My first almost girlfriend… rest in peace

Allow me to grovel at my extended absence from this blog.  Life had delivered a few sharp blows that sucked the wind right out of my writer’s sails…but today, I saw something that forced me back to the keyboard.

Sadly, it’s tragedy that brings me here.

Any of you that know me understand me as an awkward person.  Always have been.  Always will be to varying degrees.

In high school, I was even worse.  Exponentially so.

I never went on a date in high school.  No dances.  No movies.  No senior prom.  I was too painfully shy.

In my junior year, I was required to serve 3 weeks as a social service project.  I chose Children’s Hospital where I thought I could feed babies and pull little kids around on wagons… and I did those.

But I also met a beautiful girl my age there.

Her name was Shannon.

She happened to be very down to earth and friendly.

I was awestruck.

I looked for any excuse to hang around in her vicinity.

I talked to her.  Conversation came free and easy.

I screwed my courage up and asked her out on a date.

She said yes.

Fairy tales would have had us falling in love, complete with white picket fence and Volvo station wagon.

Ok… probably not a Volvo.  Her dad happened to own a Pontiac dealership.

But my life is no fairy tale.  And the date never happened.  Not through her own fault, but due completely to my own cowardice and insecurity.

I never followed through.  I never had the stones to call her and set up the date.

Every now and then, I would flip through a photo album and see photos of myself and a couple of high school chums in our blue volunteer vests hanging out at Children’s Hospital.  I even had a picture of Shannon and I in there.

I would smile.  What a silly, stupid kid I was.

And then today happened.

I was enjoying a gas station hot dog for lunch and flipping through the paper and a headline caught my eye.

“Funeral set for cancer patient beaten to death”

I started to read the article and dropped my hot dog in disbelief.

It was Shannon.

Now I hadn’t seen or spoken to her since then…but I was still sad and shocked.

She was seeking treatment for cancer in the Chicago area.  Sitting at a bus stop.  Some lowlife subhuman came up behind her and bashed her in the head.  For apparently no reason whatsoever.  Not robbery or anything else.  The guy simply ran off.

What the actual fuck is that?  What sort of piss poor excuse of a world is this really coming to?

She was on life support for about a day.

And died.

Died trying to fight death from another source.

A blogger friend of mine wrote a very popular post called “A Senseless Death”

Donnie, I have to compare this loss as just as senseless as the one you wrote about so beautifully.

Godspeed Shannon.  You’re with your dad now.  Watch over your family.

I am sorry for the way your life ended here.

 

 

 

Stand By Me…

I was fifteen years old when I saw my first dead human being… outside of the sterile environment of a funeral home casket, that is. Just like the slightly younger main character of the movie Stand By Me, which was based on a story by Stephen King.

Due to my profession, I have not only seen but handled hundreds of dead bodies. Young and old. Male and female. Rich and dirt poor. Clean, warm deaths in beds at home with family close and medicated comfort. Cold, nasty deaths with no warning on dirty pavement and fluttering yellow police tape.

In short, I’ve seen a lot.

But you never forget the first. I remember the sights, the smells, the temperature. Everything.

A bit of backstory: As a teen, I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, which is the civilian branch of the Air Force. One of CAP’s main missions is search and rescue. In fact, they run about 90% of domestic aircraft search and rescue operations in the country.

Several times during my time in, I was called away from home in the middle of the night to go find an aircraft that went missing, or chase the ghost of a distress signal from an aircraft’s ELT (emergency locator transmitter).

On my first time out, we found a plane. And a body.

I got the call around 8pm. Our team picked me up and off we went into the hills of Southern Missouri.

We drove up and down backcountry washboard roads chasing the ELT signal with our equipment.

But the damn signals bounce off the hills, diverting us off on several wild ghost hunts.

We drove and searched for about 10 hours, listening carefully for the signal to get stronger or weaker. I had the harsh smell of our search vehicle’s burning clutch stuck in my nose all night.

Just as we thought we might have triangulated the location, the signal would get weak or disappear completely.

You always have the hope that the planes occupants might just be sitting on the ground waiting for you to show up, maybe a little beat up or hurt. I could almost see the relieved look on their faces when they see us walking up.

As we bounced through the dark backroads and one hour vanished into the next, my hope faded.

Just after sunrise, the State Highway Patrol sent up a helicopter to the area that our signals were the strongest. Within an hour, they had located possible debris on a hillside a short distance from where we were searching. The chopper pilot had radioed in the location of a dirt road that would get us to within 100 yards of the site.

We flew down the highway until we found the road. A battered metal trash can lay discarded along the highway. We stopped so we could mark the road for the other teams and rescue personnel. I righted the can and tied my orange safety vest to it. I wasn’t moving as fast as I should have, dreading what was waiting for us down the road. A fellow team member hollered from the vehicle for me to hurry up, that people could be dying.

But I knew, somehow, that there was no grateful pilot waiting for us. I just knew it, but I can’t explain how.

We pulled down as far as we could. We humped our packs down to a clearing and started seeing pieces of metal. Not big pieces, but suitcase-sized.

And then I saw the fuselage with the full accordion treatment. I glanced up at the trees. There was no swath of broken branches or decapitated trees in any direction. So the plane didn’t glide into the trees, it nosedived right into the hillside.

My eyes scoured the terrain, looking for a victim. But I noticed that no one else was looking.

“Does anyone have eyes on the pilot?” I asked.

He’s about three feet to your left, under the fuselage, came the reply.

I had almost kicked him while I was walking past the wreckage. I knelt down in the dirt to look closer.

The impact had folded him up and driven him into the dirt. Only the back of his light blue nylon warmup jacket was visible. And the back of his head and neck. A single dried rivulet of blood had made its way from his hairline down to the jacket.

An instant death for a young pilot, 18 years old, with a freshly-minted pilot’s license that was doubtless somewhere in the mangled mess.

No matter how quickly we would have found him, the end result would have been the same.

And just like that, a life snuffed out like a candle. No more Christmas. No more birthdays. No more dreaming of the love of his life. No more hope for the future.

I was thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.

The next day, I was sitting at the dinner table with my parents, eating and watching the local evening news.

The pilot’s parents were being interviewed. They expressed their disgust at the length of time that it took to find their son’s body. Why wasn’t he found sooner, the mother asked.

I felt both of my parents looking at me, wide-eyed and silent.

I snapped the television knob to off and growled something about them not knowing what the hell they were talking about and how it wouldn’t have made a goddam bit of difference when he was found.

Strong language that I rarely if ever would have used in the presence of my folks.

They said nothing.

I stewed on it for a couple of days and then thankfully, my mind let the anger go.

But the memory remains.

And I am still thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.

Taxicab Confidential Part Deux: An indecent proposal…oh, and cocaine

When one grows up in the ‘burbs, you tend to be sheltered from the seedy, murkier parts of life. As I’ve grown older, not only have I seen firsthand those parts of life but I’ve been a part of them a time or two.

We’re all big people here, right? Can you handle a little rawness? I certainly hope so. If not, feel free to click out of this and go find some cute kitten videos on YouTube. Please. No hard feelings if you do.

The sex industry in St. Louis is alive and well, I am happy to report.

I had the pleasure of safely and professionally chauffeuring some lovely women to work at the Gentlemen’s establishments on the East Side.

On more than one occasion, I transported working girls to and from their “date’s” hotel.

They were mostly friendly and polite. And great tippers.

Ya hear that men? Don’t be stingy with the tips for the ladies, because they treat other tipped employees right.

I remember quite vividly one working girl. Fresh-faced. Girl-next-door. Right down to the freckles on her nose. I was picking her up at a hotel and she sort of dropped herself onto the backseat.

Bad night? I asked.

“Stupid Craigslist johns.” Was all she said.

We drove in silence for a while. She asked if she could smoke in the car. Technically we weren’t supposed to let them, but I told her to go ahead and make sure the window was cracked a bit for some fresh air.

Hopefully your next gig will be better. I purposely left the comment open and non-judgmental.

She proceeded to tell me that she had a kid at home with her parents. She had a couple of dates lined up for the next day. She only worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She made enough cash (usually) that made a straight job’s paycheck pale. The rest of her week was devoted to her kid.

I admired her for that. Keeping her toddler in diapers and food and a roof over their head. That’s real life, folks. You do what you have to in this world to make it work.

I kidded with her, telling her that her job sounded a lot better than mine, and more fun. But nobody would pay a middle-aged fat guy for that kind of service.

You’re not THAT fat, she chided me. And believe me, I know several women who would pay for a No-Strings night with a funny, clean, non-psycho guy without worrying about her hair, makeup etc.

I laughed and told her I would call her when I decided to switch careers.

But dammit, I never got her number.

A week or so later, I picked up one of my regulars from a dive bar in SoCo. She was a good customer. She was a decent-looking, chubby redhead. Recently broken up. She was whining about the lack of decent men there that night (personally, I wouldn’t look for decent ANYTHING at this bar, but I digress) and how she really needed to get laid.

Then inspiration apparently struck her. She was toasted, but managed to get herself into a forward sitting position (the better to display her cleavage with) and asked:

So how’s your night going? Busy?

I allowed that it was pretty slow.

How much would you charge?

For??? (I’m good at playing dumb)

A drunken grin. “A little fun.”

Have you ever had that hot drop of fear in your stomach? When a little flirt just turned on you and now you had your hands full? Yeah. That was this.

I played it off.

Sweetie, if you are gonna pay for it, you should at least get a young, good-looking guy with six pack abs who can go all night.

Yeah, she said. And he’ll knock me in the head and steal my shit. C’mon. I’ll give you 50.

50. I wasn’t sure if I should be grateful or insulted. But on nights when taxi calls are sparse and you are staring down the end of 12 hours behind the wheel with no money in your pocket, 50 means the difference between making money or being in the red.

I thought about it. Briefly. But my wife might frown on my being a paid sex toy for drunken females. Call it a hunch.

As I walked her to her door (she couldn’t have walked there on her own) I told her no, and that she would thank me for it the next time.

But there were plenty of no/slow business nights that might make a man re-consider.

The next time I drove her, I detected just a little bit of embarrassment. I joked with her just like nothing had happened. Because really nothing did. She seemed relieved. She didn’t thank me verbally, but I’m sure she did in her mind.

One of the last days that I drove, I picked up a stunning dark-skinned young woman in a barely there painted-on mini-dress.

Did I saw stunning? I mean red. frickin’. hot. Hot enough to make even the most die-hard Klansman want to jump ship and hang up the mask.

Sunday afternoon. 2pm. She is still baked from partying all night. I don’t mind. The scenery was nice.

She purred. Baby, how much this ride gonna cost me?

I promised not to charge her a cent more than the meter said.

She hiked up her skirt. “Do you think we can work something out now?”

I told her that she was looking at a 35 or 40 dollar ride. I’d max it at forty, so she didn’t have to worry about it.

She pulled the skirt back down to a more modest range. But modesty in a mini-dress is relative. She was still showing more than most women would be comfortable with.

Thanks baby, she said. Let me give your tip now.

Up from between the seats comes her elegantly curved pinky nail. With an amazingly large pile of cocaine on it.

A fatty bump, just for you baby. And a little extra. Eyes and smile big. A generous dusting of white powder on her exposed chest (probably not accidental).

Now, there’s no bigger fan of hot women than I, but I was fairly sure that taking cocaine from this gorgeous creature was covered in some sub-paragraph of the famous mother admonition of not taking candy from strangers.

I decline politely. Naw, baby. I’m cool. You go ahead and enjoy.

She was shocked. “I only buy the best shit, baby. This is good shit.”

I’m sure it is, baby. You got a good thing going. Enjoy.

So she did. And then her nose started pouring snot. And the emotional trainwreck of her life screeched into the station.

A hell-broth of tears, mucus and makeup quickly converted her face from stone fox to hot mess in a matter of minutes.

I dropped her off at the motel by the airport. You see this motel on the news from time to time.

A beautiful disaster. Staggering on stilettos into a weekly-rate motel. Looking like a bad mugshot come to life.

A fine way to wrap up my cabdriving career.

Taxicab Confidential aka The Devil in the Backseat

Babes, barf, bullets…

3 words that summarize the gig of taxi driving.

Some of you know that a few years ago (during a mini-retirement) I was in need of income, and the best laid plans that I had amounted to diddly. Jobs were damn hard to come by, so I sucked it up and got behind the wheel of Taxi #638 for 9 months or so…

And my oh my, it was a crazy, dirty, dangerous job (that I also had more fun doing then by rights I should have).

A few of those days stand out more than others. The New Year’s Eve that I spent driving #638 was the night I made the most money ever.

It was also the night I almost died.

But I jump ahead: here are a few of the highs and lows of hurtling towards mayhem behind the wheel on St. Louis’ streets.

1- The Devil in the Backseat

“I’m not the Devil, dude.”

Aw fuck, no good conversation EVER starts with that sentence. I picked him up at the South County Mall. His destination was unclear. Bad sign #1.

He talked to himself. A lot. And screamed. And cursed.

When I asked him where he was headed, he hemmed and hawed and had trouble forming a coherent sentence.

Drugs, I thought. Or just mentally ill.

Call me a bad person, but I really didn’t give a shit. After 2 minutes, I was ready to throw the crazy sonuvabitch out on Lemay Ferry and take the hit from the dispatchers.

I finally understood that he wanted food first. He directed me to the QuikTrip and got out to get a couple of hot dogs. Or so he said.

He actually just stood inside the door at QuikTrip and stared at me.

There are moments in life when one wishes that they had ready access to a gun. Or mace. Or Chinese throwing stars. This would have been one of those times.

He came out empty-handed and just sat in the back seat. Silent. Brooding.

Where to next?

He tried to tell me that he wanted to go to a hotel in an area where I knew there were no hotels.

It was at that point I knew that he was up to something. Fortunately, I was the one driving. I cranked up that old bad-ass Police Interceptor and screeched out onto Lindbergh. I pulled in to the lot of that crappy Motel 6 that used be there (Now thankfully demolished) and said,

“Ride’s over. Get out.”

He argued. I told him to get the fuck out on his own or I would come get his ass out myself. And he’d be staying overnight in the hospital instead of a cut-rate dive motel.

He looked at me and I stared right back into his eyes with the scariest look I could muster, even though my innards felt like jelly.

He got out and then tried to get back in so I laid some rubber down on that parking lot. Time to call it a night.

2 – Talisha

The area public schools have to provide transportation to certain types of students. There aren’t enough buses to do this so taxis do a lot of school runs. Some are fairly lucrative tickets and some aren’t. Talisha was a $8 fare that I grabbed every chance I could, even if it meant missing a higher paying trip.

She was a sweet, beautiful 7 year old with brown skin and dark eyes. I had to go into the school to pick her up and sign her out, and I always walked her to her grandma’s apartment door. She would hold my hand and skip down the school hall. I would tie her shoes for her and carry her books. She would make things for me at school: paper snowflakes, crayon drawings. We’d talk about her day on the short ride home. She’d tell about the things that her mom and grandma were up to. (I had given multiple rides to both over the months and we knew each other by name).

One day she was sad. It was “Wear your pajamas to school day” but she told me that she didn’t have any “bajammies” so she didn’t get to participate. That broke my heart. I wish I would have known about it the day before, because I would have bought some for her.

Of all the people I met driving, I miss her the most, and hope that she is doing well. I hope that she finally had some bajammies to wear to school on Pajama Day. Love you, T!

3 – For Auld Lang… holy shit, what was that?”

New Year’s Eve was drunk with the promise of lots of cash and lots of drunks. I had a core group of regulars who called upon me to guarantee them a safe ride that night. I started about 4pm and I knew that I’d be lucky to be home by 4am. I was all over town. Brentwood to Downtown. Webster to the West End. Affton to the Ritz-Carlton. Lots of sharp-dressed folks ready to get their party on.

The a slow spell. I started picking up fares from dispatch and I drew a short run in South St. Louis. State street to state street. As you STL folks know, the state streets can be kinda sketchy. I picked up a nice young woman and she told me her destination. I believe it was on Oregon Street at a dead end. It was about 9:30pm.

I pulled up in front of her building and as she was paying me

WHUMP!

It sounded like somebody threw a chunk of asphalt at the car.

Her eyes were big. “Where they shootin’ from?” she asked.

I told that I thought it was just a kid throwing rocks. “Naw, they shootin'” she said again.

Foolish or not, I decided to get out and make sure that the young lady got in her door safely. I opened the door and glanced across the roof of the car. A fresh, shiny divot in the steel showed me exactly where the bullet hit. 2 inches to the left and an inch or two down and that sucker would have been in the back of my head.

I got her to the door and ran back to the car.

All right, assholes, if you want a second shot, it is going to be at a fast-moving target. I cranked 638 around back in the direction that the bullet came from (dead end street, remember) and romped on it. The beautiful thing about police model Crown Vics is that even with a 120,000 miles on them, they can still flat out burn up the street.

I roared through the streets and didn’t stop until I was a few miles away. I pulled into a mini-mart and calmed my nerves by watching drunks stagger in and out, with one occasionally displaying what they had most recently enjoyed eating by spray-puking in front of my car. I came within a hair of calling the cab company, telling them where the bastard would be parked and that they could come and get it, that I was done. Instead I drove home, took an hour break and dropped off a lot of cash. And I hit the streets back around 11. I wisely decided not to tell my wife about the bullet until the next day.

Friends I have more of these to tell, so look for part two. It will involve sexual propositions and cocaine. Those two elements always lead to good experiences.

Happy New Year! Be safe out there.

The ghost of a friend

I wasn’t afraid when I woke and saw the ghost standing in the doorway of my bedroom.

I daresay I was expecting it.  Perhaps even hoping for it.

No Dickensian chains or banshee wailing…but a good-looking guy with a smile and a mustache, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt.

Exactly as he was dressed the last time I saw him alive.

Rick.

We weren’t close friends.  I doubt Rick had let anyone beyond arm’s reach into his life.  I don’t know if he’d been hurt, or what his deal was.  He kept me at the same distance as everyone else.  He had nobody in this world other than an elderly mom and a teenage son that he hadn’t seen or heard from with any regularity.

He was becoming a funeral director, like me.  I was learning as he was learning.  I saw the toll that the pressure was taking on him:  the bickering client families-already carving up the estate before the body is even in a casket and the corporate management that demanded allegiance and sales performance from their employee numbers.  I know.  I was employee 466510013.

The pressure was more than he could bear.  I could tell that purely from the number of cigarettes that he smoked.

I saw him slide away to a nervous breakdown in 1997.

And in May of 1998, I found myself sitting in his mother’s kitchen, holding her hand across the coffee-stained and cigarette-scarred table.  We had each gotten a call that Rick had jumped off a bridge when the burdens of life finally outweighed the fear of death.

She wanted very little to do with it, other than to make small payments as her senior citizen’s fixed lower income allowed.  To her credit, she paid every red cent she owed.

I caught some hell from management by giving her a steep employee discount.  “He didn’t work here anymore.”

But I knew she couldn’t afford even the discounted price.  Let them ink a black mark against me for that.  I didn’t really give a shit at that point.

I identified his body and made the arrangements to have him cremated.  Fortunately, he had spent a little time in the military which got him a burial space at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.  The day I delivered the cheap plastic urn to the cemetery, the VA rep looked at me and said “where’s the family?”

“You’re looking at it” I replied.

The rep and I talked what to put on the headstone.  I decided on “Our son and father” in the off-chance that either his mother or his son made their way to the cemetery.  We went to the gravesite to place the urn in its little earth pocket.  I played the role of mourner/minister/funeral director.  The one and only time in 20 years that all three have fallen on my shoulders.  I left the cemetery feeling worse than when I drove in.

A year or so later, I woke to find Rick standing in the doorway of my bedroom.  Amazingly, I wasn’t at all frightened (I always imagined that I would most likely piss myself if I ever happened across a real ghost).

He smiled.  The soft, familiar smile.

“Thanks for being so good to my mom” he said.

All I could reply with was the question that had been stewing for over a year.

“Rick, why’d you do it?”

Another smile.

“I just had to get out from under some things.”  He turned and started to walk away.

I rolled over to wake my wife so she could see him.  “You’re dreaming” she said, dismissing me with a wave of her hand.  I don’t think that she even opened her eyes. By the time I turned back, he was gone.

I still visit his grave when I have burials at Jefferson Barracks.  Sometimes I leave an unsmoked cigarette on top of the headstone for him.

Sometimes I just think about his last visit.