Saturday, November 23, 2013

Playing Chutes and Ladders

Navigating the streets of Pittsburgh is like playing the board game Chutes and Ladders—or in Pittsburghese: Bridges and Tunnels. I came to this conclusion about 3 days after moving to the city back in the summer of 2003. During my first attempt to drive downtown, I took a wrong left-hand turn and found myself on a pockmarked mustard-colored bridge leading to a dark mile-looong tunnel. By time I got a chance to pull a three point turn I could see the US Steel Tower and One Mellon Center miles in the distance—like seeing the "home" square while being stuck at the start square at the bottom of the game board.

I conquered the Pittsburgh streets the old-fashioned way—trial and error. Well, I didn't conquer ALL the streets of Pittsburgh, rather the handful of routes I traveled almost daily: to work, to Giant Eagle, to the COGO gas station, and so forth. However, driving any place for the first time was a gamble that typically involved misadventures and missteps—trial and error, trial and error. But as aggravating it was to drive to, say, Oakland, and wind up in, say, Brookline, at least I was in control of my own vehicle. Once I realized I had driven astray, I could hang a U-turn or take the next exit.

In my early days as a Pittsburgher the mere thought of taking public transportation caused me to shutter. I wasn't worried so much about the prospects of getting stampeded by a gaggle of boarding children, or sharing a seat with a cross-eyed hobo spouting end-times rhetoric. I was more concerned with, while in the midst of riding, realizing the bus wasn't going where I thought it would go. I'd be left to peer out the dirty windows at all the driveways I would normally turn around in, or exits I'd take had I been driving. In other words, I didn't want stuck on a chute with no way to jam my feet on the sides of the board and stop the downward plunge.

I vowed to avoid public transportation at all costs.

My first job in Pittsburgh was for a company called Community Passages, who aided the MH/MR community. My assignment was to work one-on-one with an autistic gentleman named Elliot at a residential training facility in Lawrenceville.  Every week, Monday to Friday from 8 to 4, my job was to never linger outside of a 10 foot radius of Elliot. He was a major prankster. Every waking hour he was scanning the environment in hopes of causing havoc and reveling in the dumbfounded or incensed reactions of his victims. My job was essentially to keep Elliot from pulling shit. And believe you me, the job wasn't easy. First of all, Elliot stood at 6’4’’ and hauled 190 pounds of solid muscle with each stride. He was a sleek bulldozer of a man. One time we took a day vacation to North Park Lake. Elliot was in an outhouse taking a whiz, supposedly. After a minute or so inside the outhouse, he burst out the door like a sprinter hearing the starting gun. Elliot was stark naked! I ran after him but by time I'd caught up with him, he had already stopped lakeside and hurled all his clothes in the water. After I released an exasperated gasp, he turned to me and laughed sinisterly, like a diabolical Ernie (yes, the Sesame Street Ernie). That wasn't the last time Elliot tossed all his clothes into a large body of water, or into the back yard, or into the middle of a busy intersection. Oh well, trial and error, trial and error.
Regardless of the enormous loads of stress Elliot heaped on me almost every single day, I came to care for him in a big brother type of way.


"Come into my office and have seat, Mr. Bower," said Community Passages director Paul one Friday afternoon as the work week wound down. Paul also was an intimidating man. He looked like a cross between Don Corleone and Snidely Whiplash. I settled into the chair in front of his desk. This was one of those chairs with the wooden rungs that dig into your back when you sit up straight. Paul lounged in the cushy leather throne behind his desk.

Paul's moustache twitched when he spoke. "Mr. Bower, me and the boys at headquarters have been talking, and we've decided they want to try some new things with Elliot. They are adamant about getting him out in the community more."

Pandemonium ensued in my mind. Good Lord, you can't be serious. Elliot takes off his clothes and throws them middle of the street. However, I merely nodded in agreement.
“Now we know Elliot is a handful, taking off his clothes and throwing them into the street, and whatnot. But we think he's ready to get out of his comfort zone and travel to new places. It might be good for him.”
Good for him? What about me? I'll be stuck by myself with the master of hijinks? I'll be doomed. I simply nodded again like a bobble head doll lightly shaken.

“But me and the boys have decided it's best to ease him into these new outings. We want you to just start by taking him on rides on the bus. You know, just little rides around town. We think he'll really enjoy it."

I struggled to temper the internal disdain, and keep it from manifesting itself as a look of sheer desperation on my increasingly pale face. What? No! I can't take the bus! Not only will I and the other passengers be trapped inside the belly of a high-speed moving object with Elliot, we could end up stranded alone in Timbuktu if we board the wrong bus. I might never see my family again. I'll be doomed. Of course, I told him I thought it was a good idea.

I swore the tips of Paul's moustache curled as he leaned further back in his chair. He sneered as thought he'd just tied me to the train tracks, and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the 3:10 from Yuma. “So, this weekend, I want you to familiarize yourself with the buses that run near his training facility in Lawrenceville. Monday morning I want you two to catch a bus and ride a bit after lunch. It'll be fun.” The wooden rungs were really digging into my back now, but the pain was numbed by the imagines of impending doom. “And I have good news, Mr. Bower. The boys and I have decided to give you an extra dollar an hour, and upgrade your title to community integration specialist.”

The promotions was of little consolation.

That Saturday afternoon I visited the Port Authority headquarters downtown and snatched a copy of all the Lawrenceville bus schedules. This was before the bus routes were slashed 103 times so I'd gathered a lot of literature. I studied the maps and I settled on a route that simply went back and forth from downtown, through Lawrenceville, to Harmarville, and then back downtown again. How simple! Elliot and I could just hop on the bus right outside the training facility on Butler Street, ride it back and forth between downtown and Harmarville a couple of times, and then get right back off at the facility. No chutes, no ladders—no bridges and no tunnels.

Monday morning came soon enough and Elliot and I were waiting patiently at a street corner near Lawrenceville staples the Thunderbird Cafe and Hambones. It was a perfect afternoon to go for a bus ride: the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the only clouds were those wispy ones that look like jet exhaust. Even the prostitutes that normally inhabited Butler St. seemed particularly jaunty. (This was before the hipsters bought-out the whorehouses and turned them into record stores.) Elliot seemed excited too, and yet, very much at ease. I detected none of the telltale signs that he was about to pull any shenanigans, like the shifty eyes or the scheming half-grin that warned "these clothes will end up in this intersection."

When the nearly empty outbound bus arrived we boarded without incident, and settled near the back where I figured Elliot would be less likely to try anything funny. Plus, I'd have him cornered if he did. We rode through Lawrenceville, and by Highland Park, past the zoo and so forth. Elliot simply stared out the window and watched the houses and trees and prostitutes whoosh by. He seemed lulled by them. All was well! I was a community integration SPECIALIST now.

Uneasiness overcame me when the last cross –eyed hobo disembarked, leaving Elliot and I the only two left on the bus. Not only that, I noticed we were in a neighborhood recognizable from the route map on my lap. The further the bus rode into uncharted territory, the more the sinking feeling grabbed hold.

"Where ayou fella's headed," shouted the bus driver to the two stragglers several rows back.

"Lawrenceville. I thought this bus looped back," I said.

"Normally. But my shift is over. I'm heading back to the Harmar Garage."

I was on a chute, one that just went down…down…down.

"Tell you what," he said. "I'll let you off at this stop up here next to the ice cream stand. Catch the third bus that comes by. That one will take you back to Lawrenceville."

"Is it the same as this bus?"

"Oh no, you're way off course now. Good luck." He stopped at the ice cream stand and let us out.


Elliot doesn't like to wait. He gets anxious. Vehicle after vehicle drove by the ice cream stand before the first bus stopped at the light. Elliot began to move toward it, but I physically cut him off.  “No, no, no; we have to wait.” I said. This did not please Elliot. More vehicles, and another bus. Again, I nearly had to cut block a charging Elliot. “No, no, no; we still have to wait.” This time Elliot’s eyes became a bit shifty. His hands began to tremble. The fuse was shortening. A storm was approaching—not only a metaphorical storm, but an actual thunderstorm was approaching from down the Allegheny River.

More vehicles went by, and finally the third bus stopped. Phew!

Again, we boarded without incident. But this inbound bus was almost full. We were forced to sit about 5 seats behind the driver and across the aisle from the proverbial cross-eyed hobo. I kept an extremely close eye on Elliot as we rolled toward Lawrenceville, ready to pounce the second his eyes got a bit too shifty or his grin a bit too telltale. But Elliot remained a model passenger despite the rain pummeling the metal roof and the surrounding chatter of passengers.

When I saw Hambones approaching through the front window, I yanked the yellow cord and instructed Elliot to get up and walk with me to the front of the bus. He complied immediately and calmly. We stopped behind the yellow line—Elliot to my left, beside the driver. My heartbeat gradually began to slow as our stop approached—now just one block away. As the bus gained speed after leaving a stop sign, I—now a proud big brother and a grizzled community integration specialist—glanced over at Elliot to flash an approving smile. Instead, I caught one mighty shift of his eyes. In tandem with a lightning flash outside, Elliot reached down with one hand and grabbed the steering wheel. A woman right behind us screamed. "Elliot, no." I yelled as I caught a glance of the bus driver in the giant rearview mirror above his head. His eyes bulged like cue balls. In what he surely believed were the dwindling moments of his life, he said "JESUS CHRIST!" I yanked Elliot's hand off the wheel. The woman screamed again. I spun Elliot around to face me and grabbed his collar. "What are you doing?" I asked. Elliot just looked at me and...cue the diabolical Ernie laugh.


The next day Paul invited me back into the chair on the other side of his desk. This time was chair was not just uncomfortable, it felt like the Iron Maiden.
Paul's 'stache bore down on me as he spoke."Mr. Bower, I heard about your bus incident yesterday. Me and the boys have decided that Elliot will no longer be taking public transportation. Furthermore, we're taking away your extra dollar an hour. You are no longer a community integration specialist."
I've never been so happy to be demoted.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Balthazar’s Testament, or The Starless Journey From Bethlehem

The following passage is a testament from Balthazar, who was found naked and desperate after days of being lost in the desert east of Bethlehem.

Describing the birth of the Christ child is a daunting task. How would you feel if you witnessed firsthand the savior of all of mankind, majestically bursting from a virgin’s womb? “Un-friggin’-believable!” is what I said at the time, but it didn’t feel like enough. Caspar muttered, “Hallelujah,” whatever that means.

Joseph wasn’t a trained midwife so the delivery itself was quite messy—running back and forth, trying to get into position, yelling “Will you MOVE?!” at the mules and sheep standing around. Melchior actually fainted when the placenta spilled.  Totally fucked up his back.  Me? I played it cool. I didn’t follow a brilliant heavenly star westward across miles and miles of scorching desert just to miss the big moment because I couldn’t keep my shit together.

Mary and Joseph were kind enough to allow us to crash at the manger that night.  Every other place was booked, I guess for the holidays. We stayed the next day too, and said our goodbyes around twilight.

That was a mistake.

But we were filled with joy and reverence! And were extremely anxious to return to our homeland and spread the news that the savior is born!  Well, as the sky darkened, we fully expected the Lord to provide a shining star to point the way back east, too.  Yeah, I know—“Just follow the directions in the opposite order and reverse all the turns.” But we’d had no directions. We’d had a star. So we expected a return star, too.
But by time the celestial lights were visible it was clear that none of them were meant to be followed, necessarily. We kept silent, at first, but I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing. We just kept our camels drifting farther and farther from the manger.  

Finally, after a couple of hours, Melchior finally blurted out, “What the fuck? How the hell are we supposed to get home?” I was actually relieved he said something to break the tension.

Since there’d been a steady breeze blowing Caspar suggested that maybe the Lord had sent that to be followed.  Have you ever tried following a breeze? With camels?  We just zigzagged in the sand for, I don’t know—like five thousand cubits. When the sun rose we saw the damn manger in the distance again. Although we discussed going back and asking Joseph for directions, we all agreed: Forget it. We were too embarrassed.  We’re wise men! Yeah right.

We slept under a palm tree’s shade until nightfall.  Because you know what we say—“Night time’s the right time.” It’s too hot to travel during the day, plus night is when the Lord sends giant fireballs and celestial beacons and shit. Which is why it sucked when a bunch of puffy clouds rolled in around sunset.  So we sat there waiting for hours. And then—like He was fucking with us–it started to rain. To pour, like the Great Fucking Flood. The rain was cold as shit, too! IN THE DESERT.

When the clouds finally scattered the sun was already coming up. We camped again the next day but the wood was too soaked to burn. When nightfall came again? Bupkiss. Nothing. We started out anyway in hopes that the Lord would guide us by instinct alone. After several more jillions of cubits Melchior said, “Hey, we left our canteens back at camp.” That’s when I knew for sure we were fucked.

So there we were. The Three Stooges, bumbling about in the desert for a week. We lived off rainwater trapped in rocks. What did we eat? What else? Raw lizard meat. (I don’t even like cooked lizard meat.) We’d gotten so funky from sweating in the sun, we doused ourselves in the remaining frankincense to temper our putrid body odor. The camels were really in dire straits. Two of them gnawed through their ropes one night and escaped. The third was clearly getting delirious from lack of water and food. Poor beast began snapping at his own tail and squealing at the moon. We put him down in fear that he would turn on us. Since we didn’t have any blunt objects, we took turns wailing him in the head with haymakers over and over until he was out of his misery. That’s right: we beat up our own camel. Then we cooked and ate him. That was a dark day.

Soon enough, Caspar started to lose it, too. Melchior and I debated endlessly about what we should do. Meanwhile, Caspar just got worse and worse. Started French-kissing a particularly curvy cactus and calling it “Madame Ouchy Crotch” and “Miss Prickly Tits.” In the end, we decided to put him down, too. More beating up. Our knuckles began bleeding. We cooked and ate Caspar. (We had to! We were in the desert!) That was also a dark day.

By this point we knew that the Lord had abandoned us altogether. If Melchior and I were going to live, it would be by sheer guts, and luck. And we’d thought we’d gotten lucky when we spotted campfires in the distance one night. We thought we’d stumbled upon a caravan of nomads and we’d follow them to civilization. “Praise the Lord,” we shouted. But they weren’t humble travelers. They were a roaming band of thieves. “Fuck it. Take our leftover myrrh and gold,” we said. But they stole all our provisions, including our clothes. In fact, they took everything but the myrrh.

Got the picture? Two naked, starving, blundering wise men in the desert. The vultures were circling. It was only a matter of time before they would be scavenging our bones. Melchior made the only wise decision of the journey when he snuffed himself. He drank what was left of the myrrh. It ate the poor bastard from the inside out! Afterwards — and I know this sounds awful…But I had to!

When I was discovered by spice traders two days (and several bites of Melchior’s buttocks) later and taken to the nearest hut, villagers asked me how happy I was to be rescued. Happy? Huh! I lost three camels and my two best friends, not to mention my right foot, which somehow got gangrene. They’re going to fit me for a peg-leg, so that’s cool.

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder why the Lord didn’t answer our desperate prayers.  Although maybe He did. After all, I’m alive.

Is that how He works? Delivers you to a place but makes you find your own way back? Is that supposed to be some kind of metaphor for life itself?

Shit. You know, it’s kinda’ funny, in a way. This whole debacle has made me a helluva lot wiser.