Sunday, June 26, 2011

I Used to Steal

My parents don't know this but I used to steal. It was nothing big, nothing that could ever get me in serious trouble with the law, mostly just candy. It wasn't something I did a lot, just something I did when I was really jonesing for some sugar and didn't have any money. And what 8 year old actually has money? And besides I almost never got caught.


I was obsessed with candy as a child. I used to get a 2 dollar allowance for doing my chores which included cleaning the bathroom and taking out the trash. I spent most of it on a candy called Nerds, tiny neon colored shaped pebbles of pure sugar. I bought boxes and boxes, often finishing them before I could walk the 2 blocks back to my house. I also bought War Heads and Tear Jerkers and other violently named candy.

I remember one night being in the car with my family coming home from some function. We all were in our usual seats. Dad was driving, I was in the backseat behind him, mom rode shotgun, and my sister behind her. We were almost home but for some reason we stopped at a 7-Eleven convenience store.

As soon as we got in the store I saw a gigantic York Peppermint Patty. One of the big ones. The ones they ate in the commercials where people bit into a York Peppermint Patty and immediately launched off a ski jump or dove off a cliff. I wanted one so bad. So when nobody was looking I grabbed one and discreetly put it in the pocket of my coat.

I was so eager to eat it I was nearly convulsing. We got back into our car and as soon as our doors were closed and the dome light was out, I turned toward the door and discreetly unwrapped my treat. I could barely contain my excitement.

I took great pains to not make noise when unwrapping it, and even greater care not to breathe out in the general direction of the car. I knew that if anybody smelled my minty exhalation I would be found out. So I took small bites and carefully exhaled slowly into my shoulder so as not to scent the air too much. And amazingly, I made it all the way home without being found out.

I had tempted the gods of candy and gotten away scott free. However the next time I tempted the gods, I would not be so successful.

It was the holidays. My dad, sister and I were at Roosevelt Field Shopping mall to find a gift for my mother. I was wearing my black, white, and hot pink winter coat along with my matching hot pink knitted hat with the pom pom on the end of it.

We went into a store called World Imports. It was a store that sold things that might be classified as novelty. Posters, and figurines, gag gifts and those knocked over cups with the spilled beverage that looked real, but weren't.

As a child it was a fun store to be in. Never had so much useless stuff been gathered in one place.

We entered the store and while my father and sister actually went to find a gift, I drifted off to look at random crap. As usual. I gravitated towards the candy. The candy here was different than the candy I was used to. Here it was more unique, more playful, contained in little dispensers that were wholly unnecessary but incredibly appealing.

My eyes settled on a tiny gumball machine no taller than a salt shaker filled with miniature hard pieces of colorful gum. I wanted it. Knowing my dad would probably not agree to it. I discreetly (or so I thought) slid the candy piece off of the shelf, and into my pink pom pom'd hat.

In retrospect, dressing in hot pink is a bad way to avoid the attention of others. Trying to steal something by hiding it in a hot pink transportational device is even worse.

I had barely turned around when I saw him. A big bald security guard dressed in plain clothes who quickly took the hat out of my hands. He got on his radio and immediately called his manager.

This was it. I was going to jail. My Christmas present was going to have to be bail. My heart raced but I said nothing. I didn't plead my innocence or beg for forgiveness. I just stood there like the neon criminal I was.

Meanwhile I panicked that my dad and sister would come back to the front of the store and see me standing next to baldy. By some stroke of luck they hadn't yet emerged from the back of the store.

And the whole time the security guard just stood there, shaking my hat like a day-glo woolen maraca. The rattle of that piece of candy was the rolling thunder of my rapidly approaching fate. Every time he shook it my heart rate spiked. I wanted to scream at him to stop shaking that hat.

We stood there for what seemed like a half hour. I was hot, my face red, my heart the base drum to his maraca.

Thump THUMP shicka shickaaa
Thump THUMP shicka shickaaa

Finally a tall woman with blond hair walked up to us. This was it, the manager had arrived. The security guard explained my crime and showed her my tools as well as the item I tried to take. She looked down at me and asked me where my parents were.

Maybe I told the truth. Maybe I lied. Either way she let me off with a warning. I was embarrassed and relieved all in one fell swoop. As soon as she walked away and the security guard went back to his post, my dad and sister emerged from the back of the store.

Are you ready to go? he asked.

Yes, I said.

Very much so.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Cutting Edge

You look sharp.

That was my Dad’s favorite compliment to give me when I would get dressed up as a child. I’d be all snazzed up for a school function or a nice dinner and I’d say "How do I look?"

You look sharp.

It was the greatest compliment. I sounded razor edged, dangerous, chiseled to a fine point. I think I appreciate it even more now that I am in my late 20s and frequently feel like my life, and I myself, are out of focus.

You look handsome.

That was my mom’s favorite thing to tell me. It’s a very mom type of compliment. The kind of thing you almost expect to hear from a mom but should be so lucky (as I have been) to hear it from your own. While it was usually my mother who dressed me, it was my father I sought to emulate.

I don’t know if other fathers compliment their sons the way my dad did. Maybe they tell them they look good? I really don’t know. But not only did my dad’s compliment to me feel unique, but also vintage, like a stylish bespoke blazer from another time dusted off and thrown over my shoulders.

My dad always looked sharp, at least when he was going to work. Now that he is semi-retired, his standards have relaxed slightly. But when he was going into the office every day, his tie would be perfect, his shoes would be shined, and his hair was always parted perfectly on the side.

You look sharp.

It’s an underrated compliment. One that I don’t think anybody else has ever given me.  First my mother replicated his sharpness for me, and then when I was old enough to handle a comb, I did it myself. Hair parted on the side and secured with a heavy dose of hairspray. A four-in-hand knot pulled taught that fell just at the belt, even if it took me a half dozen tries.

He taught me to tuck my undershirt into my underwear to prevent it from shifting around. At the time and up until after college I thought this was the greatest idea ever. I do admit though, at a certain point I stopped tucking my undershirt into my underwear. I believe it was after catching myself in the mirror and realizing what minimal sex appeal I had was instantaneously negated by that move.

While my father has always looked good in professional scenarios or at social gatherings, his weekend attire has always been something else entirely. If his work wardrobe was his starting lineup, his weekend attire was like the collection of retired and handicapped players no longer capable of making it through a whole game.

Like the assortment of clothes he kept in the trunk of every car he ever had. It was a collection that we made fun of for being vaguely “vagabondesque” but which came in handy on more than a handful of occasions, specifically on chilly nights at the beach or outdoor concerts.

And then when I got my own car, I replicated his behavior with the clothes that I kept there myself.

As with most things in my life, anything I made fun of I eventually became.

Those clothes from his trunk were well loved. Soft flannel shirts from 20 years ago. A peach Pierre Cardin sweater that eventually made its way back into the house and then my closet, and then my number one choice to wear while lounging around the house in my boxers. The clothes in his trunk had seen some action. They all had a deconstructed feel that made you realize they couldn’t be worn anywhere you weren’t enjoying yourself. There softness told their story.

It’s funny that I almost have a greater affection for the things that came out of the trunk of his car. Those things had a badge of honor; they had been retired, honorably discharged.

But the clothes in his trunk didn’t see much action anymore. The clothes he wore to do chores around the house or run errands were the ones that received more use and much more ridiculing. We all made fun of him; my mother, my sister, and me.

Some things warranted it like the “Older, Wiser, Sexier” t-shirt he would wear to my little league games at a time in my life when I couldn’t even fathom the reason for the existence of such a shirt.

There were the cutoff shorts made from old jeans, the faded shorts, and the shorts with holes in comprising places that never seemed to bother him.

But he never cared, he was raking leaves, or mowing the lawn, or on the roof (always on the roof, what the hell does he do up there?) and just doing what he needed to do. His wardrobe was utilitarian in that regard. He was unflappable in that regard. He always has been.

But as I said, anything I made fun of I eventually became.

I caught my own reflection in the window of the bagel store on a Saturday morning not too long ago. Flip-flops, plaid shorts and a maroon sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. I had come full circle, or as my mother likes to say, “The turd doesn’t fall far from the bird.”

But even now that my father is in his 60s (a fact my mind can hardly comprehend) he still puts himself together, combs his hair, and tucks in his shirt (and maybe his undershirt, I have no idea). And he shaves nearly every day. Something else I have a hard time believing considering I only shave when it is absolutely necessary or a woman I keep company with threatens to leave me.

The former happens more than the latter.

I maintain that compliments are the hardest things in the world to accept. We chase them, we seek them, we prod for them, and yet when given to or heaped upon us, we dismiss them as though they are offensive. Oh no, oh stop; get out of here and the like.

The hardest thing in the world is to listen to somebody compliment you, look him or her in the eye, and then without a trace of dismissal or irony in your voice, maintain that eye contact and say thank you.

When my father would compliment me as a child I loved it. As a child you haven’t become self aware or insecure enough yet to engage in such foolishness as dismissing kind words somebody gives to you. When you look up to somebody as much as I have always looked up to my father, those words mean the world.

And that is why those words have stuck with me as long as they have. I’m well aware at this point in my life, the only reason my father was able to give me that compliment, the only reason anybody has ever been able to give me a compliment is because my father took what could have been a large pale mass of confusion and sharpened it.

He sharpened me.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Accident

I spent 2 hours with Roman 10 years ago. He was a short, bald, monosyllabic Eastern European who, as we would find out later, was prone to unpredictable blackouts. I had never delivered furniture with Roman before, nor would I ever again.

I usually delivered furniture with the owner Al or his son Mark. We’d load up a gutted 15 passenger van with tables, chairs and movers’ blankets and deliver our goods, sometimes stopping for a sandwich or soda along the way.

The job was an easy one. Load the van, drive to the customer, unload, set up, and then drive back. We would deliver beds, dressers and entertainment centers to everybody from dog breeders to drug dealers.

This particular Saturday morning Al said he had a delivery that would take a couple of hours tops. I get to the store and find out I will be going with Roman. I shake Roman’s hand but he doesn't say much.

The van is already loaded up so we take off. Roman is hungry so we park on the street across from a 7-Eleven.

We run across the street and I get a snack and a Red Bull. I have never had a Red Bull before but they are getting quite popular and I am curious.

We cross back to the van while the light is still red and get in. I don’t recall Roman or I putting our seat belts on. I do remember taking a sip of the Red Bull. I also remember the city bus next to us at the light.

The light turns green and instead of waiting for traffic to pass and then merging into the lane behind the bus, Roman starts to drive parallel to the bus. I worry that this is not legal or safe since we are not technically in a lane yet.

We accelerate quickly. The bus crosses in front of us to stop and drop off passengers in front of the Pizza Hut.

We don't slow. I don't look at Roman but if I did I would see that he is unconscious.

My awareness of what is about to happen quickly heightens and I shout Roman... ROMAN while clutching the armrest with my left hand and holding the Red Bull in my right.

I can't tell you how fast we are going, as fast as it takes a 15 passenger van to go from a standstill and cross a major intersection. Whether it was true or an illusion caused by the stopped bus in front of us, it feels like we are accelerating the whole time. It feels like we are going 40.

I close my eyes and brace myself.

There is a sound of heavy metal crunching and when I open my eyes and turn to my left I see bloodied Roman slumped over a steering wheel that is now bent in half. The windshield is smashed and spider webbed where his face hit it. I immediately try to get out of the van and run for help but can't because my seat belt is on.

When did I do that?

I unbuckle and run into the Pizza Hut. I am frenetic uncontolled adrenaline. I feel nothing and nothing is in focus. I shout for somebody to call 911, that there was a car accident. A room full of blank faces stares back at me almost as if the entire restaurant has been paused. Nobody moves.

Police are called. Bloodied Roman makes his way into the Pizza Hut bathroom. Ambulances come.

I leave my boss a voicemail. I don't call my parents. I want to know exactly what is happening before I make my mother panic. This is something I will replicate at later points in life. Something I give great care to replicate.... something my sister however will miss in this scenario.

I don’t know what I would say anyway:

Hi Mom I am fine but... how do you get glass out of someone’s face?


I feel like I have whiplash but nothing else is injured. The police ask me if I want to go to the hospital. I refuse. They double check.

Finally I decide to call home. My sister picks up. I tell her what has happened and to come get me. The note she left my mother begins like this:

Rich was in a car accident. He is fine…

But really, by the time she got to the he is fine, it was already too late. She should have led with that.

My sister arrives. She calls my parents. Take your time they say, don't rush home they say. My sister says we have to stop for gas on the way home. I don’t understand why we can’t just go home.

We get to the gas station and my dad calls my sister again. I pick up. He asks where we are and I tell him. He tells me to hurry home.

I hang up confused. Your son has just been in a car that crashed into the back of a city bus and you tell him to hurry home?

I am still in shock, nothing really makes sense.

We finally make it home. My parents come out to meet me. They are dressed like they are going to barb-b-q though I don’t recall them being invited to one. We go into the kitchen and I sit down. My mother fusses over me the way mothers are allowed to. She repeatedly asks me if I want to take a shower.

What for? To wash the accident off?

I’m fine mom. I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine!

She is wringing her hands, she is nervous. I tell her I am fine I just want to sit and relax. She walks me into the back of the house where the blinds leading into the backyard are all closed. Her voice is full of worry.

I don’t know how else to do this but…

And she opens the blinds.

There in my backyard are 50 of my closest friends, teachers, and relatives, all gathered for a surprise party for me, a party to congratulate me on my high school accomplishments.

For the first time in hours, my world comes back into focus. Sheepishly, I finally agree to take a shower. Though I am still in complete disbelief that I am actually able to, on this, the luckiest day of my life.