The Rogue Voice


December 01, 2006

Happy Humbug

To quote Woody Allen, Jesus would “never stop puking” if he saw what Christmas has turned into, and what it has done to the human race.

CHRISTMAS CHEER He yells down at the 20 or so people having a great time at the other end of the bar: ‘Christmas sucks! It’s a buncha shit!

Happy humbug
Some people will never like Christmas, no matter what you say

Publisher's note by Dell Franklin

Having tended bar for 25 years, I always volunteered to work doleful Christmas Eve’s and often remarkably fun Christmas nights. On Christmas Eve, you get the loneliest of the lonely, the neglected, dejected and rejected, and the first thing you do when they come in the bar is start drinking, and start them drinking, so that together you can combat the bombardment of four straight weeks of “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” overbearing and insidious commercials, traffic, the nonstop pressure of trying to be happy because nobody can bear to be unhappy in such a synthetic environment of trumped up joy.
The only alternative to such a situation is to get drunk—good and drunk—for four weeks.
During this drunken state I do not drive, fight, bother women, nor dance. I sit in the bar and drink, and talk, and listen, and laugh. The great advantage of both drinking and working the Eve and the Night of Christmas is that, unlike New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s, there are few boring and obnoxious amateur drunks. On these shifts you run into hardcore professionals who have carved out long careers of enviable drinking habits. Dare them to not drink with a blinding hangover that would have most amateurs crawling to the emergency room of the nearest hospital for a respirator or shot of B12. These are folks who drink with a vengeance, and find good reasons to eschew the normal holiday fare among responsible and respectable adults—the most important of which is to hide from these poor creatures who smile nonstop for four weeks and accost you at every turn with chirpy “Merry Christmases,” or worse yet, “Jesus loves you….” Bullshit. I’m the last guy he’d love. And, most likely, (to quote Woody Allen) he’d “never stop puking” if he saw what Christmas has turned into, and what it has done to the human race. He would puke at the opportunistic and cynical tactics of giant corporations shaming people into buying something they cannot afford by undermining their basic humanity with manipulative TV ads that most likely put them in credit card debt and turns the New Year into a stress-filled rat race.
He would cry at the sight of the homeless and misbegotten who must be patronized by those offering largess during these days while they suffer humiliation at those same hands the remaining 360 days of the year.
He would be distraught by the knowledge that many people suffer debilitating and near suicidal depression over these four weeks, while a few actually take the plunge.
I always have a toast to HIS good intentions before I start my Christmas night working and drinking binge. You buy each mope his first round. The mopes buy you rounds. Rounds go back and forth. People who have fought in the streets in the past forge temporary reprieves, babble, hug, duck into the john to share drugs. Oh yes. Some of the most violent and foul-tempered fishermen and roughnecks buy me rounds after a year of harassment and threats. It is, as they say, “all good.” Guys who never get laid get laid. Gals who nobody wants get wanted. There is looseness. To celebrate the end of the misery of four weeks, girls dance on the bar. They toss away garments in the late hours. Everybody cheers. Somebody reports a couple “getting it on” in the john. So what?
Go somewhere else if you don’t like it.
I worked Happy Jack’s Saloon in Morro Bay for eight years, a notorious fisherman’s pier 6 dive with a soul that started in 1927 and died a couple years back. Christmas night was always an adventure. I had a favorite character who always made it a point to drink until closing on the Eve, and report, after a good rest and a solid meal, around six in the evening for another vengeful shot at it. A scrawny man with long hair and the drinker’s puss, he seldom smiled, and made it a point not to over the holidays, and most especially Christmas night, when his vituperative and querulous nature seemed to reach new heights of irascible surliness. Down on life. Robert “Don’t-you-dare-call-me-Bob –or-Bobby” Kraust.
“Don’t sit near me,” he warned, hovered over his mug of draft and shot glass, “unless you wanna dispense with the bullshit, OK?”
Over the years he had driven almost all regulars off except me. I liked him.
“Can you loan me twenty until next week, and five for my cigarettes, Dell?” he’d say, settling onto a stool. “You know I always pay back with interest.” No pleading in his nature. I flipped him the cash. He always repaid debts—if anything, a man of his word.
Most of the Christmas night crew stayed away from him, though the occasional stray straggled in to mistakenly sit down beside him.
“Merry Christmas, man.” Lifting a beer, hopeful.
“Save it, bro’. I’m not into it.”
“It’s Christmas, man….”
“Christmas is bullshit. I don’t believe in Christ or the after math. You want to pursue it? It won’t be pleasant.”
“Well, sorr-eee. I mean, you’re an asshole.”
“You got it, pal.”
Down to the other end goes the troubled soul. A happy couple settles beside him. Once a promising and prosperous local disc jockey, with a relentless and humorous rap, which actually got him on public television, cocaine and the wrath of a fishwife was part of his down fall, which included a year in the county can. (“I never sold anybody out, and I’m proud of it! I took my medicine like a man.”)
“Merry Christmas. Can we buy you a drink?”
“I don’t care. Do what you want. If it makes you feel good.”
To me: “Jesus, what’s wrong with THAT guy?”
“Oh, he’s pretty happy. He hates Christmas more than other things he hates, and since misery agrees with him, he’s currently in his glory. This is his favorite time of the year.”
The girl says to him: “I feel so bad when people are unhappy and lonely during Christmas. Please don’t make me cry.”
“Jesus Christ, missy, get a grip. Don’t you realize Christmas is a bunch of bullshit? That there is no God, much less Jesus?”
They move on down.
“What’s wrong with these people?” he asks me. “Don’t they get it? Why can’t they see the light?”
“How many times have we gone through this, Robert? They want to be happy. They can’t bear to be unhappy—especially today.”
He yells down at the 20 or so people having a great time at the other end. “Christmas sucks! It’s a buncha shit! I hate it!”
“Shut up, Kraust, you idiot!”
“Yeah, pipe down, you asshole.”
“Jerk! Why hasn’t somebody beaten him to a pulp?”
He turns to me, a light in his eyes. “They never do, and you wanna know why? One, they know I’m right, and two, it won’t do any good. Ha, ha, ha.” Not a sliver of a smile, nor an inflection of humor.
“Right about what, Robert?”
“That’s it’s ALL a buncha shit, and especially Christmas.”
I pour out shots. We drink to his statement. Eventually, as the night plows on into a soggy, surreal haze of dropped glasses, embracing couples, lurching, staggering bodies, unintelligible babble, he draws a small crowd who try their hardest to make him smile and join the joy, and he manages a quick grimace of a smile and winks at me. And he stands, at last feeling the spirit, as he always does this time of the night, on this night. He lifts his shot glass of cheap well whiskey.
“A toast!” he calls out, waiting with teetering gravity for the drunken and bedraggled crew to quiet down and pay heed. “A toast, by God, to going twelve straight Christmases without giving a gift and accepting none!”
“Here here.”
Happy humbug. §

Publisher Dell Franklin can be reached at publisher@rogue

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    The farewell feast

    We crowded in and out of the bathroom, checking out the kill reclining lasciviously in the bathtub with its legs spread, tongue out, eyes glazed. The little hole in its head.

    I opened the door to find myself staring into the lawful blue eyes of a jar-headed Montana state trooper. In that instant, a cloud of illegal smoke issued from the room and slammed the trooper with the impact of a cannon ball.

    The farewell feast

    by Steve Hawthorne

    Decker killed the motor. I rolled the window down. The crew’s chatter let up.
    In ready silence we coasted the van down the winding logging road, turned a bend, and eased to a stop beside a grassy clearing in the firs. I shoved the barrel through the window frame and rested my elbow on the door to steady the ‘aught-six.
    Brought the bead in line with the rear sight notch…
    Squeezed the trigger….
    Rifle CRACK concussion hammered the eardrums of all ten crewmembers inside the van—ears ringing, their unshaved faces strained to see the yearling waver, drop to its knees, struggle to regain its legs, then fall again.
    “Got him, Willy!” Decker hollered as I swung the door open. The crew exploded from the van, shouting triumphant, bellowing, grunting like successful Paleolithic hunters. No need for a second bullet.
    The buck lay next to a stump, blood coursing from a neat hole at the base of its skull, seeping into the spring grass that lured it to the spot.
    The strange mournful feeling came to me. Get it every time I kill an animal: melancholy entwined with jubilation for the kill. It’s natural, I suppose.
    I slid the rifle under the seat—we’d planned the thing—a couple guys unloaded tree bags from the tool compartment while the rest of us hauled the deer over, stuffed it in, and piled the bags back on top. It wasn’t exactly deer season.
    It was our last day planting trees near Thompson Falls, Montana. A forest service job—big timber sale, clear-cut, good ground, slashed, burned, just enough slope.
    We attacked it like maniacs, “runnin’ an’ gunnin’”–pumping in a million seedlings on an 8-by-8 spacing–it looked like a giant checkerboard grid covering half a mountain.
    We’d been driving by for a week and, most days, it would be there; somebody suggested we shoot the buck and have a party to celebrate the end of the season. Everybody agreed it was a good idea. I said, OK, I’d shoot it if it showed on the last day, though I wasn’t really that hot on the idea. But I was the only one who brought a rifle that trip, and if I hadn’t done it, one of the other guys would have borrowed the gun and shot the deer anyway.

    We always looked forward to working in Montana. We loved the pristine wild places, the old-time funk of small towns, the trout fishing, the mystic spacious quality that served to loosen inhibitions and inspire the adventurous, creative soul. (We’d seen tavern girls fill with that creative inspiration, become adventurous, abandon their inhibitions, and dance on the tables; oh mercy yes.) The Big Sky state invited you to be free. Freedom somersaulted like a red-headed crazy clown–howled like a wolf call from blue mountain ranges in perpetual snow, resounding like a rifle-shot across vast lonesome expanses to resonate in our hot young hearts.
    We liked the people; Montana people were the friendliest anywhere.
    Independent and self-reliant, Montanans had a distinctive way of letting problems work themselves out. Just prior to our arrival, a Thompson Falls woman suffered from a common problem. The guy was an asshole, a berserk, vicious drunk who used his fists on her, kicked her—even ripped her tender flesh with his teeth on one particularly black night.
    Everybody around Thompson Falls knew the situation. The cops knew all about it.
    She’d come to get him from the tavern. He was drinking up the grocery money.
    They were in the pickup, out in front of the bar, and he started whaling the shit out of her. Closed-fisted punches. Punching her lights out. Killing her.
    She felt herself going under. Desperate, she grabbed his deer rifle off the rear window gun rack—she knew he kept it loaded.
    The first shot blew him out of the truck. The second one blasted him clear across Route 200, where he collapsed, dead, by the Northern Pacific railroad tracks.
    The cops figured the problem took care of itself—wrote it up as self-defense, called one of her friends to drive her home and stay with her to make sure she was going to be all right. No more black eyes, fat lips, or bites. That was the end of it.

    The Webfoot Reforestation crew filled all the cabins at the Rainbow Motel on the east end of Thompson Falls. (Across the road, beyond the rail tracks, an expanse of the Clark’s Fork River winks through the cottonwoods–big trout swam in that section of river). The Rainbow was a relic from the earliest days of motels–six separate wood-framed clapboard cabins arranged in a row. The place was pleasantly run-down, had low rates, and deep old-fashion claw-foot bathtubs with wrap-around shower curtains. The larger cabin at one end was the housekeeping unit, with stove and refrigerator, which I shared with Jerry and “Burrito.”
    Jerry and I were old friends. We both lived in northeastern Washington, so of course we were known as the “Washington Boys” to the Webfoot guys who, for the most part, came from the Willamette Valley-Eugene, Oregon area.
    (“Those Washington Boys can shoot!”)
    Jerry and I always roomed together while working away from home.
    Ernie Britto, our roommate, was from Eugene. Everybody called him Burrito.
    Burrito possessed an esoteric nature, a spiritual guy who, when not working, was often seen carrying or reading a book titled, Serving Humanity; something to do with the ascending levels of “Attainment,” and devoting oneself to “Service.” (I’d tried reading Serving Humanity, but the author’s sentence constructs were so long-winded and convoluted that I couldn’t get through it.)
    Most tree planters were blatant and committed Hedonists, adventurers of the tactile, existential world; raging, passionate, burning their youth like butane.
    I was slightly less of a partier than most of them, and somewhat of a philosopher, so Burrito, I think, related to me more than anyone else on the crew. He usually stayed with me, and Jerry, if it was three to a room. Sometimes we would lay in our beds in the dark, bodies ringing with the perfect exhaustion that comes after humping across mountains all day with sixty pounds of trees strapped on, running to get them planted, straining to get lighter, bending, running and bending every eight feet, swingin’ that hodag–workin’ that hoe—pluggin’ ‘em in. We’d lay there, not able to sleep yet, coming down from the adrenaline, talking about divinity, expressing with the fervent surety of young men our ideas about how and why things are, until it was very late, suspended in the lucid alpha-state between the world and dreams.
    Burrito had recently become a macrobiotic vegetarian. He did all of his own food preparation in a set of cast-iron pots and pans he carried in a war-surplus G.I. pack.
    The pans never knew meat, not even the innocuous just-this-once hamburger patty or slice of ham. The pans were sanctified and free of any death karma and, Burrito said, they’d have to be thrown away if they ever had meat cooked in them.
    Webfoot owner Gus Shartz once said to Decker, his crew boss: “You see a guy eating carrots for lunch; I want you to fire him, Decker. Fire his fuckin’ ass an’ make him walk home.”
    But, Burrito was a good tree planter, a “stepper”—one of the hammerheads capable of heeling in a thousand trees a day on slopes so steep that an average person would need climbing equipment to traverse them. He’d been with Shartz for many seasons and earned a solid position on the Webfoot crews. Shartz, in spite of his own culinary prejudices, tried to accommodate Burrito with housekeeping quarters when we were on the road, so he could prepare the special diet.

    So, there we were, headed toward Thompson Falls with a poached deer stashed under the tree bags. Everybody was in a fine mood. Feeling good. Finishing the unit on a Saturday was an option–we had enough crew to cover it–Burrito took the day off to go for a hike up the Thompson River. We made a stop at the store in town where we loaded several cases of beer on top of the buck. We hadn’t really thought the plan past the procurement stage. Hadn’t precisely clarified in our own minds, or to each other, where we’d have the barbeque once we shot the deer. Of course, it was known that Jerry and I were staying at the housekeeping unit with Burrito. It had a stove. And if not ample, there was at least enough room to squeeze in the fifteen or so friends who would join the party.
    In the wordless drive home, we tacitly decided to take the deer over to our cabin at the Rainbow. We backed up close to the door, and when we thought no one was watching, snuck the body inside and flopped it into the bathtub. It had to be the tub; there wasn’t any other good place.
    Everybody had a beer opened, crowding in and out of the bathroom, checking out the kill reclining lasciviously in the bathtub with its legs spread, tongue out, eyes glazed. The little hole in its head. A good thing, we all agreed.
    Baggs stationed himself at the table, wearing the blue ballcap bearing his oblique but proud statement on the class struggle: “PO FOKE,” the embroidered inscription announced. He grabbed his bong-pipe and got busy filling the bowl, passing it around.
    Didn’t have to look for a knife; we all had them. The favorite was the Buck Folding Hunter—hard to put an edge on, but held one once you did. It had a good all-purpose blade that folded into a flat-sided wooden handle with brass bolsters, and fit snug in a discreet leather holster worn on the belt. I kept mine razor sharp.
    “Let’s cut that liver out an get it fryin’,” Pollock urged from the doorway, tilting his beer toward the carcass while Jerry and I gathered the ticks trying to clamber out of the slippery tub, fleeing the cold host, abandoning ship. We pinched the ticks and threw them in the toilet. Didn’t want them getting into the room, the beds–ticks in that area carry the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever bacillus. Makes you violently sick. Causes death.
    “We need some onions a fry with that liver,” somebody said.
    I slit the throat–lots of blood–stuck the knife point into the soft skin at the back of a hind leg, cut around the asshole and pecker, zipped open the cavity, reached in and cut the liver free. Nice. Nice looking liver. I put it in the sink. “Hey! One of you guys have a frying pan?”
    Ten or twelve guys looked at each other. Shuffled. Examined the floor. Looked at each other again. Nobody had one–we weren’t camping that trip. Couldn’t buy one in little Thompson Falls–you’d have to drive all the way to Missoula for a goddam pan.
    “Fuck…Me…Runnin’,” Decker invited, throwing himself in front of the stampeding dilemma. “Doesn’t Burrito have a set of pans for cooking his sprouts and seaweeds?”
    Jerry cast me a glance. I could read his eyes–wanting to know if we’re going to fall off the horns.
    The motel had no barbeque facility; we had to cook all the meat, had no way to keep it, couldn’t waste it. No, wouldn’t even consider that.
    “Burrito would be upset if we used his stuff…” I said, peeling back the hide.
    Pollock offered a pretty good, but not bulletproof plan: “Let’s just cook all the meat, real quick, scrub the pans, an’ put them away like we never used ‘em. He won’t know.”
    The only flaw we could see in the plan was that Burrito might walk in at any time and catch us in the act. Nobody knew when he’d be back.
    Baggs, the pragmatist, the natural-born arbitrator, came forward with what seemed like a reasonable theory, and a way toward solving the frying pan problem.
    “Burrito would want us to use those pans,” Baggs maintained. “Burrito is our brother.”
    He’d help us out–you know it. He won’t care. Really. He’d do it for us. Besides, we can ante up enough to buy him a new set. He’d be happy with a new set.”
    Baggs made a convincing argument.
    Burrito would want us to use his stuff. The whole crew thought so.
    That goddam Jerry was no help, ambiguous, staying out of the decision-making, silently working on the butchering.
    They all looked toward me. It was generally felt that I had the tightest relationship with Burrito–hence, in his absence I should have the final word on the matter.
    “Well….” It just came out, and was immediately interpreted to be a “yes!”
    Before I could stop them, the boys had everything out of Burrito’s pack, all four burners on the stove lit and covered with the requisite cast-iron vessels.
    Pollock took charge of the liver.
    Somebody found a couple of onions among Burrito’s stash of veggies in the refrigerator. “Burrito would want us to use these onions.” The rest of Burrito’s vegetables remained, unmolested.
    We had the venison rendered off the bones, cut into fryable-sized pieces, and stacked in a pyramid rising above the bathroom sink. Pollock kept it moving from the pile to the stove and the place filled with the savory carnivorous bouquet of frying game and onions.
    Did I tell you there was a lot of blood in the bathroom? The bathroom resembled the blood-splattered nightmare at the Banks Motel in the movie Psycho–after the murder. In addition to copious blood, the tub contained the buck’s head, hide, bones, and guts—a considerable amount of guts. Jerry, always resourceful, solved the solid-waste problem by peeling the cases off the motel pillows and stuffing them with the leftover parts. He slipped out to the dumpster with the pillowcases, obscene bleeding bags, hair sticking out of the tops. We used the bathroom towels on the blood—a ghoulish surprise for the maids.
    The buccaneer crowd swelled the cabin, slouching on the beds and furniture in their muddy logger clothes; dirt clods loosened from lug-soled boots crunching on the linoleum. The beer popped and bubbled–flowed like a babbling brook. A lot of beer.
    Everybody enjoyed the fresh venison. Self-serve: We grabbed our buck knives, stuck a piece out of the pan and ate it off our blades. No messy plates. Basic. What could be better?
    We had the door closed and there was a good accumulation of smoke: A mix of venison, tobacco, dope. A couple of friends from Cooper’s crew came in. “Smelt the venison clear down at the tavern,” Darrell Crow said. Everybody called him “Crow.” He wore a long ponytail with a raven feather plaited into it and dressed in the tree planter uniform of hickory shirt, suspenders, 88 jeans frayed short up to the boot tops by slash and brush.
    “Heard we’re havin’ a party. Heard Willy jacked that little buck.”
    Who knows how these things get around?
    The party revved–Bagg’s boombox blasted Howlin’ Wolf: “We be down by da fiiiyahouse shakin’ dat wang dang doodle….” Bumpin’. Thumpin’. Honkin’.
    All-you-could-eat venison. Feelings of camaraderie filled the gathering. Everybody talking at once–wall-of-sound talking—excited, buzzed.
    They’d be going home on Monday. A day and a half of R-and-R in Thompson Falls while the crews finished. Shartz would have the pay envelopes ready on Sunday, and we’d be through with the spring planting season.
    We broke the legs off the wooden table. Arm wrestling. We propped it up and it still held beers OK. You just couldn’t arm wrestle on it anymore.
    Decker, his belly full, heart warming with the fourth beer, expressed his love and concern for Burrito. “I don’t know how Burrito can live on that shit. You can only live on moss an’ grass for so long. I wish he was here right now; I know he’d eat some of this good venison with us. I know he would. Damn straight he would. Hey? Don’t you think Burrito would eat with us, Willy?”
    “I guess he would. Maybe. I don’t know.”
    As is the way with young men, their voices rose to outdo each other recounting tales of renown. Legendary stories of glorious deeds and debauchery.

    The bong got knocked off the couch arm. Bummer. But no problem, the upholstery soaked up the mess. That smell, though….
    Things couldn’t have been better. I was about half whacked, the party rolling nicely when…Knock. Knock. Knock. There were three equally spaced loud knocks on the door.
    I opened the door to find myself staring into the lawful blue eyes of a jar-headed Montana state trooper. In that instant, a cloud of illegal smoke issued from the room and slammed the trooper with the impact of a cannon ball, knocking him back a step; I swear I saw the Smokey Bear hat slide back on his head.
    Silence crashed the party. The conversation ducked for cover.
    A lone voice broke the silence behind me, “Aw, shit.”
    “OK,” the trooper started, “I know that you are smoking weed in there. You guys are leaving Monday, right? Here’s the deal: Do not shoot any more deer. If I come back here, I better not smell any more dope or poached venison frying in there.
    “And I don’t want to see any of you guys around the local women.” That said, he turned, got in his cruiser, scrubbed out of the driveway, and never came back.
    We were the Kings of the Woods! Right? Hell yes! You know it! Damn straight!
    We were invincible, unconquerable, indestructible, indomitable, insuperable, impregnable, inviolable. Mighty powerful. Even the cops left us alone.
    “Shoulda offered him a beer an’ a piece of meat, Willy.”
    “Willy has no manners.”
    “Willy needs to develop his social skills.”
    “Can you believe that shit?”
    We all agreed that the Big Sky state was the center of the universe. Its kindness to us would become a thing of legend, and the stories of our deeds there, in a very short span of time, would grow to mythic proportions.

    The visit from the law did kind of break the party’s momentum. Things were winding down when Burrito showed. I heard him exchange greetings with a couple of the boys outside. He walked in smiling, then noticed the greasy assembly on the stovetop.
    The smile dissipated. His lips moved as if to produce words, then tightened into a straight paper cut. He had no words for us. There were no words to be wasted on the conniving, disrespectful likes of us.
    Everyone noticed this change of mood and rushed to the cause, plying Burrito with beers, weed, an offering of meat from Decker. I tried to give him the hundred bucks we’d collected to cover ruining the pans, but he wouldn’t take it, wouldn’t even look at me when I lamely offered it. He wouldn’t look at any of us. You couldn’t get near him, the vibe was too repellent–a crackling force field against us.
    I could tell he was on the verge of tears, and I knew it wasn’t about the pans. He’d walked in on naked betrayal pure and simple.
    Burrito packed his duffle and split. Left the cookware. Took off hitchhiking toward Oregon.
    Most of the crew woke with hangovers on Sunday. We trickled in for coffee and by mid-morning the local café filled with freshly showered tree planters.
    Shartz held accounts at one of the tables. He’d been staying over in Plains, and if he knew anything about the party he kept it to himself.
    Me and Jerry came over to the job in my pickup and were going to leave for Washington as soon as we got paid. We shook hands all around and said our good-byes.
    Decker wanted to know if we’d be back next year. I told him I’d call–but I never did.
    The rest of the guys would be riding back to Oregon in Webfoot’s three crew-vans.
    Burrito would have been riding with Decker if he hadn’t got pissed-off and hitchhiked.

    I know that stretch of road very well. We all knew it: The narrow road between Thompson Falls and Sandpoint. Jerry and I passed through on our way home, past the tight curves as you drive through the gap in the Cabinet Mountains, the Shed Roof Range rising in the north like a white-capped tidal wave. I’ve driven it many times, to and from planting jobs, sometimes on fishing excursions into Montana. It used to be fairly unspoiled, steep and heavily timbered—wild country where the traveler might see an eagle circling above the narrow, impossibly green Pack River Valley. Passing through, there is the chance you will startle a bear attempting to cross the road and send it hustling back up the embankment. A group of elk grazing on the bottomland pasture may stop its feeding to watch you pass. And if your eyes are sharp, you might catch a glimpse of the pale trickster coyote slipping like a gray spirit toward the shadows of a tamarack stand beside a bend in the highway.
    The crew got an early start, eager to be on the road, happy to be going home.
    Baggs sat in the seat Burrito usually rode in. The Oregon boys are used to hauling ass on country roads, and they were jamming through those curves near the Pack River when the deer jumped out. They should have hit it; it would have been better if they’d just slammed into it and destroyed the front end of Shartz’s van. I wish they’d hit that fuckin’ deer, but they swerved to avoid it, traveling too fast, bombing, inertia seized hold of them, weighed them on the balance, this way-that way, and hurled them.
    They flipped, rolled over twice, and plowed into that stand of tamarack on the edge of the pasture.
    All nine of the friends riding in the van were injured. Decker and Baggs were thrown out when it rolled, and died in that place, crushed under the tumbling van.
    Shartz phoned and gave me the news about the boys. That’s how I found out that Burrito had lucked out on a ride all the way to Oregon, and was already home in Eugene when it happened. §

    Steve Hawthorne is a freelance writer who lives in Morro Bay.

    More writing by Steve Hawthorne:
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    Washing windows across America: Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)

    I’m ready for any Texas bullshit anyone wants to throw my way. One thing Texas needed to know about me right off, was that I wasn’t here to make any friends.

    Lubbock sure was a civil place. It made me think I could stomach big city life if people were all like this. And there was room to breathe in Lubbock.

    Dry times in Lubbock
    What does a guy have to do for a beer?

    By Ben Leroux


    In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.

    Episode 15:

    I feel I owe it to the great state of Texas to drink while driving. Though a guest only a few hours, I’ve already been stalked by rednecks, low-riders, and a cop with a Barney Fife complex. To compound matters, I’ve wasted eight dollars on one-half of a pathetic high school football game. So I do what I normally do in times of distress. I seek out a can of Old English Malt Liquor.
    I stop at a corner market in a town called Littlefield. The used lottery tickets, phone cards and cigarette butts that litter the parking lot assure me I’m in the right place. Inside, farm laborers in dusty-legged jeans stand in line to cash checks.
    I wander the aisles of the store. I go in circles: milk…soda…chips, milk…soda…chips.
    “Am I missing the beer?” I ask the pretty Latina girl at the counter.
    “No beer here.”
    “Oh,” I say. “You don’t carry beer.”
    “No beer here.”
    I leave to find a store that does, wondering how a little corner market like that survives without selling beer. It’s admirable.
    I find Littlefield’s supermarket, and again wander the refrigerated goods aisles, lost and nervous. Something is askance. I look around for a drinker. I find my guy–a young Mexican man in baggy trousers, tattooed, with a wife and a baby.
    “Hey man, is this town dry or something?” I ask him.
    “Where can I go to get beer?”
    “You got to go to Levelland, man.”
    “Levelland? What about Lubbock? I’m headed toward Lubbock.”
    “I think so. But Levelland’s closer.”
    I drive back and forth through Littlefield, trying to make neon beer signs appear in the windows of stores and restaurants. It was true that Levelland was closer, but it was out of the way.
    I get back onto 84, and resume. Lubbock was a big city, so it had to have beer. Once in Lubbock, I’d eat, find a Wal-Mart to sleep at, then find some Old E. And if it didn’t happen, so what? It wasn’t like I was an alcoholic or anything.
    Lubbock spreads out across the plains in a web of sedate lights as I approach. The streets swell in width, and I see the calming sights of civilization, and quit worrying about police cruisers sneaking up behind me. The Lubbock Wal-Mart is easy to find, and there’s a Taco Bell nearby.
    I am greeted at the counter by an eager-eyed Taco Bell employee. He calls me sir, thanks me, tells me to enjoy my meal and to let him know if I need anything else. This type of treatment from Texas fast-food personnel is growing on me.
    With one taco and a soda, I take a seat. I was conserving money for the weekend ahead. Maybe I was a fool for trying to drive through Texas in a beat-up Plymouth with California plates. Maybe it was poor planning. But at least I was setting aside drinking money for the weekend. I deserved a little credit for that.
    As I go through my atlas, a woman and her grown daughter take a table next to mine. Like the rest of the people in the Taco Bell, they sparkle with purity, and look like they’ve just come from Bible study. They unwrap their burritos and start looking over at me. I get prepared. Let ‘em go ahead and say something. I’m ready for any Texas bullshit anyone wants to throw my way. One thing Texas needed to know about me right off, was that I wasn’t here to make any friends.
    “Excuse me,” the mother says, trying to look at my atlas. “I just wanted to ask you what you are doing.”
    I hover over the atlas, trying to obstruct her view. I don’t like it.
    “Yeah, are you lost?” says her daughter.
    I turn away from them. It was none of their business.
    The daughter comes over and takes the atlas from me, and goes back to her table with it. She and her mother rifle through it. I reach for it, but they pull it away.
    “Wher’re yew from, anyhow?” says the mother. “It looks like you began in California. Are you from California? Honey, he’s from California.”
    “We went to California one time,” says the daughter. “We wanted to be on The Price Is Right. But chyew know, we never got on because of Bob Barker and his pross-trate cancer, and I don’t mean to bad-talk California, but people was so mean down there. Well, we just turnt right around and come back. Didn’t we, mom?”
    “Ah just remember how ah couldn’t waiyt to get back to Texas. People are just so much nah-cer here.”
    They ask me what I think of Texas so far, and I tell them about my trouble with the cops in Muleshoe and the bad football game. I leave out the part about not being able to find any malt liquor.
    They apologize for Texas.
    “What yew need to do is go see the Buddy Holly museum,” says the mom. “Did you know Buddy Holly was from Lubbock?”
    “Mm-hmm,” says the daughter. “And Bobby Knight and the Dixie Chicks too.”
    “Now, I have to ask yew,” says mom. “How are you financin’ your trip, sir?”
    “Well, you probably won’t understand, but I’m washing windows as I go along.”
    I wait for them to set down the atlas and move to another table. It’s the reaction I am accustomed to from women throughout Arizona and New Mexico.
    Instead, the daughter’s eyes widen, and she reaches over and clenches my forearm. Thinking about a bed for the weekend, I look down at her ring finger. A massive stone adorns it.
    “How very, very brave of you,” she says, looking through me. “It’s such a bray-eeve thing to do.”
    “Seriously?” I ask.
    “Oh yes,” agrees mom. “It is so, so bray-eeve.”
    They give me back my atlas, dump their trays, and say goodbye from the doorway.
    “Now don’t forget to go to the Buddy Holly museum,” says the mother.
    “Yeah, and you be careful out there travelin’ around the country now,” says the daughter.
    After eating, I leave Taco Bell, walking tall. Those women were right. I wasn’t a fool for daring to come to shitkicking Texas–I was a brave, brave warrior. I walk into a large convenience store feeling very brave. I look around.
    “Where can I get some beer?” I ask the affable-faced woman behind the counter. The question seems to crack the innocence of an otherwise perfectly good shift.
    “Yeah. Don’t tell me Lubbock is dry too. Don’t tell me I can’t get any beer here.”
    “You can, I guess. Supposubly, there’s a place out of town called ‘the strip.’ I guess you can get whatever you want out there. But I hear it’s where the weird people hang out.”
    “I’m there then,” I joke.
    She lifts an eyebrow and says: “Oh?”
    It drains the bravery out of me. I don’t go to the strip. I instead enjoy a quiet night’s sleep in the Plymouth at Wal-Mart with no malt liquor.

    The next morning, with a cup of Starbuck’s coffee, I prowl the aisles of the Lubbock Barnes & Noble. I amass two armloads of reading materials, snarling at the inquisitive looks I get. Saturday morning in the big bookstore was when the strong secured comfortable chairs for the day and the weak were left to sit on the floor.
    Up to my chin in short story anthologies, magazines, maps, almanacs, and humor books, I stand in the center of the store. I scan from left to right. A quick decision must be made.
    Vacant over in Home and Garden, is a set of plush overstuffed chairs with gargantuan armrests, coffee tables, and limitless legroom. Yet practically under my nose is a lone hardwood chair that faces a wall of books. It should be a no-brainer, but there are factors to consider.
    I take the lone wooden chair and stack my books around me. As I crack my first book and take my first sip of coffee, I see the overstuffed chairs over in Home and Garden filling up—couples looking for home improvement ideas—strangers sitting within inches of each other. Disgusting. Meanwhile, others roam the store with armloads of books, looking for chairs. Suckers.
    Ah yes, this was a good place to be. This was a valuable chair and everyone knew it.
    I read until I lose feeling in my ass and lower back. There were only so many positions to shift into. I know it’s a gamble leaving my precious chair and books, but I have to.
    I scout the aisles, looking for a place to stash my coffee cup. It was a valuable thing that got you 25-cent refills. The large and heavily trafficked Christian section was out of the question. So was Politics or History. I walk past them and stop at the lonely, miniscule Gay Erotica section. I select the most offensive title I can find, and hide my cup behind it.
    Outside, I stroll the groves of mall and box-store parking lots, without a care. Lubbock sure was a civil place. It made me think I could stomach big city life if people were all like this. And there was room to breathe in Lubbock. It was paved as if space wasn’t a consideration, with sidewalks and medians wide enough to play tennis on. The cars moved along in a steady, patient flow, side-by-side at the same speed.
    Looking forward to being served by another considerate, fast food worker, I stop in a McDonald’s for something off the dollar menu. I was starting to get used to this courtesy thing.
    But the sight of the slovenly kid who greets me, gives me a California flashback. He stands crookedly—an unkempt abomination in a rumpled, un-tucked shirt. He rolls his sluggishly perturbed eyes at me and sighs.
    His society starts to close in on him right away. The people in line behind me go quiet and the McDonald’s crew stops working. Machines shut down. This kid has deviated from the pack. This is not the way we treat people in Lubbock. A huddle forms at the deep-fryer with the manager. They watch the kid at the register toss my receipt and change onto the counter.
    “No kid, shouldn’t have done it,” I think. I leave my palm open, giving him a chance to salvage things. But he just shrugs at me and says “What?”
    From my table, I watch as he is tapped on the shoulder and replaced at the register. He then disappears into the back with the manager. Saddened and embarrassed by his behavior, we customers look regretfully at one another. The pack practices good manners.
    Back at the bookstore, my coffee cup is safe, my chair is vacant, and my books are still stacked in their original stronghold position around the chair. These are good signs.
    With a fresh coffee refill, I relocate my fortress over to the overstuffed chairs in Home and Garden. The married couples have gotten their remodeling ideas and gone home to work on their castles. They have left in their wake, a cyclone of books that workers now go around and collect.
    In the Texas almanac, I try to find out more about this “dry-county” business. I learn that there are not only dry and wet counties in Texas, but also something called a “moist” county. A map shows them shaded respectively white, black, and gray.
    According to the map, I have just come through heavy dry/moist land in the western panhandle. Encouragingly, I am headed into the heart of the gray, moist counties. Beyond that, in the southeast, clusters of black-shaded wet counties await me.
    As closing time nears I taper off on the coffee, then secretively return my cup to Gay Erotica. I close the place down. Once back at Wal-Mart, there wasn’t much for a guy to do but sleep.

    Monday I am alert and motivated, and eager to get going. Lubbock had dried me out for a couple days. Thanks, Lubbock.
    Lubbock had given me a gift. Lubbock had socked my fear of Texas in the face. Now, not only was I unafraid of what was down the road, I was anxious to conquer it. I gas up and head southeast on 84.
    Out of the city, I watch for the “strip” of debauchery I’d been warned about, but see only endless yellow dirt fields. Not that I cared. Lubbock, it seemed, had broken me of my sinful urges.
    At the corner of one such dirt field, though, sits an unremarkable white shack. It is a shack that could have passed for a pump-house or a tool shed were it not for the neon Budweiser sign harkening from its one small, black window.
    I pull into its dusty parking lot.
    Inside the shack is a man behind a cash register, and wall-to-wall coolers of beer. I browse around. I open the coolers and touch some of the cans to see if they sweat with the same cold sweat as the ones back in California. They do. I come to a sixer of Old English and watch it glimmer with its familiar gold and crimson. It’s good to see an old friend sitting there. §

    Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached at
    Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:
  • Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)
  • Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)
  • Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)
  • Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)
  • Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)
  • Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)

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    Read more!

    Hat's in the wind

    The cabin reeked of booze, sweat, and pot. A cloud of cigar and reefer smoke hung in the air and clung to our clothes. We grew facial hair and wore suspenders and put on hats.

    I felt large, open and free. I felt the sea itself moving within as the earth’s great winds blew against its surface.

    By Stacey Warde

    In 1976, I thought I was a bad ass.
    At 17, I had already signed for a three-year stint in the Army as an Airborne Ranger.
    My world felt free and I wanted to go into the mountains, where I’d never spent any time in my whole life, other than a few quaint drives into the snow with my family.
    I had decided to spend two weeks in June in the backcountry with Scott, Tom and Brian as a way to celebrate high school graduation.
    We were going to pack into the McCabe Lakes, starting at a trail not far from the Tioga pass.
    We’d planned our trip for months. We met at Scott’s home with our packs and ran through our lists, and mapped a route.
    Scott’s father owned and operated the ski facilities at June Mountain. He was a big shot, and it felt good to be hanging out with a big shot’s son.
    We started our trip with a couple of days lounging at the family’s lakeside cabin, smoking cigars and playing cards at night, drinking ourselves into oblivion, rolling endless joints.
    We played the music loud, told jokes and talked about our upcoming trip. We mused over girls we’d fucked or would like to fuck. Scott said he used to twirl his girlfriend around like a propeller while she sat on top of him. We laughed trying to imagine the girl’s legs up in the air, twirling like the twin blades of a fan.
    Tom kept us amused with his claims of genius. He possessed a mathematical aptitude that was off the chart, he said.
    “By the time I’m 30, I’ll be a millionaire.” Tom’s passion for logic, though, made no logical sense. His real forte was art. He told us of an older Brazilian woman who had seduced him into her tub with wine and kisses and bubbles.
    She had asked him to come draw pictures of her, which he did, obliging her request to sketch her nude figure. She sat, he said, with the most ease of any woman he’d ever sketched. And she was by far the most beautiful. When she asked him to bring her wine, he knew the woman was planning to teach him another art.
    “The art of solving paradoxes?” Scott asked.
    The cabin reeked of booze, sweat, and pot. A cloud of cigar and reefer smoke hung in the air and clung to our clothes. We grew facial hair and wore suspenders and put on hats. We were in the mountains now, and a whole new vista was opening before us. The cloudy haze of our first nights in the cabin would pass and soon we’d be on our way.
    We took Scott’s family boat onto the lake, drank and smoked, fished and swam—the first lazy days of summer. All of it was new to me. I had grown up in the new suburbia springing up all over Southern California as thousands of acres of orchards were demolished to make way for housing and industry. The biggest outdoor adventure in my life up to this point had been throwing oranges at cars passing on the street, or watching the bullies hang John by his thumbs from a tree and leaving him there alone, deep inside the orchard, screaming: “Help!…Help!…Help!”

    I had never come this far into the wilderness. I had never felt so much independence.
    The profoundness of life held sway. We thought big and felt big. The world lay before us and soon we’d find out just how big it really was. Nonetheless, I felt strong, invincible in a way I’d never feel again, and soaked in life’s deep possibilities. June Lake shimmered beneath the Sierra blue sky, and the pines whispered in the wind as it scuttled over the lake and mountain boulders and into the distant wilderness. The late afternoon sun felt warm on my neck.
    I felt large, open and free. I felt the sea itself moving within as the earth’s great winds blew against its surface. Everything felt connected—the lake, the ocean, the wind and the mountains, the scent of fresh pine in the breeze, a whole life before me, a life of my choosing. I sat on the cabin porch, peering across the lake and out into the flat distance, eager to start the next day’s journey.

    That evening, Scott’s older brother crashed our party. He had recently graduated college and was on the mountain for the summer to help repair the lifts and do the upkeep on the ski facilities. He wasn’t amused with our offer to smoke a joint.
    “I don’t smoke,” he said. “You guys shouldn’t be drinking here.” He turned to Scott, “This is dad’s cabin.”
    Scott shrugged and his brother left.
    “What the fuck was that?” Tom asked.
    “He doesn’t know whether he wants to be a preacher or a lover man,” Scott said. “He’s up here fucking his mountain girlfriend, and when he goes home he’s Mr. Church. Don’t worry about him.”
    “Not worried a bit,” Tom said as he finished rolling another fat joint and lit it. He sat with the joint and puffed it for a while before passing it on. He always did that. Once, he asked me to join him while he smoked an entire gram of hashish. I declined and watched him as he reclined in his father’s easy chair and packed the hashish into a pipe and smoked the whole thing. He gazed at me and smiled and never moved from the chair the entire day.
    I thought he might pull another stunt like that until he passed the joint to Brian, who put down a trumpet he was blowing with great result. Brian seldom spoke but made wonderful music whenever he wanted to be heard.
    “He’s going to turn us in,” Brian said as he expelled smoke from his lips, which he pursed for another blow on the horn, and handed the joint to Scott.
    “Fuck ‘im,” Scott said. “Let’s play cards. Who’s dealing?”

    Our first day on the trail, we hit weather.
    The wind kicked up and the sky turned gray.
    Scott’s brother agreed to take us to the trailhead. He made sure we’d checked in with the rangers and acquired our wilderness permit—just in case we got lost. After quickly checking our packs, we handed him our map route and waved him off. He’d pick us up in 10 days, he said. Just call and let him know where to get us. The truck lumbered back on the road toward June Mountain.
    “How can he be such stiff asshole and nice guy at the same time?” Tom asked.
    “He’s just like my dad,” Scott said as he hoisted on his pack. “Let’s go.”

    As we followed him into the stony silence of the Sierra wilderness, Scott’s steps appeared large. The stones beneath his boots sounded hollow and full at the same time, somewhere in the balance between “this way,” and “that way.” Yet, Scott seemed to know where he was going, map tucked securely in his pack.
    We walked in silence. I considered his passions as we walked in quiet wonder among the naked boulders and hairy mosses growing in the shadows and crevices. I’d watched him fall in love and take on a woman with complete abandon, as men will do when they feel large inside. Scott’s insides were huge. He could take in a lot: Women, books, music, good food.
    In one moment, he could fill himself on the naked zaniness of spinning his girlfriend around like fan as she straddled him, and in the next, he’d quench his thirsty soul with religious icons, poems and readings from the Bible. He never expressed any doubts regarding the tensions between these, between body and spirit. To him, they were the same.
    He could hold a Bible in one hand, and take a long draw from a joint in the other. He could belt out a jazz tune while Brian blew his horn, and make you feel like you were in church jazzed, singing gospel hymns.

    We camped beside a mountain pond, half frozen, in the shadow of Shepherd’s Peak, somewhere above the tree line, where the wind began to whip a chill, and it felt like snow. I stood beside the pond, gazing into the distance, into the valleys and wide-open desert below, and wondered how far the wilderness might have gone, were it not for civilization.
    On the far side of the sand-blown flats, somewhere beyond my view, were clusters of people organized in villages and townships and desert ratholes dotted with dusty trailers and torn curtains, carrying on and trying to build lives, roads, bridges, trying to make sense of their world as the planet hurtled through space.
    “What the hell am I doing here,” I wondered. The wind kicked up again. The late sun drifted west behind a thick screen of clouds threatening rain or snow. The sky took a white-gray pallor and the stony landscape turned cool. The wind lifted my hat, held it aloft for a split second and whipped it fiercely into the half-frozen pond.
    “Fuck, my hat!” I shouted, reaching wildly into the air in a futile attempt to save it from getting blown into the water.
    “You all right?” Tom asked as he struggled against the wind, pitching his tent.
    “Shit!” I shouted. “I lost my hat.”
    I stood at the pond’s edge and watched my hat float away, taking on water. It started to sink.
    One minute, every thing looks fine, I mused, and in the next, life’s treasures suddenly lift or slowly drift away, dropping from view and forever out of one’s reach. I watched helplessly as my hat slipped below the surface and sank. §

    Stacey Warde is editor of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at
    More writing by Stacey Warde:
  • Hooligans on the Hill
  • A homeless woman's gift

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    Cabby's corner: Little Miss Sunshine

    I missed the plane for my soccer game. I go to UCLA, and I got caught in traffic. So I got my own plane.

    Little Miss Sunshine

    By Dell Franklin

    Sitting in my cab at the airport, the short girl in a soccer uniform came bounding out the glass doors, an athletic overnight bag held over her shoulder. She was perhaps 18, olive-skin gorgeous, with these muscular legs that were somehow shapely and above all sexy, and she was smiling, her smile broadening as she spotted my cab and her hand shot up. She hurried over, moving like an athlete, but also like a girl, opening the door and tossing her bag in the back seat and settling in the front beside me,
    “Hi! Can you please take me to the football stadium at Cal Poly?”
    “I can.” I curled around the parking lot and shot out on the main road that led to town, a few miles away. "You in a hurry?”
    “Yes! I screwed up. I missed the plane for my soccer game. I go to UCLA, and I got caught in traffic. So I got my own plane, paid my own way. Well, my dad paid. Oh gee, I must seem like a spoiled brat, but I’m not. I just didn’t want to miss the game. You know, my team-mates and all. I wanted to be with them.”
    “I understand. Are you the star player?”
    “Oh no. But I’m good. I was all-city in high school.”
    “Where did you go?”
    “Beverly Hills. I’m a little rich girl, a daddy’s girl.” She smiled at me in a mock-pleading way. “That’s not so bad, is it?”
    “I suppose things could be a lot worse.”
    She laughed, appraising me. “Tell me about your job. Is it ex-citing? Do you meet interesting people?”
    “I’m meeting one now.”
    She slapped my knee in a scolding way. “Oh, I’m too young to be interesting. I haven’t been around, or done anything. But I’m going to.
    “I did go to Europe last summer. I’m a language major and I’m going to travel and be a translator some day. I’m going to join the Peace Corps and then I’m going to get into the diplomatic service and see the world.”
    “How many languages you speak?”
    “Right now I’m fluent in Spanish and French, and I’m learning German. I want to learn Russian, because it’s really hard. And I want to learn Chinese, because that’s where the future is, I think. I love languages and I love people and I love to travel.”
    “What about soccer?”
    “I LUUUUVE soccer. I’ve been playing since I was five.”
    “Anything you don’t like?”
    She slapped my knee again, in a playful way implying I was naughty.
    “You think I’m some pollyanna or something?” She was grinning in a mischievous manner. “One of those, you know, goody-goodies...?”
    I glanced at her as I drove, “You got a certain glow, kid. Were you voted most popular in high school?”
    She slapped my knee again. “Yes! But I didn’t try to be…pop-ular. I wasn’t kissy-assy. I was just me. Don’t you like me?”
    “Has anybody ever DISLIKED you?”
    She stared at me, eyes growing large. “I don’t know. I hope not. I don’t think so. Why would anybody dislike me?”
    “They might be jealous of you. Especially women.”
    “Why? I’m nice to everybody. I don’t hurt anybody.”
    “Sometimes that’s not enough.”
    “How do you mean?” She was bouncing around in her seat, facing me now. She had perfectly round knees. Strong, even teeth, the enamel sparkling. Dark, long-lashed eyes that were perfectly symmetrical in an oval face, eyes that held a resolve, which made me believe she was a fiercely determined little competitor on the soccer field, those eyes shutting everything out but the task at hand. She was suffused in an aura of radiance and energy. She wasn’t like any of the girls I’d remembered in high school or college back in the early 1960s. Very few girls played sports in those days.
    The ones that did were mostly unfeminine tomboys. This girl was so compact. She was special. Every time I looked at her I felt a hot flush in my chest. I was overwhelmed, shot with a sudden jolt of giddy joy. I wanted our ride to last forever. I wanted to ride off into the sunset with her.
    “Oh, there’s always a bunch of bitter malcontents out there, kid. Don’t ever let ‘em get you down. I doubt they will, from the sound of you, and your natural exuberance. What about a boyfriend? You got one?”
    “Nothing serious. I’ve got a lot of, you know, GUY friends. I told you, I’m a daddy’s girl.”
    “What’s dad like?”
    “Wonderful. He was a big college jock. Then he started his own business and made millions. He’s only 44, and he’s retired. He seems young, though, like 30. He paid my plane ticket up here. I guess I’m pretty spoiled. I can’t help that. I try not to act like a spoiled brat. I know I’m real lucky. I try to do good things. I want to help poor people some day. I don’t want to live only for number one. I think that’s all wrong. I think being selfish is bad. What do you think?”
    “I’m a pretty selfish person, so I can’t be objective.”
    For once, she stopped smiling and moving around, appraising me again. “I don’t think you’re that way. You don’t SEEM that way.”
    “Well, it’s all about priorities, and not getting involved in the mainstream, grown-up world. But that’s neither here nor there. Tell me about soccer. Are you in heaven when you’re out on that field?”
    “Yes! Heaven. I have to play. I can’t LIVE without it. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m out of school and can’t play any-more. I’ve got four years, you know. I’m just a freshman.”
    We were in town, drawing closer to campus. Traffic was slow. “Is your dad pretty tough on your boyfriends?”
    “He’s nice to them. He trusts my judgment. He trusts me, he’ll tell me what he thinks, though, but he doesn’t meddle. All the guys he’s met are pretty nice.”
    “Any not-so-nice ones got your juices boiling?”
    She slapped my knee, lifting her chin to appraise me in a new light. “No. Not yet. I’m not looking for it. I’m so busy. There’s so many things I want to do. I’m not ready for THAT kind of thing, you know.”
    “You’re never ready for it, kid—it just strikes, and you’re al-ways helpless to deal with it.”
    “I know. I’ve seen it with girl friends. Crazy over guys. Just CRAYYY-ZEEE. And I’ve read a lot of books. I can’t read enough.”
    “Good for you. A well-rounded person.”
    She was facing me, smiling. “Do you read a lot?”
    “Are you married?”
    “No. Married people don’t have enough time to really read.”
    “No. I’m an ornery, confirmed old bachelor.”
    “But don’t you want kids?”
    “Then what do you want?”
    “I’m still trying to figure out that one. Listen, if I think about what I don’t have, it’s okay. If I think about what I’ve missed, I get kind of unhappy. You seem to be going in the right direction. Just don’t change. I would hate to see that. But then, of course, we all do.”
    “I’m excited about that, too. I want to change. I want to suffer a little. People are suffering everywhere in this world, and I’m not. It doesn’t seem fair. I have it made. I’ve been too lucky.”
    We were on the campus. The stadium was half a block away. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. She was still facing me, smiling in a warm, fond manner as I pulled up in front of the stadium and stopped. I stared straight ahead. “You’ve been a treat, kid. You’ve made my day. I want you to know that.” I smiled at her.
    “You’ve made MY day. I’ve had a wonderful time talking to you. You remind me of my dad. You seem so youthful and athletic, and you’re so interesting. I wish we could keep on talking. Have you done interesting things in your life?”
    “Yes. I’ve been around. I thumbed around the country a couple years. I’ve been to Europe and Mexico and the British Isles. I had the itch as a young guy and saw a lot. The memories are good.”
    She reached in the back seat, grabbed her bag, pulled out her wallet, opened it, flipped me a twenty. The ride was only eleven dollars, but she slapped my hand as I fumbled for change and told me to keep it.
    “It’s too much,” I protested.
    “Oh, just keep it. My dad gives me so much money, too much. It means nothing to me. You’re worth more.”
    I offered my hand. We had a firm shake. I didn’t ask her name, and she didn’t ask mine. She got out, waved, sprinted away, bag over her shoulder, a shimmering filly in her soccer shorts. I got out and snuck through the stadium entrance and stood watching the girls warming up on the field, kicking balls. She was dashing toward her teammates. They were all excited, jumping up and down, hugging her. It was quite a display. She was the most beautiful of all these girls. My giddy joy lingered for a long time that day, gradually dissolving into a bleakness I could not describe. §

    Publisher Dell Franklin can be reached a Read more of his Cabby's Corner series here:

  • Ode to Tobias Wolff
  • Sisters from South Central
  • A soldier's story
  • First fare (hair of the dog)
  • The good lawyer
  • Mr. Headphones

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  • Read more!

    Rogue of the month: Jim Ruddell

    Ruddell’s Smokehouse is smaller than a rich man’s bathroom

    ‘Us smokers, we’re a different breed, we’re like a circle of crusty old women with recipes everybody wants, but we don’t give up nothing.‘

    Jim Ruddell’s little corner of the world


    By Dell Franklin
    Cayucos Smokehouse:

    There used to be smokehouses up and down the coast, on every pier in every little beach burg from San Diego to San Francisco and points north. Weathered shacks similar in size to tiny bait shops, manned by fish-smelly, aproned, becapped, grimy faced eccentrics, an obscure breed dishing out smoked salmon, yellowtail, albacore, oysters, and sometimes pork or poultry and a little jerky.
    Jim Ruddell, who learned the rudiments of smoking from his Louisana father and uncles, grew up and lived in the Santa Monica area for 30 years. He was driving home from work on the freeway shortly after the verdict of the Rodney King trial precipitated the L.A. riots. He looked around and realized he was the ONLY car on the freeway. Gunshots rang out and crackled like a Viet Nam firefight. All around him the city seemed to be burning. He felt as if he were driving through Dante’s Inferno. He’d been meaning to get out of L.A. for years, but now he had an epiphany: “I’m gettin’ the hell outta here!” When he arrived home to his wife and two-day-old daughter, he said: “We’re outta here.”
    It took him more than a year to make contacts among friends and relatives on the Central Coast. He had a full-time job at Toyota, running the maintenance department. People came up to him with mechanically plagued cars, expecting the worst, to got gouged. It was not pleasant work, even for a sunny extrovert like Jim Ruddell, who never liked wearing a uniform and name tag.
    “It’s like going to the dentist to these people,” he says. “I always tried to be understanding and helpful and honest and give them the best deal I could. I’m a people person, somebody who wants to make you feel good. Not being able to do that made this a pretty high-stress job: Everybody in a hurry to get their cars fixed and get out; everybody in the garage in a hurry to get your car fixed and get started on a new one. A rat-race. I was fed up with it. I had this dream: Go up to the Central Coast, where there weren’t many people, take at least a 50 percent pay loss at the same job, and in the meantime start up a smokehouse.”
    “But the odds aren’t good, are they?” I asked. “Starting an obsolete business, pretty much, and being, an anachronism…”
    “A dinosaur. I started out by taking an old used pizza oven and turning it into a smoker in the back yard of our home in Morro Bay. My wife thought I was nuts. But I started smoking in the back yard for a few friends. I smoked turkeys for them. Every year about this time I do a turkey smoke. Believe it or not, smoking a turkey is a lot healthier than barbecueing; there’s no carcinogens.”
    Ruddell kept working at the car dealership in San Luis Obispo at less than half of what he made down south, and then he built a new smoker in a pole barn on the ranch of a friend in Cayucos. He got to some serious smoking.
    He had an old pickup. Without a business licencse, he found little spots along the highways all over San Luis Obispo County, from Highway 1 to Nacimiento Road out by Chimney Rock to Old Creek Road. He pulled over in spots and put out his sign: “SMOKED FISH.”
    “I hung out on Highway 1 a mile north of Cayucos for almost nine months. The cops would stop and hassle me about a license, and finally I’d move on. I started doing it on weekends and then duringthe week, and twice I had to go back to work at the dealership to keep the money coming in.”
    Was it crazy, giving up a career to sell smoked fish out in the middle of nowhere? You bet.
    But Ruddell’s a rogue, who doesn’t listen to reason. Like most rogues, he’s inclined to fight the odds and go against the grain. He believes in his dream and is not afraid to follow it, or fail.
    Ruddell, who partied and raised hell with the best of them, and does not regret any of it, but is now off the booze, opened his tiny smokehouse in Cayucos in the fall of 2001, about 10 yards from the sea wall and a block from the old pier.
    He loves his new milieu. People aren’t going to the dentist when they come into his shop these days. They can have a good time hanging out, listening to jam sessions outside his store on Sundays, and he can watch with pride and gratification as his customers eat his smoked products. He’s got his own music going during the week—‘60s and ‘70s stuff—and he’s looking at the beach, soaking up the funky atmosphere. No uniform, just shorts, a T-shirt, and a ballcap. And he’s his own boss.
    “What about the booze? Why’d you quit?”
    “I was always a drinker, but I never had the freedom to drink like I did when I got my own place. You couldn’t drink at my past jobs, and I didn’t want to, but here I was, alone, with all this freedom, and it got out of hand. I was beginning to feel like a wreck, the hangovers were killing me, and I felt bad about what I was doing to myself. I was jeopardizing my business, my marriage, family, and realized I was needing a drink instead of wanting one. I was headed for disaster, and so I went to AA and I go every morning and I’m much happier. Everybody’s happier. It worked out.”
    Ruddell says he owns the only HACCP inspected (hazard analysis of critical control points) retail smokehouse in the state. How’s business? He ships his smoked products all over the country. When I visited him, he was getting ready to ship some to Washington, D.C. He’s on the internet ( He’s been written about in the New York Times, which is probably why East Coast tourists traveling up and down the Big Sur coastline stop off at his place for a sample of something unique at the last outpost.
    Ruddell’s Smokehouse is smaller than a rich man’s bathroom and Donald Trump’s clothes closet. He’s got a deli case, upright, bathtub-sized smoker, stove, cutting board, some equipment stuffed in back, and his dream—that’s it. But he’s thriving, and in the summer he cranks.
    The nearest smokehouse?
    “I think they do some smoking on the Avila Beach pier, and there’s a smokehouse somewhere around Santa Barbara, and there’s one at Moss Landing, north of Monterey. Us smokers, and I know most of them, we’re a different breed, we’re like a circle of crusty old women with recipes everybody wants, but we don’t give up nothing.”
    Not that he’s got to worry. He’s got the secret, and nobody’s going to open a smokehouse anywhere around here in the distant future, and nobody’s about to make a smoker out of an old discarded pizza oven, much less a pole barn. §

    Visit some of our previously featured "rogues" here:
  • Mandy Davis
  • Casimir Pulaski

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  • Publisher Dell Franklin can be reached at

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    Life in the cage: Evening dayroom

    I fought assimilation, didn’t want to change my college guy GQ look to the prison bad boy look. Finally, after 13 years of imprisonment, I now look delinquent.

    An $11 can of Bugler tobacco, the going rate at any Wal-Mart or COSCO outlet, can be broken down to make a whopping $800.

    Illustration by Gene Ellis

    Life in the cage: Evening dayroom
    Conversations with Huero and other inmates

    By Tito David Valdez Jr.

    Growing up as a Mexican American in an affluent conservative Southern California suburb mostly populated by whites, I had to assimilate to “fit in.”
    Dated hot blonde-haired, blue-eyed chicks, became a regular at frat kegger parties, looked and dressed like a skater/surfer. If you had a conversation with me, you wouldn’t be able to detect a Latin accent, for good reason.
    I spoke no Spanish, whatsoever. I spoke like a gabacho (white boy).
    I grew up with minimum exposure to prison culture or gangs. I had only random encounters like visiting a friend in county jail, or the occasional drive to the barrio to visit the “connection” to score some weed.
    I had never been arrested as a juvenile or adult.
    My education about the criminal element came from television shows and Hollywood movies.
    Then one day, I landed up in the jailhouse.
    Since I looked like a gabacho and talked like one, I was not immediately accepted by the pachuco swaying Chicanos nor the Mexican national paisas.
    During my first decade as a jailbird, I fought assimilation, didn’t want to change my college guy GQ look to the prison bad boy look.
    Finally, after 13 years of imprisonment, I now look delinquent.
    Always sport freshly pressed prison blues, walk with pride, attitude and confidence, speak the lingo. I even speak fluent Spanish.
    In prison, you see many forms of assimilation.
    A black youngster who grew up in a Mexican barrio who only kicks it with Mexicans. A white boy who grew up with blacks, and walks, talks, and acts black. Then the occassional white boy who grew up with chicanos in the barrio, who is by all means a Chicano at heart.
    One prisoner comes to mind, his name is Huero.

    It’s 6:30 p.m. and it’s time for evening dayroom.
    A school bell rings as each guard stationed on three separate tiers racks the cell doors open. Inmates of all races step out and walk down the stairwell, to the middle of the building, where there are twelve stainless steel tables with four stools to each table.
    Each table is quickly occupied by prisoners. The first five tables belong to the blacks. The next four are shared by Chicanos and paisas. The last three are for whites. Whites are in the minority in state prisons.
    Quickly, the deafening chatter of over a hundred men’s conversations takes over the dayroom. You have to raise your voice continuously to talk to a guy just one foot away. It is no wonder that many old-time convicts are deaf and wear hearing aids.
    The majority of men come out of the cell to have social interaction, to play dominos, chess, or pinochle, while others exit to give their cellie cell time out of respect, or to get away from a cell slug.
    As the three guards responsible for the cellblock duck into their office to socialize with other guards, the true character and intentions of the block’s prisoners come out.
    I find myself a spot to sit down on the cold cement floor, put on my headphones, push play on the CD player, listening to Metallica, battery at a low level. With a pencil and notebook in hand, I write what I hear and see around me.
    The dayroom begins to reek of tobacco smoke. A portable CD ghetto blaster, perched on top of a trash can, jams loudly with the latest R&B artist Kanye West’s hit, “Gold Digger.” I feel the party atmosphere.
    A couple of Chicanos begin to light up a cigarette next to me as a third Chicano approaches. I listen to their conversations….
    “Hey holmes, kick me down a flajo (smoke), said Shorty, a Chicano youngster with oversized baggy jeans, Converse-style , black state-issued tennis shoes, and a white T-shirt. His homie, Flaco, a veteran Chicano dope fiend is wearing a beat-up pair of state issue clothing which says “CDC PRISONER” on them.
    “Watcha homie, manana (tomorrow), Huero will kick me down 20 flajos. If I sell them all, I get to keep five flajos. I’ll hook you up.”
    “You ain’t right, dog. I’m feinting for one ahora (now). I’ll be back, maybe I can come up big time in the poker game.”
    Shorty walked over to the Chicano table and sat at the only empty stool available to join in a game of jailhouse poker with the fellows. Poker cards happen to be contraband and gambling is against the rules. Getting a write-up is the least thing on anyone’s mind.
    He hands the dealer a brand new Right Guard deodorant which he pulled from his baggy jeans pocket. The card dealer nicknamed “Chino” hands him five markers, which have the value of one contraband cigarette.
    In July 2005, the California Department of Corrections implemented a tobacco ban at all 35 prisons statewide. Tobacco is no longer sold at the prison canteen or allowed in vendor care packages.
    Enterprising inmates, who have extensive experience in street and prison hustling, bought up all the tobacco and have hidden it, distributing it to addicted smokers at an exorbitant rate. Two bucks buys a miniscule issue of Bugler tobacco, one Top Ramen twenty-cent soup buys a Zig-Zag rolling paper—$2.20 total to make one cigarette.
    For those who are poor, the pages from the small Gideon Bibles in the chapel make good rolling papers, as well as the fancy paper toilet seat covers used by prison staff. The poor can be seen collecting discarded cigarette butts wherever they may be found.
    An $11 can of Bugler tobacco, the going rate at any Wal-Mart or COSCO outlet, can be broken down to make a whopping $800. A 40-cent book of 50 Zig-Zag rolling papers can net a profitable $10.
    A black market exists where prices for tobacco can only go up as time progresses. It’s hard for prisoners to quit outright. Smoking relieves stress.
    Chino, a Chicano inmate who looks Asian, acts as the card game’s “house.” As he pencils in Shorty’s contribution to the game, the lead breaks on his pencil. He kneels down to the floor and sharpens the pencil by rubbing it sideways on the cement ground.
    He gets up, sits on his stool erect, and deals the cards like a professional casino employee as he sips on a cup of jailhouse pruno, hidden inside a plastic jug, while taking a hit from a smoke.
    I notice his stubby nicotine brown index finger and thumb, accomplished from butts pinched to the last puff, which is a common trademark among even dope fiends.
    At the white tables, four white guys are playing their guitars, singing the popular hit “Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots. A couple other white guys are working out, doing push ups in the far corner of the dayroom.
    I look over to the blacks table and it’s like watching a prime time sitcom, like Bernie Mac, but with all the cuss words.
    “Motha fucka, you a punk sissy, give me TEN!” said Big T, a huge bald muscular black inmate who resembles Michael Clark Duncan, who played the death row inmate in the 1999 movie, “The Green Mile.” He slaps the domino hard on the tables, which creates a loud smacking sound.
    “Nigga, you a punk! You can’t beat my slick black ass, give me TWIENTY!” said Tre, a lanky dope fiend, who slaps the domino hard on the table, creating the same loud smacking sound. He jumps off his stool, jumping up and down with excitement, giving his two homies standing in back of him a high-five.
    The words “motha fucka,” for all practical purposes, are the most commonly used words in prison—by all races. However, blacks are able to use them with such natural flow, as an adjective, noun, or verb.
    “You a lazy motha fucka, I gots the motha fuckin’ paper in this motha fuckin’ game, slap me TWENTY FIVE, nigga!” Again, the domino is slapped hard against the table. The ghetto blaster is now playing Snoop Dogg’s rap hit, “Gin and Juice.”
    I’ve noticed that the more intellectual inmates from all races, stay in their cells during evening dayroom, occupied by other more constructive activities. The dayroom is filled mostly with the not-so-intellectual inmates, whose lives are reduced to engaging in socializing or games to pass time. Men only in age, they still retain their juvenile nicknames, like Italian mobsters in Mafia movies. Men who have been a part of the system since adolescence, going to juvenile hall, California Youth Authority, and finally graduating to state prison. Institutionalized men who live and breathe criminality.
    The “NO SMOKING” sign on the dayroom wall has no significance. Prisoners are outlaws.

    Then, along comes Huero, returning late from our scheduled chow. He sneaks into the chow hall, after his first time through, by jumping over a rail to obtain seconds, and eats with the next cellblock on rotation for the evening.

    Huero is a 28-year-old Chicano from Southern California with light green eyes, light skin, slick back light brown hair. At first blush, you would think he was a white boy from an affluent city in Orange County. But when he speaks, you know he’s from the barrio. He tells stories with such charisma that he draws an audience, has a fan club.
    When Huero speaks, people listen.

    “Horale, homies, that new C.O. (correctional officer) working in the chow hall, she is a firme hina (hot chick), I used to get my freak on with a hina like her.”
    “Did your hina have big tits like her too, eh,” said Sleepy, an extremely overweight Chicano who ate a honey bun while sipping state-issued coffee from a mug with tattoo patterns of Aztec warriors and a goddess.
    “Oh yeah, they looked just like Pamela Anderson, about thirty-six, double-D.”
    “Fuck eh, I wish I could meet a hina like that,” said Sleepy as he bit into his honey bun.
    “Homie, you wouldn’t know what to do with a hina like that. She wouldn’t be satisfied with your short dick anyway.”
    Everyone in the vicinity erupted in laughter as Sleepy’s face turned red. He had a comeback.
    “You must be a puto, Huero, why are you looking at my shit in the shower?”
    “Hey, homie, let’s keep it real, there ain’t nothing there to even look at. You are way too gordo homie!”
    Like a laugh track, laughter erupted in the background.
    Huero had earned his respect and was looked up to. He was known to have socked a youth authority counselor for disrespecting him. Did hole time with the most infamous prison bad boys. Manipulated a female CDC prison counselor to fall in love with him, quit her job, and let him parole to her pad. He had five prior prison terms, always violated parole, never stayed out for more than three months. Has been in the system since he was 14. He specialized in burglaries and fraud, and was currently serving 25 years to life for a non-violent third strike.
    A vato named Spanky spoke up.
    “Hey, Huero, tell us about that scam you pulled off, where you scored two-hundred grand in one night.”
    Huero, with one leg perched back against the wall, took a hit from his cigarette, resembling James Dean, reflected to himself for a moment as if researching his computer hard drive for that file, then took off his prison blue shirt, exposing his muscular arms and chest, which showed through his white wife-beater tank top. On his right arm, a tattoo illustrated every year he had been locked up: 93,94,95,96,97,98…. On his left arm, Aztec art mixed in with tribal designs. On the back of his neck, he wore a tattoo which said: “FUCK AUTHORITY.”
    “I was 23 years old, living with this 45-year-old hina who always reeked of cheap perfume and wore layers of makeup that covered up her acne craters. Her old man, a vato from an enemy neighborhood, was locked up in Folsom, I was her Sancho. I used to drive her to visit her old man. She would come out all caliente (hot). I’d fuck her in the backseat, right in the prison parking lot.
    “I had no love for this woman, but she took care of me. Anyways, eh, I find out her mom left an inheritance, I saw the paperwork. Five-hundred grand!”
    “Damn eh, that’s a lot of feria (money), said one youngster named Lazy, eager to know what happened next.
    “Anyways, eh, I talked her into pulling out a hundred-grand from her safety deposit box to ‘invest’ in a drug deal. I told her she could double her money in one night. So I set up the job. Told her to meet me with the money at a hole-in-the-wall motel room in Compton, where the dope man would be. She came as expected and…”
    “Hey, holmes, tell me, did she really bring that much in cash?” said SLEEPY, with much interest.
    “Hey, holmes, don’t interrupt me; of course it was cash, do you think I’m doing all this for a check?…Damn!…So, she showed up to the motel parking lot and my homie, disguised as a cable guy, robbed her in the parking lot. When she came up to the room, the dope man (another homie of mine), told her she better have the money or else he would kill me. She complied, homie, she didn’t call the cops, she went and got another hundred-grand the next morning and actually paid the dope man for my safe return. My homie then tied her up and told her he was going to let her live but he was going to kill me anyways. I’ve never seen that bitch again!”
    “Damn, holmes, you just left her hanging like that?” said Droopy, a youngster who was a first-termer, going home in two months.
    “Yeah, I partied for months with that money. Strip clubs, hookers, dope, hooked up my ranfla (car), kicked my crimees (crime partners) down too. Ten-grand a piece!”
    Looking at Huero, I thought of Charles Manson. Huero hypnotized his audience with his stone-cold killer eyes, spoke with his hands in a passionate manner, like infomercial guru Tony Robbins or some of the best hustling black inmates I’ve met over time. He was very attentive, listened to every detail when someone spoke. Like a coyote who is always alert, a little paranoid—and misses nothing. I could see how he made that woman believe that she could really make money on her investment.
    Huero went on for the next hour, telling stories of his best criminal cons, and chicks he boned. Finally, the bell rang for everyone to lock up.
    Huero pulled out a small plastic bag, containing about twenty rolled-up contraband cigarettes. He passed one each to all seven Chicanos, equivalent to about fourteen dollars in value.
    It was known that Huero had an inside connection to obtain unlimited amounts of tobacco. No one dared snitch on Huero. Even if someone did, guards would blow off the tip, because they respected Huero; he kept everyone in check.
    “Gracias, Huero", said Droopy, “for looking out.” Every other vato shook his hand, paying tribute and giving respect, as if he were the don.
    “De nada, homies.”
    Droopy pulled out a contraband BIC lighter, a ten-dollar value, which he purchased from Hustle Man, and lit up Hueros’ cigarette for him.
    Huero put his right arm around the youngster, as if he was his proud father, smiling, seeing a future in him.
    “Hey Droopy, you are getting out in two months, how would you like to come up on a lot of money? I know this vato who lives on Olive Street in your neighborhood….” §

    Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit Tito can be reached by email at, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Read more of his "Life in the cage" series here:

  • Mischief in the prison chapel
  • Jailhouse pruno
  • A momentary breath of freedom
  • Breakfast Club
  • Trapped
  • Institutialized

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  • Read more!

    Fish Tales: Life in the Homeland

    At 9 p.m. straight up, as if a signal is given, the cops get real busy. Low slung squad cars everywhere, waiting in ambush like bat rays.

    I am salty, stinky, hungry (starving) and bone tired. I want to get home. The unit facing me at the stop lights up and comes after me.

    Americans don’t really want to be free. They’d rather feel safe.
    —R. L. Mencken


    Life in the Homeland

    By Steve Bird

    The boat rocks against the north T-pier. Saturday evening, Labor Day weekend.
    Been fishing hard all week and a lot of stink has accumulated. I’m cleaning the boat and getting the gear ready for another go-round. It’s 8:30 and I would’ve been out of there an hour ago except for the two Fish and Game enforcement officers waiting at the receivers when I unloaded my fish. Always there these days. More of them than there are fishermen, really. At sea as well as ashore–they got the Coast Guard in on it too–you hardly have time to fish you’re so busy being boarded and checked out. You feel like you’re in some kind of a war. And these aren’t your old-fashion, friendly-ranger outdoorsmen in green Smokey suits. Nossir. These guys are the new breed–stonefaced, uniformed in black and blue S.W.A.T. gear with pants tucked into their boots, guns, utility belts, bulletproof vests. All business. They held me up for an hour while they checked the fish, the boat, my paperwork; just like they did the day before….
    A chill breeze pushes from the northwest. The Harbour Folly cruises by, its artificial stern wheel churning the oily bay; tourists sipping wine on the top deck, beginning to realize that this is no tropical cruise, pull sweaters over their Hawaiian shirts and wish they’d worn long pants.
    The usual moderate crowd strolls the pier and Embarcadero. Mostly apple-shaped women from Fresno and Bakersfield, their laconic husbands in tow. The occasional local mermaid wriggles through the pokey couples, a different species entirely.
    Just folks enjoying themselves, ordered and behaved. No rowdy holiday revelers.
    You just don’t see people raising hell in this here town.
    At 8:45 I’m almost finished with the boat when I notice the first patrol car slide down the Embarcadero.
    An overweight kid sporting a black T-shirt advertising Megadeath throws French fries into a swarm of quarreling, roughhouse seagulls on the pier above me.
    Another patrol car slips by.
    Slightly before 9 p.m. I can’t help notice what looks like the town’s entire fleet of squad cars swarming the waterfront—spreading out, backing into nooks and crannies, chrome flashing shifting shapes.
    Something must have happened, I think, they must be looking for somebody….
    At 9 p.m. straight up, as if a signal is given, the cops get real busy. Low slung squad cars everywhere, waiting in ambush like bat rays while the gulls scream overhead waiting for scraps.
    Now, the little coastal town I live in has the distinction of possessing the largest police department, per capita, of any city in the U.S.A. Yep. The whole country.
    A distinction, no doubt, the source of great pride to some (funny though: when law-abiding Americans visit foreign countries and encounter a considerable presence of uniformed armed men in the streets, they feel uneasy, consider it an indicator of despotism. But there are no despots here. Right?) Thing is: when you have a lot of guys in uniform, they need something to do.
    I have to drive through the dragnet to get home from the boat. I’m driving a legally operating but well-used and unavoidably rusty pickup–fishing junk in the back. I pull up to the one stop sign I have to get through on my way out of the kill zone. I stop, signaling a left turn.
    A cop pulls up to the stop facing me. Another unit pulls up to the curb behind me and turns his headlights off.
    The farthest thing from my mind is the idea of running that stop sign. I am proud of my nearly flawless driving record, and besides, only a complete moron would run that stop with the cops right there watching. I know that there is a three-second interval that one must be stopped for. I give it a five-count just to be sure…light a smoke…put the rig in gear…proceed through…around the corner and up the hill leading away from the bay. I am salty, stinky, hungry (starving) and bone tired. I want to get home.
    The unit facing me at the stop lights up and comes after me. I notice two other units, lit up, and in pursuit of a couple other unhappy motorists while I’m pulling over.
    I roll the window down.
    “Had anything to drink tonight?” the young, dark haired officer asks, leaning in close while I hand him my license and insurance proof.
    [Clarity dawns–I get it!–they’re fishing for drunks.] I tell him I don’t drink, and just got off my boat from fishing–and by the way…why did he stop me?
    His jaw slacks. He looks up from the paperwork. I can tell he doesn’t like the question. “Well…you ran that stop back there,” he tells me, pinning me with his eyes making sure I’m firmly on the hook, then turns and struts off toward his car with my papers to check for warrants. While he’s back there, he writes me a ticket for running the stop.
    I read the ticket when he hands it to me to sign. “Waitaminit. You and I both know I didn’t run that stop sign.” I’m struggling to remain pragmatic. “I know you’re looking for drunks and need a cause to make the stop, I’m cool with that. You can see I haven’t been drinking…so why do you have to write me a bogus ticket anyway?”
    At this he completely disconnects, says, “I stopped a guy going 100 miles per hour last night. How would you like it if I hadn’t got him off the road?”
    OK, now I know I’m in trouble—the guy’s a hero. But I’m boiling over with civil disobedience now and can’t stop myself. “What has that got to do with our situation? And you lying?” I hear myself saying.
    That cracked it.
    “You don’t like the police. Do you? I think you have a problem with the police…” he tells me, his hand in the window frame squeezing the top of my door. He is tight and wary and ready to spring into action.
    “No,” I say, “I don’t have a problem with the police. But I do have a problem with you abusing your function as a civil servant.”
    He’s got one hand clenching, unclenching, close to his gun.
    I‘ve heard stories recently, about a cop in town who entertains a fondness for spraying his mace can in folk’s faces at the slightest provocation and I wonder if this is the guy. Regardless, I can tell that I am only one more word away from him calling in for backup and me getting yanked out of the truck, slammed, cuffed, maybe suffocated. In addition to hungry, dirty, tired, on a deeper level, I‘m feeling profiled, disenfranchised, disappointed , disrespected, desperate, mad, and about to go off like a fuck-you-machine-gun—and become a martyr.
    Then I think about my family and friends and how they probably wouldn’t want me to martyr myself…I’m beat…hungry…too tired to fight…. I sign the ticket and hand it to him. “This is bullshit.”
    “Tell it in court,” he brandishes the ticket, smirks at me. “Have a nice night,” he quips before marching away.
    Have a nice night? Must be the sensitivity training.
    Justice in court? His word against mine and guess what.
    I could ill afford the stiff fine I had to pay. Not to mention the immediate jack in my insurance. Wasn’t much choice. Went ahead and paid it. What we do. That’s just life in The Homeland.

    Steve Bird lives on a boat in Morro Bay.

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