the fear of the Tiger in its practical specificity. More like the approach of our inevitable demise at some unknown point in the future, which might be minutes or decades away. No way of knowing.

If you’re a practical person, eventually those kinds of fears give way to more realistic concerns. You trade monsters under the bed for concerns about cholesterol and blood pressure, serial killers for car accidents, and post-apocalyptic nuclear landscapes for mortgages and lower back pain. We stop having time for boogeymen and statistically-improbable scenarios as we age, and the practical realities of the concurrent aging of our loved ones creates a kind of schedule of events we will have to deal with. Most likely your grandparents will pass first, then your parents and so on down the line. When my grandfather Bruce passed, it wasn't really unexpected. He was 97.


I had a complicated relationship with Bruce, and had from the very beginning. He was a complex man, who had never had it easy in life. Born in the 20s and raised in the teeth of the Great Depression, he’d been forced to leave home in his teens and bounced around from foster home to home. A ferociously intelligent guy, he was also a veteran of two wars and retired as a Bird Colonel from the Army to enter into the world of business. He had four kids to support by then, and raised them in the Fear of God and himself—not necessarily in that order—which couldn’t have been easy.


He married the hardest working, most gentle and compassionate woman this side of Mother Theresa. She raised their daughter and three sons in the reverence of their father, and guarded the empire of his reputation fiercely. She never had an unkind word for anyone, and certainly never tolerated anyone speaking ill of Bruce in the slightest. To this day, his kids—my aunt and uncles—have nary a harsh
word for him, although he died owing all of them many thousands of dollars each. His numerous failed business initiatives took their toll on the family and defined him for most of my life. The fact that he pursued these import/export schemes even as his wife was dying in the care of his daughter, having not seen him for months on end, did not escape my notice.

As a kid, I knew none of the details of his awful, impoverished upbringing, nor any of the complexities of his relationship with his wife and kids. How could I? I just knew he was mean. He hit me in the eye pitching a baseball when I was visiting him as a five year-old, and then found my crying to be an annoyance, and my shiner to be humorous. Another time, he spilled hot coffee on me when I was riding in the front seat with him on a road-trip and forced me to get into the back seat until I could get my tears under control. He always kicked us off the TV when he got home so he could watch Hawaii Five-O and drink a beer. We could go outside, or we could shut the hell up.

By the time I was in my teens, I was pretty ambivalent toward him, if not actually hostile. I didn’t care to know the complexities of his life, which might have mitigated my simmering disdain, preferring my teenaged certainty about him and the world. My mom, the feminist, was deeply offended by his imperious chauvinism, and constantly held him up as a cautionary tale on how not to live life. A lesson I was only too happy to glom onto.

After Grandma passed, we were witness to Bruce marrying two subsequent women, essentially caretakers, who were substantially younger than him. They decimated his collection of antiques and numerous irreplaceable family heirlooms, selling them off as they stole from and occasionally beat him. When he was finally too old to stop us, we moved him and his third wife—54 years his junior—almost forcibly up to our area so that we could keep an eye out, and spend the remaining days of his life in some kind of relationship with him. He made it about three more years before the end came to find him.


His 97th birthday was a pretty impressive shindig. It is literally the only time in my life that I have been in the same room with my entire extended family on my Dad’s side. We had a ball, renting out a hall and hotel rooms. His irreverent scalawag sons bought him illegal Cuban cigars and Playboy magazines, there was great food and professional photography. As though he took it as a farewell sendoff, he lapsed into a coma two days later.



By then, everyone had made it back to the various parts of the country they called home; California, Colorado, Washington, Arizona, and North Carolina. So when the call came at midnight, I was the one left to deal, which struck me as an unpleasant irony. Out of everyone, my Mom and I probably had the hardest feelings toward Bruce. We’d been the ones to move him up to Oregon, wrangling a kicking and biting mule into the harness, only to have to drag him the whole the way. And now I was the one headed to the ICU in the middle of the night.

When I got there, I found his wife in a heap of tears. She was a virtual stranger to me, more a relationship of familial obligation than any real affection. So finding myself asked to comfort someone I barely knew—who was essentially a hybrid of employee and step-relation—over the unsurprising fact of the passing of her ersatz spouse, whom I felt conflicted toward at best, I approached with a fair amount of stoicism. I had a plethora of pre-packaged platitudes at the ready, after which I was inundated with more medical information than I could process. The specifics of his brain and heart activity were instantly translated by my own brain into, “He’s old and dying.” Eventually, she asked me to pray for Bruce.

I’ve always worn the mantle of counselor, since I was in elementary and Jr. High. I have no idea how I came to find myself in the role, but it’s a natural one to me, so I’ve spent many an hour on the phone and in person, listening, counseling, and praying with lost, hurting people. I’m alright with that. But being asked to pray for the recovery of Bruce hit me pretty hard where I live. The idea of interceding for him put a bitter taste in my mouth. But I always toe the line, so I stepped into his room, leaving my wife and his out in the waiting area.

The moment I saw what a frail little bundle of bones was laying in that bed, something inside me turned.

Looking at him there, it was hard to remember what it was that I’d been so angry with him about. Or how someone so small and helpless could ever had held such sway in my life. It was then that I saw that regardless of what he’d done in life—whether or not he’d ever succeeded in business, whether he was loved, respected, or just feared—this was his end. Regardless of how hard his life had been, or whatever explanation there was for him to have behaved the way he had, this was his end.

And I heard a very small voice in me, one that’s clear if I'll be quiet for a minute, telling me something I needed to hear. I like to think of it as the voice of Grace, and it lets me know when it’s time to shut up, when it’s time to apologize, and when I’m being a dick. I think my life would be a lot better if I listened to it more often, but I heard it quite clearly in the hush of Bruce's room. With only his monitors and labored breathing as accompaniment, Grace said it wasn't time to pray for recovery, but to say goodbye and send him on his way instead.

So I did.

I said goodbye to Bruce. I said goodbye to hard feelings and bitterness, and to the scripted drama that I’d been rehearsing and rehashing all of my days. Because Grace told me that whatever fate I imagined him deserving, he was meeting his, just as I would one day meet my own. And whatever mercy he needed to compensate for his awful upbringing, or whatever judgment he deserved for his actions, were none of my business. He owed God one death, and he was delivering on that. As I would one day, which might be minutes or decades away. No way of knowing.

I thought of words dear to me: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” I decided to let him go in the sincere hope that he be measured in Grace and Mercy, just as I will surely need to be. And how, brother.

Bruce passed two hours later, and I’ve never felt another moment of disapprobation or negativity toward him. I read somewhere that holding onto offense and anger against another is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die. That sounds about right to me. Forgiveness is for the living, and it benefits the wounded as much as the offender. Perhaps more. Whatever fate there is to meet, each of us will find our own in time.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will find mercy.”

A Thousand Days In The Life


There was a gaggle of girls blockading my exit from the row of tables we sat at in class, so I took the long way around, past Ms. Bitchy’s desk, making my way toward the communal pile of textbooks to check mine out for the night’s homework. I didn’t like to pass so close to Ms. Bitchy, as she was the only teacher I’d ever hated in my life. To be fair, she started it. With scowl lines permanently etched into her face from a lifetime of disapproval, she always wore a no nonsense look that ranged from long-suffering patience to withering antipathy. Hard to fathom what a bunch of eleven-year-olds could have done to earn that, but that’s why we referred to Ramona Binci as Ms. Bitchy.

I probably shouldn’t bellyache too much about that gaggle of girls—although they were mysterious and terrifying to me for reasons I couldn’t explain—because skirting their chattering little group caused me to walk past the New Guy’s seat. As I did, I happened to look down and see that he was drawing on a piece of paper when he was supposed to be working on the math problems up on the board. I saw that he’d completed the assignment already, just as I had, which meant he was at least as smart as me, which was frankly unusual.

It also meant he should have been getting up to check out his own textbook for the evening, just as I was. Instead, he was drawing a picture of a figure very familiar to me: Firestorm the Nuclear Man, possibly the best superhero ever. Not as badass as Wolverine or Batman, but powerful and unique in a way that would make an imaginative person almost omnipotent, which is a very appealing thought to a ninety-some-odd pound comic book nerd whose life revolved around doing whatever Ms. Bitchy says and trying to avoid bullies. And terrifying girls.

The New Guy’s name was JB. Actually it was James, but since we already had two other Jameses in the class, Ms. Bitchy had decided that he would go by his initials—JB—which she’d decreed to the class by teacherly fiat, not to be questioned or rescinded. It struck me as odd since she’d previously decided that I was not able to keep my name—O’B—on the first day of class because it was just initials, and not my actual name. Except it was my name, a shortening of my middle name, O’Brien, which I’d gone by every minute of my life, right up until I came under the baleful gaze of Ms. Bitchy. When she’d decreed to me that I would be Larry, after my first name Lawrence, I acquiesced—in spite of my dawning horror at the idea of becoming a Larry—because of her invincible scowl lines and untamed eyebrows. Thankfully, my mother put that to right instantly and I went back to being O’B, while JB was left to his own devices. And so JB he was, and remains to this day, as far as I’m concerned. Thanks, Ms. Bitchy!

I had thus far not approached the New Guy because the last Newbie I tried to befriend had rejected me with extreme prejudice. So the New Guy, with his new and unwanted name, was on his own. See, that’s the thing about being a military brat and moving every two or three years. You’re always the New Guy, and always on your own. You get a new life every thousand days, and everywhere you go is just a waystation on the road to the next place you’ll be from. A new town, a new school, a new group of strangers to fit into. Your impermanence, the fluid nature of your existence, is the only permanent thing about you. So you’re always looking for your in, so you don’t have to stand out as the one who doesn’t belong, even though you don’t. Unless you were among your own kind, like I was there. Like we all were, because Pinetamare Elementary was a Dept. of Defense school, located in Naples, Italy. Everyone in the room was a Military Brat, and therefore always the New Guy. It was the most at home I’d ever felt in my life.

So when I passed JB’s seat and saw that picture of Firestorm he was drawing, I didn’t see a New Guy or a stranger, but myself. I saw myself at the desk in my room, diligently outlining the image of Firestorm from the splash page of issue eight on a sheet of tracing paper from a supply that was rare as plutonium. It so happens that it was the very same image that JB was rendering freehand at that moment. I saw a guy who, like me, didn’t get to keep his name by virtue of a capricious shrew, a guy who fancied the power of off-beat heroes. Just like me.

When you’re a kid, that’s all it takes. You walk by and see a comic book nerd just sitting there minding his own business, and out of all the heroes he could be drawing, he picks that one. Not Superman or Green Lantern, not Spiderman or Captain America. Firestorm. And that’s it; I looked down on my return trip with my math textbook, and all I said was, “Firestorm. Cool.” And for no other reason than that, we were fast friends for years following. It’s almost though friendship was the default setting, and all we’d needed was the slightest reason to not be strangers anymore.

Over the next three years we spent countless nights at each other’s houses, comparing notes on Star Wars, comic books, GI Joe, and girls. We grew out of things together and into the next phase, sometimes with fits and starts and uneven pacing. He gave up the action figures before me, which created friction. He danced with a girl before me, beating me by an hour or so. It just so happened that she was the girl I had a huge secret crush on, so he unknowingly took his life in his hands by asking her to dance. But I cut him some slack because he was the first person to call me Brien when I changed from O’B to escape the incessant mockery. Plus, I was only 50/50 on whether or not I could take him, as I’ve been with every best friend since.

But inevitably, our thousand days expired and it was on to the next life, where I was the New Guy at school number six, in Long Beach, California. In that iteration, I was a scared little pencil-necked honky at a rough inner-city school. Fresh from the civilized, orderly world created by the DOD, I was dropped into the Darwinian Thunderdome of Washington Jr. High, where they were teaching 9th graders what Ms. Bitchy had taught me in 6th. If only she’d been there to cold stare that pack of wild animals into submission. Hard to believe I could find myself wishing for her imperious presence as a bulwark against all the poverty and chaos of this brave new world.


For some reason, everyone kept asking me, “‘Sup, cuz?” At Washington Junior High and Gladiator Academy, nerdy rejoinders like “the sky” were not acceptable answers. And since I didn’t have the nerve to ask what a “cuz” was, every one of my answers was a hopeless non-sequitur. After a thousand days in a foreign land, it was like I’d come “home” to 1985 America, only to find everyone had lost their minds. They had a gross new kind of Coke, I didn’t know what a CD was, I couldn’t figure out how to roll my pant legs correctly, everybody wanted some dude named Amadeus to rock them, and all my elementary school friends were suddenly inquiring as to who my favorite wrestler was. With a blank look I said, “What, like…Greco-Roman?” It was then that I discovered that grown-ass men in spandex pretending to hit each other was one of a million little touchstones that I had no connection to. I might as well have been dropped off by aliens and told to blend into human society. It was a world gone mad, and I really had no idea “‘Sup?”





Classes were ridiculously easy, and it wasn’t long before the outgunned teachers had me grading papers, and even administering vocabulary tests, instead of doing classwork. I didn’t have the sense to hide that light under a bushel, and instead got noticed by some pretty scary people as the teacher’s pet—or even contemporary—and I instantly became a target for hazing and abuse. So school went from being a sanctuary where I thrived to a foxhole on the Seine, where I stumble shell-shocked from one glancing blow or narrow escape to the next. It was as I wandered aimlessly from one bolt-hole to another that I passed a group of three dorks out by the athletic field who were talking about what turned out to be a mutual friend of ours, Matt Murdock.




All I had to do was hear that name come out of their mouths on my way by and I was arrested dead in my tracks. If these guys knew that guy, then they were all right with me. Out of simple relief and a sense of recognition at an island of my own kind amidst this new sea of chaos, I butted right in on their conversation, without preamble. Anyone who considered Matt Murdock a friend was bound to be good people. My people. Because Matt Murdock is also known as Daredevil, the blind superhero and patron saint of lonely nerds everywhere. I jumped in with them and was welcomed with open arms, because all we needed was the slightest reason to not be strangers anymore.



We formed a nerdly cadre that somehow navigated all the treacherous waters before us. We fought and backstabbed, we saw each other through California earthquakes, school violence, first loves and the end of our collective innocence. At the end of our thousand days, we four had become two, and by the next thousand I was the New Guy again, but at a time and place where there was no more school. No more pool of ready-made, like-minded souls, held captive by common circumstance. I had to find a new way, and suddenly it wasn’t as easy as it used to be.

I still found friends along the way to all the places I hadn’t intended to go—some of the sweetest and most enduring of my life actually—but it was harder. It was as though the rules had subtly changed. More was required, and hearts were no longer open and given with abandon to the first person to share even a common thread. They weren’t looking for a simple reason not to remain strangers, but an abundance of reasons to reject one another. And they found reasons aplenty.

That thousand-day cycle has continued all of my days. Careers began and ended, relationships came and went, every major change was practically set according to a great celestial clock. Ended my last major relationship, then met my wife after one thousand lonely days. Married her one thousand days later, bought our first house two thousand days after that. Started my business in another thousand days, made it a thousand more before closing the doors.


The last new friend I made was a thousand days ago, at age forty-three and already fifteen thousand four hundred and seventeen days into my finite supply of thousand-day cycles. His name is Jesse. He swears in Klingon, loves TED Talks, and is the only person on Earth who does better Dana Carvey impressions than me. Not to mention he is literally the world’s best whistler. It might be a little Holden Caulfield of me, but I appreciate a good whistler. I met him at the start of another thousand days, the New Guy again, this time at a construction company. Jesse is my alternate self, almost like a mirror image. If I’d been raised without religion, or was of a different political philosophy, I would be this guy instead. Which means he didn’t fit in the construction world any more than I did. The difference between me and Jesse is that he made no effort to be anyone other than who he is. Of course he didn’t reinvent himself every thousand days. Who does that?

Sometimes I think it must be a relief to be able to not choose which version of yourself to present to the world. Thomas Wolfe once wrote that “seeing yourself in another person is like coming home.” I couldn’t agree more, it's just that it's harder than it used to be. Probably harder than it needs to be. It takes painstaking time, because there are all these rules now. You can’t be too into it, or try too hard, or move too fast. Nonchalance is the name of the game. There’s ten thousand ways to get it wrong, and about two point five ways to get it right. But it can still be done. After all, next week Jesse and I are having lunch for the second time this year.

I’ve since left that job, and construction entirely, and haven’t even tried to make friends at my new one. Sure, we have a yearly barbecue one weekend in the summer, and have a great time and a lot of laughs working together, but no one even pretends that we’re going out for beers together. It hasn’t come up once in the year and half that I’ve been here. We’re just work friends. I guess that’s how it goes these days.

I don’t know when we all became such a bunch of specialists. Like each person is a boutique, refined to a series of inflexible likes and dislikes, and you either fit in with their brand or you don’t. Every path we take in life dictates to us all the people we will not accept as friends. Gives us another reason to reject them. If you have the right education, the right musical tastes, the right political views, have the right hobbies, like the right TV shows, and don’t do anything on the long, secret list of my pet peeves and dislikes, I can schedule you in for forty minutes, six weeks from now. The siren-song of a busy life drowning everything else out.

When a game of chess starts, there are literally more possible moves than all of the stars in all of the galaxies combined. The number is so big it doesn’t even have a name, just ten with one hundred twenty zeroes after it. But as the game progresses, each move rules out trillions of other possibilities. The further the game progresses, the fewer options remain, until there is finally only one possible outcome. And that’s us, always refining the infinite options until they narrow into certainties, finding trillions of ways to rule out more and more possibilities every day. And then one day we look around and wonder what the hell happened, how did we get so isolated?  

Google recently released these statistics: Every week in America over six thousand people ask how to make friends, and ten thousand ask how to mend a broken heart. The sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips, and these are our questions of the Oracle?

If only there were some reason to not be strangers.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Helluva Guy

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a little disappointed with the Bishop Desmond Tutu of late. Actually, for a good long while, if I’m being honest. Since, like, 1989. He was supposed to multiply the $125 bucks I put into the blessed kerchief, and that did not work out at all. It’s been 28 years, and I’m starting to think he might never make good on it. Do you have any idea what the vig is on that—even figuring conservatively, 4% compounded annually—after nearly three decades?

So on a Friday in November of 1989, I came out of the BofA on Atlantic Ave. in Bixby Knolls after cashing my week’s paycheck and I encountered a man in need of help. I was living on $125 a week, so I was kind of in need of help myself, but I’m a helluva guy, so I stopped to see what I could do for the dude anyway. He was a short, wiry black guy, speaking with what sounded like a Somali accent, and was believably dressed like my 18 year-old self thought a perplexed immigrant would be. He said his name was Bantu, and he needed directions to a place that didn’t exist.

The address was so obviously, ridiculously fake that I still remember it today: 123 Pea Green Street. If only I’d walked away right then. Alas. But the only place I had to go was to my shit job at Long Beach Seed & Pet, where I’d only be cleaning fish-tanks and selling helpless feeder rats and mice to become snake food anyway, so I lingered a moment too long with Bantu. If you knew what kind of wackadoos were running the fine establishment where I was working my very first tax-paying job, you’d understand. It was the kind of clip-joint where you followed the office manager to the company's bank each week to cash your check the second she made the deposit. Otherwise it was 50/50 the thing was gonna bounce. At best.

So I had $125 bucks to my name and a quarter tank of gas in my hooptie, and exactly that much was right with the world. But work was only eight blocks away and I was always one bad day away from quitting anyway, so giving Bantu a little more of the Samaritan treatment seemed like the thing to do. He sketched out a story of being in the US on account of his uncle’s death in the traumatic San Francisco earthquake just a few weeks previous, to settle his affairs and receive an inheritance. As evidence, he produced a roll of 100’s as thick as my wrist from his suitably threadbare jacket pocket. Seeing the roll, I immediately did a double-take and had a surreptitious look around us. We were in the parking lot behind the bank, and while Bixby Knolls wasn’t Compton, it wasn’t exactly Rodeo Drive either. He was flashing somewhere around ten grand, apparently to anyone that would stop and talk with him. Good thing he found me, or he could have been in real trouble. I believe I’ve mentioned that I’m a helluva guy.

I cautioned him to put his bankroll away, once again giving our surroundings a conspiratorial scan. He told me that he’d paid a guy at the train station, in advance, for a night’s lodging in Long Beach before he got back on the boat for home. The address scrawled on the doggerel of paper from his pocket was purportedly where he was to stay that night, billed as a hostel for visiting immigrants. I felt sorry for the rube, and tried to break the news of his naïvete to him easy. He insisted that the nice train station man would never swindle him! After all, what kind of country was America? After working for the hustlers at Long Beach Seed & Pet for three months, I was beginning to wonder that same thing myself.

I reiterated my certainty that no such street as Pea Green existed in Long Beach, and that the address number 1-2-3 was pretty suspect in any event. As it dawned on him that he’d been the victim of a simple grift like a prize chump, he began to eye me with suspicion too. He wanted to see a map, one with a list of all the street names in town before he would conclude that you couldn’t get to Pea Green St. from here.

I immediately thought of the town map on the wall of the Circle K, just kitty-corner from where we were on Atlantic and Wardlow. So we hopped into Lurch, my inexplicably Smurf-blue Travelall, and headed over to have a look at the map. The thing was eight feet on a side and plastered with a giant aerial view of the city, from Hermosa to Disneyland, and from Compton to the sea. The Map was a landmark in its own right, and Circle K probably added 20% to their monthly sales just for having it on the premises. In the absence of Google Maps—or the Angelinos best friend back in the day, The Thomas Guide—any tourist in the area would be directed to the Map to find their way. Hell, even the local losers would gather under it on a Saturday night to wile the hours away at the gas-n-sip.


I took Bantu over to the Map and we scanned the legend to find that Pea Green St. was indeed not a thing. I asked him if there was somewhere else I could drop him, but he’d already turned and gotten the attention of someone coming out of the Circle K.

He called out to the man in a loud voice, “You! You are a black man, you will not lie to me!”

So the guy ambled over with his supertanker of soda and Bantu repeated his story. The stranger responded exactly as I had, with the same surreptitious glance at our surroundings, admonishing Bantu to put his flash-cash away before someone took an unhealthy interest in it, and us. He introduced himself as Carl and took me aside with concern written all over him to suggest that the rube was probably going to get himself killed if someone didn’t help him out. To which I agreed and proceeded to assure Carl of my bona fide intentions of helping Bantu in all earnestness.

After a few minutes of discussion, Carl and I worked out a plan to retrieve Bantu’s luggage from the train station locker where he’d stashed it and find him a place to stay for the night. Carl was in his thirties, soft-spoken, and addressed me like we were both men of the world, whom fate had selected to protect a traveling soul from the dangers of our city, which we both knew all too well. He saw a trio of youths walking our way, and suggested that we might do well to hop back into Lurch and lock the doors to finish our conversation, before anyone got any ideas after seeing naïve Bantu’s carelessly displayed nest-egg.

Carl asked Bantu if he’d flashed the cash around at the station as carelessly as he had in front of us. Bantu said that he had, now lowering his head in embarrassment at his lack of urbane cynicism and sophistication. Not a man of the world like old Carl and me, obviously. Sitting in the back seat, Carl leaned over the bench and told me in a grave tone that he was concerned about taking Bantu back to the station with all that cash on him. He thought someone might remember such an obvious chump and come after the scratch. Bantu agreed that he was concerned as well, especially after having lost $100 to the first swindler he met there. But what could be done?

Suddenly inspiration hit Bantu! I could hold onto his money for him, just while they went to the station to retrieve his luggage. Then he and Carl would return, where I would be waiting to give Bantu back his inheritance. I was incredulous that he would trust a stranger like me, but he went on to praise my virtue and character for all that I’d done for him so far and the investment of my valuable time. He even went so far as to ask if I knew the Lord Jesus Christ as my Personal Savior. I assured him that I did, and that he could trust me without reservation. So he produced a camouflage-patterned kerchief from his coat pocket and took his wad of cash and put it in, then started to tie it off for safe-keeping. Then he gave me the side-eye one more time, appraising me as though suddenly suspicious of my Good Samaritan act. I was quick to reassure him of my honesty with every ounce of earnestness I could muster, which was considerable back then.

“I want to believe,” he said. “But your country makes that hard.”

“I know. I’m sorry about that,” I said, properly ashamed of my country.

“Would you put your money with mine? So that whatever happens to my money, also happens to yours?”

Eager to prove myself a Good Person, I agreed and pulled the thin stack of crisp 20’s out of my wallet. I folded them and put them atop his dense roll of cash. He finished tying it off, then took my hands and told me with great solemnity that the kerchief had been blessed by the Bishop Desmond Tutu himself, and that it would return multiplied blessings to me upon its safe return. I offered to give Bantu my driver’s license as collateral in exchange for his trust, but he assured me that his prayer over the money and the Bishop’s blessing were more than enough to assuage all fears. After all, it had lead a saint like me to Bantu to help him find his way safely home.

“Hey man, those same guys are coming this way,” said Carl from the back seat. I turned to look and saw a trio of suddenly menacing youths coming out of the Circle K with their sodas and cigarettes. “I think we should get going.”


“Ok,” I said, turning back to Bantu just as he pressed the blessed wad into my hands, making heartfelt eye-contact with me to impress the gravity of the sacred relationship of trust we were now in. I took the Bishop’s bundle with great sincerity and drove them to the train-station.

Carl asked if I could wait for them, but by then I barely had time to make it to work. He said it was no problem, that they’d take the bus back to the Circle K, and when my lunch hour rolled around and I could just meet them at the Map. Bantu agreed and said a blessing over me, then they went into the station and I headed to the pet store.

After being at work for a while, I couldn’t hold in the experience anymore, so I told my most trusted ally, Mark. He was a tall, gangly ginger, and a bit of a nerdy doofus, but so completely without guile that I knew there would be no risk in relating the tale. Plus, he would see what a helluva guy I was, so thoroughly virtuous as to return every dime of the several thousand dollar booty I could easily steal from the hapless foreigner. He thought it was a weird story, and that maybe I shouldn’t go back to the Circle K, because something was definitely afoot. I assured him everything would be fine. I mean, he might know everything there was to know about the proper pH-level for the keeping of an Angel fish, but he was hardly the man of the world I was. Still, he insisted on going with me when the lunch hour came.



We’d been sitting in the parking lot of the Circle K, waiting patiently for ten minutes before it dawned on me. With a sinking feeling, I foraged under the bench seat, reaching up into the hole where the broken seat spring was, and came out with the camouflaged wad, wrapped tightly against the villainy of our grimy little town. When I’d untied the Gordian Knot atop the Bishop’s blessed bundle and saw the carefully cut sheaf of newspaper strips where Bantu’s inheritance and all the money I had in the world belonged, everything dropped into place instantly.



The whole scheme, from start to finish—with all its pieces, players, and moving parts—was downloaded into my brain, en masse: A hapless foreigner, an obviously fake address requiring a map to verify, and the town landmark just across the street. The altruistic passerby, Carl (of course that would be his name, just ordinary and banal enough) exactly as empathetic and honest as me, and oh-so-solicitous—the three of us an island of virtue amidst the chicanery and menace all around us. One second of distraction while the counterfeit switch was made.

I’ve since learned that this particular grift is called the “Pigeon Drop.” Minimum wage was $4.25 back then, so Bantu and Carl had done pretty well to make $125 in just 15 minutes, even splitting it down the middle. Nice work if you can get it. I’ve met a couple of other suckers over the years that fell for it, who all seemed amazed that I knew how their story ended. We all think we’re the only one. I never asked any them if they actually went to the rendezvous. Either because I didn't want to know what evil lurked in the hearts of men, or because I didn't want them to know what a goody-goody chump I'd been. To this day, I don't know which.

Mark and I drove back to what I’d previously believed to be the lowest place in all of Long Beach, my ears hot and face burning in shame and embarrassment at my own naivety. I alternated between cussing my own idiocy and smug self-righteousness, and indicting the whole world for taking advantage of a helluva guy like me. Mark didn’t say much on the ride, but offered me a $20 when we got back to the store. I was too proud to take it, because at minimum wage it represented more than half a day’s work for him. Still, I was penniless and hungry, so somehow I found the humility to accept one of the soft-tacos he offered me from his lunch. He's a helluva guy, if you ask me.

It turns out that Bantu is a Swahili word, simply meaning “person.” And while, in retrospect, it’s actually oddly comforting to know that I was at least swindled by someone with a bit of wit, that doesn’t exactly solve my problem. I mean, even figuring a conservative 4% compounded annually over 28 years, somebody still owes me $286. And I could really use that scratch right about now, 'cuz I've got a limited-time, exclusive opportunity to buy some rare coins from a Nigerian Prince for pennies on the dollar.