Michigan Ave
Image Source: Old Chicago

Jes US, I’m gonna be stuck in this shit all NIGHT! Ace Bennett pounded the steering wheel in frustration and junk-sickness as traffic slowed to nothing and Michigan Ave turned into a parking lot. He was supposed to meet Gumbo’s runner Two-Bit at the corner of Division and Milwaukee to pick up the goods. But right now it looked like he wasn’t going anywhere soon.

God DAMNit! It goddamn figures! It was a blistering hot Chicago night, with storm clouds threatening to blow in off the lake. Ace had all the windows rolled down, and a thick fog of heat and humidity, exhaust fumes and static electricity settled into the car like a sopping blanket. Those storms were coming soon, and they would be fierce. He lit a Merit and turned on the radio, which was tuned to WGN 720. Paul Harvey, blathering on with the Rest of the Story.

Something felt off about this entire trip. Sometimes there is an intangible feeling of something being wrong, a vague feeling that the cosmos aren’t quite aligned and bad things will result. Ace had had this feeling before, and it always meant something unpleasant, like the sudden death of a relative or friend. And here it was again.

Two-Bit had a reputation around Division and Milwaukee as a tough enforcer with a hair-trigger temper. He did the grunt work for Gumbo: shaking down Loop bankers who were behind on the vig, breaking up the local tavern if the owner didn’t agree to pay protection, that kind of thing. Two-Bit’s boss Gumbo was known as The King of Division Street, and nothing moved in or out of Cabrini-Green, the most notorious housing project in Chicago, without his say-so. Drugs, guns, sex…Gumbo owned it all. And Ace had just ripped him off.

Or so they said. After the last time Ace bought, Two-Bit tracked him down and said that he was ten bucks short on the deal. Ace didn’t think that was the case: why would he short-change a crazy street hood like Two-Bit? Besides, Two-Bit counted out the money rather quickly, and he didn’t say anything at the time. But knowing Two-Bit’s reputation, and having bought from him a few times, and having seen Gumbo himself once, he didn’t feel like making a federal case over ten bucks. Ace agreed to bring the missing ten-spot to the buy today. No big deal.

The sky overhead grew black with the coming storm and the tops of the Wrigley Building, Marina City and the Tribune Tower took on a silver glow as the light faded and the lightning picked up. Ace felt crazy paranoid, partly because he was coming down and partly because of the situation. He thought he saw Two-Bit at a phone booth way further up Michigan Ave, but it could have been anybody. He thought he saw Gumbo himself in a coffee shop on the Near North side of the river, but why would Gumbo be this far off his turf? Ace worked like crazy to bring back rational thought to his addled brain. He lit another Merit, rolled up the windows against the first drips of rain and turned up the radio. Paul Harvey gave way to highlights of the Cubs win over Philly that afternoon at Wrigley, with Jack Brickhouse’s call from WGN-TV.

Strike from Hooton, and the inning is over!…Whew, boy!…A drive by Bill Madlock!…What a catch by Rick Monday!…Hey-hey!

The first deafening clap of thunder hit.

“Hell of a game today, my man!”

Ace let out a yelp as he saw Gumbo sitting in the passenger seat. He felt something cold and hard under his right ear and realized it was a pistol held by Two-Bit in the back seat.

The rain pelted the roof of the car like thousands of marbles thrown full-blast on a concrete floor. The storm was almost directly overhead: less than a second between blinding bolts of lightning and the deafening claps of thunder.

Ace breathed deep through the greatest terror he had ever known. “H..hu..hi, guys” he said. “Fancy m-meeting you here.”

Gumbo did not look amused.

“My man Two-Bit say you rip him off,” he said. “That true?”

“N-n-no, Gumbo, I wouldn’t do t-th-thaa…”

“White boy lyin’, boss!” Two-Bit said, shoving the barrel harder against Ace’s ear.

“I sw—swe-swear, I didn’t mean to,” Ace said. “Swear! H-h-here, take all m-my money, here’s my wallet.”

Gumbo grabbed his wallet and shoved it in his pocket. Thunder cracked as the deluge continued and time slowed to an agonizing eternity.

“You didn’t mean to?” Gumbo said. “The fuck you mean you didn’t mean to? Two-Bit say you rip him off, you rip the man off! Don’t make a shit bit of diff’rence you didn’t mean to.”

Ace shook his head and started crying, the tears shimmering as the lightning flashed in the cloudburst. “I s-swe-swear, I wouldn’t. It was a mistake…”

“Ain’t no mistake, white motherfucker!” Two-Bit said. His rage was a palpable entity, like a bull waiting for the gate to open to start bucking.

“I s-s-SWEAR TO GOD!”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Gumbo said, shaking his head sadly. “Sheeeeiiiiitttttt, now look what we have here. Fine, high class honky like yo’self reduced to this? Yo life ain’t nothin’ but Cubs games, spendin’ Daddy’s money at the mall an’ swimmin’ in all that fine Oak Park pussy, an’ you gotta come into the big city an’ rip off my poor oppressed man Two-Bit here? You ain’t got enough in life, you gotta take a hard-workin’ Neeegro like Two-Bit for ten motherfuckin’ dollar? That what you think of us?”

“G-gu-gumbo, I SWEAR I wouldn’t have…”

“Man, you jus’ ain’ got no respect, do you, white boy?” Two-Bit grabbed Ace around the neck and shoved the barrel in even harder against Ace’s ear. “Ought to show you a thing or two ‘bout what it mean when you mean to do something.”

“That it?” Gumbo said. “We need to teach you a thing or two about respect, white boy? We need to teach you what it mean when you mean to do something?”

Ace, paralyzed by fear, just shook his head sideways. Gumbo looked back at Two-Bit.

“Only way he learn, boss.” Two-Bit said.

Gumbo nodded. “Do it.”

Ace let out a blood-curdling scream as Two-Bit aimed the .44 at his lower body. As the last intense clap of thunder rolled, Two-Bit pulled off two shots. Ace slumped forward against the steering wheel as Gumbo and Two-Bit got out of the car, while the rain slacked off, and the deal was over.

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Summer 2000: I’m living in Medford, not far from the Tufts campus, working for a non-profit at the corner of Boylston and Arlington and playing in a band. I pick up the 96 bus at the corner of Walnut and Summer St., and the bus takes College Ave to Harvard Square, where I catch the Red Line into Boston. The morning driver is often rather dour, and the bus is filled with people heading into offices and labor, thus the commute always has the feel of a death march.

Most mornings I end up sitting across from the same family. The mom is a natural beauty: chestnut hair, high cheekbones, glowing skin and personality. She always reads to her daughter, who is about six and having the time of her life, letting her natural exuberance and curiosity about the world guide her. The father is always set apart, reading the Wall Street Journal or crunching numbers in his portfolio. He looks like a heavier Kotter with a full beard, and he always wears a Rolex, a floppy fishing hat and Joey Ramone glasses.

They’re a striking couple: striking in their differences. Not just in their physical differences, but also in their demeanor. Sometimes the father plays with the daughter, but mostly it’s the mother. Occasionally they banter softly a bit, but it’s always strained and under their breath. The father will whisper and grunt; never looking up from his paper or work, and the mom will look frustrated, and then pull it back before returning to story time. The daughter is oblivious to it all, fortunately, but I can almost physically see the distance between them.

If the morning commute is a pall on the day, the evening commute is an entirely different world. The bus driver on the afternoon shift is older, and obviously loves his work and his friends. Every stop he adds “good old” to the street: “good old Royall Street!” “good old Florence Street!” It’s a touch of Mayberry in suburban Boston; a lovely break in the monotony of commute/work/commute/repeat.

Most evenings I end up sitting across from the mom and daughter, and most evenings the father is absent. Staying late at the office, no doubt. On these commutes, the mom seems freer, more of herself, as she reads to her daughter and points out landmarks along the way.

As the summer goes on, more and more, the father is also absent in the morning. By Labor Day, he’s gone, as is her ring. I have a front-row seat to a slow disintegration.

Thirteen years. A lifetime ago. I think of them sometimes. The daughter would be in college now. What school is she attending? What is her major? How did the divorce affect her? How did the mother make out? Was there one cause for the split, or many over time? Who pulled the trigger?

They were a family, and then they weren’t. I never learned their names, never spoke a word to them, knew nothing of them and still don’t. They had no idea of my existence, and still don’t. Parallel lives, never to intersect. But they remain with me; a vision of heartbreak during a high summer of golden twilights, “good old College Ave” and an unbroken horizon.

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40 Healthy Married for Ten Years Homeowner for Eight Years Same Job for Nine Years Same Department for Ten Years Blessed with My Family and Friends Fortunate Clinically Depressed ADD OCD Social Anxiety Meds Struggles Overcomes Confused Lost Alone Not Alone Father of Two Cats Lover of Life Traveler Student of the Arts Big Heart Good Intentions Heart on Sleeve Foot in Mouth Ruminates Spirals Recovers Rational Objective Creative Writer Musician Passionate Afraid Worrier Optimist Big Lug Goof Cares Wants to Help Wants to Save the World Reader Dreamer Schemer Baseball Vinyl Black French Roast Urban Urbane Deep Shallow Trying Like Hell Hardcore Me   Like! http://www.facebook.com/BrianWestbyeWrites Follow! @BrianWestbye

Stop Being OCD
Image Source: The Bad Chemicals

We moved to Florida a few months before I turned ten in 1982. Before that I was enrolled at Jordan Acres Elementary, Brunswick, ME, and inundated with tiny niggling fears.

Just across from the school playground was a street with a few low-slung brick buildings and an overpass. We walked under the overpass to get to the corner variety store for Slush Puppies, Reggie Bars and candy cigarettes. The buildings were nondescript, and could have been either residential or commercial at one point. Now they were abandoned, with the windows on the upper floors boarded up. I was convinced that this was a hideout for robbers, and I was sure that there was a hostage inside trussed up on a meat hook. And I was convinced that if the robbers ever walked out of one of the buildings while I was passing, I would be grabbed and trussed up, never to see my mom and dad again. It was certainly a frightening way to get a Slush Puppy.

On my road I had to watch out for the hippies. I have no idea who called them the hippies or why, nor how many there were. But I knew they had to be dangerous. I only ran afoul of them once, but it was terrifying. I remember there were two of them on one motorcycle, and they rode after me for a little bit. Probably just revved their engine, really, but that was enough. I remember hearing the engine gunning, seeing red and black plaid flannel and long hair and hearing a laugh which, over the years, has turned into a maniacal cackle. I remember screaming and running like hell for the house, and the sickening feeling that I might…not…make…it… My mom was probably home, and she probably hugged it all better. And I don’t remember ever seeing the hippies again. But they have remained in my brain ever since.

One time we returned from a vacation at Disney World to discover that our lock had been picked. Nothing was missing from the house, and no arrests were ever made. Who knows what that was about? But I remember the sense of violation from a robber (one from the building with the meat hooks?) being in the house, and the fear that they could come back. That they would come back, while we were home, and my dad would have to fight them all off…

On the bus to Jordan Acers we drove by the end of the runway of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. At the time BNAS was home to several squadrons of sub hunters, who flew P3 Orions over the North Atlantic searching for enemy submarines. We lived about two miles away from the base, and the sound of the propellers and the sight of the planes flying low and turning in graceful arcs toward or away from the runway was a perpetual background loop. On the bus, as we passed the runway, or parked at the Dairy Joy or Fat Boy Drive-in, I often had an image in my head of a P3 careening nose-first into the ground and exploding into a fireball. I could see the pilot frantically pulling the stick back through the cockpit window as the plane plummeted, to no avail. It never happened, but the image was frequent and extremely vivid.

Fire was a constant fear. I saw the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Albert accidentally burns down the church by leaving a lit pipe in the basement at too young an age, and the trauma settled in. Every clap of thunder, I was sure, brought with it the bolt of lightning that would hit the house and destroy my teddy bear and burn our cats alive. I remember my dad counting the seconds between thunderclaps to prove that a storm was moving away, and just reassuring me in general when a storm approached.

But the fear was real, and it came from experience.

I remember walking through the woods one winter afternoon and seeing The Thompsons house burn to the ground. I don’t remember The Thompsons, but I’ll never forget the sight and sounds, and especially the feel, of seeing their house burning down, and the charred smoldering wreckage after the fact. I remember this was the first time I ever heard of anyone having a “Saltbox House”: we had a Ranch, and most of my friends had Ranches or Split-Levels or Trailers. To this day, whenever I drive by or see or hear mentioned a Saltbox, I immediately see The Thompsons Saltbox house fully engulfed in the cold woods of my youth.

It happened to The Thompsons, I remember thinking. It’s going to happen to us too!

Retrospect, I can see that this is where the narrative thread of my life started to emerge. This was not just the slightly overactive imagination of a kid who may have watched a bit too much TV. This is where my OCD really started to present itself. The obsession, the rumination and the spirals…it all makes total sense to me now.

I don’t recall any rituals or number obsessions or any other coping mechanisims I may have used back then, but I find it very comforting somehow to see that my OCD clearly goes back this far. It explains a lot. And it makes me feel a lot (okay, a bit) more normal. One of the most dominant traits of my internal wiring was right there all along, screaming for attention and being unintentionally ignored.

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Footbridge
Image Source: Panoramio

Again. Again, again, AGAIN. Jesus, why?!?

Dwight Fisk stopped by the footbridge over the pond in the Boston Public Garden and stared back at the behemoth John Hancock tower, where, up until an hour ago, he worked. The winter night was sharp, the kind of cold that caused exposed ears and cheeks to burn and noses to run. Low clouds hung in gauzy puffs, catching and refracting streetlights and the lights of Back Bay. The sound of traffic was muted, the park peaceful and silent save for the excited shouts of the gainfully employed heading for Friday night dinners, drinks and merriment. Even 24 hours earlier, it would have been a beautiful night. But not now.

He played the words over and over in his head: “We don’t tell our ‘employment specialists’ when the last day of an assignment is, because we don’t want our clients to see a drop in productivity.” That’s what Kaitlyn, Dwight’s rep at Office Pros Staffing, had said when he went in after work to pick up his check. Translation: “Oh by the way your temp job is over, tough shit and our client thanks you for not screwing off today.”

She was probably 24, probably grew up in Concord or Lexington, probably straight out of the theater or broadcasting program at Emerson and definitely rising on her career arc. Dwight hated when Kaitlyn was in the office, hated being at least five years older and still temping, hated always feeling like a piss-ant seeing her Talbot’s wardrobe and pictures of her and her boyfriend on the Cape all over her desk. And now she, of all people, was telling him that his assignment was suddenly done and to check back in on Monday for another assignment. Thanks for the memories, and MAYbe we’ll have another crap temp job that may end unexpectedly for you next week.

Dwight was doing data entry for a chain of retirement homes for a stinking nine bucks an hour. His supervisor, Rocco De Nizo, was a total rock-head: pudgy, mostly bald in his late ‘30s with a permanent ring of Doritos and fruit punch Gatorade around his lips like an adolescent on steroids. And the son of a bitch knew all day that the assignment was ending.

Yet THESE two are going back to work on Monday. Why? What the hell do THEY have that I don’t?

And WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?!?

This had been Dwight’s third job this year, and who knew if he’d have anything for Christmas in three weeks. Who knew if he’d ever get anywhere? He climbed to the top of the footbridge, stared back at the towers, stared ahead to the illuminated spire of Park Street Church and the glimmer of the Financial District. He looked at all the footprints in the snow and thought of how they all separated and spread out away from him. Ahead of him. All ahead of him…

Kaitlyn was probably meeting her boyfriend and heading over to Legal Sea Foods or Skipjack’s for dinner. Rocco was probably heading for a good gorging at The Hilltop Steakhouse on Rt. 1. Two more footprints heading away from him, just like all the rest. Dwight continued on, the idea of dipping slightly into his final paycheck for a few books, CDs and Tex-Mex and many drinks at Quincy Market suddenly driving him on against the cold and bitter night. He found a pair of footprints on the path and followed them for
a bit, hoping they led somewhere good, away and ahead. Just in case…

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motel11-e1335127272402
Image Source: Pulsamerica

Soundtrack: Panama City Motel by Sugar

She lies on her side, panting gently in sleep, flower in her jet-black hair, which spreads out and pools across the pillow. Her unadorned chest heaves slightly, her legs porcelain lines. Satori in garters. In sleep she floats on lotus petals, bas-relief on the filthy linen of this borrowed Valhalla.

Ten balboa for the room, which is tropical oppressive. Crumbling white plaster and spackling chunks; one wicker chair; a crucifix on every wall…a fresco of the Virgin Mary in failed vigilance against sin…a nightstand with rosary beads, two liter bottles of water, two liter bottles of Coca Cola, overflowing ashtray, radio on low. An excited voice from Caracas…something about the revolution…or the glorious regime… The ceiling fan spins a languid wall of hot air, while the smell of kerosene and burning petrol and the sound of overworked mid-50s Chevrolets wafts in.

He stares at her in repose. She is too beautiful, too untouchable on terrestrial plains. The only way to reach her is with the ten balboa left behind on the nightstand. He gazes at her for a long moment while holding the doorknob, watching the pitch of her bare chest, dreaming of her welcoming clench, breathing in her perfection on his hands…

She is just a dream. She is unobtainable. You know this.

He stares at her immaculate beauty, blows a kiss, turns the doorknob and walks out into a world of vulgar uncertainty…

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Chop Suey
Image Source: The Daily

“I am FINISHED with this! Do NOT call on me again!”

Hilda Beauregard’s words exploded through the slop house as she stormed away from the table, leaving Harvey Navin alone and mortified. He could feel her words clench and pierce his heart, like a vice grip with talons. He could feel every damn eye in the joint boring in on him, and he could hear the snickers and titters, and the fumbling of silverware and plates as some diners relished the scene like a bullfight and others wished they could be somewhere – ANYwhere – else, away from such an embarrassing moment.

Harvey felt himself turn a blazing red, desperate to say something – ANYthing – to defend himself and deflect the bore of a room full of eyes penetrating his broken soul. But all he could do was sputter, “she had to catch a jet airplane!” and cackle like a witch. He knew that this awful line just made it worse, so he immediately clapped his hands and yelled, “Waiter! A menu, please!” Never mind that there were two plates of half-eaten Chop Suey on the table. A waiter brought a menu over, and Harvey buried his face in it.

So this is it. Dumped like a hot anvil in a lousy dime-store Chinatown slop house. Nice going, chump!

Harvey stirred the noodles around on his plate. He fought like hell to hold back, but a tear escaped his welled-up eye and ran slowly down his cheek, like a rivulet of rain through a sand dune.

Well, old pal, you haven’t amounted to much, have you? You weren’t much of a student. You weren’t much of a soldier. You aren’t much of a salesman. And now you’ve gone and spooked off your best gal. A fine job you’ve done! And look at you, sobbing in front of the world like a coward! No wonder you’re such a bum!”

Harvey made a mountain of Chop Suey with the fork in his right hand while he fingered the bead in his left hand.

He was an average student at best in high school, always shy and awkward, and he welcomed the chance to drop out. At 17, in May, 1943, Harvey lied about his age and enlisted. He was shipped off to boot camp, and soon found out that his new world wasn’t much better than his old world.

Harvey Navin was never going to be an All-American at anything. He played no sports in school, and he often struggled in boot camp, wilting under the barking commands of his drill sergeant. His fellow enlistees never let him forget it when his clumsiness cost them extra laps. Harvey was part of a battalion that helped capture the Reichstag, but that glory paled in comparison to all the death and dismemberment he had seen. He was never able to put the carnage of war behind him.

After he came home from the war, Harvey flopped around for a bit, finally landing a job as a salesman for an appliance company. But the war stayed with him, and he never really got his confidence back, not that he had any confidence anyway. Harvey tried to be positive in every meeting, but he often found himself distracted, suddenly remembering a past embarrassment: the time he mispronounced a word in class; the time he tripped on a log while running an obstacle course; the time he almost fell off the deck of his ship halfway across the Atlantic. Sometimes he remembered the war: the stench of death; the shrapnel-mangled bodies lying in the mud; the spray of blood as a battalion-mate’s head exploded from artillery fire right before his eyes.

Once the embarrassing memory came, Harvey felt all the eyes in the world pierce his broken soul and heard the snickers and titters all over again. Once the war memory came, he felt his heartbeat race and his breathing get heavy. Once the memory came, it was all over: Harvey started stammering and sweating, and his sales pitch fell apart. He felt the pressure and half expected every day at the office to be his last. His boss, Mr. Greenberg, gave as many chances as he could, but Harvey could feel his time running out.

Harvey was surprised to find that he was fingering the bead as he sat at the table, and even more surprised that it was out of its ampoule. The bead. That’s what his battalion called the cyanide pills given to German soldiers in case of capture and torture. One bite and it was all over. Himmler and Göring both went out on a one-course cyanide dinner, in fact. Harvey’s battalion killed several high-level German soldiers, all of whom had the pills on their person, and they all pocketed the beads. It was their little souvenir from the Fall of the Third Reich.

Harvey sat at the table, fingering the bead in his trembling left hand, thinking of all he had been through in his short life and thinking of the way Hilda had just destroyed him.

Gee-whiz, I was just trying to be sweet. Who knew she would get so sore like that? Boy, a fella gets a little nervous and says a few things not quite right and…

“Daddy, you MISSED it! She said she was FINISHED with this an’ told him not to call on her again! An’ then she WALKED OUT!”

The boy was pointing right at Harvey, and the father swatted his hand down. “Son, it’s not polite to point and say things like that” he said.

But it was too late. Once again, every damn eye in that stinking slop house was boring in on the broken soul of Harvey Navin. Once again, he heard all the snickers and titters. Once again he felt every embarrassment he ever felt in his whole goddamn short life, and once again he felt all the horrors of the war, fresh and vivid like a never-ending nightmare.

Jesus…JESUS! GodDAMNit all, you lousy BUM!

Harvey sat at the table, feeling the tears pour, feeling his heartbeat race, struggling to breathe. Trembling and sweating, he tried to take sip of ice water, but the water spilled all over his chin and shirtfront and lap.

GodDAMNit!

He scanned the restaurant and caught a woman look at him, then quickly turn away.

She thinks you’re a bum too!

He heard someone say, “gee, glad I’m not him.”

Yeah, and he thinks you’re a bum too!

The father of the boy who called him out quickly gathered his family and rushed them out.

And THEY all think you’re a bum! ALL OF THEM!!!

Harvey Navin sat alone at a corner table of a Chinatown slop house, crying, trembling uncontrollably, covered in ice water, broken. He thought of all he had been through in his short life: all the horror and death and humiliation; all the snickers and titters, like the soundtrack of his life; all the eyes of the world boring in on his broken soul. He saw it all play before his eyes, like a newsreel before the pictures.

And suddenly there was calm.

Suddenly Harvey felt calm and content. Suddenly a wave of tranquility washed over his soul and he went with it. For the first time in his whole goddamn short life Harvey felt confident. Finally happy. Just for a moment, but it was just enough. He managed to place the bead on his mountain of Chop Suey and took a bite, finally at peace now that the war was, at long last, over.

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