Tidbits: shorter stories

Benjamin Franklin Junior High, Dallas, November 22, 1963
I didn't really like English class. It was okay, and fairly easy, but it wasn't something for which I had a yearning or a passion. So, we're doing some English-y thing, when the principal's distinctive voice came over the school PA system. His voice boomed, as it did every morning, out of the wooden box that was mounted in the center of the front wall, up next to the acoustic tiled ceiling. This time, however, he didn't say much, other than, "Attention Students". Then we heard the crackle and static of a radio broadcast coming through the speakers, reverberating through the now-quiet hallways.

"President Kennedy has been shot." I don't remember what followed that. The world had just changed. Nothing that followed really mattered. The President had been shot. The entire building, Benjamin Franklin Junior High School, was silent. Just that radio broadcast and, then, a few sniffles, then some more. Mrs. Gambrell walked down the aisle passing out Kleenex to some of the students.

After English, I had Physical Science. The passing period between classes, normally a riot of noise - lockers slamming and students shuffling and yelling - was absolutely silent. So much so, that it was a bit scary. So unfamiliar and foreign was the feeling of unity among we teenagers that I didn't experience again until April 19, 1995. The Physical Science classroom had one of the few televisions in the building. The educational network had just begun wiring and installing rooms for educational programming. But, now, the television had been tuned to one of the three national networks. The room was packed. Again, no noise at all except for the news broadcaster.

There was really no school the rest of the day. Many people just hovered around the few television sets. The bell rang but most people stayed put, or wandered to find their friends. Many cried. Some sat on the floor in the hallway. Teachers were consoling as many students as they could. At some point in the afternoon, the principal, on that same PA system, announced that some of the buses had arrived and that we could leave school for the day. Since it was a Friday, we had the weekend to adjust and return to school on Monday. But on Monday, while the brick school was the same, we were not.

Crazy Man in Black Car
Lee was awake an hour earlier than his alarm demanded. He had to catch an early flight and he often stresses a bit that the alarm won't function - early risers put a lot of trust in those - or that he'll sleep right through it. He lay in bed a few minutes reliving the trip. Lee had flown to NYC to attend the opening at an art gallery. A former student had a show. Lee used to live in Manhattan and return trips 'home' always put him in a better mood. The energy of the city and its people work magic on him.

At the last minute, Lee got up, showered, and packed - which means throw-things-in-the-suitcase. The door shut quietly as he eased into the hall - it was early Sunday morning. In the lobby, the security/keycheck guy noticed Lee's searching eyes and said that he could just drop the key in the box, motioning to the waist high metal box with the top slot and labeled Key Drop. Nodding his thanks to him, Lee did just that. As he walked through the lobby, Lee said,
"Good Morning."
"Good morning, sir. Have a good day."

There was a light rain, but the black car was already there waiting. As Lee approached, the driver rolled down the window and said,
It was a terse staccato request from the driver. Having taught in another country, Lee had heard this pronunciation before. He nodded yes. The side door of the SUV slid open - Lee set his suitcase on the floor of the back seat and walked around to the other side. The driver got out to close the doors. When he sat down, Lee thanked him for being early.
Driver: “Yes, 5 minutes. You go to Newark airport?”
Lee: “Yes, United Airlines”

It became clear a few words later that the driver was not a native English speaker (Li was the first clue). His phone screen displayed non- English characters (fascinating how our pocket computers allow work in a variety of languages). The driver went on up 8th Avenue, took a left on 35th, and over to the Lincoln Tunnel. Somewhere approaching the entrance, he turned around and asked,
Driver: “Pay cash or cah?”
Lee paused to translate, and replied: “Cah, card.”
The driver called the Car Service. After a brief wait, the dispatcher answered,
“Car Service.”
Driver: “This two one two nah.”
Dispatcher: “Yes, go ahead.”
Driver: “Customer pay cah.”
Dispatcher: “Can he hear me? Passenger?”
Lee: “Yes.”
Dispatcher: “You want to pay the toll and tip with a credit card?”
(Lee had paid for the car online when booking).
Lee: “Yes.”
Dispatcher: “What is the num…”
Lee: “I don't want to pay now - not until the end of the trip."
Lee had been burned enough to avoid tipping before service has been performed.
Dispatcher: “Driver?”
Lee: “He's not here, I'll go get him.”
(Muffling his voice to sound more distant): “Sir, the phone is for you. Dispatch, he's on the toilet, he'll be here in just a minute.”
Dispatcher: “Where are you?”
Lee: “Oh, here he comes. Sir, its for you.”
Dispatcher: “Driver, where are you?”
Driver: “We in Lincoln Tunnel.”
Dispatcher: “Were you in a bathroom?”
Driver: “No. Tunnel.”
Dispatcher: “But the passenger sa…”
Driver, interrupting: “He crazy man. Crazy.”
Driver: (To Lee) “You, I don't drive you. You crazy.”
Lee: “You want me to drive? I'll drive. Slide over.”
Dispatcher, louder: “Driver, you can't let the passenger drive.”
Driver: “I drive. I drive. He crazy.”

The rest of the trip out of the tunnel and through New Jersey was uneventful. The driver periodically checked on Lee in the rearview mirror, but didn’t say another word until they got to the departure curb lane at Newark airport. The driver handed the card reader over the seat. Lee grasped it, swiped his card, and got to the tip amount. He enjoyed the earlier banter with the driver but felt that he had made the driver uncomfortable, so he tipped the driver 25%. Lee handed the reader back to the driver, who was very appreciative. His entire demeanor towards Lee relaxed. He smiled and wished him a good flight.

The awkward urinal
In my senior year, I was being honored, with numerous other students at Parents Day, held in the auditorium of the new LBJ library on campus. At one intermission, I went out the side door and found a restroom. While standing at the urinal, an older large man came in and stood at the stall next to me. There were only two urinal stalls. Etiquette dictates that a man always leaves a vacant urinal between two users. The architects made that impossible in this case, only two urinals. Another firm etiquette rule is that a man doesn’t look at a man in the next stall. I didn’t need to, he recognized him in my peripheral vision. It was former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Flustered, I thought,“What do I say? Do?”
After a minute or two, I had finished my business. I looked over and said,
“Sir, I would regret it if I didn’t shake your hand.”
Long pause. The large man silently zipped up his pants, stepped over to the sink, and washed his hands. Then, LBJ turned around and shook my hand. I quietly offered,
“An honor to meet you, sir.”
I didn’t remember if there was a verbal response - I realized I had interrupted the president’s routine. Feeling embarrassed, I left the room, noticing as he left, that the president returned to the urinal to finish what he came to do.

Smoking a cigarette
As a kid, our family would spend many summer afternoons at Spring Valley Country Club. Once, I was walking around the golf course with my mother. It must have been a weekday as the course was not too busy. I got somewhat bored but it was a nice walk. About halfway through the course, we took a break at a shed that had a water jug and paper cups. My mother lit up a cigarette (this was before we understood all the dangers of cigarettes). I asked if I could try it. She said, "Sure. Take a deep breath." I did. gag. Cough, Sputter. I was dying here. Hocking my throat out. After I quieted down a bit, she said, "I hope you never do that again." I haven't.
Such an amazing world
The other day, I got inside a machine that I store at my house in a special room. I sat in a comfortable adjustable chair and by moving my feet and arms this machine smoothly transported me to wherever I guided it to go. I sat in a lounge chair, in a climate-controlled environment, and listened to music on a custom sound system of songs that I had programmed earlier. I was quite comfortable and without having to exert much energy, I was transported to stores and restaurants, all in a matter of minutes. I call this amazing machine my PTU, Personal Transit Unit. What a great age we live in. We no longer have to walk or ride a horse to get around. 2016

Such an amazing world
The other day, I got inside a machine that I store at my house in a special room. I sat in a comfortable adjustable chair and by moving my feet and arms this machine smoothly transported me to wherever I guided it to go. I sat in a lounge chair, in a climate-controlled environment, and listened to music on a custom sound system of songs that I had programmed earlier. I was quite comfortable and without having to exert much energy, I was transported to stores and restaurants, all in a matter of minutes. I call this amazing machine my PTU, Personal Transit Unit. What a great age we live in. We no longer have to walk or ride a horse to get around. 2016

My Royal Flush
I can’t get to sleep. Tossing and turning. The room is fine. In fact, its quite nice - in the tower at the Luxor Resort in Vegas. The angled wall that is the side of the pyramid is pretty cool. But, damnit, I can’t sleep. I keep thinking about my screw-up. I was playing Video Poker on a machine down in the casino. Hit the Deal button. Up came the 10 and Jack, then the King and Ace. All Clubs. I only needed the Queen of Clubs to win big. I hit the hold buttons and then Draw. As the Draw card was coming up, I looked down and noticed I hadn’t hit the 10 card. Only the Jack, King, and Ace. Here comes the Draw cards - a card I don’t remember and then, yep, the Queen of Clubs. The one card I needed. To win. But without the 10, I lost. How could I be so stupid - I might have had a Royal Flush. The big Kahuna, All the marbles. The whole shebang.

A long line for beer
Homecoming on the front deck of a pita shop on the Strip, I stopped off to get a beer. I got to chatting and joking around with the guy selling the beer. When he needed to go get more beer to put in the tub, he left me in charge of selling beer. Cool, I can do that. What I wasn't prepared for was the line of people that would periodically form. I would reach in the tub of ice to get their beer and check IDs when necessary - do you have an ID? Yes. Good, that's all I need to know. Then open the beer with the opener that hung by string off the top of the tub, take their money, and make change. I just stuffed wads of bills in my pocket. When he got back, he counted up the money I had in my pocket - it was about $130. It was a lot of fun. I suspect the line was = long due to the spreading word about beers being sold without checking IDs.

The summer doesn't officially begin until I've had my Shack Dog

The Guard talked
I was in jet lag. While excited to be in London, I just couldn't sleep. About 3am, I quietly dressed, gently shut the hotel room door, and sauntered the immediate neighborhood. Walking through a manicured park, the tree leaf canopy opened up. Buckingham Palace. An imposing regal structure. I walked right up to the fence surrounding the building. There was no one else in sight at 3:20 in the morning. The Palace was lit and the fountains performed their gurgling ballet. As I was admiring the design and craftsmanship of the Palace, a guard stiffly approached. Instead of walking away, I stayed at the fence, and after we exchanged smiles, I spoke to the guard. They're probably not supposed to speak to tourists, but this guy may have been lonely that early in the morning, or late at night, depending on his shift hours.
The next morning over breakfast, My roommate asked what we talked about.
“Just guard-to-tourist dialogue. I did ask about the peculiarities of guarding an icon and his interactions with tourists.”
The guard did confirm that he is forbidden to speak,
“But, I was so intrigued that someone would be at the gate at 3:30. I had to check. Let’s keep this between us.”

Cardio enema: One more rep
I was at the gym, Gold's on the north side. I was a new member and was doing some chest presses when I looked across the bicycles and rowers and saw the sign over a set of double doors: Cardio Enema. Huh? Did I read that right? It was a serious sign - individual thick letters mounted on the wall above the door. Was it a cruel joke or a mistake by the sign company that no one had yet noticed? I couldn't tell, but I figured that there may have been some exercises in that room I didn't want to do.
I finished the presses and then went to two other machines. I took another look. Nope, still there. Still says Cardio Enema. I got my stuff from the locker room, no shower, not after what happened last week, my first week at this gym. On my way out, I told the fit young woman at the front desk about the sign. She looked at me like I was a fool, turned to read the sign, read it again, gasped audibly, and ran to the manager's office. I waited, no one came out. I was satisfied: I had alerted them, not much else I could do. So, I went on out the front door just as two police cars pulled up, lights flashing. They ran right by me. As I turned back to look, they were pulling their guns out. I drove on home and made a protein shake.

A quick evening at the Chicken Ranch
Lana was my first date. She was employed at an oddly named company - The Chicken Ranch in LaGrange, Texas. We first met in the living room of her house where I asked her out on a date and of course she accepted. We went on down the hall to her bedroom, one of 12 in this house. At least 12. I stopped counting after that - maybe it was a former sorority house. I don't know. In her bedroom, she wanted to make sure I was disease free, so she conducted some tests and proceeded to check me out. This was in the early 70s, well before the time when the CIA had invented AIDS and got it into clubs and bathhouses. Those tests were worth the $20 that I paid. Then we proceeded to go on our date. It was a delightful evening.
The weekend after I got back to the fraternity house, I painted an image of her face and her name, on a wall of my room. The area where her eyes should have been was left blank. Later, it occurred to me that I was uncomfortable with someone staring at me. Especially her.

The lady in the checkout line
I was standing in line at Target - only had a few items, my standard stuff. meals splurge on some granola cereal. I was feeling nostalgic for the granola from the Mirage breakfast buffet in Las Vegas. It was rich and different - there were sliced pecans (is that pee-cans or puh-cahns?). I had returned from Las Vegas a few hours earlier and was missing it. I always have a good time there and feel rejuvenated and that all is okay with the world, especially mine.
There was a guy in front of me waiting to check out. He had only 2 items - a can of 5-hour Energy drink and a 4-pack of Red Bull. I was tempted to ask him what he was about to do (it was about 3:14 in the afternoon). But I realized its probably not wise to mess with someone who is planning to OD on energy boosters. The woman ahead of him was chatting with the cashier. The cashier was a young guy who mentioned that he normally doesn’t work the registers (Great! A novice and I’m in his line.)
One of my pet peeves (Pet peeve? What’s that about,) is inefficient checkout systems and users. This lady thinks this is social hour, a bridge club, a Tupperware party, a road trip with a seldom seen sorority sister. Its none of those - its a place for a corporate representative to pass our desired items by a laser reader and tell us how much money we owe the corporation. That’s all. Not a coffeehouse. Not a place to stop and chat. What’s with this lady? Did she not get the manual of instructions on how to operate the system?
At least she bought a reusable bag. That shows some care and concern for her fellow humankind. Although she wasn’t showing much concern by slowing down the line to chat with the novice cashier. Another procedure she didn’t master was the process of getting money or credit card ready while items are being rung up. No. She waits until everything is rung up and bagged and totaled. Then she begins the routine of rummaging through her purse to find her credit card (at least she didn’t pull out a checkbook and wait to fill it out.). Finally, all done.
But, wait a minute. I am wrong. It just hit me - just like that - I am wrong. What is the big rush that I can’t slow down and graciously allow this woman to have a conversation with another person? I have nothing waiting on me at that very moment. I turned my attitude around. Instead of getting pissed over her insensitivity, I questioned mine. I could wait. In fact, its sort of cool that as fellow members of a community of homo sapiens, she was willing to share some time and conversation with another member. Damn. Now, I felt bad for feeling upset earlier. While the guy in front of me was being checked out, I squeezed by him and spoke to the woman. It sorta startled her. I commended her for buying a reusable bag and using it. I showed her my canvas bag. She commented that she normally uses them but had forgotten them today and, instead of using plastic, just bought another one. How cool. We had a nice chat. It feels so much better to acknowledge and respect instead of responding with disgust and selfishness.

Walk, don’t ride
I often see people waiting on an elevator just to go one floor or two. Years ago, I thought 'There oughta be a law' that one shouldn't take an elevator if only going up or down 1 floor. It doesn't make much sense to use the time and electricity to move a human 10 feet when that same person can easily (and usually faster) walk the 10 feet up. Are we really so lazy that we need to be powered up a floor or two? In September, I saw this sign in New York City serving to educate people to not use the electricity. This sign provides a personal benefit - burning calories. At a time when so many Americans are overweight, that's a pretty good benefit. October 31

The attack
Last Wensday evening, I was brutally attacked by a kitchen cabinet door. I had left it open earlier in the day. I got home after dark and was running from/with the dogs and thru the kitchen when, Wham, the dang door attacked. It was ruthless. It showed no mercy - even seemed to enjoy the victory. I was KO'd. Truly a surprise attack since we had been, so I thought, on very peaceful terms before this vicious incident. I thought, "Wow, what was that?" I had walked through here for over 10 years and never had an incident. I had to steady myself for a moment. The dogs were smirking. But I don't blame them. I feel certain they did not set this up. No, this was clearly some conspiracy of a hate crime perpetrated by cabinetry in the kitchen. To show my superior military and problem solving skills, I duct-taped the door shut. It probably didn't need to be, but I wanted to make clear who was the stronger opponent. I snuck up on it with a strip of tape ready and slammed it shut before it knew what was happening. Thank God for duct tape. It is how guys can repair almost anything. Women talk and cry, we grab the tape. Some men even keep one roll by the bed, one in the car, and one at work. I'm convinced there were would be less divorce and marital strife if couples would agree to use duct tape more freely and, well, to install urinals in the bathroom. Men will never put the seat back down, get used to it ladies; but a urinal would mean the toilet seat would never again be an issue of marital discord (or cohabitation discord). Women could even duct tape the seat down. Men might respect and honor that.

I can't deal with this
There was an obnoxious knock on the door. I jumped up and cautiously opened it. Two police officers, neither looked happy. They asked if they could come in and talk to me. Sure, I stammered, wondering what was up but also sorta excited about some adventure that might play out.
"Do you know Jillian Roberts?”
I started shaking my head No.
"Wait, I met a woman yesterday named Jillian, but I never got her last name.”
Tell us about her.
I was at a Chinese restaurant eating the Chopped Chicken Salad (no fried wontons, please), typing on my iPad, and working on a project for class. This woman walked by, stopped, and commented on the iPad. She hadn’t seen one before but had read about the tablet’s introduction. I smiled and said something in return, but I don't remember what. She went on to her table with a young school-age teenager quietly following behind her.
I typed some more and finished my salad. Always eager to tout the iPad, i went to her table and showed her the USA Today app - how well the newspaper looked on the pad (are they still called newspapers even when they're not on paper?) A server brought one glass of wine and their two bowls of edamame. The teenager began eating. The woman kept talking to me.

“I bought one of those new phones.”
“The iPhone?”
“I guess, I don’t know. There were colorful buttons on it, but they didn’t do anything. It insisted on knowing my password. I don’t even know what that is - it sounds ominous. I did see that music thing.”
“The iPod?”
“The future seems upon us and I don’t like it. Too much new stuff and I don’t know how any of it works.”
“Your son could probably help you. He knows this stuff.”
“I have a friend who invented some fancy music player, but he was not very patient with me. I didn’t know what it was.”
The server returned with a second glass of wine.
“Um, this is so good. I can’t even use the, what is it?”
Her son, exasperated, said,
Her voice rose and sped up.
“I can’t do it.”
“I cant write email. She sipped some wine. I cant deal with this now. Wish I had my Dell.”

I backed away. What a strange way to see the mundane tasks of life. I retreated to the bathroom. I just leaned on the sink and laughed. Mid-chuckle, I was interrupted by her son who came in and witnessed my laughter. In my bewildered state, I had forgotten to lock the door. What could I say to him. He had to realize what or who I was laughing at. I couldn't think of the proper way to get out of this awkwardness. So, I said nothing. Just offered a weak smile and I hurried out of there. Didn't even look back at her at the table, just walked straight to the door and out to my car.

The officers had been patiently listening - one was even jotting down a few notes. They turned and looked at each other and smile nodded.
“Thank you for your cooperation. We now have enough information. Thank you. Have a good evening.”

© James Robert Watson    Email    Text

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