Friday, June 27, 2008

Spare Change #9

Ice cream drips off my spoon and splatters the white tablecloth with minty green. What were they thinking when they chose white? If they thought their customers would be too high brow to spill their treats, well, they set up shop in the wrong part of town.

“This is an incredible opportunity for you J,” Karl says as he jabs the jagged end of his half-eaten cone at me like a broken bottle in a street brawl. “When did DJ offer you this?”

“Three days ago,” I reply without making eye contact.

“I thought you said he told you to come back the next day?” My answer is muffled by a heaping spoonful of mint chocolate goodness. “J… you are not passing this up.”

“I’m just giving him time to come to his senses.”

“His senses? Has that man ever taken a vacation? The man needs a break and he needs you to make that happen, God help him.”

“Thanks,” I say with a grimace. “DJ’s got plenty of customers, I’m sure he could find someone else.”

“Someone else who’s in a position to run his store for a week? Besides,” Karl says, “he chose you, not some other customer. He’s giving you a hell of a chance J. When was the last time you had an actual, honest job?”

“My resume is at the office but if I recall correctly… about fifteen years ago.”

“You do this for him and maybe it’ll lead to some steady income. Wouldn’t it be nice to know how much money you’d be making each week?” he asks with a single, bushy red eyebrow raised.

“I do this and screw it up I’ll never get another chance,” I say without thinking.

“Ah, we’ve found the problem at last,” Karl says, sitting back with a satisfied smile. “The Fear is getting in the way again.” I can hear the capitalization of that four letter word.

“I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here man, DJ is dumping a lot of responsibility on me. I haven’t had to take care of anything but me for a long, long time.”

“You talked to TJ about it?” Karl asks around a mouthful of cone.

“I haven’t seen her in a while,” I admit.

“What was it this time?”

“Don’t ask me, she’s the crazy one,” I reply with a sigh that refuses to be contained.

Karl finishes his cone with a sharp crunch and we lapse into silence for several minutes. I’m sure he’s trying to come up with a way to convince me to take DJ’s offer. I leave him to it and turn my attention to the other customers on the patio. It takes me about five seconds to realize that all the other tables are occupied by couples.

“What are you thinking?” Karl asks.

“I was just wondering,” I tell him, “whether or not everyone else here thinks we’re gay.”

“I suppose it would have been too much to ask for you to have been thinking about DJ’s proposal,” he says with a sigh before smiling that toothy grin of his. “You’d be the one wearing the dress at the wedding by the way.”

“Fat chance. I make the money and you hold it, sounds to me like you need to go buy some makeup,” I tell him with my best poker face. He shakes his head and looks away, unwilling to indulge my avoidance of the topic at hand.

“I know I can’t make you take this job,” he says, still not looking at me. “But it would break my heart if you didn’t.”

Dammit. Damn it all to hell.

“I won’t make you any promises,” I say quietly, “but I’ll talk to him.”



“How about now?”

My stomach does a somersault and I begin to sweat. There really is no escaping this.

“What, you gonna hold my hand and walk me there?” I ask.

“I’ll stick to just walking with you,” Karl says as he gets up. “Come on, let’s go.”

“It’s a long walk from here.” I remain seated.

“Good, that’ll give me plenty of time to explain to you every single reason why doing this for DJ is a brilliant idea.”

“That’ll just make it seem even longer.”

“Get off your ass and let’s go. It’s time.”

And I know he’s right. And I know there’s no reason to fight it anymore. So I stand.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Spare Change #8

“Well if it isn’t J, my man, my man!” Mike says from behind the counter as I step foot onto the freshly scrubbed tiles of his store. “Where you been, dog? I ain’t seen you in weeks!”

“Hey DJ,” I reply with his preferred nickname. Some fools insist on calling him Tiny but I’m not crazy enough to try that; he may be five foot nothin’ but he’s built like a pit bull. “I finally took that vacation I been dreaming about – you know, Disneyland, Disneyworld, Euro-“

“Shut the hell up and come see my new stock,” he says with a jerk of his head. I make my way over to him, my eyes jumping from album cover to album cover, always searching for a golden nugget I somehow missed on a previous visit.

“So what you got that’s worth listening to?” I ask.

“Worth listen- I don’t stock crap that ain’t worth playing for anybody that’s got half an ear for good music,” he says with narrowed eyes, a pit bull sizing up his dinner.

“You know I’m just pushing your buttons,” I tell him with a smile. I’ve been coming to DJ Mike’s Real Music Shop for the last two years, usually every couple weeks, and it’s always worth the extra bus to get here. The first time I wandered in, looking for shelter from a spring shower, Mike and I hit it off instantly. Our musical tastes match up extremely well, with enough differences to keep things interesting. He knows I can’t afford to buy anything but I pay him in conversation for his time and knowledge. “Show me what you got.”

“You best watch yourself and that mouth of yours, not everybody has my forgiving temperament,” he says with a wave of a thick finger in front of my nose. “Alright, now I know you dig real hip hop: Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli and those other brothers that speak the truth. Well I got an original truth speaker for ya – say hello to mistah Gil Scott-Heron.”

“That’s a hell of an afro,” I say as I take the album from him and turn it over to scan the track listing. “I don’t think I’ve heard any of these. Put it on for me?”

“Anything for my man,” Mike says. “Pass that back and I’ll pump it on the store stereo.”

He slides the record out of its protective sleeve and handles it with the kind of respect I imagine an art collector would show a million dollar painting. DJ probably got his piece of art for two bucks at a garage sale.

“That ain’t the Mona Lis- oh damn, what track is this?”

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” he says smugly.

“This is the source, the original that everybody samples and quotes?”

“It all started with my man Gil,” he tells me as he flips through a cardboard box of records on the counter. “I’ll play Angel Dust for you after this one is done. If you think this is ‘oh damn’, Dust will blow your mind.”

“I can’t wait,” I say, closing my eyes to better absorb the music. I start to nod my head by choice and my right foot and hand join in on their own accord.

“Hey dude,” a voice calls from the doorway as the track wraps up and I open my eyes. “You got 50 Cent’s new cd?”

“Do you see any cds in here?” DJ asks the kid with the backwards cap, wife beater and baggy jeans. I know there are only albums and a handful of tapes here but the kid has to stare blankly around for a few moments before he gets it. “You’ll have better luck around the corner at the strip mall.”

“Oh. Alright,” he mumbles before fleeing to the safety of the street.

“Damn kids these days,” DJ mutters as he switches the records up. “No appreciation for vinyl.”

“Or good music,” I add.

“That’s what I said. Now close your mouth and open your mind.”

I barely manage to contain my ‘oh damn’ as the bass hits the speakers like a 2x4. I close my eyes again and allow myself to be transported.

“I been thinking about taking a vacation myself,” he says once the track ends. “A real vacation.”

“Nice man, where you want to go?” I ask, ignoring the cowardly calls of jealousy in my mind.

“Someplace warm, maybe Mexico,” he says, giving me an unreadable look. “But I don’t want to lose a week’s worth of business while I’m gone.”

“Yeah, that’d be rough.”

“I was thinking maybe you could cover for me.”

I feel my eyes bulge and jaw drop. He can’t be serious.

“DJ you know I’m a bum, are you crazy?”

“What, you gonna rob me?”

“Hell no I ain’t –“

“Then what do I got to worry about?”

That’s a good question. I don’t have a good answer.

“Think about it. Come back tomorrow and let me know,” he says matter-of-factly. “Now get outta here, I need to close up for the night.”

I stumble outside, mind reeling. He can’t be serious. Can’t be.

“First things first,” I tell myself, a little too loudly judging by the looks I get from passersby. “I need a drink.”

Friday, June 13, 2008

Spare Change #7

It’s the first nice Saturday in months and the park is full to bursting with people. As I sit on my bench the joggers jog by, the strollers stroll by, there are picnics of varying sizes going on all around me. I glance at them all but none hold by attention like the two gray-haired Italian men across from me.

I’ve been watching them play chess on one of those giant outdoor sets, the pieces nearly reaching their navels. They’ve been alternating between joking loudly with each other and studying their pieces intently. Every move has been greeted with cries of joy, admiration, mockery, but never silence. It’s fascinating.

The man in the brown tweed cap, open collared white business shirt and black slacks seems to have just won but I’m honestly not sure. His playing partner, wearing thick glasses, a yellow golf shirt and brown slacks, is either congratulating him on a game well won or well contested. They both look quite pleased, maybe it was a tie?

“Hey, you want to play a match?”

I look over my shoulder to see who Tweed Cap is asking but find nobody there. What, he didn’t mean me did he? People ignore me; they don’t offer to play games with me.

“You on the bench there, come over here,” Golf Shirt calls out, waving me over. Before I’m off the bench they start to set the board up, separating white and black like they used to do in the South; except these men are much gentler, placing the pieces with a little reverence.

“I’m Paul and this is Antony,” Golf Shirt tells me as I arrive at the white end of the board. “What’s your name?”

“I’m J,” I reply, looking uneasily at the pieces in front of me.

“J isn’t a name, it’s a letter of the alphabet,” Antony says with a raspy laugh. I smile politely.

“You know how to play chess?” Paul asks, his glasses making his eyes too big at this distance.

“No,” I admit, half-hoping that will be enough to get out of this.

“Ah, no problem, no problem,” Paul says. “I’ll help you out and Tony’ll go easy on you.”

“You never went easy on me when I was learning!”

“Oh hush Tony. Alright J, these guys in the front row are called pawns. Don’t let their name fool you, how you make use of them is often the difference between winning and losing.”

“Got it.” I can tell I’m in over my head already.

“These two castle tower looking pieces on the ends, they’re called rooks,” Paul continues. “The horses beside them are knights, then those phallic buggers are called bishops. I’m catholic so I try not to read too much into that.”

I laugh for the first time in a long, long time. Maybe this will be alright, hell it might even be fun. I could use some clean, honest fun.

“Now these two royals in the middle are the key pieces J. The king and the queen,” he says, laying a wrinkled hand on each.

“So you use the king to protect the queen?” I ask, starting to really get into it.

“That’s mighty chivalrous of you!” Antony says.

“It is indeed, it is indeed,” Paul says with a smile. “No J, the queen is a very powerful piece, and losing her can be devastating, but the game isn’t decided until a king is captured.”

“So the queen has the real power,” I say, mind whirling, “but if the king falls the kingdom crumbles.”

“Yes, exactly it!” Paul says, looking a bit too proudly at his student. Suddenly I begin to worry that I’ll let him down by playing badly. “Now let me show you how each piece can move – don’t worry though, I’ll remind you as the game goes on.”

I watch closely as he ambles around the board, mimicking a pawn, then a rook, knight, bishop and lastly the royals. The knight is confusing but the rest seem pretty straightforward.

“Those are the basics, enough to get you started,” Paul says as he steps off the board. “We’ll go slow and talk about strategies and other nonsense when you’re ready for it.”

“Enough with all your jabbering!” Antony yells from across the board. “Lets play!”

“Oh settle down Tony, what’s the rush? Old geezer,” Paul mutters to me. “You ready to give it a shot?”

I look up at the sunlight bursting through the trees above us, listen to the birds and laughter all around us and wonder what on earth I’m doing here. What would TJ or Karl think if they saw me now? Nobody would believe me if I said I spent a Saturday afternoon learning to play chess in the park. I guess this is just for me then.


“Yeah, I’m ready.”

I roll up my sleeves, move onto the board and take hold of a pawn. “Good luck,” I say for no good reason. Antony motions impatiently for me to make a move. I smile again, amazed by my own happiness. I move the pawn forward two spaces.

And so we begin.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Spare Change #6

I hate the rain. A lot of people say that but they don’t mean it like I do. I mean that if rain was a man I’d do such unspeakable things to him that they wouldn’t bother throwing me in jail, they’d just execute me on the spot.

When it rains in the morning I just want to curl into a ball and stay on the couch until the sun comes out again, whether that be in two hours or two weeks. I only tried getting back on the couch once – Phakov nearly clawed my eyes out.

On days when the morning is warm and clear and the rain comes in the afternoon it feels like God is playing a big practical joke on us. The morning sun is full of the hopes and dreams of a fresh start; the lunch time clouds smear them all away with their cruel, cold fingers. That’s when I think the thunder is really God saying “ha ha, got you!”

This hatred isn’t a recent development either. I can remember when Brad and Julie, my foster “parents”, promised to take me to an amusement park on a Saturday and when the big day came the outing was canceled by rain. I got so angry that before they managed to lock me up in my room I’d broken three dinner plates. I think that was about a month before they finally gave up and took me back to the orphanage. I didn’t blame them then and I don’t now.

I watch people rushing by, too intent on getting out of the rain to put a dime in my hat. I think this is the least amount of cash I’ve ever brought in before noon. Oh how I hate, I hate, I hate hate hate the rain.

This awning is keeping me mostly dry but the odd gust of wind makes sure that I still achieve the drowned rat look. I should probably get inside, if only for the sake of my health.

“Wet enough for ya?” a man asks with a laugh as he runs by. He disappears around a corner before I can untangle my arm from my blanket to flip him off. Useless bastard. He’s probably one of those twits that love asking everyone “hot enough for ya?” at the peak of summer. Probably looks forward to it all year.

It’s raining harder, really pouring, and the streets are only getting emptier. I guess I should call it a day, get home and try to dry off.

Getting up is slow, painful work. It’s like I got watered enough to put down roots, muscling their way through the cracks in the sidewalk to grasp the real earth below. If I had stayed much longer I might’ve blossomed.

I head for the bus stop as I add up the change in my pockets. I’ve got enough for the fare with a whole twenty-five cents left over. I should’ve stayed on the couch.

I stick close to the buildings to make use of whatever protection their awnings will give me. Unfortunately everyone else has the same idea, including the umbrella wielders. I pull my hat down low to avoid losing an eye and try to think of all the ways to kill a man using only an umbrella.

I’m only up to number eight when I’m slammed into the brick wall to my left.

“Watch where you’re going little begga’ man!”

I look up to see a fierce, terrifyingly large black man staring me down. Now let me be clear for a moment: I’m no racist. I find any man that could eat me for a snack before dinner terrifying.

I make a few awkward apologetic, placating motions with my head and hands and turn to walk away. Thankfully he lets me go. I guess that’s one benefit of looking like something the cat dragged in: being unappetizing.

By the time I get to the bus stop there’s no room in the shelter, women and children are packed in there like soggy cigarettes. Surprisingly I don’t spot an open umbrella amongst them.

I stand to the side and pretend that I have no interest in getting out of the rain. Several guys (and a couple women) I know would just charge in there and make room for themselves but my disdain for the normals hasn’t peaked quite yet. Maybe next year.

Several minutes pass before a bus comes along but it’s so full that only a few mother/child combos can get on. As the bus pulls away I notice that somehow there’s still no room in the shelter.

Ten minutes later no more buses have appeared. I move to the curb to look down the street to see what I can see. Too late, I notice the sports car racing along the curb lane. I step back but not quickly enough to get away from the spray from a disturbed pothole and I get a face full of mud and rainwater.

As I try to get the worst of it out of my eyes and nose and mouth a particularly loud crack of thunder echoes off the office buildings and rattles my bones.

I hate the rain.