Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Christmas Story

I recently unearthed this story while rummaging around in some old papers of mine. Loosely based on true events, I used to send it out with Christmas cards twenty years ago when I wasn't such a killjoy and still sent out Christmas cards. Feel free to make it a part of your Christmas tradition. Enjoy!

It was a cold and blustery Saturday night in December. I had left the liquor store where I worked part-time early with plans to attend a friend's annual holiday party in Brooklyn. With my traditional gift (a twelve-pack of Bud) held firmly beneath my arm, I courageously awaited the New Jersey Transit bus bound for Manhattan. When the bus failed to arrive at its designated time, I suggested to the trio of young black women waiting with me that we huddle together to keep each other warm. They all laughed and looked at me as if I were cagey or nuts or both. I guess they thought I was making a joke. It saddened me to think that even as Christmas neared, men and women couldn't put aside their differences and extend to one another the good will and fellowship that our Lord Jesus highly recommended.

Finally, the bus arrived and we boarded. Still smarting with shame, I had a few words with the driver concerning his lateness. He mumbled a few syllables and looked at his watch with a sort of amazed childlike awe. It was as if the watch had suddenly appeared out of nowhere like the proverbial rabbit out of the magician's hat. Dissatisfied with this poor excuse for a reply, I took a seat in the middle of the darkened bus.

No sooner had I removed my coat when a voice from the rear thundered, "Hey buddy, do you want to sell any of those beers?" Either this person had Superman's X-ray vision, for how else could he have known what I was carrying, or else, even in the dark, he had recognized me from the liquor store and had assumed I was taking some work home with me.

"No," I said neither loudly or softly, but like a man as I settled into my seat.

The reason behind this person's inquiry was soon apparent as empty Lowenbrau bottles began to roll from one end of the bus to the other. It was sort of like music if you listened hard enough and didn't care too much for a melody. After a while of this, I reached out and grabbed a bottle as it went rolling by. It was then that I became aware of the two young ladies sitting diagonally across from me.

"Put it on the seat," the one in the aisle seat said pointing at the empty seat across from her and in front of me.

I'm no physics major or anything, but something deep inside told me that this would only be a temporary solution to the problem. I explained my doubts concerning this to her, but complied anyway, knowing how superior I would feel when the bottle went rolling off at the next stop, which according to the laws of nature, it did.

I guess this young woman must have been impressed by my common sense because the next thing I knew she was holding something in front of my face. The bus was too dark to tell what exactly she was offering, so I just said, "What is it?"

"Gum," she said.

By this time the other young woman felt compelled to turn the overhead light on. She must have discovered something interesting in her sweater to pull at because, for the remainder of the trip, this is mainly what she did.

With the light turned on, I was able to get a better look at my fellow travelers. Any fantasy I may have entertained of meeting a mature and beautiful young woman while riding on a bus was instantly dashed. "Biker chicks" would be an unfair, but generally accurate description of these two young women.

"Thanks," I said, accepting her offering.

One thing led to another, as only the sharing of a stick of Doublemint could, and we were fast on our way to becoming deep and long lasting friends. I could tell almost immediately that our friendship would last as long as the length of our bus trip. Since our time together was limited, we opened our hearts to one another in ways that we could never have done, if say, we knew each other or cared even the slightest bit for one another.

"Are you going to New York?" she asked unaware that we were on the NJ Turnpike and that the bus would not be making any more stops until we reached the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan.

"Yes," I replied, a little surprised by her question.

She asked me where I was going and I gave her the particulars of the plans I had made for the evening. She acted genuinely interested and inquired whether it was within my authority to extend the party invitation to her and her friend.

"Hell, why not? The more, the merrier, I always say," was how, I think, I replied.

I asked her what she and her friend had originally intended to do when they got to the city.

"We were going to see the tree and buy drugs," she said.

I must admit that at first I was startled by her candid admission. I guess in the hustle and bustle of what I call my life I had ignored the simpler pleasures to be found in it. Although countless commercials on television had reminded me of Christmas' close proximity, I had failed to take notice. If such a thing as "Christmas spirit" can be said to exist, I believe I witnessed it for the first time that night in the twinkling, perhaps stoned, eyes of that biker chick.

When she asked me if I did drugs, I had to admit that it had been a while since I had indulged in that sort of behavior. I didn't feel it was necessary to explain that my experimentation with drugs ended abruptly in my formative years when it became apparent to myself and others that it was seriously meddling with my thought processes. Her question brought back all of that, but it also brought back memories of simple and honest fucked-up good times with my friends. Memories I'll always cherish.

To be reminded once again of the joys of Christmas and drugs together in one shot like that was profoundly moving to say the least. It goes without saying that I never made it to my friend's party that night. Instead, my new friends and I polished off the twelve-pack before we reached the Lincoln Tunnel (I had two while my new friends each had five).

We made a few purchases in the Port Authority (some pot and a few rocks of crack, that new drug everyone was talking about) and smoked it all up in a crowded stall in the second-floor ladies room. When we had run out of drugs and the money to buy more drugs, we staggered over to Rockefeller Center to see the magnificent Christmas tree that had been erected there.

I had seen the tree year after year on television, but had never made the effort to see it in person. I was immediately taken with its enormous size (it was larger than it was on television) and so were my new friends. In fact, when Madge, the one with the sweater, imagined that she could reach up and extend her arms to the star at the top of the tree, she forgot where she was standing and toppled over a railing onto the ice skating rink below. Fanny, the other one, taking her cue, followed suit. I remember vaguely that I would have done the same if it weren't for the fact that I wasn't such a good swimmer, which doesn't make any sense now, but at the time seemed extremely important.

The last time I saw Fanny and Madge they were being led off the ice by a pair of burly security guards on skates who didn't seem to mind being punched and bitten. In fitting with the season, they actually seemed to enjoy it.

I wandered around aimlessly after that, stoned off my ass, getting lost and finding myself on several different occasions. As I roamed the eerily empty streets contemplating the meaning of Christmas under the influence of the various drugs I had taken, I came to a realization akin to spiritual illumination. Suddenly, everything became crystal clear to me. It was almost as if a heavy object had been lifted from my heart. My step grew lighter as I walked along, almost as light as my head which was practically floating away, and I began to look on the bright side of things, something I hadn't done since I was a child. By the time I found my way back to the Port Authority, I had been transformed into another man. I was another man! The person who used to be me no longer existed. Maybe it was the "Christmas spirit," maybe it was the drugs, but that night I came to a realization that would forever change the course of my life. In the hazy, crazy, slipstream of the four corners of my mind, I realized that the story of It's a Wonderful Life was the story of my life and that George Baily and Jimmy Stewart and I were the same person. I realized for the first time in my life that I really and truly am Jimmy Stewart!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Coupon Genius

I had to wait more than fifteen minutes behind a coupon genius in the express lane at my supermarket last night. I knew it was going to be trouble when I saw over twenty items (the limit is 5) thrown haphazardly on the conveyor belt, but the other lines were too long to jump to. I decided to stick it out. This was a mistake. After the cashier had rung up all of the items (mostly boxes of frozen vegetables, margarine, and an air freshener), the coupon genius revealed that he intended to pay entirely with coupons. The only problem was that the coupons didn't apply to the majority of the items he had brought to the checkout counter. This meant that the cashier had to rescan all of the items that had to be removed from the sale. Once this was done, the total came to a little over $6 for several boxes of margarine. The coupon genius insisted this wasn't correct. There should be no charge. By this time, I was beginning to lose it. The other customers were growing impatient as well. The woman behind me was doing that "Hmm, hmm, hmm" thing while I took a more direct approach (even if it meant playing into the "angry white guy" stereotype--I was the only white person on line). A manager was dispatched with a magic key that enabled the cashier to start the sale all over again. As it turned out, the coupons did cover the cost of the margarine. For some reason the woman in front of me felt the need to apologize to the coupon genius while also mentioning the funeral of the bus driver who had been stabbed in Brooklyn (I'm still trying to figure out what the connection was). But after he left, she turned to the rest of us on line and said, "Someone's gonna be buttering it up tonight."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Blaming it on the dog

I was about halfway through my Thanksgiving dinner with the family at my sister's house when I had to excuse myself to wait in the bathroom to throw up. It was the same old routine, only this time I wasn't so sure what was to blame (my best guess was the sausage in the stuffing my older brother had slaved over; he blamed the Coors Light, but I dismissed that as beer snobbery). To make matters worse, it was a long wait. As I was sweating it out, up and down on my knees over the bowl, I thought for a moment the feeling might pass. If I was alone, back at "The Box" (my new nickname for my apartment), I would have stuck my finger down my throat and have been done with it, but because the bathroom was practically next to the kitchen table where my young niece and nephew were eagerly resisting all attempts to coax them into eating the turkey ("It's like chicken!"), I felt it was my duty to avoid puking at all costs. I had heard stories of my niece and nephew getting sick and how the healthy observer had, naturally, gotten a big laugh at the other's expense. I was afraid I was about to become a family legend: "Remember the Thanksgiving when Uncle Mike puked his brains out!"

Earlier, my brand new brother-in-law had regaled everyone with an amusing story (speaking of amusing, a couple days later my younger brother called to ask what our new brother-in-law's last name was; my father and I didn't have a clue). One morning, earlier in the week, my new brother-in-law had observed "drug dealers" trying to break into cars in the parking lot of the development where my sister lives. He called the police. After he described what he had seen over the phone, the police officer replied, "What do you want us to do about it?" "Oh, I'm sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number," my new brother-in-law responded, not missing a beat, "In that case, I'd like to order a large pizza with pepperoni." I had to admit, that was a pretty good zinger. It was so good the police officer put him on hold until another officer got on the line (presumably one more capable of handling zingers from a guy formerly from Jersey City). He didn't fare much better. My new brother-in-law laid into him with another series of zingers when he didn't get the response he was expecting. I told him I loved the zingers, but the zinger overkill might have ultimately worked against him in the end. Generally, cops aren't known for their sense of humor, especially when you're asking them to do something for you. As it turns out, the cops didn't show up until 25 minutes later, long after the drug dealers had moved on.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, sweating it out over the bowl. Things were getting so hot in the tiny bathroom, I thought some fresh air might help bring me around. Since the bathroom was just off to the side of the front door, I thought I could discreetly slip outside without anyone noticing. Wouldn't you know it, just as I stepped outside I coughed up a mouthful of my Thanksgiving dinner and deposited it on the walkway leading to my sister's front door. If that wasn't bad enough, owing to the buttery mashed potatoes I had consumed, the puke was unnaturally luminescent. Anyone stepping outside would have noticed it. What to do? Thinking fast, I grabbed a handful of dirt from my sister's garden and buried it. I had already prepared an explanation in my mind in case I got caught in the act: "Some dog came by and puked on the sidewalk. I was just burying it." Thankfully, I was spared that final humiliation.

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