Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Suitcase Man

It’s the end of a long, cold day of skiing. It snowed all day and the wind on top of Loveland pass was brutal enough to keep the tourists driving on towards Vail and leave the fresh powder for us hardy locals. My daughter and I are tired, wind-burned and muted as we absorb the warmth of the truck heater. The hot blast, added to the affects of a day in the wind and cold, has turned our faces a deep red and our muscles into jelly. The “Après Ski” mood is heavy and pleasant. The big snowflakes and the swish of tires on the road compliments the mood. We’re listening to the Beatles as we enjoy the quiet, easy friendship of each other’s company. We’re comfortable in silence – always have been. We don’t have to fill the air with idle chat. We’ll wait until something needs to be said.
As we cruise through the slush of the interstate through Idaho Springs, we suddenly break the silence in unison, “What the …?” Half running, half walking on the shoulder of the road, a man in a 3-piece suit is tugging along two rolling suitcases. The big one looks heavy – his face is red from exertion. The smaller carry-on bag bumps and swerves, jumps off the pavement, then twists in his hand, causing him to stop and collect his balance and alignment before starting off again at a careening sprint. He doesn’t look up at us in embarrassment. He doesn’t even look back quizzically like most of do when we trip on the non-existent crack in the path. He doesn’t thrust out his thumb in hopes of catching a ride, even though there are many cars for him to choose from and the chances are probably good he’d not have to walk for long if he only tried. He just doggedly keeps on like he’s nearing his destination. But what destination? The nearest exit is a couple of miles ahead and the nearest airport is 50 miles on the other side of Denver.
Is this the proverbial traveling salesman, chased from the farmer’s house where he has stolen the reputation of the oh-so-nubile, ostensibly naïve, yet undoubtedly willing, daughter and is now in such a hurry to escape the farmer’s shotgun that he’s had time to grab only his suitcases full o’ Fuller Brushes but left his car keys on the vanity? His own vanity, only minutes ago in full bloom, now overshadowed by his fear of death and his hope that the shotgun is loaded with rock salt and not buckshot. Clearly not thinking clearly of the best mode of escape, only thinking that he must!
Is this the dim-witted businessman who, returning from the mortgage-bankers conference at the Vail Weston with his wife, gave the wrong answer to the famous trick question, “Do I look fat in this outfit?” and now has to find his own way home? He too, could stick out a thumb but is perhaps too embarrassed at being laid low by the oldest ambush in the book of marriage. And, knowing that he’s a double loser for not getting his testicles out of his wife’s purse before being unceremoniously dumped on the highway, he can’t stand the thought of looking another man in the eye for some time to come, so his thumb stays wrapped around the suitcase handle.
Is this a well-dressed hitch-hiker who criminally absconded with his generous host’s travel gear after knocking out his do-gooder host (whose wife and mother had always cautioned him to not pick up strangers but was always oblivious to his own fallibility and so never thought it could happen to him) and is now trying to make the next exit before the hapless ride-giver awakens and comes rudely searching for him? But then, why steal the suitcases and not the car?
Is this a homeless man with a sense of style who maybe lives in his big suitcase and is running from some real or imagined threat, his home-on-wheels in one hand and his sum total earthly possessions in the careening carry-on in his other? Maybe there’s a bear that chased him from his woodsy hideaway and is just out of our sight on the side of the road, trying not to laugh at the same scene that we find hilarious. The bear saying to his friend, the moose, as he stares at the clip-on tie that is snagged on his claw, “Dang man, I was so close to having that guy for dinner.”Now, months and two seasons later, we’ll never know the real story. Unfortunately, the real story is probably boring and nowhere near as fun and interesting as the scenarios presented by the fertile, well-watered and freshly-plowed field of human imagination.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Early-Morning Airport Joy

Even during the holiday season, an airport before 7 AM is a joyless place. Returning a rental car in the rain is a pain. Avis didn’t try hard-er. In fact, they didn’t try at all to keep the rain off my freezing head. How can you not have a covered parking lot in North Carolina? When it’s not raining, the sun is a brutal beast. No shade & no protection is not the way you become #1. I’ll be trying harder to book with Hertz next trip out.
The ticket line was jammed with – and this is no exaggeration, I counted them – 87 Japanese tourists, who, even after securing their boarding passes seemed much happier clogging up the terminal walk-ways than taking said boarding passes and running the TSA gauntlet. Actually, I don’t blame them. Transportation Security Agency agents are never a happy-face crowd, but before 7 AM, they are positively surly. “Your boarding pass, sir?” sounded a lot like “YOUR PAPERS, PLEASE,” done up in a Nazi SS officer’s sneering accent. So, putting off the x-ray machines and standing around comparing digital pictures of the North Carolina countryside is probably preferable to the abuse of the hand scanner.
After braving the TSA Christmas greeting, the all-you-can-eat for ten bucks Airport Breakfast Buffet sounds like a good deal, but it’s really an oxymoron, isn’t it? I mean, all you can eat? More like, all you can keep down once the turbulence starts. Oh, but they did have FREE wireless internet in the Raleigh-Durham airport, so I thought I’d munch on some soupy eggs and a slice of bacon so thin you could use it for tracing paper while I email my missus and wish her a sunny day, even though she’s still in bed two time zones away. Seemed like good idea, but Cingular had a different idea. They made their not-free wireless service stronger than the free service so that my cheap company computer would automatically connect to THEM and not to the freebie service finally forcing me out of sheer frustration and holiday good cheer to just give up and pay the $9.99 and be done with it. Oh, you trick-sie tricksters of the cybernet! But at least I got a full stomach and an email or two sent off before the Japaese group made it through security and stood around clogging up the concourse walk-ways.
After my breakfast of cold eggs and frustration, I decide to hunker down with an orange juice and a good book to pass the time before the cattle call. The orange juice must have been bottled in Tibet as it reacts wildly to the sea-level pressure of the Cape Fear Basin and complete stickiness ensues. Oh well, not to worry there is a restroom right around the corner. Joy!

Now, an airport restroom is rarely a cause for joy unless you have just spent the last two-and-a-half hours in a window seat of row 28 shackled by the virtual leg irons of two snoring linebackers who “lie” between you and the aisle that leads to the Nirvana affectionately known as the airpot (sic). Of course, after waiting for the 27 rows at six passenger per row to deplane, not to mention that princess in 14c who is holding up our exit by adjusting her scarf and hat just so before she sashays up the gangway, a janitor closet and a paper cup looks like the Taj Mahal of sanitary facilities. So you could say, “Joy,” when you see the be-skirted and be-trousered silhouettes on the doors of the necessary facilities when the need is great and the line has already dissipated.

Ah, but today brought real joy, or at least for me some real entertainment. After rinsing the stickiness off - holy cow, how'd I get that juice in my ear? - I did what you do in these places. Staring at the tiles (have you ever noticed how you can make them go all 3-D if you slightly cross your eyes just right?) and thinking again how thankful I am that men have plumbing compatible with stand-up relief, I hear the toilet repeatedly flushing behind me. Another joy – the joy of automated flushing. Adjust your seating, get a flush. Reach for something in your suitcase, get another – this time with a little spritzer to tickle your fancy. Lean over to tie your shoe and you can pretend you’re in France and every stall has a bidet for your refreshment and sanitary enjoyment.
After the fourth or fifth flush though, my tired eyes wander to the floor under the stall wall as I contemplate how the stall dweller will dry off after that deluge. Wow, those are the girliest shoes I have ever seen on a man! Oh well, I’m not going to make the best-dressed list this year either. But what about those brightly-colored argyle socks? And not just any argyle, but a pattern where red and pink-colored hearts replace the normal diamonds in the pattern! And there is way too much sock showing between those light loafers and the oh-so-tight, high-water slacks.
I may have to actually gawk at this guy when he comes out because I have GOT see the rest of his outfit. This is way past gay and streaming headlong towards flaming. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that I think it is going to be very interesting to observe.) Then I notice the multi-colored ribbons festooning the suitcase in the stall. Wow, no hiding in the closet for this guy. But then, as the toilet flushes again, I freeze in mid-shake and have the horrifying nano-second thought that I chose the room with the skirt silhouette by mistake.

But, no, I am using the urinal, so…

Any thought I have of gawking is replaced by an embarrassed empathy for a fellow traveler having a really joyless 7 AM airport experience. As the petite, attractive redhead emerges from the stall, I turn away and give her the chance to escape without eye contact.
Moments later, when I emerge relieved, refreshed, and renewed, I search surreptitiously for the argyle-heart socks - but to no avail. She will, hopefully, laugh about this with her girlfriends tonight when she gets home. I hope that thinking back on her faux pas will bring her joy.
For me, I’m laughing already. Just what I need – a little bit of holiday cheer. Plus, I’m going home. Now, that’s real joy!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Single Shoe in the Road

I don’t lay any personal claim to the Single Shoe story. We’ve all been driving down the highway and seen the Single Shoe. We’ve all wondered about the Single Shoe. But mostly, we all just disregard the Single Shoe. My wife will say something like, “Oh, some teenagers having too much fun.” Or I’ll say, “Those lovers were in a real hurry don’t you think?”
But recently, I’ve come up with a couple of different theories to this mystery.
Theory #1: The shoe’s owner was actually caught up in “the rapture.” Probably behind that yucca over there you’ll find the other shoe. His pants will be stuck to the sap on a limb of a nearby pine. The wallet that fell out of his pants will show that he’s an organ donor. Fat lot of good his promise to donate his leftover flesh is going to do for the next-on-the-list kidney patient in Lawrence, Kansas. His “WWJD?” t-shirt, no doubt, fell into the river, so is probably halfway to the Mississippi by now if some beaver isn’t lining his lodge with it and pondering the state of his immortal soul. His Bible will be under a bush, (flung open to John 3:16, as I believe that God has a sharp-edged sense of irony, if not a downright inscrutable sense of humor.) His underwear will already be drawing flies wherever they fell. (The “Rapturee” having messed himself from the surprise of suddenly flying upwards while his clothes fell off and the angels sang.) If we weren’t going 75 mph, we could poke around and find these pieces of evidence that would validate my theory. Alas, I’m a little afraid that I’d prove myself right. Then where would I be? “Left Behind,” I guess…
Theory #2: More likely, the single shoe belonged to a lonely road warrior, like myself, driving to some unknown, and never arrived-at destination who suddenly got a bad case of terminal foot itch.
Unable to tough it out or scrape the bottom of his shoe against anything without slamming on the brakes, he finally screams hysterically, and bends down to rip off the offending shoe. While attempting to yoga his foot into his lap so he can go at the itch with the rat-tail comb out of his back pocket, he loses control of his Neverlost™-equipped Taurus rental car, and trebuchets his Hertz chariot off the shoulder of the road. As the car flips end over end toward the (inevitable) concrete bridge abutment, the shoe flies out the open window and is spared the fiery carnage that will consume anything left in the car.
Meanwhile, the somehow-sexy-while-mechanical voice of the Neverlost™ computer personality calmly informs the driver that he has missed his turn. The salesman smiles dreamily as he tumbles, rationalizing to his panicking mind that slaking the awful thirst of that foot itch was worth the dreadful and final cost of the scratching.
Since the car burst into a micro-thermo-nuclear fireball hundreds of yards past the shoe lying in the road, the rookie highway patrolman, who is first at the scene, does not connect the shoe to the disaster as he stares in dumb horror at the carnage. In fact no one notices the shoe until I drive past and wonder of its story.
And no one ever notices the small iridescent beetle that crawls out of the freshly-flung shoe. If anyone had seen the beetle, they would have sworn he was wearing an insectoid version of a feces-eating grin on what passes for his face, as he heads for the Motel 6 just up the road. They’ve left the light on for him, but he’s pretty confident he can find a dark place in which to hide. Maybe some underwear someone has left on the floor. Or maybe another shoe. That last one sure proved interesting.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Camels in Texas

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. Maybe. Maybe not. Being an avid fan of Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Terry Pratchett, I’ve read some pretty strange stories in my days. Cars and dogs that think; elves that are immortal; hobbits with hairy feet; and a flat disk of a world that rests on 4 elephants standing on the back of the Great A’tuin, the cosmic turtle, that swims through the Multiverse – now, that’s strange.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some really strange, but true, things that happen everyday. Check out Lady Gaga or Terrell Owens or the Michael Jackson media madness if you don’t think that things can get more than strange without any help at all from a writer’s over-active imagination.

But for my money, if you want to ring the bell on the carny-of-life strange-o-meter, mix up a frothing batch of truth in the ol’ brain blender and let the fiction of the human imagination garnish that potent concoction.
And what better place to find those basic ingredients of truth to blend up in your strange-power drink but on the road, right here in the good old US of A.

For example, I was driving on US Hwy 287 in Northwest Texas. Two eighty- seven is the venerable old North/South trail that runs from Mexico to Canada, and straight through my hometown of Loveland, Colorado. Somewhere between Denton and Wichita Falls, as I was fighting off the Sandman and trying to time my phone calls so that they start and end at the top of the hills near the cell towers, I looked out past the tumbleweeds and saw… Camels?
Camels! And I think, at first, that’s cool. I mean, how often do you get to see a flotilla of the ships of the desert except on the Animal Planet network?
Then I think, wait a minute. What’s a hump of dromedaries doing in West Texas besides eating cactus? And whom do they belong to? Do they (whoever this mysterious “they” are) milk them? Raise ‘em for hump steaks? Maybe they’re going to be used to attack the last battalion of the Texas Rangers. Sheiks with scimitars vs. Pecos Bill and his Remington sharpshooters. That’d be cool.
Are “they” a terrorist cell preparing for a Lawrence-of-Arabia-type assault on Fort Worth? Or is it just another Texan’s Big-Money dream? You know, a buy- me-some-goldurn-camels-and-the-world-will-beat-a-path-to-my-door kind of venture. How did they sell that business plan to the Farmer’s Market Bank and Trust?
Maybe it’s an oil-rich sheik who bought a ranch and wanted to just feel at home. Or, he’s keeping them for a dowry for a political marriage between his daughter and the local Oil Baron’s son. Cement that oil deal with camel’s blood and “I Do’s” and create a whole new monopoly for the 21st century.
Could be it’s a cult-ish environmental group that believes global warming will force us to have reliable, drought-resistant transportation when civilization falls apart and they’ll be ahead of the curve.
Could be just a Kuwaiti traveling carnival. Complete with djihnies in dime-store toilet water bottles and girls with veils that make them appear alluring when they really are not quite as pretty as the camels themselves underneath it all.
No, wait, it’s some savvy entrepreneur with the insider knowledge of a soon-to-arrive resurgence in camel-hair coats and he wants to be ready to flood the market.
Help! Stop me before I hurt myself!
You see what I mean? Once I get going, it’s hard to stop. So what about all that craziness I’ve seen traveling the byways and the highway? More to come...