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…

A Sunday Afternoon Outing

A few weeks ago we took in a French exchange student named David, who incidentally is a wonderful temporary addition to the family.  While he has gone on a few day trips with the other students and visited New York, he did not get to go to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and as a result we planned a day trip to remedy the situation.  The fortune tellers at Weatherscan predicted a 60% chance of severe thunderstorms, but as they are far from accurate the vast majority of the time I thought we could chance it as this was our last opportunity to take a day-long excursion.  It’s a good thing I’m not a gambling man, but I’ll come back to that in a bit…

We made a late start and navigated our way to Liberty State Park, where we would take the ferry to the appropriate ports of call.  With a minimum of ceremony we arrived and purchased our tickets and wandered around killing time until the next ferry was due to dock, and it was only when we attempted to get in line to board that a ranger told us we needed to go through security before queuing up.  We trooped along back to the building and got into a fairly short line that led to an airport-style security checkpoint.  I noticed the various signage that warned about the various items on the restricted list and thought momentarily of the small Swiss Army knife I have on my key ring, but being the optimist I dismissed my insignificant single-bladed friend to the army of Europe’s most noteworthy neutral country as a trinket barely worth notice.

Arriving at the metal detector and x-ray machine, I put my various items into the plastic bin and proceeded through the arch, setting off the alarm when my Swatch triggered the alert.  Second time through was the charm and I emerged on the other side of the checkpoint unscathed.  I should add that the older gentleman in the adjacent line had his oversized plaid shorts fall to his ankles after he relinquished his belt, which was pretty entertaining for the rest of us.  I should also add that the first security officer commented on my sideburns and tattoos and asked if I was a fan of Danzig before giving me his unflattering opinion of MTV and the state of the music industry.  His parting words to me advised me to look up the two-headed girl on YouTube… It was a surreal moment, but as he was polite and talkative I figured it never hurt to exchange pleasantries with a member of the security staff.  You never know when it will come in handy…

So now I am waiting to collect my watch, wallet, belt, sunglasses, keys, gum, camera and phone from the bin when a second security officer holds up my overburdened key ring and points to the small knife.  I instantly realized that he was not the friendly type I’d encountered moments earlier, and instead was a belligerent fellow with power issues.  He informed me that my knife was deemed a weapon and I had two choices facing me:  I could return my keys to the car and return sans knife, or I could leave the trinket with him.  He then cautioned that if I left it with him, it would be gone forever as they don’t hold these items for returning passengers.  I looked at him nonplussed for a moment as my gears slowly turned and I evalutated my options.

At this point a previous security checkpoint survivor returned to ask about his cell phone, which he believed was not retrieved from one of the bins.  The reaction of the security officer was so venomous and nasty I downgraded my opinion of him further.  I opted to return to the car and leave the offending object safely in the center console, and as the reincarnated Nazi prison guard roughly pushed aside a couple of six-year-old children and ushered me through a door I tried to be philosophical about the whole thing and let him off with a single muttered obscenity directed at his back as the door closed.  The next hour saw me return to the parking lot some two-hundred meters distant, drop off my key ring (I kept only the single key for the car), return to the security line where I stood for 20 minutes trying to attract the attention of an employee so that I did not have to wait in the queue (which had quintupled in size in my absence) and eventually make it past the baleful glare of the security officer who had been instrumental in my tribulations.  We made it onto a departing ferry and were only an hour behind schedule.

In my mind Ellis Island was pretty much the same as it was 15 years ago, though they may have changed much and my memory compensated for my poor recall by making it seem that way.  David opted for a French language audio tour, and Alek for an English one.  We started in the middle of the main floor and slowly wound our way through the various rooms and exhibits.  Ellis Island is a fairly interesting place, and they do a great job of providing you with oodles of historical background in the form of images, quotes and a variety of detritus collected over the years of operation.  While Alek wanted to listen to each section completely and constantly held up his finger in a “Just a second” gesture, David wanted to move quickly from one room to the next.  The result was one of us shadowing one charge while the other followed the second.  We eventually made it to the end of the tour and rendezvoused back at the main area before heading out to catch the Liberty Island Ferry.  Let me add that for the immigrants coming to the US back in the days of Ellis Island’s busiest years conditions elsewhere must have been appalling if the experiences awaiting them here were seen as a momentary dislocation with some short term discomfort.  But back to the story at hand.

Outside the main building we found the line for the Liberty Island Ferry and managed to secure a position maybe 30 meters from the dock where we watched the antics of several children who ignored their parents and ran about like free-range chickens.  At this point I happened to look over to the south of the New York skyline and noticed that the sky was looking a bit dark and stormy.  In truth, the sky was a turbulent mass of battleship-gray clouds slowly advancing in our direction.  Occasional flickers of lightning licked the skies and the winds began to pick up dramatically.  It seemed that the race was on and it would be a close shave whether or not our ferry would arrive in time to protect us from the coming storm.  Each boat that passed bay was greeted with stares of longing as the crowded masses looked hopefully across the growing swells.  It was like some strange apocalyptic film where the final transport was picking up the remains of the human race before the final storms arrived to ravage the Earth’s surface.  Nervous glances and furtive attempts to move forward in the line sparked some mild shoving matches and if it were not for the advancing wall of terror, there would probably have been an outbreak of violence somewhere in the mob.  The ferry rounded the bend and we all surged forward until we eventually made our way onto the lower deck of the tossing vessel.  We’d managed to beat the rain and the lashing wind by moments and had only suffered some wind-tangled hair and a few drops of precipitation on our clothes.  We watched the skies grow darker and the lightning activity increase as we made our way to Liberty Island.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island

 

 

Ellis Island - Departing View

Ellis Island - Departing View

 

By the time we arrived at our destination, the waves were enormous, the rain was splashing down, the lightning was putting on an incredible display and the winds were reaching gale-force intensity.  Throughout the final leg of the trip to see Lady Liberty we could see the mighty statue staring balefully forth through the stormy skies, and it was not a very heartwarming look… She looked menacing and annoyed as we drifted under her gaze, and I had an eerie thought that she would at that moment decide that she’d had enough and turn into an angry Talos-like figure of wrath and retribution.  Instead she just  looked grimly on as the lightning illuminated her pale verdigris complexion.

The docks, upon our arrival, were overburdened with people fleeing the storm.  Masses of churning bodies huddled under the huge covered loading bay, their $10 green rain ponchos clinging like a second skin.  After disembarking and walking past hundreds of fleeing refugees, their eyes shadowed with desperation and fear, we slipped and slid towards the towering behemoth only to find out that you needed to purchase your tickets a week in advance… We stood for a brief moment in the tented concession stand/gift shop as David made a purchase, and then it was off to the docks for the ferry ride back to Liberty State Park.  

We made it to the ferry just as it was preparing to leave, but it was so crowded we were forced to wait for the next one.  It was actually somewhat exhilarating to watch the waves crashing against the walls as we observed the passengers on the departing ferry watching us.  Within a few minutes I understood why they looked at us in a manner that said “You’re having fun now… wait till the ferry leaves and the protection of the boat no longer shields you from nature’s wrath.”  

Sure enough, the ferry pulled away from the dock and the gale-force winds tore through the roofed boarding dock with the ferocity of a dozen Hollywood wind machines.  The spray from the ocean, mingles with the rain pelting down from the heavens swept across the miserable crowd drenching anyone unfortunate to be standing in the front lines.  Those cowering behind their human shields scrunched lower in an effort to maintain a stitch or two of dry clothes for the ferry ride back.  The minutes ticked by as the winds and water continued to harass us while we looked into the distance for the arrival of our ferry.  You tend to lose track of time when you are single mindedly focussed on watching for any signs of rescue.  The boat rounded the bend and eventually we made it aboard, wet and windblown but otherwise in good shape.

Our return trip was fairly uneventful as we navigated our way out of the storm to arrive at Liberty State Park bedraggled and looking like we’d just escaped certain doom.  Anything else I add at this point would be anticlimactic as the walk to the car consisted of a 200 meter jog punctuated by yelps of pain when a small rock from the gravel driveway managed to attempt to stow away in our Crocs or sandals.  The day was an adventure to say the least.  We were not only treated to some amazing history about a pivotal point in our nation’s history, we also stared death in the face and laughed as the thunder crashed and the poison arrows fell from the sky and the pillars of heaven shook.

Did I mention that I’m trying to shorten my posts?