Forget the flying car. It was a dumb idea. People can’t drive properly in 2D, and the last thing I want to worry about is some 18-wheeler landing on my head. Pretty sure that’s the last thing I’d have a chance to worry about. Reminds me of a classic joke: What’s the last thing that went through the fly’s head when it hit the windshield of your car?
So, back to the future: where is it? I’m waiting for it. Eagerly.
Where is my water-repellent glass?
Why is that a vertical pane of smooth glass will be strewn with water droplets that’ll stick there until they dry and leave dirty marks? And yet, water will eagerly flow off a nearly horizontal lily pad with no problem. Glass is sticky, but lily pads repel water. Give me Lily Pad glass! I want windshields that don’t need wipers, windows and showers that never need cleaning. While you’re at it, apply the same technology to my drinking glasses. I’m tired of sticking them in the dishwasher. And don’t get me started on toilet bowls.
Where’s my E-Ink wallpaper and changeable paint?
The Amazon Kindle is the first popular e-ink device I’ve seen. And battery life? Pretty darn good. Looks like paper, and you know how efficient paper is about battery usage. But enough already with crummy little e-books. I want e-ink wallpaper. I want to update the design of the walls of my house by clicking a button on my computer and downloading a new appearance to my living room. I want walls that can display photos, screensavers, moving pictures. Black and white, color, you name it. Hurry up, already.
Paint a room? No way, passé. Dial in a new color. A new pattern. Gimme my Mood Room.
Where are Proximity Detecting Door Locks?
The nicer new cars (got one!) are being made with electronic keys. Just keep the key in your pocket, and you can open the door and start the car without using the key, simply because the key is in your pocket (or more accurately, within a certain distance of the door or the steering column). And the cars are smart enough not to let you lock the door if the key is inside the car rather than just outside. So gimme the same thing for the doors to my house. I want to walk up to the front door and have it be unlocked for me–but not for you. But only from the outside of the house. In other words, my door shouldn’t be unlocked if you’re outside and I’m inside.
I’ll be the one looking through the peep hole and saying, “Go away, cretin, like the restraining order says.”
Why don’t my networks network?
I’ve got a bluetooth phone, a couple of WiFi networks, bluetooth in my car. Why can’t these things all talk to each other? Why can’t my car navigation system use the bluetooth connection to talk to my iPhone and give me real-time traffic updates? Why doesn’t my car play music and tell me what the songs are by the same mechanism? Use bluetooth to run my iPhone as a modem and get info from the web.
Why? Because nobody wants to bother, and they’ve all got walled gardens, that’s why. Irritating.
Speaking of bluetooth, why can’t I buy decent-quality networked devices for the home that use WiFi or bluetooth to create an auto-configuring network and communicate in useful ways? Here’s an example: I want to buy a new window that incorporates smart glass and electronically opaque to cut down light or completely go opaque at night. The electricity for this should come from solar cells embedded in the frame, and a smart network should enable the window to be controlled by other devices on my network. Say, software on my computer for instance, or in an Internet cloud.
Why isn’t my computer display 3D?
I’ve got a camera in my monitor. I’ve got face recognition software in my cheap pocket camera. Why doesn’t my computer camera see my face and know where my eyes are? [Hint: they're in the upper part of my face!] If my computer knew where my eyes were, it could simulate a 3D user interface or 3D game without glasses. As I moved my head, the 3D effect would change.
Ok, it’s not the same, because the image wouldn’t be stereoscopic (each eye would see the same image at the same angle). But it’d be better than what we’ve got now.
Where’s the blue pill?
What happened to the pill that would completely prevent allergies? How about all of those cures for cancer? Seems to me that once a month I’ll read a news report about some amazing new discovery that’s a few years of trials away from curing death, and then…nothing. What’s happening to all of these discoveries? Are all the trials failing, resulting in the deaths of innumerable nuns and orphans?
Speaking of death, what’s up with that? Where are the longevity pills? C’mon already, our DNA has been sequenced and I’m not getting any younger.
What are you waiting for?
By the time I was 15, my family could afford nicer vacations than the rock hunting expeditions of my early childhood. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with hunting rocks. I have very fond memories of rock hunting. And the thing is, they’re easy to catch.
So in the summer of my 15th year, our parents took us to Hawaii. There’s nothing that makes you feel more luxurious than splurging on a vacation in Hawaii. Especially when you grow up landlocked in Texas and your parents are footing the bill.
We stayed in Honolulu next to Waikiki beach the first night, and weren’t impressed by a strip that at the time was a mixture of characterless 70′s highrises and old cinderblock motels redecorated like Tiki huts. (Today the old cinderblocks are mostly gone, but sadly the highrises have spawned). Frankly, Honolulu looked like Dallas with a beach. Once we got over the jet lag, we were glad to get over to Maui. Now, there’s an island for a vacation that will impress young kids. On Maui, we stayed at a fancy resort during the Sonny Bono Celebrity Tennis Tournament. This was back when Sonny Bono was a bona fide ex-television celebrity has-been. Before he settled down and became a senator. Before he went snow skiing and made his final mark in a fatal tree-hugging accident, forever being memorialized as the reason parents tell their children to put on a helmet when they go skiing.
We saw and talked to all sorts of semi-famous celebrities. Second string television news anchors. Actors in movies that you won’t see these days late at night on the cheapest of cable stations. Overly thin men and women with white pants and bleach blonde hair. Cathy Lee Crosby, one time tennis pro and star of must-forget That’s Incredible, was there, tennis racket in hand. My brother Greg talked to George Hamilton about his most recent film while the rest of us marveled at George’s bomber jacket-like tan, a tan so dark it was its own shadow. We all went on a snorkel/scuba boat with Lloyd Bridges, star of Sea Hunt, and some very attractive young women in his entourage.
We were off the tiny crescent islet of Molokini, in water 20-40 feet deep. Greg and Dad were back on the boat, but Mom and I were among a dozen or so of us in a group that had been led away from the boat into deeper water by a guide in a kayak. After we’d been bobbing on the sea for quite a while, a heavyset man snorkeling next to me looked up at our guide in his kayak and said, “Hey! Isn’t that a shark down there?”
I looked underneath my dangling feet to see, framed in the ‘V’ of my then-skinny legs, a shark of roughly my size. It looked distinctly unfriendly. Our snorkel guide bent over from his kayak and peered into the water. “Ok, everybody,” he said, “I don’t want to panic anyone but that’s a Tiger shark. I want everyone to get back to the boat as quickly as possible.”
Everyone immediately froze into action, if you can imagine such a thing. “Oh, and whatever you do, DON’T SPLASH!” the guide added, further confounding the paddlers.
I peered again into the water and saw the tiger shark lazily passing a few feet below my flippered toes, as if browsing a buffet line. I was in the middle of the group, well away from the boat, roughly in the hot entree section. Now, I distinctly recall not panicking, but I’ll tell you this: I took one large breath, depressed the air release button on the little black pecker attached to my life preserver, and swam all the way back to the boat underwater in a single breath. I was back on deck before my mother, slowly paddling at the back of the snorkeling group, had even heard the commotion!
So Maui was plush and fancy fancy and everything a beach vacation should be. We went to a Luau and pigged out (literally—a whole pig was roasted in a pit on the beach). We played at the resort, we took tours, Mom got a massage; we drank blue drinks and made fun of a woman with a thick drawl and Really Big Hair. I stole a brief kiss from a girl at the Luau, which she returned in the moonlight shadow of a palm tree as music played and people danced. It was great.
I tell you all of these details, and I’ve left out many, just to give you some sense of the scale of this vacation. We really went in style, and spared no expense. Quite a lovely time.
So it was with that pampered mindset, near the end of this vacation, that we traveled to a park at the top of a high mountain in a very remote part of the beautiful island of Kauai. Mom had heard that the view at dawn from the cliffs a thousand feet above the crashing surf was so spectacular that the photo opportunities simply could not be missed. Months earlier, she had rented a cabin at the park, with full amenities, and just down the road from a grocer where we could get food for the evening.
The drive up the winding and rutted road took longer than expected, and when we got to the park, it was deserted. The “grocery store” nearby didn’t exist, having long ago gone native and been taken over by the jungle. The cabin was beyond rustic—it was a wreck. There were two small rooms off a dining area. Two dim light bulbs dangled from wires in the roof: one dribbled light across the wooden kitchen table, and one hung over the bed in my parents’ room. The room my brother and I shared was illuminated by whatever wan light could push its way through the dirty windowpanes.
As the sun set in our new surroundings, hordes of wild chickens began to copulate outside, making a noise that doesn’t bear description but was quite memorable. Coyotes make a frightening sound late at night in the wilderness, but get enough copulating chickens and it’ll be plenty disturbing on several levels, I tell you. Forget about getting any rest on the saggy and mildewed mattress and just stay awake swatting mosquitoes.
So there we were as even the sun deserted us, with only the remnants of our picnic lunch to eat for dinner: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cold cuts, some leftover potato chips, and a couple of cans of Coke. After complaints had turned to blame had turned to acrimony, the four of us sat in sullen silence in the twilight around the small wooden dinner table. Suddenly, out of the gloom rang the high and clear voice of my little brother:
“I know what we’re doing! We’re pretending to be POOR PEOPLE!”
With all due respect to poor people, we found that so funny that the experience was instantly transformed, and the cabin with its leaky, rusty shower once again became charming and rustic. Or at least that’s how my memory now paints it, so many years later.
Oh, and by the way: we got up the next morning in the early pre-dawn. The chickens had finally finished with their noisy courtship mambo and were quietly taking—excuse me, I can’t help myself—a pregnant pause. And when we staggered sleepily outside into the cool and heavily damp morning air, to walk the long and steep path up to the edge of the thousand-foot overlook, to get the picture of a lifetime that would make the experience all worthwhile, the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see ten feet!
I rose to check the weather for our trip in the dim hours between dawn and Captain Kangaroo. It was Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, 1994, and Ben K was on his way over to pick me up for two calm and restorative days of backwoods hiking in Arkansas. A quick glance at the Whether Channel (to determine whether or not we’d be heading out) stopped my last-minute packing. Excited reporters showed video of intense and angry storms that were sweeping southeast through Oklahoma, straight toward our intended stomping grounds in Ouachita State Park. I had visions of being swept through the mountains by a tidal wave of Arkansas flotsam, beer cans and spent shotgun shells as I fell back into—lawd, forgive me—my uneasy chair.
Upon doctor Ben’s arrival we made a snap (i.e. hasty) decision to drop the plans for driving northeast and instead head west for parts unknown. So I kissed Marci goodbye, and both Ben and I repeated after her in the traditional Oath of Stupidity: “I promise not to do anything stupid like I did last time.“ We tossed the gear in Ben’s 4Runner, grabbed a Texas Parks map, put pedal to the plastic and headed for the highway. We knew only this: we were headed away from the storms, and we’d figure out the specifics en route.
“Fort Stinkin’ Desert, here we come!” As Ben drove us west by northwest, I surveyed the possible state parks that lay near our route. We settled on Caprock Canyons, a good six-hour drive, and the only park on our map that mentioned primitive camping.
Ben was hopeful. “Should be dry as a bone by mid-day,” he declared, defying the weather gods as we fled the splattering rain and gathering storm clouds of Dallas. Sure enough, as morning gave up the ghost, the beautiful grasses and wildflowers of our tiny highway yielded to scrub trees and the cracked, burnt orange desert soil of west Texas. The sun and the mercury soared in the cloudless sky, and dust devils churned the black plowed fields to our left and right. This part of Texas is apparently big business for dust cultivation and dirt farming.
At one point we pulled the car to the edge of a field to pick some cotton, just to see what it was like. I don’t recommend it. The reason cotton balls are so soft and white is that they remove the thorns, comb through the dirt, and bleach out all of my blood!
For a long time during the drive there wasn’t much to look at. Highways in north-central Texas are a poor place for sightseeing unless you’ve been suffering from a lack of horizons. After hours of endless Nothing, we were on the lookout for Anything. In Turkey, Texas, a bustling one mile metropolis (if you round up), we settled for…Something.
Bob Wills, the late “King of Western Swing” and leader of the Texas Playboys, is memorialized in Turkey by a statue that from a distance resembles a thin grain silo, or spare parts from pre-NASA attempts at putting spiders in orbit, or one of those Rocket popsicles from our childhood for which we had risked our lives chasing the Ice Cream Man. At the side of the main street in Turkey, the statue’s tall octagonal granite base is surmounted, possibly in an afterthought, by a thin shaft of tin capped with a stunted viola that was probably intended to be a violin. Etched in the polished stone of the base are the immortal accomplishments of Bob Wills, and as they are immortal, I shan’t repeat them here. I will now create a sense of suspense, and leave you to travel to Turkey, Texas and see for yourself.
And while you’re at it, visit the Bob Wills Museum in room 103 of the old high school. If the museum is closed, you can while away an hour looking at class pictures going back to the early 1900′s. Let’s just say that Turkey in the early 20th century was not a net exporter of Hollywood-style paragons of beauty. But if you’re looking for big ears and buck teeth, look no further than the old black and whites on the walls of Turkey High.
Ben and I arrived at the Caprock park station in the early afternoon. The ranger, a dried up coughing hag we subsequently named Beulah, suggested we hike the old train track trail into the canyons. The trail wasn’t in the park, but was on a narrow strip of park land, part of a “rails to trails” conversion. Since hiking the rail trail was the same advice I’d been given over the phone by another park ranger we later named El Diablo, we turned the truck around. We headed away from the ranger station toward the trailhead several miles outside the park, down a dusty dirt road that scraped its way through flat and scrubby ranch land.
We slathered ourselves with sunscreen, filled five canteens from the water jug in the truck, donned hats, boots and bandannas, and hauled our packs onto our backs. Stepping onto the trail, a now tie-less railroad from the 1800′s, we looked down the mounded black strip of crushed volcanic rock. It stretched absolutely straight through the flat desert to a perfect vanishing point on the far horizon, like an illustration from an art primer on How To Draw Perspective.
Smarter hikers would have reconsidered at that point. But Ben and I began walking, crunching across the pumice plain like stomping through piles of Cheerios and bone shards. The map showed that we would have to walk four and a half miles before reaching a long train tunnel, gateway to the promised canyon lands beyond. Within minutes we were soaked in sweat, the surprisingly humid heat murderously intensified by the black rock of the trail. Generous portions of liver-killing insecticide helped keep the hordes of blackflies at bay. Nevertheless, we can both attest the blackflies were indeed of a biting variety, and apparently drawn irresistibly to sweaty young men in much the same way that young women are not.
Hours, miles and canteens later, Ben stopped, looked at me and in a dry croak I’d not heard before, rasped, “Doug, I believe we are in Hell.” By this time, our locale had long been renamed “Craprock Canyons.” But as the sweat-soaked map had promised, we eventually came to a series of heat-blasted low hills that sat like buttocks in the sand, and a bend in the dusty trail that led us toward a cliff face, and the gaping maw of a black tunnel stretching far into darkness. With no sight of Cerberus, three-headed canine guardian of the underworld, we staggered into the tunnel and into deepening shadows. The temperature dropped to subterranean levels and we could smell the pungent guano that indicated we were not alone.
As the rock-walled train tunnel grew darker, the ground became soft beneath our feet and we could hear squeaks and the whisper of tiny wings in the roof high above. Brave fools or lazy adventurers, we had neglected to dig out our flashlights in the delirious glee of being temporarily free of the heat. As the sound of the bats grew louder, the tunnel grew darker. Our lights were buried in our packs, our feet buried in guano, and all buried in a tunnel deep beneath the mountain. The weight of the rock felt as heavy as our packs, and we were keenly aware of being in a deep, old tunnel that was no longer used, and probably ill maintained.
The light behind us faded to nothingness, as if blotting out the past several hours. But just before the tunnel fell into complete darkness and forced us to grope blindly for our flashlights, we rounded a slight curve and could see the glimmerings of daylight ahead. We went toward the light, making the obligatory near-death jokes as we went. Disturbed by our voices, pigeons nesting in the rafters took flight. The beat of their wings ruffled our hair as they made strafing bomber runs past us toward the exit.
Like the travelers in Lost Horizon, Ben and I emerged into a transformed land. The trail led around ledges in the hills, and to the left the ground dropped away into rolling valleys of trees, grasses and grazing land. In the distance below us, a tiny silver ribbon of flowing water wound its way across the valley floor. We rested in the afternoon shade and refilled our canteens from a water tank provided by the park department. Hiking onward, we found the first suitable spot for our tent about a mile down the trail, on an area of flat ground at the edge of a steep valley wall. We set up the tent under a “No Trespassing” sign riddled with buckshot holes. The view down into the canyon was tremendous. With no sign of human habitation in sight, we cooked dinner over a small camp stove.
In the evening twilight, Ben and I ambled down the trail, looking at flowering cacti and watching the buzzards circle lazily overhead. We perched on the edge of a precipice, watched the sunset and harmonized twangy cowboy melodies. In the absence of romantic female accompaniment, we greeted the loveliness of the first evening stars with a belching contest, and pissed off the cliff.
When it was time to return, we got an early morning start. So did the sun and the heat. A fiery furnace blast greeted us as we exited the tunnel to continue the long march back to the truck. After walking an hour or so, the distant profiles of horsemen appeared in the shimmering heat mirage, where the ceaseless black trail vanished into the unending brown horizon. As the travelers approached, we counted four men astride four horses. Not a good sign.
The midday light blazed so bright on their hats that their faces were hard to see as they halted before us. I got right to the point and panted, ”You fellas don’t happen to be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?”
“Depends on what you’ve been smoking, I guess,” replied the one we assume was Pestilence.
Death looked down at us from his pale horse and asked where we were from. He cracked a weathered grin when we answered, “Dallas.”
“Y’all didn’t come out all this way just for this,” Death said. “You must of but had other business in these parts.”
Yeah, that’s right. We had to come visit Quitaque to see the Sidewalk Museum that stretches across crackled and broken pavement down the full 100-foot length of Main Street. We had come for the half-pound charburger and sodden “potatoe” fries at the Restaurant With No Name that we had “surely read about in the Dallas paper.” We had passed through Turkey to see the tall tin and granite erection raised in honor of the town’s favorite son, Bob Wills, who had not been born there, did not die there, and was not buried there.
The four horsemen continued onward and Ben and I finally reached the truck, soaked our heads in the remains of our water, and motored back to the state park to let Beulah and El Diablo know what we thought of their rail trail. Sadly, neither was in attendance at the ranger station, having been replaced by a kindly Angel of Mercy. We settled for writing in the park’s log book, “A fine trail for bikes and horses. Never never never never NEVER BACKPACK this trail in the summer!!!”
Before the long trip back home, and after an exhausted debate as to whether it would be worth the gasoline, Ben and I drove deeper into the park, which we had previously skipped at the advice of the rangers. Oh, supreme twist of the triple-sided knife of fate! Oh ironic gods, bellowing a final dusty laugh at our expense! The park was beautiful beyond compare! The ground cracked open and dramatically dropped away. Majestic walls plunged deep into the earth, yielding a miniature Grand Canyon with all the colors of the desert rainbow.
We were too tired to hike the well-maintained trails to the overlooks, too weary to look over the scalloped edges of the beautiful cliffs. We left Caprock Canyons with salt-crusted skin and black and blue feet. As Ben asked in the air-conditioned Toyota as we u-turned and headed back across the flatlands towards Dallas, “Why do we always have to end up with a good story? Why not just an excellent vacation?” Of course, if I have ever enjoyed a flawless trip, it’s been forgotten long ago, drowned out by better tales of mistakes and misadventures.
And you know, Ben and I went back to Caprock early the next spring, and we ignored the rangers’ repeated advice to see the rail trail, and we hiked all around the park. And the weather was cool and perfect, and the park with its hiking paths through twisting riverbeds, majestic rocky vistas and steep canyon descents was amazing, and it was an incredible camping trip. And there’s not a damn word I can think to write about it.
I spent the day at the San Francisco Writers Conference, at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental, high upon the crest of Nob Hill. The conference was worthwhile, and I got quite a lot out of it. Mostly by being in proximity to other people who are succeeding at getting words down on paper (or rather, computer) but who have generally not yet reached agents or publishers with real success.
So it’s rather validating.
The sessions this time are a bit short–about 45 minutes, which isn’t quite enough time to get more than a brief taste. Most of the presenters spend a bit too long on telling us about themselves, so there’s not much time to get into their content. Nevertheless, it’s been informative. The first session I went to was completely ad-libbed and ad hoc, but was one of the best because of the honest and straightforward way that the presenters, two middle-grade and young-adult book agents/editors, answered the audience questions.
Most if not all of what I learned I already knew–but conferences like these are like A.A. meetings: the repetition and reinforcement is as important as the content. And I met some great people. I’d like to think of it as ‘networking’ but that requires followup. Remind me to get cards printed with my web address on them and something about my writing. Giving out my Adobe business cards doesn’t help much.
I’m headed back for days Two and Three, including the Sunday morning “speed dating with agents”–in which I’ll have about 90 seconds to tell an agent what makes Califar worth reading. I’m going to concentrate on Califar since it’s finished, even though my head is stuck totally in my new book (let’s call it “HT & the BB”). I practiced on the drive home, talking to myself in increasingly rapid and animated sentences. We’ll see how it goes: maybe I’ll end up sounding like I’ve been breathing helium. Wish me luck.
Update: it went well! In addition to terrific sessions and some great speakers, I was able to speak to about 7 different editors and show them the first pages of both Califar and H.T. By making quick changes based on feedback, I was able to use the scientific method and test the results with rapid iteration. I’m much happier with those initial first pages now, particularly the first page of HTBB.
And pitching to agents was fun as well. I was able to see three in my allotted hour: people lined up for various agents, 3 minutes per pitch followed by a bell, and believe me there was no Pavlovian response. All three agents responded well to the pitch and agreed to read a portion of Califar. I’ll be sending the first few chapters along to them shortly, together with a synopsis. Hopefully I’ll get useful feedback from them. Either way I’ve gotten a lot from the conference, and look forward to going again.
Early June, 1990. Marci and I were on our honeymoon in Italy, thanks to a gift of miles from my folks. We hadn’t been there long, and had just arrived in sunny and lovely Florence, our second stop. We were walking with our backpacks down the old cobblestone streets toward the part of town where we hoped to find lodging, and it was time to replenish our diminishing cash reserves. So when we saw a bank that had been built into a row of old shops, we decided to go in and cash some travelers checks.
The bank was a small storefront, about the size of a fast food restaurant. Facing the street sidewalk was a dark and thick smoked glass window, through which it was dimly possible to see the interior. To the left of the window was a granite wall of several feet separating the window from the bank entrance, a deeply recessed doorway of the same thick smoked glass.
Marci and I stepped up to the doorway and pulled, then pushed at the shiny chrome handle. The door did not budge. We checked the hours displayed on the door of the bank. Through the dark glass of the door, we could see customers and bank tellers, so we knew that the bank was in fact open. The door that wouldn’t move was a mystery.
We examined the entrance closely. There was a sign affixed to the door with a paragraph in Italian, which I attempted to translate. It appeared to be saying something about magnetism. Indeed, upon closer inspection, there was electrical apparatus both in the door and in the door frame.
We realized that the bank must be using a metal detector system similar to those in the airports: metal items in our backpacks must have been preventing the doors from opening. It was quite an ingenious system for increasing bank security. So Marci and I walked a few steps back around the door entry to the glass window, and dropped our packs. I left Marci with the packs and went back to try the door again.
Unfortunately, it still failed to open. I remembered that the metal I was carrying had triggered the metal detector at the airport as well, so I went back to Marci and gave her my keys and my pocket change. Still, the door would not open.
I returned to Marci and gave her my watch. Reluctantly, I took off my still-new wedding ring and handed it to her. Back to the door. Dammit, the thing still would not budge! I stood before the door rather frustrated. Then I recalled that I was wearing my typical travel pants, using my old belt with its metal belt buckle that never failed to set off airport alarms.
So, feeling rather foolish, I once again walked back over to Marci and sheepishly handed her my belt. My pants instantly started dropping, so holding them up by sticking my hands in my pockets, I walked back over to the bank door as nonchalantly as I could.
Holding my pants up with one hand, I grasped the handle with the other and gave a mighty tug.
And a mightier push.
And a tug and a push and a tug. Nothing happened.
As I stood there, keyless and watchless and coinless and beltless, holding my pants up with one hand and feeling about as stupid as stupid can get, an attractive Italian woman came up behind me to enter the bank.
“Hello,” I said to her in English, partly to clue her in that I was clue-less, and partly because in my nonplused state I’d forgotten even basic manners and all my Italian stock phrases. I put one hand nonchalantly on my hip and surreptitiously hooked my thumb through an empty belt loop. She smiled and said hello back in liltingly accented English.
“The door won’t open…” I offered, about to tell her of my apparent magnetism. Me and Magneto.
“Oh,” she said, “there are too many people inside. As soon as someone leaves, they’ll open the door.”
Red-faced, I hoisted my pants, retrieved my belt, my pack and Marci, and left without seeing anyone leave the bank. To this day, we don’t know how well the patrons and employees on the other side of the door could see my dance-of-pants, through that dark and smoky Doug-proof glass.
You probably have a list of your own: Things I Shouldn’t Have Said. My list has a different title: Things I Shouldn’t Have Gotten Away With Saying. This these are not intentional slights or meanness. Sometimes words just slip out on their own.
The summer after our freshman year in college, Ben K and I went to New York City for a vacation. I don’t remember why we decided to go there, but we had a great time wandering around SoHo and Greenwich Village day and night, seeing museums and Big Apple weirdness. I remember a couple of things very vividly about that trip. One was a nightly battle with Gray Booger Syndrome. If you’ve ever been in a polluted city during a temperature inversion, you’re probably familiar with GBS.
I don’t remember what the other thing was. It was a long time ago.
One late afternoon, while walking around the downtown streets feeling like ants at the feet of giant stone monuments, B and I stopped in front of a closed science fiction bookstore. It was full of Star Trek and Star Wars and Star This That and The Other paraphernalia and movie posters and gore-dripping comic books and Fangoria magazines. Perfect place for the two of us. I’d say there was a life-sized Yoda mask in the window, but although I enjoy Star Wars as much as the next eternal adolescent I’m aware that it is a work of fiction, and that creatures such as Yoda do not actually exist and therefore masks of them cannot really be described as “life-sized.”
See what I mean? Perfect place for us.
At this point, Ben and I were just resting in front of the store as the afternoon shadows crept down the sidewalk, when two oddly-dressed women sidled up to us and stopped. They were painfully thin, with no makeup but long metal ear foliage and jangling metal wrist wrings. Wearing some sort of rumpled black gowns, their long straight hair was dull and trickled down their backs, and they carried stacks of pamphlets advertising one of those cults that seem to pop into the public consciousness every so often when the members start killing themselves off with spiked Kool-Aid in order to ride imaginary spaceships to Valhalla.
“I see you’re interested in other worlds,” said one of the space vixens.
“I see you’re interested in my d**k,” I returned.
I shouldn’t have said that, of course. And as it turned out, I didn’t. Actually, I said it, but I said it to Ben as the women wandered off in disappointment that we didn’t take them up on their offer of attending their 6 PM prayer circle.
“You’ve never seen anything until you’ve been with 100 of us in a circle of love, chanting the Pramaloona Pooka Pooh.”
Ah, life’s little regrets.
I could have written that anecdote in such a way that I actually said those words, but it would have been a mean thing to do, and I’m not a mean guy, not way down deep where it really counts. And besides, it would have been a lie, and I want you to trust me because what happened later that night actually happened the way I’m about to relate. I’d be tempted to doubt it myself, but Ben K was there and he’ll back me up.
We had left my Uncle Al’s apartment, where we were staying during our trip, to walk around the city for the evening. We’d heard of a great place to have pizza in Greenwich Village and we wandered in. The place was packed on a Saturday night, and after a long wait we grabbed a small round table and ordered a large pizza. Usually a large pizza is about right for two hungry college guys, but the enormous pepperoni-covered wagon wheel that arrived at our tiny table would have been enough to stuff a Paraguayan lion tamer, some Irish coal miners and a couple of Trappist monks. The pizza was larger than the tabletop—in essence, the pizza became the tabletop—and we tried to avoid the eyes of any potentially amused New Yorkers as we carefully ate from opposite ends of the pizza so as to maintain the precarious table-pizza balance and avoid tipping everything over.
We were embarrassed about ordering a pizza large enough to weigh anchor and sail to New Jersey on a sea of its own tomato sauce, so we had them crate up the remains and we hauled the leftovers out with us. By the time we reached the street it was close to midnight, the witching hour. The streets were thick with people walking and talking, some to each other and some to themselves.
Today it can be hard to tell an autoverbalist from someone talking on a cell phone earpiece, but back then the crazies were much more clear. Can you hear me now, invisible voices? There were quite a few homeless people sitting on the sidewalk, holding up the storefronts with their backs, begging for change. We donated our pizza box to alleviate world hunger and walked on down the street.
Out of nowhere, a frighteningly huge and disheveled man leapt up at us out of the darkness, poked his finger straight in my chest, glared down at me with wide, wild eyes, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “I KNOW YOU! I KNOW YOU!
“YOU STABBED MY MOTHER IN THE ARM!!!”
Our hearts stopped beating–our brains went into shock and four legs froze.
“YOU STABBED MY MOTHER IN THE ARM!!!” he yelled again.
Without thinking or missing a beat I yelled back, “I’m sorry–I didn’t know she was your mother!!!” A miracle of comic timing, wasted on the insane.
There are moments of absolute clarity, and apparently there are moments of absolute unclarity. Luckily for us, the former instantly followed the latter: Ben and I looked at each other and yelled, “Aaaugh!” and started running, continuing far down the street until we were sure we weren’t being pursued by a nightmarish horde of pizza-wielding lunatics.
Another critical moment leaps to mind, a moment of unclarity when I said something that could have gotten me smashed into a small pulpy lump. My college roommate Richard L and I had gone to see Pink Floyd in concert during our senior year at the University of Texas at Austin. We had good floor seats, obtained by standing in line extremely early in the morning on the opening day of ticket sales. At least I think it was extremely early in the morning. It was probably before noon.
Richard and I were waiting for the concert to start, and the two seats to my right, which had been empty, were now overflowing with a couple of sweaty, unwashed knuckle-walkers. The behemoth beside me was a giant t-shirted beer-bellied mono-browed hairy-foreheaded pork sausage who must have been six-foot-four and upwards of 300 pounds. I’m sure his mother loved him, once. She certainly fed him a lot.
After sloshing me with beer and popcorn, the Incredible Bulk lit up a large joint and, out of consideration for his pasty friend, coughed the sickly-sweet smoke down at my head.
“Hey, excuse me,” I said, “but could you please not blow smoke in my face?”
“What’s a matter,” he rumbled in a thick Texas drawl that sounded like Gomer Pyle transposed down a couple octaves, “you don’t smoke pot?”
“No, I said. “I’m allergic. Just blow your smoke up or away if you don’t mind.” Blow it out your ass is what I thought, but I didn’t say that although I was getting pretty steamed.
“Well, F**k Me, Rachel!” he announced loudly, taking another drag and furrowing his brow-ridge.
“No thanks,” I said, “–and my name’s Doug.”
In a sudden, smooth and fluid motion, my friend Richard leapt up on my left and said, “Uh, I’ll switch with you,” and he pretty much pulled me over into his chair and slid into mine before H. neanderthalensis had time to consider.
Later, Richard told me he thought I was going to get us both killed.
Lummoxed to death at the Pink Floyd concert, I thought. Well, f**k me, Rachel!