Tuesday, March 26, 2013

St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef Hero

I can hardly remember a March 17th that didn’t include an encounter with one or several fools from a cast of alcohol-soaked, green-layered characters: a slurring girl frantically accusing strangers of stealing her coat, a couple weaving home from a bar while one of them cries, a bro breaking his hand on some other bro’s face. Last year, I actually think I saw all of them in one day. It was like getting the Leprechaun Full House. St. Patrick’s can be a time of fun and friendship, but, like night of the full moon, it can also be a time for crazy.

To celebrate this year’s Irish-For-A-Day holiday, I enjoyed approximately 100 beers (give or take) with my friends in the northern suburbs on Saturday night, and returned home on the afternoon of St. Patrick’s day proper more interested in watching PBS on the couch than getting my green on. I was satisfied in doing so, with the exception of one issue.  The missing part of my March 17th experience had been the food: I didn’t obtain the corned beef sandwich that I had been fantasizing about for a full year. Although my family is less Irish than Lucky Charms, we usually enjoyed traditional corned beef around the holiday. It was almost 8pm when I convinced myself that I deserved to uphold my family tradition.

I bundled up and entered the elements with one goal in mind – the New York Deli on Clark. If this blog were a Yelp review, I’d give it 5 stars (like most people do) and comment on its amazing sandwiches, classic checkered floor, and small business awesomeness (and I'd mention that the sell AND deliver craft beer), but that night it got even better than that.

That night, while I waited for my corned beef sandwich at a tiny table at the deli, I overheard the story of another St. Pat’s brute and witnessed some St. Pat’s chivalry.

The gal with long curly dark hair had been sitting alone near the back of the tiny shop. I noticed her when I walked in, as I considered if I should order my dinner to go or to stay. She wasn’t eating when I arrived, just sitting quietly, looking intently at her phone.

After a few minutes of us all sitting in the pleasant silence, she approached the store owner as he prepared sandwiches behind the counter. I could hear voice halt and crack. She began to cry, and I looked up from my magazine.

She apologized for loitering.

I just drove 5 hours.
He’s in a rage.
He slashed my tires.

Sandwich making halted.
You are safe here, Dave, the proprietor soothed. Can I get you anything? No rush. Stay as long as you need.

The Girl With Slashed Tires thanked him embarrassedly and returned to her seat. Moments later I heard her on the phone with a friend describe the “rage” of the man she was hiding from the way we talk about making that biannual dentist appointment; no one likes it, but we all live with it. The girl and the brute had been dating for 2 years.

Our shopkeeper, his only employee at the moment, walked away from the sandwiches. He came out from behind the counter with a cup of water for The Girl.

Handing her a card he said, This is my personal information.

I’m not being weird or creepy, I’m a happily married man. 
You can stay as long as you want.
You are safe here.
You can do better than him.
That behavior is inappropriate and mean.
You call me if you need anything.
I know every cop in town.

She thanked him again and he returned to finish adding the perfect amount of mustard to my hot and fresh St. Patrick’s Day sandwich. I paid in cash and tipped him. I said thank you. Twice.

I walked north to my house while the St. Patrick’s Day Brute surely roamed the neighborhood in a rage.  I wished that the Girl With Slashed Tires had never existed, but I had a warm heart knowing that the Dave at the New York Deli was looking out for her.  St. Pat's has its fair share of crazies, but it has its heroes, too.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Gun Control and the Zombie Apocalypse

I was trapped in an elevator traveling neither up or down, caught in that small window between floors where the zombies were free to hack at me through a metal cage – a frail frame of wires which provided enough safety to keep me cocky.

I was in torn and discolored clothing, my hair pulled back in a long messy ponytail secured with a piece of bloodied fabric tied around my head. I had two large hunting knives in my hands, and, foolishly, a useless kitchen steak knife tucked into the waistline of my sagging pants. I had returned to this place of danger from another location of relative safety to procure both a belt and my knife sharpener. Those are the things you think about when the zombie apocalypse occurs in your dreams, I guess.

All around me were zombies doing the Thriller walk, but I also saw my friends and neighbors fighting with all their might, or trying to escape. As the undead pressed against the elevator cage, trying to rip off my face with their clumsy fingers, I was struggling with who to stab. Everyone was dirty and torn. Everyone was splattered with blood. How did I know who was running to safety and who was really a brain-eating zombie?

The inherent survival instinct of my human nature stepped forward in this world of dreams and I definitely stabbed a few zombies without regret. I felt like a bad ass. But my instinct to assume innocence even of those whose flesh came falling off as they lumbered toward me also held on tight.

Among the jaw-flapping living dead on the other side of the elevator cage, there was also a young woman trying to transport orphaned pit-bull puppies to safety. Was she a zombie? Were they were zombie puppies? How did I know for sure if I should stab wildly or restrain myself?

As a person interested in the occult, and all things strange, I am surprisingly not into zombies. I've never much cared for zombie apocalypse discussions, or zombie bar crawls and any other such thing. I have nothing against the undead (go vampires!) but I just can't get into zombies. How they made their way into my dream is a mystery, but I have an inkling where the moral debate may have surfaced.

Over the past 5 years, and especially over the past few months, I've tried to stay abridged in the conversation in this country about gun control. It's a lot of the same stuff – the same arguments from both sides. But yesterday I read an article that made me think.

In an article on The Daily Beast called Don’t Shoot! Why Being a Hero Is Not That Easy, Dan Baum reflects on the NRA recommendation that teachers carry guns to prevent school shootings using his own experience at a virtual reality shooting school.

What we learn from Baum’s nerve-wracking experience is that no matter how sure you are of your mission (Stop the shooter! Save the students! Rescue the pit bull puppy! Re-kill a Zombie!) pulling the trigger isn’t as natural a reaction as we think. Even in a simulated reality where no one would actually be injured if Baum misfired, he still found himself in panicked fear of getting the wrong guy.

He recounts of the scenarios in vivid detail:

“Loud screams erupted as I turned and stepped through a doorway. Someone came running from the gloom at the end of a hall—a young woman, crying and pointing behind her. I raised the gun as another person came running—someone chasing her? No, a screaming man with empty hands.

I was gasping audibly, my torso rigid with fear, as I turned left into a classroom. People were lined up against a blackboard, crying. On the floor lay at least one body, maybe two. In front of me, a big woman had her arm around another woman’s neck and a gun to the woman’s head.

I froze.”

Equipped with two massive knifes in a dream world of deteriorating Zombie attackers, even the Rambo version of me froze. Baum froze in a virtual school under siege by a virtual attacker, and assessed he’d probably freeze in the real life situation, too.

Wouldn’t you?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Office Supply Kidnapping Plot

The driver slowed unexpectedly on the expressway, pulling slightly to the left. He put the square, white, utilitarian van in reverse and reached his arm around the back of the seat to see out the back window. For a moment, I worried that there had been a breakdown, engine trouble, a stall. Why else would we be stopped on the expressway? I soon realized that our driver had missed his exit, but he wasn’t going to let that stand in his way.

The traffic in and around Bangkok would make any Chicagoan sweat, but my level of perspiration soared that day on a trip from the convention center to downtown. As was my assignment on this trip, I had completed this journey several times to drop off and pick up supplies by taxi and by train, but this time was a little more uncomfortable. This time I was traveling in the front seat of the utilitarian delivery van with my colleague, Susan. With no seat belts. And a severe language barrier between us and our driver.

Susan and I had attempted to climb into the back of the van but were redirected into the front, next to the driver and a little too close to each other. I got the distinct impression that this seating arrangement was intended to be respectful of us and our white-womaness, but I would have much preferred to sit on the floor of the back of the van. As he pulled out of the convention center, we were hoping that he understood our request.

 “Office supplies. We need office supplies. Scissors, staplers, pens? Office supplies?” We knew that repeating yourself several times was the best way to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. I mimed with my index and middle fingers.


In the rearview mirror, he spoke to his 12 or 13 year-old son, a quiet boy who sat in the backseat of the van engrossed in a comic book. His job was to help us lift and carry all the supplies we purchased and to occasionally interpret for his father using the English phrases he had likely learned from Hollywood movies. The boy nodded. His father smiled and nodded and we continued on our way.  Susan and I looked at each other and shrugged.

Actual photo of me in a taxi in Bangkok. Actual fear on my face.

 Our driver’s style behind the wheel did not seem unusual in BKK. We jerked forward and made unexpected turns. We merged into impossible streams of traffic. We accelerated to dangerous speeds and then stopped suddenly for red lights or slowing traffic. Being seated so close to the windshield made the dizzying traffic feel like a video game simulation, which was both terrifying and nauseating.  I’ve experienced plenty of bad drivers, but this man drove like he was kidnapping a couple of American citizens and trying to flee from the law.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that was really what he was doing.  I’d start to panic, finger my Thai cell phone preparing to call for help, and try to signal to Susan that in exactly 60 seconds I was going to knock out the driver with my sweet left hook, and she’d have to grab the wheel and slide into his seat while I tied him and the boy together and notified the authorities of the international incident we so narrowly avoided.

I got as far as smiling at Susan, trying to spell out the plan with my eyes, and without notice our driver swung the van right, slamming Susan and I into each other with whispers of fear caught in our throats, and hit the breaks. Practically clutching each other, ready to scream or vomit, we stared at our driver. He pointed up at a sign posted far above our heads.

“Office Depot!?” he shouted, nodding wildly. 

And there it was, sandwiched between two blustering lanes of traffic, swarmed by overhead power lines – an Office Depot. Ah yes, I thought, narrowing my eyes, taking us to our destination covers your plot well.

We climbed out of the van in a hurry, thankful to be free of the chaos of Bangkok’s urban bustle and safe in the familiar fluorescent lights and orderly aisles of the Office Depot. Inside, as we filled a cart with office supplies,  our driver and his son waited in the van no doubt laughing about how strange and sweaty American touristas can be.