Friday, October 29, 2010
We stood in line at the desk marked "Concierge", at one of the large chain-hotels in downtown New Orleans. I won't say what hotel it was, because I'm not sure of the legal ramifications of verbally decimating a popular name on the Internet. But nothing negative was going through my mind, yet, as we waited our turn to ask a couple of important questions of this quirky-looking uniformed gentleman behind the desk.
After spending the summer watching Treme on HBO, we both felt an urge to visit the Crescent City. It had more than 20 years since I'd last seen New Orleans, in town for a convention, when I was a school administrator in Cleveland. It had probably been as long for Donna, as well. Coincidentally, the Browns were also playing the Saints, and since we really hadn't planned a vacation this year, we decided to make it a long weekend. Donna had one requirement: lots of beignets. I had two: consume authentic gumbo, and, of course, find some quality beer. And we both wanted to see some of the damage that Katrina had left in her wake.
Gordon Biersch brewery nearby. "Are there any brewpubs around?", I asked. He looked at me like I was Katrina.
"There's Gordon Biersch, right down on the next block," he replied. His accent was decidedly un-Southern.
"Yeah, " I said, "I saw that coming in. Have you ever been --"
"Don't know," he interrupted. "I don't do chain-places."
I nodded. "Yeah, me either," I said. He glared at me again. "Then why would you ask about it?"
Great. A full-frontal display of Southern hospitality. We picked up our map and headed down the street. After waking up at the crack of dawn, sitting through an almost five-hour layover in Milwaukee, a traffic-snarled ride in from the New Orleans airport encased in a shuttle-van like illegal stowaways on a cargo ship, and now trading barbs with Louisiana's State Ambassador for Friendliness, I was ready for anything that even resembled fermented barley.
Our two-and-a-half days in New Orleans confirmed several things that I had already suspected:
1. The boarded-up houses and destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward looked every bit as bad as it did on television.
2. Gumbo is amazing pretty much wherever you get it.
3. Being able to carry an open-container while walking down the street should be allowed in every city in the U.S., at least by the ones I visit.
4. Being in a dome is really loud, until the visiting team gains 85 yards on a fake-punt.
5. There are certain people who have absolutely no business working with the general public.
When I was involved in some community theater, back in the era when actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Debra Winger were drawing customers to the box-office, I was once a part of a play where we "broke the 4th wall". I'm not sure of its origin, but this technique, for it's time, was quite revolutionary. Instead of "forgetting" that the audience was there, the technique allowed the actors to address the crowd if need be, to include them in the production, acknowledge their existence in order to alleviate the normal, agreed-upon barriers that would otherwise separate them.
In "customer service", this "4th wall" is broken all the time. And I hate it.
I've spent time working with the public. My first job was at Lemmons Market, a family-owned grocery store down the street from where I was raised. I was a bag-boy, a person who packed grocery bags and then carried those bags to customers' cars. My primary boss at that time was Rick Miller, a short, somewhat-rotund man with flaming red hair and a high-pitched voice. He walked quickly and loudly, usually while whistling, and you could easily detect him coming around the corner if you were stacking cans or filling the dairy-case. He would routinely ask, "What's goin' on?", but he would say it quickly, not really interested in your answer, but more as a preamble for what he was about to ask you to do or to correct something you hadn't done properly.
In other word, quit breaking the fucking 4th wall.
Same thing later at Pancho's. To supplement my meager teacher's wages, I became a bartender on nights and weekends at a local Mexican restaurant. Trevor was the assistant manager, and was usually in-charge when I worked. Most of the staff and waitresses didn't like him, but I did. He was a former military veteran, very precise in his organizational skills. He called everyone "buddy", even the women. He moved quickly and smiled a great deal. He would approach a busboy, for instance, face him, place his hands on his shoulders, and say, "Steve, I want you to go back to the kitchen and ask Carlos to get Gretchen two of the large silver serving platters. We have an 8-top coming in and we need to be ready. Do you understand?" Steve would nod, sheepishly, and then Trevor would ask him, "How do you feel about that?" Most new employees would look at Trevor as if he spoke to them in Urdu, but Steve knew to say, "I'm fine with that", or "Sure, good", to which Trevor would forcefully pat him on the shoulder and, almost screaming, respond, "Great!"
It was slow one weekday evening and few customers were at the bar. I had a particularly grueling day in the classroom earlier, and didn't really want to be slinging frozen margaritas until 11 o'clock in the evening. A man in a suit plopped down on a bar-stool, tossed his keys and wallet on the bar, and ordered a margarita, asking me, "How you doin' tonight?" I was already filling his glass up. "I'll be better once I get out of here tonight!"
The "Trevors" and "Rick Millers" of the world must have been downsized. "Breaking the 4th Wall" is rampant, out of control, and, sometimes, infuriating. And, like beads, was all over the place in New Orleans.
Two girls whined about their boss directly in front of us at a Starbucks in the French Quarter. While retrieving Donna's hot chocolate, one girl even said, "He's effed-up if he thinks I'm working Sunday!". The two bartenders at Crescent City Brewing, instead of welcoming tourists to their restaurant or reeling off the list of seasonal brews available, continually wandered over to the coffee-pot area, commiserating with a waiter about something that each was upset about, one frantically waving his arms as if guiding a jet-liner into its space at an airport-gate. Later, while shopping for some aspirin, the woman running the register at the drug store on Canal St. wanted nothing to do with out-of-town northerners, especially somewhat-intoxicated ones looking for aspirin. The guy behind me sensed her delight, as well, playfully chiding her when it was his turn to pay for his item. "You having a good night, hon?", to which she replied, "Yep, as soon as I get out of here".
The only people who were not wonderful hosts were the ones who operated and worked for the hotel. They were awful. The "4th Wall" was obliterated hourly. so it seemed. My inquiry at the Front Desk about printing off a boarding pass for our return-flight elicited a kind of grunting noise from the gentleman behind the counter. He didn't really respond, instead pointed at the computer-terminal as if to say "this machine will do everything for you, you piece-of-shit. Now leave me the fuck alone".
But the worst display came at the Concierge desk, after the Browns-Saints game. As we were entering the lobby to go up to our room, a woman in front of us, dressed completely in brown-and-orange and carrying at least 7 plastic cups, that once held Superdome beer, was giddy over our triumph. So much so that she made up her own chant: "We 'dat, we 'dat, we 'dat team dat beat dose Saints!" As we went through the doors, she walked past the Concierge desk and continued to chant, loudly, and then annoyingly cackled after each verse. Well, Handle-Bar Mustache-Man was there, along with another female-assistant. They did not take kindly to this chant. Instead of nodding, smiling, and leaving the "4th Wall" intact, they both decided to take a sledge-hammer and pound the living shit out of it. "Hey!," they both screamed, at the top of their lungs, angrily, as the woman dressed in brown-and-orange made her way towards the elevators. "We wouldn't do that to you if your team had lost!", chirped Handle-Bar-Mustache-Man. "You hear me!?" His assistant followed his tirade up with a soft, "Bitch!".
I could not believe my ears and eyes. Two employees of a world-class hotel-chain in a major metropolitan city just screamed an obscenity directly at a paying-guest, in front of other paying-guests. Where was Rick Miller? Where was Trevor?
Cafe Du Mond beignets to-go like I'd just stolen her iPhone. All I ask is that when I'm standing in front of you scanning my debit card to pay for my groceries or waiting for you to come around to refill my mug, stop breaking the wall. I don't care about your feelings for your boss, how long you have to work over the weekend, or whether "Cindy" or "Stacy" is going to be there on-time to relieve you. I'll break the wall if I feel like it. Because I'm the customer. OK?
And if you scream at me about a Browns win, I may scream back. The Browns don't win that often, so cut me some slack. OK, buddy?
Friday, October 15, 2010
Well, it took about a week.
Donna was visiting relatives in Pennsylvania and mentioned that one of her aunts wanted to give her a dog. This was not the first time that she had expressed her interest in giving Maggie a play-mate. During a visit to Petco a couple of weeks ago, the people from the animal shelter were all there with their pets, trying to coerce shoppers to look into the dejected, homeless eyes of their four-legged friends and "adopt" them, either for temporary care or, hopefully, permanently. Donna picked up a small Lhasa Apso, cuddled it, and said, in front of everyone standing there, "Wouldn't he and Maggie go good together? Can't we adopt him?"
Sure, make me look like the heartless goon, I thought. As everyone stared, waiting breathlessly for my response, I looked into his eyes. Yes, he was cute. No, I did not want another dog, temporarily or permanently. My non-answer was answer enough, as Donna put him down and trudged through the Petco aisles, crestfallen.
As she and her cousin Marlene made their way back from Pennsylvania, Donna called me to let me know where they were. But when she ended the call by saying, "Don't be mad at me", I knew what she had done. Within a couple of hours, Maggie wouldn't be the only dog in the corner house on Scotland Drive.
Ellet Meat Market, while I chewed on my vegetarian beans and hummus. And now she was going to taunt me more by bringing another strange animal into the house!
He's small. He's white. He's a full-blooded West Highland White Terrier. And in his face, he looks identical to Yinny, our dog of the past 17 years. That freaked me out. I'm not sure if it was the anger at Donna or the lack of sausage and asiago cheese, but I basically ignored him. And he knew it. Yes, he was cute, but I had done enough for animals this past month. "We'll keep him until I can find him a home," she said. "He's been neglected."
Hell, I've been neglected! What about me!? I'm ravenous! My withdrawal symptoms are acute. I need to make eggs with a heaping amount of cheddar cheese on top of them. I need chili con queso. I want cream in my coffee. The synapses of the brain begin to disintegrate without the healing elixir of bacon. If I eat one more legume or ingest any more soy, my LDL levels will plummet to the point of putting me into a salubrious, catatonic state. Good grief, if I don't have a bratwurst soon, there may be no turning back.
Over the course of the next couple of days, I could feel my rigid composure towards him soften. The people in Pennsylvania had called him "Happy", but we thought that was dumb. Driving to my photography class later in the evening, I began to think about names. I thought that we at least should name him after his Scottish ancestry. "Haggis" or "Rod Stewart" seemed inappropriate. But naming him after something connected to single-malt scotch seemed brilliant! I lean towards the distilleries in the Islay region, so why not "Izzy"? Donna loved it. Yet during class, I continued to ponder why it was that I was even thinking about a dog that I wasn't going to keep.
Soon, I was taking both Maggie and Izzy out in the morning as Donna slept. As I'd read the paper in the morning, he'd wander over to his food bowl, gobble his breakfast, and then lay on my feet. I noticed that he'd become much more comfortable around Maggie, and she, him. I also noticed that Donna seemed to be making a limited effort in finding him his permanent home. For some reason, I wasn't surprised.
Last Thursday, Donna decided to take him out to the backyard. She also decided that she'd do this without putting him on a chain. Bad mistake. I was standing in the kitchen inhaling some Brazil nuts when I heard the pleas for help! He took off past the deck and down the poison ivy-laden hillside that bottoms out on to Newton Circle. Donna was in her bare-feet screaming at him, clutching on to tree branches in order to help guide herself down the hill without tumbling out on to the street below. But it was a waste of time. Izzy was vapor. So I went flying through the front door, around the hillside, down Newton Circle and on to Newton Street. Cars were flying by and school buses were roaring past filled with students as Izzy ran at full-gallop up Newton. I took off after him, thinking those short, knobby legs were no match for my now healthy, detoxified body. But a diet rich in pinto beans and broccoli provided no advantage, whatsoever. Every time he stopped to turn around and look at me running towards him, he'd turn and sprint even faster. I screamed his name as a bus came to a screeching halt in front of him, but nothing worked. I even yelled "Happy" at one point, but that day he was answering to nothing. Racing two blocks down from Newton, I'd get close to him as he stopped to urinate, but he'd only dash in another direction as I approached.
Later that evening, as I unleashed the contents of a Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, I glanced towards the base of my leather rocker-recliner, and there he sat, staring at me, again. I stared back. "Tired?", I asked him. "I am". He continued, transfixed, peeking at me through the white fur in his eyes. Suddenly, for a brief moment, I was back at our apartment in Manassas, watching Yinny eat a treat as we watched the Winter Olympics from Lillehammer. Then, I came back to my leather recliner. And for some reason, without knowing why, I tapped the top of my thigh and said "C'mon". That was all he needed. Izzy was up in my lap, curled around me and my Punkin Ale. Donna stood in the kitchen making herself a hamburger, smiling. I knew right then that Izzy wasn't going anywhere. "I'm gonna murder you, Donna," I said.
Image: Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Friday, October 1, 2010
I used to like Fall. Growing up, it was my favorite time of year. Midway through each September, well after already knowing that the Indians would, again, be eliminated from playoff contention, it would start. Tiny specks of red leaves would peek through green clusters of oak trees that dotted 14th Street. In the late-afternoon, the sound of marching-band practice could be heard across the freeway over at Fawcett Stadium. And my mother would take all of our shorts, swim-trunks, and short-sleeved t-shirts and pack them in a box that previously held jeans, corduroy slacks, and sweat-shirts, lining them up on the bed so that we could put them in the empty space in our dresser in the bedroom.
WYHT-FM, the radio station in Mansfield that employed me. I had been making the one-hour drive each day for several years, and on this day the Autumn explosion was on full display. We had been experiencing warmer-than-normal temperatures, but even as I peeled off my jacket in the car, I was secretly ready for a Great Lakes Oktoberfest, Donna's famous pumpkin-square cakes, and some playoff baseball on television. About halfway down on the drive, while admiring the blanket of colors that covered the rolling hills outside of Ashland, the wind started to pick up a bit and it began to rain. That wind and rain didn't stop for 48 hours. At the conclusion of that storm, virtually every leaf fell to the earth. And as the final soggy, burgundy-coated foliage dropped heavily to the ground, another system arrived, just in time to dump a coating of a snow-sleet mix, draping the ground in a white linen, burying those piles of leaves underneath the swaying, empty, lifeless branches above. That white linen would hang around for the next 5 months, effectively and forever destroying my love-affair with the Autumn Equinox, and fomenting within me a cavalcade of disdain and hatred for a season that brings nothing but emptiness and misery.
Oh, I tried to plead with the powers-that-be. Like Salieri, staring up at the crucifix in Amadeus, I made my pact with the Divine. "Take this Winter away from me, O Lord, " I cried out, "and I will be your instrument." I hadn't a clue what exactly I would do to keep up my end of the bargain, but I'm sure it would have been magnanimous and unequaled. But I never got the chance. Sure, we had a somewhat brief reprieve while living in the South, but eventually that distant cousin of Darth Vader would eventually show his hand in some way.
Winter sucks. Winter is like the New York Yankees celebrating after yet another World Series victory. Winter is like getting a flat tire on the way to a job interview. Winter is like developing diarrhea symptoms in the middle of watching a movie at the theater. Or in the middle of a long line at the BMV. Come to think it, winter is like going to the BMV. There's nothing remotely attractive or enlightening about Winter. Winter kicks you in the groin, laughs about it, and then kicks you again. Repeatedly. With steel-toed boots. For 5 months. I routinely dismiss those who reel off vacuous platitudes like "It's so pretty! How can you not like everything covered in white, especially at Christmas?" Easy. I pull out my cargo shorts and Indians t-shirt, lay them on the bed, stare at them, and ask myself, "Would I rather be in these, wiping perspiration off my brow after mowing the lawn, or standing out there slipping on ice as I attempt to remove the 8 inches of heavy, wet snow on top of it?" Case closed.
So I had a nightmare. It was actually a rewind of a day shortly after we moved back to Ohio. We were unloading boxes, but we had no available space to break up the boxes and get them out of the way. So Donna had me carry them out to the deck. Almost ten inches of snow had fallen and more was on the way. I shrugged off her suggestion to put on a coat and attempted to take a stack of cardboard out through the back-door. But they wouldn't fit. And I couldn't open the door because of the snow that had piled up. So I had to go out the front and walk around. The wind was blowing sideways, in huge, unannounced blasts. My glasses were immediately soaked with water and ice pellets. I trudged through the thick carpet of snow on the sidewalk and made my way around the house. I slipped walking up the steps because I couldn't see them. A few of the cardboard pieces caught the wind and, like a sail, soared across the front lawn. My sneakers were no match for the huge drifts as I tried to retrieve the pieces, while at the same time trying not to drop the ones in my arm. Wet, freezing, shoes filled with snow, and unable to see, I made it to the top step and began to walk around to the back deck. Donna was standing by the sliding-glass doors with a compassionate smile. As I caught the blunt-end of another arctic blast directly in my face, I imagined instantaneously that this is what hell must be like. It's not hot. It's not a furnace. Not at all. It's a sub-zero prison encased in ice, snow, and freezing rain where you're seperated from your loved ones by an impermeable wall, forced to carry unwieldy objects back and forth without ceasing and without proper footwear or a decent coat.
And it woke me up. I'm still breathing heavily at the thought of it. It's not a nightmare. It's reality. It's real and it's coming, and I'm powerless to stop it. A few pretty leaves and a pieceof pumpkin pie might briefly take your mind off of it, but only for awhile. Because I know what's out there.