grocery · job

Just a Grocer

E-36 was hatched September 20th in 1986,” I say.

My friend Tad looks at me dumbfounded.

“How do you know that?!” (This is a breeding season meeting at the Penguin Encounter, about Emps).

“I study my keep,” I say simply. Let’s just say I do crosswords in pen. I demand knowledge. It’s my fault.

This helps when dealing with Cayden. He’s, as Delaney would say, “fooking smart.”

So, at the PE, I did genetic research, pharmacology, ontology; I raised Emperors. I helped engineer methodology for ameliorating geriatric penguins. I ran the breeding season for three years.

Now, after being laid off, I’m a grocer. This could seem a step down BUT I’ve had a 25 year career, now I have a job. And, actually, I’m happier, which is more than important in the end.

Lemme explain. 4889 is the PLU for cilantro; 4225 for avocados. I punch these on the daily. It’s like knowing when E-36 was hatched. It’s like knowing four across.

“There’s the happy cashier!” a man notices. I am fooking happy. Thanks for noticing.

My friend Brad famously said, “Know two things about everything, then you’re really good at parties.” I wear a party hat at my till.

Escoffier, Ottolenghi, Keller, Chang, Bourdain, Waters, Kamman.

The other day I talked linguistics at the register; I later talked about how to make labne. 200 conversations a day at least. Found out my (young) co-worker is also a writing major, so we talked HG Wells, Verne, and Bradbury.

Remember Quadrophenia? When the protagonist finds out Sting’s character is JUST a bellboy? Well, I’m just a grocer but (as I will post), Eric Idle does this great scene in the Cannes Award winning ‘Meaning of Life’ about his aspiration to be a waiter. It’s funny and poignant.

I love my job. In this second half of my life, I apply the first half. Found out that I’m pretty good with people. Not just feeding beaks anymore. I like it. Penguins never exactly talked back.

4051 is mango. 4011 is banana. ‘Sari’ is in practically every crossword puzzle. Etc.

Loving every minute.

grocery · job · neighborhood

Nicole Agape

We catch each other’s eye as I emerge from the break room. She stares and smiles. She is pretty and wears funky glasses, so I at first mistake her for my friend Leah. Why else would anyone stare if not for familiarity? But it’s not Leah.

“Hello?” I proffer.

She takes a second. “Oh—I know you!” to which I cock my head.

“You—you’re walking all the time and I SEE you all the time. Sometimes with your dog, me with mine!”

Ah—makes sense. I’m the North Park perambulist. Didn’t know it deserved an agape mouth, which she wears.

“That’s me,” I muster. “I walk everywhere.”

Her friend is sorting through the Malbecs and makes an affirmative nod.

“I didn’t know you worked here,” she says.

“Well, it’s only been three weeks; 14 years in town. I love it here. Yeah, I like walking.”

She adjusts her smile. “Good to see you.”

Affirmation from veritable strangers is the best affirmation, the fact that people see each other. I recognize everybody, yet it feels out of body when people recognize me. As if I were an invisible specter, dog on chain, floating the sidewalks.

“I thought you were my friend Leah at first,” I offer, “But hello—nice to meet you.” I’m making my fingers into spectacle shape to remark her glasses.

She says, “Sorry—didn’t mean to stare,” laughing.

“What’s your name?” I ask. This is only appropriate. Before, any sort of human interaction would have me in a cold sweat, but I’m now comfortable in my own skin. ‘Who are you?’ and ‘How are you?’ are two important questions we need ask. We can’t walk around in anonymity, unheard.



We amicably shake hands. Instantly I like her. Her friend chooses an Argentinian red, and they say: “Well good to meet you” together. I bid them adieu.

“Likewise. See you around the neighborhood.”

This how we make friends. Nice to meet you, Nicole.

15Sandra Dewbre, Amber Lovin and 13 others1 CommentLikeCommentShare

food · grocery · job · neighborhood

When the Guillotine Misses

sterna-angle“How good’s this stuff, anyways?” the AM/PM guy asks as he examines the cold-brew I’m purchasing. He has a floppy way of talking, which I like. I confess ‘I dunno’, but coffee seems a good choice.

“I’ll let you know, Friend,” as I glance out the window. “Doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere soon.” The brake lights are red on three sides of the building; there are three freeway exchanges that all look like bad choices.

“Shit—you’ll be sitting here fuh an hour at least. It’s a muthafucking parking lot out there.”

So I sit on the stucco wall outside the AM/PM, kicking my legs. Orion is to the southeast; I remember when it was brighter. I don’t see well at night and it’s easier to let the brake lights lessen in their glaring volume rather than attempt the freeway home. I have better patience these days, so sitting on a stucco wall in a gas station is no big deal really, and there’s another gentleman waiting out the traffic, too, hands crossed behind his back and muttering in a black coat. I’m nonplussed; I just sat through six hours of orientation at the Del Mar Whole Foods, and the AC there was broken. The Del Mar Whole Foods is located just north of San Diego’s worst traffic convergence as well, so frustration was in the cards and—not being a gambler—I folded my hand early, not wanting surprise at a loss.

I had some tempura in the store before leaving, wandered a bit and kept reciting Ginsy’s ‘Supermarket in California’ in my head while watching patrons hover over the produce. ‘Where are you tonight, Walt Whitman?’ ‘Was that Garcia Lorca by the melons?’ These are happy thoughts to me; I buy a grip of cheese and some olives.

“Sir: do you know that blueberries and honey go well with purple asparagus?”

“Ma’am: I’d try that labne with watercress, maple syrup, and apples.”

“You’ll want to soak that pork loin in plain milk. That’s what the Romans did.”

These are my thoughts, the stupid knowledge that takes up coils of my brain, that insists on being primary in my head while instead I should be better fiduciary, or at least be able to balance a checkbook without aid of a trapezist pole. But—no—it’s all peaches and penumbras, wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes.

I endure the brake lights, many many minutes of ‘stop and go’, so many that I arrive home at bedtime. Having been trapped in a car, I take a walk while everyone else retires to their sheets; take an unexpected left through busy crosswalks and wander into an establishment where music is playing loud and unheard.

The singer plays a guitarrón; his supporting players pass a tallboy back and forth as well a melodica that’s been done up in Oaxacan paint. One guy plays the percussion box, and they jam out some Mexi-reggae. The restaurant’s empty, save for me and a bowl of chips, and this is like something that’s been granted me alone, the guitarist noodling a nylon-string solo while the percussion rises in intensity, the sound filling the hall as the barback clears a woefully small number of spent glasses. Really, it is all for me, and this feels like special reward for things having been endured: the glaring streams of brake lights, the meanwhile deadening Orion; these past six months and having been fired at forty, the HR door clicking shut like a well-hewn guillotine blade on a twenty-year career. All these things, but the guillotine blade missing its mark, the Angle of Louis, which is the scientifically determined line where the blade is meant to pass easiest through the neck.

The music plays and I bob my head happily, which still has swivel on its shoulders and this is all for me, all for me, all for me.

Cayden · family · home · job · parenting

The New Math

euclidI lean against the doorframe until Cayden acknowledges I’m there. He dislodges an iPad bug from his ear and looks up at me. He’s finished the AT-AT model he’d been working on, is now working on a math problem and Spanish homework simultaneously.

“Yes, Daddy?”

“Didn’t get the job, Kid.”

“I know.” He glances down. “I heard you and Mom talking.”

I brush away the air between us.

“It’s alright, Dude.”

Cayde is working on a math problem. He hates the new algorithms he’s been taught, tackles the problems always with practiced logic instead. Why use shortcuts when numbers can be broken down to what’s normative and manageable? He’ll spend three times as long on an answer, but he’ll get it correct every time. His brain is one and immeasurable right lobe.


“Yeah, Kid.”

“I just want you to be happy.”

“I am happy, Kid. You make me happy.”

Somewhere, in plotting numbers, Cayde has also come across the logistical words to say, the expected words, words like geometric properties. I see right through the mathematical lines, right to the underlying curves.

“I am happy, Kid,” I repeat, speaking to Cayden’s unspoken self.

Cayde is unsure if this is a new norm, a new math—me without a job.

“I don’t want you to be a Stay-at-Home-Dad. I want you doing what makes you happy.”


I’m phenomenal at not crying these days. I take a deep breath.

“Cayde—sure I’m disappointed about the job, but I love being a Stay-at-Home-Dad right now. To you and Finn. “


“Really.” I’m not lying. We lock eyes for a second; he looks down and smiles, one ear bug still in place.

I was the first to hold Cayden in the hospital, the first to look him deep in the eyes when he was born with a shock of dark hair and darker purvey of his NICU holdings. It was a new math back then, a new math now.

He replaces the ear bug while I gentle the door shut, but he’s smiling at least.

This is all a word problem, math and language and ‘how many apples are left’, but despite complication, despite how we borrow for simplicity’s sake, the right answer is always and always there.


job · penguins · people

About Rainbows You Can’t See

I had a great conversation with a mother and daughter outside the Penguin Encounter during a Magellanic feeding. The mother, maybe fifty-something, had lavender-died hair, and the daughter had tattoos of birds flying up past her collarbone and onto her neck. I invited them back to see the penguins at the PE because they were such good convo, and because they talked about having volunteered at the Portland Aquarium in younger years. I love zoo fans, and fans of animals who exhibit their love of winged and other things in permanence on their person.
Later, I received a phone call from the PE gift shop.
“Hello–um–there’s a man here whose daughter is doing a project on penguins. Can someone come see them and answer some questions?”
“I’ll be right out.”
I dig on this stuff.
“Hello. I’m Thom.”
“Dave. I’m a science teacher up in Temecula. Can you answer some questions for my daughter? She’s doing a project. This is her second year in a row talking about penguins.”
“I’m your guy.”
I meet Christina, who is six and has a shirt exclaiming ‘Big Sister.’ ‘Little Sister’ had a likewise shirt and was holding Science Dave’s hand.
“Hello, Christina. Nice to meet you.” (Science Dave walks away with ‘Little Sis’, and I’m left with Mom and Christina).
Christina is shy, and I used to be, too.
“I hear you’re doing a project, Christina? What about?”
“Emper penguins.”
“You came to the right place. Only three zoos have them, and you’d have to fly in a plane to see the all the others. What’re your questions?”
And I sat down on the bench between Christina and her mother, and although Christina made up the questions, Mom had to whisper to her daughter what she wanted to ask.
SMART questions. Kids are incredible.
“Why, Thom, do Emperors have yellow on them?”
I look to Mom briefly.
“How old are you again, Christina?”
“Do you know the rainbow, Christina?”
And she recites the cascading colors, red through to violet.
“Guess what–penguins don’t see very well the top of the rainbow, but they see things we don’t. They see things beyond violet. They see ULTRA-violet. And every yellow feather on an Emperor, every little white fleck on a Gentoo’s head, every Macaroni crest have all this UV glitter and it’s how they see each other and make friends.”
This is all uber-scientific and beyond a six-year old, but Mom types notes into her cell-phone anyway.
“Do you like unicorns, Christina?”
She smiles, “Yes.”
“Well, penguins are unicorns in a way. They see glitter, and they sparkle. We just can’t always see it, but they’re pretty special. Can I get a high-five?”
And Christina slaps my hand.
“Good luck on your project, Friend. You asked really good questions.”
She smiles, probably relieved that she’s done having talked to a stanger who smells of fish and who has ten keys jangling off his belt-loop.
But this kinduv stuff makes my day. Christina, tattooed girl, and lavender-haired Mom: thank you for loving the animals and for showing interest beyond the norm. You make my life.

Cayden · family · home · job · parenting · penguins · Uncategorized

Satori With Shoes On

Cayde wanted to stay home today, and he was specific: WITH DADDY. I walked in on him in the bathroom, lingering over the toilet bowl with a pained expression on his face. He has learned the art of play-acting, and he employs it when he can. Mommy and Daddy are smart though. We cross our arms, and gently call him out when we know, exactly, that he’s not telling the truth.

When he did have the flu, a few weeks back, he was surprised at himself vomiting.

“Why does my throat burn?” he asked.

I explained bile, stomach acid. We all have languages of love, and Cayde and I talk science on the daily. It’s how we sometimes connect.

“Does this mean I’ll have a hole burn through my neck?” he panickedly asked, the fact of ‘acid’ widening his eyes.

“No, no, no. Calm down, Kid. You’re fine. The body’s good at keeping everything in.”
From this exchange, I learned my kid has been faking it all the times he might’ve said, ‘Daddy, I barfed.’

No, Cayde. No you didn’t barf all those times you said you did.

But I forgive you for fibbing.

I dress him for school and he keeps flopping on the bed, play-acting and pretending himself inconsolable.

“Jeezus, Cayde, I CAN’T stay home. And if Mama’s gonna stay home with you, she’s gotta go to school first. She’ll need a sub. Tie your shoes. You HAVE to be there for the morning, THEN Mama can take you home if that’s how it has to be. Please. GET DRESSED.”

I dress Finn, too, in the meanwhile. We like to put him in a neckerchief. People ask if he’s a ‘cowboy’ or conductor’. My neighbor asks this, actually, as we put Finn in the van, today.

“No—it’s just his flare,” we say referring to the double-knotted gingham round his neck. .
The neckerchief is just cute, and frankly it catches the drool.

At work, I’m in between buildings, the Penguin Encounter and the Avian Center. There’s been re-structure recently. I’ve taken care of all manners of feathered things in my career, and now I get to ferry between both places, prepping diets, throwing grain to waterfowl and feeding otherwise penguins beaks with fish. I love it.
But I get stuck today trying to figure out my shift. It’s new to me, although I’ve worked the gamut at SW. I employ hands to help me, I get caught up, and then draw my finger down a prescribed shift sheet in search of the next task.
“Ok—looks like I hafta do med inventory.”
Soldierly, I walk back to the PE and start opening cabinets and eyeing prescription bottles. I write things down. We need this, we need that. A tour files into the building. I smile and wave, ‘Hello.” A little girl starts crying—a terrified cry—and I look up confusedly.
“Hey, could you close that cabinet?” I’m asked.

No one has told me this is a ‘Make-a-Wish Tour.’

I put everything away, quick.

This three year-old girl is crying crying crying.

She has terminal brain cancer. In her mind, where there is no suspension of disbelief, she thought she was walking into a building where she was just going to (and did) meet penguins. She then saw an open cabinet with all those amber bottles lined up, things we dispense to analgesically treat our aged birds.

We’re good at what we do. We’re excellent at what we do, and our new scientific and revolutionary endeavor comes down to the most basic thing: comfort. Our birds live three times longer than they would otherwise. They are comfortable and happy and they are well. They tell us by still laying eggs and singing to us in the doorways. To be a zookeeper is not have our song be defined by the jangling of keys, but to be defined—more accurately—by how we shout, ‘Good night, Kids!’ every night we close the door, and while we look forward to seeing them tomorrow.

This girl: she cried and cried. She thought the bottles were for her.

I tell my boss I’m gonna take a long lunch.

Sometimes I drive home during a lunch break, to terra firma, to my house—only to look around for a few minutes, just to remind myself of my wife and kids—before getting back in the car, driving back to work, and roughing it through the closing hours of my shift.

I call my boss once back home. I ask: “Do you think you can cover the rest of my shift? I need to stay home.”

Turns out the tour went great. I mean, penguins. C’mon.

This girl, her frightened cries—it sincerely haunted me. Finn had his chest cranked open when he was three months old. Doctors fixed his heart, and Finn took his medicine smilingly. He’s alive and is four and is the light of my life.

“I’m ok. It’s ok,” I say as assurance to my boss while I speak on the phone. I am far from unwell, though I’m in tears. I’m uniquely strong; I can handle this. I just need respite for a minute.

“Take care of your family, take care of yourself,” she decides and I hear a guarded smile through the receiver.

You see, I figured something out on the drive back home, and before calling work:

Cayde, who is encyclopedic and sensitive and much too ME, I guess, realized before I did today, that Jan. 30 is my Grandma’s birthday. (She died of cancer a couple of years ago). He wanted to stay home with me today because he wanted to console me, wanted me to console him. It’s why he was play-acting sick

.And I, accidentally, ruined a cancer-stricken girl’s day, by holding a cabinet door open and accidentally exposing her to things that she thought would maybe make her sick again, at least sick to her stomach. And we all need to be comfortable before we go. God, I really fucked that one up, even if by accident.

I know it’s not my fault. Everyone has said so, and I trust them. It hurt, though. A LOT. And it hurt me when I put my kids’ shoes on this morning, saying you HAFTA go to school, and when I couldn’t stay back with him.

Sometimes life is the better school, which you don’t need shoes for.

I’ll go back to work tomorrow, certainly, but life punched me in the eye today and it made tears.

Down syndrome · job · penguins · people

Palomino Penguins and the Extra Chromosome

I was feeding the penguins yesterday—the Magellanics who live outside and receive San Diego sun—and Yoshi was giving me issue.
Yoshi has patchy feathering, which is fine and normal. Some of us have alopecia, some of us get bald spots.
I call Yoshi my ‘palomino penguin.’ She is by accident spotted, and she’s like a gorgeous horse, but with a fussy appetite.
The gulls were posed in vultrine fashion, eyeing my bucket and looking for any ANY dropped fish.
Yoshi—she is a unicorn, something special.
I fed her a fish, apparently the WRONG one, because she flung it over her shoulder in distaste.
A gull swooped in, grabbed the fish off the rockwork, and then, like, nineteen gulls swept in, feathers all stupid and fighting over the scraps.
“Dammit, Yoshi,” I patted her on the head and shook her bill, “You let the terrorists WIN!”
There were a few guests watching as I fed the birds, and I said, “Hello.”
I caught eyes with a gentleman who was there with his wife and son? Grandson?
The kid had an earbud with a trailing cord, thick specs, and a red baseball cap.
The kid also had an extra chromosome.
I shouted from my perch while feeding beaks, “Hello, Sir!” And, pointing, “I, too, have an angel.”
This while the seagulls fought displaying their feathers.

death · job

Don’t Fear Falling Happy

deadbeeHere’s what I know.
Bees hatched in winter live longer than bees hatched in summer.
It’s a strange tid-bit of science that has certain traction in the apiarist world, just often without explanation.
So, why?
(I tell my kid, you have to always ask ‘why?’)
Facts mean nothing without background explanation. You must always ask the ‘what for’ ahead of giving facts credence, before you make them law.
Here’s the thing about bees:
They work. You’ve heard the term, ‘worker bees.’ Bees work tirelessly, going from flower to flower, reporting back to the hive with legs draggedly hung with pollen. I’ve never heard of a tired bee.
Here’s what bees do not have that we do:
If we go to a gym and work out our muscles, essentially destroying fibre in the process, our bodies have ways of re-correcting. Our muscles become stronger in the re-build.
Bees don’t have this mechanism. Their muscles waste away without chance of a 2.0. They waste protein when dancing from bud to bud, collecting pollen on their hairy legs, and with the hive on their mind. Eventually, and after so much work, bees just collapse without any re-build.
It’s why you find bees inexplicably dead on the sidewalk.
Summer bees are busy in the readily available sun; winter bees hang back in the hive when the sun is not available.
With more kilometers in their metric, summer bees, busier ones, die earlier, having wasted their wings and legs far earlier than the winter hatchlings that hide in their hive.
Life gets measured, then, by distance and by effort, and not days. Think about that.
A friend of mine died in his sleep a few weeks ago. He’d worked forty years at my company, then died in the middle of the night, his heart stopped.
My boss tells me—and she has plans on retiring to No. Carolina to enjoy her sunset years—“I don’t wanna work, just to die. I want an afterwards.”
Yeah—you don’t want to be the bee on the sidewalk, the dumb fuzzy corpse without explanation, the thing that expired having just worked too hard.
I think of all those Japanese gentlemen who collapse in their cubicles, working so hard that they’re found head down on paperwork, bangs splayed, lungs quit.
The way of the bee is not the way to go.
Borrow a few letters from ‘labor’. Add a few consonants.
Marie-Henri Beyle, pseudonym ‘Stendahl’, went to Florence in 1817. He saw Giotto’s frescoes, their tempura fade, and got dizzy. He fainted.
He wrote later about his case of the ‘nerves.’ He said: ‘Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.’
Blood gone from the brain because the beauty was too much.

But fainting from beauty is much better than being an exhausted shell of something, and why it’s best to not work till you die; be a St. Teresa quilled with ecstasy instead. A statue, a thing stopped in its vibrant recognition of absolute absoluteness. Don’t fear falling happy.

job · penguins · people

Layoffs (Good to See You)

Huge lay-offs today at work. I walked across the park midday, firstly just to walk, but also to see some people I figured I needed to see, or at least touch on the shoulder in consolation. I saw some of my favorite co-workers on the way—the Vet team, the Photographer, my friend Kylene—and it was the kind of day where you’d make eye-contact and brighten slightly.
“Hey! Good to see you!” ‘Good to see you’ meaning: glad you weren’t cut. Glad you’re still here. At the back of our minds we harbor some survivor’s guilt, but glad is glad.
I had to work closing shift today, and closing shift is the shift you don’t want on the worst of days. But, as the brilliant people let go today know (their hall of fame pictures to soon be hung), passion for the animals–the job–demands you clock in and straighten up. Your bosses don’t always wear suits and ties; for those of us with twenty-plus years in the profession, fuck the suits. Our bosses wear feathers and fur and most likely don’t have the opposable thumbs needed to manage a double-Windsor.
You take care of the animals. You think about them when you wake up, you worry about them when you go to bed.
“You have to work holidays?”
“Well—yeah. The penguins still need to be fed.”
Come 6 p.m. tonight, I was last man standing in the Bird Dept., everyone gone for the day, everyone rightly drained. There were still penguin chicks to be fed, though, and a few hours left on my shift. I texted my wife: ‘So done, but gotta push through.’
I sat for a time in an empty plaza just outside the Penguin Encounter, just getting away from the building for a second before closing the exhibit out. All the Christmas lights were still on and in full display. Music was cut for the night, save for Burl Ives still randomly playing from within just one cavernous restroom.
Christmas arrives on the coattails of third financial quarter decisions. Ho-ho-ho. The weather outside is frightful.
I returned inside to pass out the evening medications, syringe-feed the new chicks. You look at the clock, but take the proper time. Stupid me: I always check on eggs I know are hatching. Penguins have this amazing biological imperative to protect their eggs, but sometimes too excitedly, and I know things can go wrong. I coaxed a brooding sire to stand and—dammit, Maraschino to the day—I found a crushed egg.
You need some stability to push out of any situation—right?—and chicks need an intact egg to plant their feet and cap their egg with all the neck muscle they can muster. The egg was crushed. Think of how the glaze can crack on a piece of porcelain—you get this mosaic of fractures and a bunch of broken fragments while all still remains counter-intuitively intact. That was the egg, broken but intact.
The chick was still alive, just wrapped in membrane. Her beak was already begging for food, not sure of her situation and whether she was outside the egg just yet or not. One flipper flapped dumbly, free of its confines.
I pulled the egg downstairs and laid out a towel on the counter. I dumped a canister of instruments looking for a pair of tweezers. Chick was vocalizing, pumping its legs against a broken shell, searching for footing. Piece by piece, I parsed away the shell, held my breath and started peeling off the membrane.
“Please don’t bleed, please don’t bleed, please don’t bleed.”
I freed the chick into my cupped hand, curled and still embryonic, wet and in the shape of its shell. There would have to be hours before it stretched out and lifted its head. You can’t greet the world right away with open eyes and at salute, not always.
The chick bled, but I stopped the bleeding and tucked her into an incubator for the night. In a few hours she was dry and resting peacefully. She was the last thing I checked on tonight before leaving.
I did what all the brilliant people that were let go at SeaWorld today have done, what I learned from them. I checked my animals, I checked my locks, I checked my temps. I closed the door and began worrying.
On the way out, there were all these flashing lights and trucks parked around manholes. Workmen with reels of galvanized cables and blueprints spread out on tables. They’re working on the pipes, I guess, construction vehicles up and down Mission Bay. A SeaWorld truck pulls up, and this guy I thought of randomly—I don’t know his name, but I thought of him randomly because I figure there are night-shift guys being laid off, too, and how is it I’ve worked alongside them for 21 years but don’t know their names—he stopped as I was walking out. He leaned his head out the window.
“Good to see you,” he said.
I stopped and smiled, waved.
“Hey—good to see you, too.”

Down syndrome · job · penguins · people


The New Guy is not a new guy, in the sense that he’s done this line of work before–raising penguins that is—which is certainly a strange thing for anyone to have on their resume. New Guy has a decade and a half on me, having raised some of the birds I now give geriatric medications to, back when the penguins were in quarantine and freshly arrived from Cape Crozier; before my arrival, even, into the world. NG is cantankerous to a fault, though he also has a penchant for tossing around rattle-throated niceties on the regular.

Me: Thanks for helping me with that.
NG: Hey–anything for a pal. I’d take a bullet in the head for you.

Me: What’s up, friend?
NG: Aloha, mi simpatico!

(Which is the sort of mashed-up patois that makes NG him).

For lunch, he invariably has yogurt, a piece of fruit, and a cigarette.

NG: I’m gonna go smoke in the ‘Sitting Section’ now.


NG: Well, off to the Leper Colony.

He smokes cheap tobacco while reading the news on his phone. We confer often on’s recent offerings, else what is published on The Daily Beast, Slate, Atlantic, Alternet. He eschews social media but is savvy to the left-leaning politico blogs. We both have grey hair and progressive tendencies, why I’m his chosen simpatico. The guy knows his Sanders; he also know his music, and we relate about—maybe—that Kate Bush song which just came on the radio (The ‘Hounds of Love’ being his Desert Island disc), or The Waterboys’ ‘Life of Sundays.’ His ears prick when there are certain mechanical resonations in the building.

“Hear that? That’s the first three notes of ‘Love Cats.’ Y’know: that Cure song.”

The other day, we were leaving work, and he was singing a ‘Jim Carroll Band’ tune, ‘singing’ being the chosen misnomer for reciting tunelessly: “Those were the people who died, died/ Those were the people who died/ All my friends/ They died.’

“Hey! I love Jim Carroll” I say, punching him on the shoulder. “Didja ever see ‘Basketball Diaries’?

NG was shouldering a khaki backpack and holding an almost pitiable cupcake in his hands. He was off to see his new friend, this elderly woman who, by his definition, walks around like a ‘fucking upside-down ‘J’. He had found her toppled over on the street the other week, walker awry, and with a goose egg forming on her head.
NG: “She was on the sidewalk and everyone was gathered round not doing a goddamn thing. She was saying, ‘Help me up’ so I just helped her up.” NG shrugs at this point in the narrative.

He helped her up, and drove her to the nursing home down the block where, by her estimation, the people running the joint are assholes—them and her goddamn son. No one allows her to smoke despite her at least seven and fiercely independent decades on the planet. Her husband’s already in ashes—why not allow her to ash on these latter and last days, when she’s in a neck brace after back surgery and also a bump-headed curiosity on the sidewalk.

New Guy and her have a pact and sneak smokes in the stairwell. She doesn’t talk much, by his report. But he brings her chocolate and cigarettes, and much-needed company, certainly.

“I liked Basketball Diaries. Think I read the book, too.”

I’m usually the guy who champions the book over the movie, but I admit to not reading the novel; me and NG chat about DeCaprio films and how I prefer his earlier work.

I dunno,” NG drawls, “I’ve never been disappointed too much by recent.”

“Loved Basketball Diaries, and the one where he’s Rimbaud. He grew a jaw, and then I didn’t like his films so much.”

He interjects: “Oh-but then there was that Gilbert Grape crap.”

“I love Gilbert Grape! He was great in that!”

And NG is holding that cupcake and poised to exit work, and I like leaving work with him so we can exchange parting remarks about the RNC and bitch about the middling mammal that is Trump’s hair, as well the lower-echelon crustacean which certainly owns Trump’s brain-stem. We have this thing.

NG owns a truck with Hawaii plates, windows always cranked open to air out the upholstery, I suppose; and before walking out to our respective cars, he voices:

“Gilbert Grape. Proof that any actor can play a ‘TARD.”

A co-worker in the room cackled immediately. “Right?” she encouraged. “So true!”

I considered bristling.

The night before, and in company of a family who also parent a child with Down Syndrome, we discussed the ‘R’ word.

“I can handle ‘retarded,’ was the shrug, ‘Just not retard.’ There being a difference between a watered-down adjective and the direct epithet.

I used to do a great Corky impression years ago. A party trick, when ‘Life Goes On’ was on TV. I would say, smirkedly, after rolling out full-Corky: “I’m going to be cursed with a Down’s kid,” never realizing how awful I was with such tongue-rooted insensitivity, my failed language, the fact that I would have a child with Down Syndrome, and that it would ultimately be so much more a blessing than a curse. I was foolish.

I was a dick.

(Me and the New Guy have grey hair. We are old, him more than me).

‘Tard,” he said. I didn’t correct him, or my co-worker exactly. I’m only corrected by virtue of my own situation, and what I’ve learned in first-person. The words bother me, but I can’t legitimately re-shape anyone else’s lips.

I said: “Please mind my Son.” The only thing I could say. It was not a reprimand, but NG ceased talking, and the laughing stopped.

Me and the NG walked out together and he was still holding the cupcake for his new friend, the broken lady; we were still simpatico. He confessed he was socially retarded. I was convinced he was correct—I didn’t like how he said it at all–but let it be and patted his shoulder good-bye while he left to go give an old lady a pastry while I left to pick up my kid, there ultimately being some kinduv kindness.