Empty Jazz & Sugary Pop

I was underdressed for the rain and I wandered into Borders Books to escape. I glanced through the little islands of paid-for-placement books. The mild jazz soundtrack was overpowered for thirty seconds by a loud “fssssssstt” from the espresso machine up on the mezzanine. When the espresso machine finished, the cash register started – an unbuffered “zip zip ziiip” from the dot-matrix printers that do the receipts. I headed upstairs and the background music changed from empty jazz to sugary pop. I had passed from an area covered by the jazz feed into an area covered by the pop feed. The area where the two feeds overlapped was surprisingly small, I crossed it in two paces. There was a man crouched low in front of the graphic novel section reading a book that was holding open against the floor. I walked into the fiction section and went instinctively to Italo Calvino‘s books. That’s where I begin all my bookstore visits – I look at Italo Calvino’s books, even though I’ve read all of them. They had one copy each of most of his books, I ran my eyes across the consistently designed spines of the Harcourt-published books folled by the odd spines of the two or three books from other publishers. I’m so used to seeing the familiar covers that I almost missed the new collection of autobiographical pieces. I plucked it from the shelf and ruffled through it. A pop song, maybe the one I came in with or maybe one that followed it, ended and something like Frank Sinatra, but not Frank Sinatra, came on. I wandered around some more, no longer up for browsing after being pleased by the Calvino find. I detected another soundtrack-border as I passed into the music section, the front area was covered by the pop-turned-Sinatra soundtrack, but that faded into silence. The music section had no soundtrack, just a thin quiet bass-line coming from abandoned headsets at the listening stations. I looked at nothing special and headed back downstairs through the Sinatra section, past the man crouched in front of the graphic novels and the three guys reaching to get at something behind him, into the inoffensive jazz which was intermittently drowned out by the zipping cash register printers. I waited in the short line and paid for the book (“zip zip zip-ziiiip”). I headed outside and someone ordered a latte just as I reached the door. I went outside, avoiding the rain by walking in between the raindrops. Okay, not really. The rain felt pretty good, light and prickly, massaging. How’s that?

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Am I crazy or did I just break my big aluminum floor lamp with a jacket? I was pulling the jacket up off a chair. The jacket sleeve flopped off to the side and brushed against the lamp. Then the lamp just crumpled. There’s no other word for it. It crumpled. The top of the lamp tipped over, and then the middle segment fell while the base just stayed planted in place on the floor. The parts that screw the three segments of the main rod together just snapped apart. I’m puzzled.

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What do you call

A man came around the corner pushing his things in a Safeway shopping cart. He saw me sitting a few feet away, outside Bauhaus, and stopped. The man left his cart on the corner, took half a step toward me, and asked a question – the beginning of an ethnic joke. “What do you call a white man surrounded by a bunch of Indians?” He was Indian.

I went along with it. “What?”

He misunderstood, thought I hadn’t heard. He moved in a little closer and hesitated before sitting down next to me and repeating the question. “What do you call a white man surrounded by a bunch of Indians?” He had a bloody scratch on the side of his nose, an infection on his lower lip, and his movements were slow and deliberate.

“I don’t know. What do you call him?” I clarified.

He answered, “Bartender,” then fell silent, waiting for me to laugh. I smiled weakly and nodded to acknowledge the punchline.

He asked for fifty cents and I said I didn’t have any change. He told me his name and his tribe and I shook his hand. He told me he was from Wyoming and asked where I was from; I pointed behind me, “Eastern Washington.” He asked if I had a dollar; I said no and failed to offer to get him coffee or a muffin. He got up with more difficulty than I would have expected – getting onto his feet first, then straightening his posture carefully.

“Have a good day.” He said this the same way he’d said everything else – flat, unemotional, and honest.

“Good luck,” I answered. Then I went back to my reading – and my loafing.

I imagine that usually, when faced with the same racially charged circumstances, people would’ve ignored him and just waited for him to leave. That’s pretty much what I did, I avoided my discomfort and embarrassment by waiting a little longer for him to leave.

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A black shape tossed by the wind among overhead powerlines caught my eye. When I turned and focused on it, I saw that it was a crow being blown sideways, with its wings spread out. I thought it was dead or stunned – you usually don’t see crows coasting with the wind the way seagulls fly. It looked like it was going to capsize and fall, but it righted itself just before tipping into an impossible angle. It turned and flew into the wind, flapping its wings in quick scissor-like gestures, hovering in one place for a few seconds. Then it fully regained its composure and flew confident and now crow-like against the wind.

A light ridgey thumbprint cloud spreading out directly above is the defining feature of this sky. It’s not prominent because of its size. It’s prominent because of the way it’s centered and framed by other clouds. It’ll pass overhead and disappear behind me, where it’ll merge with the others into a dense mass of cloud, and empty itself onto the Cascades. Snow in the mountains.

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Not About Cats

The tissues are packed tightly into the jumbo-size box of off-brand Kleenex. The first one is lost when you try to dig it out. It comes out shredded. The second tissue comes out with some resistance, but mostly intact – any tears in the second were made in your efforts with the first tissue. The next several tissues also come out with resistance, the entire box comes up with the tissue and you have to either hold the box down or shake the tissue loose. Once you’ve made some space in the box, you can pull the tissues out with one smooth pull, though the tissue isn’t freed as gracefully as Kleenex brand tissues. Either these off-brand tissues are folded together using a different technique than Kleenex or the tissues stick together after having been compressed into the small space for so long.

The third hole in my watch’s wristband, the one I usually fit the buckle into, has stretched out enough that my watch fits a bit loosely on my wrist. When I check the time, I first jerk my arm out to the side so that the watch slips from inside my jacket sleeve up to my exposed wrist and the watch-face centers itself. When I use the second hole on my wristband, the watch-face slips off-center toward the outside of my wrist. The wristband has curled over time into the shape of my wrist, but fitting the buckle into another hole undermines the wrist shape.

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Mildly Puzzled

The construction area across the street was pretty quiet. Construction workers had set up orange cones to block off the outside lane and now they were standing around waiting for something.

Up ahead of me, a man stopped to talk to a group of teenage girls. They ignored him so he moved on, walking in my direction. He flinched when we passed each other and said, “I thought you were a girl.” I took a short appraisal of him, trying to calculate the intent of his comment. But couldn’t arrive at any conclusions. I walked on, glancing at my clothes and feeling my posture, looking for something feminine.

A U-Haul drove slowly past me. Its body was leaning a little toward the right and bouncing low on its suspension. The front mud flaps made a short scraping sound when they hit the street on each down-bounce. The construction workers watched it head up the street.

I walked past the teenagers that the man had been hassling earlier and overheard a bit of their conversation.

“This is really good.”

“And it totally has twice the caffeine of a regular cup of tea.”

“Wow, I’ve got to get me some of that. It’s called a vanilla chai?”

“Actually, it’s a chai with a shot of vanilla. If you go to a coffee shop, ask for a chai tea latte.”

The U-Haul had stopped in a loading zone. The driver and his passenger were crouched down on the curb looking under the front tire.

I was looking absently at the side of the U-Haul when the teenagers all shouted in surprise: “Holy shit!” “Oh, my god!” “Wow!” I looked back, craning my head out to see around the parked U-Haul. There was a car stopped in the middle of its lane. A second car, perpendicular to the first, had its front bumper resting gently against the side of the first car. Traffic heading in both directions was just then slowing to a stop. I didn’t even hear an impact.

Everyone – the teenagers, the idle construction workers, the U-Haul guys and me – stood and looked at the scene for a few seconds before going on with their business. I think I would have preferred having been startled by the fender bender, I’d had too much mild puzzlement already.

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Walking in through the front entrance, instead of the usual sidedoor, after my blind date, still a little tipsy. There’s a steep set of six or seven tall steps that lead up to the first level, the main staircase is across the lobby. My apartment is on the basement level, so I’m going up and then down. I jog up the marble steps, misjudge the third or forth, and trip forward, catching myself with hands on the top step. Just as I’m tripping, an upstairs neighbor emerges silently from downstairs, gives me a maybe-bemused, maybe-irritated, “Hello Jeffrey.” I recover my footing and return his hello. He reaches the lobby and turns to head up the next flight. He’s out of sight before I’ve crossed the lobby to head down the main staircase.

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