WHAT ARE WE DOING? WE’RE GOING TO FORGET THINGS. THEY DON’T FUCKING HAVE PEPPER.

There was a schizophrenic woman at Mother’s Market today.

She was in her sixties and had a husband with her who was very quiet. She was not quiet at all. She galumphed about yelling.

WHERE IS THE PEPPER? HEY, YOU GOTTA TELL ME. HORSE COCK! I WANT PEPPER, LIKE RAW PEPPER, LIKE YOU GRIND. NOT CHILI PEPPERS. YOU SILLY GOOSE! YOU’RE ALL WRONG! WRONG! YOU GUYS DON’T HAVE PEPPER? YOU GOTTA HAVE PEPPER. WHAT THE FUCK. SOMEONE HERE HAS TO SPEAK ENGLISH, HEY DO YOU?

I told her that the pepper was around the corner in the aisle that said “Spices.”

THANK YOU SO DAMN MUCH. SOMEONE HERE IS WILLING AND ABLE. GOD BLESS YOU. THANK YOU.

She ambled off with husband in tow. Didn’t get far before she started galumphing and yelling. About ten feet from the spice aisle she was broadcasting again.

THIS IS RIDICULOUS. WE’RE GOING TO FORGET WHY WE CAME AND JUST LEAVE OR SOMETHING. COME ON, WHERE ARE WE GOING, WHAT ARE WE DOING? PEPPER, YOU KNOW. HEY DO YOU KNOW WHERE I CAN GET JUST RAW PEPPER, BLACK.

She was pointed to the spice aisle several more times (twice by me) and eventually achieved her goal.

In the checkout line more trouble awaited her.

SIX DOLLARS AND SEVENTY CENTS? YOU ARE KIDDING ME. I CAN AFFORD IT BUT I WON’T PAY IT. I AM GOING TO HAVE TO REMOVE SOME THINGS. YOU ARE A KIDDER, YOU’RE A SCAMMER. YOU ARE SCAMMING ME, RIGHT?

The cashier grinned and said “Nope. It’s just the price, look there.”

After a few more trips around the catch phrases she paid and toddled out with quiet husband still in tow.

The funny thing about her was that despite the yelling and grousing and disorientation and more yelling and occasional insults, she was clearly not only harmless but cheerful, and obviously thought of herself as friendly. The funnier thing was that everyone seemed to grasp this and no one was mad at her. In fact, she left friendly smiles in her wake the whole way.

Life in These Here Now United States: My First Night in Kansas City

In 1997 I got a contract job working for Sprint in Kansas City. I’d never done out of town contracting, but this was attractive: good money for work I find easy, in an inexpensive town. I set off for a cross-country drive on Interstate 40 at a leisurely pace, stopping for the night in Flagstaff and again in Tucumcari, NM. After a long day of 80 mph in the rain and mud and cowshit up Highway 54, I arrived in the late evening at my destination.

I’d plotted out an inexpensive motel on the north side of town for the night, since I was moving into an apartment the next day. Of course I got lost. Since KC is surrounded by a ring road I went around the city a couple of times, got off on the south side instead of the north, wandered various neighborhoods, got back on the ring road, and finally stopped for gas and directions late at night in a North Kansas City service station.

The night guy at the gas station was probably no more than 25, but was missing several teeth and had a worn look to him. His skin was at once greasy and dry, and he sat like potatoes in a huge black sweatshirt. He had two knives on his belt and stank of cigarettes. He was delighted to meet me, especially when he found out I was from California. After giving me (accurate) directions to the motel, he explained himself.

“I really want to get out to California. I’m about half saved and then I’m gonna go west.”

“What’re you going to do there?”

“I’m a biker. I got to get into one of those biker gangs out West, the Angels. You know the Angels.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“It’s my dream, man. I want to ride with those guys. And I really like the violence. I want to fight, you know, I wanna stomp someone.” He smiled at me with the innocent toothless mouth of an infant.

“Damn. That’s, uh, kinda hardcore.”

“Damn right. I’m Italian, I got Mafia in my blood. I want to get in it. You know, out West it’s for real, those guys. I gotta get there and prove myself.”

“You know,” I said, “California is a lot more expensive than here unless you’re in the middle of nowhere.”

He pointed to his eyes. “I know, and I’m ready. I can take care of myself. I can do a job here and there, you know. I’ll always survive. I just got to get where the action is.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to the guy. “Well, take care of yourself, man. I hope you do okay.”

He flashed that wonderful grin again. “Hey, no worry! I’m headed there and I’m gonna kick some fuckin’ ASS!”

He shook my hand, welcomed me to Kansas City, and sent me cheerfully on my way. Nicest wannabee murderer I ever met.

overheard at Diedrich

D.Z. is standing outside looking uncomfortable in the cold in a windbreaker with the hood up. Enter MEDICATED BOB, who’s neither totally insane or totally okay today.

D.Z. looks even more uncomfortable as MEDICATED BOB approaches him.

MEDICATED BOB: Hi!

D.Z.: Hey.

MEDICATED BOB: I haven’t had a drink since Thanksgiving?

D.Z.: I haven’t had one for 22 years. It’s not something you brag about, it’s something you do.

MEDICATED BOB: [inaudible]

D.Z.: Don’t drink, take your meds, take it easy.

MEDICATED BOB exits into the coffeehouse.

D.Z.: Guys who do that shit, drinking when they’re taking, whatever, Klonopin for the psychosur.. psycho.. psychosomatic? No, all fucked-up. I tell them to stop the drinking first, then switch to Xanax or something, but no drinking, with that shit. Maybe with some Valium or whatever, not with that psycho stuff. Fucked-up.

The hardest horking man in show business

switchstatement posted a link to this rappin’ Blue Blockers sunglass ad (mp3), and I immediately recognized the artist. It’s Dr. Geek.

In my Dark Ages when I was a 20-something yuffie with no reason to live, I rode the bus in Los Angeles. For ten years. It did not improve my disposition. I frequently had to take the Wilshire or Santa Monica buses across town, which is agonizing. They move at a crawl through heavy traffic, and going 10 miles takes two hours or more. At rush hour they’re packed with the poor, the drunk, the young, the old, the multiply convicted felons, and all of the 100% disabled insane people. All of us got to share each other’s vivid personalities, differing cultural sensitivities, and rich evocative aromas.

Dr. Geek was a regular on my trips from the Westside to Downtown. He was a very large man with an expansive manner, and he’d spent the day in the heat singing so his body’s natural glow was evident to all the senses. He often wore one of those huge foam cowboy hats you see at county fairs, and carried the tool of his trade: a gigantic boom box that seemed to have sharpened corners and weighed about 400 pounds, or half the good Doctor’s mass.

He would lurch onto the bus, boombox blaring, and announce to the world that “DR. GEEK IS IN!” Pushing backwards, not with malice but with an infectious joie de vivre, he’d get to about the middle of the bus and yell out again “IT’S DR. GEEK!”

For the next two or more hours, the Doctor was in session. We all got some free raps (he’d offer to customize without the usual fee), and if no one was up for it, he’d lay some rhymes out for us, freestyle. Sometimes he’d use the boombox and other times it was just an a cappella hip hop cornucopia.

The first time, it was a blast. The second time, it was a smaller blast. The third time, it sucked, especially since he kept backing into me with his wall-like back while he was caught up in the passion of yelling “I’M THE ORIGINAL/DR. GEEK/AIN’T NO ONE ELSE ON/VENICE BEACH” or something similar.

It was nice to see that he has a website and isn’t dead. At the time I wanted him to go away and die, but now I’m happy that the Doctor is still living large.

Punk Rock Tom

Punk Rock Tom on the patio

He has MISFIT tattooed on one leg, and MENTOR on the other. “Back in the day” when things were crazier and Tom was drinking, G.G. Allin crashed on his couch. He has a ’33 flathead Ford truck and a variety of impractical motorcycles. He can make metal do whatever he wants it to. Tom rides a dirt bike at night in the desert, and broke his leg doing it. He skateboards when he can, too.

Tom lays tile for a living. He’s not happy when he has to work weekends, because he’s not going to get any retirement. He’ll work until the day he dies. Until then, there’s the weekend and the thrill of speed and danger.

Tom walks stiffly and sits down with a grunt, but he’s quick to smile and loves swapping stories about punk rock, motorcycling, hot rods, and the fuckin’ mess the world’s in.

Workplace stories: The Smoker

P. was a file clerk at the hospital where I was a first a transcriptionist and later the supervisor. I worked with her for almost five years.

She was a short, slight woman in her late fifties. Her greying black hair was cut short and she had thick black-rimmed glasses. Every day she wore the same thing: black jeans or work pants, a t-shirt, and a Pendleton type button down overshirt. She lived in the Valley with her partner, an older woman with several disabilities that kept her at home. She never used the word “lesbian” or referred to sexuality in any way, in fact.

P. was a person of routine. Her job was to file and deliver medical reports. Every day on a strict schedule she would go from place to place in the hospital picking up some and putting others on the chart, and then return to our office to file, mail, staple, and prepare more reports. She was incapable of variation. If one day the anesthesia sheets were later than the radiology dictations she got flustered and misdelivered things. If the need arose for flexibility she collapsed and refused. A new computer system was a life-changing disaster. Kept on her train track, though, she was content, pleasant, and hard-working. She loved the music of the 1950s, television sitcoms and game shows, and rest.

Every day she had a cheese sandwich, plain, from the cafeteria. She would sample just about any food once, but she’d always go back to the sandwich. Precisely at her shift end she would clock out and head home to have dinner and then watch television with her partner. By her report the weekends consisted of more sitting and television. She always worked Christmas and Easter for the overtime. She said it was because she was a Jew, but really it was because she needed the money and never had much to do anyway.

P. was from Chicago. Occasionally she’d wear a bowling shirt completely covered with patches advertising leagues, victories, tournaments from a 25-year career. She had left bowling years ago, mostly because her partner couldn’t participate. She never talked about the Chicago days, or the bowling, or much of anything except current news and weather and a little office politics.

She was obliging and pleasant in conversation. Practically anything anyone said would get a “You got that right, babe” or “Yes ma’am!” If she disagreed or didn’t want to address something she’d just silently shake her bowed head. Any trouble related to work would immediately be brought to me and handed off with a characteristic palms forward gesture: “It’s all yours, boss. I dunno.”

I believe P. smoked more than anyone I’ve known. There was always a pack of Marlboros in the overshirt, and she must have been a three-pack-a-day smoker. Getting to close to her was not recommended due to the intense cigarette smell.

Because she could only do certain things, on a certain schedule, P. was constantly terrified that she’d lose her job. As a result she was a terrible paranoid and office gossip, and went about the floors on her rounds gathering any kind of unreliable information she could about the hospital. During a union fight in the nursing department she wholeheartedly supported management, wearing the anti-union button and arguing with nurses on the floor. When layoffs were announced, she was a fount of detailed misinformation about our imminent doom. She took great delight in bad news and declines and falls. With the same characteristic shake of the bowed head, she’d say over and over “That’s what I’m telling you, yup, yup, that’s how it is, it’s a damn shame” about the day’s crisis or gloomy news story.

Her greatest challenge arrived the day the new anti-smoking regulations went in. Suddenly she couldn’t smoke anywhere near the building, only in certain areas away from entrances. Before that she’d taken lots of unofficial little breaks to suck down a cig, but now that was impossible. And she couldn’t take enough breaks to feed the habit, or other employees would complain and I’d have to ask her to cut down. Several of us tried to help her with smoking cessation information, including the head of pulmonary medicine.

P. had a better solution. She broke up her runs to the floor into smaller chunks, so that she could deliver them more often. Since that still kept her inside hospital walls, though, she had to find a way to get a smoke. Her solution was to avoid the covered walkway between the two buildings and skip the elevator, and instead walk down a long staircase that took her from the top of a hill to the turnaround and main hospital entrance. It was about a thirty foot stairway. She’d light up at the top and inhale the whole way down, stubbing the cigarette out in the ashtray at the bottom. Then back into the hospital to finish her rounds.

So she did learn how to be flexible, after all. I never talked to her about her technique, but I admired her victory over circumstances.

Later that year so many of my staffers complained about the long walk to get outside to smoke that I got them a short cut as a favor from another department. We had a card key that opened into a secure area, from which they could easily step outside into a loading dock.

The secure area was full of dead people, though. Throughout my day, people would come to my desk and say “I need to smoke. Can I have the key to the morgue?”

While I was working there, my father died suddenly. P. came into my office right after I’d told everyone, and stood there for a moment as if pulling together for a confession. “I just wanted to tell you,” she said. “My mother died when I was 25, on Mother’s day. I’ve never got over it. I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” Then she delivered the characteristic head shake and went on another set of rounds.

I wonder if she is still alive? It’s been ten years since I left; I doubt it.