Sunday, 12 March 2006

I lived in a two bedroom situated in what is best be described as an interesting part of town. It was a convenient location, near shopping and entertainment in the Midway district near University & Snelling in St. Paul. The area was quite diverse and you could meet all sorts of odd characters, regardless of the hour. For example, 5:30 in the morning while taking out the trash.

Rubbish in one hand, recycling in the other, and barely awake, I ran into what would charitably be described as a formidable brunette coming up the stairs. Dressed in a long, purple coat, red scarf, and black pumps, she was not only quite drunk, but unbelievably ugly.

Turns out it was the guy who lived across the hall.

The neighbor I knew had a shaved head and Russian or Slavic features that were bloated from years of heavy drinking. Most of the time he wore stained blue-jeans and an open-front sport shirt that was never buttoned. I seldom saw him without a drink in hand, his usual poison being a 40-oz. malt liquor. Basically he looked like an alcoholic linebacker.

He always talked about being in the movie business, but I got the sense that it was more porn and less Hollywood. Still, he seemed decent enough — if stuck in one place and somewhat lost.

He was transfixed by the Internet, which at that time was still in its infancy. Attracted to many of the get-rich-quick schemes, he’d sometimes solicit my opinion. I’d always tell him the same thing, “If it seems too good to be true…”

But now, seeing him disguised as a remarkably homely woman, all I could do was stammer “Dude, it’s way too early for me to deal with this.”

I’m not sure who was more surprised: my neighbor because he really didn’t expect to run into anyone or me because…well, the obvious reason. He went into his apartment to change, and perhaps sober up, while I went on about my business; content to never give it a second thought.

Don’t get me wrong; as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, I really don’t care. I like to think I’m as open-minded as the next person. Besides, if he wants to play with gender roles, who am I to get in the way. But I can’t shrug off honest surprise either.

Several minutes later he tapped at my door. Dressed as a man, he wanted to make sure I wouldn’t tell anyone. “It’s just something I do once in a while and I don’t want anyone to find out.”

“No worries,” I said, while thinking “Who’d believe me?”

Monday, 03 December 2001

It was 2 o’clock in the morning.

The streets were oddly bare, their weather pocked surfaces caught in the tri-color glow of traffic lights. It’s a time when the city’s day-dwellers are tucked safely in bed; where only the drunk and dispossesed roam free.

Finding the local Perkins closed, we headed for Mickey’s Diner, a streetcar-turned-restaurant parked in the middle of downtown St. Paul. The five of us wedged into spots along the counter…no mean feat considering the place seats no more than 40.

Talking amongst ourselves, we waited for the lone, overworked, counter-man to take our order. Counter-man doesn’t begin to describe it. He was equal parts bus-boy, waiter, cook, cashier and bouncer. He hears everything and throws an occasional wise-crack into the conversation.

The wait is short and a curt “Whatllyahave?” gets things rolling. I hesitated, assuming he’d want to grab a pad of paper. With all the patients of a cab driver at a green light he added, “Speak up or it’s coffee to-go.” Slightly rattled, I blurted out my reply but he seemed to understand, not without some satisfaction in having thrown me off-guard. After that, it’s a quick smile, a simple nod, and “Next!” right down the line.

He manages to carry on four separate conversations, argue with a guy that’s trying to pick a fight, read the early paper and not burn the food. It’s like some strange ballet where cooking and chatter replace leaps and spins.

When asked how long he had been doing this, the immediate answer was “since 11.” After a while he came back with the real answer, “16 years, and I love every minute…even if some of them do go on forever.”

Don’t like how he works? “Call my boss and tell him to fire me!” He’ll give you the number.

Thursday, 09 August 2001

She was articulate and strong willed. Sure of herself and unwilling to let anyone get in the way of that. I had a thing for her from the moment we met.

She worked with a friend of mine and occasionally showed up for our Wednesday night Mensa gatherings. We would crack jokes and have a great time. I loved her brown eyes with the impish twinkle. And damn, was she cute!

A grad student, she was working on a degree in social work. Every so often she would need help with her computer and I was always willing to lend a hand. We put in a couple late nights and two or three Sunday working on her master’s thesis. It was interesting and I actually had fun.

In all honesty, it was not for entirely unselfish reasons. I had hoped we could get to know each other better and perhaps go out on a date. I never actually did get up the nerve to ask her out. My excuse was that I could never tell if she was the least bit interested.

I would call her just to chat and see how she was doing. She would call when she needed help. I didn’t think much of it since she had two jobs plus school to contend with.

Finally, graduation rolled around. After the ceremony, her mom and her friends gathered at a nearby restaurant. When it came time for presents, she noticed there wasn’t one from me and asked about it. In front of the group. Flabber-gasted, I admitted that in my haste to get there on time, I had forgotten it at home. To my amazement she added that I had her address and could send it to her.

Ummm. No. I took it back it instead.

It finally dawned on me that the only time she called was when she wanted something.

I called her once after that. Ended up leaving a message on her answering machine…which she never returned. About six months later she did call, saying she was just on vacation and had a question about her computer.

This time I didn’t call back.