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."


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."


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."


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."


"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 it was perfect for my budget."

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 247: Biomythography - Note 23, The Girl by the Side of the Road

Biomythography - Note 23
The Girl by the Side of the Road

Route 118 was a country road, dark enough to drive by starlight. Sometimes I did that, turning off my Mustang's headlights and coasting in a silvery glow bright enough to see blades of wild grass a few feet from the asphalt on either side. When the grass rose high to my right, I knew it was one of the farmers' fields of month-old corn.

On the night it happened, I turned on my headlights, rounded a corner, and there she was: a woman with a raggedy, stained white t-shirt, cutoff jeans, and no shoes. At first, she lifted her hands to ward off the light. Then, as I slowed to round the corner near her, she stuck out her thumb to hitch a ride.

If it hadn't happened during a time of life when I picked up all hitchhikers, every time, as a rule, I might not have stopped. How could she have gotten out here in the middle of woods and corn fields? It didn't make sense. But here she was. And barefoot. No one should have to walk far at night in bare feet.

"Shit." I screeched to a halt. The Mustang steering column never liked it when I did that. The wheel fought me for a second. My right hand dragged the automatic shift into park. I heard footsteps coming up fast.

"Thanks!" she gasped as she popped open the passenger door and swung inside.

"Sure, sure." I glanced around at the dark trees and empty road while I waited for her to buckle her seatbelt. Not everybody did it. I never did. But it was polite to give riders time.

"What are you waiting for? Go." Her blonde hair was natural-looking, attractive, and a mess. There was a twig or a broken leaf fragment in it. Her left hand pounded the seat. She wasn't looking at me.

"Um, okay." Usually, hitchhikers wanted to chat but, really, not all of them. I never wanted to talk a bunch when I hitched, myself. I flipped the car back into drive.

The woman looked all around us as I rolled away. When we picked up speed, she tapped the rolled-up window.

"Did you see anybody?" she sounded out of breath. "Anyone else? Along the road?"

"No." I couldn't look at her again because I was driving. When the overhead light had been on a few seconds earlier, though, I thought I saw bruises on her left arm. "Are you all right?"

She laughed. A moment later, she started to cry.

"They might be looking for me. On this road. Don't stop. Do you pick up hitchhikers a lot? Don't stop for any more right now. Please, please don't. " She cried for a few seconds more. Then she shot me a wild-eyed, worried look. "Are you one of them?"

"What do you mean?" This was all too weird for me. She had to be in some kind of trouble. "Are you running away from home or something? I won't turn you in."

"That place where I was." She sniffled. She took a deep breath. "Have you been to that farm before?"

That was easy enough. There was only a broken down shack and a dirt drive, overgrown with a rusty chain across it. I shook my head.

"Nope," I told her. "I've passed it by for years but actually, I didn't know anyone still lived there."

She continued to lean away from me.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know." She started to cry again. "I just have to get away.”

"Okay, okay."

"Oh my god," she said as we neared an intersection with a gas station. "I have to call my parents. They must be frantic. They probably think I'm dead."

"Here?" The closed Texaco station had a payphone on the side, next to the garage bay. I'd used it before. It probably still worked. But as I slowed at the stop sign, my rider started to panic.

"Not here! No!" She twisted back and forth in her seat. "This is too close."

"Okay." I flipped on my right turn signal. "But there are phones in a lot of places. Will your parents take a collect call? I mean, will they even answer? It's past midnight. How far away are they?"

She turned to me, mouth open. She looked stunned. "Where am I?"

"Um, you don't know?" We swung south down Clopper Road. I could see the woman in the passenger seat by the lights of the Texaco station. "Darnestown is the closest place to us, I guess. We're leaving it. I'm headed down to Gaithersburg."

"To do what?"

"Not much. I was going to walk around Dart Drug and look at the books." The Dart Drug building was huge. It was one of the biggest box stores I'd ever seen. It had everything and it was all cheap. When I bought books there, they were almost always half off.

"Is it open?"

"It never closes," I said. "That's why I go there in the middle of the night."

She kept talking more about her parents, who I guessed she hadn't seen in a while. She wondered if they would pick up the phone and listen. I kept paying attention to the road. Every now and then, I glanced over at my rider. Her body crouched forward in the seat. Her hands stayed active as she spoke. At a stop sign, she paused to let tears flow for a few seconds. Then she took a stutter-breath and said, "Do you have any change?"

The question made me play back in my head a bit more of what she had been saying about phones. I had told her, with confidence, that she could call her parents collect. I'd made collect calls. Plenty of folks did it. If her mother or father picked up, they would accept the charges and talk to her. But she wasn't sure. What if they were mad about the time of night? What if they didn't like her? But she said they must have worried about her, too, so that part didn't make sense.

"Sure, I have a little." I dug into my pockets. On the second try, I pulled out a lint-littered clump of change. "You'll have to tell me how much."

"Will the payphone accept it all?" Yeah, I could tell she was planning on spending my money.

"Everything except the pennies."

"You've got a dollar-forty," she announced. "Can I have it?"

"You don't trust your parents?"

"At least if I call them direct, I can ask them to come get me. The operator can't cut me off if I've paid."


It was only a buck-forty, barely enough for a discount paperback. I agreed and she talked more about the phone call. We continued south, up and down a dozen hills. Finally, streetlights appeared on either side of the road. Half a mile later, we came to our first stoplight.

By the second stoplight, we could almost see the outdoor mall. The lights of it glowed above the treeline. My rider's conversation picked up speed as she talked about clothes. When we stopped at the light before the big store, she turned to me.

"Can you see through this shirt?" she said.

"Maybe a little." It wasn't hers, I guessed.

"Can I have your jacket?"

My mouth fell open. She meant to have it permanently. This seemed like a bigger thing to ask than my spare change. I had begged money off of any number of folks in the street. It had never occurred to me to ask for their clothes. This girl didn't know I was broke, either, and would have to save up to buy another jean jacket.

It had been my best jacket for years but, I admitted to myself, it was old. It was a leftover from high school. I'd removed the cool pins from it except for the Gang of Four, RGBY, a peace sign, and Anarchy.

"I mean, just for going into the store," she added. Her voice got higher pitched and more desperate. "I don't want the store to throw me out. I need the jacket over my shirt. Just for the phone call."

"Oh, okay. Sure." In my mind, I was saying a permanent goodbye to the jacket, though.

In the parking lot, I pointed out the row of payphones I'd described to her. She nodded when she saw where they were. She would need to walk through the main doors, next to the carts. But she wouldn't need to actually pass through the next set of doors into the store unless she decided, after the call, that she felt safer there.

"Do you want me to come in with you?" I asked as I took off my jacket.

"No. It would make me nervous." She put out her hands and almost touched me. "Please don't."


"I just don't want you too close. Stay here." For a moment, she stopped trying to be polite. She knew what she wanted, now. "I need you somewhere around. That's the best thing. Please, please wait in the parking lot."

"Okay." Finally, I got the jacket off. It was kind of tight, anyway. I pulled the peace sign button off of it. I liked that one. Then I handed it over.

"Wait until my parents come. Okay?" She shrugged on the jacket and pulled it closed around her waist without buttoning it. She held it in place. "Watch. If anyone else tries to take me, don't try to interfere. Just call the police."


She had persuaded me to park at least twenty yards away from the brightest lights in the lot. Still, I could see her shiver. It wasn't cold. Her legs looked unsteady as she quick-marched toward the store. After the automatic doors opened for her and she reached the bank of three payphones, I leaned back and relaxed.

This time, I hadn't insisted on finding out more. For me, that was weird. But it felt right. Whatever was going on, I was doing what she wanted and that seemed like the best thing. I felt oddly calm. I sat motionless and let my awareness expand to everyone and everything moving in the parking lot. But I didn't stir. No squirming. I was not in my usual hurry.

Mostly in those days, I was in a rush to do things even when I had nothing to do. But for this, for when I had a job assigned to sit and wait, I felt okay.

The phone call took place at least twice. I could tell the girl hung up once, called again, and got somebody on the line during her retry. She talked for what felt like a long time to me, probably a few minutes. After she hung up the phone, she turned and walked through the main interior doors of Dart Drug.

"Hey, man, is that your girlfriend?" a black man in a button-down shirt, who I recognized as someone who had strolled out of the store, came up to the open window of my car.

"A hitchhiker," I explained. "She asked me to stay for a while."

"Okay." We both looked at the store for a minute. The girl wasn't visible. She must have said something on the phone that caught this guy's attention, though. He patted my door. "Gotta go. Good luck."

"Thanks, man."

Even at peace with what I was doing, I thought vaguely about how strange it would seem to other people. If she called the police, I would have to explain. But I felt calm about it.

The next thing I knew, someone else was walking up to my car window. Practically running. It was my hitchhiker. She had my jacket under her left arm.

"Here." She thrust out the jacket I hadn't expected her to return. "My parents are coming. They'll be in a white minivan thing. Well, a white car. I don't know what it is. If anyone else drives up to take me, call the police, okay?"


"Thanks." She shivered. Her expression seemed angry and determined. As if she knew she was acting oddly, she hunched shoulders and said, "Sorry."

Then she was gone, back into the store.

After another five minutes passed, I got out to stretch. A middle-aged woman who was crossing the parking lot to her car decided to stop and talk with me. That was odd because of my age, my slightly impoverished appearance, and how the woman didn't seem to have anything to talk about. She just decided I looked friendly and wanted to chat.

In the midst of my conversation with her, I found myself reminded of a chapter in The Philosopher's Stone by Colin Wilson. Near the start of the novel, two scientists achieve a sort of artificial enlightenment and mental peace with the world. It's real enough in the sense that it lasts throughout the book. However, the scientists discover they are too friendly to be practical. They attract too much attention from passers-by. Strangers are kindly inclined to them and it starts to get in their way. They have to learn to turn off their emotional beacon of peace.

I listened to the woman until she slowed down a bit. Then we waved goodbye. She smiled. I got back into the car. I thought about Daoist books and Stoic writing. I thought about Buddhism and the act of not wanting things, not anything at all. I watched the main doors. And scanned arrivals to figure out when the parents had arrived.

Several white vehicles came and went. Finally, after fifteen minutes a white minivan pulled into the lot. It curled around the parked cars until it reached the automatic doors outside of Dart Drug. There, it stopped and waited without turning off its engine. Someone dashed out of the far door, I thought. It was hard to see. Finally, two women dashed back to the van. They were on the side away from me, but I got a glimpse. One of them, I could tell, was the girl who had been my hitchhiker.

At that point, I turned the key in my car. I'd been thinking about what to do next and it was simple. There wasn't any point in hanging around. I had no answers for the girl or her parents. There was no point in trying to buy a book, either. It was time to leave.

"Hey, man."

I turned. It was a black man, medium height, wearing jeans and a t-shirt that was somehow nicer than any I'd ever owned. He had a sophisticated air but also sense of tiredness about him. He looked friendly.

"Yeah?" I said.

"I don't want a ride or nothing. I got my own car." He was thinking faster than I was. I hadn't thought he was going to bum a ride. "But I'm lost, man. I'm trying to get to Germantown."

"Hey, you're almost there. Where in Germantown?"

For a few minutes, he and I chatted. He got me to smile. I made him laugh out loud. He'd been driving up from DC to see someone and he couldn't believe how far he'd come. He had assumed he was lost when he only needed to turn west on route 124 and keep on driving a few more miles.

"Thanks, man. You're all right."

"You too, man. Good luck tonight."

"I hear ya."

My car had been running the whole time. Giving directions hadn't taken long. The white probably-parents van was still in front of Dart Drug. But I sort of felt like I was in danger from sitting there being so peaced-out and calm. If I stayed, everyone would stop by, everyone in the whole world, one by one, and have a talk.

I didn't feel bad about it. I felt calm. Everything was completely right. I was at peace with the world and in love with the people in it. But also, I knew I should mosey along. I pulled my gearshift into drive and rolled away.


Every couple of months from when I was a teenager to when I turned thirty-one, I helped out people who had run out of gas and had to hitch. I gave lifts to drunks, too, and to bicyclists in the rain. I drove one guy whose car had caught fire. He'd been in some kind of accident that turned his vehicle on its side. I got out to make sure he was okay. A flame started in the undercarriage of his car. We stood and watched it start to burn. We shrugged. Then I took him to the nearest payphone.

Often enough, I accepted rides. I had them from born-again evangelicals, at least one couple who wanted me to get high with them, a dozen men who told me how good I looked, and one or two women who said the same. I had two men try to kidnap me, basically. One, when he tried to pull a knife, made me laugh. A gun, sure, that could have gotten bad. But a knife? Even as a blade it was sort of an insult, a penknife that he couldn't open before I chuckled and got out of his car.

"Hey, not that one," I had to shout to another hitchhiker.

Unbelievably, the guy who tried to pull the knife on me drove forty feet to the next hitchhiker. And that teenager was about to get in. But he heard me, did a double-take at the broken-down green pickup truck and the hand waving him in, still with a penknife in it, and he stopped.

"Oh, okay. Damn."

The pickup truck driver cursed us both and sped away. Or tried to speed. Even when he floored it, his truck could barely keep up with traffic.

"Damn, I guess I'm walkin." The other teenager shook his head.

"Well, as long as you don't fall for that guy, you'll be okay."

"Hope so."


Sunday, March 13, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 246: Biomythography - Note 22, Years of Living Sleeplessly

Biomythography - Note 22
The Years of Living Sleeplessly

At 11:05 on a November evening, I woke up.

I'd followed my usual routine - go to work, meet with the other hospital computer staff, do my systems programming, leave the office to pick up my kids from childcare, make dinner, draw or read with my son, study, drive to teach a computer science class, come back, put everyone to bed, do homework, and write. My wife Diane had gone through her corresponding routine - take the children to daycare, go to a teaching assignment, come home to make dinner, study for continuing education credits, take care of the children, study some more, and put the kids to go to sleep.

This time, I woke up with my chin in my hands, sitting at my desk. I had been doing that for years. My pattern was, I would open up the novel I was working on and make a few fixes. I'd get to the incomplete paragraph, the one I'd been struggling with all week. I'd delete a sentence and add another. I'd mull over the word choice. I'd consider the rhythm of the syllables. But after a while, I'd blank out. I'd wake up ten minutes later with my eyes unfocused. I'd smell the dirt on my hands. I'd listen to the air coming out of the office vent. I'd hear the joints creak in my desk.

After graduate school, I'd thought things would have to improve. They had, maybe, but not enough for normal sleep. This was my life with a job, a second, adjunct professor job, two kids, a marriage, and a house. It seemed to make sense when I started. The self-help books and advice columns advised me, 'do it all.' It was the right advice. There's not much choice if you want a family. But no advisors talked about how hard it would be to continue to care for it all.

Up to having a child in my life, I thought I had already been doing it all. The reality was that I had only been doing the adult-sized portion of 'all.' I had been living on my own, working, paying bills, writing books, helping friends, caring for my pets, and going to the gym. I was doing all the things, I thought, to be a good citizen. But I'd still had time to sit and think or to go out for a social life.

It turns out there are multiple levels of adulting. Taking care of kids is another level. When you take on handicapped care or elder care in your life, you have to raise your level yet again. In retrospect, it's obvious. But since no one talks about it, no one is ready for the amount of work or the exhaustion. In undergraduate school, I'd prided myself on how I'd been able to get by on four hours of sleep per night, every night, when I was really motivated. And my motivation level could last an entire semester.

Now, while getting five and sometimes even six hours a night, I was wearing down. Keeping the same level of motivation for five years is tough. Maybe it's impossible. You might be able to run a marathon in two hours but does that mean you can run four per workday? I couldn't keep it up simply by using my previous method of being tougher than everyone else.

For a few seconds, I rubbed my face. It was a habit I'd acquired from one of my brothers, I think. I used it when I needed to wake myself up and write more.

As I figured out what was wrong with the paragraph, I started moving sentences around. I could see now that they were in the wrong sequence. The order of the paragraphs on the page was wrong, too. I cut and pasted. But the changes I was making ruined the rhythm of the sentences. They all needed to be fixed.

Partway into the first fix, I heard my daughter start to cry.

She was in the room next to mine. For a little while, I thought I could ignore her. I wrote faster. Still, I thought surely she would fall back asleep. That's how I'd been as a kid, sick a lot. My parents had sent me back to bed each time and I'd muddled through.

"Mommy?" A tired child's face appeared in the gap between my door and the doorframe. Whoops, it was my four-year-old son. He still called me mommy half the time, and more than half when he was sleepy. "Cacie's crying."

"In a minute."

"Okay." He hung limply by one arm on the doorknob. He would probably wait there patiently and fall asleep, like I had just done except while standing.

"Right." I had been fooling myself. Fortunately, my edits had gotten me to the middle of a sentence. That was the best place to stop. I saved the chapter where it was and stood up. "Let's get back to bed."

"We can't."

"I'll take Cacie."

In the darkness of the children's bedroom, which was never truly dark because there was always something glowing, I found my infant daughter. She squirmed in her crib. Her body rocked back and forth and that told me something had made her uncomfortable, maybe a tooth pressing up against her gums. Her cry had grown from a whine to an angry, 'in pain' wail. I put my hand on her yellow onesie. Sometimes the touch of my hand on her back calmed her.

Not this time, though. I bent to pick her up and she squealed. Her hands found my face. I noticed that her grip felt sweaty. Maybe her teething was giving her an infection. She leaned in to put her cheek next to mine. Her head felt warm.

"Go ahead and lie down," I told my son. We were still in his bedroom. I meant for him to go back to sleep there. When I strolled into my office with his sister, however, he followed me. I sat down in my chair. He laid down on the carpet next to me.

Five minutes later, I still hadn't gotten my daughter to go back to sleep. I hadn't even gotten her to stop crying. A shadow fell across the office doorway.

"What's wrong?" my wife demanded. "She's been crying for ages. Why aren't you doing anything?"

"I thought I was."

"Why does it have to be me?" she started to pull my daughter from my arms. For a moment, I resisted. Then my better sense took hold and I helped her make the transition from my shoulder to hers. It's not like I was doing much good.

"Go get the formula," she told me.

Again, I hesitated, not just due to the tone of voice but also because we had agreed not to feed our daughter so much at night. Two months ago, we had stopped breastfeedings between midnight and six. That had been difficult but it had resulted in extra sleep for everyone. Now the rule was bottles only at night, usually with a mix of breast milk and formula.

Our son rose off the floor. He tried to hug his mother's leg. She pushed him away and he sat down.

With a sigh, I headed downstairs. Partway into the chore, I tried to speed it up. I could make the formula warm from the start. That was no problem. But I couldn't heat up the bottled breast milk. It was stored cold and there wasn't any time to immerse it in warm water. I couldn't microwave it. It was precious, too, hardly had any left in our container because it didn't keep. Diane insisted on half breast milk, half formula. Insisted. Our daughter seemed to feel the same way but she wanted it warm.

Upstairs, I heard the crying sounds trickle away to a few stuttered protests. Then the noises stopped altogether.

Did that mean I had more time? Or was it a pause before another crisis? I decanted the breast milk with care, trying to judge how much it was cooling the formula in the process. I tested it, as I'd been trained, by sprinkling a few drops on my wrist.

"Ugh." It was lukewarm at best.

I leaned out of the kitchen to listen and heard movements from the floor above. That decided it. No time to heat the bottle. I raced up the stairs.

There, in my office, I found my wife sitting in the chair. She had our son leaning against her on her left side. In her arms, she held our daughter. But she was breastfeeding her. It looked to me like I had wasted our precious supply of refrigerated breast milk.

"We agreed you wouldn't do that at night." I set the bottle down on my desk.

"Oh god, leave me alone. No, wait, don't leave." My wife waved me back. Irritated and tired, I had mentally started to call it a night. I had turned around as soon as she waved me away.

"Mommy," my son said. I glanced down. He got up and staggered to me. He clutched me around my pants leg. "Will you carry me to bed?"


"No, wait, I mean it. Don’t leave me like this." My wife tried to rise. On her first attempt, she didn't make it. She was too tired. She had the baby in her arms. She gave it another go with the infant cradled under one arm while she pushed on the chair with her other.

That wasn't going to work, either. I stepped forward, my son still attached to my leg, and I held him in place with an upturned shoe. I knew he'd like that. He loved for me to go stomping around the house while he held onto me. It was one of his favorite games.

My wife smacked me on the shoulder. She tried again and grabbed my shirt. With care, I caught her free elbow. I pulled her up and tried to balance my grip by lifting her other shoulder so she could stand with comfort.

"I can't do this," she said. She banged her hand on my shoulder. Tears started flowing down her face. "I can't. I can't. I have to sleep."

"Okay." In retrospect, this part is obvious, too.

It took me years to understand that my wife needed more sleep than I did. I had been raised on the theory that having great will power means no sleep, or at least very little. But maybe not everyone can erase sleep deficits through the power of motivation. Besides, even if everyone can to a degree, there's a limit. There always is. I had gone past mine, really, and so had everyone else. The four of us huddled together, every one of us tired, half of us in tears.

I realized that Diane had wept for a few minutes on most nights of the week. She wasn't crying over any one thing. It was the total. It was the everything. It was an overwhelming workload of searching for a permanent job, rotating through substitute teaching positions, going to continuing education, and raising a toddler. No amount of self-hypnosis routines or motivational tricks could overcome the need we both felt to be making progress for 32 hours out of every 24 hour day. We had been putting groceries on my credit card until Diane had gotten a job during her undergraduate school and we could finally, simply eat. All those uplifting stories about doing it all, of climbing from rags to riches, seemed like maybe, just possibly, naive bullshit when we were living in poverty and tears.

Maybe there was no next level we could achieve. But we wanted to get there. I kept expecting us to make it. I knew it wasn't a guarantee that we'd get through our jobs with side jobs. But we had made it through school. That was something. We had help from our friends and from my parents. Still, we struggled with the totality of it.

At this point in our lives, there was no struggling through to a place we could rest. We only hoped there would be one. We didn't know what lay ahead. What we understood was that it was all too much. And we had to do it anyway.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 245: Biomythography - Note 21, What Biomythography Means

Biomythography - Note 21
What Biomythography Means

Whenever you tell a story from your life, you make choices.

For instance:

On a warm spring day, a bee lands next to you. A moment before, you were playing with your best friend, three years old like you. You were burying each other under a foot of white sand in the sandbox. But now you find yourself six inches away from a deadly stinger. The bee dances on a broken clover stem that sticks up from a clump of dust and dirt. By its colors, it could be the same one that sent you screaming in pain last fall.

"It's going to kill us!" your friend screams. He frantically tosses sand in the air in an attempt to dig himself out and abandon you.

At first, the need for a decision paralyzes you. If you dig out, you will put your arm next to the bee. You will disturb it and it will kill you by stabbing you in the face. You imagine the loud, buzzing pain and the darkness thereafter. Then you get an idea. You grab the green plastic pail you were dumping onto your stomach a moment ago and refill it. Your chubby hands tremble. But you manage to fill the bucket to the brim.

Gently, gently. You know that you can't let the bee understand what you're thinking.

"Run!" your friend screams from the safety of the grass.

With no choice because it's self-defense but also with the sense that this is revenge for the bee that tried to kill you last fall, you twist your body with the bucket in your arms. The bee twitches. It digs at the broken clover.

"Heeeyaah!" you yell. You turn the bucket and smash the sand down onto the yellow and black murderer.

But underneath the bucket of sand, the insect body buzzes with outrage. Loudly.

"It's mad!"

You didn't kill it. It's too strong. With no other choice now, you scramble out of the pit to escape. Together with your friend, you run all the way to the apartment building door. There, your friend hugs you.

"You made it!"

"Uh huh."

"We can't go back!" he says.

You know he's right. You can never go back. Never.

That's what I thought when I was three years old and living in Bitburg, Germany. My parents taught at the army base. I played cowboys and indians with the neighbors and, when we were outside, I played in the sandbox. My friends' parents probably also worked at the base although, really, how would I know? I barely have any memory of the adults except my mother.

That's a little bit of what biomythography means. My memories are limited. A lot of the time, they're from the viewpoint of a child. Also, sometimes as I tell a story from my life, I extrapolate and use my knowledge as an adult to fill in gaps. For instance, what are the chances that I wrote exactly the words my friend used in the sandbox? Pretty small. I'm fairly certain that I'm close, though. I've gotten the timing right and the intent. My friend and his brother spoke English, not German. He panicked and told me to run. He hugged me when he thought we'd been saved.

And really, we never went back. Our mothers couldn't get us into that sandbox again. We thought the bee was watching us from somewhere in the playground. If we went back, it would realize we were the kids that buried it in sand and think, Now I can kill them.

The term I use about this process, biomythography, comes from Audre Lorde. I'm geeky enough that sometimes I open poetry books and read things from them. I noticed Separation, Love Poem, Power, and a few others, and thought: okay, I need more of these. Then I put the book back on the shelf and forgot. Only the name Audre Lorde remained familiar enough for me to recognize it on the spine of a book called Zami. I picked up her trade paperback.

In half an hour, I read most of it right there in the bookstore. It wasn't poetry. It was a memoir. And it was good.

My entertainment budget was two dollars per week. It was hard to pay seven dollars for the book. But I did. The purchase paid off as I read it cover to cover, twice, and again later, when it turned out to be a choice in my undergraduate Gay Literature course.

I've occasionally read horrible attempts to analyze Zami. No one seems comfortable saying, "a person wrote a good, thoughtful memoir." Also, telling people, "you might be entertained and a little enlightened" is frowned on as well. I guess that's because it feels so ordinary. But I still want to say, crack open Zami somewhere in the middle and read a few paragraphs. You may be entertained and enlightened. If not, put it down.

I don't remember Audre Lorde explaining what she meant by the term biomythography. But I know what I mean.

1) My memories aren't perfect
2) I'm choosing parts of my life to tell
3) I'm avoiding some parts, too

Even when I've chosen a moment to describe, I'm usually working from thrice-recalled fragments of images, smells, and emotions. None of us should trust those. To make coherent stories, I've gone back to original notes or documents. I've rummaged through old photos. I've consulted people who were there. Usually, those people are not much help. Everyone remembers different things. Most of these events were important only to me. On many occasions when I ask for verification, all I get back is a shrug. But I'm trying.

I'm hoping to chose only the most significant events to tell - life-changing ones, maybe, but also the incidents that say something about the world, myself, or my friends. I hope everyone understands that the details and dialogue are as close as I can make them but they come from my memory. They can't be perfect. The best they can be is close. There's a certain amount of mythology involved in telling the story of anyone's life. After all, life itself is not a story. We only want to compress it into one in order to relate what seems important.

And we might be wrong about what's important. About that, we can only try.