Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow day

Would you care to retire to the street for an after lunch drink?

I am officially annoyed by all the weather people claiming that each storm this season is going to be as big as the blizzard of 1996. The verdict is still out on today's storm, but right now, it just doesn't look that bad.

Lacey, in January 1996 on Hewitt Street, about a week after that big storm.

I lived on the corner of Division and Hewitt at the time of that blizzard and my car was buried in a drift of snow for three days. I had to — egads — take a bus to work for the rest of the week. Not everyone who uses public transportation is insane or sociopathic, but let's be honest here: almost everyone on the bus is one or the other, and some are both. There were no secrets on the bus, and there were a lot of viciously angry mothers, which has always left me wondering if that's at least part of the reason we have a gang problem these days.

Each day I took the bus to work, I sat near an older man who was definitely afflicted with something. He looked profoundly sad, and focused on his mission, which was to feed the birds. Each day we rode down Broad Street, and he held his hands above his head, and stuck up his pointer and middle fingers, bending them in the middle, like a bird flapping its wings. He watched his finger birds with wet, piercing blue eyes, and he got off the bus before my stop at State Street, dragging behind him a crinkly red, white, and blue plastic bag, filled with bread. I watched him from my window, as the bus pulled away, as he made his way through piles of snow, to a park bench, where the pigeons greeted him eagerly.

On the sixth day after that blizzard, I began the difficult task of digging my car out of the drift-turned-plow dump site. I was a Johnny-come-lately back then, too, indignant than anyone without a driveway could possibly think they had a right to a spot on the street simply because they shoveled some snow there. I waited too long to begin excavating, but it just wasn't warming up enough to melt the snow, and I had grown weary of the bus. I wanted use of my car again. It took me about 3 hours to dig it out of that wet, heavy, filthy snow, and when I was done, I headed out, leaving my spot without a chair or garbage barrel. And, of course, a car I never saw before was in that spot when I returned a few hours later. I was so pissed that I don't have a clear memory of where I left my car that night, but I kept telling myself that no one owns the street.

Some things do not change, except now we have a garage, and I'm married to a Canadian who loves to shovel. Some of our neighbors will mark "their" spaces on the street with lawn furniture, garbage or recycling cans, and occasionally, grills. It does seem we're surrounded by more inconsiderate people here, than I was in Chambersburg in the 1990s. Someone will inevitable park in front of our garage, when there are clearly spaces open near it. And it is always a car we don't recognize. Glen is way nicer than I am, and used to knock on our neighbors' doors to try to find the car's owner; at least until someone answered the door with a baseball bat. Now we wait until we need to leave, and then we call the police.

Guess what? It's not recycling week here in Trenton!

It also seems to me that there are many more people who don't know how to drive in the snow. Matthew, Steve, and I watched a guy try to pull away from the side of our house for 15 minutes the other day. So much smoke! And when his wheels were finally victorious in grabbing onto something they could use to roll, he must have had the gas pedal to the floor, because he exploded out of his parking spot, almost hitting my neighbor's garage, and fishtailing down the street.

There are also far more "entrepreneurs" where I live now, compared to my old spot in Chambersburg. We get a lot of offers to shovel from the local crackheads. Sure, there's something to be said for getting your corner lot, two entranceways, and driveway shoveled for $3, but when you find your crackhead shovelman slumped over behind your garage, clutching a bic-pen-cum-crack pipe, well, the thrill of the bargain wears off. Then, all the other crackheads start knocking on your door for work. It's a cheap labor force, but it's icky. Why aren't the kids shoveling, you ask? It's because it's slightly more lucrative to sell crack to our local landscape professionals than it is to actually do any real work.

In addition to each storm of the century falling so short of that title, there are more and more jackasses on off-road vehicles riding around our neighborhood while the roads are snow covered. Nothing makes me feel more like acquiring a gun than the pack of dirtbike-riding douchebags for ruining my pristinely quiet, beautiful snowy morning with their loud, occasionally stolen and always ill-tended vehicles screaming past my house again and again and again. I hope they crash into a snowbank, wrecking their vehicles, without hurting anyone else.

Despite the annoyances of city living during snowy winter days, I'm excited to see how today's storm finishes up. We're low on eggs, milk, and bread, but even if we're trapped, I think we'll be okay for a few days without resorting to cannibalism or whatever it's called when you eat your pets.

The snow always makes me think about the sad, old birdman I encountered on the bus all those years ago. Could he possibly still be feeding the birds this winter?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Rubble

The cornucopia of candidates vying for office of mayor here in Trenton has given at least one person — with access to the op-ed column of the Times formerly of Trenton — the warm fuzzies, because it supposedly shows a swelling of civic pride. I don't agree. Rather, it shows the most ambitious in this city are like a pack of hyenas (at best) vying for a dying father's throne. But this pack is also mostly self-serving and deluded, and the thought of the upcoming debates is giving me a migraine.

I'm not saying none of the current team of 10 or so is mayor-worthy. I think with some hard work, and a willingness to work with an effective group of council members, who are themselves dedicated to representing their constituents, at least one or two of the mayoral hopefuls could manage this city. And that's so far-fetched that you're thinking I'm smoking crack, right? I'm not; I'm just not inspired, which is why I introduced my pageant-style elimination process recently.

Even better, though, is a thread running at the Trenton Speaks site, where each week for the last three weeks, there's been a Survivor-style, Tribal Council elimination. Emmanuel What's His Name was the first to be voted out, and next came the Clown Prince, Paul Pintella. There's still a day or so of voting left this week, but it looks like Annette "Stand Down" Lartigue will be this week's cast-off. I encourage you to check out this discussion, and if you're a registered member of the community, to vote. It will be interesting to see if the results will reflect the reality of our election in a few months.

I realize this does not help make sense of the task ahead of us; it's just a fun diversion for now. For better election analysis, keep an eye on Dan Dodson's site; he's currently writing questions for all the candidates, including the ward and at-large hopefuls, and developing a web survey to compare them. Our pals on The Front Stoop are also endeavoring to keep everyone in this election game honest and focused. And Mister Clean, at The Bald, The Fat & The Angry, is providing some fantastic, and in my opinion, SPOT-ON color commentary for this political season. A number of civic groups are organizing debates, and some local businesses (like Classics Bookstore) are planning "meet the candidate" parties, but it's helpful to have the aforementioned websites to help sift through the rubble, before attending one of those events. There is a lot of rubble, and it's your precious time, after all.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Chantepleure

Ed Toner lived 2 doors down from my house while I was growing up, and he was the father of one of my best childhood friends.

Mr. Toner was a big, opinionated man. He was a take-charge kind of guy, but also very generous and hospitable. The Toners had a built-in pool, and a large hill behind their house, and, depending on the weather, I spent much of my youth in their pool or rushing down that hill on a sled. Mr. Toner had a good sense of humor, with a bit of wild side, and a keen sense of loyalty.

I had a guinea pig, Moonbeam, when I was about 10 or so. I wanted a dog, but my father refused. My dad went away on a business trip one day in 1980, and my mother, somewhat defiantly, said, "Okay, kids, let's go get a pet." She wouldn't allow a dog, because she wasn't THAT defiant, so we settled on a guinea pig: a tan and white Abyssinian female.


Moonbeam

My father wasn't happy about the new addition to the family, but as long as he didn't have to deal with caring for the critter, he didn't complain. I loved Moonbeam, even though she wasn't a dog. She followed me around, and sat in my lap, but her eyes lacked soul, and I had no idea what was going on in that little head of hers. Nearly a year after her arrival, my father was away on business again, and I thought it might be neat to breed Moonbeam; I had a friend who had a male guinea pig, and she offered to bring him around. My mother was on the phone when I asked permission, and she may not have totally understood what we were about to attempt. But I got the nod of approval, and my friend brought over her male guinea pig.

There is much to say about that catastrophic decision, but I'll get directly to the point: Moonbeam did not like the other guinea pig, and flew into a rage. In my attempt to hold her back, Moonbeam bit my hand, the bridge of my nose, and finally, my chin. In case you're not familiar with the teeth of guinea pigs, they are very long and scalpel-like. Moonbeam's teeth were sunk into the fleshy end of my chin as I ran, screaming, to the kitchen, where my mother was still on the phone. The next few minutes were a blur of blood and curly telephone cord, and my mother wound up with a couple of nasty gashes on her hands, as well. My mother placed a frenzied call to the Toners' house; my father, as I mentioned, was out of town, and my mother wasn't sure what to do next.

Ed Toner did. A few minutes later, he came traipsing through the backyard with a shotgun, and I wailed. My mother met him at the back door and told him the gun wasn't necessary. He put the gun down, disappointed, I think; but he took charge of the scene: he sent my friend and her guinea pig on their way, dressed our wounds, and got us in to see the doctor. My mother needed a tetanus shot; I didn't, since I received one the summer before when a nail went through my leg after an ill-fated tree fort collapsed on me, my sisters, and our friends.*

My generation of neighborhood kids grew up and left, and not long after, many of our parents relocated, including my parents and the Toners. A few years back, my mom and Ed Toner had a brief email exchange — they traded info about the kids, grandkids, and babies on the way. Ed attached a photo, with an explanation: "This is me at Mardi Gras in New Orleans last year."

The attached photo was of an older gentleman, wearing a trench coat, shoes, socks, and he was flashing a bunch of beads, and, most notably, a gigantic fake penis. The fake penis was so large that I didn't notice right away that he was wearing a baseball cap with a large pair of breasts on it.

My mom promptly forwarded the photo to her children, and we were — perhaps for the first time — speechless. You need to see this picture, but in case you are easily shocked, here's your warning: the Ed Toner Mardi Gras picture is at the very end of this post.

~~~

A few weeks later — three years ago, today — my entire family was gathered at my sister's place for Catherine's memorial. I had given birth three days prior, and I held the tiny box containing Catherine's remains on my lap. My life no longer made sense. I never wanted kids, but when I found out I was pregnant, I changed everything for Catherine. I went through a day of labor to bring her into the world, and so, I was physically depleted, and could feel my milk coming in. I half-listened to the words of Jenny's minister, ultimately disagreeing with him (though I appreciated what he did for us): there are no reasons to lose a baby. There is no comfort, certainly not three days after her death. I cursed my burning breasts for their betrayal. My baby was in a tiny box on my lap; how could my body not know she was not alive? How could it do this to me?

The service was short. Glen's family came in from Canada the night before, and my folks arrived from Maryland that morning. What next? was the question in everyone's mind. There was no logical next step, but someone said:

"Have you seen that photo of Ed Toner?"

I know how this sounds, coming on the heels of a memorial service for a baby, but none of us knew what to do. We were raw and lost: we might as well look at Ed Toner's wacky Mardi Gras photo. My sister, Karen, offered the laptop displaying said picture to my mother-in-law, a petite woman whose legs did not reach the floor as she sat on Jenny's couch. There was a pause, and then her legs jiggled up and down as she laughed, in shock, at the picture of our former neighbor.

My mother wiped away her tears and smiled. She made her way to the laptop, determined to see that picture again, determined to get her hands on that laptop — she could be demanding like that — which was making its way around the room. She needed to see that picture again. NOW. The laptop moved to Glen's brother, Sean, who also appreciated it; and then to Glen's sisters, Clair and Sheena, who started laughing quietly. There were a lot of people gathered in that room, and my mom encountered difficulty in getting her hands on that laptop. She was perpetually just out of reach.

The mood in the room was lifting; I was mentally numb, and I ached physically; I was very aware of my own laughter, occurring even though I wanted to die. I decided that I wouldn't have family around every minute of the day, and I'd be left alone with my own bleak reality soon enough, that I might as well enjoy the moment.

Ed Toner continued around the room, with my mom right behind. I don't think anyone was deliberately playing "Keep Away From Maggie," but that's what was happening. That laptop was so close, but so far away.

Glen's sister, Brenda, was sitting near the fireplace; the laptop went to her next. My mother lurked behind her, at last close enough to grab the laptop. And she managed to get her hands on it. My mother must have anticipated a struggle, because she yanked heartily. Brenda, to my mother's surprise, did not resist, so my mother fell backward, lost her footing, and collapsed into a large basket of firewood on the hearth.

A hush fell over the room. Then, my father and Glen's mother started laughing. I noticed at that moment that their laughs were similar: silent, but their bodies quivered. Glen's laugh is the opposite: it's a loud explosive roar, and he burst out, "HA!" and then yelled "KARMA!" My mother — I hate to say this now — was very difficult in the weeks leading up to Catherine's birth and death. To be fair, I probably wasn't so easy on her, either. My mom was generous, but she meddled, and she was so critical of everything, from the crib set we had chosen (though she did buy it) to where I registered, to the plans my sister had for the shower, to the fact that we had not — until the week before Catherine's birth — finished the downstairs bathroom, or installed a banister in the stairwell. She was so opinionated, so vocal. I know, too, that she wouldn't have bothered if she didn't care. And she did care: she and my father made the trip to New Jersey and back several times over the course of just a few days. They came to see Catherine in the hospital the night she was born. My mother cradled her little granddaughter's body, and my father wept, just like he laughed: silently. They sat with us for awhile, and then headed back to Maryland, only to make the 4-hour trip again a few days later for the memorial service.

So, my mother was stuck in the basket of firewood, like a beetle on its back, and the room erupted in laughter. I was laughing and crying at the same time** and it seemed like an eternity before my father walked across the room to help her out.

I was concerned: my mother often accused us — erroneously — of laughing at her behind her back. She was kind of paranoid. But that day, she brushed off any embarrassment with little bits of bark from the firewood, and laughed along with us. She took a seat, and finally had the laptop all to herself, and she laughed even harder at the mostly naked picture of our former neighbor.

~~~

Ed Toner died a few months ago, and my father, sisters, and I headed over to the wake. I have fond memories of Mr. Toner and his family. He had a knack — whether he knew it at the time (or I knew it at the time) or not — for bringing much needed humor to a situation. Realizing I would have to give up my beloved pet after a bloody assault, was the worst thing I had endured, as a 10-year-old. And Mr. Toner's arrival to my house with a shotgun that day, only added to my trauma. But in retrospect, it didn't take long to see the ridiculousness in it. The pain of losing my furry friend is tempered by the image of a burly Irishman arriving on the scene with enough firepower to take on a hostile bear.

A child's first heartbreak is genuine, but with life's ups and downs, there are always more heartaches. I am fortunate to have had Ed Toner in my life, to come to my rescue again, so many years later. The day of Catherine's memorial service is one of the worst days of my life. The grief, confusion, and physical discomfort were oppressive. Ed Toner — by way of his photo — was able to cut through the pain, and gave us all something to laugh about. Glee and grief are siblings.

~~~

I emailed my friend, Keven Toner, earlier this year to ask him if it was okay to write about that picture of his father. I didn't want to be insensitive, especially so soon after his father's death. Kevin's response was supportive, and surprising: the picture my mother so desperately wanted to get her hands on was not actually Ed Toner! It was some random guy who looked like him, and Ed sent the picture around as a joke. It was a good one, too. But it doesn't change my gratitude for giving my heart and head a break from my pain three years ago.

This new information, however, makes me miss my mom and my little girl, who would have been three this week. I miss what we had, and what we didn't have, in both cases.


---------------

*Moonbeam went to the vet, first, for observation to make sure she wasn't rabid. Then, she went back to the pet store, where, I imagine, she was resold without any warning about her violent streak. The following month, my father was away again, and my mom took us to the pound, where we finally got our dog, Tramp.

** It's easy to hate the French, but I love that they have a word for this experience: Chantepleure: an alternate mixture of joy and sorrow.