Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tales From The Bus: My Milkshake Brings All The Boys To The Ground

I had to run some errands in the neighborhood where I used to work. It's as familiar as the back of my dick; yet now when I'm there I feel like an alien intruder. I walked past the place where I used to live and inside I had the absolute sensation I was sneaking by, on tiptoe, like a cartoon cat.

But I had things to do and so I did them. My travels took me further west, but still all landmarks I'd passed many, many times before. There is something about going back to my old stomping grounds, given all the shit that's gone down since last time I was there, that seriously fucks with my head and heart. Actually, it's probably just my continuing to smoke cigarettes that's fucking with my heart; the stir of emotions are only fucking with my limbic system. Let's call it artistic license and move on. Suffice to say, being there had me nostalgic--a kind way
of saying batshit bonkers seeped in regret.

It had been a long walk and after I got my stuff done I decided to take the bus back home. Even this simple act evoked a swirl of memories: When I worked in the neighborhood I would walk to work if it was nice out, but after eight hours on my feet I would take the bus back to where I lived. It was only a ten block ride or so, but I would splurge on the fare just to sit down for a bit. I saw the same bus driver at the exact same time, five days a week, and he started announcing me when I got on: "Mr. Pennsylvania!" He did this because I'd get off at the stop on Pennsylvania Avenue, and I kind of got a kick out of it. He confided to me that he had names for all his regulars who got off at the same stop every day and I thought it was kind of fun. I also thought it was the exact same thing I would do if I had his job to keep from losing my mind.

What I did not realize was that being called "Mr. Pennsylvania" five days a week was actually some kind of bus driver/speak-it-and-it-will-manifest curse which would create a whirl of hardships resulting in my actually living in Pennsylvania where the only people I knew was a fifty-one year old man with no legs and his mother who still had the umbilical cord wrapped several times around his neck. But that is a horror story for another time.

So my errands involved selling some crap and getting a check for it, then walking to the check-cashing store to get it turned into money so, among other things, I'd have bus fare home. That's just the kind of high-roller world I'm used to.

April's Flowers is right next door to the check-cashing store, and the marquee in front proclaimed "Gifts for Cat People." So of course I began singing: "See these eyes so green..."

Got my shit done; money in my pocket. A block up was the United Dairy Farmers convenience store; also a place packed with memories. There was this guy who used to work there, a portly gentleman, who was kind of a science fiction nerd and would consistently ask the customers if they'd seen the latest Deep Space Nine. He would use this line of store clerk banter even if said customer was eighty and packing a colostomy bag. But. He had this going for him: UDF, if you're not familiar, is part convienience store with beer and cigs and snack chips but also a full-service ice cream store. Gobs of flavors and you can get cones, sodas, sundaes, the works.
When it came to this latter part, Dude threw himself into his work like nobody's business. Especially with children. My friend Beth and I saw this over and over again...we'd laugh at the "Oh, a pack of Pall Malls? Who do you think, if they smoked, would be more likely to smoke them? Kirk or Picard?" stuff but had deep respect for the way he threw himself into the role of The Ice Cream Man. Because, with kids, that's who he was. He was the motherfucking Ice Cream Man. When you're a little kid that's kind of a big deal. The guy instinctively knew this and gave each
child not only special attention, but a show. He'd enthuse with them over their choice of flavors, make jokes and silly faces and just be the goddamn Ice Cream Man that every little kid needs to have. He understood going out for ice cream was a treat and he did all he could to make that moment as special and fun as possible. This was a guy probably making shit wages and given his knowledge of sci-fi lore probably highly intelligent...but instead of being a bitter, surly fuck just reveled in making little kids happy by being the ultimate Ice Cream Man. It was like
watching Jesus Christ with a paper hat and a throat beard.

But he was long gone from the neighborhood and so was I. Across the intersection I saw a guy seated on the bench at the bus stop. I looked up the street (flat, as far as the eye can see) and saw no bus coming, so I figured I had time enough to duck into the store and buy a pack of smokes. A woman hit the door at the exact same time I did, so I held it open for her. Not that women are dainty, frail creatures lacking the strength to pull open a door and then continue on with their day; I probably would have done that for anyone. It's just the polite thing to do.
However, she didn't do it for me so I win.

So she bolts for the counter ahead of me and orders a chocolate milkshake. The elderly woman, working alone, behind the counter proceeds to the task at hand.
Let me make this clear: She was no Ice Cream Lady. No jokes, no smiles; she just busied herself with making a chocolate milkshake. But she was every bit as into the job as would have been the Ice Cream Man--it's just, where he threw himself into the role with personality, she applied the same sense of proffessionalism into procedure. She moved with an exacting, irritating slowness. It wasn't that she didn't know what she was doing; she clearly did. It was just that to her, making a milkshake was on par with Oppenheimer constructing the atom bomb and if any one of the steps involved were left to chance or not done with the precise formula in mind it could result in a huge explosion that would blow out the store windows.

I have it on good authority from my secret spies in the convenience store world that the proper way to make a UDF chocolate shake is this: You take the size cup they want and pour chocolate milk into the cup until it reaches the specially embossed line inside the cup. Then you take two scoops of malt base (a proprietary, UDF compound consisting of ice milk and some malt crap) and add it to the cup. You take the cup to the mixer and stick it underneath. The mixer will automatically turn on; something UDF put in place in the eventuality chimpanzees in aprons will
work for less than minimum wage. It stirs the shit, you slap a lid on it, end of story. But no. The woman making the milkshake had other ideas of how it should be done. She poured the chocolate milk, drop by drop like she was formulating plastic explosives, to make sure it exactly hit the line inside the cup. Apparently it didn't look right to her, so she tottered to the other side of the store to retreive a plastic spoon, ambled back, taking her own sweet time, then carefully poured out a spoonful of milk which she dribbled into the cup. She peered in, staring, evaluating her work for a full five minutes to make sure it looked okay.

I'd just come in for a pack of smokes. Turn around, take them off the shelf behind you, here's my money, goodbye. Instead I was watching Madame Curie tabulating the effects of radium isotopes.

The woman shifted her head from side to side as she closed one eye and then another to assess the level of milk in the paper cup. Her brow was furrowed; she had to get this just right. She dipped in with the plastic spoon and removed just a little bit. She slowly ambled to the other side of the store again to dispose of the utenisil and its offending contents. Another slow shuffle back to the cup to appraise her handiwork. She burst into a slow smile. All was right inside the cardboard container that summed up her life so far.

People were lining up behind me. A guy wearing Men In Black wraparound shades indoors. A Chinese kid who'd used the ATM. A fat woman with an armful of gummi bears and a food stamp card. A vampire looking guy with tats. We were all shuffling from foot to foot, waiting for our turn.

The woman behind the counter, satisfied with her milk-pouring strategies, turned her attention to adding the malt base. Two scoops. Like Raisin Bran. You could see the wheels turning in her head: What, precisely, constitutes a scoop? She used a mechanical thing intended for this purpose to glob it out, but clearly, this was not precise enough. Another agonizing trip across the store to fetch another plastic spoon and back, in order to scrape off the edges of the ice milk compound that fused out over the scoop proper, resulting in a sliver more than was called for and, clearly, that would just not do. She held the device over the trash can, shaving off the offending bits that leaked through the imperfections in the instrument. But you can't just rake it off in one full sweep, no, you have to slice at it bit by bit like you're making an ice sculpture for Prince Harry's wedding.

The line was getting longer. I so wanted to turn around and stare at the vampire looking guy but as I was at the front of the line I couldn't do that without turning around and making it obvious. I made do with looking at him through the convex security mirror above the counter, which not only made him look fat but possiby macrocephallic.

The Ice Cream Lady (she wishes) plopped her first scoop into the paper cup with a look that was either triumphant or orgasmic, I'm not sure which. But then there was the second scoop tocontend with; trust me, more of the same. Slowness of measurement, trek across the store to fetch yet another plastic spoon, scraping over the trash like she was orchestrating a snow globe, plopping it into the container and staring at it to make sure it doesn't create a new life form that reaches out of the cup and grabs her by the throat.

Hooray, I thought, I'm almost out of here. And as so often happens when I try to think, I was so very, very wrong.

The other part of the UDF formula, once the mixer has self-activated, is to make sure the malt base has no lumps and to also ensure the shake is a soft texture and not purely liquified. The exacting steps the woman behind the counter had used thus far, it became apparent, was merely prelude to the milkshake-making skill set she was determined to follow. She put the cup under the mixer: WHIRRRR! for a full second, after which she removed the cup, tottered across the store for yet another goddamn plastic spoon and slowly sauntered back, then poked at the mixture. She put
it back under the mixer again. WHIRRR! and then stop. She poked at it again with the spoon.

WHIRR! Observe, then poke. WHIRR! A full second had passed, better check on it again.

Jesus and the Cowsills. I'm going to miss my bus.

Poke, poke, poke. Whirr, whirr, whirr. On and on it went. I checked my phone; it had been a full fifteen minutes. Mentally, I wanted to dive behind the counter, grab the woman by the hair and slap her face deep, repeatedly, into a vat of banana nut cluster. I am a polite boy, so I did not do this. The people behind me, though, were vocally snarling and making their discomfort known. Mob mentality. Vampire guy had thrown down his Hot Pockets and left, which made me hate
her even more.

Finally, the chocolate shake that no amount of science could produce but was clearly birthed through God's own loins had been produced. At four bucks, I imagine that was a bargain. Money was exchanged, the girl left sucking on it. Pretty much what I thought of her.

I got my damn cigs; a 30 second exchange. I went outside, unwrapped the pack and threw the cellophane and foil thingy into the trash. I turned around. Uh oh. Across the intersection, there was the damn bus stopped at a red light. The guy on the bench was getting onto it.

I could have darted in between moving traffic like Frogger to get to it, but instead I thought, "Oh I know...I'll just race the bus." In other words, there was a bus stop three blocks down in the opposite direction in front of April's Flowers (Gifts for Cat People) and I figured I could
run three blocks before the light changed, you know, in the same way I think I might outplace Money For Nothing in the goddamn Preakness.

So I sprinted. Understand, I am a chain-smoking, middle-aged man who abhors excersise in all forms. My idea of doing curls is lifting a Miluakee's Best to my mouth. But yeah, I was going to beat this damn bus.

I ran. I ran hard, although to the untrained eye it might look like a T-rex flailing its tiny arms while skipping. I made it a block. I made it a block and a a half, always looking back to check my progress. The bus was gaining on me, but I was still in the lead. April's Flowers was half a block away. Yes!

And then the bus whooshed past me. I flailed my arms in the universal signal for Wait! Wait! Wait!/ I Am A Crazy Person and, mercifully, the bus slowed to a stop. I continued my breakneck speed and then tripped over my shoes, doing a perfect Laurel and Hardy pratfall aside from the fact that there was much bleeding and I'd ripped the fuck out of my last pair of decent jeans. I got up and started for the bus again and then WHAM! I fell down onto the sidewalk once more, ripping up some parts of flesh I'd thoughtlessly ignored the first time.

You have to understand I make it a point never, ever to run, so being out of practice like I was I was wheezing and out of breath when I finally climbed onto the bus. You also have to understand part of the reason I don't believe in God is because, if I did, I would have to conclude he is a heartless bastard hell-bent on dicking with me--not at all the sort of diety I care to worship. I say this because the bus driver, of all people, was the same guy who used to call me Mr. Pennsylvania.

"Well...(wheeze)," I said, "That (wheeze, wheeze) didn't go as planned."

If the bus driver recognized me, he did not let on. If he did and chose to not point it out, then I love him.

I, bleeding and out of breath, tried to make my way to the back of the bus. Midway there, it happened again. It fucking happened again. I tripped over my own feet and faceplanted in the aisle of the bus. No, I hadn't been drinking, I'm just clumsy that way but I might as well have been Hemingway on a bender given that I'd fallen down in as many minutes.

What seemed to be the entire bus broke out into spontaneous applause.

So I'm sitting there stinging from minor flesh wounds and mostly embarrassment when the woman behind me whips out her cell phone and proceeds to shout, not talk but shout, into it about how Lashawn's cousin's landlord can help Ree Ree get a car and it goes on and on and on. This is right in my ear. loud, painful and I want to turn around and punch her in her "I'm Sexy" throat tattoo but realize that probably this time the idiot on the bus story is probably not her but me.

(Oh, you wanna soundtrack to go with this story? It fits in so many ways...)

1 comment: