Earlier This Week

            “California, huh?”

            “Yeah. To see my aunt.”

            “What part?”

            “Los Angeles area.”

            “Oh, yeah? Say ‘hi’ to all the famous folks out there.”

            “Well. I don’t know all of them, but I will be having breakfast with Julie Andrews.”

            “Yeah, right.”

            “No. Really. I know her.”

            “You do not.”

            “I do. My Aunt was a Broadway singer. She knows a lot of famous people. Well, mostly ex-wives of famous people, but she’s good friends with Julie Andrews.”

            “No way! I can’t believe you never told me this. All the time we’ve known each other and you’ve been holding out on me. I love Julie Andrews.”
            “Really?”
            “Are you kidding? Raindrops on roses? The hills are alive with the sound of music? Red paper kittens tied up with string! Julie Andrews rocks!”

            “ I never would have thought…wait, did you say, red paper kittens?”

            “Yeah. Tied up with strings. You know…these are a few of my favorite things.”

            “Yeah, I know, Jim, but it’s not red paper…”

            “Look Christie, you have to ask Julie Andrews a question for me! Besides…you owe me one.”

            “O-o-okay.”

            She knew I was right. She did owe me one. I could hear the curiosity-bordering-on-fear in her voice as she wondered what I could possibly want her to ask Julie Andrews. “I don’t know her that well…” she started. “It’s no big deal,” I said. “She’ll get a kick out of it, and it will make my week.” I was insistent, unwilling to accept anything but an unqualified “yes,” and she knew it.

            “Alright. I’ll ask her.”

            Six days later I got an e-mail: “Cuban cigars, horseshoe crabs, soft pretzels you buy from the guys at a New York intersection, dirty martinis with a twist of lemon, men named “Cyril”, free lollipops at the bank, matching tweed suit and hat sets, spooning, extra butter on the movie popcorn, the smell of freshly cut grass…”

            Be still, my heart!

            I called my brother and left a message. “Hey Jeff. Listen to this.” After reading the email, I said, “Think about it, then call me.”

            An hour later I answered the phone.

            “Hey Jeff.”
            “Hey Jim.”

            “Well?”

            “Well it could only be one thing.”

            “Exactly.”

            “Julie Andrews’ favorite things.”

            “Exactly.”

            “So…what is it really?”

            “Julie Andrew’s favorite things.”

            “No, really.”

            “Really. It’s Julie Andrews’ answer to my question, ‘what are your favorite things?’”

            I read the remainder of the e-mail to him: “Oh, and she also said that brown paper packages tied up with string still hit the spot every time.”

            “You’re serious?”

            I went on to explain the story about Christie, her aunt, the famous ex-wives and Julie Andrews. Jeff seemed to be equally surprised that I was able to get that question answered and that he guessed it right. I was definitely more surprised by the latter.

            A couple days later, Christie was back home and gave me a call.

“I still can’t believe you got Julie Andrews to answer that for me. Was that exactly what she said?”

            “Word for word.”

            “This is so cool. You know I’m gonna have to work it into a story.”

            “A story?”

            “Of course.”

            “Well…”

            “Well what?”

            “Well…Jim…”

            “Christie?”

            “J-i-i-m…”

            “You made it up!”

            “Sorry.”

            “Christie! I’ve been bragging.”

            “How could you think that was the truth?”

            “How could you lie to me like that?

            “What did you expect?

            “What will I tell my brother? He is such a big fan that he actually keeps red paper kittens tied up with string in the glove box of his car.”

            “Jim, there are no red paper kitten.”

            “You haven’t looked in my brother’s glove box.”

            “Well…don’t tell him.”

            “You owe me one.”

            “What do you want?”

            “Put me in touch with Julie Andrews. This story isn’t finished yet.”

            “Jim!”

 

 

 

Squirrel Hunting

The man on his way out of the store did not hold the door for me. This was in spite of the fact that a one second hesitation in his step or a even a polite stretch back before letting go would have allowed me to catch the handle. Perhaps he was still starry-eyed over his purchase of a new quiver for his compound bow and oblivious or maybe he was too focused on repositioning the wad of tobacco in his jaw in preparation for releasing the gallon or so of spit that had accumulated in his mouth during his forty minutes of shopping.

I imagined a buzz cut, pimply-faced clerk in the camouflage t-shirt showing this shopper product after product:

“This one has a built-in reel for those fishing arrows you bought last season.”

“Hmm…”

“This one has the latest in silent, quick-release technology. Bow Hunter Magazine tested it in their laboratory tree stands and said that even the most sensitive bucks couldn’t hear it.”

Nod.

“How about this one here? The broad head guard over the top has a built in fox urine dispenser for masking your scent. Pretty cool, huh?”

Nod with thoughtful squint.

“This is the one I use. Just came out. The camo pattern comes from the military and that mounting bracket is carbon fiber. You ain’t gonna hurt it when you throw it in the back of the truck.

“Hmm…”

“Of course, this one here was designed by Fred Bear hisself. My granddaddy’s got one just like it. Been using it his whole life. It’s old school…”

Inside the store I found myself under the watchful glass eyes of scores of once-majestic animals—elk, bear, bobcats, bighorn sheep, antelope, and white-tailed deer—lots of white-tailed deer. In the back left corner of this fifteen-thousand-square-foot Mecca for those given to their primal urge (and Biblical command) to subdue and conquer the most beautiful of earth’s creatures was the department I sought: firearms.

This trip was one I had never thought I would make. I haven’t hunted since high school, haven’t handled a gun since I was in the Army and a week ago I couldn’t stomach the thought of anything but live traps for the eleven-or-so squirrels hell bent on the systematic destruction of the trees and shrubs with which I had so lovingly landscaped my yard this spring.

In the first day of my little rodent war, I easily trapped three squirrels which I quickly moved a couple miles away and released on the far bank of Chattanooga Creek in what I thought to be a cute, little, fuzzy rodent paradise of tangled honeysuckle, privet and riparian trees of all sorts. What I found myself unable to determine the following day was whether I had trapped the only three squirrels dumb enough to wander into my trap or the only three squirrels smart enough to figure out how to get to the peanut butter-laced corn cob in the end of the wire mesh box. Either way, in the ten days since, I had caught no more squirrels and one more tree had been attacked—severed just below the ground and left to die. They weren’t even eating their prey.

Then came the idea. I received, via email, a forwarded article from the online news source http://www.chattanoogan.com, which read: “City Attorney Randy Nelson said the city has not had an ordinance against firing a gun inside the city limits since the late 1970s or early 1980s.” He went on to say that “the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency has the authority to grant hunting licenses within the city.” Nelson went onto say that, “Nothing precludes a person from shooting a gun within the city limits. Just be sure you know what you are shooting at and aim carefully.”

I had made the decision to escalate the war. I would end the destruction. I would aim carefully.

Before visiting the firearm department I stopped at the information desk.

“Hey, Buddy. What can I do for you?”

“I need a copy of the Tennessee hunting regulations.”

“Sorry, they ain’t out yet.”

“Do you have a copy of last year’s?”

The young man searched through several file cabinets, detouring after each drawer to spit in a trashcan under the time clock (which was obviously dedicated to such action as every other clerk behind the counter did the same after each customer.) He then disappeared for several minutes to check in a back office, returned with an extra large spit and announced that they were all out but, he added, “Come back in July, Buddy. We’ll have one for ya then.”

I thanked him and headed back to the gun department. A long counter set six feet from the wall protected customers from yards of shotguns, rifles and pistols—bolt action, single action, lever action, single barrel, double barrel, over-under, side-by-side, rim fire, center fire, wood grain, camouflage, stainless, blue, automatic and semi-, designed for targets, clays, birds, mammals, collections and self-defense. In the middle of the counter, three salesmen were gathered with a middle-aged customer examining the custom stock on a double barrel twenty gauge which they all agreed was the perfect first shotgun for a twelve-year-old.

“He’ll remember this birthday for the rest of his life.”

Spit.

“I’ll never forget my first one. Still have it. The day I got that gun was the only time ever seen my old man cry—tears and all.”

Spit. Spit.

“I’ll take it.”

“You’re a good father.”

Spit.

“He’ll keep that thing forever.”

“Gimme a box of shells, too…and a cleaning kit.”

“Do you want it gift-wrapped?”

“Could you…”

The men behind the counter laughed and spit and laughed some more. The proud father joined in.

“You got me with that one.”

One of the younger salesmen peeled away from the group, spit in the can behind him, and turned to me.

“Can I help you, Buddy?”

“I need a pellet gun.”

The salesman (I guessed him to be seventeen) came out from behind the counter and led me down an aisle. Along the way I explained my need, having to convince him that I really didn’t need a .22 or a .410 and that no, I wouldn’t be better served by something I could also bird hunt with.

At the end of the aisle was a dizzying array of pellet and bb guns ranging from 450 to 1200 feet per second (fps). Some came in kits with targets, shooting glasses and ammo. Others touted greater velocity than a .22 short. I was drawn to the classic Daisy Red Rider but the salesman convinced me that at 450 fps I would only “piss off the squirrels, and wasn’t accurate enough to hit them, anyway.”

He recommended pellets over bbs and showed me hollow points for greatest damage and gold-plated ones guaranteed to “increase my velocity by up to 350 fps.” I finally settled on a simple Daisy gun that boasted a respectable 750 fps and a box of the least expensive pellets offered. As the salesman hurried back to the spittoon, I made my way toward the checkout lines at the front of the store.

Pausing at the knife counter to look at sharpening stones for the kitchen, I set the gun and ammo down on a nearby bench facing the women’s hunting apparel department. As I perused the sharpeners, I pictured myself taking a bead on one of those squirrels and squeezing the trigger. I remembered the salesman’s words: this one will have plenty of punch to stop it in it’s tracks as long as you hit it in the head. Of course, a good body shot will eventually kill it, but it might take a while…

Looking back at the gun on the bench, I struggled with the image of a suffering squirrel, gasping for breath as it feebly climbs the hackberry to die in its nest. And what if I did make a head shot? What then? Do I bury it in the yard? Do I eat it? I knew I couldn’t bear to clean it. I took a look around the room at all those animals on the wall then glanced back at the gun on the bench. I surveyed the customers around me—fathers and sons testing tree stands, teens with confederate flags on their shirts dreaming of ten point bucks and ten pound bass, men in black boots wondering how fast they could empty and replace a fifteen round magazine.

Heavy hearted, I walked to the front of the store empty-handed. I paused to hold the door for a thirty-something sporting a mullet and a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt. A few feet outside the door, I felt a splash on my sandaled foot and looked down to discover I had stepped in a dark brown puddle. I wiped my foot with the handkerchief in my pocket and got in the car.

Someone once said that, “the best offense is a good defense.” I don’t who that was but I’m guessing it probably wasn’t somebody wearing camouflage and looking for a place to spit.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I found myself behind a truck with a bumper sticker that read: “Gun Control is Being Able to Hit Your Target.” There must be a better way, I thought. On the trip home, I stopped at the store and bought some peanut butter. 

Black Helicopters

I stood atop the tower listening…waiting…checking my watch nervously.  After three days of continuous work, it was Friday afternoon and I had just finished decking the third and top tier of a sixteen-foot-tall tower in the middle of a five acre, wooded, mountaintop lot around which we recently constructed a six-foot privacy fence. Soon we would install a camouflaged tarpaulin roof on the nearly-finished tower. Until then, I would be exposed, naked, vulnerable. 

I had been working on the tower for three days. Each day, the gentleman under whom I was employed worked with me until around three in the afternoon when he would receive a phone call, mumble something about soccer practice, ask if I needed anything, then get in his truck and leave. Within fifteen minutes of his departure, a machinegun-like drone would signal the approach of a single black helicopter, flying low and slow over the trees, passing directly overhead. Forty-five minutes after the mysterious visit, my employer would return.

No credible explanation has yet been given for the construction of what can only be described as a compound. No acknowledgement has been made of the daily helicopter visits, either. Franlky, I’m afraid to ask. But I can’t help wondering what he has to hide, what he hopes to see from his tower, and why he needs overhead camouflage when he looks at whatever it is.

Pondering those questions over coffee last Monday morning, I decided to finish my cup on the front porch from which I could watch early visitors to my bird feeder. I stepped through the doorway and glanced to my right as a Carolina chickadee fled to the refuge of a neighbor’s crepe myrtle. That’s when I noticed the delicate bouquet of flowering basil on the sidewalk. 

The night before, a similar bouquet had nested in a coffee mug which served as a centerpiece for the table on my porch. Turning to my left, I saw that the flowers on the table were gone. So was the mug. Gone, too, were the table and two matching chairs. I scanned the street, walked the alleys, called neighbors and police, made a fresh cup of coffee and sat down on the steps to wait for an officer to arrive.

Needless to say, thoughts of the theft dominated the next couple days, displacing my curiosity about the compound and the helicopters. That’s when Madeline Albright came to town.

The former Secretary of State visited UTC that Tuesday as part of a free-to-the-public lecture series. Ms. Albright gave a half hour speech on 9/11 after which she took questions. I was not able to attend the event, but someone I trust reported back to me that when asked a question about the effectiveness and relevancy of the United Nations in the world today, Ms. Albright began her response with a quick summary of what the UN is not: “The UN is not the agency that sends out black helicopters under the cover of darkness to steal the furniture off of your front porch…”

Be it known that I have never been a conspiracy theorist and without compelling evidence, have tended to dismiss talk of black helicopters as paranoid nonsense. At the same time, however, I have learned not to trust my government. I believe it is our duty as concerned citizens to hold our officials, both elected and appointed, to the highest standards of evidence and honesty. I believe that, had we done a better job of this a few years ago, we might not be at war today.

What I found curious about Ms. Albright’s response was that she was not asked about black helicopters or porch furniture and yet felt a need to bring them up. We have become accustomed to obfuscation and distraction as modus operandi when our government has something to hide. Sometimes, though, when desperate, our leaders lie to us outright. Remember “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction” and “Mission Accomplished?” How about, “I did not have sexual relations…?” 

Whether truth or lies, there is always motive and purpose behind what our elected officials tell us. So, Madam Secretary, what are you trying to hide? What is the UN really up to? And where is my porch furniture?

Keep your eyes to the sky, my fellow Chattanoogans and keep your butts in your porch furniture, lest it fly by night. And if your neighbor decides to turn his property into a walled compound with a watchtower, don’t just write him off as wacko. Listen for the helicopters. He might know something you don’t. 

The Man Store

Two weeks ago I spent two-and-a-half days splitting firewood. Down to the too-long, too-gnarly, too-for-whatever-reason-unsplittable logs that required more than axe, wedge and sledge to rend, and having an uncooperative chainsaw, I needed help. It was time to go to The Man Store.

The Man Store is not the actual name of the business. To protect the innocent and guilty alike, I will not reveal its true identity. If you’ve ever been there, you know already. If you haven’t, you wouldn’t understand anyway. 

If you need to pull the engine out of your Malibu, tear down your garage, build a swing set, re-plumb the kitchen or the whole neighborhood, remodel your Econoline or re-roof your house, The Man Store has what you need. In fact, I’m pretty sure The Man Store has a tool set and all the right adaptors to do all the aforementioned jobs simultaneously. All I needed was chainsaw repair. 

I pulled into the railroad right of way that serves as pickup truck hitching post for The Man Store clientele – a diverse group, likely to be dressed like The Village People and to smell like creosote, sawdust and diesel fuel. As I entered the building, I felt my testosterone level surge. My back straightened and my chest bulged. I sniffed my armpits to make sure I wasn’t clean. I wasn’t. I felt like a man.

Inside, three men were huddled at one end of the counter discussing the BTU to horsepower ratio of competing models of turbojet kerosene shop heaters. I gripped my saw and listened in.

At the other end of the counter, a tall hunchback assisted a woman who had come in to pick up a thingamajig, or maybe a whatyoumacallit, for her husband. She wasn’t sure which it was.

Behind her were two men, one needing an adaptor, the other an extension. I waited patiently as the woman got her somethingorother and the two men were adapted and extended, respectively.

When it was my turn, in a slightly deeper voice than usual, I asked the hunchback what I should do with a chainsaw in need of service. In the line behind me, several burly men in coveralls and one in an Indian headdress nodded appreciatively at the mention of a chainsaw as the hunchback emerged from behind the counter.

“Walk this way.”

I followed Igor as he stepped with his right foot and dragged his left around the perimeter of the store to a long, dark corridor. At the end of the hall, I could see occasional sparks flying into view accompanied by the raspy crackle of raw electricity and I feared that Igor was leading me to the laboratory where Dr. Frankenstein was waiting with the brainsaw. As I opened my mouth to iterate “chainsaw,” my escort turned right through a heavy metal door.

The room before us was much brighter than the dimly lit passageway we had left. Directly in front of us was a narrow counter behind which two men worked methodically with small screwdrivers and solder guns. Igor gestured towards the chainsaw in my hand and one of the technicians shook his head, “Jack’s still in thee hospital. Send him to the garden shop.”

“You fixed it before,” I said. “Well…we left it with you, but this is the first time we tried to use it since getting it back and it won’t start…I mean, it starts, but then it quits.”

Igor looked at the old claim tag, still hanging from the handle of the saw. “Can we pull his record?”

My record, I thought, wondering how in the world they got my record and trying to remember if any of my offenses had been committed with chainsaws. I couldn’t think of any and was relieved when the three of them surrounded a file cabinet and pulled out a very official-looking document and one of them said: “Jeff?”

“No sir. I’m Jim, but that’s okay. People make that mistake a lot. Jeff is my brother.” Then, remembering that the chainsaw belonged to Jeff, I said, “I mean, yes. Jeff. Jeff Pfitzer. It’s his chainsaw.”

The men looked sympathetically at me and then curiously at the form in front of them.

“This is from July…”

“Yes, but we haven’t used it.”

“But it’s from July.”

“But…”

“John worked on this,” one of the men said. “See him.”

“Can I take the record with me?” asked Igor.

“Sure.”

“Walk this way.”

I followed Igor around the counter to another door leading to a graveled alley surrounded by an assortment of prefabricated industrial buildings and old, brick structures. The same electrical sounds I had heard from the end of the hall, reverberated through the manmade canyon. We made our way across the alley towards an open bay door through which the deep, sandy groan of soft steel being turned on a lathe joined the electricity causing another surge of testosterone. Again, my grip on the saw tightened.

Inside, rows of long, black pipes ranging in diameter from one to ten inches and coated in grease lined the wall to our right. I was careful not to brush the ends of the pipes as I followed Igor to the back of the room. There, standing behind a lathe turning threads on a two inch pipe, in the middle of what I’m pretty sure was part of the set from the movie, Flash Dance, stood John.

Igor showed John the official record. John shook his head. “Jack.”

“Jack’s still in the hospital.”

John shrugged at Igor. Igor shrugged at me. I shrugged at noone then turned and followed Igor back out of the building.

This time, we turned left in the alley to a smaller door leading into one of the brick buildings. At the end of another long hallway, we came to the front counter where the BTU to horsepower debate had been joined by the man in the headdress and a police officer, and had taken on much greater intensity.

At the other end of the counter, a very short, stocky man with very little hair was finishing up helping a customer with a 150 foot snake. 

Now there’s a customer who needs no extension, I thought to myself as I nodded to the man leaving with his purchase.

Igor showed the official record to Danny DeVito, who immediately said, “Jack.”

“Jack still has cancer,” Igor and I offered in unison.

“Take it to the repair counter.”

“They sent us to John.”

“Let me see it.”

Igor took his place behind the counter and Danny and I went outside where he tried starting the chainsaw. With one powerful yank, the machine roared to life, but as Danny rolled his eyes at me, it died.

“Does that once a day,” I said. “It won’t start again.”

Danny tried several more times without luck, before taking the saw back inside where he picked up the record he had set on the counter.

“Where’d you get this?”

“The saw?”

“No, this,” he said, holding up the document.

“I didn’t get it. Igor gave it to you.”

“Well, where did he get it?”

“The repair counter.”

“He’s not supposed to have this. Who gave it to him?”

“I don’t know.”

“What did he look like.”

“I don’t know,” I iterated. “The three of them were huddled around the file cabinet. I wasn’t invited.”

“I think I can fix it…but we gotta be legal about it. It has to go in your record.”

“It’s my brother’s record. Not mine.”

DeVito squinted suspiciously, then led me back down the long corridor to the repair counter where he amended the record to include the day’s events then gave me a call tag.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said.

“Thanks.”

I made my way back down the hall and past the front counter. As I left, I held the door for a construction worker in a hard hat, surely on his way to the debate. 

A week later, when I went back to The Man Store, Mr. DeVito still hadn’t “gotten to” my chainsaw. The store was quiet and I didn’t see Danny or Igor so I made the rounds without an escort. I could’ve just grabbed the saw and left, but wanted to take in the whole experience. Down the corridors, through the sparks, across the alley and by the dance floor I went, reminiscing about my last trip and wondering where everyone was. As I opened the door to the hallway that would take me back to the sales floor, a sound stopped me.

Cocking an ear back to the alley, I  heard it. Wafting through the complex, echoing off bricks and steel, music was playing.

Could it be? I asked myself. Indeed, it was. 

It’s fun to stay at the Y—M—C—A! It’s fun to stay at the Y—M—C—A! 

I resisted the urge to put down my saw and throw my hands over my head as I pictured them–Danny, Igor, the Indian and the cowboy, John and all the rest—perfectly choreographed and in sync. 

They might not be able to fix a chainsaw, I thought, but I bet those guys can dance! 

For the Birds

It’s 7:55 a.m. and I’ve been staring at my computer screen for nearly an hour.  Somewhere close by, outside my window, there’s a Carolina wren calling.  Twice, I stepped out on the porch to see, but it hushed as soon as I opened the door and I couldn’t find it.  Each time, as soon as I sat back down, it called again.  I’ve been seeing and hearing them a lot lately, but usually from midday to late afternoon – not at first light.  They talk a lot this time of year, but I don’t hear them singing.  They only repeat a single, harsh, mono-syllabic, grunt, as if they just learned their first word and want to practice it, or maybe they just want to let each other know they’re still there, and haven’t been eaten by a cat or anything.  Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  It doesn’t sound particularly friendly, but they are polite.  One calls, then another.  They rarely talk over each other.  I could learn a lesson in manners from them.

Nearly an hour ago, a cardinal filled the thin morning air with a rich, eager call.  Peterson calls them northern cardinals and describes their call as What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer! But I’m certain these are southern birds.  No northern bird would pronounce “cheer” with two  syllables like these.  It’s more like, What-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er! 

Yesterday, for the first time in several weeks, I saw a pair of Turtle Doves on my street.  Not since November 7th, have I seen two turtle doves anywhere in my neighborhood.  That was the day I found the pile of feathers just north of my front porch – right outside my office window.  Before that, the pair made  daily appearances.  They would land on the porch rail, fly over to the fence between my yard and Miss Lucy’s property, then on to Miss Lucy’s tree and finally, to the bird bath.  After a drink, they would stop one more time on my porch rail before flying south to spend most of their day down on 19th street either in the vacant lot or on one of the telephone lines that cross Mitchell.

Immediately after the murder, I didn’t see either bird for several days.  Then, one morning, I heard the soft, telltale call.  Hoo-hroo, hoo-hrooo.  I ran to the porch to see a single bird flying to a telephone pole two doors down from me.  A single bird.  I had never seen a turtle dove alone before.  They are always in pairs.  I had to fight back the anger I felt toward the cat in order to fully feel sorrow for the dove.  Anger is powerful that way, and as a result, I think that we humans sometimes miss out on the depth and richness of sorrow – a beautiful emotion when anger isn’t drowning it out. 

It’s strange but even now, several weeks later and after he has found a new partner, I still get that heavy feeling in my chest when I think about him out there alone.  And I still get a little angry when I see the black and white cat I pegged for the deed.

I have referred to the lone turtle dove as “he” ever since the murder, but of course I don’t know what sex it is.  Male and Female turtle doves look identical.  I tried calling it “she” but it just didn’t feel right.  I’m sure Freud or Robert Bly could explain why I’m that way.  Of course they would probably also have something to say about my thoughts on anger and sorrow. 

Yesterday there was a hairy woodpecker across the street in one of the big, old trees on the alley.  I wish I could plant big, old trees in my yard to draw the woodpeckers over here.  I talked to the folks at the nursery but they don’t sell “big, old trees.”  I told them that they should.  I think there would be a market for them.

The northern mockingbirds are singing now.  I love their varied, melodic songs and having almost never seen them in Chicago, always associated them with the south and home.  Given my associations with them, I would love to cast them as southerners too, but I don’t really have a good argument for changing their name – definitely not as solid an argument as for the cardinal.  In fact, I could more easily argue the contrary.  They certainly don’t exhibit good southern manners – always making fun of the other birds, chasing after the crows, talking out of turn.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing northerners.  I’m just drawing a contrast between acceptable southern behavior and the behavior of mockingbirds.  That’s all.  Some of the best mannered people I know are northerners.  Linda O’Callahan, for instance and Gail Permenter.  Lovely, northern women with delightful manners… 

There are three empty lots across the street from me.  All three are owned by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises and all are for sale.  Yesterday, men with chainsaws and a chipper cut down nearly every tree, bush, and hedge on all three properties, reduced them to chips and drove away with the remains.  The sparrows loved the hedges and the grackles and starlings filled the trees.  Mockingbirds and cardinals frequented the bushes.  If I were building a house on one of those lots, I would want the habitat.  I’m relieved that they at least left the two biggest, oldest trees.  The new property owners will be able to plant bushes, but not big, old trees.

The wrens are calling again. Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  I wish they would say something else.  When they want to, they are capable of singing a beautiful song. I think they might be sad about the missing trees.  Or, perhaps they’re mourning murdered neighbors. Or, maybe all they’re saying is “Hey! Hey!Hey! Hey! Hey!”

An Office in Town

Living in Chicago, I heard the same things nearly every day.

“Don’t call me ma’am” 

“I can get the door for myself.” 

“Do I look like an old lady to you?”

Each time, I would try to explain. “It’s not about age,” I would insist. “You could be four years old or ninety-for, and I would address you the same.  It’s about respect.”  

“Well it makes me feel old.  Don’t use that language with me!”

“Yes ma’am.”

(glare)

(cringe)

“I’m sorry. It’s the way I was raised… I’ll try to do better.”

Then I moved back home.  In Chattanooga, I am thanked for opening doors, appreciated for saying ma’am, and addressed as “sir.”  Finally, a culture that appreciates me!

Two weeks ago, I walked to the bank to pay my mortgage.  They (the bank) had just moved into a new location in an historical building in the heart of downtown  While I was there I stepped in back to congratulate Doug, the loan officer who had approved my mortgage.  He was clearly proud of the new digs and took me directly to the corner office.

“This is mine.  Beats the heck out of the all-in-one-room space we had up the block, doesn’t it?”

“You bet it does. This is nice.  You’re moving up in the world.”

He then directed me to a closed door next to his.

“And this, sir,” he said, slowly opening the door, squeezing the drama from a pregnant pause, “is your office.”

The cherry desk and high-backed leather chair were a bit grand compared to my customs, but the earth-toned leaf print on the walls definitely made me feel at home and the street-level window looking across Georgia Avenue and up the parkway to the east shed perfect morning light on a spacious suite.

“Everything is in disarray now, but by Monday we’ll have the room arranged and comfortable so you can move right in.”

Back out in the lobby, my friends Tom, Chris and Moriah were waiting for me.  I wanted to fetch them, to show off my new space, but I didn’t want to end up being the butt of a joke.

“Don’t toy with me Doug.  If you tell me this is my office, I’ll be here with my laptop and thermos Monday morning and expect it to be available.”

“I’m serious, man.  It’s yours.”

In a moment, my friends were following me down the hallway to where Doug was waiting.  Introductions were made and then Doug gestured to the open door.

“How do you like Jim’s new office?”

While we were in the in the bank it was agreed by all that it was indeed a nice space – a perfect place  for me to write, but back out on the street, my three companions pressed me for the truth.

“It’s not really yours… is it?”

“No, it is.  Really.  Doug was serious.  It’s my office.”

“But… why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“Well, you don’t work for the bank, do you?”

“No, but they have an empty office and I need a place to write.”

“In the bank?”

“Yeah.  In the bank.”

Tom shook his head.  “Man,” he said “This is way too much like Mayberry.”

I whistled a bar of the Andy Griffith theme song to the laughter of all.

“Now do you see why I moved back to Chattanooga?”

I have a philosophy that has become a bit of a mantra.  People who know me well have often heard it expressed: That’s why there’s more than one of us on the planet.  Put simply, it means this: If I have it and you can make better use of it than I can at the moment, I should make it available to you.  It’s just the right thing to do.  Whether it’s something as big and expensive as a car or something as simple as a pocketknife or a pencil, or as intangible as a listening ear, we ought to provide for one another, take care of each other.  If we don’t do that, what is the point of there being more than one of us in the planet?

Doug had an office.  I could use a space in which to write.  He made the office available to me.  The world is a better place.

Last week I was sick and didn’t feel like getting out of the house if it wasn’t necessary.  Wednesday morning I got a concerned phone call from Doug.

“Where are you?  Is everything Ok?”

“I’m a little under the weather.  I’d best stay home.”

“I’m sorry.  You know you’re office is ready and waiting when you get well.”

“Thanks.  I’m sure I’ll be in next week.”

This morning, having recovered, I showed up at the office.  There were cookies on the desk waiting for me.  As I sat down, Doug asked me if I wanted the door closed.

“No sir. I have an open door policy.”

“Ok, but if people walk in, you know you can’t make loans or access the bank computer.” 

“Got it.”

“Feel free to use the high speed internet, though.”

“Thanks. I will.  And let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

As he went back to his office, I could hear Doug chuckling.  I poured a cup of coffee, opened my laptop and started writing. The words came easily. 

I have never shared my more-than-one-person-on-the-planet philosophy with Doug or asked about his own values, but I suspect they are similar to mine.  His actions certainly suggest as much.  Makes me feel good about having borrowed money from him.

I don’t know how long I will be able to stay in this office – a couple of weeks, maybe a month, Doug isn’t sure – but as long as I am here, I hope people will stop by for a visit.  It’s a comfortable place with two very nice guest chairs, and the bank staff is very friendly.  And besides, I have way more cookies than I need.

Two Knucklehead Theory

I believe that two knuckleheads are better than one knucklehead. I often share this theory with someone after working together to solve a problem.  For the two mail carriers on my route, however, the theory doesn’t seem to apply.  Despite numerous attempts to correct them, they brought me yet another bill from the gynecologist today.  Like the others, I wrote “not at this address” on the envelope and put it back in the box. 

Several years ago my Dad, an undisputed tough guy, was out fishing by himself when he got a treble hook in the quick of his thumb.  It was in past the barb.  Being in a pretty remote area, and wanting to deal with it right away, he didn’t go to a doctor.  Instead, he stopped at the first grocery store he could find.  Luckily, in the parking lot was another tough guy.  They put their heads together and soon the guy was pulling out the hook with a pair of pliers.    And how fortunate to be so close to a place that sold bandages and triple antibiotic ointment!  Two knuckleheads.  Problem solved.  Theory proven

Today, my dad called to say that he had cut his hand at work on Saturday and wouldn’t be able to go fishing as a result.  “But don’t worry,” he assured me, “I stopped by the ob-gyn and had it sewn up.  It only took three stitches.”  I was a little confused and asked him to clarify.  “It’s ok,” he reassured.  “They were very nice.  And they didn’t even have to put me in the stirrups.”  I wondered where he would have gone if his tooth hurt.  The proctologist?

Later, at the store, I ran into my good friend Karen.  When I asked her how she was doing she replied, “I’m Ok.”

Her reply lacked conviction, so I asked her again.

“How are you really?”

This time she opened up.  It had not been an ok day.  It had been a day that began with a delivery driver jumping off the loading dock and sticking a nail through his foot.  It was early and nobody was there to help him.

“But everything worked out,” she said.  “The veterinarian next door pulled out the nail, cleaned him up and gave him some medicine.”

I didn’t ask, but couldn’t help wondering if the poor guy was instructed by the doc to hide his pills in a ball of dog food and then mix it in with the rest of his supper.

I guess that sometimes, knucklehead or not, it’s just a good thing there’s more than one of us on the planet, even if the other guy doesn’t practice the exact medicine you think you need at the moment.  Like Mick Jagger says, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some times, you just might find… you get what you need.”

Next time I’ll double-check the name on that ob-gyn bill in the mailbox.  You never know, it might be for my dad.  And I just might be the knucklehead who needs to deliver it to him.

Will that be Tall or Grande?

For many the traveler (and perhaps even more so for the traveling artist or entertainer) an important role is played on the road by coffee—that friend that wakes us in the morning, keeps us alert behind the wheel, picks us up for the next gig, keeps us going. And while I don’t drink it in the hours immediately preceding a gig, any other time coffee provides that combination of stimulant and old familiar friend for me in much the same way that public radio and spring creeks ground me, pick me up and pique my creative sensibilities anywhere I go.

 As important as the drink is in my travels, the coffeehouse serves an equally significant function.  A perennial source of artistic energy, caffeine and wireless internet, the coffeehouse de jour, like the trout stream and the NPR station, grounds me, calms me, focuses me and keeps me in touch.

When time allows, I love seeking out the local coffeehouses.  There, the internet is usually free, the clientele predictably free-thinking, the music usually independent, and the coffee beans are rarely over roasted.  There, I feel at home.

But let’s face it, there isn’t always time to do the research and driving to find that oasis. Often, the local house is on the other side of town—out of the way and inaccessible in the time available. 

Enter Starbucks.

Yes, Starbucks.  I don’t drink their coffee.  It is always way over-roasted for my taste.  I don’t understand their menu board and they don’t understand what it means when I order anything in the “regular” size.  They ask if I want a grande, which sounds really big, but then a tall sounds even bigger and I have no clue what venti means.  Their tea wears labels such as zen and calm and when asked,  they are all green.  Unless they are chamomile, in which case they smell alarmingly like mint.  But the cake is usually good, the chai is predictably sweet and the chairs are always comfortable.  Unfortunately, the internet comes at a cost – $9.99 for twenty-four consecutive hours.  In other words, Ten bucks for twenty minutes – usually all the time I need to check email and send a response or two. 

I have been to two Starbucks in the last two days.  The first one, a suburban strip mall joint, played reggae so loud that I couldn’t concentrate.  I asked them to turn it down and they very quickly and politely obliged, but just as quickly the volume of the baristas increased so that I was hearing the sexual exploits, preferences and wishes of the teenaged staff over the music complete with the most colorful of language bandied about as if they were in their parent’s basement drinking cheap beer.  Looks were shared among the customers and several got up and left.  I stuck it out but was not very productive.

The next day I visited a smaller, urban ‘bucks.  It was morning rush hour and there was a line of professionals being hustled efficiently through the assembly line by a young woman who knew half of them by name and knew the preferred drinks of half of those.  When I reached the counter, I was unsure of what drink I wanted.  Definitely no caffeine.  I scanned the board several times for tea offerings before finally spying a row of boxes behind the barista.  I had to lean over the counter in order to read the labels.

“What do you want, Honey?”

“What is Zen?”

“Green tea.”

“Envy?”

“Green tea.”

“China Green Tips?”

“Green Tea.”

“Om?”

“Green Tea.  Which one do you want, Honey?”

“Do you have Sencha?”

“No, Honey.  We have Envy, Zen, Om…”

“That’s Ok.  How about Chamomile?”

“What size?”

I held up my cup.

“One bag or two, Honey?  People are waiting.”

“Make it two.”

She pulled two bags from a box labeled “Calm,” dropped them into my cup, and added steaming water.  As she handed it to me, the aromas of apple and mint found their way to my nose.  I sensed no chamomile, but I didn’t question it. People were waiting, after all.

“Thanks, Honey,” I said, but she didn’t hear.  She had already moved on to the next one.

“What can I get you, Honey?”

I left the shop and headed down the street to the festival.  It was raining and cool and the warm travel mug felt good in my hand.  Comforting.  Grounding, even.  

Cockroach Hunter

It’s remarkable how convincingly, at 3:30 in the morning, a dead, brown, rolled up leaf can pass for a monster cockroach – complete with layered, translucent, glistening wings; curiously twitching antennae; flexed and ready legs prepared to jet across the floor in search of my bare foot or the nearest crevasse.  Even more remarkable is how quickly my heart leapt into my throat at the first sight of it.

But more amazing still is that less than three minutes after my first encounter I returned from the kitchen with a glass of water and suffered the exact same reaction to the exact same leaf.

Now, at 3:45 in the morning, with my heart racing but my thirst quenched, I sit at the computer writing rather than sleeping because it will be a while before my pulse quiets enough for me to resume sleep and laying awake in the dark thinking about roaches just ain’t my cup of tea!

I will remain awake, probably for the remaining 105 minutes until my alarm goes off because I can’t stop thinking about a non-biting, non-stinging, nonpoisonous and by all accounts harmless insect.  Which, as far as I know, isn’t even in my apartment.

When I was 16 years old I worked for a short while in a to-remain-unnamed fast food restaurant in Chattanooga – one of a young, growing southern chain specializing in chicken filet sandwiches and fresh-squeezed lemonade.  Our store prided itself in its cleanliness and was particularly sparkling on this particular week as we had just scoured the entire place in anticipation of a visit from some of our company honchos from down in Georgia which had at the last minute been cancelled.

It therefore came as quite a surprise when Will, my best friend and one of the closing crew, spotted a medium-sized cockroach on the wall in the back room, right next to where we breaded filets for frying.  Had our manager been there, I’m certain we would have quickly killed the intruder and alerted the captain, but on this night the closing authority was Michelle – a young girl no older than myself who was new to the job and not one we saw any need to impress or brown nose.  So, rather than kill it, we decided to catch it.

I approached the roach with a cup my hand, thinking that I would trap in against the wall, slip a piece of paper underneath the cup and then pull the cup and paper away from the wall with the roach safely trapped.  The first part of the plan went as prescribed and the roach was swiftly and easily trapped, but as I was about to slip the paper underneath, I realized that  the roach had never moved – not at my approach, as the cup came down around it, not even now that it was trapped. This, of course, raised several questions.

Clearly a great deal of air pressure would have been created by the slamming of the cup.  Could this pressure have squeezed the exoskeletal armor of the roach enough to have caused internal damage, killing the roach instantly?  Could the trauma induced by the simple knowledge of being captured been enough to cause cardiac arrest and death?  And if either of these things had happened, wouldn’t a dead roach fall off the wall?  And if a dead roaches don’t fall off walls, was the roach dead when we discovered it and if so, why don’t we see dead roaches all over walls everywhere roaches live?  And, perhaps most importantly, if it was already dead, did it die from eating the chicken?

After pondering these questions for a minute or two, we decided to remove the cup and see for ourselves if the roach was alive or dead. Expecting a mad dash behind the shelves, I was flanked by Will and Kevin, each double-fisting cups  and prepared to quickly re-contain the prisoner should it escape.

Slowly I lifted the tomb.  The roach remained motionless on the wall.  A ploy?  We watched it for a few seconds then Will poked it with one of his cups.  It took off running.  And fast.  Luckily, Kevin was there and slammed another cup down over her.  We could hear it scurrying around the perimeter of her cell. One lap.  Two laps.  Three. Four. Then silence.  After a minute passed without any movement, Kevin lifted his cup.  Once again, she did not move.  Then I got a great idea.

“Let’s tape it to the wall.”

We didn’t discuss my proposal.  We didn’t need to.  Will went to the desk and found a roll of packing tape then came back to the wall where Kevin had replaced the cup just to be sure and I was standing guard in case… well… just in case.  Will tore off a piece of tape and handed it to me.  Kevin lifted the cup.   In one swift motion I placed the tape over the roach, sealing it against the wall on all sides.

We stood silently and proudly over the victim of our prowess for a moment until Michelle looked around the corner and suggested that we get back to work, which we did.

This all happened on a Saturday. The restaurant was closed on Sunday and Will, Kevin and I were off on Monday and Tuesday.  Now one might expect that the Monday morning crew, upon seeing a roach taped to the wall in the back room would take appropriate measures to remove the offense.  One might also think that our boss would have had questions for us.  But on Wednesday, when the three of us returned to work, the roach was still taped to the wall and there were no questions, no comments.

Now there were several possible motivations for why none of our coworkers removed the tape and the roach – curiosity, fear, entertainment value… just to name a few.  And it is entirely likely that our boss simply never noticed the tiny transparent tomb given that his job did not frequently include breading filets.  Whatever the reason the others had for leaving it, we decided for the same reason that led us to capturing it that we too would leave it there.

A week after the night of the capture, the roach was still entombed (and presumed dead) and Michelle strongly suggested that we remove it from the wall.  The dignitaries from Georgia had not come the  previous week as expected, she explained, and it was rumored that they had re-scheduled for the following Monday.  We agreed that we did not want them to arrive and find a dead roach taped to the wall above the breading station and I volunteered for disposal duty.

The tape was still sealed on all sides of the roach, just as when I had applied and there was no sign of any struggle.  The roach was perfectly archived there and I assumed that removing the tape would remove the roach as well and then I could just toss the whole lot into the trash.  But to my surprise, the tape came off smoothly and the roach stayed on the wall…  and then… began… to run.  After a week of food and oxygen deprivation, the roach was alive, aware, and off to the races, moving faster and straighter than I had ever seen (or have since seen) a roach or any other insect move.  This time, unfortunately, I had no protection on my flanks and no cup of my own and the roach made a beeline for the shelves, behind which it disappeared, never to be seen again.

Two years after my roach encounter, I found myself living for one semester on the campus of Tennessee Technological University where my dorm held the distinction of producing for several years running, the winner of the all-campus cockroach race.  I suggested to the captain of our team that research I conducted while in high school, uncovered the secret to cockroach training and I thereby guaranteed that if given the opportunity, I could produce the fastest cockroach TTU had ever seen.  But I was a freshman, he was an upper classman and my chicken-feeding-followed-by-deprivation training regimen would not be followed.  So our cockroach was trained without my assistance or advice and finished third – breaking our string of victories.  And although my dorm-mates were humiliated, I was somehow satisfied with the knowledge that, if given the chance… just maybe… I could’ve won that race.

Now, almost exactly twenty years later, I’m reminded of all this at 3:30 in the morning because I was frightened by a dry, brown, rolled up leaf on my dining room floor and more questions are surely begged.  Had that leaf been a roach, what was there to be afraid of?  Perhaps the idea, twenty-two years ago, that a roach was able to defy death and live to be a champion is somehow frightening to me – that any creature could exhibit even the possibility of immortality.

Or maybe roaches are just plain creepy and I don’t want them creeping around my house, in the dark, when I’m usually asleep or, if awake, barefoot!  But now it’s morning and the sun will be up soon so I’m going to put on my shoes and make some tea.

A Visit with Wren

Of all the people I have met since moving back to Chattanooga, I can say without hesitation or apology that I have a favorite.  His came is Wren. I have always tended to connect with children and dogs more quickly than adults.  Birds, too, come to think of it, but despite his name, Wren is not a bird.  He is a little boy.  I asked Wren how he got his name, and without looking up from the superhero postage stamps he was studying, he replied, “A bird.”

I asked him what kind of bird he was named after.   

“I like Green Lantern,” he said.

Hoping to find the answer on my own, I started listing the wrens.”

“Winter wren?”

No response.

“Cactus?”

Nothing.

“House wren? Carolina?  Sedge? Marsh?”  

Wren was paying no attention to my inquisition, so I turned my attention to his superheroes.

“How come he’s green?” 

Wren looked up, shrugged, then looked back to his stamps.

“And what’s with the lantern?”

“It’s cuz he’s the Green Lantern.” 

Wren rolled his eyes at the pointlessness of my question just as his mother, Heidi, who had been listening from a few feet away joined the conversation. 

 “What’s your full name, Wren?”

 “I don’t like Aqua Man.” 

“What’s not to like about Aqua Man?” I asked. “Aqua Man is my favorite.  He can talk to the whales, the squids, the dolphins.  And they talk back, too.”

Wren looked up from the stamps.  His father, Stuart, stopped chopping peppers and looked over from the kitchen. 

“Wouldn’t you rather be able to fly?”  Stuart asked.

“Yeah, I’d fly.” chimed Wren. “Why would you want to talk to fish?”

 “Oh, come on, guys, imagine the impact I could have on the world if I could talk to the whales.  I mean, how do you think they feel about over-fishing?  About global warming?  And what about all that noisy sonar?  That must drive them crazy!  Just think, If they had a way to communicate with us – about what we are doing to their home.  Imagine being such an advocate! The responsibility and potential! There would be no more arguing about our impact.  We would have to respond – to change things.”

I was feeling pretty good about my decision to back Aqua Man – the altruism of it! – when his father spoke up.

“Yeah, imagine requesting a meeting with the president so you can tell him that you’ve been talking with the whales and there’s some things they want him to know. That’ll change the world.” 

“Is it Canyon Wren?” Heidi asked him.

“Can the Green Lantern fly?”

“It’s Canyon Wren,” she said to me.

“I would have gotten there. Eventually,”  I responded.  “Cool name.  Hey, how fast is the Green Lantern?”

“Bobickly!” said Wren excitedly.

“Bobickly?”

Wren looked at his father and grinned.  Clearly, they knew something I didn’t.

“And just how fast is bobickly fast?”

Wren looked at me with a furrowed brow.

 “It’s a noun,” offered Stuart.

“Ok. I get it.  What is a bobickly?”

Wren smiled.

“I’ll show you.”

Wren got up from the floor and walked over to the door.  I thought maybe he had a bobickly out on the porch and was going to retrieve it until he stopped and turned around.

“Watch behind him,” said Stuart.

 Wren took off running as fast as he could across the room.

At 5 years old, Wren couldn’t run all that fast, but I understood what they were after. 

“Wow!  It’s like you blurred.  Like you were everywhere at once!”

“That’s a bobickly!” they proclaimed together.

“Aqua Man doesn’t get bobicklies, does he?” I asked. 

“Nope.  Not fast enough.  And he can’t fly, either.”

“He can breathe underwater, though…”

“Tell me a story.”

“Only if you put the stamps away.”

Wren was reluctant, but I held my ground and with Stuart’s encouragement, he put the stamps away. Then, together, we told the story of Mr. Wiggle and Mr. Waggle – a tale of best friends who moved so fast through the mountains to see each other that they left bobicklies in their wake.  The story ended just as it does every time, just the way it was taught to me by Jim May:

“…good night, Mr. Wiggle.”

“Good night, Mr. Waggle.”

Cause they were best friends!

By the time we had finished the story, Stuart had finished making supper and I needed to go home.  I put on my shoes, said goodbye and headed out the door.  As I got to the bottom of the steps, I heard the door open and I looked back.

Wren was standing in the doorway waving, with a big grin on his face.

“Goodnight Jim!”

“Goodnight Wren!”

Cause we were best friends!