The Snow and the Grass

The first poem I can remember returning to of my own free will, meaning I read the poem on my own time apart from any requirement for a test or homework, was Robert Frost’s classic, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROSTRobert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

 

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

 

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

I still love this poem even though I rarely take well to rhyming poetry. I was in grade school, fourth or fifth grade I think, and it would be years before I ever experienced the utter quiet of snow in the dark. And yet when I read the poem over and over again as a child it was somehow future evocative. When I finally sat alone in the snow at night, perhaps six years after first encountering the poem, it was exactly what I expected because Robert Frost had already told me what it would be like.

This may have been the first poem I ever loved but the first poet I ever loved was Carl Sandburg. In high school I began to seek poetry outside of school assignments. The first book of poetry I ever paid money to own was Poems by Richard Thomas (the actor who41I80Z2YOwL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_ played John Boy Walton), which you can buy now for a penny on Amazon, or $44 for a “like new” copy. What I remember about the poetry of Richard Thomas, who no longer writes poetry, was the accessibility, which is not to say it was bad or less than good. I was exploring poetry and the memory of John Boy, who inspired in part my desire to write, was still fresh in my mind so the poetry of Richard Thomas was my midwife. I had written poems on occasion since junior high but it wasn’t until I read Richard Thomas that I understood there were fewer constraints than I’d imagined.

The second book of poetry I paid to own was Harvest Poems by Carl Sandburg, a thin volume of “greatest hits” covering 1910-1960.  I didn’t know it at the time but Sandburg was like a brother from another poet mother to Frost. They were very different, and were never great friends, but Frost was only four years older than Sandburg, they both lived into their late 80’s.

One of Sandburg’s greatest long form narrative poems was titled The People, Yes (a series of poems actually). He believed in the people. If Robert Frost had produced a mirror series of poems it might have been titled The People, Maybe. Frost was a rural New Englander, suspicious and insular. Sandburg was a Midwestern urban dweller and a Chicagoan above all else, open and extroverted to a fault. Though he relocated to a farm in North Carolina later in life, Sandburg remained a voice for the working class andCarl_Sandburg_NYWTS the city dwellers while Frost remained introspective and studied in a way that could be misunderstood as elitist. Although a modernist for mostly technical reasons, Frost was not an innovator and experimenter and compared to Sandburg was formal. Sandburg was wild and unpredictable, if also at times undisciplined, as a poet. So, of course I fell in love with him.

Frost had the presentation of an academic but it was Sandburg who wrote the first comprehensive and excruciatingly meticulous multi-volume history of Abraham Lincoln. He was a poet but it was history in the form of Lincoln that was his totem.

Such was my love of Sandburg that my best friend in college bought me his complete works for my birthday, for which he paid a hefty sum for a poor college student.  He inscribed the book with a demand that I pay him back with my first born child.

Like Frost, Sandburg wrote some poems that made their way into school text books, the most well-known probably being Fog (remember the little cat feet?). Another is Grass, which has been on my mind a lot lately and in my imagination stands in parallel to Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowing Evening.

Grass

BY CARL SANDBURG

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work—

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?

Where are we now?

I am the grass.

Let me work.

 

The contrast between these two poems is found not only in the subject matter but the style and form, the line breaks and spaces. The poetry of Robert Frost often touches my heart. The Poetry of Carl Sandburg often reaches much further down.

The poem, Grass, has been on my mind lately because the grass has a lot of work to do lately and Sandburg has been on my mind because he was a socialist democrat. He was also honest, I believe, in a way that is hard to find in the public sphere right now. I know this is likely narcissistic nostalgia because every age has its liars and crooked politician. But every age also has it’s people who stand up and declare that  we are holding the wrong things sacred right now and that people who deserve nothing more than any of us are profiting from the sorrows of the world as if they are too high and mighty now to suffer too. I don’t know how to fight these crooked people but I cling to words and I remember the first three lines of  Sandburg poem titled The Eastland, referring to a touring boat that rolled over in the Chicago river in July 1915, killing 844 passengers.

Let’s be honest now

For a couple of minutes

Even though we’re in Chicago.

The reason I was brought back to these words was the simple plea, which was naive, even silly, 100 years ago when Sandburg wrote it. If we could agree for just a few minutes about what the honest words are…but boats full of people keep sinking, oil keeps spilling, wars keep being profit centers, freedom is still defined mostly by armaments.

And the snow and the grass remain constant and true, at least for now.

 

 

Coyotes

I have lived in the neighborhood where I live now for just over five years and I have heard about coyotes from those who have seen them here. I have seen their paw prints in the dirt and the snow. My dog seems to have one particular bark he reserves just for passing coyotes. I believe I have, once or twice, heard them cackling away in the distance like they do and like I have heard other places in my life.

I’m not exactly outdoorsy, but I have listened from my sleeping bag on a mountain somewhere, more than a few times, to the sound of coyotes reminding me that I am only a visitor, the way they combine menace with humor, talk about you while you’re still in the room, remain only just out of sight, only just past the turning of your head.

Once, backpacking to Finger Lake northeast of Yosemite in California, I had gained lonesome on the trail with the people ahead and behind out of sight. Climbing a bothersome hill I looked up at the crest of the trail and saw a white coyote. Now, I’m not saying there was a white coyote on the trail, I’m saying I saw a white coyote and then did a full-shake double take and when I looked back the coyote was gone. When I reached the top of the hill I found a small white boulder sticking out of the ground. I kicked at it a bit, daring it to grow legs and ears. It did not.

I did not then and do not now doubt for a moment that my brain conspired with the sweat in my eyes to turn that white boulder, for a fraction of a second, into a white coyote. What I mean is, I have never believed there was actually a white coyote above me on that trail. But I did wonder and wonder still why, of all things, my brain, no doubt bickering with my body at the time about where to feel the most pain, chose to see a white coyote.

Why a white coyote?

I was forced to adopt the white coyote, not as a spirit animal so much as…a spirit animal. I can’t say I actually believe in having a spirit animal, but the white coyote became mine, nevertheless. It was the only rationally irrational response.  For the next few days, each night as I fell asleep, I listened to the coyotes off in the distance, reminding us with their hyena laughter that we belonged somewhere else eventually. And we did.

That was almost half my life ago and just the other day, as it goes. I was in a gift shop one day and found a tile with the image of a white coyote, a Native American image, or so I was told. I bought the tile because who wouldn’t among all of us whose minds had once turned a white boulder into a white coyote.  I still have it.

Since then I have seen one or two coyotes off in the distance, crossing the highway in a desert somewhere near Palm Springs or in New Mexico or while fighting my way across Texas. I once had a staring contest with a coyote at a zoo, before I gave up zoos. I was asking him about the white coyote but he chose to ignore me. That, or he was just an animal thinking about animal things, like when food might arrive.

What I’m saying is my visual encounters with actual rather than imagined coyotes under the 50 yard mark and without a cage between us have been, at least since I was born, zero. Until a recent evening.

I was working at my desk in my home office when my dog started prancing and jumping and generally making a nuisance of himself, which is dog language for wanting to go outside. I let him out and he began to bark. But it wasn’t the people-walking-past bark, or the neighbors-dog-is-loose bark. It was the wild-animal-nearby bark. This was confirmed by dogs all along the street who were all barking insistently. So I grabbed my flashlight and headed out onto the deck to see what I could see for no reason whatsoever.

My backyard is wild, which is how I like it. My neighbors might not agree with my aesthetic preference but I love feeling like those are real woods out back and yonder. I clicked on the flashlight and scanned the brush. About 50 feet out I came across the eye shine, two eyes, reflectors, staring back at me.

I have seen plenty of eye shine in my backyard before, possum and raccoon. But these eyes were further apart and they didn’t sway and fidget like raccoon and possum do. In fact, they stared back at me without flinching or moving at all. Then, without any concern or urgency, the eyes turned away and a coyotes passed across the beam of light. It wasn’t white. For five minutes I listened to what I think was more than one coyote loitering, carefully stepping through the bushes, dead leaves giving them away. I only saw the eye shine one more time, further out, saying goodbye maybe as it headed for the fence line where over the years fallen trees have created many gates.

They’re troublesome during the winter, quietly taking cats like vampires take drunken tourists. And I’m told they can be brazen lately, running across a yard full of children, not in a threatening way but in a taking-the-short-cut way. Still. And the truth is I wasn’t all that comfortable with the size of the animal I saw in my backyard, largish for a coyote I thought.

Coyote attacks on humans are rare enough and only one adult human is known to have been killed by coyotes. They have adapted to nearly every environment imaginable, including major cities like Chicago. And yet the ghost of the prairie is a ghost everywhere. Coyote sightings are unusual relative to their presence. For every coyote you see there are…well, more. The internet can’t make up its mind how many. Estimates range between five and 50 coyotes for every one you see. Coyotes are loners except when they’re not. They run away when you harass them, except when they don’t. They are active at night, except when they’re active during the day. They are blamed for more cat vanishings than they perpetrate. You never hear people saying, “We have to get rid of all these owls.”

Coyote’s, it seems, are like the world in general, at least the world as I know it. They are less dangerous than I imagine but more dangerous than I think. And my response is basically the same. I’m not going to buy a gun but I might start carrying a stick to the bus stop.

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Slippers

I want to talk about slippers again. I may have mentioned how disappointed I am in my slippers. Even though I did not pay anything like retail, my Rockport slippers, nevertheless, are expensive slippers as slippers go and I expected them to last more than a year. They haven’t.

To be fair, without letting go of my disappointment, I am hard on my slippers. I wear them to the bus stop every day so if slippers are “house shoes” and manufactured to meet the expectations of something called a house shoe, I probably have little room to complain.

And yet, one would think that if the daily trek over 100 yards of asphalt were really the issue it would show up in wear and tear to the sole of the slipper. But no, the soles of my slippers, which are thick and unhouse shoe-like, the reason I chose them, are in good repair, showing little sign of bus stop travel abuse. The problem is that the uppers are attempting to divorce themselves from the soles, threatening a total separation.

Setting aside my disappointment I began a search for new slippers. My slipper requirements are as follows, in summary: The slipper must have a closed heel. I’m not a member of the rat pack lounging around Frank’s pool and I’m not in the hospital. The slipper must have a substantial sole. Cloth sole slippers are, perhaps, one of the most useless things imaginable unless you have wall-to-wall carpet and never wear your slippers outside the house. If you never wear your slippers outside the house your priorities are askew and we should part company before unfortunate words are uttered. Finally, slippers must be a color that will not readily reveal coffee stains. This one is entirely personal and practical.

It is a good time to shop for slippers if you have a “pickers” mentality like I do when it comes to shopping. As memories of the holidays fade and warmer weather is theoretically possible, slippers move to the clearance racks. By mid-February slippers have been marked down more than once. It is the slipper sweet spot. But not this year. When I found an appropriate pair, they didn’t have my size (which is common). When I found my size, they had such a poor excuse for a sole I would hold them up and ask rhetorically if they were meant to be disposable slippers.

Today I gave up. As I stood in a store holding a pair of weak-soled slippers in my hand and contemplated whether they would last through the bus-stopless summer I suddenly remembered I kept a miracle in my tool box. The miracle in my toolbox is a hot glue gun. Can you think of any problem that a hot glue gun cannot fix? Of course you can’t.

I brought my sturdy soled Rockport slippers with a separation problem down to the basement, fired up the hot glue gun, and then slathered. I glued like nobody’s business and turned a fine looking pair of slippers into a pair of monsters…monsters that will last for the rest of 2015, I’ll wager.

hot_glue_gun

Catching the Squirrel

If you have ever owned a dog in an area inhabited by Squirrels, then you laughed at the movie UP every time the dogs came to attention, staring off at the middle distance, as their speaking collars declared “Squirrel!” It’s funny because it’s true (except for the speaking collar thing).

Squirrels know the difference between a window between them and the dog and no window between them and the dog, which is why they feel free to roam about our deck recovering bird seed, or hanging off a suet cage. The majority of the time, our dog can only watch helplessly and occasionally tap at the glass and maybe bark when it becomes just too much to bare. But sometimes, times I am certain my dog considers blessed times, I am working at my desk nearby and I will stand up, walk over to the door, and let him loose to chase the squirrel or squirrels off the deck.

The squirrels are always a good ten feet ahead of the dog and they go flying off the deck in a full four-point spread hoping some part of them will reach the trees eight feet away. They always make it. Even when one of them decides to double back along the railing, bounce off the bird house and up to the roof, our dog Miles usually doesn’t notice until they are already on the roof. It almost seems like a game the squirrels play, doggy ditch ’em. Seems like a game for Miles too. In four and a half years I have never seen the dog come close to a squirrel, let alone catch one. Until he did.

I’m not sure what happened. The squirrel just zigged when he should have zagged, or maybe it was an old squirrel who had no business playing doggy ditch ’em, couldn’t make the leap. In any case, Miles got him. It was over quick and the dog didn’t prolong the event. He got back into the house like I told him.

I felt sad, like I always do when I have watched an animal die. I named him Ziggy and tossed him into the yard where a hawk or a turkey vulture or coyote or some other critter took him away by the next day. I checked in with the vet to make sure all was well. Killing the squirrel didn’t change my dog at all. His eyes don’t go dark now, instead of bright, when he sees a squirrel. He bounces and whines and taps the window and I still get up and let him out to chase the squirrels off the deck, except now I give them a little head start, I tap the window as a warning and then wait a second before opening the glass door. Miles doesn’t get that I’m betraying him. He just thinks I’ve grown more committed to the game.

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NIGHTHAWKS AND ROCK STARS

Non-Fiction Recollection for Rob, Mark, David and Doug.

There is a pounding. Is it inside my head or outside my head?  Both.  And that damn song. What is that?

“Mr. Ferguson?” Knock, knock, knock. Pound, pound pound.

I open my eyes. The sun, all-consuming and filling my entire window, is like a million ray guns shooting directly at my eyeballs.

Knock, knock, knock. “Mr. Ferguson?”

I realize I am in a hotel room, though I’m not certain, immediately, where. Perils of frequent travel. The music, more static than anything, is coming from the clock radio next to my bed and someone is knocking at the door.

“Yeah,” I wheeze. “Hold on.”

I wrap the bed sheet around me and stumble to the door. I remember I am in New York city at a “boutique” hotel on the east river next to the Roosevelt Island bridge, or, as I call it, “the bridge that was in that Sylvester Stallone Movie.” I cannot usually remember the name of the movie but as I open the door to find a man I recognize from the front desk standing in front of me, I think, “Nighthawks.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you Mr. Ferguson,” he says but does not mean, “but you did not answer your requested wakeup call and as a matter of hotel policy we must check on anyone who requests a wakeup call and then doesn’t answer their phone.”

He’s clearly annoyed but I can tell that just moments earlier he was genuinely concerned, not for me so much as for himself, concerned he might have to open the door and find a dead body…or worse.

“Thank you,” I whisper, weakly.  “I’m sorry to make you come up here.”

“It’s no trouble,” he says. “Have a nice day.” I swear he clicks his heels before spinning around and gliding off down the hall.”

And then the full measure of my circumstances arrives into my consciousness. First, I am good and properly hung-over like I have been perhaps only one other time in my life. It’s the mythical hangover of movie legend, the one where your entire body is in full revolt and taking its revenge while your brain, shriveled to the size of an old lemon, struggles to organize thought  and coherent perception of the world outside your eyeballs. Second, I was late. And I wasn’t late in any trivial sense. I was late to a board meeting where I was not a board member, I was staff. I was late to a board meeting where almost everyone in the room was a volunteer while I was being paid to be there.

(Compulsory vomiting scene deleted here)

I turn off the clock radio and the evil red numbers tell me I am, at that moment, nearly one and one half hours late for the meeting.  I check my cell phone and, of course, the alarm is set to go off at 7 PM, not AM. Shower or baseball cap?

This story, or my version of this story—there are others told here and about—begins with Brazil winning its fifth World Cup title back in June of 2002. This was the first and only World Cup to be hosted by two countries (Japan and Korea) and Brazil won the final against Germany, which is quite the match up if you’re a soccer fan. If you happen to be both Brazilian and Danish, Brazil winning over Germany is akin to winning the lottery on the same day all your enemies go bankrupt.

A man named Christian was a Danish-Brazilian. The man named Christian was a member of The Board. It was a two day board meeting and the Brazilian’s won on the first day.

It should be said that the man named Christian is a man about whom a dozen good and memorable stories could be told, but this is not one of them. He is an important part of this story, but not really one of the principal players.

Christian is important to this story because, on the first day of The Board meeting, he was distracted because Brazil was in the finals of The World Cup. He was on his phone at every break. When he learned that Brazil had won, he actually asked The Board’s forgiveness for his bright shinny happy face. He was so happy. He was so happy, he invited The Board to join him for a celebration cocktail after the meeting at a Brazilian restaurant. He called ahead and made arrangement. We were happy to help our friend Christian celebrate.

Following The Board meeting we all made our way to a restaurant with a Brazilian flag in the window. Needless to say, the place was already deep into celebrating.  Almost as soon as we sat down, the first round of Brazilian cocktails arrive, the great and dreaded Caipirinha.

In addition to being Brazil’s national cocktail, this drink is two things: sugar and lethal. It’s like drinking lime cool-aid. And the man named Christian made sure nobody’s glass was empty ever. Brazil had just won The World Cup, after all. Being naive in the ways of the Caipirinha, I drank away, as did everyone else.

Eventually we departed the Brazilian restaurant for dinner at some super-secret Chinese restaurant that only real New Yorkers know about, and as if to prove that this was true, former Mayor Ed Koch was there, shaking hands and nodding and pretending to be interested in what people were saying to him. That’s how I remember it, anyway.  And, of course there was beer and wine with dinner.

Following the meal, there was a mingling outside the restaurant. It was the kind of mingling commonly found following such gatherings of a variety of folk. People segregate. The morning runner’s say goodnight, as do the people traveling with family and the locals. The pure of heart hail cabs for their hotels. And thus, those remaining:

In addition to myself, there was a man named Rob, a man named Mark, a man named David, and a man named Doug. In our collective wisdom, we concluded the night was yet young and made haste to a hotel bar, the hotel being one where one or two of our number were staying, That’s how I remember it anyway

We found seats at the bar and proceeded to share wit and wisdom, I am sure, much like the participants of the Algonquin Round Table did in their time.

Normally,  when someone suggests that  shots of Jägermeister are appropriate, I not only protest vigorously, I ask them when they moved back in with their parents. But Brazil had just won The World Cup. Would it not be an insult to reject a drink in their honor?

I’m sorry to say I cannot recall how many shots of the demon drink we consumed.  I remember these things: At some point I went to rest my elbow on the bar and missed. For some reason, this caused my companions to erupt into near catastrophic fits of unending laughter.  For reasons I cannot, to this day, fathom, I decided to call my wife in California. She didn’t answer, so I left a 3 minute voice mail message, which she saved and played for dinner guests and visitors to our home for years. I wish I could tell you what I said and how I said it but I could only bring myself to listen to the first 15 seconds. I can say, with some awkward pride I suppose, that everyone who ever listened to that message laughed until they cried.

I also remember that the man named Doug, in mid-sentence, suddenly stood up and walked away, out of the bar and out of the hotel, never to return. We worried about him, to the extent that we were able.

Eventually, someone had the sense to call it a night. The man named David and I hailed a cab since we were staying at the same hotel. Again, for reasons I cannot fathom, I decided to sit in the front seat of the taxi. This caused the man named David to giggle uncontrollably. When I gave the taxi driver the address of our hotel, which I had quite cleverly written down on the back of a business card, the taxi driver said there was no such address in Manhattan. The man named David started laughing harder. I gave the address of our hotel to the taxi driver again and again he said there was no such address and again the man named David laughed. This time, he laughed so hard he was laying down on the back seat. This sequence of events was repeated a few times, until the man named David was laying on the floor of the taxi, doubled over in laughter.

The taxi driver and I began to argue and I was explaining to him that we were near the bridge. He asked which bridge and I said, “The Nighthawk Bridge.” The man named David was now choking on his own saliva.

We just sat there, the taxi driver and I staring at each other, until the man named David regained enough composure to tell me that I was giving the driver the address of our hotel in Boston, where we had just been attending meetings a few days earlier.

We were delivered with expediency to our New York hotel. Knowing that my capacity for waking was compromised, I called the front desk for a wake-up call, set my clock radio alarm, and my cell phone alarm. All three failed.

The next morning, the man named David and the man named Doug managed to make The Board Meeting more or less on time. The man named Mark and the man named Rob were a bit late. Although I wasn’t there, I am told that when the man named Mark and the man named Rob arrived at the building where The Board meeting was held, a building known as The Federation, they exited their cab, applied their sunglasses, and looked up at the top floor where the meeting was already underway. The man named Mark said, “We are total rock stars.”

When I finally arrived at the meeting, over two hours late, the man named Rob and the man named Doug were wearing sunglasses…sunglasses in the meeting which was inside. All of us made regular trips to the restroom to fill our coffee mugs with water. It was, perhaps, one of the most miserable days of my work life. My boss never said anything to me about being late.

Years later, at a cocktail reception, the man named Christian asked my boss if I had gotten in trouble for that day. My boss said that he thought he knew me pretty well and he didn’t think he could deliver any punishment greater than the punishment I delivered upon myself for being late for a board meeting. It was the first and last time I was ever late in 9 years of meeting four or five times a year.

Toggle And Shift

There was a time, almost 30 years ago (few here will remember) that I was in graduate school studying to be a therapist. I even put in over 1,000 hours toward my licensing requirements for California, back then. That means I was sitting in very small rooms with people who were court referred to counselling. Some of these people were scary, like the kid who bit off the head of a pigeon he caught in the quad, a la Ozzy, during lunch time at the local high school. That kid is 40 years old now and I hope he is an accountant somewhere and has bird feeders all over his property. “How come you’re not acting like I’m a freak?” he asked me. “If you want me to think of you as a freak,” I said, “you need to do something really insane, like roasting your dog. You have a dog, right?” I’m sorry to tell you about that. But that’s what I said to this kid. It really upset him. He actually asked for a different counselor. But my supervisors knew what they were doing and made him stay with me. They made other people stay with me too, even though I was what they called “unorthodox” because, they said, I engendered trust. I was standing on couches and proclaiming…stuff, long before Tom Cruise. That was one of my signature pieces in couples counseling, standing on the couch so I could reach for the ceiling to demonstrate one person’s expectations. But I didn’t stay with it. For years and years I told people that I quit because I could not imagine sitting in a room all day listening to people’s problems. But the truth is–and, yes, this is a rare Facebook honesty moment–I quit because of life circumstances. I was actually on my way to being a really good therapist. My supervisors even staged a kind of “intervention” to try and get me to remain on track for becoming a therapist. They brought all my fellow trainees into a room and they took turns telling me why I should not abandoned the path. What a gift that was. I wish I could have accepted it. And here I am now, like you. I adjust, I make room, I toggle and shift. I find a path that is both practical and interesting enough. I have been so lucky to discover coffee. And I have never compromised my requirement of making a difference, Nope. One time I had a counseling client who was court referred for something I cannot describe because it is so difficult a topic. He was only seventeen. I asked him to draw a picture of himself and his mother, his only parent, at the table having dinner. He drew the picture. When he was done I told him that i could not tell who was the mother and who was the son. He said, “It doesn’t matter.” The look on his face as his own words sunk in, because i said nothing, was like an earthquake. He was so young, but he understood what he had just said. I held the picture up in front of him and i told him that we had to find out who was who because the story would never make sense if we didn’t. Before I could move forward with this kid, I left my role as a counselor. The thing is, none of the reasons I left were as important as the people I left, the pigeon kid, the mommy issues kid, the guy with a fixation on women’s underwear, the girl who’s mom was only 15 years older than her and she was trying to compete for the bad ass award. I left them all behind to pursue something material. Dumb ass. I don’t do that anymore. Mostly, I don’t do that anymore. Sometimes you have to knock twice, but if you do, I will face down the demons with you. I promise.

Swat

When I was in the third grade, a classmate named Richard shoved past me as we entered the classroom, returning from recess. Being on the weary side of bullying, I went after him and took him down in a classic grade school head lock, asking…or pleading, “Do you give?” until the teacher, with great disappointment directed toward me, broke us up. Richard was the type to be in trouble often. I was not. My teacher made it very clear, in ways I was and am very sensitive to, that she was not happy with me. Her expression, her body language, even the way she was more physical with Richard than me, told me that I, not Richard, had disappointed her and perhaps even ruined her day. I think her name was Mrs. Freeland.

She took us to the Principal’s office, Mr. Williams. Richard went in first while I sat on a bench outside the office. After a few minutes, Richard began to plead loudly, as if begging for his life. This was 1973 and, clearly, Richard was going to get a swat or three. As Richard was pleading and crying and generally, it seemed, making it difficult for Mr. Williams to apply the spanking, my mother appeared, miraculously it seemed. My mom was a PTA volunteer at the school and her duties, whatever they were, brought her into the front office as I sat awaiting my fate.

The principle’s office door opened. Mr. Williams and Richard emerged just as my mom walked up to see what was going on. Richard was crying, like a baby I thought at the time, and still think now. My mom surveyed the situation and looked at Mr. Williams.

I cannot remember what she said, exactly, but it was in the realm of, “What’s going on here?”

And then I had my very first experience of politics. Mr. Williams smiled a very handsome smile, even though he was not a very handsome man, and said something about boys being boys. My mom then said something I can’t remember but which amounted to telling Mr. Williams that she would let him do his job. Then she walked out of the office, which is, of course, exactly what she should have done.

Mr. Williams invited me into his office, where Mrs. Freeland was sitting in a chair looking not at all happy with the events of the day. She was a very kind person and I now suppose she found this all very distressing.

The Principle, holding a paddle in his hand, gave me a short lecture about fighting and provided a even-when-provoked “caveat” that made me realize that my teacher understood what had happened but was obligated to see both parties punished.

It was at that moment I determined that I would not put on any display of regret or plead my case in any way. I would, I decided, take what was coming to me because, not only did I deserve it for physically assaulting a classmate, but I had put my teacher into a state of distress, which was neigh to unforgivable when your teacher was as caring as Mrs. Freeland.

Mr. Williams asked me to bend over, grab my ankles and look at the doorknob on the door to his office. I remember thinking that this was exactly the way swats had been described to me.

But then, Mr. Williams paused. He asked me to removed my wallet from my back pocket.

Here, we must take an aside: My school, Danbrook Elementary, had been plagued by an outbreak of rubber band and paperclip attacks. It seems many student, almost all male, had figured out that they could use a rubber band as a a sling shot and launch paper clips at a variety of targets, inflicting damage and untold irritation. This epidemic had become so widespread that the principled had declared that any student caught with rubber bands or paperclips in their possession would automatically receive a swat, i.e. spanking.

And so we return to what Mr. William’s thought was a wallet in one of my back pockets as he sought to administer a swat. I was actually the number one supplier of rubber bands to the underground third grade rubber band and paperclip combine.

I reached into my back pocket to retrieve what the principle thought was a wallet and removed a handful of rubber bands.

As I placed the pile of unruly rubber bands on Mr. William’s desk, I looked for signs of an increase in my punishment. After all, not only had I been caught fighting, I was a rubber band pusher. And then I received my second lesson in politics. They both smiled and then Mr. Williams proceeded to administer my swat, for fighting. I did not receive any extra punishment for the rubber bands because, as I understood, my value as a “good kid” outweighed the need to punish me for a crime that was, in terms of being caught, unknown outside the room. I had already decided that I would not “plead for my life” as Richard had done. So I took my swat silently and, I think, somewhat stoically. In a fit of over confidence I reached for the pile of rubber bands after receiving my spanking. It took only a small groan for Mr. Williams to halt my reach.

I knew as I left the office and walked back to my classroom that I was supposed to feel shame or regret, but I felt only pride. I was proud that I had not cried or begged. I accepted my punishment and took it like, well, like a 10 year old human who accepted their punishment.

It was the first, but not the last swat I was to receive in the public school system of old, I am somewhat proud to say. The second swat is another story. Although I don’t want anyone spanking my children (and would, without hesitation, spank them back), I can’t say my swats were detrimental or undeserved. Times change. And, to be honest, I don’t think Mr. Williams was swinging very hard.

Wacky Packages

When I was in 4th grade, I had this playground trick. If anyone was chasing me for any reason, and in 4th grade there are thousands of reasons, I would fall to the ground in a ball, covering my head with my hands, and the person chasing me would tumble over me and fall to the ground and a celebration would commence among all those involved in…well, whatever game it was. I was clever and tricky and brave all at once. Look out for that Ferguson fellow, they said. He might just drop and trip you.

It worked wonders when used on kids my own size and weight.

Then one day, walking home from school, I got into a disagreement with a 6th grader named Chris. He was a hefty 6th grader and, though I can now be fairly described as hefty myself, back then I was waify, and that is being generous.

The disagreement centered around the complicated trade agreements associated with “Wacky Packages.” Raise your hand if you remember. These were stickers that came with gum like baseball cards and parodied well known grocery store brands. Look it up.

I don’t remember the nature of my business disagreement with hefty 6th grader Chris, but it was serious enough that I decided to insult him by calling him “Chris piss.”

I know, genius emerges at an early age.

Hefty 6th grade Chris began to chase me, across a football field in fact, and when I thought the moment was right, I dropped to my knees and covered my head and sure enough, Chris went tumbling over me…except. Something happened that had never happened before. Intense pain. Sure, having someone tumble over you was never comfortable, but it had never resulted in very intense pain in my shoulder.

I cried out in pain and everyone, including Chris, could tell that something was wrong. I was helped to my feet and someone, I wish I could remember who, sprinted off to tell my mom. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had broken my collarbone. The broken bit was pushing upwards against the skin on my shoulder so that everyone knew something was wrong. I kept walking toward home, though I was in pain and dizzy. Chris offered to give me the Wacky Package stickers that were in dispute, but in my pain and martyrdom, I turned him down, telling him this was all my fault, which, of course, it was for the most part.

My mom arrived and walked me the rest of the way home. Soon I was on my way to a very nearby hospital where a doctor told me I was going to get a shot that would feel only like a bee sting. I remember, very clearly, giving him a dirty look.

I spent the night in the hospital and in the morning they released me with a shoulder brace and instructions to stand with my hands on my hips with my elbows back, looking ever so much like my grandmother. I lied to my mother and told her I was pretending to play football, because I was ashamed of having called Chris, “Chris piss.” In fact, it took me several years to admit the truth to my mom, that I had, in large part, brought it upon myself.

Needless to say, Chris was forever in my debt, and I tried not to lord it over him too much. At school, I became that guy whose story changes, depending on the audience, to the extent that years later, when I saw Richard Dreyfuss in a movie where he related different stories about how he broke his arm depending on his audience, I was sure the idea had been stolen from me and my collarbone. I never painted Chris as a villain though, because, well, to call someone “piss” was beyond rational, and I had suffered the consequences.

When I reached 9th grade, Chris was in High School and was the number one pot dealer on that side of town. I often wondered if he still referred to his “product” as wacky packages.

The Sign Spinners of Cobb County

I don’t know about your part of the world, but in mine, Cobb County Georgia, the number of “sign spinners” standing on street corners helping hock everything from pawn shops to pizza parlors seems to be proliferating. After sitting at countless red lights watching so many of them display their talents, my curiosity overwhelmed me and I tried to befriend them.

It wasn’t easy, actually. Apparently, they often get approached by strangers and it rarely turns out well. The first sign spinner I met, nicknamed (no joke) Tony Baloney, summed it up well when I first walked up to him and said hello.

“Dude, I’m not buying any and I’m not selling any except for what’s printed on this sign, and I forgot what it said the second they handed it to me.”

I told him I was thinking of writing an article about sign spinners and then I learned my first lesson about this class of day laborer.

“We’re not all spinners,” said Tony. And he was right. Tony himself didn’t spin his sign, he danced…sort of. The “Baloney” in Tony’s nickname might have come from the fact that he appeared to have consumed quite a bit of the luncheon meat. He didn’t dance so much as shake and jerk and punch the air with his sign. Occasionally, he would launch into a wicked and reckless spin that would sometimes cause cars near the curb to veer or break out of fear Tony was going to fall into traffic. He always recovered though. He listened to speed metal on his phone, which made a lot of sense. Tony told me that the sign holders referred to each other as “Postmen,” even the women.

“I know Tony, man,” a Postman who called himself Ricker Rocker told me (turns out all of the Postmen have nicknames), “Tony Baloney is a legend because he makes more money than most of us. People can’t take their eyes of the dude. He’s like an accident waiting to happen but it never does. I bet that guy makes twice what I do and I have talent.”

Ricker wasn’t just bragging. The things he could do with a sign were pretty amazing. Unlike Tony, Ricker did spin his sign, but he could also flip the sign and whip it around his body in a manner reminiscent of nunchucks.

I tried to ask him more questions but he told me he just wanted to listen to his music and work his sign. He said I should talk to “Old Abe” a Postman down in Smyrna that had been working the same pizza sign for years. Ricker told me “Old Abe” was a clown.

And that’s exactly what he was, a guy dressed as a clown and holding a sign advertising a nearby pizza parlor. He was older than the other Postmen I had seen, but still younger than me, perhaps in his mid-30s. He was also less suspicious, and when I told him I was writing an article, he invited me to meet him at the pizza place, “when it gets dark,” and he would be happy to talk over beer.

A little over an hour later I was sitting with “Old Abe,” aka Donald Miser, who was no longer wearing the somewhat chaotic clown outfit but did, indeed, sport a Lincolnesque Amish beard.”

“So you’re curious about Postmen?”

I started to answer but he interrupted me.

“I came up with that, you know, ‘Postmen,’ because we are like sign posts and we also deliver a message.”

I agreed it was very clever, but before I could ask a question, Donald launched into a kind of tutorial on Postmen.

“There are basically five categories of Postmen,” he said. “You have your now classic ‘spinners,’ you have your ‘dancers,’ you have your ‘clowns,’ which is anyone who wears any sort of costume that isn’t full-body, and you have your posers, and the puppets if you want to count them.”

“Really?” I was surprised.

“Yeah, of course. We’re not exactly organized, but we have our lingo, you know.”

“Okay. I have met Tony Baloney and Ricker Rocket. Tony is a dancer and Ricker is a spinner, right?”

“Well, Tony, that kid is a hybred. You can’t call that dancing but he moves with a lot of energy and I have never heard of him falling down. It’s worked out for him. But if you want to see a real dancer, you should watch Lovely Linda, who has been working a We Buy Gold sign outside of old Marietta square, or Howard the Duck who is a block south of the Big Chicken landmark on Cobb. Howard works a car dealer sign I think, but he does the whole break dancing routine with the sign in his hand. Impressive. Linda does these sort of slow ballet things, very flexible.”

“I will definitely check them out,” I said. “Do you know when they usually work?”

Donald frowned at me, which made him look even more like Old Abe.

“Man, if we wanted to work set hours we’d be pulling shifts at Walmart. But you can never go wrong with rush hour, right?”

“Okay, yeah, I see. What about the others? What about spinners?”

“I’ve only seen Ricker work a few times. Last time I saw him he was working a real estate sign on 92. He’s a good spinner but not as good Timmy Two Time. I haven’t seen Timmy in months but he was working a jewelry pawn sign up on Roswell near Johnson Ferry for a long time. Timmy could spin and flip two signs at the same time. He was older than me and word was he was once a professional juggler. Man that guy could toss a sign like you wouldn’t believe. He should have been on stage somewhere or in the circus. Maybe that’s what happened to him. I hope so.”

Old Abe was lost in thought for a moment. I asked him about the “posers.” He shook his head.

“A poser is a postman that just stands there holding the sign and doesn’t do anything. Sometimes you get a poser who is a newbie, sometimes you get a poser who doesn’t give a damn and was hired by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. But some posers come to it naturally, either they’re just so good looking or sexy they don’t need to do anything, or they have so much attitude or presence it just pours out of them and they don’t need to do anything else.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen a poser.”

“You sure? There’s Parker Posey, not too far from Tony’s corner. She pretty but it’s her attitude that works the sign. She dresses just shy of sexy but it’s her expression and body language that gets attention. It says, ‘Seems like you could just walk up and talk to me, doesn’t it? Go ahead then, try it.’”

“What’s her sign selling?”

“Usually a beauty parlor or stylist or whatever,” said Donald. “But I’ve seen her work clothing stores. There is Prad Bitts up in Kennesaw. Just stands there looking like a male stripper and holds a sign for a lingerie store. Dumber than a bucket of nails though, while Parker is working on her master’s degree.”

“What about the clowns?” I asked.

Old Abe brightened. “Well, the clowns started it all. Ten years ago there were no spinners or dancers. I mean, we might have done the occasional jig, but none of us were break dancing or jerking around to speed metal.”

“Are there other clowns around here?”

“Down in the city there’s a few. Vicky the Viking, dressed exactly as you imagine, has been working an All You Can Eat Buffet sign in midtown for years. Norman the Nerd works a computer repair shop sign on the perimeter. I have not seen another clown actually dressed as a clown in a long time.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“I think we make people uncomfortable, if you want to know the truth. We’re old school and clowns have gotten a bad rap, ever since that little clown attacked that kid in Poltergeist. That, and the puppets have taken our place.”

I’d forgotten about the puppets. “What’s a puppet?”

“The puppets are the foam suits, the full body costumes you can stuff anyone into and just tell them to move around and hold the sign upright. The puppets are usually just some employee of the advertiser trying to pick up more hours. They lack commitment and they don’t understand their role.”

“Their role?” Now I was really intrigued.

“Yeah, you might think it’s a Postman’s job to hold the sign and get attention, but it’s not. The Postman’s job is to make a connection. Even Tony Baloney, looking like he’s having an allergic reaction to something, looks up to make eye contact. All of us do, to one degree or another. And even when we don’t make eye contact with you we are making eye contact with someone or doing something human that says we’re just a person like you trying to make a buck. The puppets don’t make this kind of connection with anyone.”

“You think puppets are less effective?”

Old Abe smiled and then laughed. “What? Man, I have no idea. The day someone does some sort of actual ROI study, or whatever you call it, on all of us is the day we’re all out of a job. That’s what I think.”

He walked out of the pizza parlor, stopping to get his pay from the manager at the cash register. It was clear that, to the people who made the pizza, Old Abe was no more relevant that the neon “Open” sign hanging in the window.

I wished I had thought to ask him if he enjoyed being a “Postman,” but then I thought he would have very likely refused the terms of the question and asked me if I was happy writing about them.

11-20-12