Saturday, February 21, 2009

Saving our Rights to Arm Bears

A recent article in a news magazine dealt with the legality of bearing concealed weapons while in National Parks. What, you say? Yes, at this time you are allowed to get doused by Old Faithful, hike the Appalachian Trail and dehydrate in Death Valley while bearing a hidden firearm. Or many hidden firearms, for that matter. We're not talking about shotguns or hunting rifles here, we're talking nasty little snub-nosed revolvers designed solely to kill people, Saturday Night specials and other inventions created to hurt, maim, wound.

In most countries such an abheration would create an uproar. Of course, in most countries, handguns are not a staple of the population, and owning one is not taken as a basic human right. In the US, there are approximately 10 handgun deaths per 100,000 people each year, with four being homicide and six being suicides. In Switzerland, where males over 18 have to own a rifle to defend the state and are trained to use such weapons, the rate is one handgun killing per 200,000, with approximatelly the same suicide rate as found in the US. France sees one gun-related homicide per 500,000 people, and 3.4 suicides per 100,000. In Japan (those wiley Orientals must know something we don't) there are 0.02 handgun-related deaths per 100,000 Japanese, and 0.04 suicides. In a year. Most Europeans are amazed to learn that it is more complex to get a driver's license in the US than it is to get and carry a gun. They assume that some sort of gun ed (like driver's ed) exists, and it is simply beyond their comprehension that a potential criminal can get a weapon at a gun show, thereby short-circuiting the mandatory check and waiting period imposed by many states.

Many gun death in the US take place in the city, which is somehow discriminatory. I assume the powers that be, including the NRA, feel there is no reason people hiking through national parks should be safer than say, people hiking through East LA or DC's Georgetown.

There's a real problem... Even the most adamant anti-handgun organization has come to terms with a sad fact: at this time, even with the best efforts and cooperation of everyone involved, it would be impossible to try to recall or license handguns this country. There are too many of them... So here is a modest proposal. Let people have as many handguns as they want, but lets control the manufacture of bullets. Think of it. It might take some work and some hard-ass legislation, but licensing bullets would drastically cut the number of murders and woundings. And it isn't as crazy as it sounds: almost every single piece of durable consumer goods has a serial number. Why not do the same with bullets?

Here's installment 69 or Wasted Miracles.

Joe the Cop’s voice suddenly grew small. He glanced at the back of Mamadou’s head, then at Colin as if seeking advice, made a show of folding the scrap of paper, putting it back in his pocket. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend.”
Mamadou shrugged. “You didn’t.” He paused, turned, said, “Tell us what happened.”
Joe mumbled. “Nothing much. Usual violent crap.”
“The boy who was stabbed. He died, right? You said, ‘fatally stabbed.’ Did they catch him, the other boy?”
Joe shook his head. “No. Not last I heard.”
Mamadou nodded as if this wasn’t surprising. “Shame.”
“But they will.”
With three men in the car, it soon got hot and Mamadou cranked open a window. In the house, the upstairs light went out. Mamadou said, “Soon.”
Ten minutes later it started raining softly. Five minutes after that, the tempo of the drops increased on the roof of the car. Mamadou looked at his watch. “We’ll wait another twenty minutes, unless something happens. I’ll go out, take a quiet look around the house, just to make sure they’re not watching television. I’m almost certain they’re not. The neighbor told Aunt Mim these people go to bed early and rise late.”
The rain beat a serious tattoo and just as suddenly ceased. Mamadou grunted. “It would have been nice if it had continued a few more minutes.”
The street was shiny as if coated with oil. Finally, Mamadou said, “All right. I’ll signal you.” He opened the car door softly and Colin noticed the dome light didn’t turn on.
Mamadou said, “Lock the doors.”
Joe didn’t like the idea. “Why?”
“Because I said so. Because I know this area, and I know the people, and even though it looks quiet, I don’t want to have someone open the door, stick a gun in your very white face, and steal the car.”
Colin said, “Just do it, Joe. Don’t argue.”
There was a faint black on gray shadow as Mamadou faded into the darkness.
Joe the Cop said, “Man, he sure doesn’t move like the other people around here. No elbows and knees on that man.”
“Yeah,” Colin said. “He’s pretty unusual.”
Joe nodded. “Former cop. Must have been kind of tough, place like Africa. I really hope I didn’t offend him. I didn’t mean to. Really. All I was trying to do was--”
Colin cut him off. “It’s OK, Joe. Don’t worry about it.”
The clouds cleared momentarily. Colin cracked his window open an inch. An odor of mulch, wet tar and spent electricity invaded the car. They waited. A few minutes later there was a tap on the side of the car and both men jumped. Mamadou’s hair glistened with raindrops. Colin opened the door and the black man slid in.
“It’s exactly as I said earlier. Howard is asleep on the couch next to the foyer. He snores very loudly. The others are upstairs. Your friend is in the basement. There’s a cellar entrance to the house but it’s locked, so you’ll have to go through the front door--I opened it for you.”
Colin nodded. There didn’t seem to be anything to say in spite of the hundred questions he wanted to ask.
Mamadou turned to Joe. “Follow Colin, then go to the side of the house and stay out of sight. There are some bushes. You’ll be able to watch the road without being seen. Remember the cellular. Just punch in ‘3’ and ‘send.’”
Mamadou reached under the driver’s seat, pulled out an old-fashioned nightstick, handed it to Colin. “I customized this. I think that’s the right word. A lead weight in the tip. Let’s go.”
Colin took the nightstick. It was top-heavy, the handle ribbed. “That is a very big man sleeping in there, Colin, and he got the best of you once already.”
Colin hefted the weight in his hand, felt a slight reassurance. Joe the Cop tapped his shoulder and walked quickly to the side of the house. Mamadou smiled, motioned Colin out of the car, took care to leave the doors unlatched. Halfway to the house, Mamadou said, “Your turn.” He vanished and Colin felt insanely exposed for what seemed minutes but were seconds. He approached the front steps slowly, feeling the grass give beneath his shoes. The lawn was mowed unevenly, tufts of grass sprouting gray in the dim light. His legs felt weak. Only once in his life had he actually struck someone in anger and he had regretted it for months.
From the sidewalk were five steps leading to an unscreened porch and it took forever to reach them. The porch begged for a coat of paint, the spout of the gutter was rusty and needed replacing. Two windows were open, one was closed. The house’s breathing rang loud in his ears.
He tentatively placed one foot on the first step. The wood groaned and he froze, the nightstick dropping to his side. He waited for the front door to explode open but nothing happened. He climbed the rest of the steps, crept to a window, peered in. Howard was asleep on the couch. Seen horizontally, the man was enormous, his chest and belly rising with every breath.
Colin turned the door knob, pushed, heard the hinges squeal. Howard stirred, snorted, turned on the couch so his back was to the door. He had undone his pants and the elastic band of his underwear was disturbingly white.
Colin entered the room, glanced around. There was nothing there to personalize the place, not a single item to testify that people did indeed live there. The walls were bare save for a couple of yellowing Bob Marley posters. The furniture was Aaron Rents, large, colorless pieces with no function other than taking space. There was no clutter, no newspapers on the floor, no magazines, no mail waiting to be read and answered, no stereo or TV.
Reaching Howard took forever.
Colin stood over him, nightstick poised, arm frozen, wondering how hard he had to hit. What if he missed? The man was such a large presence that surely one blow wouldn’t injure him. What if he struck and it wasn’t enough? What if he killed him?
Howard stirred, farted.
Colin’s arm swung down in a short, vicious blow and the nightstick made a fat, full sound as it struck Howard’s head. Howard’s entire body seemed to levitate from the couch. His eyes opened, he looked straight at Colin with annoyed surprise. Then he relaxed, his eyeballs rolled and he slid off the couch onto the floor.
The nightstick was a snake in Colin’s hand. He dropped it, fumbled, found the pulse of Howard’s neck. Whatever the blow had done to his head, it hadn’t injured his heart.
Colin listened for sounds, heard only the quiet cacophony of a house at night. The loudest noise was his own breathing.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Off With Their Head(lines)

Newspapers are dying. We have, for better or for worse, decided that McNews is better, more digestible and easier opn the soul in the form of Fox broadcasts, USA Today, or blogs and websites. The impending demise of the daily could also stem from readers becoming tired of bad news and papers failing to realize there is--even among we-are-doomed junkies--a failsafe point. We can only tolerate so much war, so much financial and intellectual decline, so many stories depicting the frailness of the human condition. We are burned out on sadness, meaningless crime, governmental stupidity or insensitivity. We're sick of it and we're not gonna pay for it anymore.

And yet... I worked for the Washington Post for years. I'm a print guy, even if I no longer really care for the Post. I like getting up in the morning, rain or shine, and reaching for my paper deep under the azalea bush where the delivery guy unerringly tosses it. I no longer read the business section--why get depressed when you don't have to--and wonder where a lot of Post reporters got their training. I decry the loss of objectivity. I wonder when mainline editors decided readers wanted a reporter's opinions more than they want facts. I mourn the passing of such elegant writers as Sarah Booth Conroy; the end of the book review section; the melding of social and art pages into an incomprehensible miasma of critique and bad writing.

I will miss the shorts buried in the A section--the French and British nuclear submarines bristling with enough fissionables to destroy the earth three times over. They collided in the English Channel (how can such a thing happen and what does that tell us about the end of the world?). I will miss the gossip section telling me all about people I neither do--nor want to--know. I like the daily crossword puzzles that will never, ever, be as friendly on a computer screen. I enjoy the corrections, those little boxes buried beneath the fold on page three that say, "Oops, we blew it." I particularly like them when they recognize that the photo in yesterday's late edition was not Mrs. Crosley Boyd-Smith but Mr. Crosley Boyd-Smith who always wore a kilt. And they regret the error.

Plus, lets face it, what else will you wrap fish in?

Here's installment 68 of Wasted Miracles.

Colin wondered why he was where he was, sitting in the car next to a black man he hardly knew, driving someplace to do something he was vastly unqualified to do. It felt like one of those drunk dreams he had early in sobriety when he’d wake with a shudder, gasping for air, terrified that the illusion had been fact. Those dreams had lasted months, striking once or twice a week, so vivid they left the oily taste of cheap vodka in his mouth and an all too familiar stinging warmth in his stomach. Once, to his horror, he’d woken to find he’d wet himself.
Even the presence of Joe the Cop in the back seat had an unreal feel to it. Colin could hear him breathe, a faint in-and-out hissing sound. Joe had eaten garlic bread for dinner, was uncharacteristically quiet, fidgety.
Mamadou, by comparison, seemed made of wood, only his hands and head occasionally moved, monitoring the non-existent traffic and guiding the car exactly five miles above the speed limit.
In the apartment earlier, the plan had made perfect sense. Wait until the middle of the night, drive in, snatch the girl, drive out. A simple thing, over in a matter of minutes. Now it seemed like unadulterated madness. The three hadn’t exchanged a word since entering the District. Words would convey doubt, doubt would convey fear.
Colin wondered whether either Mamadou or Joe felt as he did, wrapped himself in cottony silence. His legs went tight when a police car detached itself from the curb and momentarily followed them, relaxed slightly when the cruiser turned off to the right and was lost to view.
“There’s a gas station a block up,” Mamadou said quietly. “If either of you want to use a bathroom, now is the time.”
Colin smiled in the darkness. “Are we that obvious?”
Mamadou nodded. “It’s normal. When I was a policeman--and I’m sure Joe will know what I mean--I used to get violently sick when I knew I was headed into a potentially dangerous situation. It lasted for the first six months I was in uniform.”
“Then what happened?”
“Then I got calm. I realized that the outcome of whatever I was going into would have little to do with how I felt about it. It was a blessing to realize that.” His hands moved the steering wheel slightly and the car jumped a lane. “But there’s really no reason for your concern, Colin. All you have to do is strike one man, and he’ll be sleeping. I would think you’d feel a certain sense of justice wacking Harold on the head. I would, had he done to me what he did to you.”
“I already vomited on his shoes.”
Mamadou hesitated, smiled. “I suppose that is a vengeance of sorts. Perhaps not my first choice, though.” He braked to a stop at a red light.
Earlier, Mamadou had offered Colin a gun, Colin had refused the weapon. “Those things scare me.” Now Colin thought of reconsidering. A gun, that most impersonal of weapons, might have added a degree of sanity to the situation. Joe the Cop was wearing his in a shoulder holster, had made a point of taking out the clip and checking it carefully. Mamadou had one also.
Mamadou picked up the cellular phone from its cradle on the dash, punched a number, waited, asked, “Anything new?” After a moment he flipped it closed, dropped it on the floor of the car. He turned to Colin, said, “One more time.”
“I go up the steps. They creak, so I’m careful. Howard is asleep on the couch in the front room. I hope the neighbor is right about that, Mamadou. I don’t want to tangle with that guy again...”
“Aunt Mim says the neighbor looked in their window five minutes ago. Howard’s asleep.”
“I bop Howard on the head.”
“I bop Howard hard on the head, go downstairs, grab Josie and get the hell out.”
Mamadou said, “Joe?”
“I stay outside and watch. If anything happens, I punch ‘three’ on the digital, and it buzzes your pager. I start the car and get ready to haul ass out.” He paused, added, “I still don’t like this. I should be going in with you guys, help you out if you need it.”
“Somebody’s got to stay out here, Joe.” He turned back to Colin. “And I’ll take care of Harold and the Zulu. We shouldn’t be in there more than two minutes, three at the most. How do you both feel.”
Joe and Colin chorused, “Fine.” Neither meant it.
Mamadou said, “Good.” He fell silent for a moment, added, “There’s not much finesse to a frontal assault, but more often than not, it works.” After a moment, he added, “No ID, right, Joe? No badge or anything like that?
Joe nodded. “Nothing at all. I left all that stuff at Colin’s house. I’ll pick it up when we’re through.”
“No papers. Ten bucks and a quarter to call a cab in case the car breaks down...”
No one laughed. They drove on, crossed the river, headed into Anacostia.
Joe the Cop said, “Rough neighborhood.”
Mamadou glanced in the rearview mirror, caught Joe’s eyes. “There are people who spend their entire lives here, they get used to it. All the papers print about Anacostia is the crime rate, but there’s a lot more going on than just crime. Some of Washington’s best families--best black families, those that haven’t sold out and bought house on the Gold Coast--live here.”
Joe held up a hand. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to criticize, or anything. It’s just that--”
Mamadou interrupted him. “It’s just that there isn’t a single white family living here. As far as I know, that is.” He slowed for a blinking yellow light. “We’re almost there.”
The rest of the ride was spent in silence. Eventually, Mamadou slowed the car, pulled in close to the curb, snapped the headlights off. “It’s that house,” he pointed. “Over there.”
Colin peered into the darkness. It was a nondescript single family home set a few yards back from the street. Clapboard, peeling white paint, a single line of ivy climbing up the gutters. The first floor of the house was dark save a faint light over the front entrance. On the second floor, one window was dimly lit. The house next door, by comparison, was brightly illuminated. “That’s the neighbor lady, the one who’s been calling Aunt Mim.”
They sat in the car in the dark for what seemed many minutes. Eventually, Joe cleared his throat and said, “You’re gonna love this, Colin, it was in the Washington Times.” Colin could hear him unfold a piece of paper. “Listen. It’s priceless.” He began reading in a low monotone. “Here’s the headline, ‘Man Fatally Stabbed Over McDonald’s Order.’”
Colin whispered, “Joe, this isn’t exactly the time and place.”
Joe ignored him, read. “‘As he sat in the drive-through lane of a McDonald’s restaurant in Northeast Washington yesterday morning,’ Northeast, right? Where else is this shit gonna happen? Anyway, this guy realizes he doesn’t have enough money for the order, so he tells the weenie behind the counter to take some stuff away...”
“No, listen, this is choice. So this kid who’s riding in the car gets pissed off, ‘cause maybe it’s his fries getting left behind, and this kid stabs him. Bam, just like that, right in the back. So--”
Colin hissed, “Joe! Shut the fuck up!”
Mamadou was staring straight ahead. Now he turned to face Joe the Cop. “No, Colin, it’s OK. I read the paper too.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Things I Have Learned, Part 2

So we've made it through the unholy tri-facta (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years) and Valentine's day is done as well. Personally, any holiday that requires I buy stuff for others isn't really appreciated, but I'm willing to do my part for the economy.

I'm coming up on a birthday and a sober anniversary, so here's some more valuable stuff I have learned:

We go through a lot of pain to avoid a little discomfort.
Life is lived forward and understood backward.
I don’t suffer from low self-esteem. I suffer from high self-involvement.
In any given situation, I can act like a child and avoid responsibility, act like a parent giving unwanted advice, or act like an adult and accept what’s mine.
Trying is failing with honor.
It’s not my problems I’m afraid of, it’s my solutions.
Reality is a shared perception of what may be.
I love the way things should be.
Forgiveness is admitting you have not robbed me of the peace of God.
Glance at the past, don’t stare at it.
Most of us only know anxiety, excitement and depression.
I am an addiction in search of a substance.
Everything is fine. I’m not.
No one ever treated me as bad as I treated myself.
If you’re bothered by old behavior, it’s not old behavior—it’s new behavior.
It’s “ready aim fire,” not “fire ready aim.”
Just because I don’t feel good doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong
My life changes without my permission

So think about all that... There's no garantee it will better your life, but it will start you thinking.

Here's installment 67 of Wasted Miracles:

Chapter 17

“Goddamit!” The blonde girl yelled, slamming the door of the cabin shut. It made a hollow metallic sound that seemed to ring for a moment before being swallowed by the steady thrumming of the ships’ engine.
“You promised!”
The brunette turned, a set stubborn look on her face. “I wasn’t going to take anything. I wanted to look. Wanted to see what it was.”
The silence hung between them.
The blonde wore a brief bathrobe over a one-piece turquoise bathing suit. Her hair was damp, hung in streaks. The brunette was in bras and panties. A pair of shorts and a bright yellow T-shirt that read “I ¤ Barbados” were laid out on the bunk before her.
The blonde took the bundle that was wrapped in brown paper and sealed in a CVS Drug Store bag, inspected it closely.
The brunette looked sullen. “I told you. I didn’t touch anything. I just wanted to look.”
“Look, my ass...” She turned the bundle this way and that. “Fuckin addict. I should have known better. Jesus, how stupid could I get, try to trust someone with a habit.”
The brunette’s voice flared. “I haven’t used in almost a year! You know that! I wanted to look!”
The blonde took a deep breath, held it. “You wanted to look. And what would that get you, looking? Gonna feel better if you look?”
“You never told me what was in there.”
“You couldn’t guess? You think someone’s gonna give us ten grand to cart a box of donuts half way round the world?”
“You never told me!”
The blonde sighed. “Give me a break.”
“You didn’t trust me.”
The blonde took a tote bag from the top shelf of the cabin’s small closet, placed the bundle in it, zipped up the bag, dropped it on the bunk.
“I thought we went through all that before, didn’t we? Didn’t I tell you that it was easier that way, something happens, you don’t know what it was, didn’t even know it was there. I was trying to protect you. Jesus!”
The brunette’s voice lost its edge, turned soft. “I forgot.”
“Yeah, right.”
“I wouldn’t use. I’m through with that. I wouldn’t do that to you. Or to me.”
The blonde nodded. “Right. That’s what you said.”
“I meant it.”
The blonde took the bag, put it into the closet, draped a towel over it. “Just leave it alone, OK? Trust me. Just a little while longer.”
The brunette shrugged. “I know what it is, you know. I’m not stupid.”
“Never said you were.”
“Bolivian marching powder.” She giggled. “Lots of it.”
“That’s a good guess.”
“I’m right. I just know I am.”
The blonde shrugged again. “Does it matter? Ten thousand. Like I said, it’s not donuts.”
The brunette slipped into her shorts, pulled the T-shirt over her head. “I guess it doesn’t. Matter, I mean. What do I know. Maybe it is donuts.”
“Keep that thought,” the blonde answered. “Very, very expensive donuts.”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Are You Happy?

I'm not. Winter has always depressed me. Although I'm glad the syndrome has a name--SAD, or Seasonally Affected Disorder--in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and in spite of the fact that a lot of my friends seem to share my symptoms, this is a case where knowledge is not power.

SAD is a lot like depression. There's anguish, fatigue, endless procrastination, and a deep need to isolate from my fellow humans.

The economy isn't helping. I recently went to a financial seminar that, among other subjects, dealt with the effects of the present recession on the psyche. Again:L sadness, anguish and panic, a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness as my next egg vanishes.

This is normal, say the experts. Small (and large) investors have essentially been betrayed by the people to whom they had entrusted their money. I'm sure not all brokers are rotten sumbitches. Mine is a nice guy who for 12 years has been telling me things are peachy, and he never did say things were getting rotten I have a note from him dated a few months ago that reads :"Looked over yr. portfolio. Everything is FINE."

FINE, I guess, really means Fucked up, Irreversibly so, Negative returns, Errors on my part. I did not learn this secret acronym until very recently.

And of course these feelings of inadequacy and angst are un-American. Lets face it, we are supposed to be happy. Isn't this the greatest country in the history of the world? The one with the most comforts? More TV channels than anybody; stores bursting at the seams with goods and merchandise; a new regime upon whom we have heaped hopes that would make Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy blush. Being unhappy in the States is simply not an option.

Our expectations of comfort have taken a lickin'. Many of us are the product of the postwar years. We were told and believed that doing the right thing--working, saving, investing, spending--held the keys to a safe future. We neither knew nor understood the various machinations that enabled money to be made or lost. To our shame, we might even have been somewhat reticent to ask too many questions. We were greedy, trusting and foolish, a truly tragic combination of attitudes that made preying on us far too easy, and we were willing prey.

Here's installment 66 of Wasted Miracles'

When the Zulu returned, Comfort watched him hand the pipe to Josie, watched him light it. The girl sucked hard, the rock glowed a bright red in the glass bowl. She held the vapors in her lungs, reluctant to let go, and her body relaxed as if a length of steel had been removed from it. Her eyes found the Zulu’s and he lowered himself to a squatting position next to her. She said something Comfort could not hear, repeated it.
A small smile broke across the Zulu’s face and Comfort noted not for the first time that his employer’s teeth were extraordinarily numerous and amazingly white. The Zulu rose, searched a pocket, withdrew three small vials of drugs, handed them to the girl, dropped a book of matches on her lap. Then he signaled to Comfort and they both left the room.
“Patience,” he said, “wins out again.”
Comfort raised an eyebrow. “She told you?”
The Zulu nodded. “Of course. I knew she would.”
Comfort was impressed. “As usual, Dingane, you knew best.”
“Yes. I did.”
Comfort watched the Zulu climb the stairs ahead of him, watched the man’s ample rear, smiled thinly. The Zulu’s final gift to the girl would kill her, but that, in the end, would be preferable to all concerned. Certainly it would be better for her than dying without, racked by pain and sweating blood.
Comfort hoped she would not take too long to die, hoped her overdose would be quick and pleasurable.
Josie held the treasure in the palm of her hand. Her vision was blurred but she was cognizant enough to realize that her every problem had been solved, that unlimited happiness, total contentment and an end to her pain was in her grasp.
Deep in the recesses of her brain, a small insistent voice tried to cry out a warning, failed.
With the nail of her little finger, she scraped clean the bowl of the glass pipe, turned it over to dump any residue. She fumbled with one the vials trying to open it, finally stuck it in her mouth and pulled the stopper with her teeth. Carefully, she tipped a rock into the bowl. She struck a match, inhaled. The smoke hit her with the force of a fist. She dropped the pipe, watched uncaring as the nugget fell from the bowl, burned through her jeans and into the flesh of her leg. She sighed once deeply. Her hands unclenched and the two remaining vials rolled to the ground. With a monumental effort, she reached down to the floor, pushed them beneath the beanbag chair were they would be safe from harm. Then she smiled.