Exact Change

As I prepared to leave the hotel room to start the day, I reached down and slid an assortment of change from the dresser into my hand. I did not count it, but figured I was accumulating quite a bit of loose coinage while traveling and thought I might be able to reduce the growing pile in the days leading up to my departure. I then completed my preparations and headed down to the lobby.

Unbeknownst to me, the hotel was hosting a large Free Will Baptist gathering with congregations from several states away converging on New Orleans for a few days of fellowship and such. I arrived at the ground floor and was assailed by the clamor of perhaps 50 of the congregants slowly circumnavigating the lobby area, the elderly chatting amiably while the 12 and under crowd dodged in and out of the other three elevators and ordered each other around. I walked by two opposing elevators that were both held open by teenage girls hollering back and forth for certain occupants to go to the other elevator. The elevator alarms were ringing as the doors were held open longer than necessary while occupants from one dashed to another and back repeatedly.

I wove my way steadily towards the on-site Starbucks (cha-ching) for my morning cafe mocha. Relative silence greeted me momentarily as I walked into the hotel version of Seattle’s favorite caffeinated child. I approached the counter and looked briefly at the board before looking expectantly in the vicinity of the cashier to attempt to place my order.

An irate customer suddenly started complaining vociferously about her recently purchased pastry.  It seems she sampled one of the custard danishes and found it unpalatable, as did her husband. The cashier announced that they had recently switched to a new place for their coffee cake and cookies and that the popular consensus was that the food was often stale and flavorless.

The customer asked if there was anything that seemed, felt or appeared in any way to be soft and fresh but the employees couldn’t locate anything.  Mind you, this was early in the day when the wares were supposed to be at their freshest, not at the close of the day when you might expect a certain amount of disappointment in the freshness of day-old pastries. The customers left in disgust and it was my turn to order my mocha, which I did using my customary good manners and polite demeanor. The girl behind the counter flatly announced the cost: $5.43 (cha-ching).

After retrieving a five-dollar bill from my wallet, I rummaged in my pocket and withdrew the handful of change I had randomly selected from the dresser… exactly 43 cents! I had chosen four dimes and three pennies out of perhaps three or four dollars worth of change and it caused me to pause a moment before exclaiming to the cashier behind the counter.

“I picked up a handful of change before leaving the room, and oddly enough it was exactly 43 cents!” and while I was not leaping about proclaiming a miracle of biblical proportions, I did voice my findings in a subdued but obviously amazed manner.

The cashier stared at me nonplussed and uttered not a word. In fact, her reaction was so lacking in anything remotely resembling interest I thought that I might have accidentally switched to Mandarin or Hindi when I spoke, but as I do not speak either language I thought this explanation unlikely. Her shoulders almost imperceptibly settled a fraction of an inch in resignation as she continued to stare at me in silence.

“I can see that you are impressed by my feat…” I added as I handed my money across the counter. With neither a thank you nor even the faintest acknowledgment of my action, she turned away and returned to a conversation she had been engaged in before the altercation regarding the stale pastries began minutes earlier.

It is hard to walk away from such an event and not feel a spike of annoyance or indignation. I know that the cashier was not a mute, and it did not seem as if she had suffered some trauma prior to our transaction due to the way she was quickly able to switch from stony silence to an animated discussion once her employment obligations had been met. Was she so jaded at 22-ish that her view of the world held customers as a collection of beings beneath her dignity to engage beyond announcing their incurred fees, or was she just the best applicant for the job at the time of her hiring?

When I told the story to one of the local shop owners his response was: “I doubt she’s  native of New Orleans.”


The Car Went “Beep! – Beep! – Beep!”

There once was a boy.  There once was a car.  There came a day in the not too distant past when the boy and the car met and became partners in life’s journey over the assorted highways and byways of the tri-state area.  Wherever the boy drove in his car he attracted the gaze of many a passer-by due to either the boy’s devilishly good looks or the car’s appearance, though the boy had his own suspicions…

The car, you see, was a 1979 Plymouth Volaré.  Before I shush your exclamations of envy and jealousy I should mention that the car was not your average roadworthy slant-six beauty.  The colour of the vehicle was “blonde”, according to the documentation, though I have heard it described as “lemon chiffon” or “pale yellow” as well.  In addition to the understated colour palette used for the exterior, the car had an odd ten-foot-long dent on the passenger side that was the result of a close encounter with a telephone pole.

Shocking though it may seem to you, there once was a time when I was lacking in both patience and common sense and I attempted to squeeze between another car and a telephone pole.  At the first hint of resistance I gunned the motor and scraped a healthy bit of paint off the passenger side of the car while at the same time flattening the contoured shape of the doors and quarter panels.  I don’t believe I even cursed at my own stupidity as the car was made for beating up the environment and taking a beating in return.  It added to the car’s character.

The blonde Volaré was also noteworthy for it’s obvious lack of any front suspension.  The entire front of the car seemed to be held together with rubber bands so that each tiny discrepancy in the road resulted in a stomach churning bounce somewhat akin to a mechanical bull set to “Let’s Move ’em Out!”.  I often joked that you could feel it if you drove over a nickel in the road, though I never tested the theory.

The front bumper was also damaged from an incident involving a hit and run perpetrated by one of the illegal immigrants who lived down the street from my parents.  It seems that the driver lost control of his car and hit my car, which was parked in front of my parents’  house.  The driver then floored his vehicle in an attempt to disengage his front bumper from mine and succeeded in breaking the tie rod and smashing into the rear bumper of Cheryl’s car (parked in front of mine).  There is an entertaining story there, but suffice it to say the front bumper of my car had a little extra character.

I’m sure I could go on and on about the cornucopia of idiosyncrasies and deficiencies related to the car, but there is a tale to tell behind all of the dramatic build up.  To sum up the rest of the car’s description, there were few working dashboard instruments including the dash light, speedometer (above 33 mph), the gas gauge and the temperature needle.  I was handicapped at night in that I couldn’t tell with any degree of accuracy how fast I was going or how close to empty I was, though the worry was academic for the most part considering the state of the instrumentation.  Many a night was spent fingering mental rosary beads in an effort to get a little extra going for me in the way of a possible miraculous recovery or law enforcement avoidance attempt.  It was always an adventure driving in that car, though it had a great engine that seemed unwilling to quit regardless of the thin patina of oil in the tank or the numerous close calls with the uglier side of fate.

I should note that the only station I could get on the AM radio was a country and western station that played the dubious classics from a genre nearly as appealing to me as the sound of a dentist’s drill hard at work on a decaying bicuspid.  Why didn’t I invest in a new radio you ask?  I neglected to mention that the front driver’s side door would not lock.  Many a time I wondered if a truly desperate individual might happen upon my car and attempt to steal it only to return it after driving around the block.

The car was overdue for inspection and as I felt I was pushing my luck every time I even thought about driving, I reluctantly drove to the shady service station I used for the auto repairs I needed to keep the car in it’s questionably roadworthy state.  I knew it would be a gamble whether or not they’d even let me drive away after listing the many maladies afflicting my car, but I figured I might be forced to finally make some repairs I’d avoided for years.  I parked in the lot and handed over the keys to the gentleman behind the counter before taking a seat and beginning a silent litany of prayers.

As the clock ticked away the minutes I imagined I could hear the mechanics laughing at each discovery made at my car’s expense.  I was roused from a doze some time later by the manager who asked me to follow him to the bay where my car rested following it’s examination.

“Slant-six… a beautiful engine man.” he complimented as he got behind the wheel.

“Thanks,” I replied with some trepidation.  He seemed to be on the verge of some sort of punchline, and considering the state of my car I had a pretty good idea what the joke was.

“Did you know that your horn doesn’t work?” he queried as he pressed the once sensitive area on the steering wheel that was (in an earlier era) depressed in order to issue an auditory warning to other motorists.  I shook my head and prepared for a long list of additional problems I knew plagued my car.

“Let me hear you say ‘BEEP!’ as loud as you can.” he said with a straight face, though the other mechanics snickered behind him.  I was stunned for a second or two before I comprehended the amazing opportunity before me.  I took a deep breath and produced a credible ‘BEEP!’ using only my vocal chords and a decided lack of self-consciousness or pride.  “Once more.” he ordered.  I complied with another ‘BEEP!’, this time using my diaphragm to get an additional fraction of a decibel for my effort.

“Good enough.” he said as he scraped the outdated inspection sticker off in order to replace it with a valid one.  I payed maybe $35 for the whole process, though the experience was a priceless one for all involved.  The following year the entire crew of the service station was fired for some reason and the new management was a little more stringent in their inspections.  I did get another two years out of the Volaré, though I can only speculate as to how many additional years I might have gotten out of her had the service station not gone through it’s purge.

Sometimes when I am driving along I vividly recall the feeling of invulnerability I felt behind the wheel of a Volaré.  Did I ever tell you about the time I attempted to outrun a pair of NJ State Troopers in the Volaré?  No?

It was late one night, or early in the morning depending on one’s perspective…

The Twenty-Sided Die of Doom

It is often as bizarre to my friends and acquaintances to learn of my experiences in the world of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons as it is for them to hear stories from my fraternity days.  Before you pass judgment on me, understand that I did not really fit in in either endeavor.  Think of me as a renaissance man instead of a socially confused misfit and I’ll feel a little better about the whole sordid situation.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon during a particularly lovely weekend when the events I am about to describe took place.  The few clouds drifting lazily by in the otherwise azure expanse above only added to the idyllic conditions that day, though a storm was brewing in the unlikeliest of places.  The birds of unknown genus tweeted merrily outside the window of the small house in Ocean Gate, though the brilliant sunlight failed to pierce the gloom of the front porch where our story unfolds.

I won’t embarrass myself by giving you a run down of the typical AD&D adventure rules and game play as it is still uncomfortably fresh in my mind.  I will instead describe the company for you…

Tommy O. – The Dungeon Master:  He was a true AD&D gamer who could quote stats from a Gary Gygax compendium of monsters as readily as reciting his shoe size.  His was the hand of God when it came to meting out the dangers inherent in an adventure to acquire famed magic relics and experience points.

Chris D. – Longtime friend of Tommy O. and even longer-time older brother to me.

Scott G. – Friend-ish, acquaintance-ish individual who navigated the same strange social waters as Tommy O. and my brother.

Paul S. – The host to our motley assortment of would-be adventurers, though he was closer socially to Scott or Tommy than my brother.  He was often the host as his mother tolerated our noisy adventures much as George Harrison’s mother tolerated the Beatles practices.

Thomas D. – Myself.

I think my own parents would have quickly become tired of our seemingly nonsensical behavior, and Paul’s house was conveniently and centrally located to all of us.  We were all around middle school age, though I was the youngest of the bunch.  The era was the early eighties and it was not yet hip to curse constantly, drink to the point of inebriation, do methamphetamine or get girls pregnant at thirteen so our antics were pretty tame by comparison to youngsters of the twenty-first century.  I know that teen pregnancy and alcohol abuse were around, but as the internet was not available to us and I rarely read sociological statistics for kicks in those days I was blessedly ignorant to such behavior.

So there we were, frittering away a lovely Saturday afternoon in the dark confines of a bungalow when the typical bonhomie that embodied our gatherings took a serious blow from an unlikely source.  We were preparing to start an adventure and had only been at our respective pre-game activities and chit chat for less than an hour when the first signs of trouble began to appear.  The dungeon master was in an uncharacteristically bad mood, and for some reason his ire was seeking a target early in the proceedings.  As I was the youngest in the group, I suppose I was the logical choice though I had already developed a reputation for unpredictable and violent displays of temper (if you can believe that) making it a less than optimal approach to fight picking.

We had just begun the adventure when the need arose for me to roll my twenty-sided die to determine one outcome or another.  For the uninitiated, there is indeed a die with twenty-sides that resembles a geometrically altered meteorite with sharp, clean edges and lines above the nine and below the six.  My own twenty-sided die was extraordinary in that it was opaque powder-blue in color and not one of the colored , semi-transparent kinds that were popular in some circles.  The die that I shook in my fist had long ago lost the hard corners and had since become much more spherical than polygonal.  The dungeon master gave the order to roll, and I released my die with the practiced hand of the initiated.

For the first few seconds it seemed like everything was going fine, but as the die continued to tumble awkwardly around the table’s surface it looked like it was possessed by the spirit of a hamster trapped on its wheel.  Eventually it made it’s way to the edge of the table and rolled onto the floor.  I scooped it up and made as if to roll it again when the dungeon master asserted his rank.

“You’re not using THAT die again.” he stated with authority.

“It’s my twenty-sided die, and I AM using it.” I retorted, rolling it onto the table decisively to begin another circumnavigation of the littered surface.  The dungeon master scooped it up and took it out of play, sparking a violent reaction from me.

“What is your problem?” I demanded, reaching out to wrest my property from the grip of the increasingly annoyed dungeon master.  For those purists out there, I know I should refer to Tommy O. as the DM, but as the experiences of the AD&D adventurer are probably lost on most readers I fear it would just be confusing.

“The stupid thing just rolls around forever and I’m tired of waiting for it to stop.”

“Just use mine.” offered Paul in an attempt to dispel the negative vibes emanating from the air between myself and Tommy.

Now keep in mind that this could have worked and we might have continued the game without things getting any more out of hand, but it had become a matter of principle to me and I was not about to back down.  I proceeded to decline Paul’s offer and demanded the die back immediately.  At this point my brother got involved as the die in question was shared by the two of us.

“Just give him back the die and lets get on with the game.” said Chris wearily as the argument raged on around him.  The words became more and more heated and eventually the die was returned to me.  Tommy refused to continue the game as long as we used that die, and I was in no mood to continue anyway after the shabby treatment I had received at the hands of the dungeon master.  Chris and I gathered up our assorted manuals, dice and folders of characters and walked home in the glare of the afternoon sun, the breeze at our backs and the few errant clouds casting fleeting shadows at our feet.

Games with the old AD&D group were never the same after that day and it was shortly after that fateful day that we disbanded our little group.  I suppose I feel somehow responsible for the events that transpired so long ago as I could have just as easily backed down and been the bigger person for the sake of a peaceful return to the carefree roll of the four or eight-sided dice, but alas it was not meant to be.  Though I was only 13 years old at the time, I already knew that I was incapable of behaving rationally and compassionately.  It took me another couple decades (give or take) to realize that being good at being a creep is not necessarily something to aspire to.

Still, I sometimes look back on that day and wonder how I managed to leave that house without punching the dungeon master in the face…