April 29, 2018

Snippets Five: The Quest for Peace


I’d just come back inside after having a smoke when Morgan said, “You’ve got to hear this message we just got.”

            I stepped into the other room by the phone, and Morgan hit the button on the machine. A moment later a computer-generated male voice began speaking in a monotone. He sounded like he meant business.

            “…serious and time sensitive. We are calling you from investigation team of IRS. We have just received a notification regarding your tax filings from the headquarters which will get expired in next twenty-four working hours, and once it get expired after that you will be taken under custody by the local cops, as there are four serious allegations pressed on your name at this moment. We would request you to get back to us so that we can discuss about this case before taking any legal action against you. The number to reach us is 347-205-1407 I repeat 347-205-1407 thank you.”

            “Wow,” I said after the message ended. “They’re really ramping things up. But yeah, they’d probably do a little better for themselves if they got someone who actually spoke English to write their copy.” Then I paused and thought a moment. “I wonder if they’re hiring?”

*   *   *

The other night for some reason I found myself once again listening to “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” recorded by Sergeant Barry Sadler in 1966 as a means of bolstering support for U.S. troops amid growing anti-war sentiment. There’s something I’ve always found so strange and captivating about that damn song. This time around I listened more closely than I ever had before, and something occurred to me.

            According to Sgt. Sadler, Green Berets go through a long and arduous training process, one so vigorous that in the end only three of every hundred applicants makes the grade. Upon successfully completing their training, the newly-christened Green Berets receive a nice silver pin and of course a new hat. Then what do they do?

            They DIE. Listen to the song, and apparently all they do is die. Jump and die. They don’t do any fighting, there are no manly wartime heroics. Once they make the team and put on that new hat they’re brought up in a plane. Then they jump out (presumably without a parachute) and splatter on the ground below. That’s their whole purpose. Listen to the song and tell me it says anything different.

            Don’t know why this, according to Sgt. Sadler, makes them “America’s best,” but I’ll take his word for it. Who could’ve known?

*   *   *

When I was in grad school in Minneapolis, three or four mornings a week I would catch a city bus a block away from my apartment. This meant walking down a trash-strewn alley, then scampering like a crazy person across six lanes of busy highway traffic to the bus stop just outside the gas station where I bought my smokes. I’d ride the bus for twenty minutes, then get off at the eastern base of a long and wide foot bridge that took me across the Mississippi River to the University of Minnesota campus.

            Amazingly enough, the buses in Minneapolis really did run on or close to schedule every day, and catching the 8:51 became such a clockwork routine the bus driver came to recognize me. So much so that if I was running a few seconds late and he saw me frantically hopping from foot to foot on the opposite corner waiting to make the mad scramble across the highway, he’d hold the bus for me.

            “Light looks red enough to me,” he’d quip as I finally climbed aboard.

            Yeah, he was a mighty friendly guy, one of the few friendly bus drivers I’ve ever known.

            Anyway, one warm late spring morning I climbed aboard, pulled out my wallet, slipped out my monthly bus pass, flashed it at him, slipped it back into my wallet and headed toward the back of the bus. As usual there were only three or four other people aboard at that time.

            At the next stop, a large woman in her early thirties got on board. She had stringy red hair, wore a faded sun dress that had seen better days, and appeared to be edging pretty hard into the dissolute. Before dropping her change into the collection box, she looked at the floor near the driver’s right foot. Without a word she bent down, picked something up and shoved it into her bag before paying her fare and taking a seat near the front door.

            “That belong to you?” The bus driver asked in a voice loud enough for the few other passengers to hear.

            “Yeah,” she said a little too quickly. “It belongs to a friend of mine.”

            I should clarify here that although the neighborhood seemed perfectly nice to me, I was soon informed by others that I was living in the heart of a Minneapolis slum. Sure, there was a large American Indian population around me, a lot of drunks hung out by the all-night liquor store down the street, there were a few junkies here and there, but none of it bothered me. If anything, considering myself a lowlife, the neighborhood seemed a little too clean and a little too pleasant. Still, I kept my eyes open, and I could smell something on this woman that wasn’t right.

            For some reason I got an uneasy feeling, pulled my wallet out, and found my bank card was missing. I always kept it right behind the bus pass, so it must have slipped out without my noticing when I grabbed for the pass.

            I looked to the front of the bus. The bus driver caught my gaze in his big rear view mirror and nodded slightly.

            I stood from my seat and made my way up the aisle of the moving bus toward the woman with the stringy hair, having no idea what I’d say, or what kind of reaction I’d get. This could turn ugly.

            “Excuse me,” I said when I stopped in front of her. “But did you just pick up a bank card?” I was ready to give her the name on the card and the card number to prove my case. I was also prepared to dodge should she whip out a straight razor. One way or another I was going to get it back from her. Even if it didn’t turn out to be mine, I knew it wasn’t hers.

            “Oh. Yeah,” she said, quickly reaching into her bag. She never looked me in the eye.. “Guess I made a mistake.”

            “Happens to the best of us sometimes.”

            She handed the card (which was indeed mine) back to me with no further hassle, and I returned to my seat after casting a quick and grateful glance at the driver. Didn’t want to draw him into this any more than necessary.

            As I took my seat once again, I remember thinking that as lowlifes go, this broad was a real amateur.

*   *   *

It was the latest in what I’ve come to term Bay Ridge Parenting Tips.

            I was out front having a smoke on the stoop. Across the street, two young kids, a boy and a girl, were zipping up and down the sidewalk on their scooters.

            After a few minutes of this, the scooters stopped down by the corner in front of the bodega. “Woo-hoo!” The boy shouted.

            Suddenly their mother materialized out of nowhere, marching down the sidewalk toward them and shouting. “Joey! Put that down!”

            “But it’s wrapped!” He shouted back.

            “Joey, no! I don’t care if it’s wrapped! Put…it…down! You do not eat things you found on the street?”

*   *   *

I just failed a test in the fish market.

            The little seafood store a few blocks away has been around forever, run by the same Italian family for generations. I stop in there once a week or so, and they’ve never been anything but friendly and kind. I may have blown that.

            This morning Mike, the manager, was the only one in the shop when I stepped in out of the rain. We chatted a bit, I told him what I wanted, and as he began scooping a couple of filets into a plastic bag he asked, “Can you tell me who this is singing?”

            There was always music playing in there, more often than not Sinatra. It wasn’t Sinatra today, though, so I cocked an ear and listened.

            The sound quality alone told me it was fairly contemporary, likely recorded within the past ten or fifteen years. That right there put me at a disadvantage. Worse, it was some of that smooth, lifeless Italian pop opera popularized by the likes of Placido Domingo and Pavarotti after their real opera careers were over. Christ this shit makes me sick. Still, I listened closely to the tenor for a bit, then guessed.

            “Is it Domingo?”


            For chrissakes I was wearing a Skynyrd t-shirt—what the hell did he expect? I wanted to tell him, “Look, if he ain’t German and he ain’t dead, then I don’t know him, okay?” But I didn’t.

            “I’ll give you a hint. His initials are A.B.”

            Jesus, my head began spinning through all the A.B.s I could think of, none of them coming even close. Archie Bunker? Aaron Burr? Alec Baldwin?

            “What radio station you listen to?” He pressed further as I began to run out of A.B.s.

            “Oh, um, my wife and I generally listen to WFMU. It’s a weirdie independent station that plays a lot of grinding noise.”

            “Hm,” was all he said to that clearly disappointing news.

            I finally gave up. After Placido Domingo, there was no way I was going to come up with any sort of passable guess. I handed over the money and he gave me my change. I admitted I didn’t have a clue.

            It’s Andrea Bocelli ,” he said as if I was some kind of philistine for not knowing. “He’s been very popular for the last twenty years or so. He’s Italian.”

            “Italian? With a name like Bocelli ?” I almost asked. Instead, I apologized. “Most of the opera I listen to goes back a ways. I’m sorry.”

            “He’s blind, too.”

            “Oh, Really?”

            I’m not sure if it was a simple point of interest, or if the implication was we were all supposed to know one another. Whatever the case, I took my change and my bag of Tilapia and headed back out into the rain, feeling I had failed him somehow, and wondering if they’d still be nice to me after that.

*   *   *

Back in the early Nineties, Pope John Paul II made a multi-city visit to the US. It was a huge, huge deal. Gave a mass in Central Park that drew a gazillion people. Everyone wanted to see that damn Pope.

            Well, at the time I was friends with a painter and art mover named Larry, and Larry had a friend named Ron who lived in Denver. Ron was always struggling to get by, was always looking for some viable Get Rich Quick scheme, so when he learned the Pope was making a stop in Denver he had a brilliant idea. There was an official medallion sold at each stop along the way commemorating the visit. Each coin featured an image of John Paul II, together with the date and city of the stop in question. So there was a New York medallion, right? And a Chicago medallion, and of course a Denver medallion. Well, Ron got ahold of a picture of the Denver medallion, and emblazoned it on ten thousand sweatshirts he would then sell to the faithful outside Mile High Stadium. It cost him two bucks apiece to get the sweatshirts printed up (and they were high quality sweatshirts, too), but he could turn around and sell them for forty smackers a pop. He was looking at an easy $380,000 profit for a single day’s work. He’d be living on easy street!

            Well, then at the last moment the Pope cancelled his Denver stop.

            Not only was Ron out twenty thousand bucks—he was also stuck with ten thousand now-worthless sweatshirts he couldn’t dump for the life of him.

            Which is how I ended up with my really nice Pope John Paul II commemorative sweatshirt. Didn’t cost me a dime, I still wear it to this day, and no one’s ever asked me about it.


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