Sunday, May 22, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 256: Biomythography - Note 28, Running Away

Biomythography - Note 28
Running Away from Home

There was a knock on the apartment door. When I looked up from where I was playing on the floor, I saw four pairs of feet at the outside entrance. Two belonged to my parents and one to a man with white socks, another to a woman with white shoes.

"Come in, come in," said my father.

These memories are fragmentary. My father said something like that. There were other words spoken. My awareness was not great. By my collection of remembered clues including the location, the clothes, and the smells, I was a bit more than two years old. I saw the world from a position low to the floor, looking up. Except for my mother's face, I don't remember or didn't notice any adult faces.

Nevertheless, two adults came in. They left the apartment door ajar. My parents invited them to sit on the chairs and couch. The grown-ups talked. They ignored me. The visiting couple had an infant with them. Something about the situation made me feel insecure. I wanted to touch my parents.

"Go play," my father said when I tried to interrupt. He turned me around and pushed me back towards a few square feet of rug with a wooden doll, a pile of spelling blocks, and a toy truck.

After a while, I gave up trying to get their attention. I wandered to the closet next to the kitchen. I unwound the vacuum cleaner cord. Although I wasn't big enough to move the body of the machine, I knew how to plug it in and play with the suction hose.

My father dashed into the kitchen and pulled the plug after a few seconds. I had just started having fun making the hose pull on my shirt. He swatted the attachment from my hand.

"You can’t do that now," he said. "It’s too loud."

In our apartment living room, the baby started to cry. The strange woman, a new mother, decided to solve the problem by breast-feeding.

That looked good to me. I marched into the living room and climbed onto my mother's lap. From the arm of the chair, I tried to squeeze into a position to breast-feed.

“No, we are done with that.” My mother pushed me away. She and my father told me again to play.

The adults talked more. And kept on talking. I don't know how long it took. All the little frustrations made me look for someplace else to be. When I wandered in the direction of the kitchen at the front of the apartment, my father reminded me not to play with the vacuum. For a while, I danced in a circle. I noticed the hard metal front door, which was not quite closed. With one hand, then both, I pushed on it. The door swung open. A breath of warm city air washed over me. Freedom.

Carefully, I stepped out onto the concrete landing. Noises from the street filtered up the stairwell. Traffic. Children yelling. Everything sounded big. Too grand for me. Even the quiet footsteps of an adult leaving the building echoed in the wide space full of hard surfaces, metal and stone.

Scared, I backed into the apartment. The adults laughed. A moment later, I heard my name. More laughter. I remembered that I was mad at my parents. I marched back out to the landing.

There, I sat on the top stair. I thought about leaving my parents for good. They wouldn't let me play with the vacuum. They liked the new baby. Everything was frustrating. And I was bored here.

My hand rose up to the lower half-railing, the part that kept kids like me from falling. Using it to steady myself, I took a step down. Another step. "Only little kids go down the stairs on their bottoms," I remembered an older kid telling me. And I always went down on my bottom. Or held my mother's hand. But I was running away. I had to be bigger. I had to stride down the stairs by myself.

A half-flight of stairs took me to the next landing. My arms and hips felt slow. I had to rest. Each stair was too big for my body. I didn't think I was going to make it standing up. But I couldn't bear to go back. Since no one was looking, I decided to slide on my bottom the rest of the way.

Three flights. Good thing I had a cloth diaper underneath my pants or the stairs would have hurt more. At the ground level, I rose to my feet. The bright sunlight lay ahead. Our first floor apartment door had been propped open. With one hand against the doorframe, I emerged onto my home street in Bitburg, Germany.

Cars rolled by. A child on a bicycle. I hid behind a streetlamp until the unsteady bike swerved past. I glanced down the lane where it had gone. A moment later, I followed it.

At a stoplight, I tried to cross. A lady across the street looked sternly at me, so I stopped and waited. When she started to walk, I did, too. I passed her going the opposite way. A few feet later, I took a big step up onto the sidewalk. Still mad, I kept plodding onward but now I felt tired and puzzled. Nothing looked familiar. Farther down the bright concrete path, I saw a couple walk out to their car, a man in a dark suit and a lady in a lighter color. The lady flashed me a puzzled expression.

I kept looking for my friends. Nothing seemed right. There was no one I knew.

At the next light, I stepped off the street but I waited. No one could go onto the black asphalt without the walk signal. I nodded to myself.

When finally I crossed, I climbed onto the opposite curb and my hands clutched the pole of the crossing signal. I needed a break. My body wanted me to sit down. My hips and knees were cramping. But there was no chair, not even a flat square of grass in view. Then I thought about the laughter at my expense. A wave of anger swept through me. I staggered farther down the sidewalk.

The surge of energy wore off in about twenty steps. My mouth needed water. My belly wanted food. My legs cried for a rest. Finally, I spotted children sitting out on a front stoop. They weren't doing anything but somehow they were busy. There were toys littered around them, unused. An older girl, the ringleader, sat on the top step while two younger girls listened to her. A boy, maybe someone's younger brother, shifted in place as if he'd rather be anywhere else.

"Juice," I reached out my hand for the older girl's glass bottle.

"Where are you from?" she asked. She made no move to give me anything. The other girls turned to gawk at me.

"Juice, please?" My hand waved around in her direction.

"You're pretty small. I haven't seen you before." She dodged my hand. She protected her drink, removed the cap, and took a swig. Then she smiled. Her teeth were crooked.

"Please? Bitte? Bitte schon?"

"Polite baby." She rolled her eyes. She took another drink, which very nearly finished the juice. She left a half-inch of spittle-filled dregs remaining. "Okay, you can have the last. No one is going to want it after you."

"Hey, I wanted some," the boy said.

"He's a baby. And he's more polite than you." She handed me the glass bottle. I grabbed it with both sets of stubby fingers, leaned, and chugged. "Where are you from, baby?"

"Ah." I finished, burped, and tossed the bottle back to get more. There wasn't any. The sweetness of apple juice haunted my mouth. I could smell it.

"You really are little." The girl started to frown. "Where's your momma?"

"Danke schon." I tried to hand the bottle back.

"Do you speak English?"

"Yes."

"Where's your momma?" She motioned for one of her friends to take the empty bottle from me. Then she stood to search the street with her gaze. "Is she around? Did you run away from your momma?"

I nodded. I had run away. It was wonderful to be understood. The big girl started to wander from the front of her apartment. One of the smaller girls followed. The younger two, the boy and a girl, sat on the second step of the staircase. I noticed something behind them, a red fruit with a bite taken out. Someone had left it by the rail.

"Apple." I pointed.

"It's mushy." The big girl returned to the front of her tenement. She leaned down, face to face with me. "I tried it. So did my brother."

"Apple, please?"

"Don't say I didn't warn you. Here." She marched to a spot beside the steps. With her left hand, she grabbed the apple. She moved to the front of the steps and held it out for me to take a bite.

Maybe she was thinking that it would be easier for me than if I tried to hold it in my grubby mitts. It was harder because she was holding it. The apple moved when I tried to chomp down. I had to grab her hand in mine and the apple, too. Finally, I dug my teeth in hard. But the apple flesh tasted sour, almost rotten.

"Hah!" One of the girls laughed at the expression I made.

"See?" said the oldest one. "Even babies don't like mushy apples."

Now I was angry at the girls and at the apple. I grabbed her hand and took another bite. Another. But it was too much. Too sour. Too brown. Too acidic in my mouth. I had to stop. I chewed what was left between my teeth like a furious, hungry monster, indignant snake in the garden, resentful because the fruit wasn't nice.

"Are you mad?"

I nodded.

"Did you really run away from your momma?" She studied my face carefully. "You can't do that. You're little. You can't be gone. Your momma is going to be worried."

I stared at her without concern. My parents had laughed at me.

"We have to get you back."

My eyes surveyed the buildings and cars around me. I felt momentarily lost. What direction had I come from? My knees hurt. Although the steps were close by, they had other kids on them already. I decided to sit down where I was on the sidewalk.

"Did he come from that way?" The girl turned to her friends. They nodded and pointed. "Yeah."

"He can't have walked far," the boy said. He gave me a scornful glance. "He's a baby."

"Right." She put her hands on her hips. "You guys stay here. If you leave, you'll get in trouble."

"What are you going to do?"

"Hold his hand." Her big girl fingers stretched out to me. They looked thin and smudged with dirt. "Okay, baby. Can you find your way home? If I walk you there, can you find where you left your momma?"

After a moment of thought, I nodded. I knew what my building looked like. Since I hadn't taken her hand, the girl pulled it away from me and stuck it out again. This time I reached up to her. I let her pull me to my feet even though I didn't need help.

For a block or so, we marched on. She made us take a crosswalk going the wrong direction. Fortunately, from that corner I could see my building. I recognized it from my many arrivals at the end of car rides. I tugged on her hand and led her on towards it. She kept pausing to glance back at her front stoop. The distance made her nervous. She had to make sure her mother hadn't come out looking for her.

Finally, we crossed one street and then turned immediately left across another to reach my apartment building. The front door was still open. The big girl stopped to look inside. She did not step past the threshold.

"You climbed all these stairs?" she murmured.

"Ja."

"Do you mean yes?" She leaned down to me, a hand on her hip.

"Yes."

"I'm not allowed to go into other buildings on my own," she announced.

Oh. I didn't want to let go of her hand. I'd gotten comfortable with her. Unfortunately, she seemed certain about not going in.

"I shouldn't leave you. But your momma will understand. If I stay any longer, I'm going to get in trouble."

She shook her arm once. I didn't let go. She gave me a meaningful look. I'd never had a big sister but her expression let me know something about what it would have been like. There wasn't any doubt about her intentions. I let my fingers slip away.

"Go ahead," she told me. With her left arm, she waved me forward.

After a few waddling steps, I turned to stare at her. She insisted that I had to keep moving. I took a deep breath and finished my march to the stairs. I put my right hand on the metal bannister. Tired but resigned to the effort, I climbed the first step on my feet like a big boy.

Behind me, I heard the girl leave. There was barely a sound, just a shuffle and a hop. Those were not adult footfalls. I trudged up another step. Another. My gaze drifted down to my shoes. I noticed that the concrete stairs were dusty here near the ground floor landing. My shoes were dusty, too. The air around me swirled, a mix of the outdoors and the indoors, mostly fresh but a little stuffy.

Partway through the flight of steps, I gave up. My body felt like it needed a nap. I turned, put my left hand onto the metal bar, and eased myself into a seated position.

A few minutes later, I heard someone above me. The sounds, muffled and indistinct, echoed in the stairwell. I couldn't tell what made them. It wasn't shoes. Maybe it was another kid coming down on his butt. The shuffling sounds continued. In a few minutes, a pair of slippers rounded the corner above me. I lifted my gaze and saw my mother.

She stopped for a moment and let out a sigh.

"Here you are," she said. She moved down to the middle of the staircase and bent to take me by the arms. "Where did you think you were going?"

#

A few other memories I have from the ages of two or three:

I met a grey-haired woman on a plane flight. I think my mother was flying me back to stay with my grandmother in Annapolis. The flight was nearly empty, though, with lots of vacant seats around us. A stranger wanted to play with me. My mother was happy with the situation and so was I.

I made several escapes from my crib. I learned to press the release on one side, then crawl over to trigger the release on the other. Every time, the crib gate slammed down. Once, it slammed down on my arms. I wailed so loudly that my mother came rushing in. She said, "There, there," followed almost immediately by, "Would you please stay in bed and try to sleep?"

My first day of nursery school on the army base was a difficult one. The entry hall was brick. The floor was beige tiles. I didn't want to go. When I realized my mother was trying to leave me, I threw at my her leg and wouldn't let go. When she pried me loose, I wailed harder and threw myself on the floor.

"Go ahead," said the lady in charge. "Don't worry. We'll take care of him."

As soon as my mother was gone, the woman grabbed me, fast marched to a different room, and tossed me angrily into one of the cribs. There were a half-dozen of them. For a while, I cried because I was alone. Then I cried because I was getting treated like a baby. Then I remembered that I knew how to escape from cribs.

The latches were different than my crib in the apartment but I figured them out. After I made my escape - carefully avoiding the slam of the gate - I wandered down the hall. The mean lady was reading a book to a room full of toddlers. They looked about my age. I stood next to the doorframe, hidden, and listened to Richard Scary as told by a different voice than my mother's. It was strange. It wasn't all bad. But after a while, I thought the lady was reading it wrong. I stepped into the room.

Suddenly, all eyes were on me. The kids didn't worry me. The teacher, yes. She seemed sly. She wasn't surprised by my entrance. She simply said, "Are you ready to play nicely now?"

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 255: Biomythography - Note 27.5, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27.5
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection


Five:

In the spring after I turned sixteen, one of my plans began to pay off.

Back when I was twelve and thirteen, my father announced repeatedly that he was never going to allow me to drive a car. It hadn't entered my mind until he ruled it out. His steady opposition led me, at the age of fourteen, to start a campaign to get my license. For two years, I made my parents drive me everywhere.

I kept my membership with the national training group at RMSC in order to make my father drive me to their practices at four o’clock in the morning. I trained in the evening, too, to make him take me as late as possible. I asked for rides to the mall. Rides to DC. Rides to Baltimore. To swim meets in other states. To friends at odd times or at inconvenient places. I encouraged my brothers to ask for rides.

Within a year, my mother wore down. She started talking about me driving myself. Not my father. It took more than two years before he relented and allowed me to take a drivers education class.

The course took place in the county school system. Since I normally traveled thirty-five miles to school, I'd never been in my public high school. (My only other public high school class had been typing, which I took it in a different building.) The class started in June on the first day of summer school. I might have been the most excited student who answered 'present' although the others were plenty ready to drive.

I didn't know anyone. There were a few threats in a typical high school way. They didn't matter. I got along with the students well enough. One or two of the guys got as far as being happy to see me. And I found another student who was new, Debi, who was smart-mouthed and liable to punch my shoulder, and we became pals - friends with flirting, really. My mother had gotten me a bicycle two years before as I began my campaign for a drivers license. Now Tucker across the street had gotten a bicycle from his parents, too, and we took rides, seven miles each way, to visit Debi. In contrast to every other parent, including Debi's mother, her father was always delighted to see us and gave us cold beers. I still have a fondness for them because those summer bike rides were hot. And the beer was cold. And the atmosphere was friendly. And Debi.

In the middle of summer when I was sixteen, a lot of things seemed to happen at once. My scholarship money to Sidwell Friends didn't increase to keep up with the tuition. That was the third year in a row. This time, the banks refused to loan my parents anything to supplement the scholarship. My parents took me with them from bank to bank, trying to get me to look bright and angelic, but the financial picture became clear. I needed to enroll in public school, where I had just finished my drivers education class.

My parents didn't let me drive to my school enrollment. But a few days later, I took myself to my first lifeguarding job of the summer. I started to make money again. And this time I wasn't going to give it to my parents. I had a plan.

"I need to cash my paycheck," I said as I walked into a branch office of Maryland Federal Savings and Loan. Inside, the space was narrow, about as big as a double-wide trailer.

"Are you an account holder?" the teller asked me.

"No. How does it work?" For one thing, I genuinely didn't know. For another, I wanted to put the staff in the position of selling me into getting an account with them. I knew that it wasn't strictly legal for minors. (I'd learned it from my previous attempt at a bank.) I also knew that I wanted my own account. I didn't smile. I remained friendly but skeptical as she waved her manager over to talk with me.

He sat down behind his desk, buddy to buddy in his suit and tie. He gave me free matches, a free pen, and he made his pitch. In five minutes, he sold me on depositing my paycheck. He gave me a free book of checks and explained how that worked, too. Now I was sixteen; I had my learner's permit; and I had found a way to keep my money.

But I had to go to public school. It was Jeannie's old school, the one that had scared her. Tucker's school, too. He didn't always like it. As much as I was looking forward to being someplace different, I knew I would have to bluff through. My new summer lifeguard friend, Adam, wasn't in a position to help. He went to our rival school.

"You're here!" Debi yelled when she spotted me in the hallway on the first day. She ran up and gave me a hug. It felt weird to have anyone recognize me. I hadn't thought of it, but I realized then it must have been a relief for her to know someone. We were partners in outsider-ness and she had it tougher. At least I knew Tucker and a handful of teenagers from swim teams. Debi only recognized fellow students from her driving class.

Since she was a junior and I was a senior, I figured we would have no classes together. But we had one, my only elective, Theater.

The teachers were good in most of my subjects. But the theater group was special. We didn't hold the classes in lecture format. We spoke lines from famous plays. We acted in improvs. We got to know each other. The process affected my attitudes towards the other students, some of whom felt bullied elsewhere in school, and I started to feel protective of them. Whatever happened, I was on their side.

"She likes you, maybe," Tucker said after seeing one of the theater girls come over to my locker for a talk.

"Not sure." But I was sure. It was starting to make me panic. I hadn't expected the weird soap opera of trying to decide who liked me best, who I would be able to help, or who would be good for me. Beyond all that I had to wade through the environment of ever-changing packs of girls together, sometimes friends, sometimes suddenly not, laughing with me or laughing at me.

I remembered what had gone wrong before. I'd resolved not only to look for the moment but to make the moment. It couldn't be a matter of waiting for the least embarrassing time to talk to a girl. It had to be talking to her. Making this thing happen. Embarrassing us both. Her turning red with the hideousness of being asked out by me. My voice cracking with courage, shame, and fear. It was going to have to be that way. I had made up my mind. It would take place in front of all our friends and our sneering enemies.

Yet my resolution was weighed down by my habits. I'd known two girls in this school who would have gone out with me after the first week if I'd dared to ask. But I didn't. I was casing the joint as usual, following my careful methods that had experienced no success, waiting for girls to ask me out instead.

After three weeks, I was getting smiles from a few more girls in my classes. After five weeks, I had the sense that I was once again taking too long. Other students were starting to give me puzzled looks.

"So are you going to take out Laura?" Tucker asked as we hiked through a stream behind his house.

"Maybe." My stride took me across a rivulet filled with leaves. "I do like her."

"She's cute. She used to have a boyfriend." He paused before hopping over the leaf-filled rivulet. Five steps later, he reached the larger stream. He looked like he was considering the social scene from a different perspective, as if he had been watching people swimming but now found himself making up his mind about whether or not to put a toe into the water. "Hey, frog eggs."

I'd seen them. When he pointed at the clear lumps, I nodded. They looked like a gelatin spill in the algae on bank of the stream.

"We ought to come back when there's tadpoles."

"Yeah."

"Why not Debi?" he wondered after a minute. "She's really fun."

"I don't know. I'm thinking." That was probably the problem, I thought.

"That blonde-haired girl from your theater class likes you. More than the others, I think. Or maybe she just laughs at your jokes a whole lot."

It was a problem. I tried to be funny and to make myself someone girls would like. But maybe that made it easier for me to fool myself. As soon as I said something sincere like, "I really like you," I would be found out.

I knelt to sift through the wet stones along the stream. It had become a conditioned reflex to push them around and take out whatever seemed interesting. Aside from bits of jasper, there was nothing much, just clay, dirt, quartz, and shale. Minnows darted away from my shadow.

"You think she likes me?" I asked. My eyes followed the minnows but my ears were tuned for Tucker. I was relying on him more, lately. He had become my sanity check at school. If he thought girls liked me and he was wrong, well, of course he still could be fooling himself. But he had lesson reason for it than I did.

"She stops by your locker enough."

"Yeah." It was past time to do something. I would never be sure of myself, so I couldn't wait for that. This year I had a car available to me. I didn’t have to badger one of my parents to drive me on a date like I had when I was fifteen. I didn't have to take her on a stroll through the woods. Not that walking with girls sounded bad. Holding hands and kissing in the forest had a certain appeal.

Jeannie came to mind, dying in her car. If I sulked, if I hesitated and missed a chance, I would never get up my courage fast enough.

"She laughed so hard that one time," Tucker continued, "she tripped."

"Oh yeah." Thinking of her face made me smile. She was smart and she thought I was falling-down funny, sort of. She hadn't been hurt the one time she'd tripped. I'd caught her.

"It was cute."

"Yeah." It was. And when I had touched her wrist, I'd been close. She had smelled nice.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 254: Biomythography - Note 27.4, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27.4
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection


Four:

In the late fall when I was fourteen, my neighbor Jeannie moved away to Michigan. Her father meant to retire there. Jean and I had a quiet goodbye next to her house in the woods, where she kissed me. Startled, I kissed back.

"I wish we had done that more," she said.

"Yeah." It was another lesson in social bravery. I mean, I'd been constantly aware that I should have done more than to hold hands with her. I had thought about it every day that the weather was good enough for us to meet outside.

Regardless, Jeannie was gone and I had passed up chance after chance to make both of us happier. The next family to move across the street had a teenager in it, a boy who turned out to become a friend. Soon I was sharing complaints about life with him or we were skipping stones in the creek or exploring ruined buildings and half-finished construction sites. That summer, I got to swim in a league where I never lost a single race. To make it even better, I met a couple of girls who liked to put their hands on me a lot. It was nice. It all felt a lot like I had imagined being human could feel.

Minimum wage that year was $2.50/hour, so that was the rate at which I made my money as a lifeguard in August and September, when the college kids left. My parents had taken my savings to pay their bills, so I started plotting my financial freedom from them. My wages got deposited into a joint account, though. I couldn't really stop them from taking it all, not yet.

My job had social benefits, not just financial ones. Although I was fifteen, I could buy mildly alcoholic drinks on the strength of my marching into convenience stores with a wad of cash and walking out with beer and wine. There were no questions asked of big spenders, I'd noticed. I always got as much as I could share or hide. Even though I relied on an older teenage driver, I never took anyone else into the store with me. I pretended to be the driver myself.

"A whole case?" The older teenagers in the housing development couldn't believe their luck in having me as their beer-toting lifeguard.

"Hide some for me." I didn't really want any. What I wanted was friends.

"Done. My parents never look at the closed shelf above my bed."

Also on my job, I met a girlfriend of sorts. Her name was Mary. She had been banished from Iowa for bad behavior, apparently. Well, that was how she told it. Her parents didn't want to bring her back during the summer. Of course, I still wasn't able to build up the courage to ask her out. That would have meant getting rides from my parents or from her brother.

"We're not taking my brother with us on a fucking date," she told me.

Instead, Mary found ways to get me alone. When I was working, she closed the pool to lock out other guests and stay with me. Sometimes I protested because I worried that I would get fired. Sometimes she convinced me to help her close the doors and lock them.

Fifteen was a pretty good summer.

That fall, though, Mary returned to her parents. She wrote me love letters from Iowa and I wrote some back. Soon enough, the dreariness of winter set in. I knew I would have no more chances to flirt or experiment with girls. I asked my parents and neighbors for Jeannie's address but we only exchanged a single set of letters. She said it was hard for her to write.

On the winter swim team, the coaches separated us into men's lanes and women's lanes. Although it took me a few months to realize it, that put an end to my motivation. I coasted all year. At school, I felt the physical distance from my friends even more. Once or twice, I managed visits to their houses outside of school but it always took an hour to get there plus an hour back. I protested the lack of rides from my parents. I protested the need to ask for rides. But my parents usually told me no anyway. More often, I hiked through the woods alone, or with my brothers, or with my best friend Tucker.

One day, Tucker marched straight to my door. He didn't hang around asking if I could come out.

"My father says he got a message for you," he announced.

That didn't make sense. No one was going to call a neighboring house to reach a kid like me. Then I realized it could be his father's way of saying he was mad about something I did, which seemed possible. His father was mad a lot. And I did things.

Tucker didn't seem worried, though, and he usually was. That made the prospect of parental anger less likely but also more puzzling. When his father was upset the whole neighborhood heard it. I hadn't noticed any yelling. So what else could it be?

"From who?" I asked.

"The guy who used to live here before us."

"Mr. Fisher?" It couldn't be anyone else. My hopes of getting a message from Jeannie rose.

I started bouncing on my feet as I waited for more news. Tucker didn't smile. He put his hands in his coat pockets to keep them warm. He bowed his head.

"My father says you should come over to hear it."

I looked at my jacket but I didn't have the four seconds required to put it on. That would have delayed the message. On the way to Tucker‘s house, I started to regret it. It was nice for a winter day but still, it was February.

Tucker‘s father met us outside the back door of his house.

"I got a call from Bob Fisher. He told me his daughter died." He gave me a long, penetrating look that seemed simultaneously pitying and blaming. He stood tall with an almost formal bearing. His gestures were stiff and uncomfortable as he leaned in and lowered his voice. "He said he wanted you to know."

It took me a few seconds. "How?"

"It was her first drive in the snow." Oddly, he seemed to relax as he said that. With the perspective of time, I realize that Mr. Mostrom was a man who was more comfortable with delivering a safety lecture than he was with the prospect of someone like me breaking down in tears. I'm sure he wanted to avoid any displays of emotion. "She hit the brakes. Her car slid off the road and into a tree."

Then he launched into his safety lecture. He wanted to make sure that his son and I understood about pumping the brakes and other rules of safe driving. His gaze locked on Tucker, then me, then Tucker. He warned us about the dangers of driving and how everyone needed to learn to drive in the snow specifically. He was right about that. It’s a separate skill. But I didn’t know that.

While he lectured, I thought about Jeannie and her last minutes of life in the car, dying.

When he was done, I said something, I don’t know what, but I was struggling to be polite. We talked. He seemed impatient with me. I excused myself and wandered back to my house. There, I avoided everyone and took the stairs down into the basement. I closed my bedroom door and laid down on the floor.

Jeannie’s father had sent a message. That was good, wasn’t it? He knew about my feelings somehow. He knew about his daughter's feelings.

But she had died alone, at night, cold and in pain. Died on the scene, Mr. Mostrom had said.

And I had never spoken up. Had been many times too late. Had worried about what others would think. Had been vain. Had failed even in my moments of courage. Had tried to avoid embarrassment. I had tried to avoid having my heart broken.

She wasn't just injured. She was dead. It seemed ridiculous. And completely unfair. Of all of the stupid things that teenagers do, this was one of the least evil, the most excusable. But for some reason, that didn't matter. And she was dead.

I started to wonder why her father made sure to pass the word to me. It was an odd thing for an adult to do - to be aware of some kind of love between his daughter and me. And for him to act.

It felt like he was trying to tell me something, not just to mourn but not to fail as spectacularly again as I already had. I should have let myself fall for her, completely and utterly. Holding back had been a mistake. If I had ever thought of repairing that, and I had often, it was too late. She was dead. We get one life. Hers was over.

It was my failure to take a risk and get hurt that kept us from being a little happier.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 253: Biomythography - Note 27.3, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27.3
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection


Three:

When I was twelve I wintered at the YMCA. There were no girls of interest in my swim practices there but I was satisfied anyway. It was cold outside and I was glad to keep in shape for the summer. That's when I could be surrounded by girls again and prove that I was good at something. The other kids at the YMCA were still fun. I liked the place. I enjoyed being on the team. My best friend was Aki and even though we had to compete against each other, we managed to share laughs at every meet. But my family moved out of the county. That was the end of swimming there.

My parents found a winter club that practiced in Montgomery Village no more than twenty minutes from our new home. Those kids, too, were fine. The training wasn't the best but it was good enough to keep me fit. When summer league came back, I kept winning. Girls saw me finishing in first place again. I managed to talk with some of them. One got a crush on me and I crushed on her right back. We flirted for months.

I would have been happy to stay with the same practice schedule for the winter. My father wasn't satisfied, though, because my younger brother was talented. He needed better training and that meant I had to move, too. The next fall I joined the Rockville Municipal Swim Center.

At RMSC, a swimmer who started training year-round at the age of twelve was way behind. I had been spoiled by my successes as one of the top three breaststrokers in the county but the RMSC coaches put me in their high school prep level, which was their rating for athletes who had no real promise. Their evaluation could have seemed insulting but, really, I understood it was right. I had no real promise. Puberty was passing me by. I'd grown from 5'2" to 5'5" and I'd gotten a bit more muscular but that was it, athletically.

The high school prep group slotted me into the bottom three lanes. When the coaches put you there, it was because they had decided you would never be good enough to join the RMSC National Training Group. Their NTG squad prepared for the Olympics and for intense national or international competitions. They went to college on athletic scholarships. The higher three lanes of high school prep had the potential to join NTG someday, maybe.

Our practice took place in the Montgomery College pool, where they piped in music underwater. I worked out to the Top 40 hits. That fall, I made friends with other high school level swimmers and acquired a dumb nickname, 'Muscles,' that I sort of hated because it implied I was as stupid as I felt. But my friends used it on me with affection, so it was impossible to protest.

After six weeks, the best swimmer in the fastest lane moved up to the National squad. Some teens got promoted to higher lanes including a girl I had been flirting with. She was the cutest in the pool. Or maybe that was just my opinion but I was utterly sure of it.

"You're slacking," I would tell her. Such wit. And she would giggle.

"Faster than you, Muscles." She'd splash me.

I'd pretend to be wounded. The problem with all of this, in the view of the coaches, was that the girl I liked was an excellent swimmer with at least college potential. She was two lanes faster than I was. And we still splashed each other and flirted across the lanes, oblivious to and annoying the hell out of everyone else.

But she thought I was funny. I thought she was an angel.

After another week or two of us leaving our swimming lanes to splash each other, the coaches moved her up to the next-fastest lane. I wasn't sure whether it was because she was so good - she was - or because it put more distance between us. It inspired me to create a furious plan.

"Why are you cruising so fast today, Muscles?" one of my friends asked. The day after the girl I loved got promoted, I was lapping everyone in my lane. As it turned out, I hadn't been practicing very hard before.

"Got to move up," I growled.

"So you can get closer to her?" he tilted his head in her direction. So much for it being a secret. Did everyone know? It's a good thing I was pink with effort and breathing heavily already. But he was one of my best friends. He wasn't mean.

My look in return must have said everything.

"Well, good luck." He shrugged his large shoulders.

A few days later, all the kids in my lane were lobbying the coach to move me up. During the distance swims and even the sprints, I was lapping them. Because I was furious and executing my plan, I never seemed to get tired, either. They were sick of me.

"Well," my coach's mouth got tight, his expression grim. I don't think any of the other coaching staff knew what I was up to but he sure did. He tried not to look at the girl I liked. For a second or two, he couldn't help it. Then his gaze snapped back on me. He sighed like he knew the other staff were going to give him trouble. "I guess I don't have much choice."

That put me within flirting distance again. I got giggled at and splashed more. But I loved it. Underneath the laughter, I was still furious and executing my plan. My idea was not simply to be close enough to flirt. It was to be in the lane next to her. Or swimming right with her. My main problem was that she was simply faster than I was. She practiced harder, too. I'd never really thought about my level of effort before in any competitive way. In a general sense, I wasn't a competitor at all. I preferred letting my friends beat me. Unless a girl was watching.

"You guys know Eric," the coach said on the next Monday, making the move official. "He's been in this lane before and he had all best times in the last swim meet, so he's moving up permanently."

Instantly, the other teenage boys in my lane asked me for my times. It was what everyone did. They rated themselves against what I'd achieved. After a bit of talk, I understood that they intended to defend their lane. There was nothing they could do about breaststroke. They felt dejected about it but I was the fastest in the pool. My butterfly and freestyle were mediocre. Some of them could kick my ass. And my backstroke was awful. They intended to rub that in whenever they could and keep me as low down on the practice chart as possible.

If it weren't for Furious Plan IV (since it was not my first furious plan), I might have eased up and looked to make friends with them. But they were in the way of the plan. And I already had my friends.

Three weeks passed and I improved my times some more. My practice speed kept improving, too. I had moved to the front of the lane to which I'd been so recently promoted. And I knew that if I could get one more promotion, I'd be swimming next to my crush.

"You are looking so good," she told me during a break in our workouts. One of the girls next to her tittered. "Your butterfly is way better."

"Thanks. Don't slack off so much or I'll catch you."

"I'm still faster than you in butterfly, Muscles!"

Amazingly, my times in freestyle had passed hers. She had not gotten mad about it. Although she remained fiercely competitive with some of the other girls and with her older brother, who was already part of the National squad, she seemed to like it that I was faster than her in some things. She could still train the hell out of everyone, anyway. To my dismay, she seemed to take my improvements as a challenge.

I had modeled my practice habits on hers as much as I could. Now she stepped up her efforts further and I struggled to keep pace.

"Gallagher, another meet with all best times," my coach announced a couple weeks later. He was getting used to it. The other staff members were starting to accept me, too. "Geez, a 1:09.23 in breaststroke. That's best on the team for your age group and you've got a year left."

The coaching group decided to put me into the fastest lanes whenever they did specific breaststroke drills. It was a sideways promotion but it meant I got to swim with the girl I loved. I was ahead of her, even. A few times, I started to lap her in breaststroke but I stopped. She called me on it.

"Did you slow down just so you didn't pass me?" her voice was half flirting, half mad. I had finished a couple laps ahead of her in a drill. When she finished, she strolled over to me with the accusation.

"Maybe."

"Don't do that." She was still breathing heavily. She never eased off her efforts in practice. "It's okay, pass me."

So, over the course of the year, I kept improving my times. I moved up to the third-fastest lane. It was a huge transition and an admission from the coaching staff that they were considering me as worthwhile to train. Their move put me right next to the girl with the cutest grin. For three weeks, she and I hung out on the lane line between us, talking whenever we got a break. On the other side of me, a couple of my old friends moved up, too.

"You're not the only one, Muscles," a friend told me in triumph at his move. He had gotten three meets with all best times, too.

I had friends on all sides. My situation couldn't have been happier. Then one day after my girl and I splashed each other for most of the hour, the coaches moved her into the fastest lane.

Furious Plan IV had never stopped but, with a lane between us again, I cranked it into my highest gear. I was already the second-fastest swimmer in the third-fastest lane. All I needed to do, I thought, was mow everyone down in my way and make the coaches admit I was good enough to elevate again. And again.

The timing toward the end of the swimming season was close but I made it. By the end of that year, I had passed up about forty swimmers to be with the best girl (in my totally objective opinion) in the fastest lane of the practice pool. A couple of my friends had moved up lanes close by me, too. We had all done something more than we or the coaches had expected. At the end, the coaches had to read their announcement of the list of next-year promotions. That included promotions to the National Training Group. Of course, the girl I liked made it in. To my shock, not much farther down the list, I made it, too. Near the end of the list, they read out the name of one of my best friends on the team, the one with so many best times.

Unlike summer league, where flirtations had to end abruptly, the RMSC held a year-end dance. It was sort of a forced socialization event. It was hard to tell who really wanted it. The coaches? Parents? Older girls? Nevertheless, when it was announced three weeks ahead, every guy immediately started pounding me on the back and telling me I had to ask my girl to dance.

I was petrified. No one seemed to understand how ugly I was in clothes. Did the girl I loved not understand that I was a troll? It seemed unfortunately possible.

How would she react when she saw me in the mismatched Sears catalog corduroy outfit my mom bought for me? Could I burn the house down in time to get donations from the Salvation Army and go in random denim and t-shirts? During the lead up to the event, my mind was bursting with a dozen plans per day, some of them involving going to the dance, some of them involving my parents dying from a plane crashing on the house (“sorry, can’t go, I’m an orphan this week”), some of them with me just wandering into the woods and never coming back.

“You have to ask her to dance,” one of her girlfriends told me, inches away from my face on the last day of practice.

“She’s actually going?” Some of my hopes and dream scenarios had been pinned on her not being allowed. She had mentioned that her father was opposed to letting her dance.

“Of course. But she thinks boys are dumb.” Her friend sighed with exasperation. Probably she agreed with that sentiment. “That’s why you should ask.”

On the day of the dance, I panicked and changed outfits. I changed again. Then I mercifully forgot for a while, got into a wrestling fight that smeared my clothes with clay and dirt, and put on my fourth best pants. Ugh.

I looked awful. When I arrived in my mom's car, I expected my friends to point at my clothes or to make fun of me because I couldn't drive. They all arrived with their parents, too. They didn't seem to care what I was wearing. They didn't even notice. We talked and threw a plastic football in the grass. In the back of my mind, I tried to think of the lessons I'd gotten from socializing at school: one, sometimes you've got to speak up; two, girls think dances are important. Eventually, the sky darkened. I hung out with my friends for as long as I could but finally I had to turn and face the inevitable. I marched inside the building like I knew I was going to die there. In my heart, I was doomed. I accepted it.

Inside, about thirty-five girls were standing near the walls of the recreation center. The dance floor was empty. On the far side of the floor, a band played cover tunes. Someone had turned down the hot, bright overhead lamps. That let a spinning, colored disco light array provide its weak illumination.

For a while, I wandered along the edges. That put me with the rest of the crowd and it was awkward. Next, I hovered around the food and the drinks. The prospect of eating made me feel sick. I ate something anyway because I was trying to fit in. I kept looking for the girl who I loved but she was nowhere in sight. My friends had told me she was here. But I didn’t see her or any of our mutual friends. The crowd seemed to be mostly older teenage girls from different RMSC practices. I didn’t know them.

Still, I worried that everyone understood why I was there. After an agonizing fifteen minutes, I saw her come back in through the side door with two of her friends. My heart skipped. My feet, too. But I froze as I studied her expression. She looked grim.

In the green and purple disco lights, everyone looked sickly. It was hard to tell her mood at a distance. I started to approach her, to ask her to dance. Her gaze caught mine. She looked away.

Something was wrong. My resolve evaporated.

I walked around the room once. It was my way of passing by her, just to be close in case she wanted to talk. She said nothing. I tried to nod to her. I wasn't sure she noticed. A minute later, I wandered back outside.

“Some of us are smoking out back,“ one of my friends told me outside the door.

“That sounds good.”

“We can’t go all at once in case the coaches notice.” He said this with a total affectation of disinterest, as if we were spies exchanging information at a public checkpoint, which we sort of were.

“Got it.“ I moseyed along the parking lot in exactly the wrong direction. When I reached a stand of trees I turned to the right. Out of sight of anyone in the lot, the recreation center, or even the road, I hiked around the building and down the hill at the back. I was still within earshot of the cover band in the dance hall.

“Hey, Muscles.”

“Gallagher.”

The group of boys parted to let me in. One of them grimaced at me as if he knew why I was there. But he didn’t say anything. An older boy raised his eyebrow in surprise.

We clustered together and smoked pot for a few minutes. Some kids complained about the coaches always narccing us out to our parents. Other kids complained about their parents. Everyone knew I was chickening out. Eventually, one of the older boys had to mention it.

"You should go back in, man," he exhaled a puff of smoke. "If I had any girl that gave a damn about me, I'd go in."

"She's beautiful," another said. He shook his head, amazed. "You should."

"She's in a bad mood," I said.

"You should still go back," the older, wiser one insisted. He had turned fifteen. "Let her be in a bad mood but with you there."

"Come on, Muscles."

"Yeah."

"All right. We'll see." The older boys passed me the pipe. One of them laughed as I inhaled the coals to bright red. After smoking more and listening to their complaints about life and getting more of their advice, I gathered up my courage and returned to the dance.

When I walked in, the lights had been turned even lower. Green and purple polka dots floated on the walls. Most of the older girls had fled the scene. They could drive. Probably, I guessed, they had left. Had they taken the younger girls?

Carefully, I walked my circuit through the recreation center. She wasn't among the girls who remained. However she had done it, she had gone.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 252: Biomythography - Note 27.2, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27.2
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection

Two:

During a month of talking with a girl at school, I developed a crush. It was a heavy, serious thing. She became the best part of my day. We could talk about anything and everything. We often did. Her mind was quick. Her smile flashed. She hugged her textbooks in front of her when she laughed.

I longed to make her smile, to keep her entertained, thoughtful, and happy. Her opinion mattered. Every time I saw her in the hall or outside my classroom, my soul eased. When she glanced my way and smiled, it raised my pulse.

I wanted to express how I felt. My problem was that she hung out with a group of us, talking, flashing those smiles, and growing on all of us as the best part of our school lives. She was Chinese-American but then a couple of my friends were, too, so it didn't seem weird - not that any ethnic differences would have occurred to me. (Maybe they should have but I was fourteen. A lot of aspects of life hadn't come into my limited field of view including large social barriers that no one would think I could miss.)

There seemed to be a distinct likelihood to me, however, that this girl didn’t like me so much as she enjoyed our group of friends.

To make the prospect of revealing my crush more intimidating, sometimes she hung out with other girls who were also well dressed and smart. She stood off to the side often, holding a book and making witty comments. Then I would get cut off from her for half a day. I would muse about my unhappy life and write bad poetry. Later, I would see her through the door to my history class and she would notice me and turn with a grin.

And I grinned back and thought cheerful thoughts about her for an hour. Fuck the middle ages. I had that smile to think about.

One afternoon, a group of us sat talking between classes. A couple of the well-dressed young women came over to sit down with us. It wasn't so unusual that anyone raised an eyebrow. But I did get a sense that something was different.

"Have you thought about prom?" one of the well-dressed girls asked. She turned to me, scanned the group of us, and finished by looking at me.

"Not really." It was a thirty-five mile commute to school. And the prom was at school. There was nothing appealing about that.

"Well, maybe you should." She nodded to me. Apparently I looked slow on the uptake. "You really should."

My immune system was hyperactive as a teen and it made me impervious to some things that others could catch, like hints. But even I got the essential idea from the conversation. It did occur to me, at last, that there would be one thing appealing about the prom. And I knew who it was.

There was only one problem: she was going to reveal her disdain for me because my friends were better. Or my friends would hate me for daring to ask her. In fact, maybe there was a more pressing problem: me. I could imagine a lot of things going wrong. I could barely imagine anything going right.

Fortunately, two days later someone said something casually mean to me. It wasn't anything too bad, but it was meant to be an insult. To my surprise, she wheeled on our mutual friend and defended me. For the rest of the day, I replayed the event in my head. My mouth kept falling open. She had spoken up for me, had actually said good things about me right in front of other people.

Really, I knew I should admit to her how much I liked her.

This was different from kissing the girl across the street in elementary school or flirting and splashing with girls in the neighborhood pool or holding hands with my crush in sixth grade. All of that had taken place a long, long time before. Or so it seemed. For sure, it was before I entered this school of impressive kids from impressive families.

I knew. But I spent a week anyway, agonizing over how asking her would ruin my life. Finding out she didn't like me would do that. I had to resign myself to having my life ruined. What was so good about it anyway? Trash it. I could always jump off the bridge over the creek at home and die. But asking her wasn't as simple as falling from a bridge. I spent days trying to get her alone for thirty seconds. That was a challenge. Every time I started, our friends would see us and run up.

Finally, on a nice day, our teachers decided to take their classes outside. I saw my crush heading down the stairs early. I trailed her like the most incompetent spy ever. Out of breath, I caught up to her when she was sitting on the concrete rise that held up a garden bed.

She seemed a little more distant today, more hidden behind the books in her arms. But I had grown determined.

"I've been thinking," I started.

"Really?" She could be sarcastic like all of us in the school. 

"I'd like to take you to the prom."

"Oh. That." She looked down at the sidewalk for a moment. When she looked up, she glared. "You know, I wish you had asked two weeks ago."

"Why?"

"Because I wanted to go to the prom with you." She was angry. I was crushed to feel it. "Now someone else has asked."

"Oh. So you're going with him?" Oddly, I wasn't as hurt by this idea. At least she'd be happy.

"No." She chose her words carefully. "I said I wouldn't go and that I didn't want to go."

What did that mean? Was she free to go out with me or not? I waited to hear the answer. After a few seconds, though, I realized nothing more was coming. 
 
"So you don't want to go?" That seemed the most likely answer given the expression on her face. 

"If I go with you, he'll know I lied."

"Yeah." I knew the mutual friend of our she was talking about. He probably already understood that she had lied to let him down easy. But if he had proof, he'd never let it go. He would never stop reminding her that she'd lied.

For a minute, I tried to coax her into following her heart and bluffing through our social circle bullshit. But hardly any words came out of my mouth, in fact. I had no social bluff of my own. Anyway, it was hard to look at her being unhappy and know that it was largely my fault.
 
She was adamant about honesty, too. She had always been strict with herself and her friends about it, too. Everybody. No lying. 

"We have to go to class," she told me.

"Yeah." I was late already. My class had gathered underneath a tree. No need to make her late, too. I wandered off in the direction of the crowd. It took me a few seconds on the edge of the group before I could make myself ready to enter the circle of other students, though.
 
This was the second time as a teenager I'd gotten a lesson about social timing, And maybe about honesty. But that wasn't enough for me to learn. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 251: Biomythography - Note 27.1, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection


For two years, I had gotten so self-conscious about my failures and rejections that I couldn't act on anything. It took three teenage crushes and a few flirting affairs for me recognize the pattern for what it was and that I couldn't excuse myself for it. I had to fix it.

One:

I burrowed into a pile of leaves. The scent of them, damp from a fresh rain, smelled like every other fun evening to me, clear and quiet. There weren't many kids in my rural neighborhood. When we could meet up on any summer day, we played hide and seek games in the woods.

"Hi," my neighbor, Jeannie, wriggled down on the ground next to me. She wore her denim jacket.

"Hi." She smelled clean and human, a little like flowers but also a little like her home and her family dog, who she loved and took with her on walks. She had to shut the dog in her house in order to play games like this.

We were both thirteen.

For a minute, we lay next to each other in the dark. The moon shone through the tree boughs. My eyes had adjusted to the night, so I could see Jeannie as clearly as in the day. There were a couple leaf fragments in her curly hair. Her blue eyes blinked up at me, wide.

“Is this it?” she whispered. “Did I walk right by you while you were lying here and I didn't see you?”

“Right.” I smiled. “It’s the flashlight. When you point it at the tree, it casts a deep shadow.”

“And you’re in it.”

“Yeah.”

Jeannie gave me the biggest smile. She leaned close and murmured more to me about her school. She had too many acquaintances for me to remember. Her experiences sounded great in a way. She knew the other students well. But her time between classes sounded kind of frantic. Something about other girls made her tense. While she was telling me more about them, the kid who was 'it' came up to us with a flashlight. We fell silent. The boy pointed the light at the tree. We moved closer together, shoulder to shoulder in the leaves at the base of the tree.

The other kid gave an exasperated sigh and trudged onward, pointing the flashlight at the trees and hedges.

"You’re pretty good looking," she said out of nowhere. "Are you popular at school?"

"No." I grunted with exasperation. She was being way too nice to me. I knew I wasn’t good-looking.

"Do you have friends there?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah. There are some good ones. I really like them." My heart went out to my closest companions. They were scruffy, sort of, although when I thought about it I knew they were not as bad as I was. Maybe I was the only one so disheveled. Christ, and I hung around them about every second that I could. "They’re good.”

My friends were better than I was but I didn’t know how to say that. It sounded dumb. I always sounded dumb. Just thinking about the stupid things I'd said that day or that week sent me into prolonged fits of paralysis. As we waited in the leaves and grass, I folded my arms.

"Do you like me?" Jeannie asked.

"Are you kidding? You're fantastic.”

It didn't take any thought for me to reply. But as soon as I did, I started second-guessing my words. She was going to crush my heart.

Even as I write about this moment forty years later, I find myself turning away from trying to describe how much she meant. The intensity is embarrassing. On some basic level, seeing her presence on the horizon thrilled me. I was super-conscious of the way she moved, breathed, and leaned in to talk even when I wasn't facing in her direction. Part of me, however, was intensely self-conscious of every awkward and dumb thing I said or did, which in my opinion was every time I did more than breathe. Actually, I couldn't get the breathing right. I was an asthmatic for half of the year.

I wished I were cooler. Taller. More handsome. Then Jeannie could admire me.

"Do you ..." she hesitated. "Do you have a girlfriend at school?"

I had a girl who I liked at school. And although she was thirty miles away and beyond me in all other ways, she seemed to like me. At least, she didn’t sneer at me as much as some others. She didn’t laugh at my JCPenny clothes. I was so terribly class conscious of the richer kids at my school and how much lower on the social ladder I was when compared with them.

I so wanted to be cool enough. Enough for what, I wasn't sure.

“Sure,” I said. Even as I said it, I knew it was wrong. I wanted to be cool, not a liar. Besides, I was replaying Jeannie's question in my head. Something was different about it than I'd thought.

"Oh." Her face turned sad. It was too much to look at. For a moment, I turned away.

I'd done something awful. Again. I could feel Jeannie throwing up a barrier between us. She had been relaxing with me and now she was frightened. She was fragile somehow and I didn't understand how. But right then I understood that I needed to watch myself. I had to look out for Jeannie. I had to care for her no matter what she thought of me and no matter how many stupid things I said or did.

Our shoulders had been touching. Jeannie scooted away.

She started talking about school again. But I could barely hear her words. She had grown quieter and anyway, I wasn't quite listening to what she was saying. It was the change in how she said it. She was on her guard with me like she was with other kids. There was a distance between us that hadn't been there a moment ago. And I couldn't just rush in to close the distance. I was pretty sure that wouldn't work. I had to figure out what was going on. I had to understand how to make us close again.

In retrospect, I should have let Jeannie break my heart. And also in retrospect, it happened anyway and it always would in any circumstance.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 250: Biomythography - Note 26, A Different Bigotry

Biomythography - Note 26
A Different Bigotry


For most of a year, I was the assistant manager and bartender at a Chinese restaurant in Springfield, Massachusetts. The owners had bought a standalone building and renovated it into an upscale structure with white composite sides and pink trim. I started out in their service bar but, within a couple months, I was opening and closing the restaurant with the help of the cooks, who never left.

Like in most Chinese restaurants, the owners were Chinese-American. Unlike with most, the restaurant was not a whole-family operation. Everyone working on the restaurant floor was a local college student or dropout, usually not Asian-American of any sort. That was because the family had a problem with its sons. The boys had been each given a restaurant. But the businesses were gifts the boys didn’t want. They couldn’t make themselves do the work. These young, thirty-something men had been raised as princes. The family money was surrounding them, sitting everywhere they looked - like it always had. Yet they were expected to work like ordinary mortals. They died inside every morning when they arrived at the front doors.

The restaurants did well enough but that wasn't the point. They were created to give the boys something useful to do and they couldn't care about it. Most of the work fell to people like me.

"You again?" the head cook said as I walked through his kitchen. Ten minutes earlier, I had arrived to get the restaurant ready for brunch.

"Yeah." There was a stack of tablecloths waiting for the buffet table. I grabbed it and turned to face the cook. "The older son should be here soon."

"You want breakfast?"

"Heck yeah, if you're making it." What he served each morning might as well have been a bowl of monosodium glutamate and random meat, but I was young and poor. I always ate what he cooked. Also, I was conscious of how I was one of three or four anglos he bothered with.

"Eggs and squid," he replied.

"A bowl for me, please."

The Chinese-American cooks were such recent immigrants that most of them could not express themselves in English. This guy spoke some but with great effort. He had to plan his words. A middle-aged fellow, he had started paying attention to me for some reason - in two weeks I was going to get promoted to assistant manager, so that could have been the reason - and he clued me in on how things really worked.

He loved the restaurant's ruling family. He wasn't faking that. Maybe some of the younger men didn't care but this guy loved the wealth of the Sze clan. The Sze's had old money, probably as much as they could get out with them when they fled the Communists rising to power on the mainland. They were the right kind of people, according to the head cook.

Like the other cooks, he lived in a suite of tiny rooms above the restaurant.

"Our families, they live in Connecticut," he had told me the day before.

"Do you get to see them?" I asked. The kitchen staff worked thirteen days during each two week pay period. Their shifts were twelve hours long each day. It was not grueling work but still, it was work for a long day during an even longer pay period.

"Sometimes," he said with a nod. He didn't complain and he didn't let his countrymen complain, either. Every now and then, one cook at a time would get dispensation to go for a visit. Those were arrangements that us anglos didn't hear about. The kitchen staff handled them directly with the Sze family. All we knew about it is that sometimes a prep cook would be gone.

The weeks went by, spring into summer, and after I became an assistant manager I had to work longer hours. The head cook brought me into his confidence more often. We would set up the restaurant together, him in the back, me out front, and he would make me breakfast and sit with me as I ate.

Early that summer, I got a job application from a young, black man. He was well dressed, well spoken, and seemed generally to be a class act. He had already worked as a waiter. I wanted to hire him immediately. Since I was the bottom level manager, I didn't have enough influence to make it happen. The owner happened to witness part of the interview, though, and sided with me against the inclination of his sons.

"You and Mr. Sze, you like the black fellow," the cook said one morning. "Why?"

"He's slick. He's classy. He looks like he'll be a good waiter." I knew from the cook's face and tone that he disapproved. It was sort of astonishing since he never said anything against Mr. Sze and never ventured an opinion that differed with his boss until now. "Why don't you want us to hire him?"

"He is black. Black! They are no good people! They cause very many problems for the Chinese!" he yelled. "Mr. Sze should know better. You know better. Why you think they okay? Where you from?"

The last question seemed like a genuine plea. Slowly, I described my experiences with black people, mostly in Maryland. He stayed patient and listened carefully.

"You from DC?" It penetrated with him that Maryland was part of DC in its way. "You know PG County?"

"Yeah, I grew up there. Well, for a lot of my life."

"Blacks okay there." He sighed. For a moment, he relaxed. "A month I lived in PG county. Little, just a very little while. Blacks not so mean to Chinese there. Not thugs. Okay people. But PG County is very different. Not like here."

Now it was my turn to breathe easier. This man had a lot of pull in the business. He realized it, too. It was a relief to see that he didn't have a comically exaggerated view of black people. His hatred of them in general, wherever it came from, could come down to a single incident. I thought I could work with it. We didn't shake hands but we came to an agreement of sorts. He dropped his objection and supported Mr. Sze over his eldest son.

For a while, our restaurant had a black waiter.

But in less than two weeks, that waiter quit. He handed in his resignation to the eldest Sze son. As I tried to find out why, I heard from some other staff that it was because of the cooks. They had gotten his orders wrong, probably deliberately, and had given him the sort of hard time they reserved for staff they didn't like. (They behaved that way for all staff who they considered rude. Some waiters had to piece together their own side salads, trudge down to the supply rooms when they were missing things, and run the dishwasher to get clean glasses. But the cooks acted like our only black waiter had been rude from the start and I was sure he'd been nice.)

One by one, I let the cooks know that I disapproved. To my surprise, they seemed ashamed of their behavior.

"He was okay," he head cook admitted. "My staff, they not helpful. I thought maybe this could happen. But we can do better next time."

Some of the ethnic hatred from the cooks didn't seem to be based on anything. They just as blatantly loved upper class whites in a way I had trouble comprehending. Their opinions on race seemed to come down to their perceptions of social status. After I individually berated them for treating the waiter badly, they didn't retaliate against me. If anything, they were nicer.

My main problem in the next couple of months was that I liked the cooks. That meant I treated them well - probably too well in their view, which lowered their estimations of me. I didn't demand enough from them.

In late summer, the eldest son hired a Chinese-American waiter. He soon promoted the young waiter to assistant manager, like me. This time, he did it over the objections of the cooks.

I'm not sure what was going on aside from racial preferences. The oldest son acted like he had something to prove. He demanded that his commands must be as respected as his father's (although they clearly weren't). He wanted the restaurant to have a Chinese-American assistant manager. But the cooks hated this new guy. Eventually, I understood why. He was the wrong kind of Chinese.

This poor guy was tall and good-looking. He wasn't particularly competent as a waiter or as a manager but he would have learned in time. He was smart. But the cooks hounded him. Apparently, they were all from Sichuan province. The new assistant manager wasn't aware what province his family had come from. He was American. He didn't speak a word of Chinese. That didn't matter. In fact, his ignorance made his presence in management even more intolerable. The Sichuan cooks had recognized his origins an instant. This guy was racially Gansu. They despised the Gansu.

Once again, I found myself sitting down in the mornings with the head cook.

"He is not a good Chinese!" the cook shouted with venom.

"He's American."

"Don't care! We. Don't. Care." He pounded the table. "The eldest son, he is spoiled. He doesn't do his job. He thinks we respect him? Hah! I will talk with his father."

The son who managed the restaurant was thirty-five. I was twenty-three. To the cook, we both looked like children but I understood why he thought the playboy, princeling son was not a good person - and was beyond hope of becoming one, maybe. The cook was probably right.

But his attitude about lower-class Chinese-Americans reminded me of my childhood and all of the old European hatreds crammed together in my suburban American neighborhood. Clearly, it wasn't only the Europeans who hated each other. It wasn't only the slavic people hating other slavs, Turks hating Armenians, Tutsis hating Hutus, Hindis hating Tamils, and so on and on and on but apparently also in China there were ethnic groups who hated one another. It was everybody, everywhere. Every group hated some other group.

People learn to hate others. Sometimes it makes no sense and otherwise decent people, while admitting it makes no sense, still act with hate.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 249: Biomythography - Note 25, Bigotry, in General and Particular

Biomythography - Note 25
Bigotry, in General and Particular


The air smelled fresh because it was the middle of March before the pollen had arrived. One of my friends was driving me toward Philadelphia. He had gushed about the city and its outliers, then he'd driven us past some of the landmarks: a Quaker market, a historic mill park, a synagogue, and miles of rusted pipes and towers at Bethlehem Steel.

"It's like Disneyland," he murmured as we surveyed the derelict steel plant. That seemed like hyperbole but I knew what he meant. The place had the sort of faded glory that's more beautiful in its decline than in its gaudy youth.

A few minutes after we passed the closed steel plant, he turned his car off the main road from Bethlehem toward Philadelphia. He swerved again onto a smaller, two-lane street also headed into the city.

"This is my chance to show you what I mean." He gestured with his hands to indicate a place vaguely ahead of us. "I told you that Hispanics are better than Blacks. Now, shut up for a second. I know you think everyone is equal. But that's only true with individuals. That's just not how it is with groups. It's not."

"Groups are made of individuals."

"Right. I know you think that. But it's not even the point. I can't explain what I mean. So I'll show you."

It didn't take him long to drive there. I leaned back in my seat, arms folded as I watched the vacant lots turn into a warehouse district, then single family houses, an impound center behind barbed fences, homes again, and rowhomes.

After a few blocks, the rowhomes changed color. They looked newer, built of amber bricks. Somehow they looked cheaper, too. They were not as run down by age as the earlier, turn-of-the-century rowhomes but they had weathered the years unevenly. The row looked broken in places, pristine in others.

"These are the projects," my friend murmured. "Just wait until we get to the black neighborhood."

As soon as he turned east, I could see his argument coming. The street got shabbier. It wasn't a problem with the asphalt. But it looked like someone had taken a pistol and shot chips out of a high curb and part of a wooden fence. Someone else had smashed a chain link fence off of half a front yard. Everything had been trashed. It had taken years to hurt the housing project by this much.

"Look at the weeds," he said as he leaned closer to me. "See how these people live. They let everything go to shit."

The gate on the next yard had been kicked in. By police? Doubtful, although they might be responsible for a busted door or two around here. By a random teenager? Possible. But the fence on either side of the gate was a brick one, half-height and mostly ornamental and that made the sabotage worse. You could see how nice these homes had been once and how much potential they still had. Wasted.

"They never repair anything," he said. He pointed to a cracked window pane next to a broken wooden garden step that any child with a hammer and nails could have fixed.

"They don't own it," I pointed out. "Some of this, the landlords should repair the things."

"To have the tenants deliberately break them again?" This, from a young man who had never owned anything, not even the car he was driving. But I understood his practical point. The ultimate landlord was probably the city and even their professional crews hadn't kept up.

That started our old argument up again. He drove around, pointing out details during three blocks of awfulness, and then he turned another two corners so that we were back in the same neighborhood but on a different street. This one held a row of project housing, townhouses built of bricks the same color as before, perhaps more weathered and aged. But the neighborhood looked better. The fences had been repaired and painted. I noticed that someone had decided to paint a chain link fence, which was surely an odd decision, but they had done it in a festive pink/purple color. It made me laugh.

A few houses down, someone without flowers had painted them onto his wooden fence. Most of these homes, though, had flowers and flower pots sitting out in their yards. Mostly, they weren't in bloom yet but the difference caused by the presence of those pots felt startling. Nothing that fragile had survived on the other streets.

"Look, no weeds. Everything is trimmed." He pointed to a line of laundry hanging out to dry. "They don't have dryers but they keep their clothes clean. Everything is neat. It's all fucking pretty. Because it's hispanics like me. See?"

"It's very nice." It was better than many more expensive neighborhoods.

He didn't change my mind about trying to care for the children growing up in the black neighborhood. But I didn't change my friend's mind about his superior ethnic culture, either.

A couple of months later, we met in a different state. He and other friends swung by my house and asked me to go smoke with them. I didn't care about partying but it was nice to be invited, so I hopped in for the ride. At a mutual friend's house, we met our semi-usual assortment of party-goers. Among them were a few black folks we had hung out with for the past year on the regular. We sat next to them for a while, smoking and drinking and laughing.

My friend coughed out a praise or two for Philadelphia before he picked up his beer. It made me think of the detour he'd driven to show me the difference between cultures. I poked him with my elbow and gestured to our black friends.

"What about them?" I asked. "Are you culturally superior?"

"Psssh! I didn't mean them." He laughed.

"But ..."

"They don't live like that. They're good guys."

After thinking for a while, I felt that this particular friend might be the opposite of some others. I had college friends who were integrationists in theory. They used all of the correct terms. They donated to good causes. But they had no friends who weren't from precisely the same background they had. What did that mean about them? It was hard to tell.

And was my friend sitting next to me really the opposite of them, pretending to be bigoted and using all the wrong terms but actually having a pretty wide selection of friends? No. During the drinking, smoking, and bullshitting about politics and music, I had time to think about his attitudes. My old friend was close to the opposite but I knew he really was prejudiced. He wasn't overplaying it when he used biased terms. He simply had a special exclusion zone for people he met and liked. When it came to the specifics, he had friends from the groups he hated.

It was a long night. Other friends and friends-of-friends drifted in and out of the party. I kept coming back to the concept of who among them, really, were our true amigos. And what that meant. There was no hiding the good nature of some people, I guessed, not even from those who claimed to hate their religion or race. But we were all pretty well defined, too, by the differences between our speech and our actions, between our bigotries in general and in particular.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 248: Biomythography - Note 24, When My Boss Set Our Building on Fire

Biomythography - Note 24
When My Boss Set Our Building on Fire


I was in the kitchen of a family restaurant in Hadley, Massachusetts when it started. Yeah, even though I had graduated from college, I was working as a short order cook. That's how it works with non-STEM degrees.

The grill area was small with room for at most two cooks at a time. It smelled like clean but ancient grease. I had been a good cook and I got a raise within three weeks of starting. I knew I was better than they'd had before. That's why I'd asked for more money. The manager was way too pleased to get a cook who didn't show up drunk. He could leave me alone, too, and I'd keep on working without being reminded every fifteen minutes. As an added bonus, the customers liked my food. Even the manager liked my food.

But as a restaurant, we specialized in blandness. Our loyal following consisted of retirees.

"They don't like a lot of seasoning," my boss explained during the second or third time he showed me around the grill. I had been following some of the standard recipes the other cooks had posted on the walls. He had to tell me to cut it out. Fortunately, he didn't have to explain about the food prep area or service window. I had plenty of questions about the ticket system, early on, but those were with good reason. One of the waitresses had been working for a decade and she simply followed her own system based on a concept that was nine years old and different from everyone else.

"You don't even add pepper?" I eyed the row of prepared spice jars on the left of the grill.

"Definitely not. I know some recipes call for it but eliminate the pepper unless it's part of a packaged mix."

"Okay." That was the opposite of how I'd been taught but it was no problem. In a way, I approved. Using no spices meant the quality of the basic ingredients and the grill became that much more important.

A few weeks into the job, though, I noticed the grill area never got fully cleaned. It got wiped down, sure. The place was neat in its way, stacked high with all sorts of paper records, recipes, jars, boxes, and receipt print-outs, but it never got mopped. No one ever moved a machine to clean up a spill. After a month, I scraped the grill before my shift one morning and noticed the same burnt flecks of potatoes that had been sitting at the edge of the spill guard since I'd started.

I pulled out the front grate cover and peered underneath. There was no room. Ten minutes later, I waved down the manager.

"The grease catcher is full," I complained. That was the night cook's job. It had been, like other things, written down as a procedure but ignored.

"That's what the bucket is for."

I did a double-take. Sure enough, there was a once-white grease bucket on the floor underneath to catch the spillover. Yeah, the grill hadn't been scoured in a few weeks. Or months. Or years, maybe. But they had a system. I was still the new guy. Besides, in the back of my mind I knew the manager was pretty often the night shift cook. If I complained, he wouldn't make that guy do it. That guy was him. He'd try to make me clean up two year's worth of grease under the stove.

Come the weekend, our Saturday morning rush hit and the manager strode in to work the grill next to me. I was keeping up with the orders and the grill surface was maxed out for space, so his help was more irritating than useful. It was normal, though. Sometimes the manager came to cook with me just because nothing else was going on in the restaurant. He liked to make food. He had been, in fact, the head cook for years before he got a promotion.

He seemed to know everybody, all the regular customers, the health inspector, the fire inspector, every police officer who stopped in, pretty nearly every local citizen in Hadley. That was probably handy at times. In contrast, I was a transient who didn't know any locals. Really, I mostly knew bartenders, cooks, and wait staff. A lot of those were college students, so they were transients like me.

"Oh, I see someone," the manager said as he waved through the service window. Whoever it was didn't notice him. He waved again.

"Eggs dry and bacon," he yelled as he plated a batch of scrambled eggs. Across the carpet and with many tables between, a man in a dark jacket caught a glimpse of us and waved back to the manager.

"Where's my pancakes?" A waitress swept in to take the plate.

"Whoops, they're getting crispy," he said. He glanced down to his line of three cakes. He had laid them out vertically. The top two were light brown. The closest, sizzling at the near corner of the grill, had gone black on one side. He decided to leave it. He flipped the good ones onto a plate for the waitress.

The crispy one caught fire while he talked to his staff through the service window. He laughed.

"Damn." After the waitress strolled away, he used his steel spatula to chop up the wasted pancake. One chunk of it burned yellow and orange. Other fragments burned blue. The sections that were mostly okay, steaming and smoking but no worse, he scooped up and dropped into the trash can to his right.

"Don't toss the burning stuff yet," I said. I was eyeing his plastic trash basket, stacked high with dry paper.

"I was just about to tell you that." He chopped up the remaining pancake coals until they were a dark pile of rubble. "I'm going to go out front. Don't worry about the fire. It'll burn out."

He dragged the glowing embers into the spill guard, where they sputtered into blue flames. Then he tugged at the bow knot on his apron, whipped it off, and marched out.

For twenty minutes or so, the rush continued. Middle aged and elderly couples filed in. They found their tables. They ordered plain eggs and black coffee. I cooked five or six breakfast orders at a time but probably only twenty orders total. Mostly, I forgot about the burnt pancake next to me. Every now and then, I couldn't avoid seeing the remains. The grill was double-sized, two stovetops screwed together with a half-gutter down the middle, but it still wasn't more than eight feet wide. The cinders continued to pop and sputter with yellow flames next to me.

The problem was the spill guard, I thought. It was pretty much a gutter filled with grease, like a horizontal candle. The pancake bits were the wick.

When my boss poked his head through the service window to grab an order that a waitress had put in late, he gawked at the smoke.

"That's still burning?" His voice rose in pitch like a kid protesting unfairness at school.

"There really is a lot of grease here." I gestured to the trough of it. He wasn't at the right angle to see how deep it was but he knew.

"Does it bother you?"

"Nah, I guess not." The smoke had been making my eyes water but I didn't feel like complaining. "We should put it out at the end of the shift, though."

"Ugh."

He wandered off into the front of the restaurant with his food. It took forty minutes or so for the rush to slow. The manager substitued for the hostess and made the hostess bus tables. She stopped by to complain to me even though she knew I couldn't do anything about it. She ran food out to the tables, too, until the waitresses objected. The tables had filled to their limit. Most customers had plates on the white tablecloths in front of them.

"Still?" the manager strolled by. He gazed at the kitchen ceiling. A haze of smoke hung there, about four inches thick.

He disappeared for a while but, as a line started to develop at the hosting stand again, he marched back in. He stopped into the grill area to shake his head.

"All right," he said, hands on hips. "If we let this go too long, the customers are going to complain. The waitresses are already telling me they smell smoke."

"Can you bring me a bucket of water?" I figured I could dump the burning rubbish into one. Like I'd learned in Boy Scouts, you couldn't put out grease fire with water but at least the water itself wouldn't burn. As a solution, it wasn't elegant. But with the embers in a bucket, the manager could carry them out back and they would stop stinking up the place.

"Where would I get an empty bucket? I'd have to dump something out."

I shrugged. If he didn't know where something was in this place, no one did. He shuffled his feet for a moment in the kitchen doorway, dithering about what to do. Then, while I was plating another round of food, he disappeared.

A minute later, he returned with a glass of water. He had taken it from one of the tables out front.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"You wanted water."

"I wanted a bucket."

"Well, I don't have a bucket."

We were standing near a dozen big, plastic buckets, plus another six in the walk-in freezer and about twenty more blocking the rear of the store, which is why the dishwasher and manager had to carry trash out through the front doors at the end of the night.

"You can't put out a grease fire with water," I insisted. That was a scouting rule and I believed in it although I had never put it to a test. Maybe enough water could work.

"Then why did you ask for it?"

"To put the burning pancake bits into it. I don’t think I can make them fit in that glass. They're too big.”

In answer, he tossed the glass of water into the spill gaurd. There was a hiss and a cloud of steam. For a moment, I couldn't see the grill. I thought, just maybe, that put out the fire. But when the billow wafted up to the ceiling and I could see the grill, I noticed flames in three places. There were embers on the floor, up the spill guard by my left hand, and back on the grill as if the pancake had never left.

My boss stomped on floor to extinguish the sputtering flames there. Along the grill, the flames burned cooler, yellower, and bigger. The cup of water washed the burning bits around but those bits found new puddles of oil. The fire got more fuel. In another few seconds, the grease in the spill area started floating on top of the slick of water. It began to drift.

"God dammit," the manager complained. But he wasn't frustrated with me, just at his bad luck.

While I plated another round of eggs and Canadian bacon, amazed for the hundredth time that anyone liked Canadian bacon, he grabbed the steel grill scraper and started pushing the burning oil around.

"You keep cooking," he said. "But not on this half. I'm going to make sure this dies out."

"Okay."

Even now, with the fire doubled in size, it was small. The flames burned cooler, too. We could go home, I thought, and it wouldn't hurt anything. It looked like it might still be burning when we got back in the morning, but no worse than that.

A waitress came over and gave me a dirty look. She turned her scowl on the manager, too, but she jumped back in surprise a second later when she saw the fire had spread. She retreated.

As I read her spiked order, I saw my boss scraping together a big pile of grease. He had collected the burning bits and the fuel, too, so it looked worse than ever.

"Hey, you're pushing it into the grease trap?" I realized that was what he had to be doing. All of the gutters around the grill and the narrower one running down the center led into the trap.

"That's where it belongs," he grunted.

"But, I mean, it's all grease in there. And it's a grease fire." If there was anything we could do to make the situation worse, I thought that would be it. We would start a fire in the five-gallon metal bin and in the bucket beneath it.

But my boss lowered his head stubbornly and kept scraping. He pushed the burning puddle closer and closer to the gutter mouth of the trap. Abruptly, the flames turned blue again. At a guess, the grill's hot surface had steamed off the last of the water. My manager hesitated while he thought about pushing a flame into the solid lump of fat and oil below.

"Right." He set down the scraper. "I'm going out front."

He took time to chat with the regulars and, from a snippet of conversation I overheard at the table closest to me, to apologize for the smoke. Not a single customer seemed to mind. Only the waitresses cared and that was mostly because their tickets were backing up. I laid out two orders at once, which was all I had room for on the left half of the grill, and got back to work.

Ten minutes later, I pushed the burning puddle to the far right of the cooking surface. There was a spill guard there, too, but I couldn't use it because the far end of it lay underneath a wooden shelf that held recipe books and stacks of old orders and receipts, most of those lumped into paper bags or wrapped with rubber bands for record-keeping. I didn't want to put the fire there. I only needed to push it far enough out of my way so I could get back to cooking three orders together.

While I worked, the puddle crept toward the near end of the stove as if the fire wanted to return to where it had started life as a pancake.

"Okay, that's got to go," my boss said as he strode back into the front kitchen. In this hands was a red, metal canister. "I found a fire extinguisher. I thought we'd gotten rid of them all but we kept this one."

"Great!"

He pulled the pin on it. With a grin, he squeezed the handle. A hiss of air came out.

"What?" He shook the fire extinguisher like a can of hairspray. He pushed the handle again. "Come on!"

For a minute, he kept trying to coax retardant out of the extinguisher. In the end, he hovered over the fire and tried to dribble flecks of foam onto it without much success. He tossed the useless cannister into the trash can. It didn't fit. He grabbed it and stalked away.

When he returned, he put his hands on his hips and studied the flames.

"What's good for grease fires, then?" he said.

"According to the boy scouts, dirt or ashes."

"Oh right, you told me you were in scouts. Good." He scratched his head. "You mean to smother it?"

"Yeah." He hadn't mentioned being a scout himself but he got that part perfectly right.

The scouts teach teenagers that there are different types of fires and so there are different ways to extinguish them. As a tenderfoot, I had to learn a list, now long forgotten. But the key principle behind all their methods of putting out fires was to deny them oxygen or fuel for the oxygen or both.

My boss swept around behind me and rummaged through the shelves of ingredients. After poking his nose into a few tins, he grabbed one of the biggest ones, sniffed, and made an approving grunt. He stuck in his hand and emerged with a fistful of dry pancake batter.

"Hey!" I raised my spatula to stop him.

He tossed the flour onto the grease fire over my half-hearted attempt to block him. I remembered something about flour not being good to put out fires but it was a vague memory.

There was a brief puff of blue flame next to my right hand. That was probably the flour dust in the air as it ignited. Then something special happened. The mushy pile of flour absorbed half of the puddle of grease. The grease flame sputtered. And then rose higher. Much, much higher. My memory from scouts got clearer. Flour was fuel. Pouring fuel onto the fire had failed to put it out.

The greasy lump on the right side of the stovetop burned hotter and hotter with billows of smoke and orange flame. We watched it for a while. It kept growing. Flames on the right side started to lick the shelf of papers.

"Uh, I'm going to take a second to move stuff," I ventured. I handed him my spatula.

"Yeah, okay."

When I hesitated about where to put the bags of papers, my manager stopped cooking to help. I pulled stacks off the shelves and he carried stacks of stacks, three at a time, to his office in the back rooms. After a handful of trips, he glanced at the food on the grill.

"You've got to get back to cooking." His lips pressed tight in a grim expression. "And I've got to fix that fire."

While I plated food, he grabbed the scraper. Instead of pushing the fire towards the spill guards or the grease catcher, he pushed it as far away from our cooking as he could. He was taller than I am, with long arms, so he could push it to the end of the stovetop.

In a second or two, I saw the problem with that. He did, too.

"Shit." He batted at the puddle of flour and oil. But it was too late. He had pushed the fire up against the wall right beneath the service window. That was a wall that hadn't been cleaned in years. Right then was when I realized how greasy it was. I'd never touched the surface of it but it always looked off-white, like wax, and that was because it pretty much was. He swatted at the four inches of space above the grill that had caught flame.

"Hey, uh, I think maybe we should call the fire department." I started eyeing the exits of the building. The back door was blocked by buckets of supplies and boxes of trash.

"Crap!" My boss reached out to save a piece of paper from burning. He singed his fingers. "Goddamn it."

"Do you want me to tell the hostess to call them?"

"No. It's better if I do it." He stopped sucking on his fingertips. He stood straighter. "I'm friends with the fire inspector. And a couple of the firemen. You get out front. Tell the guests to leave."

"Can they take the food?"

"Yeah, sure. Absolutely! Get them packing up their food and apologize to them."

"Right."

"Don't make them pay!" he waved at me urgently. "Give them the food for free."

Even as I nodded, I was already gone. I left the kitchen stepping sideways, eyes on the grill debacle but with vague, good intentions. Within a few feet, I bumped into a waitress, who wanted me to explain. She had noticed the brightness of the fire. When I told her we had to close, she marched with me to the hostess stand. It took a moment to get the young woman there on our side.

"Some of the waitresses will want customers to pay. They want tips."

"Well, he said what he said."

"Anyway, why aren't we hearing any fire alarms?" she asked.

"Huh." It hadn't occurred to me to look for smoke detectors. I was pretty sure we had one or two around, though, and obviously they weren't in working order.

Our lack of detectors was just one of the things that I learned about in the weeks after. My manager, it seemed, was such good friends with the fire inspector that his buddy didn't even look at our violations. When the fire crew arrived, though, they came with the chief. The chief tried to park near a hydrant, found it blocked, and immediately got pissed. That was only the beginning.

The restaurant had in reality failed inspections for years without getting written up. Our emergency exits were blocked. The fire crew had to come through the front like everyone else, which meant they had to jostle with elderly customers on their way out. Our smoke detectors had no batteries. Our kitchen walls were covered with a eighth-inch of grease. The rest of our walls had pyramids of buckets or heaps of boxes partially blocking them. The sprinkler heads were covered by the stacks of boxes underneath. Our fire extinguishers were missing.

The fire chief wrote a long, angry list for us. But that day, I only knew that the chief saw me heading back into the building and said no, I couldn't keep working.

"Can I help the rest of the folks out of the restaurant?" I asked.

"Yeah." He leaned back and folded his arms. "You're restricted to the dining area."

For a while, I strolled from table to table inside. Oddly, I found our customers to be calm and pleasant about the fire, even the ones who could see parts of it through the service window. They thought the firemen were a bit rude and they couldn't stop complaining to me about it. I nodded and told them we were all leaving anyway.

“Ma’am, you don’t have to steal that. You are allowed to take it,“ I insisted. At about half of the tables, our customers reacted by pocketing their biscuits. "I can get you a box."

No matter what I said, though, they continued to take everything around them. It was as if they thought they were going to set up restaurant tables at home.

"I want salt," said the woman I had been talking with. She grabbed shakers from the table and put them in her purse.

"Okay, fine." Everyone else was ignoring me and taking what they pleased anyway.

Even as I helped them pack, I was impressed by how my manager had expected exactly this behavior from our customers. It wasn't like the place had a history of fires. It didn't. But he knew the locals anyway, right down into the cores of their souls. When I had headed back in, he had predicted they would take flatware. They did. He said, "We'll be lucky if they don't take the napkins" and, as I watched, a woman grabbed her flatware, cloth napkin and also the clean, unused napkins from the empty settings around her table.

“The place is on fire?" the next woman complained to me as she ate. She made a show of glancing around. "Well, I don’t see it.”

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I'll have to insist. The fire department is here." As I spoke, a large man in fire safety gear stomped through. I pointed him out.

"Well, can't they put out the fire and leave us in peace?"

She continued to cut her breakfast steak. Across from her, a man who had to be her husband set down his steak and nodded. He tried to speak but she waved her knife at him and he closed his mouth. He gave me a helpless shrug.

"Look, I'll leave," she said after she chewed, "but I'm taking these plates."

"Okay." Everything I did was on automatic. I would have agreed to anything. I would have robbed the register to pay her to leave.

"And you have to help Mayme." She pointed with her knife to a woman eating by herself next to the south wall. She was so small and quiet that I hadn't noticed her. "She can barely walk."

"Yes, ma'am."

So it went for me from table to table - our elderly, loyal patrons packing up their dining sets including two tablecloths, carefully wrapping and stacking everything, not upset by the fire or smoke - until I reached Mayme, a woman so old and so nearsighted that I'm not sure she registered my presence for a minute.

After I introduced myself to her twice, Mayme smiled. It was an expression of joy that shocked me into grinning back.

"Are you here to help?" she asked.

"Of course." I stood up straighter.

"I can't walk very well." She cleared her throat. "But I can drive my car. If you can help me carry things."

The hostess tapped me on the shoulder to announce that we had no more to-go boxes left. We had given out every one. So for Mayme, I stacked a clean plate on top of her regular plate. I wrapped it and loosely tied the pair of plates with a cloth napkin. It was the best I could do. It might spill a bit but, just possibly, it might not if she didn't take corners hard or stop too fast.

Then I stood next to her with my arm out. She grabbed me by the elbow and pulled herself up.

"Oh my." She leaned against me. "Thank you."

She took a step. She remarked on how young I was. She took another two steps. I was strong, too. Another few steps. Her eggs had been perfect, thank you.

"Good to see you, Mayme," the hostess said to us as we passed by.

"Thank you, dear."

At the door, a gust of fresh air hit us. The difference made me feel better.

"Come back soon!" Mayme's waitress called to her. Mayme smiled. She didn't turn her head but, with a thin, shaky arm, she waved like a movie star to her adoring fans.

In the parking lot, even as I walked Mayme to her car, the fire chief sent me home.

"That's it," he announced. "And no more waitresses, either."

I glanced at my manager, who was standing with his arms folded and his ears turning red. He gave me a grim nod.

At her car, I helped Mayme put the food on the floor where it couldn't spill. She told me she would have a neighbor help her get it into her house. I strolled around to the driver's side so she could grab my arm again and lower herself into the driver's seat.

"Don't feel bad," she said. She pressed down the hem of her dress below her knee. "The food was very nice. And today it was perfect for my budget."