Monday, June 15, 2015

Screw Hand-Eye Coordination, Start Gaming for the Politics

Video Games.  They’ve been a polarizing pastime since the early 80’s.  Either they made you a basement-dwelling nerd or, more recently, a probable sociopath.  But gaming – and I don’t just mean the so-called “casual gaming” of the Farmville and Bejewled variety – has entered the mainstream, and it’s not going away.  Far from it.  Video games have overtaken all other popular pastimes in this country.  According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project survey, taken between November 2007 and February 2008, 97% of people, ages twelve to seventeen, play video games.  And it’s not just “kids;” the same study found that “over half of American adults play video games,” as well.  Today, those same young teens from the Pew study are in their early to mid-twenties, boosting that “half of American adults” to 97%.

Enter, the controversy. 

Gamer or no gamer, if you follow the Internet media buzz – particularly the buzz surrounding feminism, women, “cyber mobs,” and/or misogyny – you’ve heard the name Anita Sarkeesian.  Her entrance into gaming culture exploded with nuclear force when, not long after some of the few female designers in gaming had come under fire from a fringe group calling itself GamerGate, she proposed a start-up fund for a critical series on women in gaming.  In a flash, the GamerGate mob turned their focus from female designers (getting too much “undeserved” positive critical attention) and pounced on Sarkeesian. 

The good news?  Sarkeesian’s start-up fund was an enormous success, in part because of the extreme harassment she received from the GamerGate mob.  Her website, Feminist Frequency, is a beautifully presented source for cogent, well-researched critique on popular media.  The series that started it all, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, has several installments, including “Damsel in Distress,” “Women As Background Decoration,” and “Ms. Male Character.”  All are a must-watch for gamers and non-gamers alike.

The bad news?  Sarkeesian’s critique on gaming misogyny and marginalization of women spurred a backlash resulting in rape, death, and terrorist threats (against Utah State University where she was scheduled to speak), among a myriad other troll-worthy attacks.  To learn more about her experience, check out her TED Talk, “Online Harassment & Cyber Mobs” – a talk met with, not surprisingly, a host of misogynist threats so severe, TED shut down the comments section within twenty-four hours.

So, what was Sarkeesian saying that got this cyber mob of gamers so up in arms?  Well, according to an overview of the comments, YouTube videos, and other negative responses to Sarkeesian and her work (which are, to say the least, difficult to stomach), she is attempting to censor video games, whitewashing gaming content with her feminist agenda.  In their eyes, she wants games to appeal to an audience that doesn’t play the games - or doesn't even exist.  Some female gamers have also attacked Sarkeesian, claiming that they love all games just as they are and do not feel Sarkeesian and her feminism represents the perspective of true female gamers. 

Here’s the problem with these objections: none of them address Sarkeesian’s argument about the portrayal of women in gaming.   Her argument is ironclad, so they attack her instead. 

I’ve never been a “gamer.”  In fact, I always declared my loathing for video games.  But, it could’ve been different, and thanks to Sarkeesian, I now know why.  You see, I first encountered video games growing up in the 80’s.  Games were simple enough back then, right?  Nothing like the violent, sexually-charged, smash-em-ups we hear about today.  Yet, even then, games were designed by and for males.  Game protagonists were exclusively male.  Female characters were helpless, passive, or non-existent in Mario Bros., Zelda, Megaman, and the list goes on. 

Sometimes, the misogyny was undeniable.  In one of the original Atari games, Custer’s Revenge, the main character is rewarded for his success with a naked squaw, whom he rapes while she is tied to a pole.  The graphics are horribly pixelated, but there’s no mistaking the main character’s erect penis.  Gamers are supposed to find this humorous.

Fast-forward to 2015, and games have come a long way.  More female characters have made their game debuts, but as Sarkeesian points out, we still see few who make for satisfying, independent play, if you’re a woman.  In 1986, one of the first games to make their badass, alien-annihilating main character a woman, Metroid, did so only by subterfuge.  Samus Aron’s name is no indication of gender, and throughout the game, players only see a heavily armored and helmeted, somewhat humanoid warrior figure.  Only if the player defeats the game will they discover the truth: when the credits role, their character strips off the manly body armor to reveal… a Barbie-doll in a bathing suit.  Surprise!  You’ve been fighting aliens with a stripper in disguise!  I doubt any thirteen-year-old hetero male was disappointed.  But, I was. 

I was not impressed to see the badass Samus Aron stripped down to her underwear, as if that’s what made her a female.  And the sad fact is, games haven’t stopped doing this.
But, they’re starting to change their game.  Although tried gender tropes, stereotypes, and other offenses to female capability abound, even in those games (such as Diablo) that offer equally powerful female options, the landscape of gaming grows more welcoming to women every year.  The question is: Is that because women already comprise 48% of gamers – up from 40% in 2010 -- or is that what's drawn women back?  With that kind of growth, women may already share 50% of the gaming audience today.
That’s how it started for me.  Knowing my established dislike of games, my partner (then my boyfriend) introduced me to the LEGO series of games.  I loved LEGOs as a kid, and I loved Stars Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter – all of which LEGO parodies and recreates in their amusing story lines.  As a result, female characters are not only fully dressed, they are powerful, playable characters.  From there, my partner scoped out other great games that feature female options for game play and depict them accordingly.  He wanted to share something he enjoyed with me, and he wanted me to enjoy it, too.  Now, when I play a video game, I don't feel like I’ve accidentally stumbled into a Playboy magazine; I feel like I belong.
The more women, and men who care about and want to share a game with women, play video games, the more we’ll see these expanded options for women in games.  Despite what GamerGaters claim, people like Sarkeesian are not trying to censor games – they’re not demanding a halt to prostitutes or even violence against women in gaming.  What people like Sarkeesian, and people like me, want to see are more options.  We want to find more than one game on the Gamestop shelf that doesn’t violently rape and murder women in order to motivate male heroes.  We want more than one game in which the female characters are playable, strong, and dressed in sensible costumes.  We want to not see breasts every time we turn on a game.
The old song that women don’t play video games has been put to rest, but it made a lot of sense in its time.  Many women didn’t play video games…because video games sucked for women.  Video games used women. They abused women. 
But, gaming companies aren’t stupid.  The more we play, the more big developers like Rockstar Games (the makers of Grant Theft Auto, which doesn’t have playable women because apparently stealing cars and being a criminal is strictly “masculine”) will realize there’s a much bigger market in expanding their views on women and what women enjoy.

Because women like to virtually blow shit up, too, sometimes.    

Monday, April 22, 2013

Meditation on Birds in Airports

Number one, top ten feature to love about the Miami airport? Bird shit.  That's right, bird shit. Fresh and wet. In the seats.  I did not sit in this little chair mine, so I can view it with amused philosophy.  I've decided that the presence of bird shit on the seats in Miami-Dade international airport is an encouragement to all travelers.  It is proof that there are still some creatures on earth that the TSA can neither bully, nor frisk.  Creatures that sore above the sad masses, dropping warm opinions on what's going forward below.
      I like to think of them as rebellious rather than suffering, trapped things lost in the world of industrialized travel.  They refuse to obey borders.  Entering where no birds are allowed.  They ignore toilets.  Pooping on chairs like shit happens all the time - just flies through the air like feathers, foul odors, or dust.  Their tweets cannot be confined to 140 characters, and as I listen to their chatter, I feel better about carting my belongings from gate to gate, feel better about the inevitable hours that I will spend sardined into a comfortless flotation device, desperately awaiting touch-down.
     Maybe that's why I prefer window seats to aisle seats.  Despite the likelihood that at least once during flight, I will crawl over grumpy strangers on my way to the toilet, I still fight for the window every time.  I want to feel like I'm really flying.  Like I could drop a warm opinion or two upon all I see.  From up here, the window seat, I can see so much waste amid the beauty.  The jet stream toward Miami showed the drained Everglades beyond the brimming cookie-cutter ponds of suburbia.  I imagined myself as a hurricane, wiping all the grime from the face of the planet - sort of like a massive anti-poop.
     And then, we're too high to see the earth below.  Fluffy plains of cloud stretch to the horizon, the blue sky above.  Some pleasant flight attendant offers to sell me a meal on this five hour flight to Las Vegas, and I'm back in the present moment once again, thinking: what exactly DOES my ticket buy me?  A great view, I suppose, from point A to point B, and only bird droppings in between.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Saying Goodbye: Memories of Louie

I was probably ten years old or more before I knew that Uncle Louie was not really my uncle.  When I first learned of it, the knowledge saddened me – did this change the way he would behave towards us, or the way I should behave towards him?  Was I still allowed to call him “uncle”?
            But mom, or dad, or whoever it was, explained that “no”, it didn’t change a thing.  The great thing about growing up, after all, is that you get to expand your family.  You get to decide who should be invited out of it, and more importantly, who should be invited in.  Mine had become a family into which new and special people came, and no one ever left.  And if family had anything to do with appearance, then to my young perception, Louie Chreiki fit right in: after all, he had fine, dark hair and a mustache.  That practically made him my father.  It didn’t hurt that every other uncle I had also sported dark hair and a mustache.  It all made sense.
            Uncle Louie, it seemed, had always been.  Every day as far back as I can remember, Dad would speak his name into the phone in that exasperated tone that implied Louie had done something unaccountably foolish: “Ahh, Louie!” he would spout into the phone, or “…and, then, that Louie…!” he would exclaim later to Uncle John, and his mustache would quiver.  Louie never complained.  On our birthdays, he sent my brother and me cards with crisp bills inside, and when we met he would exclaim at our size.  Andy and I understood that Louie had been among the first to hold us as babies.
            It was Louie who taught me how to play pool.  A singularly unprepossessing man with stooped shoulders and a kind, honest eye, he was the last person you would expect to wipe out a pool table – but when Louie came to visit the year we got the full sized table, I learned what it meant to be “a pool shark”. 
Before Louie, we kids did more damage to the felt on our table than we did to the slate board on which we chalked the score.  We challenged Louie to play because he seemed too nice and quiet to beat anyone.  He had absolutely no bluster.  As we watched him slowly and methodically make his way around the table, however, plunking away the solids as if they had strings attached to them, our perception of “Lou-Dog” changed.  It became clear that some magic was at work, and that Louie possessed this magic.
But, with a simple smile, he offered to teach it to us.  And he did.  To this day, I can put away a bank shot, calculate backspin and topspin, and at the least, NOT disgrace myself with a cue stick…all because of Louie.
When Gramma died, and dad and I went to the house in Port Huron to help get things sorted, Louie was there.  He was always there.  My last memory of him was in Gramma’s backyard, ankle deep in snow.  We were trying to prize the old plow from what appeared to be frozen earth for Uncle John.  But the plow wouldn’t budge.  Dad had a propane torch out, hoping to heat the railroad spikes holding the plow in place enough to loosen it from the flowerbed.  Naturally, dad and I were bickering about the best way to free the plow, while Louie stood close at hand to help either, or both of us, with whatever course of action we determined upon.  He excused Dad’s bluster to me, excused mine to Dad – in short, did everything he could to keep everyone happy and accomplish the task into the bargain. 
I remember looking at him in wonder.  To myself, I thought: Don’t you ever get upset?  Can’t anyone’s stupid words or flustered actions unsettle that calm, easy outlook? Don’t you ever see bad in anybody?  But, all I said was, “Louie, you are an amazing man.  You see good in everyone, and nothing makes you mad.  My dad is lucky to have you.”  It was true.
We were all lucky to have Louie.  He would have done everything in his power for a friend in need, and anyone who knew him was his friend.  Liked him.  How could they not?  He was the sort of person whose very rudeness was innocent and totally free from malice.  He never spoke a cruel word – I can say that with certainty, as little as I knew him, because cruelty couldn’t penetrate a heart like his.  Or, if it did, it never made its way out again.
Louie Chreiki, Uncle Louie, thank you.  Thank you for being.  Thank you for sharing that being with my family and me.  You taught me more than playing pool.  You taught me more than I realized – about patience, about friendship, about how to listen.  
I will miss you, Louie, but – however hard it is to let you go from my family – you went as you chose, when you chose.  I’ll take that as a comfort of sorts, and remember you fondly.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beach Cred.: It Don't Grow On Sea Grapes

Being back home for the holidays means returning to the most familiar places of my life.  One of those places is the beach.   I don’t mean the glamorous, white sand beaches of vacation posters.   I mean the worm rock reef beaches of Hutchinson Island and Stuart, FL – the Sailfish capital of the world.
        When I was growing up, Stuart was the opposite of glamorous and although its beaches still teemed with surfers and sunbathers alike, what made you cool around our dunes was how long you’d managed to wear your Reef’s before they disintegrated (which, with Reefs, means you never removed them for five years), or – better yet – whether or not you could walk across the sizzling, razor-sharp pavement of McArthur Blvd without any shoes at all.
        Gleaming with tanning lotion and sporting a designer suit only signified that you were probably a tourist or a snowbird…or a reject from the classier West Palm Beach.   Besides, it’s hard to keep your couture beneath the continual whizzzz of a reel, or the plash of fresh bait in a barnacle-clad bucket.
        Accidents were not uncommon, and from the time we were infants, we’d been schooled to avoid hot tar balls (courtesy of some leaking Atlantic freighter) or man o’war, and to give fishermen a wide birth both in and out of the water.  Having Beach Cred. meant that you knew the difference between a jellyfish sting and sea lice.  And, it meant that you were willing to pee on your friend – or to be peed upon in turn – should they become the victim of a nasty sting.   Beach Cred meant that you had once sliced open your foot on a reef and went swimming anyway.   Beach Cred meant you were fully aware that the blood trail might attract a shark.  It also meant that you already knew approximately how many sharks were out there minding their own business on a given day.  It meant that you were cool with that.
        For me, growing up on the coast meant that you could recognize these accidents when you saw them…and fix them.   The necessity of self-sufficiency around coastal areas strikes me as so obvious that I tend to not-so-privately sneer at anyone who looks scared, confused, and/or sunburned in said environments. 
        That’s why, while walking on Jacksonville beach with three friends a couple of years ago, it did not occur to me that any of them could ever fit this description.  One of them had been raised on the Gulf in Tampa, the other had spent most of her life there as well, and the last (though an Italian from Bologna – not a coastal city) was intelligent, and therefore must have common sense.   But within seconds of spotting the interesting scene ahead of us that day, I found out just how unusual my idea of Beach Cred really is.

We’d come to Jacksonville for a couple of days to run the Gate River 15K that spring.  My friends Tara and Stephanie were both running, as was I, and Eleo, an Italian visiting scholar, had decided to come along and enjoy the sight of 15,000 Americans running 9.3 miles and then gulping free cups of beer at the end.  The day was windy but warm and we had decided to take a walk along the beach to pass the time.   Tara had lived and attended college in Jacksonville, so we were enjoying a tour of the best spots in a city that stretches from beyond the St Johns River to the coast.

        So we walked, the four of us side-by-side – probably anticipating a chill morning for the run next day – when some way ahead I spotted a fisherman.
        Side note: Though most Floridians have done it at least once in their lives, including me, I’ve always looked with frustration on beach fishing.  It’s fine when you’re alone on the shore, but unless you’re willing to drag your carcass out of bed before dawn, that’s not very likely on a public beach.  The problem with this is, you’re slinging a sharp metal (often dead and pungent) object around your head as hard as you can, and then jerking it through the water on an invisible line.  Your hope is to pierce the lip of a wriggling fish which mistakes your object for something tasty, but at a public beach you are just as likely to catch a careless child or passerby.  Lips, cheeks, ears, hands, and – if you’re lucky – clothing and headgear are all conveniently easy to puncture with a steel barb.
        On the up side, gross as it may seem, at least when you catch a human they understand that further movement increases their suffering and they quickly move towards the thoughtless fisherman and hope he has a pair of pliers.  But there are other unsuspecting beach creatures that do not react to being accidentally hooked in so rational a manner: seagulls.
        Seagulls are even more likely to be accidentally hooked than people. They love a populated beach.  It means easy pickings: French fries, potato chips, and discarded sand fleas or other bait. In all honesty, nobody with any sense actually likes seagulls, and certainly avoids feeding them if they can.  Feeding a seagull will instantly earn you the ravenous adoration of every seagull on the beach.  Five French fries later, and you have a flock hovering directly overhead, swooping low, and inevitably pooping on your face.  This has happened countless times, and has been the start of many beach side fights between locals and tourists with ignorant children.
        Seagulls especially love fisherman because fisherman leave behind dead fish and other smelly delicacies.   And, since fishing hooks are baited with these tidbits, seagulls often dive for them as they go soaring through the air towards the water.   Funny, right?  Stupid seagull.   Pooping on our faces, demanding our lunch scraps.  Wish you hadn’t been so greedy now, huh?
        Actually, not very funny to see in real life.  Not very satisfying for lovers of irony, either, since seagulls understand neither irony, nor cause and effect.  All that poor bird knows is that it had been trying to eat something delicious, and now – inexplicably – every movement is an exercise in panic and pain.

So, these many innocent victims of fishing hooks always flash through my mind when a beach fisherman flings his line into the sea.  And, on this day, there were certainly plenty of people passing by the fisherman I spotted on Jacksonville Beach.  There were seagulls gliding about him, too.   Naturally, as I listened to the conversation of my friends, my eyes fixed upon his figure.  He was still at some distance, obscured by other walkers; I couldn’t see him all that clearly, but as I watched it became evident that he had just caught something.  Oddly enough, his face wasn’t focused on the ocean before him.  He was looking up.

        I followed his line of sight.  The other seagulls had fled, but one seagull seemed to find the fisherman particularly attractive.   So much so that despite all the bird’s desperate, feathery efforts to fly up, down, or away from the man and his pole, it remained suspended in midair.   The white wings beat at the wind as if trying to climb right up it; instead, the bird flipped, flailed, and fell – only to propel itself off the sand and climb again.  All the while, the fisherman clung to his pole, as helpless as the bird.

I don’t remember what Tara, Stephanie, and Eleo had been talking about.  I must have been talking about it, too, whatever it was.   What I do remember is dropping my shoes to the sand and sprinting toward the fisherman and the seagull.  Person after person walked by the man and the bird, their heads turned towards the battling pair, first in curiosity and then in consternation, but person after person just kept on walking.  They either didn’t know what to do, or were afraid to do it.   I knew that without help, that man couldn’t free the bird before it exhausted itself, or maybe set the hook even deeper.  So off I went to fix it.

        By the time I reached him, the bird had begun to beat itself against the ground, unable to understand why, when it tried for the sky, something kept jerking it right back to the earth.
        “Where is it hooked?” I asked.
        “I can’t tell!” he answered.  The man looked to be in his fifties, neither old nor young. He wore a t-shirt, jeans, and a ball cap.
        The gull was hysterical.  I tried to steady the line and draw closer, but I could imagine the outcome once I reached the bird.  That poor thing would peck the hell out of my hands – if it could – and possibly hurt itself even more.  I was also not thrilled at the prospect of getting pecked.
        “Do you have a jacket? A shirt?”  It occurred to me that if cloaked with something lightweight, the bird could be handled, and then hooded.  It would calm down enough that we could sort out how it was entangled.  As I spoke, another middle-aged man approached us and offered to help.

This sort of situation seems to call up some inner instinct in me, I call it “The Bossy Gene”.  It goes something like this: Shit goes down.  Maybe it is a car stuck in a ditch, maybe it is a leaky faucet, maybe it is a house in need of painting.  People around me do not immediately suggest a solution/plan for dealing with said shit.   Then, unable to stop myself, I start telling them what to do.  So, when neither the fisherman, nor the new fellow presented what I judged to be intelligent plans, my Bossy Gene kicked in and I began ordering them around.

        “Take off your flannel,” I commanded the new fellow, “and throw it over the seagull! Grab him gently!!”   I said this in a polite, but ‘I KNOW What I’m Talking About, Fool’ sort of tone, and – poor chap – the new fellow peeled off his shirt and did what I told him to do.   Meanwhile, I was holding onto the fishing line, steadily following to the bird as the new fellow brought it back, cradled and struggling, in his hands.
        The bird was jerking around madly, and though I could now see that the line was definitely wound around its wing, I couldn’t tell if it were hooked.   So, I gave more instructions.
        “Your hat!  Your hat!   We need to hood the bird.  Cover its eyes so it can’t see.  It’ll calm down and then I can get this sorted out.”   The hat came off and slipped over the bird’s head.  It stopped struggling.
        I took a deep breath.  I didn’t want to see that line going down the bird’s gullet.   I really didn’t want to imagine what that meant.   But, I followed the line until it buried itself in the wing feathers and carefully began to disentangle, untwist, and untie the wing, until suddenly… the bird was free.
        “It was just caught in the line! Just tangled in the wing! It’s okay. Not hooked!”

The line fell to the sand, and the new fellow released the seagull.  Silently, I hoped the bird had not pooped in his shirt.  But, had it been me, I’d have shat every French fry I ever ate in that shirt.  As I watched the gull hit the wind like a drunken missile, I felt compelled to say something.

        “Thanks so much for your help! Might want to check your shirt, though; birds always poop when they’re scared. Sorry.”  Had I just thanked a stranger for helping another stranger with his problem?   Yes, I had. Had I just apologized for the seagull’s shit?  Yes, I had.  That’s when the fisherman, who had been clinging helplessly to his pole the entire time, thanked us both.
        And then, just like that, the three of us parted: The fisherman to check his lines, the new fellow to rejoin his group, and me to find my friends.  Like the bird, we hit the wind, befuddled but determined to get away.

I scanned the beach for Tara, Stephanie, and Eleo.   Expecting to find them crowded somewhere nearby, I was surprised to glimpse them thirty feet up the beach.   Tara and Eleo were watching my approach, waving, cheering, and holding out my shoes.   Stephanie had her back turned, and didn’t look around until she heard me approaching.

        “What the heck you all doing over here?  Didn’t you see what happened?”  They hadn’t seen.  At least, they hadn’t seen how the bird had been caught.  I was baffled.   I began to wonder… Aloud, I asked, “Why didn’t you come help?”   The answer to this question taught me something about Beach Cred: It doesn’t grow on sea grapes, after all.

Here, in a hot bean, is my otherwise fearless friends’ excuse for not approaching within thirty feet of the shit going down: Stephanie had honestly – and to the credit of her creature-loving heart – been stricken at the thought of a bird on a hook.   The idea of a helpless animal suffering with a barb in its flesh, or worse, its gut, made her incapable of doing anything to assist its plight.   (This is incomprehensible to me – which definitely means that I am insensitive.  But, it also makes me much more handy in a crisis involving hurt and helpless creatures.)

        Tara, a highly efficient person in a crisis regardless of the amount of sun, sand, or gore, is a nurturer by nature.   When she saw Steph’s state of horror over the seagull, she immediately decided that her need was greater than the seagull’s.  She also noted the Bossy Gene in full effect and decided I could McGuyver that shit on my own.
        Eleo is Italian.

So, as we walked back up the beach, and I regaled them with a blow-by-blow of the adventure – assuring Steph that no blood had been shed – I had to ask myself….why HAD I run over to that fisherman and the seagull?  It wasn’t any of my business.   It wasn’t any of my fault.  It wasn’t even a particularly desirable or endangered creature on the end of that line.   Did I just want to be able to say, moments, days, years later that I had saved a seagull from a fisherman’s line?
        But, I’d like to think it was more than that.  I’d like to think it was my Stuart Beach blood – that sixth sense for an accident on the beach in need of fixing.   And, the knowledge that, since no one else seemed ready to, I had better fix it.
        I think, looking back, I wouldn't trade that for an even tan and a designer bikini any day.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Neighborhood, Scene 4: A Hot Mess

Apartment #18 used to be a favorite of mine.  The long-time residents, a couple named Tim and Vicky, always had a smile and a “Hey, how are ya?!” ready every time I saw them.  They had the annoying habit of parking on their front lawn, but I limited my feelings about this to a quick scowl and a shake of the head.  It was worth it to have a couple next door that I could trust – and who loved my dog.
            Even when I came back from vacation to find that their cat had been locked in my house all week, transforming my sunroom rug into a hazardous waste facility, I wasn’t fed-up.  Perfectly logical people, they realized their culpability, having thoughtlessly put her outside whence she immediately slunk through my open door as I was loading my car. Vicky apologized profusely and paid for a replacement.
            After they left, however, I would’ve invited every stray cat in the neighborhood to defecate in my house just to have them back.  The owner of #18, let’s call him Jethro just for kicks, is a strange mixer of idiot, greed, and sloth. Perhaps I do him no justice, but if a landlord is to be judged by the quality of his tenants (and the names they call him after a month’s habitation in his property), then I’ve understated the matter.  Tim and Vicky had once been family friends of Jethro’s, but after battling him over leaky pipes and an ancient A/C unit for about four years, “friend” became ironic.  They only remained long enough to save up for a house.  Needless to say, the series of new tenants who came and went, each hanging on less than a year, kept going downhill from there.
            There were the compulsive smoker-fighters, who left cigarette butts on their front porch and screamed at each other twice a week like a pair of mating cats; the invisible slobs whose faces you rarely saw, but whose mysteriously mounting trash wafted from the can like a tidal wave of pure shit; the smoker-kids who left their oversized puppy crated outside night after frozen night, until I called animal rescue; the friendly fat girl with the abusive little boyfriend whose giant dog left mountains of crap in my backyard.
            And now? 
            At first, I was heartened to see a family move in.  They had a darling little black boy just starting kindergarten.  A man I assumed was his dad took primary care of him; he was always at home.  The mother (again, my assumption) was a sweet-looking woman, small of frame, with a downcast eye and a timid smile.  She was quite pregnant, often leaving for somewhere or other (perhaps a prenatal appointment, I supposed) in a taxicab.  She, too, seemed jobless, but she spent less time at home with the little boy than the father, who was always out on the porch grilling and chatting with another neighbor from one of the front buildings.
            So far, so good.  Then the arguing started.   Much storming about outside ensued, and extended family members often came by to pick up the little boy and “father”.  On a few occasions, we’d see a patrol car outside, and hear talk of a restraining order.  As Ashley shared a wall with #18, she heard the worst of it:  “Girl, I ‘bout banged down my wall last night!  I don’t know WHAT they gettin’ up to in there, but I am tryin’ to sleep, you know?!  Some people got jobs, yo.”  Once, I saw the woman looking injured.  She told me she’d fallen down the stairs.  The little boy was with her; they looked to be on their way off somewhere.  She was worried about the baby.  I guess it was only a matter of time.
            Then, one day, I noticed that the little porch grill was gone.  The neighbor from up front stopped coming back for evening chats, and the “father” and his little boy were absent.  Still, the pregnant young woman kept trudging out to her waiting taxi every day, apparently alone.  I felt bad for her, and wondered what had happened.  I hoped it was all for the best. 

It wasn’t until this past couple of weeks that things started to get really interesting.  One night, I came home from an evening of wine and tapas with the pals to find the taxicab parked and cold out front of #18.  Curious, I thought, but it still hadn’t occurred to me that the “father” had gone for good, and I hoped he’d gotten a job as a driver.  As it became more and more obvious that he was no longer in the picture, however, the taxicab’s presence became more and more blatant.  It was there when I left for work before dawn, and there when I came home after an evening out, there on the weekends, and there in the middle of the day.  Once, I happened to glance inside and noticed a tiny child’s t-ball glove in the passenger seat, a little ball nestled inside, and I knew that it had nothing to do with the little boy who had lived there.  The thought came unbidden to my mind: Taximan’s cheating on his family with my neighbor!
            And he wasn’t the only one.  Before I knew it, other cars began to appear parked outside of #18: A white convertible mustang last night, a faded taxi-van a couple of nights before, and all the while the regular taxicab – always parked the wrong way, at any time of day – but none of them at the same time.  Mr. Mustang looked quite at home on the front porch as I walked the path to prune Nearly Wild, my rosebush.  He appeared to be laundering some clothes, and asked after my rose.  He seemed nice enough, but I thought, Wait a minute, that’s not the father-dude, not taxi-dude, and not the same dude I saw the other day, either.  What is going on here?
            My suspicions came to a head (as it were) today when, windows open to catch the cool evening air, I overheard Don giving someone hell. 
            “This is private property!  Who do you think you are, drivin’ up in heeah like that?!  Drivin’ ovah people’s yaaads and all this mess!”  There was a slamming of doors, and an indistinct but heated reply.  I looked out of my window to see Don’s pearly white Chrysler parked across the end of our drive, blocking that same old taxicab’s way.  Just then, the taxicab reversed, jerked back into gear, and revved through the leafy ground at the side of the road.  He shaved between two pines and screeched to a stop in front of #18.
            Don had stepped out of his car, door wide open, cell phone pressed to his ear.  “I want his permit pulled!” he was shouting into the phone.  “Either you pull it right now, or I’ll pull it for you!” 
            By this time, I had made my way to the porch.  Standing at my heels, Pippin watched, enrapt, as Taximan stalked up the walk to #18, the young woman waiting for him on the porch.  She’d heard the racket, too.  I approached Don, who was still spitting into the phone at the cab company dispatcher.  His daughter-in-law, Tiffany, stood in their front yard with their little dog, Magnum, looking worried.  What’s going on? I mouthed to her.  She shook her head with a wide-eyed shrug and mouthed back, I don’t know.
            Finally, Don hung up the cell and I asked him what happened.
            “I’m ty-ahd of it!”  He said.  “Fool comes tearing up in heah like he’s NASCAR, drivin’ up the one-way – I’m ty-ahd of it!  I’m havin’ his permit pulled.  And ‘course he tells me ‘Imma kick yo ass’ and ‘F you, Imma do what I want’ – uh huh, right; we’ll see about that.  I’m not havin’ it nah more.”  He looked over at Tiffany, who hadn’t heard these words, and called, “I’ll tell you later.”  And with that, he got back into his car and left to pick-up a client. 
            As I walked back to my door, I noticed the young woman still on her porch in hushed conversation with Taximan.  Something was different about her.  She wasn’t as big as she had been…

“That girl is a HOT MESS!” said Ashley twenty minutes later, as I stood on her porch.  I had come over to gossip with her and her brother, Javon.  They looked intent as I told them what had just happened out front.  “That place is a revolving door,” she went on.  “She’s got so many guys up in there, I don’t even wanna think about it!  What about that white Mustang dude? He’s supposed to be her UNCLE!  Ha!  And then there’s that OTHER taxi driver – you know the one with the minivan?  They all stayin’ the night, girl.”
            Half an hour later, I watched #18 walk Taximan to his cab.  I looked more closely.  She was definitely no longer pregnant.  Had she had the baby?  Lost the baby?  When had this happened?  Did I just fail to notice?  I texted Ashley. 
ME: Hey! I think she had tht baby! She’s def not as big as she was. Maybe thts why she’s in business ;). Wonder wht happened w the pregnancy?           
ASHLEY: Whhaaaaaaaaattttt!!!!!  Girl when did she have the baby? I just saw her this weekend & she was still preggers. Yo she has soooo many guys over there!!!!  Eeeeeeewwwwww :)
ME: Well I dunno, but I just saw her walkin taximan out & she look ½ th size, so…Maybe a trick of my viewpoint.  Anyway, s’pose sh’s gotta liv, jus hope she’s wrappin ‘em up frm now on! :P
ASHLEY: Girl she is a hot mess!!!!  Eeeewww! I’m not trying to judge but I wouldn’t touch her with a 10ft pole!  She is soooo prostituting!  I wish I new her name so I could look her up to see if she has a criminal history…ie...prostitution
ME: Well, either that lil boy was the first man’s or th state took him. And she def not preggers now. So…
ASHLEY: That is crrrraaaaazzzzyyyy!!! Girl she is something else…LOL.  You should blog about this. We could make a book with all the characters back here lol!
I immediately closed the novel I had been reading, opened my Macbook, and started typing.

My problem now was what to call this new neighborly drama.  The Borrowers were easy.  They borrow, steal, and hide their car from the repo-man by parking it in the backyard.  But how to nickname this young woman without following in the crude, misogynistic footsteps of… well, all of Western society from about as far back as we have written record?  A collective culture of hatred and fear for those women who make a life out of selling a most basic human desire: sex. 
The fact is, I don’t care if she’s prostituting.  She made friends with the taximan, she fell out with her boyfriend.  No job, pregnant, no prospects, alone.  Maybe she even lost the baby because of her boyfriend’s abuse?  Whether her pregnancy ended as a miscarriage, an adoption, or a ward of the state, she’s still to be pitied more than judged, and at least she’s not on the street.  Besides, she’s always been pleasant to me.
Ashley’s right about one thing, though: she IS a hot mess.  Anyone in her position would be.  And maybe that’s the best name for her, at least until I learn her real name.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Neighborhood, Scene 3: Can You Check My Head?

 Some things in this neighborhood change way too often.  Take, for example, the rapidity with which my favorite neighbors move out.  On the other hand, some things don’t change often enough, e.g. The Borrowers.  This month, I learned (much to my chagrin) that Ashley, recent victim of “neighborly borrowing”, is making plans to get out of Dodge.  For some reason, it unnerves her that Borrower Girl can still be seen wandering the neighborhood from time-to-time, asking to borrow people’s phones.  (This is not an exaggeration; she asked to borrow my phone for the third time two weeks ago).
            I’d beg Ashley to stay, but when I try to think of a good reason why she should, all I come up with is: You don’t wanna move, moving sucks… I’ll give you some herbs out of my garden…?  Totally lame.
            And then there’s the fact that even better reasons to move just keep on coming.  Take this afternoon, for example.  I pull up in front of my townhouse after running errands; my foot is barely off the clutch, when I notice a scrawny-looking man approaching the car.  He’s skirting the bumper in this pathetic sort of way as I eye him in the rearview mirror.  He’s got Borrower written all over him, though I can’t be sure if he’s related, or just a satellite of the family.
            I think to myself: Only two kinds of men would come creeping up behind a person’s vehicle as they pull into their parking spot, arms full of grocery bags: a rapist/robber, or a complete moron.  Which one is this idiot?  I push the door open with my foot, staring him down as he rounds the bumper and stops about a yard or so away from me.  It seems sensible to just go ahead and load all my shopping bags onto my shoulders as I get out of the car.  After all, I do not want to look away from him, and I have the strange feeling that an armload of crap might come in handy.  It certainly makes a nice barrier between us, as I stand to face him, my eyebrows raised like the golden arches.  He speaks.
            “Hey, could you do me a favor?” Fat chance, I think, but say nothing.  “Could you look at the back a my head?”  He stoops a little and shuffles a millimeter towards me; the look on my face clearly stipulates that coming significantly closer may result in frostbite.
            “Look at your HEAD?” I say, “What?” doing some fast cogitation behind what I hope is a blank expression.  Was this one of those good-Samaritan-gone-bad ploys, where the soon-to-be-victim is lured into a compromising situation by agreeing to check her neighbor’s hair for lice or something? 
I size him up quickly.  He looks like he hasn’t eaten all week.  His size-small tee-shirt hangs from his shoulders, and his cargo shorts reveal a pair of chicken legs, each ending in a tatty sneaker.  His hair is cut in a half-inch buzz, making lice unlikely.  I’m at least an inch taller than him.  Frankly, he looks like a weakling.  Weaklings are dangerous, though, and so while I wasn’t ready to run from the guy, I wasn’t going to get within arm’s reach, either.
He’s stooping over now, turning slightly away from me, as he tries to answer my confusion.  “My head,” he persists.  “Can you see if the staples in my head are ruptured?  I need someone to check ‘cause I can’t see.”
“I was in a car accident and had my head stapled.  But then, I got jumped by four guys an’ they stomped on my head, an’ I think they ruptured my staples.  Can you see for me?”
“Jumped you!  Here?”  His was the same, slow drawl of Borrower Girl, the kind of speech cadence that makes you think of Budweiser-by-the case, and marijuana pipes made out of soda cans.  
“Yeah, just as I was comin’ home.”  He turns to point at the Borrowers’ apartment.  I notice that the glass of the front window has been shattered.  “I was in a car accident today, and I jus’ got home from the emergency room, and then four guys jumped me and started hitting me.”
“Did you know these people??”
He looks embarrassed.  “Yeah, I know ‘em.”
This answers two main points for me: First, that whoever came into my neighborhood and beat one of my neighbors was not their for shits and giggles; they were there because my neighbors are scumbag magnets.  Second, that no robber/rapist could concoct quite such a brilliantly stupid story.  For some reason, this is a relief to me.  I sigh, and shuffle closer, trying to get the top of his noggin in view.
“Put your head down more,” I command.  He complies, and there they are: a bloody row of staples.  It looks just like he’s been the victim of a drive-by organ harvesting, except I seriously doubt there was anything in his head worth stealing.
“Can you see ‘em?  Are they ruptured?” He is whining now.
“Oh yeah, I can see them,” I say, and the truth is, I am starting to feel a little guilty for my behavior.  I am leaning towards him as far as my neck will reach so that I won’t have to step one foot closer than three feet, as if he were foul, dirty, or contaminated.  Yet, here he is, injured and bleeding, his left cheekbone sprouting what is clearly a nice fat, fresh bruise, and this is the best I can do?
So I give him a pitying look, and step to his side to get a decent view of the damage.  I notice that the staples are still in place, though the skin has parted somewhat, and has certainly been bleeding afresh, though not anymore.
“I think they’re okay,” I tell him.  “The staples aren’t ruptured, but there’s some blood drying around there and you’d better clean the area.”  It occurs to me as I say this that he may not have anything to clean it with, so I ask him.
“I s’pose I could go get some alcohol swabs or something?” he says, looking pathetic, like a whipped dog yearning for pat on the head – well, maybe he’d settle for a swab.  I’m not ready to commit to this, however, and my grocery-buffer strategy gives me the perfect excuse to edge away, close my car door, and retreat to my porch, calling instructions to him as I go.  He ambles away up the drive, shoulders hunched.

Once I got inside my door, I think my head cleared a great deal.  The act of flipping home the deadbolt also helped.  My sense of security was restored, and I began to feel much more charitable.  So, I divested myself of shopping bags, paused at the sofa to press a fat kiss onto Pippin’s quivering belly, and leapt upstairs for the bottle of rubbing alcohol and a couple of sterile cotton pads.  I was certain that, given the Borrowers’ history, this guy did not have anything decent with which to clean his wound.
Pippin and I rushed back down the front steps and up the hill toward the Borrowers’ place.  I wondered about that broken window – should I just holler inside, or go knock on the door?  I decided to knock, but was still unwilling to wait on the porch.  The confines were too close.  Instead, I stood at the bottom of the steps and waited.  No one answered.  So, I went to the broken window, after all, and called inside.  “Hey!” I said, “you want something to clean your head with?”
“I’m over here!”  The answer came from some distance behind me.  I turned to see him slumping back down the hill towards the house.  He had been walking up the driveway, as if to leave the neighborhood.  I didn’t bother to ask where on earth he’d been off to.  To buy swabs?
“I’ve got some alcohol here,” I told him briskly, “go sit down in that chair over there.”  Conveniently, one of the Borrowers (probably him, perhaps as he broke into the house through that window) had left a metal chair out front.  He thanked me as he moved toward the chair. 
Then, he said something completely unsettling: “I’m gonna to take my shirt off, that okay?”  The hell it is, I thought.  Why in the name of all cracked-out morons would he want to do that?  He had no other injury, and no dripping blood to worry about.  And if he’d already been on the ground getting the shit kicked out of him, I doubt he needed to worry about a little blood getting on his shirt, anyway.  As far as I was concerned, this was some kind of a half-cocked come-on that needed immediate quashing.
I shot him a disgusted look.  “You don’t need to take off your shirt,” I said sternly.  He dropped the idea and plopped himself down in the chair.
“Now, bend down so I can get this cleared up.”  I was starting to sound like the school nurse at a juvenile delinquent academy. 
“It’s gonna hurt, idn’ it?” More whining.
“Yup.  It’s alcohol; it’ll sting pretty bad.”
“Aw, man.”
“Better than an infection.”
I soaked a cotton pad and started dabbing his head.  He sucked in a slow breath between his teeth.  I did not really feel sorry for him.  That business with the shirt killed all sense of pity.
Being doctored, however, seemed to spur him into a further explanation of his current embarrassing state. 
“Yeah, pretty nice bein’ in a car accident and then gettin’ beat up in the same day.”
“Why’d they jump you?  You said you knew those guys?  Did you call the police?”
“Yeah, I’m pressin’ charges.  I tole the police who they were.  They’re friends a my stepdad’s.”  This fact made him a heretofore-unknown member of the Borrower family.  The previous son whom I had met – the one who let the family dog shit in my yard – had been Borrower Dad’s own son.  This kid, it appeared, was the Borrower Mom’s kid, which made him Borrower Girl’s brother.  Not the best of recommendations – bleeding skull aside. 
He went on.  “I guess they thought I’d had some trouble with my stepdad – which it’s not true at all. I didn’ have no trouble wi’ him.  And they come up here and try to keep me from getting’ inta’ my own house.”
“Why didn’t they want you to go in the house?”
“I don’ know.  But I tried to come home, and they pulled up an jumped me.  one of ‘em punched me in tha face, an’ the other ‘un started to stomp me in the back of the head when I fell down.  Takes some kinda man to go jump on a person four ta one.  Now, I know how’ta defend myself, but…”
He trailed off, so I took pity on him.  “Well, it’s kind of hard to defend yourself when you’re one against four.”
I straightened up.  “Well,” I said, briskly, “I’ve cleaned it up as much as I can.  You got some ointment to put on it in case of infection?”  I hated to ask, afraid of yet another ministration, but he said he had, so I nodded and started moving off, calling Pippin.  She had been wandering around the Borrowers’ porch, sniffing at the rubbish strewn about the place.
 I was eager to get clear of the whole scene.  Borrower-Boy, not so much.  He clearly wanted to keep my attention, hoping to start a conversation by asking me a variety of questions.  Somehow, my feet kept moving toward my side of the building as I answered him.  Eventually, I was yelling back over my shoulder, “Yup!  Stay out of trouble, now!”

Back inside, I scrubbed and double-scrubbed my hands in the kitchen sink.  Lice were the least of my worries; I had just been dabbing blood off the open wound of a complete stranger.  The sort of stranger who counts as a regular part of his week getting the piss beat out of him by his stepfather’s own friends – under the pretense of settling a family squabble.  How could I blame Ashley for wanting to pack her bags?  True, I have no desire to pack my bags, but I would definitely like nothing more than to see back of The Borrowers, carpetbags in hand as they hitchhike into the sunset.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

I [Heart] Vacuum; Or, How Target Sucks-Up Damaged Goods

Vacuuming: no one enjoys it. No one rushes home from the office so that they can rev-up the Dirt Devil.  No one finds inner piece to the whine of a WindTunnel.  No one spends thousands on a Kirby or a Dyson because their heart speaks its name with helpless yearning.  No.  Not one person.  No one.  All of those commercials depicting women (ALL WOMEN, mind you!!) blissfully maneuvering their high-tech Hoovers with contentment in their eyes are complete crap.  Shameless propaganda.  The best you can say for vacuuming is that, given the proper equipment, it can be less annoying than usual.  I should know.  I have never possessed a decent vacuum cleaner in my entire life, and I have hated the practice with a passion.  Until recently.
            My long-term lack of decent vacuum may actually be linked to the fact that I’ve also spent most of my life on tile and linoleum floors where vacuums did little more than splatter your ankles with dirt-shrapnel.   That, and my distaste for the practice in general.  Really, any activity in which you mindlessly push and pull a heavy object back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, sucks.  The deafening racket of the motor doesn’t help, either.  Every living animal in the house runs for the hills, yet there you are, doggedly depressing the ON switch in quest of a cleaner carpet.  Perhaps you even get a sick joy out of Fido’s fear, since he’s 90% of the reason you are stuck there in the living room, sucking at life for the next 45 minutes. 
            Little wonder I thought it foolish to spend actual money on such a device.  Besides, for the first twenty-five years of my existence, I had only ever used whatever monstrosity came to hand.  Everywhere I went, someone had a vacuum, donated a vacuum, or abandoned one.  Clearly, vacuums were devalued objects that people couldn’t get rid of fast enough.  Why part with money to get one, if I could spend it on something cool, like toilet paper?
            My first actual vacuum was one of those lightweight, bagless Eureka Boss Mini things purchased by undergrads nationwide.  It cost $45 (I considered this highway robbery) and was a gift from my brother, Andy, who was visiting me in my new apartment in Tallahassee.  I had just moved up to begin my Master’s program, and he had missed my birthday.  I was twenty-five.  (It is also important to note here that my brother is awesome and considers it his personal mission to make me look cool to nerds the world over.  Historically, Andy has purchased just about every interesting item of cutting-edge technology that I have possessed – vacuum not included.  In exchange, I dress him.)
            The Eureka certainly lived up to my initial desires for vacuuming ease: it was, indeed, weightless, and I did not have to purchase bags for it.  But besides that, it was a waste of $45. Once my roommate’s boyfriend had used it to vacuum out his SUV without once emptying the canister, it was never the same.  Still, I resisted buying another.  I kept running that thing over and over and over the stubborn little bits of dirt, thinking: this time it had better suck that crap up.  But then I bent down, and picked up the bits myself. 
             This experience only reinforced my belief that vacuuming was evil, and when I moved into my townhouse and found an uglier, older, but slightly more effective vacuum abandoned there by the previous owner, I accepted it – relieved that no more precious funds need go down that drain.  This vacuum – let’s call him Big Red – weighed about twenty pounds and had a little light panel that went from red to green when the carpet was “clean” (in a manner of speaking).  It had bags, but I had learned to appreciate vacuum bags while choking on super-fine dust, trying to empty the Eureka’s filter.  Bags were okay.  But Big Red smelled faintly of rubber when switched on, and the chord was patched with electrical tape where someone had accidentally sucked it up (this person might have been me).  Vacuuming the stairs with Big Red was a genuine cardio workout – actually, you could break a sweat vacuuming anything with Big Red.  I used this vacuum for five years.
            Naturally, I vacuumed as rarely as possible.  This worked for me.  My common-room floors are tile.  So, for a long time, I could survive months without feeling a pressing need to fetch Big Red out of the closet.  But, since I also live in a stilt house, those tile floors turn into freezing slabs of ice in the winter, requiring me to cover most of them with gigantic jute rugs.  This added significantly to the total carpeted surface area in those rooms most likely to be seen by the public.  The library and bedroom were both carpeted, but I tended not to invite anyone into them.
            The more I found myself treading on strange particles, the more tolerance I had to build against the disgust-reflex common in such situations.  Walking in sand is the loveliest sensation imaginable, but for some reason, sand under your bare feet when you expect pristine smoothness is like nails on a chalkboard.  So, I learned to stop expecting pristine smoothness, or anything like it.
It does not help matters that, like most Yorkies, Pippin does not think it appropriate to eat her food all in one sitting at the bowl, but instead, selects mouthfuls at a time for consumption in various parts of the house.  Mainly, anywhere with carpeting.  Not a day goes buy without me stepping on kibble, cursing, and demanding that she come in here right now and eat this supper before it goes in the trash.  Dutifully, she comes, picks up the kibble, peers at me from under her wispy brows like a naughty child, and crunches it at my feet.   I sigh as the microscopic kibblets infiltrate the carpet.  At least she doesn’t shed.
Whenever the threat of guests finally forced me into vacuuming, of course, the process was lengthy and grueling.  My shoulders ached, my neck ached, my ears rang like broken bells.  Pippin would inevitably go into hiding, and I would wish I could be with her.  It got to the point where I swear I actually avoided cleaning, just because the mere thought of hauling Big Red out into the open made my back hurt.  Cleaning the house for my birthday dinner last month, after half a year of blissful filth, was a marathon of misery.
Once all of the guests were gone, I made a desperate pact with myself: I would NEVER let the house get dirty again.  I would wash every dish the moment the last crumb were eaten, I would sweep the floors the moment I noticed a spec of dirt, and finally, I would vacuum the rugs on a regular basis – or whenever there were more leaves on the floor than I could count in five seconds.  Besides, I LIKED a clean house.  I liked not walking on little granules of dirt, I liked laying on the rug without getting bits of broken leaves and whatever-all plastered to by back, and I liked not finding raisins in the crotch of my couch.  And all of this could be my life, if only I did not detest vacuuming.
So when a week had passed, and I stopped counting leaf-bits and started thinking of my foolish promise, I made yet another desperate decision.  I could not bear the thought of Big Red, lurking in the hall closet like a fat, ugly pile of brick, taunting me with old-fashioned profanities from its glory days (‘Od’s-bodkins!), mocking my messy carpeting.  He knew he couldn’t suck up a paperclip to save his own mother – at least, not on the first, second, or third try.  He knew that every square inch of carpeted surface meant double, even triple the effort for the poor sap – me – forced to propel his slovenly bulk.  I imagined these thoughts pleased him.  I imagined he dragged his rollers on purpose to frustrate me, like a barn-sour horse, eager to remain in his dark, cozy closet with a blanket and a fistful of grain. 
Not this time.
I left him undisturbed, so as not to alert his suspicions, and quietly tiptoed from the house.  I was going to Target.  I was going to buy a new, not-cheap vacuum cleaner.  I was ready to spend some money.

I called my mother on the way to Target, hoping to get some advice about a proper vacuum.  After five minutes of talking to her, I realized how I’d ended up with such a disregard for vacuums. 
“Why don’t you just look on Craig’s List?”  She asked, as if faintly annoyed that I would spend money so frivolously.  “There’s all kinds of good stuff on there – barely even used!”  A pang of guilt stabbed through me.  Yes, used vacuum.  Craig’s List.  Why hadn’t I thought of it?  What am I doing, wasting money on another appliance, when I already HAVE a vacuum (ugly godforsaken piece of…)?
But I calmed myself out of it.  Mom always has this effect on me.  Whatever it is that I want to do, if it involves spending money, and doesn’t particularly appeal to her, she will manage to make the whole notion seem selfish, foolish, or pointless in about five minutes.  What really sucks is that most of the time, she has a point – one that I have made my own point of ignoring.  But this time, I knew why I needed to go to Target, right now, and purchase a new vacuum.  Why spend hours hunting through Craig’s List, investigating, testing, and inspecting objects that I already dislike?  I was trying to make vacuuming into something EASIER, not a research project!
Mom expressed her complete support for my mission, probably because she knew darn well that I was determined, and about to tell her off for trying to talk me out of it, anyway.  Unfortunately, mom hates vacuuming as much as I do, which is the reason I grew up on tile and linoleum floors.  She had very little advice to offer beyond: “Well, you have tile floors, do you even NEED a vacuum?”  See what I mean? 
Once inside the vacuum aisle of Target, I was in a bit over my head.  There, displayed at eye-level like so many objets d’art, were about a hundred vacuums.  No, not really.  More like twenty vacuums, but there may as well have been a hundred.  They were sleek and tubey, squat and transparent, tall and tunnelly… some of them bore the image of little paws or cats to indicate their superior ability to suck-up pet hair.  Others boasted prowess in multiple fields of floor cleaning, from polishing a bare floor, to steaming a carpet.  They came in all colors, proudly displaying their various weights, and ranged in price between $35 and $400. 
I stood there for a moment, stunned.  Then, slowly, I began to walk up and down the aisle, peering knowledgeably at the little placards under each one – like inspecting medium and message cards in an art gallery – until I came upon one shining, green Hoover which said: “Own me.”  I made this interpretation based upon many intelligent factors, and a clever analysis of its features weighed against my personal needs.  Really, I bought it because it was green.  And, because it was the last one in the store, the box was badly damaged, and the clerk offered me a discount, bringing my $120 investment down to $85.  Sold.

Pippin skittered away in horror as I wrestled the oversized and clearly abused vacuum box through the front door.  “This is our new vacuum, Stinker!”  I announced.  (I call Pippin “Stinker” because it is Samwise Gamgee’s nickname for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.  Pippin, of course, is named after Peregrin “Pippin” Took of the same novel.  I am a nerd, so sue me.)  “You’re gonna love it!”  She knew that was bullshit, but she hung just out of its reach to watch the unwrapping go down. 
            Within moments, my lovely, green Hoover was assembled and ready for action.  It had a see-through belly so that every molecule of foul matter once coating the floor of my house could be examined for sick pleasure.  But it’s most promising feature, I thought, was the clever little mini-sucker attachment for vacuuming furniture and stairs.  This little invention even came equipped with its own mini rotating brush, which began spinning the moment you fixed the attachment onto the hose. I couldn’t wait to get at my stairs.  These were always particularly painful to cover with Big Red – a guaranteed neck ache – only to be attempted on rare and special occasions.  But now…? 
Vowing to be a responsible appliance owner, I dutifully read the instruction manual warnings at the front of the booklet.  One in particular caught my eye: “Do not place vacuum on steps while vacuuming stairs.”  Ha! thought I, of COURSE.  Only an idiot would leave the vacuum on the stairs without stabilizing it first!  But, I supposed these manuals were written for the common moron, not Clan MacGyver, PhD-holding types like myself.  Besides, how were you SUPPOSED to vacuum the stairs without having the vacuum ON THE STAIRS?  It’s not like they included an extension hose with this thing.
So I plugged in my new, green vacuum and discovered the delights of self-propelled machinery.  Not only did this vacuum not smell like a rubber factory when switched on, it ran like sucking-up filth was its job, not its penance.  Pippin still made herself scarce, but at least I wasn’t rapidly going deaf.  Steadily, the clear plastic canister in the vacuum’s belly filled with fuzzy silt and other debris.  I watched it guiltily, wondering how much of this stuff had been lingering on my floors for the past five years.  On the whole, I was – admittedly – enjoying myself.
Then came the stairs.  Vacuuming them with my lovely little rotary attachment was a revelation – Look! Look! I kept thinking; I thought they’d never be this texture again!  I was grinning ear to ear when, about halfway up the stairs, I ran out of cord.  I had plugged into a socket in the sunroom below, but obviously this was not going to suit.  The responsible thing to do would be to switch off the vacuum, secure it on the step, and pop down to unplug the cord. (I especially liked the cord feature on this vacuum because, with the press of a button, a mechanism would slurp up the cord like spaghetti.)
Remember what the manual said, a little voice told me. Don’t leave the vacuum on the stairs!  I got very defensive.  Yes, yes, yes, I told it, but I am going to be VERY careful, and balance the vacuum perfectly.  And I’m certainly not going to tug the cord; what kind of idiot do you think I am?  So, according to plan, I pushed the vacuum in its upright position, cautiously checking its steadiness before turning my back and heading down the stairs.  So far, so good.  I reached for the plug…
CRASH – crunch – BANG – bang – CLUNK! 
For a moment, I didn’t move; I didn’t even turn around.  I think I had my eyes closed.  The stupid half of my brain kept saying, “Nah!  That CAN’T be the vacuum, can it?” while the more intelligent side sighed, scratched its ear, and said, “I can’t believe you just did that.  And you even read the manual.  I’m embarrassed to share a body with you.” 
Slowly, I looked round the corner.  Sure enough, lying on the landing, handle-end-down, was my new green vacuum.  Demoralized.  Reluctantly, I moved forward, hoisted it upright, and inspected the damage.  No wonder you never paid money for a vacuum, you jackass, nagged the little voice, if you’re just going to throw them down the stairs.  Surprisingly, once all the stray pieces had been collected and reassembled, only one little defect was visible.  The plastic lining of the cord socket had cracked.  Purely aesthetic, I told myself.  No big deal.  Then I powered thing on again and sucked the spilt rubbish back up.
Secretly, I believed that the vacuum manufacturers were partially to blame.  Had they put a little effort in, explained that there was some internal imbalance in the vacuum that made it impossible to steady on stairs, even under the most conscientious circumstances, I would’ve obeyed their warning, but no, they had just said, “Don’t”.  And who wants to be told that?
But, more openly, I acknowledged the extent of my own stupidity and resolved to abide by the consequences.  As I finished vacuuming the rest of the house, I swore the vacuum was a tad louder than it had been at first.  But that’s what you get, said my little voice.  You had to leave it on the stairs...

I told my friends about my adventure the next evening at dinner.  After they finished laughing at me, and wiping the tears from their eyes, they said, “So, did you take it back?”
“Take it back?  No!”  I was scandalized.  I really felt I had an ethical obligation to endure the damaged equipment.  “I can’t take it back!  I’m the dumbass!  And besides, I got it at discount!”
Stephanie and Tara looked at each other across the table as if to say, Who is this person?  Stephanie turned to me.  “Um,” she began, “What happened to the woman who exchanged that air mattress every three months because she was using it for a bed and it kept getting leaks?”
“But – I was poor!  It’s different!” I stammered.
“Yeahhh….right,” laughed Tara, “I’m not seeing the discrepancy here.  Besides, they don’t give a shit at Target; they won’t even look at it.”
“You don’t think?”
“Jared used his weed-eater for a year,” Stephanie added, “and took it back because he decided it wasn’t cutting as well.  He didn’t even have a receipt!  They looked at him like, ‘We don’t care what’s wrong with it; just hand it over and go away.’”
“Actually, I think it turned out he hadn’t even bought it from Target.  I think he remembered later that he’d bought it at Lowe’s.”  Stephanie sipped her margarita while Tara grinned.
“Take it back, dude,” Tara said.  “Get a new, new vacuum.  They don’t care.”
My conscience cringed.  It was true, I WAS the Take It Back Queen, but this was different.  I had no one to blame for this but my own sheer stupidity.  At least with the airbed, I could tell myself that it was defective…even if it wasn’t actually meant for constant, daily use.  Besides, that was years ago when I lived on 12K a year T.A. pay. 
Still, my brain began stewing a good excuse.
“Well,” I said, after I’d chewed for a while.  “They gave me that discount because the box was really badly wrecked.  I could say there was something messed up with it after all!”
“Sure, go for it,” my friends told me, shaking their heads, “the kid at the counter will just look at you like, ‘Why are you telling me this?  You’re making me miss my break.’”
“Well, okay.  But if they say I have to pay the difference from the discount, I’ll say that’s fine.”  This seemed fair.
“Emmy,” Stephanie gave me an amused look, “they will NOT CARE.  They won’t ask you to pay the difference.  Trust me.”
“I think you should write the vacuum story,” Tara mused.  “This is pretty funny.”

So, it’s true.  Target does indeed suck up damaged goods, like my brand new, new vacuum sucks up broken leaves and garden grit.  And, yes, the young return counter clerk will look at you like you are an asshole for attempting ANY explanation.  So, if this is you in the foreseeable future, take my word for it: they don’t wanna hear it. 
Sure, I'm a little disgusted with myself, but then, as I listen to the unadulterated hum of my new, undamaged vacuum, I think: this could sound much more annoying than it does.  And I’m content.  Not actually enjoying myself (vacuuming is, after all, vacuuming), but content.
            Now, for the stairs…