Americans don’t have a “Day of the Dead” or “Remembrance Day” like so many other countries. However, Croatia, where I live now, does. On November 1st, Croatians, my wife included, light candles and leave them in their windows, and take lanterns and flowers to the gravesites of their loved ones.
November 1st is marked on my calendar with the other Croatian holidays and it became the day on which I remember my father. I can’t visit him, none of us can, realistically, mom is too old for the trip and it’s just too far for Eric and Sophia. Instead we will have someone place a wreath for him at Arlington and mom will get a card. It’s what I can do on November 1st.
Arlington National Cemetery Ronald Blaine Schmidt Colonel, US Army Birth Date: 07/17/1939 Death Date: 02/28/2017
I’m watching the people, having my coffee and watching the people. It’s what you do. You sit, smoke your cigarette slowly letting most of it burn away between intermittent inhales and sip your coffee, also slowly, demonstrating to the world watching you, sit and sip, that you have time, time in the afternoon to do so. And you watch the people, the tall ones, the short ones, the fat and skinny, old and young, dressed to impress, or for work, or as if it was an afterthought altogether, you watch as they walk by. It’s what everyone does when it’s sunny, when it’s gray, day or night, everyday.
Among the overdressed, dressed to be seen, tall skinny, jeaned and heeled, booted and t-shirted, phone attached business cafe casual, walking or sitting; are the others in between who work more to be seen but are inevitably harder to see.
A very old man in a gray overcoat and hat made his rounds at the cafe with a small ceramic candy dish in his hand asking for money. Almost invisible, to almost everyone; except for the woman behind him waiting to pimp her baby to the same string of café coffee sipping customers. I saw her. She eyed him with the contempt of someone who feels encroached upon as if begging pity were territorial. She watched, then moved on knowing that she would do better to get ahead of the old guy at the next café since there’s only so much to expect from café customers, best to get there first.
I watched him. He wasn’t typical, dressed as best he could, hair neat, hat straight, jacket, overcoat, old, tired, walking slowly but standing straight, clear eyed. As he went from one table to the next looking at the customers I wondered what I would do when he got to me. Then he answered my question.
At the next table, a group of four business casual, late after lunch coffee, meeting-discussing-something-important forty-somethings gave him a bit of change, a small bit, maybe ten Lipa, nothing, from the change on their table. The old man looked in the ceramic candy dish at the coin and a look of dignity and contempt came over his face, a look that said ‘I am old and poor. My world was different than yours and these are my circumstances. Yes, I am asking you for money but this, this single coin is not worth the effort I’ll have to exert to carry it. From you it is an insult, to my age and to what I’ve seen that came before you.’ With a wave of his hand he added without saying a word, ‘For you I prefer to remain invisible.’ Slowly, arthritically , he removed the ten Lipa coin from his ceramic dish and placed it on the table with an exaggerated flourish, firmly deliberately, resulting in a nicely audible bronze against wood click, and dismissed them.
He didn’t come to my table after that. Instead he haltingly pushed forward to the next cafe, likely taking his place behind the baby pimping woman with the evil eyes. I finished my coffee and thought about the things I needed to buy at the market.
On my way home, dodging style conscious bag toting shoppers looking for the names they know on shop windows, and various young and old, smoking, walking, hurried and slow, I passed a woman sitting in front of a name-you-know lingerie shop with her left pant leg rolled up revealing a prosthesis, an outstretched hand and upward looking, searching eyes. I see her from time to time.
Beyond her and ahead of me, working towards the next café I see the old man again and I think about dignity and food, and what he’s seen that I can’t imagine, and walking around everyday missing someones and somethings, and asking for coins, and old, old eyes, old hands. I gave him a pocket full and some paper for my thoughts and ignorance.
I wrote this a couple of years ago. It’s a fictional story but something very much like this did happen to me in the late ‘90’s in Colorado. Same car, I was speeding. I was testing the car after a wash and shop visit, and I didn’t have my license when I got pulled over. I was wearing sweatpants, not golf shorts. I don’t play golf. I did get a ticket and a court summons and, while he never said so, the officer who wrote the ticket didn’t show up at traffic court so the ticket was dismissed. And, yes, he did ask about my car and we talked for a little while. Not the first time that’s happened. (Once in Georgia, the ticketing officer let me use the laser speed gun while we chatted about the car and he wrote me a “warning!”)
So, the Porsche was in the shop last week and they just dropped it off. They washed it of course. It was kind of a boring day. I had been lying around in my boxers and a tee shirt doing nothing, and from the couch, through the window, sitting out front, the car looked so shiny and nice. I thought I’d just put in the garage you know. But I sat down and the seat felt so natural. I heard myself making engine noises and then I remembered I had the keys, you know, it’s my car. It’s Saturday, the sun is shining. I’ll go for a drive, I thought. Just around the neighborhood.
Well then, what do you know? I got pulled over. Okay, okay, I was going fast, I think like 115 in a 65, I was watching the tach, listening to the engine, the window was down, and the air was like fast, you know.
Anyway, the cop comes up with all this cop attitude and he’s like,
“Um, good evening sir, I hate to trouble you, but would you know why I asked you to pull over this evening?”
In my head I was like, what, yeah, I was going kind of fast, is that a problem? Police state bullshit.
“Yes, officer, I apologize, I now realize I may have exceeded the speed limit and that was irresponsible.”
Again, cop with all of this authority, the man coming down on me, he’s all like,
“Sir, yes, I’m sure it was unintentional, but it is my responsibility as an officer of the peace to occasionally remind citizens of their own responsibilities while on the road.”
Yeah. Big man. Chip on his shoulder and all that.
“Sir, I deeply regret but since I pulled you over, I have to issue some sort of citation. The laser said that you were going about 110 when I saw you…”
My ass 110, at least 115, lying pig.
“… but as we both know you couldn’t possibly have intended to go that fast so I’m going to issue the citation for 74. You’ll have to pay a small fine but your insurance won’t go up. May I see your license and registration?”
Aaaaayaaaa – I’m still in my boxers. No license. Start the car, I can be a mile away before he knows what happened.
“Oh, goodness officer, you won’t believe this, I seem to have left my driver’s license in my golf shorts at the house. Please accept my sincerest apology. I do have a Facebook photo of me and the car at the Grand Canyon on my phone if that helps.”
Here it comes, out of the car, face down on the ground, police jackboot pressed into my lower back. I’ll sue. I’ll sue the whole state. Don’t touch me pig!
“Sir, that is troubling. I tell you what. You seem like a normal sort of guy with good taste in cars. We both know this was an accident, so if you’ll just tell me your name and address, I’ll look up your license information later. By the way, what year is your Porsche?”
So, this is it. Surveillance state. Look it up man. You got all my info. Get on the supercomputer. Dig in. What did I have for breakfast mother fucker?
“It’s an ’83, officer. Air cooled.”
Unbelievable. Is this extortion? Corrupt cops. Pay up or be sucked into the bureaucracy. Authority state shit.
“It’s a fine car. Please be careful out there. Hey, and sorry about the ticket. I tell you what, if you go to court, I probably won’t even show up to support it so everything will get dismissed.”
I’ll write my congressman. Nobody should have this kind of power over me. This is America god dammit.
“Thank you, officer. That’s very kind. Have a nice day and be safe.”
The few true encounters which have been like this in some ways kind of make me think, what if DWB instead of DWW? (And that life is so fucked up…)
Danny Middleton, you fucking asshole. All those things we did. Nobody saw any of it but us. Clearlake, motorcycles, mountains, forest, cabins in the trees on the ski runs, skiing, more skiing, getting stoned, and more stoned. Durango.
You taught me how to ride a motorcycle – stupidly and dangerously. I saw so much because of things we did that I never would have been able to see otherwise. Riding those bikes through the weather up to Silverton and then back over the passes – Bear, Ophir. Fuck, we rode far. Fuck, were we stupid. We could have died a million times and yet it was one of the best things I’ve ever done or ever will do. I can still smell it. If I sit back and close my eyes I can feel it. Hermosa Creek Trail. You can’t turn around even if you want to. I learned how to commit myself on that trail. Maybe I knew some, but that taught me more, taught me that I can make it if I jump, if I jump hard and fast and don’t look back or hesitate.
You were light as a feather on that bike and in those skis. Grace, if grace could be a complete disaster in every other way, genuine, honest, if honest meant knowing most of your limitations. Late… fucking always late. Sitting in the car, waiting so we could beat the traffic up to the ski area, so we could park well… so we could ski fresh out back; and late, always late, but it ended up working out anyways. I used to get so mad.
Ready to go? Let’s get our helmets on and do this before the buzz wears off and I lose my courage. Revving bikes, passing joints, Colorado in our noses, lungs, and heads. My heart pounding, a tunnel through the trees. You can’t turn around. Twenty years later dreaming about that ride still wakes me up at night.
So may places… It was like nobody had ever been there before. A dry creek bed up to the top of a mountain, a lake, bright yellow spring flowers, clear, clear water, greenish, brownish reflecting trees and rocks and snow in July. Blessed to see it, to take one photo, to share it – Danny Middleton you fucking asshole. Thank god there’s a photo. At least one fucking photo.
Who will I look up when I go back to Durango? Fuck. If I go back to Durango? What’s in Durango for me? Nothing but old dreams and no proof, no one to reminisce or relive with. Maybe, yeah, I know my way around – there was my old apartment, and another time I lived across the river over there. This is the grocery store I went to. They had good sushi sometimes, well as good as it’s going to be. I was lonely in that bar over there, that one too. Danny’s bar was there on the corner. They had bands sometimes. I never met any girls there, well, Terri. Anyway…
Life is so stupid. I remember riding our bikes up 550 heading north, past the valley and going up, sun to our right and behind us. I’m following – mostly because I’m somehow less stupid. You’re in front leaning back on the bike, feet outstretched spread-eagle, top gear, full throttle, uphill. It’s cold and warm at the same time. The sun is on your back. I see the black seat, the orange rear fender, the license plate dirty, the light broken. I remember we’d go all the way to Silverton. It would take an hour, then we’d tank up, smoke some, eat a sandwich or something and then ride into the woods. No map, no compass, no cell phones, nothing but jackets a knife or two, some rope and a trail. Stupid. Beautiful. Hours, slowly. Sometimes I fell, sometimes it rained. Sometimes I was scared of what we were trying to do but I did it because I didn’t know what else I’d do if I didn’t.
Do you remember that ski jump where we flew over that blind ridge, caught air and then shot over and across the green trail that was going down? Fuck. I still have nightmares about that one too. I don’t know how fast we went. In my dream or memory or whatever it is, I remember how we tucked, got speed, shot around, took a last look between the trees to see the crossing trail hoping it was clear – but it was already too late – then launched ourselves over. So fast, so fast. Any mistake, anything out of the ordinary and that’s it… and silence on the lift back up. Pass the pipe. Want to get some pizza? No, let’s do that again, this time over the bumps off course and through the trees. Fuck it. Grace and lightness I worked so hard for, struggled for and never had. Meet my force, push and focus on nothing else. Give me your two minutes of adrenaline straight down, nothing to think about except the next bump, ridge, patch of ice or powder, ditch, trees, more trees, rocks… release control and let the skis run. Sure Danny, I’ll follow you. Sure. Fuck it.
Denny’s at three AM? Why not? We’re about drunk and it’s just there on the way. It will be better to eat something before going to sleep. Want to ski tomorrow? That was a good band. Thanks for letting me in.
Danny Middleton died in 2009 in a fire in his apartment. The last time I saw him was in 2001. I moved to London in 2002, then back to Savannah in 2004. I learned about his death from Google in 2013 before a trip out west with my (now) wife.
I love our dogs. They are my best friends. Dogs are better than people. These are things I think. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.
It seems dogs are more loved and revered than ever. I find stories and articles about dogs every day in all sorts of media. Scientific: Do dogs love us? Do they think? What do they think? How did we “domesticate” them? Emotional: Dog saves woman from cougar. Dog food company sends condolences and flowers after dog’s passing. Dog visits former caretaker’s grave site every day. Dog takes bus to city on their own.
There’s a burgeoning industry around dog ownership. It’s been ‘burgeoning’ for a while now. There are endless indispensable accessories. (Note: One of our dogs has 3 sets of shoes that we used to protect his feet when he had a serious pad and nail condition.) Both of our dogs have rain coats, multiple harnesses, entire cupboards full of treats and toys… And why not? Some of these things are really helpful and we love our dogs.
I wonder though, do we love our dogs too much? Do we love them more than we love other people? Have we anthropomorphized our dogs to the point of withdrawing or re-appropriating feelings that we should have for each other? Our dogs, who love us unconditionally we’re told, who never hold grudges, who trust us, who won’t betray or plot against us, who will never lie to us, who would gladly die for us, are they now the repository for feelings we formerly had for each other, our neighbors, coworkers, peers, and friends?
Relying on media which wholly profits from all that is scandalous in human character makes us wary. We are compelled to be cautious, check trust, question loyalty, stay vigilant for betrayal and watchful for deceit. Around people, we withhold. But it is our nature not to and our feelings need an outlet. Our dogs.
The unconditional love that we have convinced ourselves that we receive from our dogs is a cool relief from the wariness that we have been told to, and now must, retain for each other. It is what gives us the freedom to love them, unconditionally. Somehow though, it doesn’t seem quite right to have elevated our dogs into a position of having better moral character than us. Like, if only we (other people because I’m fine) were as true as our dogs, how much better the world would be… Sad. Still, I love my dogs and they are better people than my neighbors. Would I be a better person if I didn’t feel that way? Probably.
Disclaimer: I know not everyone loves dogs. It’s okay.