February 27, 2016

I met a dentist at a small apartment party. I walked in knowing the hostess from two short but stimulating previous encounters, and as a stranger to everyone else. By 3am I was rapping with nearly everyone. Not because of anything I did, except wander, but because the hostess drew people to her of such varying passions that we couldn’t help but get along. This place, these people, were a magnet to good form and trust, and I sensed it when I walked in, and soon breathed out the stress and undue fears I’d built up on my drive over, faced with an unfamiliar situation and unfamiliar people, an anxiety I work to overcome at every new social encounter, and sometimes with old ones, and sometimes with past ones and made up ones.

How else could you explain a guy telling me that he was a BME, but not really, that the change he underwent and wants to undergo is too long to get into, then a minute later getting into it, passionate about EMS and paramedics, telling with fervor in his eyes he has to do it despite its unconventionality given an atmosphere like Case. I saw he had no choice, and commended him for being brave and true and making it.

Or the guy who ten minutes after introductions found me telling him about the kids book I’m writing, the story I’ve only been able to share with a few closest friends, the story that at once embarrasses and invigorates me, diminishes and expands me, of which I hesitate to offer a synopsis to anyone for fear of finding my story incomplete, nonsensical, all in my head.
And he listened., and softly in so few words but mostly with the silent languages told me he loved it, then told me later how he’s a scientist taking a children’s lit class, so we rapped about A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth and The Pushcart War.

Or running into an old friend, not a friend, new friend, the roommate of a freshman love from 250 miles and six year away, a face from a distant past I never dreamed I would see again, who I barely knew but represents an image of a different time and person and state. Who told me, exhausted, of her work as a speech pathologist, who told me of the flaws in the system, of the lack of care, of how her care is how she proceeds and treats and does her job, and wouldn’t it be nice if everyone just did their job? Of yoga in clinics and communicating with the nonverbal, the autistic, the neglected. How they can talk just as (un)clearly as we can(not). That to point to objects is a huge first step; to say what you need is the first step to saying what you love and understanding yourself.

I met a visiting childhood friend of the hostess and was amazed how sixteen years can maintain a bond and what it must be like to watch each other grow and was impressed at the resolve and commitment that takes, trying to figure out why my oldest friend is from 8th grade, what happened. Then I remembered my siblings and felt my love blossom and remembered my parents and saw that they grew too, are constantly growing, and what a privilege to watch and take part. And realized friendships change as you grow and move and get busy, that to maintain a friendship takes the humility to reach out when you can, and accept outreach when it’s given, no matter the time gap in between.

And the dentist from Brooklyn, I think Brooklyn, I assume, because of his style and flavor and flair. And accent and hand gestures. Who’s still a student but made lessons on teeth inviting, guessing correctly our past orthodontic care, who swished his scarf across his neck “Ayy, badda bing badda boom, just like that, make sure you floss.”
Who told me a dentist is a therapist, that if the patient trusts you you’re 50% of the way there, 50% of the way to a successful operation.
That he went to Israel for a sabbatical and knew it was a dream but that he must hold on to it, retain the feeling of good will and peace, bring it back to the real world, and he said he did, he has. I told him that’s cuz it’s all the real world, and he paused then laughed a big laugh and I could’ve sworn I was on a mountainside surrounded by big trees and fellow thru-hikers, white blazes up ahead, living purely and in the moment, for the moment, and for retention, when really to retain is to live momentarily. He said he was a Jew and spiritual and I said I wasn’t a Jew and spiritual, and he asked what I was and after several moments of thought told him the closest I could say is a transcendentalist. At his puzzled look I had the distinct honor and privilege of introducing him to Walden Pond.

But really, I think, through all these people, these free sprits and movers, I met a hostess, who I could describe with another thousand words but will instead rely on the past thousand. They in part and collectively paint a portrait of her; these people were chosen, and chose her in turn, and that reflection is no closer or further from the truth than anything else.
People of this quality and these qualities don’t just happen to appear together. They are drawn by something. So I do my best to draw them here, and am thankful to be a part of it.

On my drive home I passed a herd of deer standing in the road across the medium from me. I flashed my brights at the oncoming car and watched through my mirrors with growing apprehension as he didn’t slow down then the quick flash of brake lights as the deer scattered and again with the acceleration. I couldn’t see if any got hit. I didn’t go back to check. Louis CK once said deer are rats with hooves, and I laughed, because there are too many of them, and they’re the reason we never have flowers in our yard. That and my mom’s red thumb. I really don’t particularly care for deer. A coyote killing a deer and hired gunmen in the Metroparks are both acts to restore balance, but maybe we should take a closer look at why things are out of balance. Of course, assigning blame, and for that matter purpose, in the animal kingdom is purely human and arbitrary, and I’m sure the other driver didn’t want to hit a deer. He was just distracted. What’s distracting you? I ran the curb as I stared frantically in my rear view mirror then crawled home. That distraction cost me a few scratches on my hubcaps. The distractions of the past months where the impetus for meeting people slipped through my fingers cost me a hundred lives I could have known and dozens of these dust motes I call blog entries. But given enough dust motes, enough time and the right forces providing balance, our home was born and proceeded to careen around the Sun a couple billion times. Then you were born. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting most of you who read this. I’ve even been lucky enough to love some of you. I know it’s not our prerogative to bring dust motes together to form planets and stars, so please don’t feel that burden. But it is our burden to be conscious of our actions and the actions of those around us, and to relate them intimately to our Universe. It is our burden to pay attention. So I will strive to be a more attentive driver, and love the people I meet. Maybe I’ll even be lucky enough to find a few words to string together, to let you in on my world as I hope you’ll let me in on yours. At the very least, I promise to always flash my brights a couple times.

October 5, 2014

Comet2

 

This week I met:

A guy who was raised like anyone else, in a good home to be a good guy, then joined a punk band then joined the army. He drives a truck and wears an army baseball cap and swears he leans right, but talk to him about peace on Earth and he sounds just like a Democrat. He talks of practical solutions and I ask what’s wrong with idealistic solutions and he pauses then says they’re impractical. I say, practically speaking, how do we solve our ideological problems? By being impractical, one of us says. We can’t help but get wrapped up in semantics and the nitty gritties of issues, losing the forest for the trees, but after awhile of stumbling around we almost got to the root of the discussion (maybe, who knows what the root is) when, like waking up from a dream right before you find the location of that cave with the answers, or waking up right before you kiss that girl, his girlfriend comes out saying she wants to go home, he’s been out here forever, so he goes to take a piss. I tell her we’re out here trying to solve the world’s problems and she laughs uncertainly. We walked back inside and rejoined the conversation on the trials and tribulations of planning a wedding. I learned from them not to get too wrapped up in all the details and nitty gritties of a matter; that’s what wedding planners are for. Funny how similar all conversations can be, despite their disparity.

Andy, who said he hasn’t read a book in three years then talked about how his little sisters made him read Twilight and Harry Potter and other fan favorites, then gave such a complete philosophical summation of the movie Maze Runner that I begged him to read the book, and Plato’s Cave, and other stuff.

A collection of farmers (and sociologists and economists and entrepreneurs and urban planners) in the middle of ghetto Cleveland with a fundamental understanding of the importance of roots, literally and otherwise. They breathe in the air of a fresher tomorrow, leading a cultural revolution from the soil up. They envision a world of a more natural, organic food philosophy, where food is grown down the street from you, where food is a catalyst for change in a community. “If the diet is violent the activities are gonna be violent,” one of them says. “If you’re not the catalyst for change, change won’t occur,” another one quips. They talk of loving yourself to love others, and how loving yourself begins with treating your body and soul right. George Washington Carver is their idol, and they revere the ancients and their hanging gardens and stacked agricultural systems. They believe that where you plant seeds becomes an extension of yourself; everything they say is emblematic. I am astounded by their courage and creativity, looking at the glue in society outside of the traditional lenses, and am already seeing the cultural shift in action.

A professor at a bar watching the Browns game with his kids, who were students, now or previously. I assume they were there to make sure they didn’t lose the family bond amidst the rigidity of pedagogy, but probably just because they all liked the Browns. He wore a “Beer is Food” shirt and shouted, “Someone shoot the guy!” when the Titans quarterback started to go on a roll. When I was introduced we quickly shifted between topics, from living at home to how his dog died a year or three ago, and he said he’s never cried so much in his life. I hear from third parties he’s gone through worse in his day, that his teaching style breathes with freedom and makes the student feel important, equal, inspired to do well, that he’s a great guy to watch a Browns game with. His eyes seemed sad but he wore a smile as enticing as Johnny Manziel. Hoyer ended up winning it for us, take that for what you will. We took the win. Mr. Professor was the most exuberant fan in the joint, as shouts of “Here we go Brownies, here we go!” rained down from somewhere indeterminate. Ok, maybe it was me doing the chanting.

A grizzly old man with a gnarled walking stick who guessed my dog’s age to the month. He said he had to put his down a few months ago at the age of 14; that it was a shame because over the past couple of years they’d walked upwards of 3,000 miles in those parks; that putting him down was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. I spent half the walk back bummed out, thinking about mortality, replaying Comet’s occasional hesitations hopping the chasm from the ground to the backseat of my car and how he shakes his paws when he gets up after lying down for too long. The second half I spent vowing to take him 4,000 miles. He marched on ahead, carrying an outrageously long stick like always, getting caught in between trees at skinny points of the trail until I caught up and helped him angle his head properly…he’ll learn one of these days. He was probably thinking about ways he could jump in the canal without me stopping him. He jumped in, because there’s really nothing I can do aside from constrain him to a leash, and where’s the fun in that? He knows the most trouble he gets in is suffering through the spray of a hose, but that I’m sure wasn’t on his mind. Maybe we should all just focus on jumping in the canal and worry about the hose when the time comes.

September 28, 2014

September 28 2014 - Academy Tavern

This week I met:

An entire world in a little 75-year-old tavern. Academy Tavern on Larchmere every Wednesday night is the coolest, hippest, least hopping place in town. George plays a superb piano, harking back to early 20th century jazz and ragtime. His top hand flies while his bottom plunks out a dependably steady bass line, throwing in inflections as it sees fit.
I pause in my leisure as an old graying spunky lady gets up to sing with a voice that screams of youth not quite aged the same as her body. She smiles around the sparsely populated room and the room smiles back.
George takes a break and a lady in her 60s (looking young next to the previous singer) takes the piano and a big black bass belts out Gershwin’s “Summertime” with no rasp, just fullness and love and memories.
George takes over after another song by the duo and croons “Misty” with his fingers as the patrons quietly close their eyes and nod their heads and sing to those lingering people in their thoughts, back home, passed on, lost touch with. He fades away like he entered and a silence settles over the bar. The applause is staggered, individuals joining in as they finish their memories and swallow the last of their drinks.
I take a bathroom break as an old phone cuts through the background noise with its unrestrained clattering. The bathroom is tiny but pristine and a sign over the stall reads “Stand closer! It’s shorter than you think.”
I come out to a middle aged Italian man with sunken eyes and a pointed hair line sitting backwards on a chair next to the piano, his legs straddling the backrest, singing “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (but more reminiscent of The Ink Spots cover over Duke’s) in a soft, throaty voice heavy with the damage of cigar smoke, croaking out a life story that I’m dying to hear. The old fragile man sitting next to the piano (who I later learn is the husband of Mrs. Spunky Old Lady Singer) chimes in with a “harum” to fill the pause in chords, and keeps at it through the chorus to the delighted expectation of everyone in the bar as he stares at the wall in front of him, out to the pastures of his childhood. I bet he tore it up on the dance floor to this song. I bet he could still dance with the heart he used to.
The younger waitress calls the older waitress “Momma,” the phone clatters again and I love these intersecting eras. They all live on.
“Don’t say you don’t like France, say you don’t like Paris,” says the man at the bar in red pants and a matching red kerchief around his neck, thick with a Parisian accent, making drunken friends with the bartender.
A Lebanese couple celebrating their 35th anniversary sit on the back patio, surrounded by their family and the thin trickling of waterfall fountain. Sinatra’s confidant voice croons out through the hidden garden speakers. Most people, I assume, go to a nice fancy restaurant for important occasions like their 35th anniversary. These people came here, to this tiny, unassuming tavern in the middle of Shaker Square.
I want to take a picture of this whole place, a picture that could capture all the waves of life and history humming throughout; the sense of community can only be experienced, never transmuted, and I feel privileged to take part in it for one night. I hope I do a decent job of portraying this to you, hope you come here (or somewhere) and meet the Georges and Mommas and Academy Taverns.
A resident of the old houses beyond the border of this oasis heavy-handedly throws his garbage bag of beer and liquor (hey, maybe Coke) bottles in the trash, disrupting my reverie and reminding me that the world is still turning, people are still living and working and trying their best outside of this reprieve. But for a moment, just one (maybe another, I tell the waitress), people join together to forget while living in memories; making new memories; finding their place amongst all this mess after 35 years in a tavern celebrating it’s 75th anniversary, 75 years of giving people a break, a moment (maybe one more, I tell the bartender) from their lives to live.
Louis Armstrong croons “What a Wonderful World” and I realize the patio’s now empty save the wait staff and me and Louis. I think about leaving, then the Lebanese men walk out with big ole cigars and take seats around the waterfall fountain. Soft Arabic chatter floats my way as they fight to light each other’s smokes and puff in silence for a moment once it’s all figured out. Louis ends so I walk back inside and take a seat at the bar. There’s still a half dozen people in the place, George has left, the conversations are low.
I don’t know how it began but suddenly I’m in the midst of conversation with Cooper (surname), the “Summertime” singer. The man’s played at Nighttown, worked in the music business for 45 years or so, coming out with a CD of jazzy Lou Reed covers in April. He’s a carpenter by day and is wearing big blue overalls to prove the point. His kids are in the broadcasting business. His daughter, he says, is worth a million bucks, owns 95.5 and 107.9 and other black and gospel stations, but I take it with a grain of salt after he says his son “doesn’t call him for money anymore, so he’s probably making six figures.” He said you have to find a niche, took to my “Oh, the People You’ll Meet” column. All I can think about is how the hell I’m going to put this guy into words, and how I’m never going to do him justice. His voice rang out with a kindness as deep as the pitch (he studied opera, gets drinks with several members of the Cleveland Orchestra on a regular basis), agrees it’s a pretty crazy world but his eyes are squints of light and says you find your way after enough meandering. I say it’s no fun without the meandering, without getting lost and crashing through the woods to find the next burbling stream or spacious grassland. He relishes his whiskey neat as he talks, gives life advise, disagrees with my generalization of Cleveland’s failed steel industry, citing the “mom and pop” steel industry that doesn’t employ thousands, but 30 or 40 or so, 30 or 40 lives. He’s been coming here a long time, he says, and sometimes he’s the only person in the bar. He hugs the Momma waitress on her way out, awkwardly, given his stature, and strikes up a conversation with the newcomer to his left. His life isn’t glamorous, more so than some, but nothing worthy of a novel. I want to write that novel.

A girl with hair like a beehive, piled on top in dreads of dirty brown. We were listening to a funky brass band at the Ingenuity Fest, surrounded by glass blowers and Tesla fanatics and little chic stands selling their odds and ends. She wanted nothing more than to dance with someone, and I was with my friends and too far in my shell so said no. I wish I had given her a dance, at least one. I’m not very good, but I do like to dance, and man was she antsy. She went ahead and broke it down on her own, her hair tumbling off her head and hissing like Medusa’s cranial friends; some jive ass shy kid wasn’t going to ruin her fun.

A cashier at Antonio’s Pizzeria who was sick and about to cry because their shop just won an award in the local paper and had more traffic now than they knew what to do with. All the orders were 20+ minutes late. She had been getting yelled at for two straight hours by people arriving expecting their pizzas to be ready. I told the cashier as I was paying to keep her chin up, that not everyone was grumpy and hey, at least it means business is booming. She smiled then jumped to stop a couple little kids from trying to get into the kitchen.
A little old lady waited patiently for her two mediums, two larges, three calzones and buffalo wings. The cashier was going to carry them to her car for her but I said no, I got this; you have your hands full. The old lady promised to pay it forward.
I met a young mother, heavy set, living in the only development in Broadview Heights under the poverty line, who was cussing out the cashier and asked to speak to the manager. Her apartment complex is a two-minute walk away. I told her “what’re you gonna do?” and smiled lightly. I guess she has other stresses on her hand.
I talked to a guy outside who had been waiting for 45 minutes. He said he always came early to take in the sights and sounds and smells. He was quite at peace.
I went back inside to get my pizza and the young mother with other stresses was picking up hers. She had a pleasant conversation with the cashier who said, “I know you come here a lot, I’m really sorry.”
“Oh don’t worry about it, these things happen.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy your pizza.”
“Thanks, hope your night gets better.”
I collected my pizzas. She said, “Thank you for everything, seriously, it means a lot.”
The pizza was kind of cold, but what’re you gonna do?

Oh, The People You’ll Meet

Oh, the People You'll Meet

Everyone has a story in them, and everyone’s thoughts are equally important and valid and beautiful. To try and put that into practice, I have been conscientious of the conversations I have with strangers. I’ve found that the guy in front of me in the grocery store also thinks Qdoba is better than Chipotle, that we both agree Bill Cosby and Bruce Springsteen are highly overrated, and that he buys six gallons of milk every week because his five adopted teenage boys all turned out to be athletes. It certainly isn’t anything profound, but I’ve found I’m a lot less likely to get frustrated with the guy in front of me at the grocery store as he fumbles with his coupons and searches for that elusive penny, making me late for the Indians game, if I know a little something about his loves and struggles and what makes us similar. And I’ve found it’s healthy not to be mad at the guy who cut you off in traffic, and that when you employ that mindset to late night solo bar adventures, everyone you meet is interesting as hell, and everyone you meet becomes a friend and makes an impression on you.

So come back every Sunday and learn along with me about the awesome people out there leading their mundane lives as beautifully as they can.

September 21, 2014

September 21 2014 - The Flying Monkey

This week I met:

A military man from Sandusky named Josh. Late 20s – early 30s with a young family, he agrees that Apple store products are overpriced, that the Mantice is worse for guys than girls (his wife explained it to his four year old daughter as “it hurts their wee-wee!” We both laughed at that), and he wants to start his own business. I could tell he was military because he said “sir” to all the employees and people older than him, and I thought how certain things stick with you after certain experiences, and how sometimes they’re not what you expect them to be. I wondered what else had stuck with him. I wonder how long that conversation will stick with me.

An Apple employee named Georges, who was incredibly helpful, who wanted me to learn what he was doing so I could do it myself next time and not have to wait an hour for an Apple Genius, and joked that there was more than one of him (Georges).

A Slavic man at Big Met who was practicing his golf swing away from the masses in a grassy knoll. I asked him where the trailhead was, and with a heavy accent he asked, “Where are you walking to?” I said nowhere, just walking, so he said the paved trail next to the road was a waste of my time and pointed me to the wilder trail that I don’t think was actually a trail, but was certainly walked on.

A lady who let me go in front of her at Target because I only had one item, whose daughter went to CWRU, lived in Little Italy then, and now has a good job in Chicago. The mother liked Presti’s and Corbo’s, which I said was quite forward thinking on her part. Most people I know pick sides.

I saw a trucker blow a flat tire and slow down and throw on his hazards and almost immediately the truck next to him, from a different company, threw on his hazards and helped guide him to the side of the road and stayed to fix the problem. Camaraderie. The car behind me honked at me for slowing down slightly to watch the previous proceedings. I tried not to get angry at that, but sped up quickly and remembered the kindness of truckers.

I went to Denny’s in suburban Cleveland and a waitress (about 56, graying, out of shape, trying her best) saw me reading Walden and said she had read it when she was pregnant and that it helped. She said being depressed when you’re pregnant is the worst feeling a person could have. But she had to read it again to understand it. We all should. She said she still didn’t really understand it. None of us do, at least not quite like Thoreau did. And then I thought maybe, just maybe, that would be me in 40 years, old and graying and out of shape and working at Denny’s, talking with some kid happily eating alone at Denny’s reading literature, and I would reminisce back to when I had read that book, wherever that may have been, and how it affected me, and what it got me through. And maybe I’ll be reading this post in 40 years thinking I was Nostradamus. You never know. It wouldn’t be that bad of a life.

A rec softball ump who did it for the fun of it and an ump who did it to be important. I guess I can’t know that for certain, but one was wearing cut-off jean shorts and a white t-shirt and stood behind the plate with his arms crossed and the other had on an official looking jacket and nice blue pants and wore sports sunglasses and stood behind the plate hunched over and made us all sign waivers. They both gave advice to the batters though, so they’re probably both just in it for the love of seeing 20-somethings and adults alike play their favorite sport.

A trivia host who I played in volleyball the previous day at Whiskey Island; who took both recreational volleyball and Wednesday night trivia as seriously as a mom takes the ramblings of her four year old. That’s pretty damn serious.

A bartender named Mike who bought me a shot for a cigarette then bought me a shot after we talked for fifteen minutes for being “a good kid” then bought me a shot because a girl with beautiful blonde hair joined us. He bought her a shot too. We talked about death and who will remember and judge us. The conversation found its way back to life and love, as it always seems to do.

A tiny dog in Flying Monkey who went to bars with her owner because she was a dog and wanted the companionship and because the owner wanted someone to go to the bars with. True love.

A girl named Felicity with hair that rolled in rivulets of gold past soft shoulders hunched with what I assumed was the pain and exhaustion of a long day at work, and whose eyes shined with blue so that I thought I was looking in a mirror, so I smiled so she would smile back; who works with mentally handicapped kids in some capacity. She didn’t think they’d ever grow up to be anything. I tried to explain to her how none of us grow to be anything, we just are, and that those kids’ thoughts, Mike’s thoughts, her thoughts, were so beautiful that it didn’t matter what we were, just that we keep on chugging. She turned to Mike and said he was the sexiest bartender at the restaurant then left with him shortly after. I shrugged my shoulders and thought ah well, at least I tried.

A gay guy named Adam and his gay friend Ralph (they weren’t dating, they assured me. Adam, big and black and sassy, would never be caught dead dating Ralph, that skinny ass hipster white boy with a lisp from New York); who wanted me to read them my story (The Moon Wins) and thought it was poetry. I laughed and said it was technically prose. They continued to disagree. They told me to keep writing, that I could make it work and really had something, and they’ll never know how much I needed to hear that. They were probably just drunks, but drunk people need stories to read too.