May 18, 2005

Members Only

By BG © 2005

I had the lunch special at the Chinese takeout joint with the surreal Chinese hotties running the counter today. They're the ones you'd call "Americanized," as much for that neva-gonna-get-it look they're rocking as for their lack of thick Mandarin accent.

I had the combo plate. Orange chicken, teriyaki chicken, fried rice, and lo mein. Add in an egg roll, toss sixty six cents worth of tip in the egg drop soup takeout tip cup at the register and see the gone little girl with the cornrows and the first generation parents unlikely to pry that Eminem CD out of their daughter's fingers manufacture a sixty six cent smile to send me on my way.

I had to bring lunch back today, as I do most every day, and I had to eat it at my desk while reading ESPN Page 2 and desperately looking for national validation on the Lions free agent signings.

And I had to laugh at the subtle irony freed for my pleasure from the inside of an almond cookie. Wisdom and truth chases fried foods down the hatch: Good health is a man's best wealth.


So I've got this bruise on the back of my hand that I can't seem to explain. It just seems to be another one of those signs that I'm edging closer and closer to decrepitude in my young middle-age.

Shit, at the rate I'm going, I am middle-aged.

I don't think I'm quite like the Charlie Kaufman character in Adaptation - yet. But I am tending to believe the worst when any and all of these spooky pseudo-health issues rears its ugly head. For example, I have this tooth thing going on right now. It doesn't hurt exactly, but feels funny when I chew something in the right front side of my mouth. I can't replicate the feeling by chewing on my finger or gritting my teeth, so I'm curious really what it is.

Except that I'm pretty sure it's an abscess, and I'm going to lose the tooth. I'll end up with a big gap in the right side of my mouth, and be forced to spend my money on Polident and Super PoliGrip. That cup of "water" by the bed? Don't drink that, I promise you don't want a gulp.

See? This is how you play Fatal Hypochondria.

I'm convinced that that bruise, which has gotten worse over the last couple of days, is probably either gangrene, leprosy or scurvy. Either way, I'm not getting enough vitamin C. Regardless, it's as if my hand is turning into an overripe peach just hours away from the shift from edible to rotten. Soon, the bruise is going to overtake my whole hand, making my palm, wrist, and fingers tender to the touch. Then it'll just turn black and fall off.

I'm not growing old gracefully.

I was at the grocery store on Sunday, and had an interesting encounter with one of our nation's cat food-eating elderly. He was impossible to miss, as I patiently waited behind him while he shuffled his way up over the curb and into the eye of the automatic doorway. He didn't look like my grandfathers did. My grandfathers were veterans, the type of guys that to a boy my age looked as if they could crush your windpipe in their bare hands, and would if provoked. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't lay money my dad's dad hadn't.

This guy was gaunt and disheveled, wearing discount green corduroy pants, a light blue Member's Only jacket, and those cream colored khaki Velcro slip-ons the Sunday circular trumpets in all their glory. He didn't grab a basket, didn't grab a cart, but instead gravitated directly to one of the nearly-senior citizens manning the hot plate full of marinated vegetables each speared with a toothpick.

He had a red pepper.

I saw him another aisle down, still no basket, still no cart, collecting another toothpick bearing Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage.

I don't think he noticed I was watching him. Not yet, at least.

I caught up to him again in the back of the store, ambling over with hands in coat pockets towards the bulk bins. He twisted, painfully, over each shoulder twice, three times, and teetered a crooked path to the Voortman cookie display.

Pink wafers #4037, $4.99 a pound.

He pulled his hand from his coat pocket and reached out, steadying himself on the side of the display to begin the mechanical process of winching his addled frame low enough to pluck a pink wafer from his bin of choice.

My grandfathers ate G-rations and came home to sturdy wives with families hardened from sugar rations. My grandfathers survived the coal mines, high voltage electrical work, Krauts, Buffalo-like frequent snowfalls in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and only the glory of raising big families in disadvantaged conditions as men.

Not a thing was fucking free for my grandfathers.

Member's Only had his hand fixed to the display, thumb twisted perpendicular to the pole around which it was wrapped. He slid - carefully - each foot out an inch or two then three, and bent at the waist - slightly.

And I was aimlessly staring through the vacant tops of the Jelly Belly chutes, fixated on this old man's quest for a free cookie. Staring, not ten feet away.

Somehow, he knew. He pricked his ears and wheeled his head around - easily the most catlike move I had seen him make in the ten minutes or so I had trailed him unintentionally around the store. He looked at me, then through me, but definitely still at me. I had closed my eyes slowly and cast my gaze back towards the bottom of the Technicolor jelly bean bins as he slowly cranked his neck around the other direction to see if anyone else might be spying.

I took that chance to move directly behind him. Dog biscuits, plausible due to the 20 lb bag of Iams in my cart. But I was still observing. I wanted to see him take the goddamn cookie.

He wasn't ready. Now I knew he was a veteran pilferer, as his radar was attuned so sharply that he simply couldn't be caught by human eyes. I couldn't tell, as he turned to look right at me, whether or not his eyes were fearful, desperate, or annoyed. He wanted the cookie, something in him felt he needed the cookie. But he didn't want a complete stranger with a chagrined smirk of gleeful intrigue pegging him a petty thief. You and I both know what I'm doing, why don't you just leave me alone to do it already.

There was one thing I recognized in his eyes though. This was a man who was profoundly alone. His gait wasn't that of a sick or injured or recuperating man, it was that of a person nearly doomed to wander his earth, his turf, with no purposeful meaning. I thought at first he was the antithesis to my grandfathers, both men's men, both scrapping and clawing to provide for their families, thievery and shiftlessness far from their ideal of America.

That wasn't it at all. A tuft of grey hair and huddled shoulders under a decades- old styled jacket is enough in this world to turn a man invisible, and by doing so, enable his disconnect so thoroughly that his every and any action is only of matter in his own mind and shaken off with just a shrug of his shoulders. Loneliness breeds a solitary set of ethics, one that owes nothing to anyone, not even oneself. My grandfathers weren't like this man, not because they were necessarily better men, but because by surrounding themselves with family they were no longer alone. They were purposeful men, men of consequence - and by consequence, I mean to say that the simple act of pilfering a pink wafer cookie had consequences far beyond a shakedown in the break room and a scolding by the local law enforcement. Their actions mattered. They were examples, pinnacles, for a select few. By design, they were most certainly not alone.

I moved along, slowly, behind a tall stack of paper towel rolls, and emerged on the other side in time to see an invisible man in dime store corduroys and Sunday circular loafers, hands in pockets, shuffling his way under fluorescent lighting back to wherever it is invisible men live to amble quietly through another day that won't matter to anyone else in the wide scope of things - ever.

I'm pretty sure he was chewing.

BG is a writer from Western Michigan.

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