THE BATHROOM PIANO

THE BATHROOM PIANO

Many years ago I was a music teacher in an elementary school in Connecticut. Just a year.

The day before school started, I was shown my classroom. It was a nice classroom, but there wasn’t much in the way of supplies. It was essentially, a classroom with almost nothing in it. I hunted down some music books, and some music charts, and some other things to set up my classroom.

But the one thing it was missing was a piano. No piano in the music room. I had a guitar, so I could accompany on that, but I certainly would have preferred a piano, so I made a mental note to request one.

First day of school came, and went pretty well. Little kids: kindergarteners, who I taught songs using my guitar. Pretty much every grade. 

As I was passing through another wing of the elementary school, I heard some faint piano notes being played. Not somebody who knew how to play the piano, just a couple of keys being played. Upon closer examination, it sounded like it was coming from the boys bathroom.

Nah, that can’t be right.

But when I passed the bathroom door again, I could hear piano keys being played. Again, not the piano actually being played, just a few keys being played, and resonating in the bathroom.

At that moment, I saw one of the custodians walking down the hall. I was a new teacher, and didn’t want to ask a question that would make him think I was crazy, but I swallowed my embarrassment and asked him, “Is there a piano in that bathroom?”

He didn’t look at me like I was crazy. He just said “Yeah.”
Like it was the most normal thing in the world. Like where else would you put a piano?

So I said, “Oh. What’s a piano doing in the bathroom?”

Of course, my mind was concocting all kinds of crazy scenarios. Maybe there was a kid who was a musical genius and could only play after he peed. Maybe the school psychologist had this idea that kids peed better to music, so somebody would come in and play the piano. My mind was trying out every non-plausible scenario of why there would be a piano in the bathroom.

The custodian said, “We didn’t have anywhere else to store it.”

So I said, “Oh. Well could I have it in my classroom?”

The custodian said, “Well, you’d have to ask the principal.”

So I found the principal. She was a nice lady. Taught for a good long time, very good principal.

“I understand there is a piano in the bathroom.”

She said, “Yes. We don’t have anywhere else to store it, I’m afraid.”

“Well, could I have it in my classroom?”

She asked “Why would you want that in your room?”

“Well, I’m the music teacher…..”

She looked like the idea had never occurred to her. “Oh. The last music teacher didn’t want a piano.”

I learned later this was because the last music teacher didn’t do much in the way of teaching music. Not in any depth. For her purposes, compact discs sufficed.

“It would be really helpful,” I clarified, “I have my guitar here, but I could do a lot more with a piano.”

“I’ll talk to the custodian then, and try to get it up to your classroom soon.”

She kept her word, and by the beginning of the following week, the piano was in my classroom. It was still in tune; it was one of those blonde wood Hamilton pianos that could take a beating and stay in tune. It was on some robust wheels. They even found a metal stool for me from somewhere.

The first group of kids came into my room. They looked incredulous.

“Why is The Bathroom Piano in your room???”

“Well,” I answered, “It’s the Music Room Piano now!”

“But it was always in the bathroom!” one of the kids said.

“How many other bathrooms have a piano?” I asked, “Does your bathroom at home have a piano?”

“No, but I wish it did!” one kid said.

“Why?”

“So I could play piano in there!” the kid answered.

“Well, I think it looks a lot better in here!” I answered and continued the lesson. 

But all the kids were incredulous. The Bathroom Piano was now in the music room! What gives???
Throughout the day, every kid noticed The Bathroom Piano was in my classroom, and seemed completely amazed by it.

My standard answer was “It’s not the Bathroom Piano, it’s The Music Room Piano!”

One kid asked “What will I do in the bathroom now?”
(I don’t know…. what you normally do in the bathroom, maybe?)

One fifth grader asked “How do you know somebody didn’t pee on it?”

I asked “Why would anybody pee on the piano?”

“Because they felt like it.”

“Did YOU pee on the piano?” I asked

“NO!!” the kid protested.

“So why do you think anyone else would?”

I didn’t like the look on that kid’s face. You can bet after that class, I wiped the keyboard down with disinfectant!

Even the other teachers! 

“Oh, I see you have The Bathroom Piano in your room!”

“Oh, I’m glad the Bathroom Piano is in your room now. IT was such a waste to have it in the bathroom!”
(no shit).

“Oh The Bathroom Piano is in your room! That’s good. It was only a matter of time before a kid peed on it. Or worse. If they hadn’t already!”
(Pleeeeeeease stop saying that! Does a piano look like a urinal???)
You have no idea how many teachers voiced this concern. And how paranoid it ended up making me about the tendencies of students who attended that school.

Even in other contexts: 
“The piano in the auditorium is out of tune. Maybe we could use the Bathroom Piano.”

To hear everybody talk, It was like the piano belonged to the bathroom, and I, as the music teacher, had kidnapped it and was holding it hostage.

Some kids MISSED the piano in the bathroom!

For the rest of the damn year. Teachers, kids, paraprofessionals, even some parents referred to my piano as The Bathroom Piano.

I couldn’t very well get on the PA system and announce,”Could we PLEASE stop calling it The Bathroom Piano! It’s the Music Room Piano now!!” but I was on an unsuccessful, one man campaign to rebrand the piano as The Music Room piano, Mr. P’s Piano, or just “The Piano”.
At which I spectacularly failed. It’s old title stuck like glue.

One teacher, sensing my irritation, attempted humor,”You can take the piano out of the bathroom, but you’ll never take the bathroom out of the piano!”

The next year I decided I wanted to finish my masters degree, but was offered an artist residency in NYC, so that was my last year teaching in public schools.

So I never found out if the piano ever got rid of it’s unfortunate moniker. Or if the next music teacher in that position was left to figure out why the piano in their classroom was called “The Bathroom Piano”

Maybe they were successful in fully rebranding the piano as The Music Room Piano! Pianos have elegance and gravitas (even those ugly blonde Hamiltons), and being called The Bathroom Piano really undermines that elegance!

And now, Live at Carnegie Hall, Vladimir Horowitz will play Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, on the much venerated Bathroom Piano!

FLEETWOOD

FLEETWOOD

a memoir




I  THE LONELY GOATHERD



“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

I hadn’t.  

But the guy across the table had, because he checked the “yes” box.  

I checked the “no” box.

“If yes, please explain in the space below (answering yes will not necessarily bar you from employment)”  

In the space below I wrote: “I have never been convicted of a felony”

The guy across the table wrote.  And wrote some more.  He filled the space below and when he ran out,  continued to write in whatever available space was on the job application form.  

I couldn’t read what he wrote, because I could not read his scrawl upside down, and, truth be known, it didn’t look as though it would be all that legible right side up.  

I didn’t want him to catch me trying to read his explanation, but I surreptitiously studied him.  He was somewhat disappointing.  He was certainly bigger than me, but given my mealy frame, that wasn’t hard.  Other than that, he didn’t look particularly menacing, or imposing.  He wasn’t ripped in muscle from years of pumping iron in the prison weight yard.  He didn’t have gang tattoos, or an unkempt beard, or a Hells Angels bandana on his head, or scars from being shanked.  He was about forty.  He looked kind of flabby and kind of weary.  He looked ordinary.

I wonder what he did.  I wonder if he burned somebody’s house down.  Maybe he killed somebody.  Maybe he pulled off a bank heist, but spent all the money.  Or maybe he had been a mob boss, but was now reduced to applying for a part time job at the cold storage place, and competing for it with the scrawny sixteen year old across the table that was me.  But I hadn’t been convicted of a felony.

The guy continued to explain his felony on the sheet of paper and I completed the application, which didn’t take too long considering my history of sporadic, patchy, irrelevant and under-the table work experience.  Soon there was nothing to do but look around the room, with its chipped Formica tables, the stained suspension ceiling with the florescent lights, the scuffed linoleum tiles and lack of windows.  At the far end was a flickering Coke machine whose sounds rotated among humming, roaring and threatening to die with a shudder.   Next to it was an understocked snack vending machine, where through the glass one could see a few shopworn looking candy bars, a dilapidated bag of Fritos, a smeary looking honey bun, and a bag of Rold Gold pretzels that was hanging on by a thread.  Apparently the machine hadn’t let go of the purchase, and the original buyer had decided it wasn’t worth buying a second bag of pretzels in order to get the first.  There was also a coffee dispenser, where one could buy a miserly paper cup of horrible coffee for thirty five cents.

It was the third day of September, the year was 1991, and just yesterday it was decided that instead of completing my junior and senior year in my unruly mid-sized high school, I would be attending community college.  It happened so fast.  One day I was dreading the misery of my upcoming high school year, my mediocrity that hovered like the Sword of Damocles ever so slightly above abject failure, and the apathy, yet desperation that came with it. The next day I was registered for English 101 and a host of other lower division college classes.  The first of which would be in two days. 

On some level I knew it was a good thing, but the sudden change in trajectory was overwhelming, to say the least.  I was still digesting it.  And it didn’t alter the fact I needed an after school job, although with my college schedule all over the place it would be anybody’s guess WHEN I would be working.  It felt strangely discombobulating to be thrust from the structure of the high school schedule to the odd and arbitrary patchwork of time blocks of a college schedule and part time job.

Owing to the local politics and nepotism that was rife in this small, gritty city in Upstate New York, the typical places a sixteen year old could find employment:  the fast food joints, the mom and pop stores, the supermarkets and even the hospital were “all sewn up”.  My family had come to town in the late 1970s, and we were still outsiders lacking the connections to hook a kid up with a job.  

I had even applied, with no success, to an establishment with an especially large turnover, owing to the tyrannical lunatic of an owner who would, on average, fire an entire staff on a  bi-weekly basis in a hissy fit.

“There is no “I” in team!  There absolutely is a “U” in FAILURE!!!”  he’d scream in a psychotic rage, as he’d hurl pickles at any unfortunate employee who happened to be in the line of fire.  “How DARE you duck when I throw things at you???”

I had a friend who worked for him for about a week, “Yeah, he’s kind of an asshole, especially when he’s sober.”  My friend had walked off the job after the guy had dumped half gallon of cooking oil on his head.
“You’re out of your mind!”  he stated when I told him I had applied for a job there.

“I need a job” I shrugged.

“You don’t need that one!” 

Well, it didn’t matter.  I applied a week ago and hadn’t heard back.  Perhaps he hadn’t fired his entire staff in a tantrum yet.  Perhaps he hadn’t yet pelted them with pickles on the way out or dumped (thankfully cold) oil on them.  A psychotic wouldn’t even hire me.

But here I was applying for a job at the cold storage place.  I pictured myself dodging forklifts in a grim, eternal winter, as I did God knows what. Until I saw the want ad in the local paper, I never gave this place a second glance.  It was a blocky, windowless building, fronted by a row of truck bays.  It sat on the corner of a state route and a short service road accurately named “Industrial Tract Road”, lined with prefab industrial buildings and that ended at the county jail:  a squat, brown bricked building with narrow slit like windows and an ominous looking cyclone fence topped with rolls of razor wire.  For what this job lacked in glamor, it was going to pay $5 per hour: that was 75 cents above the minimum wage in 1991.  Assuming I got it.

The guy across the table had completed his application, complete with relevant work experience, and explanation for his felony, so we sat in the break room and waited, and waited some more.  Soon the door opened, and a guy in a winter coat, with his glasses still fogged up entered and without saying a word took our applications.  He looked over mine, then looked over the application of the guy with the felony. 
 
“Why don’t we talk?” he suggested, and for a second I thought he was talking to me, but he was talking to the other guy.

He looked apologetically at me, “I’ll call you if we have anything else,” which I could already translate as a hard no.

The felony guy followed him into a small office, and I walked out the front door to the car, defeated.

Another job I didn’t get.



“So, how’d it go?” my dad asked without looking up.

“Terrible.  It was a choice between me and some guy with a felony record.  They picked the guy with the felony record. He’ll probably steal the forklift or rob somebody in the parking lot.”

“That’s not fair,” my dad retorted,” That guy needs the job more than you do!  Last thing he needs is some sixteen year old jerk making assumptions about him.”  

“Well, I need the job, too.  And I haven’t committed a felony.”

“Yet,” my dad said.

“Gee, thanks so much”  

“And you don’t need the job,” my dad added, ”You want the job.”

No, I needed the job.  I had expenses.  I had to put gas in the car I was driving: a red 87 Volkswagen GTI.  I had at least somewhat of a social life, half assed and meager as it was and hopefully in my upcoming semester of college that would improve.  And I had a girlfriend: an academically conscientious girl who lived far enough away to run up a phone bill.  With a head of thick blonde hair.  Who spoke in a husky contralto, and had a strange affinity for The Police, and an intense hatred of Dr. Pepper.  Without a job, and the income that came with it, what, exactly was I going to be able to do with that situation?  Without that vital component, I foresaw my world as small, monotonous, unautonomous, and monastic.

I rifled through the two newspapers we had delivered to the house:  The Albany Times Union, and the local paper, and I found the want ads.  Always the same old shit.  The jobs that were already filled, or not even a consideration for me.  The usual array of pyramid schemes, get-rich-quick schemes, any of the other unoriginal scams posing as jobs.  No, I was not going to be a goddamn Avon lady.  The same depressing lack of paydirt.  Nobody wanted to hire a 16 year old college kid.  They’d hire a convicted felon first.  But today’s want ad section, in addition to the same ads I had memorized, had one new ad that popped out at me.

It was for work at a goat farm, at least twenty miles away.  They needed somebody, but gave no specifics of what they needed, or what the job would entail, on the ad.  I gave them a call, and that day, I had an interview lined up, and was given directions on how to get out there.  That afternoon.

It was far.  It was practically on the Massachusetts border, where I drove on the state route in fifth gear, ready to dodge or brake for the potential woodchuck or skunk or squirrel that would dart out in front of the car. As per the directions, close to Massachusetts, I veered off onto a narrow county route, as cinders pinged the undercarriage of the car.  A mile and a half or so later, I turned off onto another, even narrower dirt road, where weeds flanked the road close enough to brush against the car, and clouds of dust kicked up behind me.

Less then a half hour later, I was retracing my steps back home: on the dusty dirt road, the coarsly ground county route and, and finally the state route.  I had gotten the job.  Like the job at the cold storage place, it paid $5 per hour.  It worked well with my class schedule, and I was to begin tomorrow.  By the odometer, it was twenty-two miles.  But I had a job.  And it was $5 per hour.

“So what is it you’ll be doing?” my dad asked when I got home.

“Well, I have to feed the goats.” I answered.

“And that’s all?” my dad asked, “How many goats?”

“Six hundred” 

My dad whistled, ”That’s a lot of goats.  But all you have to do it feed them, right?”

“Well, I also have to open some gates, and herd them into where they will be getting milked.  They’re going to show me all that stuff tomorrow.”

“So you’ll be herding goats!” my dad cackled, ”That makes you a goatherd!”

“Mmm hmm….”

And he burst into a ridiculous falsetto yodel, “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd!
Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo…”

“Haw haw”  and I went off to my room with my dad still yodeling after me.

Later in the day, I called my girlfriend, “Hey, I got a job!”

“Where?” she asked

“I’ll be working at a goat farm!”

There was a pause.

“A goat farm….?” She repeated, ”Like the kind that have horns?”

“I guess they have horns.  I haven’t met them yet”

She didn’t sound too impressed.  Her voice always took on a flat quality when she wasn’t impressed with something, and this was one such moment.

“Yeah, I have to feed them and I have to herd them to get milked.” I explained.

“So you’re going to be a goatherd,” she said in that same, flat quality and I didn’t know what to make of it.  

I had hoped she’d regard my industry and work ethic with a little more admiration.  

But at least she didn’t yodel down the phone at me.  

II TEMPEST


A little over a week later, I had established the beginning of a routine.  I was enjoying my classes that were devoid of the usual high school bullshit. I had made a few new friends, and I even looked forward to gym class:  a class I had passionately loathed in high school.  It was a class called “Outdoor Activities” which involved walking on the nature trails and rowing boats in the pond of the state park that abutted the campus.  My grades, thus far, were good.  I liked my professors, and the pace of the campus seemed to jibe well with me.  I found the lack of structure a little unsettling, but I supposed I’d get used to that.

Moreover, I had been cast in a play:  Our Town.  It was by Thornton Wilder, and depicted life in a small town in New England, almost a hundred years ago.  I was amazed to learn that not only were we not going to have a set, or use any props, we weren’t supposed to use sets or props.   All we were supposed to use was plain wooden chairs.  But since we couldn’t procure those, we’d make do with the molded blue plastic chairs the college had all over the place.  I was cast as “Simon Stimpson”:  the alcoholic church organist, a role I thought would be a lot of fun.

The play had a student director:  A  short, rotund girl in her fourth semester, who constantly sounded like she had a stuffed up nose, which gave her speech a smug quality.  She claimed she was “so serious about theatre, she had the theatre masks tattooed on her body” but she wouldn’t say exactly where, which allowed my filthy, gutterbound little imagination to go to town. 

Only her boyfriend knew the answer to that.  Maybe.  His name was Wayne, but he had given himself the name “Tempest”, and made it known this was his preferred form of address.  He had somehow installed himself as the “Assistant Student Director”.   I doubted that title had any official meaning, but that did not deter him from throwing the weight he thought he had around, as “The Student Director’s Boyfriend”

“Tempest” was about twenty six, had frosted hair pulled back into a mullet, and a uniform stubble about his face he accomplished with a “Miami Device”:  a sort of electric razor designed to do a bad job.  He seemed to have a never ending supply of sunglasses, which he wore indoors:  some had louvers instead of lenses, some had palm trees superimposed on the mirror lenses, one had “Wild” printed on one lens, and “Thing” on the other.

He drove a turquoise Geo Tracker, with hot pink racing stripes on the chassis that dissolved into a palm tree.  It seemed like he was affecting the aesthetic of a surfer or something, which I thought was odd, considering he was from Hunter, NY, a small town in the Catskill Mountains, about as far from the Pacific Coast as you could get.  Everything he said seemed to end in “Man” or “Dude”, in this weird affected timbre.  I didn’t know what to make of him.  It didn’t seem like he actually went to class or DID anything.  Most of the older students brushed him off in irritation.  But he would introduce himself, “I’m Tempest, man. The Assistant Student Director.”  

Aside from that, often I’d run into people I knew from my high school who had graduated and wondered what I was doing there, being two years younger than them and all.  It was well known I was sixteen, and I was sometimes referred to as “the kid”.  Every now and then, I’d be asked, ”What are you, some kind of crazy genius?”

I was really uncomfortable with that trope.  By circumstances, dumb luck and some convoluted arrangements I had ended up here, but it certainly wasn’t because I was a “Crazy genius” or anything remotely like that.  Though I was holding my own at the college level, my past academic record would not indicate even being academically gifted, let alone a genius.  I didn’t want people thinking too hard about that, or uncovering what a royal fuck-up I had been in previous years.  Moreover, I was pretty sure “crazy geniuses” would be attending institutions much more vaunted than this community college with its modest campus of low slung buildings.

III  THEM WITH THE CLOVEN HOOVES


If my time on the college campus was agreeable, my job at the goat farm was not.  A week and a half in, I hated it.  I liked the goats; they were nice, intelligent creatures, but this was a job, not a petting zoo.  And it was a four hour sweaty, smelly slog.  I’d come home exhausted, thirsty, stinking and itchy from the hay that stuck to my sweat.  I’d come home to every family member commenting on how much I stunk, my brother and dad yodeling at me about being a goatherd (it had worn thin a long time ago).  I’d jump in the shower, and toss my work clothes into the washer, where despite being laundered every day, as was necessary, they retained the odor of goat farm.

Every day, after classes or play rehearsal, or music practice, I’d put on my old smelly jeans, with rips in the knees, an old T-shirt, and a pair of old army boots.  I’d get into the Volkswagen and drive the twenty-two miles out to the ass end of nowhere to the goat farm.  By the end of the week, the car was caked in dust.  My brother had written “Wash Me” in the dust on the window.

If I had the time, first thing I would do when I parked the car in the dusty parking lot was head on over to a small pen, where the “kids” were.  They’d be prancing around and bleating, and I would climb over the low fence.  They’d be excited to see me, and would immediately begin chewing on the rip in my jeans, and I’d pet them for awhile.  In the capacity of my job, I had nothing to do with them; they had been weaned, but not for long and they were fed by someone else, sometimes with a bottle.  Nonetheless, they were cute and playful, and it was fun to spend a little time with them.

My boss was stocky, grizzled woman who chain smoked to the point of spitting brown in the dirt.  A few bristly hairs grew out of her chin, and her voice was raspy and baritonal.  She didn’t seem to have much affection for the kids, and regarded my few minutes with them with impatience, but since I was off the clock, there wasn’t much she could do about it.

In a few minutes, I would punch in and begin my duties.  Once I casually asked my boss, “So when the baby goats get bigger, what happens?”

She said, “Well, we put the females in with Fleetwood!”

Fleetwood, I learned, was the lone male goat on the farm.  The stud.

“What do you do with the males?” I asked

“We sell them for leather!”  She answered with entirely too much relish, “While they’re still young, their pelt is nice and soft, but you have to let them grow big enough so that when they skin ‘em, there’s enough leather.  Ever hear of kid gloves?  Handbags, jackets, boots….”  And then she cackled, as though she was pre-emptively getting off on my discomfort with the answer.  And then spat a gleaming, tan lugey onto the ground.

It wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, at all, but there was work to be done.  I would take a rusty wheelbarrow to a short silo, push a button and that would deposit a quantity of goat feed into it.  I’d grab a large scoop and head into one of the barns.

This would be a good time to describe the complex:  It was essentially three long, low buildings (called barns) that radiated out from a central “hub”.  The hub is where the goats were milked.  It was a large, brightly lit space with white cinderblock walls and a red quarry tile floor.   It was immaculately clean.  When the goats weren’t in there, it smelled like bleach. On the perimeter, through glass windows was a small office, and through another set of glass windows was a huge, stainless steel tank, where one could hear agitators and refrigeration equipment whirring constantly.

It had holding pens for the goats, and a system of railings that looked like nothing so much as the system of railings used in theme parks to keep long lines for rides in order.  To direct the goats in a particular direction, it had gates that could be moved and shunted.  And in the very center of the space was a huge, round stainless steel contraption that looked like an enormous steel Trivial Pursuit game piece, but open at the perimeter.

The goats would be herded into the pen, moved down the maze of railings, and inserted into one of the wedge shaped compartments of the contraption, and hooked up with milking equipment.  It would rotate slowly, and at half a rotation the goat would be disengaged from the equipment, and deposited into another maze which would lead to another holding pen, and ultimately sent back to their respective barn.  Thankfully, my job had nothing to do with the actual milking of the goats.  My job was to simply feed the goats and get them into the hub.

Each of the barns had 200 goats, and were subdivided into four pens, with fifty goats in each pen.   The two pens that were closest to the hub had an automatically controlled overhead door that would open directly to a holding pen in the hub.  The two pens farthest from the hub were accessible by a central aisle that ran down the barn, with an overhead door that opened into the hub.

First thing to do was feed the goats.  I’d enter through a door at the far end of one of the barns.  The barn was a noisy, hot space that smelled strongly of goats, tinged with the smell of urine, hay and goat excrement.  It would be a cacophony of bleating at various pitches, timbres and volumes, with overhead blade fans of industrial size but didn’t do much to move the air.  

The goats were attuned to the sound of the door opening and the wheelbarrow rolling and would crowd to the feeding trough, bleating, kicking and butting each other out of the way.  Any large space with animal feed has rats, so the first thing would be to bang the scoop on the side of the trough, and watch five or six rats make a hasty departure.

Then I would move down the aisle at warp speed, quickly dropping a  scoop of feed fifty times to each pen.  The wheelbarrow held enough feed for two pens worth:  one hundred goats.  I’d race the empty wheelbarrow back down the aisle, back out the door to the silo and repeat the process five more times, through each of the three barns.

At that point I had worked up a sweat, but apparently not enough for my boss, who was constantly clapping her hands in my face and barking at me to “speed things up!”  I wondered what her actual function on the farm was, besides riding my ass.  But now it was time for the goats to be milked.

My job was to simply get the goats into the hub to be milked, but getting one goat to do what you want it to do is not an easy task, let alone getting fifty at a time.  I’d either open the overhead door to the hub, or send them up the aisle, depending on where the pen was.  Then, I’d have to jump into the pen, where I would sink down ankle deep in hay and goat shit.

The goats would swarm around me, rub up against me, and chew on the ever growing rip in my jeans.  I’d get behind them and call, “Come on come on come on!  Let’s go goats!  Come on come on!  Hey, stop chewing on that!  Let’s go!” as I’d waft them in the direction of the hub.  But the goats wouldn’t go.  They’d stall, they’d chew some more on my jeans, they’d stop to go to the bathroom, and generally be recalcitrant.  It was a process.  But eventually after the last goat was in the hub, I’d shut the overhead doors, shunt the gate in the right direction to end at the milking apparatus, and then head over to the next barn to prepare them to enter the hub.  Repeat process twelve times.  And return them to their pen, twelve times, with the same stubborn recalcitrance.

I should also mention that the goats were classified and housed according to where they were on their “milk cycle” and it was notated by the bar code and color of their ear tag, however, one incorrect move of a gate could mix two goats that were classified separately, which would beget a long process of separating out the goats into their respective pen.  Luckily that never happened, but I was sure if it did, either that would be the end of my job there, or I would be tasked with the long process of sorting the stubborn goats well into the night, off the clock.

Another thing I was to watch out for was a the subtle difference between a goat stubbornly sitting down versus squatting.  My boss warned me, “If a goat is squatting down, that means she is kidding!”

“Kidding?” I repeated, “What would they be kidding about?  Like faking illness?”

She shot me a withering look, ”Giving birth!” she snarled contemptuously, ”If that happens, get me!”

IV FLEETWOOD

Then there was Fleetwood.

Let me tell you about Fleetwood.

Fleetwood lived in a pen abutting the hub with forty nine other goats.  And his sole and only job on the farm was impregnating the other 599 goats there; a job he took very seriously.  A job, for whatever reason, to which he viewed me an impediment.  

You’d smell him before you’d see him: a pungent, uriney, mangy odor.  He was a big, shaggy thing that glowered out of a pair of malevolent black eyes.  He had a pair of sharp horns he aimed directly at me, as he snarled and snorted from his corner of the pen.  It was very obvious about how he felt towards me, and I had no particular affection for him either.

If all I had to do was feed the goats, Fleetwood would be a non-issue, but no.  When it was time  to open the door to send the goats into the hub to get milked, my job was to prevent Fleetwood from following the other goats in, something it seemed was his sole mission in life to do.  Male goats, of course, can’t be milked.  I mean, I guess they could, but it would be a fruitless effort that would only result in a pissed off goat.   Moreover, I was given to understand that if a male goat was present, the female goat would release a hormone, which would spoil their milk, and make it taste like the male.  I wasn’t sure how that worked, but I was pretty sure nobody would want Fleetwood flavored goat milk.  Not based on how he smelled.

Fleetwood didn’t like being “redirected” from following the goats into the hub.  Fleetwood liked being able to get laid when he wanted, and he sure as hell didn’t want me jumping into the pen, grabbing him by his horns and moving him in the opposite direction he wanted to go.  And in addition to being smelly and mean, he was also strong.  

It took a lot of muscle, let alone coordination, to move the other goats in the hub, all while preventing Fleetwood from going there.  He’d snarl and snort.  He’s move his head, attempt to kick me.  And when all else failed, he’d urinate on my boot in a high pressure, steaming, reeking arc.  Once I let go of his horns, I had to get out of the pen fast, because he’d then attempt to gore me.  The pen containing Fleetwood was the last to be milked.  I dreaded it, and I loathed Fleetwood.  And he loathed me right back.

But fortunately, after Fleetwood’s pen had been milked, there wasn’t much else to do, so I would drag my smelly, exhausted self out to the parking lot, get in the car and drive home.  I’d respect the speed limit, but barely, considering that under New York State’s draconian speeding laws, new drivers who sped would have their license suspended.  Once at home, showered, and having endured the wisecracks of my brother and dad, and even my mom sometimes, I’d have something to eat.  I was still thirsty, but my dad bought beer by the case, which he’d keep a few in the fridge.  Once he had retired to the living room, I’d grab a bottle from the fridge, and replace it with one from the case.  The past few weeks, the beer distributer must have had a sale on Molson Golden, which was a hell of a lot better than the “Old Milwaukee” he had a seemingly endless supply of before.

I’d discreetly take the beer off to my room, hold the green bottle against my face, which was still hot from the work, before I’d open it to drink, and begin studying my coursework until 9 PM, when the “night rate” for long distance calls began, and then I’d call my girlfriend. 

I attempted to tell her about my day:  About English 101, and Outdoor Activities, and Our Town rehearsal.  The different classes, and goings on, and personalities of the community college environment I was now in, but there was a disconnect.  It seemed out of context, disjointed, out of whack.  When I told her about my work day at the goat farm, there was a pause, where I waited for her commentary.

“I’m sure you must smell wonderful,”  she said in that flat voice she reserved for things she was not impressed with.

As though the stink of the goat farm had worked its way through seventy five miles of phone cable and had offended the air of the neat little Cape Cod style house where she lived with her parents in Westchester County.  I didn’t want her thinking of me smelling “wonderful”.  I knew what it smelled like, I knew what Fleetwood smelled like, and I did not want that to even cross her mind.  There was no room for it in her world, and I did not want it to be there, not even in her imagination.  I resolved with my next paycheck to buy some Drakkar Noir, in its flat black oval bottle.  That’s what I wanted her to imagine me smelling like.  That would make me feel better.

She’d tell me about her day.  About her college prep classes, band rehearsal, chorus rehearsal, and her youth group affiliated with her church.  Her membership in the National Honor Society. She told me that Michael Dukakis would be visiting her high school because it was a Federal School of Excellence.  It all sounded so idyllic, so orderly.  The trajectory sounded so clear.  

It threw my world into sharp relief, which was not idyllic, and anything but orderly, what with the seemingly piecemeal feel of my class schedule, my smelly and exhausting job.  My house with the sloping, creaking floors and the bat problem.  My brother and my dad yodeling about my job.  My mother and my sister fighting like a pair of cats in a bag on my sister’s weekends home from the state college.  My dad thumping on the door of my room and yelling that a phone bill was not a good use of my funds.  And every fucking day, getting pissed on, shat on, kicked and almost gored by Fleetwood.

It felt chaotic, yet pedestrian, mundane, and uncertain.  My identity was straddling a yawning chasm, and I wasn’t sure what was on each side, what side I wanted to be on, and where it would even lead.  If my girlfriend’s trajectory was a straight line on a 45 degree angle in an upward direction, mine wasn’t even a trajectory;  it looked like the jagged readout of a polygraph, where the subject was lying through their teeth and nobody knew which way to hold the paper to get an accurate reading.  

V MULGERE HIRCUM

It was three weeks into September now, and Upstate New York stubbornly clung to the summer humidity, as thought it was as resistant to comply with the logical course of events as Fleetwood.  While I was conceiving an exit strategy from the goat farm, the execution of it seemed unattainable.  I had classmates who had jobs considerably less grueling, less messy, less smelly and closer to home.  I had a friend who worked in the AV department of the college.  I had another one who bagged groceries at a supermarket.  I had to snag one of those:  the goat farm was taking my sanity, and the more it took, the less was left.  But how?  Back to square 1?

The ripped jeans I wore to work at the goat farm were fast being chewed to pieces.  When I started, they were simply jeans with rips in the knees.  Now one leg was barely hanging on.  The goats had gnawed through the stitching on the sides.   I did not want to replace them; I did not want to destroy another pair of jeans.  Nor did I want to simply cut the legs off entirely; if the goats didn’t have jeans to chew on, they might instead opt for my bare leg.  The army boots had impacted goat shit in the waffling, and the legs of my jeans were flapping around like the fingers on a leper, just before they drop off.

And on Tuesday of the third week of September, I got my first B.  For the small assignments I had been doing for my various classes, I had been maintaining straight As.  Two weeks is not a long time to sustain a straight A average, but I viewed the B (not even a B+) as a foreshadowing of things to come; an exponential decline.  And people would start questioning why I was even in college, whether I even belonged there.  I’d be uncovered as a fraud and sent back to my chaotic high school, complete with the bells, the pushing and shoving, the sardonic teachers, and the everpresent possibility of an ass kicking right around the corner for no apparent reason.   Was I burning out or was I simply not cut out for this?

My B paper in hand, as I walked down the corridor, I saw “Tempest” mincing towards me in his signature Aviator sunglasses.

“Hey man.  We adjusted the rehearsal schedule.  We’re gonna need you at 2 PM today”

“You know I have to work then.  Can’t I come at the original time?”

“No, dude.  We expect you at two.”

“I have to work,” I reiterated, “You are giving me only a day’s notice on this.”

“What can I say, man?  This play’s a commitment.  If you weren’t up for it…”

“The schedule worked fine before you changed it on me.  I can’t make it.  Give me more notice next time.”

“I’m not accepting that, man, I’m not accepting that.  I’m expecting you there, dude.  Make it work.”

And then he walked away.  

Who the fuck was he, anyway?  Did his girlfriend, the actual director, send him as a messenger boy because she was too chickenshit to tell people she was jerking them around on the schedule?  I was tired of Wayne.  “Tempest”.  I didn’t know what his deal was, but he was a jackass.

Much as I disliked Wayne, it did give me pause.  What if I just went to play rehearsal and just didn’t go to my job at the goat farm?  I’d be fired to be sure, but I wanted out of that job anyway.  Although given the nature of just about every human being I had met at the goat farm, collecting my final paycheck after that stunt might be an exercise in mulgere hircum:  to milk a male goat.  An impossible, unproductive task.

I did consider it.  Play rehearsal, developing my character, with friends I had made, even if it involved having to endure “Tempest” every now and then was exponentially preferable to herding 599 goats and wrangling Fleetwood.  Maybe I could call in sick.  I had never malingered before, but it would be just my luck for a friend of a friend of someone at the goat farm to see me rehearsing in the small black box theatre, healthy as can be, and I’d be called out on my lies, fired, and likely not paid for the work I had already done.  I couldn’t risk it.

At 2 PM I wearily got into my ripped jeans, nasty Tshirt, and shitty boots.  I got into the car and drove out to the end of the earth, to the coarse county route, to the dirt road.  Halfway down the dirt road, there was a blast of a horn, and barreling towards me was an 18 wheeler truck, with a glossy black cab and a shiny metal grill.  The trucker blasted the horn again, in a long, menacing blare.

I was literally facing down the grill, not five feet from the hood of the car and we were at a standoff.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  The road was too narrow for the truck, barely wide enough for the Volkswagen.  I couldn’t squeeze past the truck, I couldn’t turn around.  I hadn’t been driving very long, and going half a mile in reverse seemed like a daunting task.  Plus I was running late.

The truck blasted the horn again, and revved the engine, sending a plume of black smoke up the pipe.  Then it started moving towards me in an attempt to run me off the road.  I had no choice but to move to the right, into the weeds, and at that moment, I felt the tire of the car hit something sharp, there was a sort of pop, and a hiss and the car sank.
The truck blazed past me, and I noticed the trailer was an animal carrier, and it was emblazoned with the name of a leather tannery.

The tire had been punctured; that much was obvious, and I was due at work in about three minutes.  The goat farm was another three quarters of a mile down the road.  I knew, on some level, how to change a tire, but I had never done it with this car.  I opened the hatch, located the spare “donut” tire, the jack and the wrench.  I wasn’t sure how long it would take to change the tire, and I was already late.  I knew that after working, the last thing I would want to do would be to change the tire, but I decided to get the car off the road as best I could, leave it, and walk the rest of the way to the goat farm.

I walked into the parking lot twenty minutes late, with my boss with her hands on her hips.  I was drenched in sweat, and the cloud of dust the truck had kicked up was still in my nose and lungs.

“Sorry I’m late,” I wheezed, “I got a flat tire back there, so I had to walk.  That truck….”

she cut me off

“Excuses aren’t going to get the goats fed,” she growled, ”Get moving.”

“OK, let me punch in”.

And as I walked towards the hub, I noticed the pen with the kids was half empty.  They were never coming back.

I began my duties, just as I had every day before.  I got the wheelbarrow and the scoop as though they both weighed several tons, and there was several more tons on my back.  I slogged to the barn.  If it was my bosses job to ride my ass, today she did it with a vengeance.  It was merciless.  The barking, the hand clapping in front of my face, the kicking of the troughs.  The criticizing, the threats (although getting fired at this point would be sweet relief).

If the goats were recalcitrant every day, today they were doubly so.  Everything was a fight.  Everything was like pulling teeth.  The goats chewed forcefully on my jeans that I was amazed they were still hanging on.  The smell of goat shit was eye watering.  The rats no longer feared me, and I couldn’t get one second’s peace from my boss.

Then I got to Fleetwood’s pen.

Fleetwood, today, was dead set on following the goats into the hub.  He was determined.  No force in nature, certainly not a scrawny sixteen year old was going to thwart that effort.  He was prepared to fight to the death.

I jumped into the pen.  Fleetwood positioned his horns and charged me, but I got out of the way.  Fleetwood snarled and snorted and breathed foul smelling vapor into the air.  He moved towards me again, but this time, I grabbed him by the horns, and he did his usual trick of moving his head and attempting to kick me.

I moved to the overhead door, pushed the button, and as it opened, managed to waft the goats through it into the hub.
Fleetwood attempted to follow them.  He grunted, kicked, pissed and shat.  I managed to get the door closed, as the last goat entered, but Fleetwood had decided this was war.  I managed to get out of the pen before he poked two large holes in me, but his expression told me that if I entered that pen again, there would be blood.

I had to enter the pen again.  I had to return the other goats to the pen and keep him out of the hub.

So ten minutes later, when I jumped into the pen, Fleetwood was ready for me.  I moved towards the overhead door, to let the other goats in, and he charged me.   I moved out of his way and grabbed his horns.  As the goats filled the space, he moved his head with super goat strength.  I couldn’t close the door, or let go of Fleetwood until all the goats were present in the pen.

Fleetwood growled, then landed a well placed kick to the shin.  I winced in pain, and knew it was going to leave an ugly bruise.  But I didn’t let go.  Fleetwood then grabbed the leg of my jeans in his teeth and pulled.  There was a ripping sound.

“Hey, let go!”

Fleetwood wasn’t letting go.  And he landed another kick.

“HEY!  LET! GO!”

With another jerk, a violent ripping noise, Fleetwood tore the leg of my jeans right off.  He had it in his teeth, I still had him by the horns.  He aimed his penis strategically and deployed a forceful stream of hot, stinking piss on my bare leg, landing a third violent kick as a parting gift.

Then he went off to the corner, with the jeans leg still in his teeth, snorting, snarling and flapping it up and down like a trophy.
This was my cue to shut the overhead door and get the hell out of the pen.  I was not going to try to retrieve my jeans leg, which was now a tattered denim rag.  
If Fleetwood wanted to keep it as a trophy, he could have it.

In a daze, I hobbled out to the parking lot with one leg on my jeans, but barely.  I looked around for the car, but then I remembered it was half a mile down the dirt road with a flat tire that still had yet to be changed.  Painfully, I dragged myself down the road to the car, which was sitting like a derelict, halfway in the weeds.  I opened the hatch, hauled out the donut spare tire, the jack and the tire iron, moved the car onto the road and lay in the dirt to get the jack under the car.

I managed to get the tire off, but as I was going back to get the donut, I tripped over my feet and spilled the lugs into the weeds.  It was another half hour, on my hands and knees in the waning light, but thankfully, thankfully, I located them all and managed to get the donut tire attached, and the flat tire into the trunk.

But at that moment, a beat up grey pickup truck came down the road at me and began honking impatiently.  It was my boss behind the wheel.  And she just leaned on the horn.  I had no choice but to back the car down the half mile of dirt road with my boss honking impatiently.

I peeled out onto the county route and onto the state route, where I put the car in 5th gear and stepped on it to get home.  Except there would be some time before I would be going home as I saw the red light flashing in my rear window.  Wellp, there goes my license.

I pulled the car over to the shoulder, and after an eternity, with the red lights flashing in my mirror a police officer stepped out of the car and came towards me.

“License and registration, please”

I handed them over.

“How’re you doing this evening?”

I gulped.  “OK”. 

 I wasn’t ok, but I wasn’t having that conversation with a cop.

“Where are you heading?” he asked

“Home.”  I answered.

“Where’s home?” he inquired.

I gave him my address, although he had it on my license.  He seemed satisfied with it.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked

“Work” I answered miserably.

“Where’s work?” 

“The goat farm back there.  Up the county route.”

“What is it you do there?” he asked.  He seemed genuinely interested.

“I feed the goats.  And I herd them to get milked.”

“You herd goats?” he asked, “That makes you a goatherd!”  he chuckled.  And I waited for him to start yodeling.  What is the appropriate reaction if a cop who just pulled you over starts yodeling at you?
Fortunately he didn’t.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asked

“I don’t” I answered honestly.

“Do you know how fast you were going?”  he asked

“Too fast?” I guessed

“Is your speedometer broken, or were you simply not paying attention?”

“I……”

“You were going 73 miles an hour.  The speed limit here, and in the state of New York is 55.  That’s 18 miles over the speed limit.”

“Wow”.

“Wow is right.  Your license is only a few months old.  Any moving violation during that probationary period results in a suspension”

I didn’t know what to say to that.  He was right.

It was then he noticed the donut tire.

“What happened there?” he asked

“I got a flat on the way to work.”

“You know you are only supposed to go about 30 miles an hour on the spare tire, right?”

“OK”

“You need to keep your speed down.” He continued.

“Yes”

He studied my license again.  “Is your dad still teaching?”

“Yes” I answered.

“I had him for one of my classes.  Tell him I said hi.  Keep your speed down”

He handed my license back, and as he sauntered back to his car, I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him his name. But I could hear him whistling “The Lonely Goatherd” on the way back to his car.

And I sat in the driver seat hyperventilating and waiting for my pulse to return to its rightful pace.  But the police car still sat there with its lights flashing and it was obvious it wasn’t going anywhere till I got back out there on the road.  So I reluctantly got back out onto the road and drove home at a judicious 30 miles an hour.

As soon as I was in the door, my brother took a look at me; dusty from head to toe, with one leg of my jeans ripped off.

“What happened to YOU?” he asked

“Fuck you” I snarled.

“Hey mom!” my brother called  “Look at Robert’s jeans!”

“Did one of the goats eat the leg of your jeans?” my mother asked.

“Never mind that,” I sighed, ”Let me just get a shower.”

As the warm water spilled over me, with varying degrees of pressure (that was another thing; the shower head needed to be fixed), I wondered how it had come to this.  Why couldn’t I have a normal job like every other kid.  Why couldn’t I have a normal class schedule like every other kid my age?  Why couldn’t I have a normal, peaceful house, with a brother who knew how to shut his mouth when it would behoove him?  Why couldn’t I just have a normal, streamlined existence like everybody else?  Why did my life have to be invaded by smelly goats and assholes like Wayne?  Why did a day at work have to include the sadness that came with the knowledge that baby goats had been skinned?  I cursed in the steam as I let the hot water run over the bruises on my shins, until my mother thumped on the door and told me I had been in there long enough; I was going to run the hot water out.

I threw the jeans in the garbage in the basement; they were useless now and went upstairs to get some food, but physically hungry as I was, every piece seemed to stick in my throat.  When my parents retired to the living room, I opened the fridge, and found we were back to the Old Milwaukee beer, in its brown bottle.  As usual, I snuck it to my room, sipped it as I tried to study my work, but my mind couldn’t focus.  All I wanted was to talk to my girlfriend, so I waited impatiently until 9.

That didn’t go well, either.  I was already in such a state, and was impervious to reason.  Nobody could talk me down, not my girlfriend, not anybody, although that is a lot to put on a teenage girl with her own set of responsibilities.  As I got more and more and more worked up, I invented imaginary slights against me, and eventually the conversation devolved into a frustrating, circular, exhausting litany, where I deployed all my negativity on her. The call ended, and I went to bed exhausted, ashamed, upset and unable to sleep.

VI THE GOAT THAT DIED FOR YOUR SINS


I did manage to drift off into a fitful, uncomfortable semi-slumber at about 4 AM, only to be woken by my alarm: a box with a read digital display that bleated not unlike a goat.  In a fog, I made my morning ablutions and headed off the class, and as I saw the car, caked in dust and with its donut spare tire, I felt like 40 miles of bad road.  I was exhausted and nervous.  I was embarrassed by the conversation I had with my girlfriend.  I dreaded my day of classes and dreaded even more my slog of hell at the goat farm.

First class was English 101, and I immediately got one of my papers back, but through the back of the sheet, I could see it was marked up by red pen. I was going to flunk out.  I knew it.  I couldn’t even make it in community college. The professor was a scholarly guy with a red beard, glasses and a dry sense of humor, who chain smoked outside the north entrance of the main building.  He set the paper, face down on my desk, and with dread I slowly flipped it over.

It was an A.  The comment at the top of the page stated “This was an excellent read!”

in the margins he had scribbled witty comments, asked thought provoking questions, and occasionally made a wry joke. He complimented my writing style, offered a few suggestions and reminded me to take the side tracks off the paper next time.  As I left the classroom he looked over at me.

“Really nice job.  You might consider majoring in writing.”

I had some time to kill, so I sat on one of the wood benches outside the student center as the bands around my chest loosened, and I took the first few breaths that felt natural in close to 24 hours.  I had one class until play rehearsal, and soon I was seated in the black box theatre, awaiting instruction.  Our Town was coming together nicely, and I enjoyed the company of my cast mates.

But for some reason, in the air, there was a faint odor of goat.  I knew that smell, I had been smelling it for hours at a time.  It wasn’t me.  It couldn’t be.  I kept my work clothes separate, I conscientiously showered after every day at work.  But there it was; this kind of faint, musky, goaty smell.  It was not as pungent as Fleetwood, and I am pretty sure there was no place in the cast of Our Town for a goat.   I didn’t see a goat wandering around the campus.  I didn’t see a goat anywhere near the arts building, or the black box theatre.  Was I losing my mind?

And then I saw him.

His back was turned.  But there he was.

Fucking Wayne.  Fucking “Tempest”.

In a pair of skin tight jeans.  And a tan leather jacket with fringes on the sleeves.  The leather looked soft and supple, and I recognized it immediately as goat leather.  Goat leather has a distinctive odor as well as a distinctive look.  To complete the ensemble, he was also wearing a pair of fringed ankle boots, also of goat leather.  And his signature sunglasses from his rotating collection, despite the darkness of the black box.

Wayne was standing not five yards away from me, dressed in the pelts of baby goats.

I had to do a double take.  I had to do a triple take.  How many goats, I wonder?  How many baby goats died so a complete and utter asswipe like Wayne could wear them on his back and his feet?  To complement his idiotic mullet and asinine shades?  What an absolute prick!  And here I was, in the same room with him.

Wayne slowly turned around and saw me.

“Hey, man”.

I said nothing.  I was still processing it.

“Hey man, I didn’t appreciate you blew off rehearsal yesterday.”

“I had to work” I said through gritted teeth, “I told you that!”

“Yeah, well dude, a lot of people would quit their job for an opportunity like this.  You need to shit or get off the pot.”

I stared at him.

“Yeah, man.  It’s really disrespectful to the Assistant Student Director to just not show up for rehearsal”

I opened my mouth to say something, but somebody else in the theatre beat me to the punch.

“Shut up, Wayne!” came the voice.

Wayne turned around, “Who asked you, man?  And my name is Tempest!”

“Fuck you!”  I exploded, “Standing there in your stupid-ass goat jacket, and those goofy ass boots!”

“Hey dude, they were $600”

“You’re a total jackass, Wayne!” I continued.

“WHAT did you call me?” he asked

“You’re a jackass.”  I repeated

“Hey man, I’m cooler than you’ll ever be.”

“Grow the fuck up, Wayne!” I raged

“It’s Tempest!” he whined.

“And get out of my sight with that goat pelt!”

He stepped towards me, ”You little punk.  I ought to break your fucking neck.”

“Try it, douchebag.” I snarled, ”See what happens”

He stood there for a second, and I thought he was going to take a poke at me, but the door opened and in walked his girlfriend: the student director, the girl with the theatre masks tattooed on her body.

I thought this was the end of my being in the play; that I would be immediately kicked out for antagonizing her boyfriend: the “Assistant Student Director”.

But all she said was “Wayne, get out of here!  I told you to leave me alone!”

“It’s Tempest,” he whined

“Get out of here!” she demanded.  

He slunk towards the door and left, but as a final act of defiance, reopened the door and slammed it.

“Asshole” somebody said under their breath.

At rehearsal that day, I took everything I had accrued in the past 24 hours,  and put it into my role, and I don’t think I was even able to replicate it on performance day.
On the way out of rehearsal, the student director said to me, ”That was good stuff.  You should consider a theatre major.”

VII FLEETWOOD REDUX


I was exhausted, and lurking in the next few hours was the goat farm and Fleetwood.  I had to allow extra time to get there, on account of the donut tire on the car.  I think this had to be my last day.  I couldn’t do it anymore.  I went home, searched in my dresser for a pair of jeans almost as dilapidated as the pair I had just discarded, and put them on with my other work clothes and began the now forty minute drive out to the goat farm.

When I pulled up in the dusty parking lot, my boss was standing there and holding something in her hand.  It looked like a tattered piece of blue cloth, but upon closer examination, it was a piece of denim.  It was torn and mangled and shredded beyond belief, but it was unmistakable a piece of denim.  Like it had once been from a pair of jeans.  I wonder whose jeans they had come from.  Gee, I wonder.

As I exited the car, she held up the cloth.  “What is this?” she demanded.

“Looks like a rag,” I answered.

“Did you give this to Fleetwood?” 

“Did I give this to Fleetwood?  No.” I answered

“Well, he sure as hell didn’t find it himself.  This was found in his pen today.  He has eaten some of it.  Somebody gave it to him.  You were the last one in his pen”

“I didn’t give it to him,” I repeated, “He tore it off of my jeans”

“Well, why did you let him?  It’s your responsibili……  Never mind” she continued nastily.  “You see that car?”

She gestured to a black BMW that was in the parking lot.  I had never seen it before.  It looked out of place among the farm vehicles, the beat up pick up trucks, and even my red Volkswagen.  It had been shiny, but it  had a light coat of dust on it from having driven up the dirt road.

“Yes, I see the car.”

“That car belongs to the owner of the farm,” she said, ”He’s here today,”

“OK”

Her baritonal voice dropped to a low, guttural, menacing basso, “I’m going to be watching you.  You better not mess up.”

I got a glimpse of the owner throughout the day:  in the barns, in the hub, puttering around the office.  He was a pretty normal looking guy in jeans and a plaid shirt.

If my boss had been tyrannical yesterday, she was positively Atilla the Hun today.  She stepped it up another notch, with the barking, roaring, bellowing, hand clapping and snarling.  She was on my tail like flies to dung.  Since I had worked there, I had never seen her do a lick of actual work, short of following me around and cracking the whip.

The owner walked around, as if he was a guest in a museum that he was vaguely familiar with.  He stopped here and there, to absentmindedly pet a goat, nod to me, lean over the railing and watch the goats getting milked.

But when I got to Fleetwood’s pen, he was in the process of cajoling Fleetwood over.  

“Here Fleetwood!  Here Fleetwood!  Who’s the good boy?  Is Fleetwood the good boy?  Yes, he is!  Fleetwood’s the good boy!”

Fleetwood was not a good boy.  Fleetwood was a malicious, smelly, disgusting creature.  Fleetwood had a pair of horns he wanted nothing more than to gore me with.  Fleetwood kicked me to leave bruises that had turned green in the past twenty four hours.  Fleetwood pissed on my bare leg.  Fleetwood ripped the leg of my jeans off, and I got the blame for it.  Fleetwood was not a good boy.

But the owner continued blandishments in a cringeworthy, falsetto motherese, replete with rhetorical questions as to whether he was a good boy.  
“Yes, Fleetwood’s a good boy!  Yes, Fleetwood’s a good boy!”

Fleetwood lumbered over and breathed a foul smelling vapor in his face, turned around and took a shit.

“Did Fleetwood just go potty?  Yes he did!  Yes he did!”

Fleetwood retreated back to his corner, stopping on the way to shag one of the other goats.

I still had to get Fleetwood’s pen milked, and get those goats into the hub, so a short time later, I entered the pen and pressed the button to open the overhead door into the hub.  Fleetwood, as usual, stormed towards me with his horns aimed.  As usual, I sidestepped, and grabbed the horns.  And as usual, Fleetwood, fought me tooth and hoof.  Literally.  Nasty bruise # 4.

Out of my peripheral vision, however, I caught sight of one of the goats in the adjacent pen in an unusual posture.  Not sitting down, exactly.  Squatting.  And when a goat is squatting, she is kidding.  She’s giving birth.  And I remembered what I had been told.

I still had Fleetwood by the horns, but I yelled “HEY!” to whoever was there.  
Nobody was in the barn except the 151 goats, including the goat that was kidding.
“HEY!”  I yelled again.

I had to let go of Fleetwood, and I ran into the hub.

“Hey!”  I called above the din of the machinery and the goats, “One of the goats is kidding!”

“Kidding?” the owner repeated, “Kidding about what?”

“Giving birth!” I explained, “We gotta get somebody!”

I saw my boss in the hub

“Hey, hey hey!”  I called her over

She came over with a murderous look on her face. “Why are you in here?  Why are you not doing your job!”

“One of the goats is kidding!” I answered, ”In there!”

She ran towards the door towards the barn; the owner followed.  

“Right there!”  I pointed to the goat.

I believe they whisked the birthing goat out of the pen, but the owner had lost interest at this point.  
When I looked at Fleetwood’s pen, it was empty, and it took a few seconds to register.

“Where’s Fleetwood?” I heard a voice behind me.  It was the owner.

We both looked through the doorway into the hub, that was still yawning open.

Fleetwood was in the hub, mounting goats in a frenzied state.  One right after the other.  Fleetwood, the horny bastard, was going to town.  In the hub.  Where the goats were milked.  The owner and I watched, in stunned silence for about twenty seconds, as Fleetwood continued to burn off every ounce of sexual steam he had.  I believe all forty nine goats were shagged by Fleetwood in the hub in a space of about ten minutes.

A beat passed.  Two.

Finally, the owner spoke.

“Whose job is it to prevent Fleetwood from entering the milking area?”

“Mine,” I said confidently.

“Not anymore it isn’t”.

“OK”.

I walked through the doorway to the hub, into the cacophony of bleating, the goats being led down the maze of railings, the flattened goat shit on the red quarry tile floor.  The roar of the machinery, and Fleetwood fucking every goat in there.  I crossed the room to the small office where the time clock was, opened the door.  One of the goats tried to follow me in.  

“Hey, get out of here”

I located my time card and punched out.  I was about to leave, but the owner threw open the door and yelled “You just destroyed $7000 worth of goat milk!”

I looked at him calmly.

“So I did.”

The door from the milking hub to the office was open, but I went out the other door to the lobby.

The last thing I saw there was a swarm of goats entering the office, surrounding the owner, licking his hands, chewing on his pants.  Bleating, shitting and butting heads.  And Fleetwood was close behind them.

As a courtesy to him, I shut the door behind me.  I thought he might like to spend some time with his goats.  And Fleetwood, since Fleetwood was such a good boy.

I went to the car, and before I went home I stopped off at the car wash, and watched the muddy water sluice off the car.
As routine, I went home, showered and got something to eat.

“How was work?” my dad asked.

“I got fired” I answered.

“Eh, it was too far anyway.  You’ll get another job”

“Famous last words,” I retorted, “I destroyed $7,000 worth of goat milk”

“How’d you manage THAT?”  my dad asked

“I don’t think you would believe me” I answered.

And when I called my girlfriend that night, and told her I got fired, I didn’t tell her why, because I don’t think she would have believed me either.  She didn’t seem to hold my firing against me, though.  I patched things up from our previous conversation, and I went to sleep that night secure and contented.  Everything was going to be fine.

IIX LOOSE ENDS, THE END

You probably want to know if I got paid for that week, after having destroyed $7000 worth of goat milk, and the answer is yes I did.  I wasn’t sure: much as I never wanted to see that God forsaken goat farm for the rest of my days, I was prepared to show up there and get my pay, if it was necessary.  While I wasn’t prepared to show up there with a tire iron to extract my pay, I was not going to countenance being stiffed for my work.

Turns out it wasn’t necessary.  A week later, a check in the mail arrived, counted to the last hour, in the amount of everything they owed me.
I had secured another job, too.  I was bagging groceries in a supermarket alongside a friend I had met in my “Outdoor Activities” phys ed class at the college.  He clued me into the fact they had a position, and they hired me on the spot.  At $5 an hour.

The day I got the final check from the goat farm, I went out for pizza with my friends, two from college, two from high school and we had a blast.
That Saturday, I went down to see my girlfriend, and had a blast. 

My first semester of community college resulted in a GPA of 3.5

Once again I had a future.  I had a trajectory.

And I also had a job.

And I never went to a goat farm again.

the end.

THREE AWAKENINGS ON THE TRAIN IN L. A.

I:  July, 1984.

My mother shakes me awake and I ask sleepily, “What state are we in?”

“California,” she answers.

I look around the dark coach car, and out the window.  It is dark, except for the lights in the distance.  I hear and feel the rails and wheels grind under the train.  The shadows of bodies shift in seats, those asleep breathing rhythmically.

It is late July of 1984 and I am nine years old.  I am between third and fourth grade.  My sister is thirteen, and my brother is five.  We are all an even four years apart; our birthdays are all within three months of each other.

I had spent the past two nights in this coach car.  The air conditioner has been on, and it has been a cold couple of nights, in that I have been wearing summer clothes.  I have gone three days without a shower, but I am not yet old enough to stink. I am also small enough to lie across two seats, and the space has existed for me to do so.

The coach has orange and brown accents; the upholstery is in the classic “southwest print” pattern.

“Come,”  My mother leads my brother and my sister along with my dad to the “Lounge Café” car, which is also accented in brown and orange, but has swivel chairs and love seats facing windows taller than me, as well as those that curve around to the ceiling.  She hands me a plastic camping cup with granola and milk.  To save money, she has brought along a large coffee can full of granola, and I assume she bought the milk at the café downstairs.  This has been our breakfast the past three mornings.  Our lunch and dinners have been consumed in the dining car, also appointed in the brown and orange southwest motif, where my younger brother and I had enjoyed either “The Whistle Stop”: a burger, or “The Gandy Dancer”: pasta.  Those were the two choices from the children’s menu.  My sister, at thirteen had insisted on ordering off the adults menu.

The sun begins to rise as I eat my granola and stare across the semi darkness as the suburbs of Los Angeles continue to take form and the light increases.
Palm trees:  I had never seen them before.  I had thought of them as green and tropical, but from the train they seemed brown and scrubby.
Numerous level crossings, where the gates flashed below us.  Graffiti on walls.  Low buildings.    A man about forty flipped the train the bird.

“Mom, a guy stuck his middle finger up!” I offered.

“Well, he was rude!”  my mother answered.

We had begun our trip in the pouring rain in Hudson, NY, onto a train that was two hours late, coming into Hudson at around 11 PM after a series of false alarms by freight trains passing through.  When the train finally arrived people, wanting to get out of the rain, rushed towards it.  However, because Hudson’s platform is short and curved, and the sleeper cars were towards the front of the train (including a slumbercoach car with staggered windows), the conductor harshly admonished “Sleeper people only!”

We were not “Sleeper People,” so we had to wait until they moved the train down the platform for the rest of us to board.  On board, my mother offered us leftover pizza, from when we had gone out for pizza earlier that evening. We happily devoured it.  It wasn’t too long before we reached Albany Rensselaer, and I had been taking in my new surroundings:  an Amfleet II coach that was only a couple of years old, in the classic 1980s brown.

I could see the five towers of the Empire Plaza in Albany, all lit up out the train window and reflecting across the river.  My brother had already become restless and had begun to misbehave.  However, at that moment, the train went into reverse to join with the segment of the Lakeshore Limited that came from Boston.

“Why are we going backwards?”  I asked

“Because Michael (my little brother) has been bad, so I told them to turn the train around and take us home!”  my mother answered.

And my brother started to cry.  I couldn’t believe it!  My mother had tried many times, without success, to scare him into behaving with threats and stories that had worked with me, when I was his age, but always left him laughing skeptically.  But he believed this threat!

I forgot how she got out of that yarn, but soon she instructed my brother and I to take our toothbrushes, go to the bathroom at the end of the car, brush our teeth and prepare for sleep.

At 6 AM, I was woken in Erie, PA.

Apparently, somebody had called a bomb threat into the train, and we had to evacuate into the dilapidated Erie, PA, Union Station, while they cleared the threat.  I had only recently learned of the threat of nuclear attack from the USSR, and in my limited understanding of the cold war, I believed, at any time, the USSR would incite President Regan to nuke them, to which they would retaliate, and blow us off the map.

It was a recurring nightmare, and any time the PA system would click on in my elementary school, my heart would leap to my throat, as I anticipated the principal announcing “Everybody proceed in an orderly manner to the fallout shelter in the basement!” in the same nonchalant manner as he would announce an assembly featuring our questionable school band.  If we survived the performance of the school band marginally, we certainly would not survive a nuclear cruise missile attack on Hudson, NY, fallout shelter or not!

And in the decrepit concourse of Erie, PA’s Union Station, after hearing the word “bomb” all I could think of was “Well, this is a bad way to end a perfectly good vacation!” as I waited for the  Soviet nuke to take us all out, and kill us all in Erie.

In an hour, we were back on the train, and our arrival into Chicago delayed further, alive and well, and not having succumbed to a nuclear salvo on Erie, PA.

My mother had insisted we keep a journal about our trip across the country.  My sister’s journal, in her loopy hand writing and odd idioms was hard to read, let alone comprehend.  I wrote in a perfunctory, begrudged manner, under sufferance, when coerced by my mother (“Time to write in your journal!”)

My brother, who could not write legibly or cohesively yet, simply dictated his rambling account of the day with relish, which my mother transcribed, in her choppy, semi-legible, lefty’s handwriting.
Because my dad was a professor at a community college and had the summers off, this allowed us to take a trip close to a month long, taking advantage of Amtrak’s “See America” pass.

And soon, we had pulled into Los Angeles Union Station, and stepped out into the baking heat of July in LA.  Down the ramp into the hybrid of Mission and Art Deco style that is Union Station.

It was early, and well before the time we could check into our motel:  The Ha’ Penny Inn, in Anaheim, CA.  But my dad had rented a car:  a maroon Oldsmobile that looked and smelled new:  a far cry from the 1979 Plymouth Volare we had back at home, with its simulated wood sides, crank windows and odd smells from when my brother gotten car sick.
This car was shiny, and new, and had air conditioning.  It had only two doors, so my dad would have to tip the front seat forward, so my brother, sister and I could pile into the back seat in our usual hierarchal order (my brother, age five, got the middle seat).  I felt like a rich person in a fancy car.

And Vroom!  After a brief exploration of Olivera Street, my dad decided to drive us into Hollywood.
“Very famous people live here!” my mother explained, ”So you see, none of the mail boxes have names on them!”

“How would the mailman know whose mailbox it is?”  I asked

“Well, the mailman knows whose mailbox is whose!”   My mother answered

“Do you think we might see Michael Jackson out getting his mail?”   I asked

“Keep your eyes peeled!” my dad answered

We didn’t see Michael Jackson, or anybody else.

And soon we were onto the freeway!
“It’s free.” My dad explained, “Because there are no tolls!  Not like the New York Thruway, or the Mass Turnpike!”

“Is that why it’s so crowded?” I asked

I had never seen so many cars, all bumper to bumper.  Digital signs on overhead booms spanning the highway, flashing wait times, temperature and smog ratio of the air.  Billboards all over the place, including the mechanized Coppertone billboard with the dog chewing on the kid’s swimsuit, up and down.

And soon, we were at the Ha’ Penny Inn in Anaheim, where until I lay down on one of the double beds, I hadn’t realized how tired I was.  And soon, my brother next to me, my parents on the other bed, and my sister on a rollaway at the foot of our bed were sound asleep until early evening, where my parents woke me up, and drove us to the Pacific Coast, where they bought us Tostadas (Tacos you can eat like a salad!  Wow!) and I watched the huge waves in awe.

“Wow, those waves are like leap frogs!”  I said

“Those are no leap frogs!” my brother corrected, “Those are leap elephants!”

Those few hours in LA had already blown my mind.  The next day would be Disneyland, the day after that would be Universal Studios, where I wanted to ride Eliot’s bike with E.T in the basket, because people said I bared an uncanny likeness to Eliot.

And then two days before the Summer Olympics in LA were to begin, we would board the Coast Starlight to Oakland to visit with relatives in the Bay Area for the balance of the trip.

A couple of weeks later, we would board the California Zephyr, to connect to the Lakeshore limited to take us back East, where the summers were still humid, our house smelled musty (it always did when we returned from vacation), our cat seemed confused at our absence, and the carpet and seat belt webbing in our car had grown mold.

II: January, 2017 4:30 AM:

“Sweetheart, I think it’s time to get up”, my wife Mary says in the darkness.

“mmm ok” I mumble as I attempt to bring myself into the land of awake.

The upper berth, although very small, very narrow, and with very little clearance between it and the ceiling, was actually quite comfortable, but I hadn’t slept that well.

Just after a fresh air stop in Tucson, AZ, where we had requested our sleeper car attendant to switch our roomette into the night configuration, the attendant made an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, here is how tomorrow is going to work.  We are scheduled to arrive into LA at about 5:30 AM, so just after Pomona, I am going to start knocking on doors and waking people up.  That’s about an hour before we hit LA”

I had hoped the two time zones we had passed through would lessen the effect of such an early wake up, but the prospect of being woken out of my sleep earlier than I was used to kept me awake.  We had teetotaled dinner the night before, so we wouldn’t wake up early, tired and hungover, but still it was a rough wakeup.

Teetotaling dinner. No booze for either of us.

In the darkness, I felt around for the safety strap hook in the ceiling, unhooked it, and rolled out of bed, feeling around with my foot for the carpeted step, and once placed, began to carefully climb down.

“OK, I’m turning on the light now,” Mary says, and seconds later, the roomette is flooded in a bright glare.

“Ooooww”  I shied my eyes.

I begin to slowly and sleepily dress, as I distantly hear the sleeper car attendant tap gently on roomette doors “LA in an hour” he says loudly enough to be heard, softly enough not to be strident.

Soon Mary goes out and walks the few steps to the urn at the top of the stairs where the attendant already has brewed hot coffee for us, and hands me a cup.

“Thanks, babe”.

Our attendant is good.  I had taken care of his gratuity the previous night in Tucson, so I wouldn’t, in my sleep deprived fog, forget to do it.
Out in the narrow hallway I see feet protrude from the blue curtains of the roomette doors as people put their shoes on.

We had boarded in Dallas after vising with Mary’s family, and had begun the two night train trip on the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited complete with the set-out at San Antonio, where our sleeping car was hooked onto the Sunset Limited on to Los Angeles in the dead of night.  It felt like nothing so much a backwards and forwards motion, with the occasional bump, before I drifted off into sleep.

I had woken up the next morning, still in Texas, with the scrubby looking desert racing by outside.  Overnight, the consist of the train had completely changed, our car having been hooked onto another train.

The barren desert continued to speed past for the better part of the day.  The border to Mexico was pointed out in the distance to me, as was a couple of border police cars.


The new conductor that had gotten on in San Antonio made an announcement, and went down the laundry list of things that would “Shorten your trip” (to wit:  get you kicked off the train), which included opening any door or window, smoking, using “non family language” or consuming alcohol in public areas that was not purchased at the café.

I looked out at the desert and immediately issued the dictum that effective immediately, the consumption of the wine we had brought on board with us would be restricted our roomette.  I did not want our trip shortened.  I pictured our bones and a wine bottle found in the desert, thirty years later. Moments later, the conductor appeared in the sightseer lounge where we were sitting.  He had a veteran look about him that conveyed that he would have no problem “shortening the trip” of anyone there, including the young man on his cell phone, that, amazingly had reception in the desert.  His language was decidedly “un-family”, and his side of the conversation sounded vaguely drug related.

The conductor stopped by the young man “Family language, sir!  If you wish to remain on this train”

The young man shot him an irritated look, but lowered his voice.

Soon there was a fresh air stop in a town in Texas called Alpine, that looked about as Alpine as could be expected in Western Texas.  I learned later it was a favorite place to kick out passengers who engaged in unruly behavior.  I wondered how many passengers had our conductor shortened the trip of in Alpine.  There didn’t appear to be much there.

Then through Texas into where just past El Paso, we could literally look over the fence into a gritty little town in Mexico, that hugged the train tracks.  My iPhone flashed “Welcome Abroad” although I was still on US soil, by about thirty feet.

And after the stop in Tucson, it was through the night to Los Angeles, where, in the semi-quiet of the sleeper car, people were dressing, and getting ready to leave the train, as the train rocked slightly, slowed, and finally came to a stop.

“Welcome to Los Angeles,” Our sleeping car attendant announced, as Mary and I descended the narrow stairs, and grabbed our rolling suitcase off the rack.  The attendant wished us well and handed us each a small bag with a tub of yogurt, a granola bar and a bottle of water.

And we were deposited on the platform in the darkness, as rain pelted the roof of the platform.

“Well, welcome to LA!” Mary said cheerfully.  She is a much better morning person that me.

“At five freaking thirty AM!” I grumbled good naturedly as we ventured down the ramp into one of my favorite train stations, although I was too groggy to fully enjoy it.  I am not a morning person, and I am definitely not a sleep deprivation person.

“So what are we going to do now?”  Mary asked

“Well, I think we’ll get our bags, then head up to the lounge, wait for it to get light, while I figure it out.  Maybe it’ll stop raining”

After a couple of cups of the coffee in the first class lounge, morning did begin to make it’s presence felt, in a murky, gray, half-light, but my suggestion that it would stop raining was wishful thinking.  It was still pouring.

Our Air BnB was in Long Beach.  It was a charming 4th floor studio apartment right downtown, steps from the Blue Line, but we could not check in until 4 PM.  And unless I could negotiate an early check in (which I hoped) we had some time to kill.  I would have preferred nice weather in which to explore the downtown in the immediate vicinity of the station.

“It’s raining so hard we can’t go very far, but maybe we could find a place to get breakfast.” I suggested.  I wasn’t in the mood for the yogurt and granola bar.  I’d just put them in the fridge in the little kitchen of our studio apartment.

As we stepped out the main entrance of Union Station with our two suitcases, I realized how hard it was raining.  It was just before 8 AM, but a building immediately to the left of the station had large glass windows, where I could see people at tables enjoying a substantial looking breakfast.

We found out the building was the Waterworks department for Los Angeles County, and this was the staff café.  But non-employees of the department could eat there, if they showed their ID.  The breakfast looked delicious, and it appeared you could get omeletes and breakfast burritos.

The breakfast did not disappoint, and I glanced up at the TV screens high up.  The news was covering the inauguration ceremony of Donald Trump, which would be later in the day.  I had to remind myself it was three hours later in Washington DC.  At 9 AM, I texted my AirBnB host and asked if an early check in was possible.  I had asked earlier but hadn’t gotten a definite answer.

Soon I got a text message from our host that, yes, we could come at 11 AM, and soon we boarded the red line to the blue line that would take us to Long Beach.  We walked the few blocks, located the building, climbed the stairs to our studio apartment, our home for the next four nights.

it was a wonderful little space, complete with four poster bed, kitchenette and beautifully tiled bathroom, overlooking Linden Street in downtown Long beach.  Mary & I immediately lay on the bed, enjoying the ability to lie down side by side for the first time in two days.  Soon we were asleep for the next two hours and when we woke up, the rain had stopped.

I took a shower in the charming little bathroom, then we decided to make our way to the beach and look out over the Pacific.  Later in the evening would be a visit and dinner with friends from college, and former colleagues who had moved out west.  The next day would be a boat ride out to Catalina Island, then two more days to enjoy in Southern California, more friends to see before our flight out of LAX and back home to New York City.  As much as we enjoyed the train, we really didn’t have the time available for another three day train ride back home.

Before we returned to our studio, in preparation of our friend’s arrival, we stopped by the CVS to pick up some wine.  In California, unlike New York, you can buy wine in CVS.  And it is good wine.

III:  January 30, 2020, 7:00 AM (proposed)

The sunrise will peek between the curtains of our roomette, and Mary and I will wake up leisurely, at about the same time.  I will still be on the top bunk.

Though I would like the extra space the bottom bunk affords, and I am an inch and a half taller than Mary,  and outweigh her by forty pounds, I appreciate that she has taken to train travel. I want her to enjoy it as much as I do, and it appears that she does.  Me taking one for the team by squeezing myself into the upper bunk is a small price to pay.  She always seemed lukewarm about the idea “trying out” the upper bunk anytime I suggested it. So I am content to sleep in that bunk, which feels like nothing so much as the inside of an MRI.  I have mastered the learning curve of stepping onto the carpeted steps, and rolling into and out of bed, and I don’t want to make things difficult for my wife, by adding an extra thing.

I am aware we are about an hour outside of Los Angeles, and we are refreshed, each having gotten a good nights sleep.

“Ready to get up, babe?” I ask

She answers by opening the curtains, so the morning light comes in fully, and it is not raining.  I climb down from the upper berth, and she sits upright.  I sit on the bottom berth and we kiss.

“It’s kind of lonely up there!”  Tonight we’ll get to sleep side by side, after two nights in bunk beds.

I slip on a pair of slippers.  “I’ll be back in about ten minutes” I will say as I unlock and slide the door of the roomette open, head down the narrow corridor and down the stairs.  I open my small rolling suitcase on the rack, take out some clean clothes and head to the small shower which is available.

And after a nice hot shower, I climb the stairs back to our roomette and prepare for our upcoming day in Los Angeles. Mary is already dressed and ready to go.  I look out the window at the outskirts of Los Angeles, and the familiar dusty, scrubby look of it.  According to my phone, the day is sunny and the weather is mild, perfect for a day to explore Los Angeles before we check into our Air Bnb.

After we had returned from our trip in 2017, I began considering replicating the route I had taken with my parents and my siblings in 1984, more than thirty years before.  We would board at Penn Station, and take the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, then we would continue the trip with the Southwest Chief,  formerly called the “Southwest Limited” when I went as a 9 year old.

And, no, we wouldn’t bring granola in a can, or sleep in a coach seat, or endure my younger brother’s misbehavior.  He is now forty, with three children of his own, one of which is going off to college.  It would just be Mary and me, in a roomette, and all meals consumed in the diner.  With a few bottles of wine to sip while we watched the world go by.

After our overnight ride on the Lakeshore Limited, where the “flexible dinner” and “flexible breakfast” would not be as awful as everybody said, we would detrain in Chicago.  We would spend the night in a hotel we knew well, get some Chicago pizza, buy some wine for the remainder of our trip, and get a good night’s sleep.  In the morning, we would rearrange our luggage to place things for our use aboard the train in the small suitcase, and the rest to go into the large suitcase in the baggage car.

Then at noon, off to Union Station, to check our bag and enjoy the much vaunted Metropolitan Lounge.

Our two days aboard the Southwest Chief would go quickly, but at a slow, relaxed pace, with no pressure.  To sip wine, eat delicious food with friends we had not yet met, and fall into a slumber in our roomette each night.  To watch the Midwest dissolve into the Southwest and finally Los Angleles.  To move in that diagonal trajectory between the two worlds of the Northeast to the Pacific Coast.  To enjoy each other’s company and that of all those around us.  To relish the travel; moving from point A to Point B with no pressure.

The train will slow and come to a halt.  Welcome to Los Angeles.

Mary and I will leave the train energized and rested.  We will know that we can leave/check our luggage so we can explore Los Angeles for the day,  unencumbered.  We learned that from the last time.  There is a good place for brunch.

A colleague told me about it.  He was the manager of it for some years, and it is in Hollywood.   It is called Off Vine, and it is right off the Red Line.  I haven’t told Mary about it yet.  I want to surprise her.

We head out there, and enjoy a delicious brunch.  It is as good as I have been told.  At some point we return to Union Station, pick up our bags, and board the red line to the blue line and head to Long Beach.

The place we will be staying is the exact place we stayed in 2017.  The place has been renovated.  Instead of a key, you now use a code to punch in.  Other than that it is the exact same unit as we had stayed in 2017.   That brings me happiness.

More colleagues and friend have moved to the west coast, and later that evening we will have a joyful reunion.   We will have dinner, drink wine, catch up on things.  We will laugh at jokes we shared and enjoy seeing each other.
But first Mary and I will walk along the Pacific Coast, and buy some wine for our friends.

And at the end of the day, Mary and I will retire to the queen size bed, happy to have the night in a bed together as opposed to bunk beds; the only drawback of a roomette!

The next days will be Catalina Island, the Pacific Coast and all the reasons to come west.

And, like in 2017, we will have to return via plane, out of LAX, because we simply do not have the time for another three days on Amtrak, much as we would dearly love to have it.

That, or an approximation of that, is how I hope it goes down!

God Help That Poor Child

 

A memoir

A popular 1980s school cliché was the assignment of “parenting an egg” as a project. In some schools it was a 5 pound sack of flour.  If there was any debate whether it was to be an egg, versus a five pound sack of flour, that debate was settled the minute I darkened the door of my middle school: “Have a klutz like Pagnani walking around with a sack of flour for two weeks?  No way!”  So it was to be an egg.  A hard boiled one at that.   The school needed a yolky, runny mess almost as much as they needed mysterious white powder dusting the halls.

I was in middle school in the heart of the 80s, so I was saddled with this project. This was done, for whatever reason, in home-ec class, which was still a thing in 1987. Our home-ec teacher was this lady called Mrs. R., and she scared the crap out of me. Somewhere along the line, it was somehow decided in the universe that any transgression I would do during school hours would flip an invisible switch. And that invisible switch would cause Mrs. R. to materialize out of the ether in in time to catch me. Her methods of interrogation would put the CIA to shame. Who needs waterboarding when you have Mrs. R?

How it worked was this: We were each given a hard boiled egg to “parent”. We would do this for two weeks, and we would keep a “log”, detailing the “child’s” growth and our “parenting” technique. As 7th graders.

On the day the “egg parenting” was to begin, Mrs. R. would pass out the eggs. She’d sign the bottom of them with her neat, precise signature, so the egg could not be covertly replaced if broken. We were instructed to have an appropriate “bed” for our egg ready. Just a container, really.

Some of the kids really put effort into preparing the “bed. Some kids (or their mothers) sewed tiny cushions for their intricately decorated boxes. One girl had dollhouse furniture, and had created a nursery in a box, complete with a miniture crib, just big enough for the egg. Most of the kids created a comfortable looking “bed” for their egg. Except me.

I brought a peanut can with ripped up newspaper for padding.
Mrs. R. commented on the austerity of my egg’s “bed”: along the lines of “Really, Robert, you couldn’t have put more thought into your new baby’s “bed”?”

“I want it to be tough” I shrugged.

“Not an it. He or she!” Mrs. R. corrected.

OK, I guess by default, my egg was a “he”

You see, in addition to being a recalcitrant and mediocre student, I had a hard time getting into this project. Forming an emotional bond with an egg simply was not in the cards. It was an egg, for god’s sake. It was food! I might have had somewhat of an imagination, but it didn’t extend to this particular project. I don’t think I could have half assed it more if my life depended on it.  As you will see.

Next came the naming. What were we going to name our “baby”? Some “Alyssas” floated around, a “Jennifer”, one boy named his egg “Madonna”, three girls got into a fight over which one was going to name their egg “Corey”, and one girl named her egg after a boy in the class she had a crush on, which made him blush.
Me? I didn’t have a name picked out. Gave it no thought.

“Robert! What are you going to name your baby?”

“I dunno,” I shrugged, “Eggo?”

“I’d really like to see more thought and effort!”

“Ok. Eggbert?”

“Fine”, Mrs. R. sighed in exasperation.

So, the rules were this:

We had to keep a log on the day to day activities of our parenting, and our “child”. Every day, we would present our eggs for inspection, for Mrs. R. to make sure it was still intact. If the egg was damaged, she would assign it a disability or illness, and we would have to write in the log of the accommodations and treatments made for it. If the egg was seriously damaged, she would pronounce it dead, and we would have to write in the log of the funeral arrangements we had made.

Mrs R. asked if anybody had any questions. I put my hand up.

“Yes, Robert?” she sighed

“Can we keep it in the fridge?” I asked.

“Would you put a baby in the fridge? And it’s a he or she, not an it!”

At the end of class, Eggbert began his two week stint with the worlds worst, most apathetic, most inattentive “egg parent”.  That would be me.

Home-ec was late in the day and I didn’t have any after school activities that day, so Eggbert and his peanut can got stuffed into my backpack, and went onto the noisy, bumpy, smelly school bus with me, full of noisy, bumpy, smelly middle school kids, of whom I was no exception.

When I got home, I showed my mother the egg.

“I have to parent it for two weeks,” I explained.

“Why?” my mother asked

“Because we have to,” I answered.

“It’s an egg,” she observed.

“See, Mrs. R. signed it, so we couldn’t swap it out if we busted it”

My mother, who was a nurse, and a midwife, and had birthed three kids didn’t seem impressed. She suggested I put it in the fridge.

“I can’t” I explained, “Mrs. R said that you wouldn’t put a baby in the fridge”

“But it’s not a baby. It’s an egg!” she insisted.

“What if somebody eats it?” I asked

“What if somebody does? It’s food!”

“Well, that means I would fail my project” I responded.

When my dad came home and learned of the project, he said, “So you are “yolked” with this for two weeks!”

“Haw haw.”

FIRSR LOG ENTRY: Eggbert stayed in bed. My mother wanted to put Eggbert in the fridge, but I wouldn’t let her.

Next day, in home ec, we presented our eggs for inspection. One kid had already managed to break her egg, but had sneakily replaced the egg and forged the signature.  The only problem is she had boasted about it earlier in the day, and it had somehow gotten back to Mrs. R.
“It’s a pretty good forgery,” Mrs. R. observed, “If you had kept your mouth shut, I might have been fooled.”
And then failed her for the project.

Most of the other kids had decorated their eggs.  Some fashioned hair out of yarn, some swaddled their eggs in home made “blankets”, some kids stuck googly eyes on them.

My egg…. was bald as a boiled egg.  And it resembled an egg.  Because it was an egg.  No clothes, because eggs don’t wear clothes.  My egg sat naked and faceless in its peanut can on the wadded newspaper.

“Your child is very expressionless.” Mrs. R observed.

“He’s stoic,” I explained.  I had a pretty good vocabulary even back in 7thgrade.

“He would have to be with you as his parent.” She could give pretty good burns.

She pointed out the other, well decorated, well clothed eggs.  “Everybody else has given their egg an appearance.  Except you!”

“OK.”  I said.  I took a ballpoint pen, drew two little pinpoint eyes on the egg, and created a ridiculous disproportionate, single line grin.

“Such an effort!” she clapped a slow, sardonic clap.

Next came the sharing of the logs.  Each student would read how they parented their “baby”, and describe their parenting skills, challenges and activities.  They shared stories of baby clothes, Christenings, well baby doctor visits, and scheduled feedings.  One girl set an alarm every two hours to get up and feed her egg. A Jewish kid mentioned his egg had a Bris.

“How the heck do you circumcise an egg???” I asked, without raising my hand.

“Robert!”  Mrs. R warned

I pictured how my mother would lop off the top of a hard boiled egg.  She did it with a butter knife, with a quick “scalping” motion.

When it was my turn, I read my log entry: “Eggbert stayed in bed. My mother wanted to put Eggbert in the fridge, but I wouldn’t let her.”

“I don’t think you could put less effort into this project if you tried.”  Mrs. R noted in disgust.

A couple of days in, teachers were complaining. Turns out they didn’t like the kids bringing the eggs to class.  Created a distraction.  They were instructing us to put the eggs in our lockers.

The next class, Mrs R. stated “Going forward, we will refer to the “locker” as the “daycare.”

That was fine by me.  My egg spent a lot of time in the daycare.  The entire school day, in fact.  Except home ec, where we had to present our eggs.  In fact sometimes it spent the night in daycare too, if I couldn’t be bothered bringing it home.

The other kids in the class, in their logs, wrote stories about finding the perfect child care provider, and described their child’s activities in the daycare, as reported third-hand by an imaginary doting child care provider who, apparently, lived in the dented, brown, sixty year old lockers (aka “daycares’) that lined the hallway of the middle school.

My log entry:  “Eggbert spent the day in the daycare”.

“Your child spends a lot of time in day care. Perhaps you should take more of a role in your child’s care!”  You had to applaud Mrs. R’s effort in nudging me to take more of an interest in the project, futile as it was.

Then, a minor snafu happened.  I got into trouble.  I forget what it was; most likely a scuffle with another student, and I was to spend two days in the “SOS Room”.  The “SOS Room” was the name given to the in school suspension room at our middle school.  It was a bleak, grey little room in the basement of the school, behind the stairs, where the offending student would report at the beginning of the day, and be released at the dismissal of the day.  You didn’t attend classes; you just sat in the room.  Hence the name “S.O.S” which stood for “Students off Schedule”. By extension, this meant no home-ec.

Did that get me off the hook?  Has a bear stopped shitting in the woods?  Has the Pope converted to Buddhism? Has wood become unincinerable?

Ha ha.  No.

In fact Mrs. R. found out about my impending “SOS Room” stay before home-ec class because of course she did.
“Robert, I understand you will be going to SOS for two days.  We will say that you will be going to jail.  Your child will need to be taken care of while you are in jail.”

“OK,” I said, ”Well, I have the “daycare”. I’ll just put it in “daycare”.

“He, not it,” she corrected, “And you can’t leave a child in daycare for two days.  You can’t bring a child to jail, either.  So you will need to find a responsible person to care for your child. And I will expect you will record it in your log.”

When I got home that day, I had to tell my mother about my upcoming stint in SOS.  It would be the next two days.  Middle School justice was swift.  I had to tell her, too.  Better she get it from me than from the carbon copy of the disciplinary referral that would come in the mail within the next couple of days.

She was irritated, but not necessarily surprised.  By seventh grade, I had plenty of experience with the SOS room, so by that point, the periodical SOS stay was de rigeur. I mentioned the home ec situation with the egg, and stated that I would be keeping the egg home for those two days and took the liberty of appointing my mother as the child care provider.

“It’s polite to ask a person before you tell them they will be caring for your child for two days.” my mother stated.

“It’s just an egg,” I reminded her.

“So why is it not in the fridge?” she asked

“Just don’t eat it, ok”

“It’s been out in the air for six days! I’m not going to eat it!”

I wasn’t convinced.

LOG ENTRY:  I am going to jail for two days.  My mother will be taking care of Eggbert.  I hope she doesn’t eat him.

So I set Eggbert in his peanut can on the desk in my room, and off I went to school to begin my two days in “jail”.

SOS (aka “jail”) was uneventful, and it was a nice respite from the regular classes.  I always had the foresight to borrow library books, so I could read after my work was done.  It was peaceful, and it was quiet.  And I got out of home ec for two days.  And did not think once about the egg.

At some point in my second day of SOS, my mother was returning something to my room, and bumped up against the desk. And knocked the peanut can onto the floor.  And cracked my egg.

When I returned home, I noticed the peanut can had been hastily put back on the desk, but was not in its original location, so I opened it.  And found my egg had been thoroughly cracked.  Not just cracked:  Irredeemably smashed.

“Mom, did you knock over my egg?” I inquired

“Yes, by accident” she answered, “It was on the edge of your desk.  It was very precarious”

“Well you broke my egg!”  I then explained that if the egg was cracked, I would be assigned a disability for the egg, or if it was really mangled, I would have to make “funeral arrangements”.  It was pretty mangled.

My mother asked to look at the egg.  “That’s a dead egg,” she stated

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes”, my mother confirmed with finality, “Dead as a doornail.  You’ll have to bury it before it stinks up the place”

We had a compost pile, so I “buried” Eggbert in the compost pile.

My dad thought the death of Eggbert was hilarious.

LOG ENTRY:  While I was in jail, my mother killed Eggbert but she didn’t eat him. So I buried him in the compost pile before he stunk up the place.  RIP Eggbert.

The next day, I reported to home-ec without my egg.

“Where is your baby?”  Mrs. R demanded.

“Well, while I was in SOS, my mother knocked it over.  So it’s a dead egg.  I buried it in the compost pile”

“I make that call, not you!”  Mrs. R. said sternly, ”You were supposed to report here with your child, and I would make a decision as to the next step!”

“My mother told me to bury it.  She said it would stink up the place.”

Mrs. R. disgustedly read my log entries. “The compost pile?  Really?  Such a dignified burial.”

“Well, it’ll decompose.  Create nice fertile soil.  It’ll be completely decayed by summer.”

“God help that poor child,” Mrs. R sighed, as she gave me a generous D+ for my efforts, or lack thereof.

At that point the project ended for me, but most of the other students managed to keep their eggs alive for the duration of the project, being doting parents, and raising healthy, well adjusted eggs. At the conclusion of the project, Mrs. R gave out As, and Bs, and collected the eggs from the kids.  One girl looked as though she was going to burst into tears.  Mrs. R. may or may not have spared us the visual of unceremoniously tossing the eggs into the garbage, if for no other reason then to preserve the feelings of the sensitive girl who had gotten overly attached to her egg.

Down the hall, however, in the science wing, we had a science teacher who had a boa constrictor.  And a litter of white rats was born.  Baby white rats are cute.  But those white rats had a function, and the function involved the boa constrictor. And students put 2+2 together.

The litter of rats was more than the boa constrictor would be able to eat, and within two weeks, adopting a rat became something of a fad.  The school administration became aware of this, and issued the dictum that if you “adopted” a rat, you were to take it home and not bring it back to school. Under no circumstances was that rat to accompany you to class, or it would be turned over the science teacher to be fed to the boa.  For a short time, one girl used to attend class with her rat peeking out of the breast pocket of her jeans jacket (I wondered what would happen when the rat “went”, which was a regular occurrence for rats), and that was immediately forbidden.  The school did not want the rats getting out and breeding.  The school did not want to deal with a white rat infestation.

I did a damn sight better of a job with the rat (who I named Ernie) than that egg!  Ernie lived to a ripe old age and grew to be almost a foot long, not counting the tail!  And I did not keep a log.

 

WHO CONTAMINATED THE POOL???

Who Contaminated the Pool???

One of the days Mary & I were in Florida, the hot tub at the gated community was out of commission. Had yellow “caution” tape around it, and the water was murky. People speculated that somehow it had been contaminated. Fortunately, the next day the tape was gone and the water was clear. Apparently, the “contamination” was dealt with.

Got me thinking that the word “contaminate” covers a very broad spectrum. Everything from a little kid peeing in the pool, to a full blown nuclear meltdown of Chernobyl scope.

I am proud to say, never in my life have I ever “contaminated” any body of water. Never peed in a pool, lake, ocean or even a tub.

Mary told me when she was a little kid sometimes she would pee in the ocean. Her grandmother told her that if she did that, she would poison all the fish. So she stopped peeing in the ocean, but she felt guilty for all the times she had; all the fish she had “poisoned”.

When we would swim in the lake when I was a little kid my mother would always caution me to close my mouth when I swam: “Two naughty boys might have done a wee-wee in the lake.”
Not sure why it had to be TWO naughty boys. ONE naughty boy would have driven the point home.

It conjured up the mental image of two nasty looking twerps, their penises out, gleefully urinating in the lake, laughing about it, even. I didn’t want to be like those kids, making the water nasty: CONTAMINATING it. I felt bad for any kid whose mother forgot to tell to shut his mouth while he swam.

My step-grandmother and grandfather in Quincy, MA had an above-ground pool. It was a round, 16 foot pool at the top of their driveway. My grandfather owned a garage, so there was always plenty of tubes to float on, and one of the highlights of the visit was getting to swim in the pool with my other relatives: aunts, uncles, second-cousins, and the odd friend informally adopted into the family as a relative. My Grandma casually mentioned that they had added a substance to the pool that if anybody peed in it, it would cause a reaction and turn the water around them purple. Moreover, she said it was standard for any swimming pool. I believed everything she said, but I was happy that not one family member had ever peed in THAT pool, as evidenced by the crystal clear water, devoid of any purple.

I have never contaminated a body of water. That’s not to say I wasn’t SUSPECTED of contaminating a pool in a much more egregious manner than simply peeing in it. For this, we have to go back to 1986 Belfast.

For the first half of 1986, my dad took sabatical from his position as a professor at a community college, and we went to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for about 7 months. We stayed in my widowed grandmother’s house.

I was ten, in the fifth grade, and it was midpoint in the school year, so I was enrolled in the neighborhood elementary school, in the equivalent of fifth grade (known as P-7 there).

So I was essentially air-dropped, in the middle of the school year, into one of the school’s two P-7 (5th grade) classes. Having my accent, regional expressions, coming from New York (albeit upstate NY) and being substantially taller than the majority of my classmates, I was somewhat of a curiosity among the other kids. It was much more of a culture shock than I thought it would be.

The teacher of the other P-7 class (the one I wasn’t in) was a younger woman; we’ll call her Miss B. Not only did she teach P-7, she was also tasked with teaching the gym classes. She was every bit a gym teacher, too. Athletic, brusque, and exuded a “don’t mess with me” demeanor.

I don’t want to say she had it out for me, exactly, but I didn’t get off on a very good foot with her. She viewed me as recalcitrant, ill mannered, and malevolent (and for two out of the three, she might have been right). My accent, vernacular and demeanor didn’t jibe well with her. Moreover, since I was taller than most of the other kids my age, I think she suspected I was a couple of years older than I was. That I was either there to bully the kids (who were my age, but shorter), or because I lacked the intelligence to be promoted to the next grade level.
She didn’t appreciate me materializing in her school, in the last half of the year, of the last year of elementary school. Soccer was the sport of choice, and I have been historically bad at that, so that didn’t count in my favor either. To be fair, the attitude I often had didn’t help. But from the getgo, I was well aware she viewed me with suspicion, if not outright hostility. If some egregious deed was done where it was unclear who the culprit was, I wouldn’t be exactly blamed for it, but she would certainly give me a little more scrutiny until cleared. In short, she viewed me as a troublemaker; a bad influence. I wasn’t, but lets just say I could have navigated the new landscape a little better.

As part of our physical education class, for a period of time, we were taken to the local swimming pool. We were loaded into one of the two school vans with bench seating around the perimeter, but as many kids as they could fit in there and driven the half mile or so to the Grove Swimming Pool Complex.

I should mention, it was a beautiful facility. It was a big white building at the junction where the Shore Road splits into the York Road and North Queen Street, heading into Downtown Belfast. It was built in the late 1950s, had two swimming pools: one Olympic size swimming pool with high dives, and one 25 yard pool on the other side of the building. It also had a gym upstairs, a room full of snooker tables and another area where you could rent a bathtub. When it was built, not all houses in North Belfast had full bathrooms with tubs. Here, you could use one of the tubs for your weekly bath. For that reason, the Grove Swimming Pool Complex was informally referred to as “The Grove Baths”, or even “The Baths.” The facility was kept immaculately clean. Unfortunately, it was demolished about six years ago.

So. Back in the school, Miss B was teaching a unit on health and I was horsing around in class. She observed this horseplay, and angrily ordered me out into the hall (teachers could do that back then). She then stepped out into the hall to reprimand me. Remember, she was not well disposed to me, and I was disrupting her class, so she really let me have it. I was further given to understand that I was to report for an hour of detention at the conclusion of the school day.

Later in the day, for our gym class we were to go to “The Baths” to swim laps in the pool. As I was swimming, I came to the surface and what did I observe floating past me but what appeared to be a well formed turd. In the pool. Just floating there, about five feet away.

It took a minute to register, and I wondered if it actually was what it appeared to be, so I splashed some water at it. A couple of pieces flaked off. It was exactly what it looked like. So I immediately found the nearest ladder and climbed out of the pool.

“Why are you out of the water, Robert?” Miss B snapped

“MIss B, Look at that!” I pointed at the turd, floating serenely in the blue water.

“Did YOU do that?” she demanded angrily

“No way!” I answered, “Ewww!”

The whistle went into her mouth and she blew an ear piercing blast.

“Everybody out of the pool!”

She lined us all up agains the low wall that separated the pool deck from the spectator stands.

“Now who did THAT?” She jabbed her finger at the turd.

“Did You?” she pointed at the first kid. She went down the line “Did you? Did you? Did you? Did you?”

All the kids emphatically answered in the negative.

Meanwhile one of the pool attendants had taken what appeared to be an oversized soup ladle and fished out the turd.

“Who was it?” she demanded again, “I am going to find out who did this! There is going to be a full investigation.”

She kept giving me the fish eye, and I couldn’t help but think she suspected I did it. Strongly.

She then promised swift, harsh and draconian punishment to the offending student once she found out who it was.

This, of course, ended the swimming session for the day. In the locker room, all the boys, myself included found it hilarious. Who would do that? How would they get away with it? How would Miss B find out who did it? What kind of investigation was she going to do?

One of the kids suggested she would make every student take a shit, and the one who couldn’t was the one who did it. Another kid said they were analyzing the turd, and were going to require stool samples from the class. Another said they were going to analyze the turd against what they had served in the school “dinner hall” that day, and narrow it down to the kids who had vs hadn’t eaten the school dinner. Somebody else suggested that she could tell simply by who looked the most “guilty”. Some other kid made up a song about it. On the spot. Which evoked uproarious laughter.

We emerged from the locker room laughing hysterically, which was in stark contrast to Miss B’s ire. She was furious, and rightfully so She ordered us back into the school vans, and we returned to the school.

Back in the classroom, she conferred with our classroom teacher, who was aghast. It bothered me that she seemed to look in my general direction a little too often. Perhaps she though I wanted to stick it to her for reprimanding me earlier, as though my mind was developed and depraved enough to exact revenge in that manner.

“This is an absolute disgrace!” our teacher thundered, “We will find out who did this! Whoever did this has dishonored our school!”

“If anybody decides to confess,” Miss B added, “His punishment will not be as severe as when we find out!”

Later in the day, the principal of the school came to the classroom, and again lectured the class about how this had disgraced and dishonored the school, and how there would be a “full investigation”. She kept referring to it as “the incident”

One student who hadn’t gone to the pool for some reason or another kept asking “What incident was that?” to no avail. During a short recess we told him, to which he also laughed hysterically. Later in the day, we were all given to understand that any student who “laughed about the incident” would be “severely punished”. That was a threat they used a lot: “severely punished”. Left a lot to the imagination, and instilled a Toledo-esque sense of dread.

At 3 PM, as ordered, I reported to Miss B’s classroom for my after-school detention, for my horseplay in health class.

“Why are you here, Robert?” she demanded

“You told me to come after school for the thing in health class”

“No, you don’t have to.” she answered

“Oh”, I turned around to leave, but before I was out the door she said,
“Robert!”

I turned around.

“Do you have anything else to tell me?”

“No!” I said emphatically

“Are you sure,” she asked,”Because if I find out….”

“No!” I cut her off.

I did not like how I could feel her eyes on the back of my neck as I walked down the hall and down the stairs.

When I got home, I told my mother and my grandmother with relish what had happened at “the baths”.

“Do they know who did it?” my mother asked

“No,” I answered

“Why the dirty baste (beast)! “My grandmother stated, “Must have been a boy, because a girl wouldn’t do a thing like that!”

I concurred, less because of character, and more because of the logistics of the one piece swimsuits the girls were required to wear.

Not surprisingly, we never found out who did it. The principal brought up “the incident” a few times. We were careful to laugh about it out of earshot of the principal or teachers, lest we be “punished severely”. A few kids swore they wouldn’t swim in the pool again until it was drained and disinfected. The pool was not drained, and those students continued to swim in the pool the following week and every week after that.

And I am convinced Miss B firmly believes I was responsible for the turd. For the rest of the year I would get the fish eye, especially when we swam in the pool. When she organized the field trip to the Armagh Planetarium, I was issued a few admonitions that bordered on threats of a general nature, as though she was worried I would poop on the inside of the dome.

In retrospect, it sucked being seen as “the bad kid.” Being the primary suspect in “the incident” sucked even worse. I’d never been “the bad kid”in any situation before, and having a general air of suspicion around me for a specific disgusting act really sucked.

Miss B. is about twenty years my senior, and must be nearing retirement about now, if she is still teaching. And I firmly believe to this day that in her mind I am “That Nasty Kid from New York who Fouled the Pool”

I might have been nasty, I might have been from the state of New York, but I did not foul the pool.

With Wealth Comes Responsibility

Something that is sadly pervasive in this society is the acceptance of the paradigm that as one’s wealth INCREASES, one’s responsibility to society DECREASES.

We see it all over. Tax cuts to wealthy people. People getting away with atrocious (and often illegal) things, or escaping with little more than a slap on the wrist, simply because they’re wealthy. Either they use their wealth to buy their way out of the problem, or the fact that they are wealthy ipso facto gets them a pass.

You can’t argue that in this society, the LESS wealth/privilege a person has, the HARDER society is on them. And the more wealth a person has, the more permissive it is. It pervades our politics, in many cases, it pervades our religion, our academia, and how we look at the the world.

And this is why we have people who vote against their interests, even when they are out of whack with the moral high ground:

They look at this paradigm, and think that one day they might be wealthy and free from society’s expectations of them. That one day, they won’t have a responsibility to society. They’ll be able to behave as they please, as destructively as they please, and be able to buy their way out of consequence.

And why shouldn’t they? They see examples of it every day. They know that if they tried to do even a mere fraction of what many wealthy/privileged people openly do, society would take it out on their hide, either socially, or judicially. They’d be a pariah, or they’d be rotting away in prison. And because they have had the burden of supporting the paradigm, they just want to be the beneficiary of it, messed up as it is. They view the pursuit of wealth, by ANY means necessary as perfectly acceptable, and a means to freedom; not just economic, but also from the expectations of society. And they’re not wrong.

And here’s what’s the most fucked up about that paradigm:

It is the view that building society up, contributing to society, fulfilling your responsibility towards a progressive, orderly, prosperous and socially responsible society is a BURDEN, not a privilege. They derive no joy in constructively taking part in society. And why should they? The only thing in it for them is the small potential that they may be part of that small group with little to no responsibility to society. So they will simultaneously support and subvert this paradigm to that end.

What we’re missing here is:

Fulfilling your responsibility to society (socially, legally, economically) should not be viewed as a burden. It should be viewed as taking part in a bigger project to benefit everybody, including one’s self. But it shouldn’t be optional, either. As one’s wealth and privilege INCREASES, so should one’s responsibility to society. And that shouldn’t be optional, either. But this society has completely taken intrinsic motivation out of the equation. And being 100% extrinsically motivated is not sustainable.

Many of those with a lot of wealth and privilege HATE that idea. They’re enjoying their vacation from their responsibility. They LIKE letting people with less stand in for them and do the work. They LIKE holding themselves up as phony incentives so people with less will work harder on their behalf. Of course they do.

It’s a pretty sweet deal: Get out of paying your taxes, jet around the world, snort coke without consequence, commit crimes now and then and get the kid glove treatment. And get to have the rest of society supporting your ass with their blessing?

That’s not going to change until people get smart to that. In 18th Century France, they stopped it by lopping off some heads. I don’t think we have to resort to anything that extreme, but our first step is acknowledging this paradigm. That’s going to be a hard sell. A lot of people don’t want to acknowledge this because it is a mirror that doesn’t give a very flattering reflection of us as a society. But you can’t do too much honest and critical thinking before you end up distilling it down to that unpleasant reality.

It is that painting in the attic that Dorian Gray had.

Shoot Your Own Pig!

A friend of mine from Columbia County has often participated in “turkey shoots”. They usually have them at this place called The Federation of Polish Sportsmen.

I don’t think you have to be Polish to be a part of it.
My friend is not Polish.
When I was a kid I went there for a couple of events; picnics, BBQs, etc. The people there didn’t seem overwhelmingly Polish. But I guess there is some history.

My entire life, I thought the turkey shoot was where you went into the woods behind the Polish Sportsman Club and shot your own turkey. And I guess whoever shot the biggest turkey won. I have never been to a turkey shoot.

So I learned my friend was participating in a “ham shoot”. I figured that was the same thing: go into the woods behind the Polish Sportman’s Club, shoot yourself a pig. Whoever shoots the biggest pig wins.

That’s how I always pictured it.

Of course, I told my friend (on facebook) “Wow, I didn’t know there were wild pigs behind the Polish Sportsman’s Club”.

And he wrecked the picture I had in my mind by telling me that in both a turkey and a ham shoot, you shot at a target, and the turkey (or ham) was the prize for who shot most accurately. Already dead. You didn’t have to go in the woods and shoot it.

And how old was I when I learned this?

In my 40s.

I had this picture in my head of all these guys who had shot turkeys, (or pigs) in the woods.

And now it is gone.

The Airplane Fireplace

CRAZY DREAM LAST NIGHT:

Dreamed I was going on a trip somewhere.

When I boarded the airplane and took my seat, I noticed the plane had a fireplace, right up against the front bulkhead, between the two aisles.

Took me a minute to register that there was fireplace. Moreover, it also had exposed stone around it.
I thought: “It looks cozy, but isn’t that stone really heavy?”

I also started worrying they were actually going to light a fire in that fireplace, on the plane. I wasn’t sure I would be cool with a fire in the cabin of an aircraft.

So I asked the flight attendant, “Are you really going to light a fire in there?”

She said, “Oh yes, once we’re airborne”

I said, “Isn’t that dangerous?”

She said, “Only if we don’t open the flue. That has happened a couple of times. We forgot, and the plane got a little smokey.”

I really didn’t like the idea, but what was I going to do?

Sure enough, once we were at altitude, the flight attendants started going down the aisles with armloads of firewood, and started stoking the fire.

Some guy up front asked, “Can we roast sausages on it?”

I answered, “Of course not, dumbass!”

The flight attendant chastised me for saying “dumbass”, and told the guy yes; in fact she would hand him a stick and a sausage.

I commented to the guy sitting next to me, “This is just an accident waiting to happen!”

And the guy said, “Ah, you’re no fun!”

And I woke up before I found out whether or not we were burned to a crisp before we landed.

Sacrificing the Kids

You have to be very careful about what you say to little kids, because sometimes they will take you literally.

When I was a little kid, I took everything literally. And I also believed everything I was told.

Somewhere along the line, I heard the word “sacrifice”. I think I was about four.

So I asked my mom what that word meant. Instead of going with the more conventional meaning, here is what she told me.

“In some places they will take a young girl. They’ll have a party, they’ll dress her up.

Then they will kill her, and offer her to the gods. Sometimes they will stab her. Sometimes they might drop her into a volcano. Sometimes they will put her on a fire.”

I said, “Wouldn’t that hurt?”

My mom said, “maybe”

I asked, “What if she didn’t want to get sacrificed?

My mother said, “Well, she WOULD want to. It’s a great honor. And if she didn’t want to, she’d have to anyway.”

So I said, “Oh. Wouldn’t the gods be mad, that they gave the girl back to them?”

My mother said, “No. You know when I get a box of chocolates as a present, and I offer you a chocolate? It’s like that”

So I was satisfied with that explanation, and now i knew what a sacrifice was.

Cut to the next week, when I was in preschool.

I heard one of the teachers say “sacrifice’. As in:
“Well, we have to make that sacrifice.” Or something like that.

So I thought they were going to take one of the girls, and sacrifice her to the gods, just like my mother told me.
I didn’t like that idea, at all. I remember being very worried, so I thought about what I was going to do.

I figured that if I knew which girl it was, I could help her hide, so she didn’t have to get sacrificed.

So I asked the teacher, “Which girl are you going to sacrifice?”

The teacher had no idea what I was talking about. I thought she was just playing dumb. I wondered if the girl’s mother was in on it too.

I must have spent the next couple of weeks worried out of my mind they were going to sacrifice one of the kids in my preschool class.

Not that there were any active volcanoes around.

Great Green Gobs

If you are my age, had a typical elementary school experience, or rode the school bus, or existed in the 70s-80s, you are probably well familiar with the song “Great Green Gobs”.

It is sung to the tune of the “Old Grey Mare”, and is essentially a list of unpalatable items the singer was expected to eat, and ends with the excuse “I forgot my spoon.’

It varies by region; different parts of the country have different lyrics, and sometimes it even varies by kid.

I learned it from an older kid on the school bus (like I learned a lot of things). The way I learned it started with the question: “Hey Mom, what’s for dinner?”

Then:

🎶 Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts
marmalade of monkey’s feet
chopped up baby parakeet
all wrapped up in dirty gross flamingo meat
laying in a pool of blood

And I forgot my spoon! 🎶

There are other variations of the song, but that is the version I learned.

So when I was ten, I spent the first half of 1986 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. And I made a discovery:

None of the other kids had ever heard of the song.

So I set about remedying that, and taught it to some of my classmates.

One of the other things I learned about kids in Belfast is they loved funny songs. Parodies, off-color, or obscene songs would always get a laugh.

So I had my friends laughing their heads off over this song. I’d always start it with the question,”Hey Mom, What’s for dinner?”, and then teach the song.

So every now and then I’d get approached by a random kid who would say (imagine the Belfast accent), “Robert, Robert! “What’s that “Mummy, what’s for tea?” song?”

So I’d be only happy to teach the kid the song.

Eventually half the kids in the school were singing the “Great Green Gobs song.”
(Maybe that’s why there was a teacher who thought I was a bad influence)

So there is a small group of 40-44 year olds in Belfast who know the Great Green Gobs song, Upstate NY version as learned on the school bus from the fat kid.

Other than that, I don’t think that song has made it across the pond (though I could be wrong). It’s just as well. Not one of our finer works of folk art.

My retroactive apologies to any parent who had to endure their kid singing that thirty years ago.