Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What My People Call A Plaza

Growing up a white kid from the suburbs afforded me a lot of opportunities, and pleasures.  I ran in the woods.  I ran in my neighbors yards.  I ran on the sidewalks of my town as well.  Living in a small town, traffic wasn't too bad, and sometimes there were no sidewalks.  But that was ok, since there were very few cars, and most of the time I was in a residential neighborhood where nobody ever walked except for recreation.

After I dropped out of college and moved back to my home town, I quickly came to realize that I more or less could not afford to live there.  Rent was more expensive than I wished.  And opportunities mostly presented themselves outside of the suburbs... in town.  So eventually, for a lot of different reasons, I got a job delivering pizza and managing a pizza joint at the corner of Westlane (71st street) and Michigan Rd.  Also known as 421, Martin Luther King, and Northwestern Ave.  A historically interesting corner of Marion County, Metro Indianapolis. 

This corner was a place I had grown up driving past, and being in the near vicinity to.  There was a child care Kiddie College just a block or so away. A number of stores, and dry cleaners, some of which my family continued to use for nearly twenty years (more or less my entire childhood.) And, most of all, for this story, the grocery store, on the corner, that anchored a thirty year old shopping strip, called Westlane Shopping Center. It was a corner I was extremely familiar with... especially from running errands for my parents.  And yet, it was always a place I had visited by car.  To this day, I have never visited it in any other way.  And yet, as I came to discover, working at a pizza place on this prominent corner of my part of town.... many, many people in that neighborhood did not own a car.  They used public transport, or walked, wherever they had their business.

As I settled into my job delivering pizza to the neighborhood, I relished learning more about the geography of that part of my hometown: the Northwest corner of Indianapolis.  For one thing... for all the times I had driven my vehicle south on Michigan or Zionsville Road... once I got to 71st and Michigan, I really didn't know so well where the rest of the landmarks in town were.  It didn't really occur to me, immediately, that St. Vincent's Hospital was more or less a few city blocks away on 86 St. down Harcourt Rd.  It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure that "short cut" out.  Even though every map of the area had the same black and colored lines connecting the hospital to my new workplace.  The map in my head, as I was to learn and be somewhat philosophically curious about, did not comport with the map on paper and, perhaps most of all, the roads themselves.  As you might guess, I am naturally bad with geographical situational awareness, and this new job of knowing the best route through an area I naturally had a poor abstract concept of (on multiple levels) amounted to a very interesting puzzle for a hilariously long time for Mr. Coffey.

In a sense, I simply pretended that I belonged in a job that I was naturally bad at.  And worked in a neighborhood that was a bit rougher than any I'd ever spent more than just a few minutes in.  The combination fascinated me.

Perhaps the third day I worked at the pizza joint, a new 17 year old kid, named Scott came in the door looking for a job.  He called out the name of Jaykita, a girl who worked there making pizza's and answering the phones.  Jay exclaimed, "hey!" and ran around the counter in an obvious act of familiarity and reconnection.  Being new, and knowing neither of them, I just  kept to myself. But, as it turned out, Jay and Scott knew each other from school and Church. But, neither had seen each other recently, since Scott had been in jail.  Now that he'd been released, Scott was looking for a job.  Within a few days he began working at the pizza joint.  And a few days after that, the manager asked me if I'd give him a ride home, down 71st to a somewhat bad apartment complex called Timber Falls.  "Sure," I told my manager.  "As long as he don't mind holding the pizza's while I deliver them first." 
"No problem," said Scott generously, "no problem at all."
So, while delivering the pizza's, and with Scott in the car, I asked him if he'd mind just sitting there, while I ran in each building with the pizza, and left the car still running.  "Where else am I gonna go?" he asked. 
As if to answer the question while I drove to the next house, Scott told me, "Say, this is a nice ride.  Olds Cutlass Sierra... where'd you get this car?" 
"Well," I told him, "unfortunately my Grandma died.  I guess I was given a good deal on her car. I payed a few thousand for it... I guess it was worth about five or six at the time.  I got a really good deal from her estate." 
"Yeah, this car is beautiful," said Scott.
Not wanting to seem like a spoiled brat... I just gave him my most convincing "yeah" I could.
"In fact," said Scott, "I'd be tempted to steal this car if it wasn't yours. But, I wouldn't steal your car, man."
We both laughed... "glad to hear that Scott."
I pulled into his neighborhood, waving at the superfluous guard at the shack at it's entrance.  It was not only the one neighborhood with a guard who controlled access to the parking lot---  it was also one of the most dangerous neighborhoods and one of the more expensive section 8 neighborhoods.  The guard was a way to confuse people into spending more on a worse place to live.  You'd call this irony, if it were in any sense different than simple greed. 

All of this was between 6.6 and 7 miles from my childhood home.  A remarkable statistic, which provided no little shame to my heart and mind over the years. 
And that was how I met Scott.  It became a ritual to take him home... and it became a welcome sight to see him walk in for a pizza to take home to his Mom, or more likely... to take to a girl.  He had a fast smile, and a clever way of including everyone in his orbit.  He was tough, but easy on others... and he didn't seem to be up to anything too terrible these days... though he was always, like most people I worked around at the joint, up to something.
The years passed and I came and went from the pizza place to work on a farm and start a cleaning service.  On and off I worked for the pizza joint for two and a half years.  Finally, I found myself one November without a car, home or job.  I was twenty-three years old and had mined everyone in my life clean of ore... and I was more or less at my wits end.  My car had broken down in a more or less safe place.. so I could sleep in it until it got too cold.  But, I needed a job to make money for somewhere to live and eat.  I needed a solution to my circumstance.
One day I called the old pizza joint, thinking they probably had no jobs available, and one of the guys I used to work with there, John, was working and answered the phone.
"Hey, Andy, how are you?" he said in his utterly confident way. 
"Hey John, I'm all right.  What are you up to these days, delivering pizza?" I asked, figuring he'd make fun of me for asking such an obvious question.
"No, man, I'm the General Manager these days."
"Your kidding! What would you say if I told you I needed a job?"
"I'd say that's why your calling me," he said.
We laughed.
"Yeah, you know. It is." 

The next day I had my uniform, a place to live, and a vehicle to drive.  I would be working from 9 AM to 2:30 AM every day, with overtime.  Within a week I would make more money than I'd made in the previous month and a half.  I made nearly a thousand dollars a week.  Long hours, overtime and tips.

John was doing a fantastic job running the place.  It's numbers had grown enormously over what I had seen in previous years.  I had managed the place a little and knew enough that I could see his delivery times had been whittled down to the very edge of what physics and municipal law (and perhaps a bit of poor judgment) could allow.  In short: the times were fast.

This resulted in low return calls... happy customers... hot pizza's... and more money.  Drivers could expect on a six hour shift to make between $50-70 in tips.  Plus minimum wage.  And... I was clocking thirty plus hours in overtime per week.  My checks were grotesquely large... I had no time off, but with Christmas coming I didn't care.  My phone call to John meant I could tow my Grandma's old car to Scott's and ask how much he wanted for it.  He gave me a poker face and the car a pass.  I paid for its disposal at a metals facility.

By the following late February I had an apartment, near by, was off the streets and had been promoted to the assistant manager of the place.  More or less, I closed it down every night with shift managers.  I worked five days a week, and had two days off.  I still made great money, plus occasional extras in tips, ect.

I did notice, unfortunately, that John had a new girlfriend who was sixteen years old.  I felt like I should at least be civil, since John didn't seem to understand what I was talking about when I said the words, "statutory rape."  I am not proud that I didn't walk away at the moment I learned of the relationship.

He hired his new squeeze, of course.  And one day while we were opening the restaurant, she ran to the bathroom in a manner that gave a person the sense that she had to get sick.  I looked at John, "you simply gotta tell me, now, that she might have the flu."
John smiled broadly, perhaps with even a tinge of pink in his cheeks, "no.  I think she's pregnant."
"From one of her other boyfriends, right?" I said.
He guffawed.  "No, Andy. I think we're gonna have a kid."
"Let's not get the cart before the horse, here, old man.  She just had breakfast.  Now the breakfast is in the toilet.  Your other women had something like ten kids over the last twenty years.. and now, your picking out names?"
"I'm pretty excited," he said, as Nadia exited the bathroom. 
"You ok?" I asked her.  I knew that such a question was patently ridiculous in the neighborhood I was in, under the circumstances which she seemed to accept, and given she probably still had a bit of her breakfast to clean off her lips.
"Yeah," she said, "morning sickness sucks."
I don't know what the look on my face was exactly just then... but it was the same look that makes my friends laugh today... when all you can do, is agree exponentially.

A few days later I was exiting my car and John walked out of the pizza place toward me, with huge tears in his eyes.  "Nadia bled out today," he said, throwing his arms around me.
Feeling the shuddering and heartfelt sobs that were coming from my totally screwed up friend made me confused as hell.  But, somehow, I patted his back, and kept my sense that the world was sometimes an exceedingly balanced place to myself. 
"There, there," I remember thinking, "surely one of your other twelve known children's birthdays is coming up soon.  Look out for quality time."  He was really sobbing. 
"Your my best friend, Andy."
"Well.... thanks, John. I'm sorry about Nadia.  Mother Nature just sometimes spares one heartbreak with another. But that doesn't make it easy."
The rest of the day I felt like the biggest jerk in history, and therefore was completely unprepared or aware of what far more important things had entered my head and ears over the previous months.  I'm almost always as stupid as I need to be.

The next day was pay day, and as per usual I walked the length of the strip center to the grocery store (the pizza joint was on the far end) to use my bank, which was within it.  Depositing my check, and feeling sort of amazed for the thousandth time that I was being paid so much to do so little, I was walking back toward the store, on the sidewalk in front of a CVS, when I saw Scott walking my way.  Scott, in the intervening years had cleaned up his act.  He looked wonderful, clean and stylish... like only the gals and guys in that neighborhood could pull off.  Not in my wildest honky dreams was I ever going to walk down the street looking as good as Scott on his average day. His hair corn-rowed and his shoes a few paychecks down.  His walk, which portrayed a canny awareness mixed with a stoic toughness, either of which would have simply been lies had I the ability to transmit them in my gait (I didn't and don't.  I carried a baseball bat, when delivering in those neighborhoods.  When a nice customer would see the bat, upon which I rested their pizza, and inevitably asked, "what's that for?"  I always replied, "to beat people up with, Maam.  Perhaps you noticed the size of my wrists?"  Generally the person would either frown in disapproval, or laugh.  Both couldn't decipher my meaning.  And both were successful in creating their own.
I was mugged four times at gunpoint, and shot at once, over those two and one-half years.  Fifty or sixty times I was approached where I saw a man look at the bat in my hands (a large, expensive softball bat, and a 24" Maglight on my belt) and turn and walk away.  I usually called out, "Where I come from we always say Howdy!"  I'm ashamed to admit I fantasized about being attacked... and acted this out a few times.  Then again, sometimes before you knew what had happened, someone was flossing your teeth with a Glock.) 
Countless people I never saw none-the-less never approached because of the bat and my changed bearing as I became used to being attacked. 
There was also the unpleasant business of getting myself out of trouble at the bar with John.  The less said about that the better.  It was probably a good thing that I never saw any family or friends in those years.  Sometimes I looked pretty crazy.  I'd forget I had a busted lip or black eye, or bruises on my arms and face, and I'd go to Wal-Mart or worse, the Mall.  I'd look at some kid in the store aisle as I passed a family walking to get some motor oil or what have you.  The Mom would grab her kid away from me, as if I were a wild animal. As a confirmed member of white middle class suburban heaven... I could do nothing but laugh at such an action by a good parent.  These days it doesn't strike me as nearly so funny.

So, walking back to the store... in the somewhat safer circumstances of no longer working in the streets, I was in a great mood that day.  Money lining my pockets. My expenses low.  Hardened by my experiences, and made far more safe by my promotion.  I didn't know what I was going to do with myself eventually... but for the time being they were planning on just giving me the store, and giving John another poor performer, in an even larger market, to turn around.  We were certainly running huge numbers. Sometimes hundreds of pizza's catered before lunch even started.  When a driver couldn't make it, John and I would both pocket fifty bucks from the gratuity, before the store would even open.  We were minting money... on a Tuesday morning. 

Like I said, I looked up and there's old Sugar Man himself, Scott.  "Hey Scott. How are you on this fine, fine Friday afternoon?"
"Oh, I'm okay," said Scott, looking over my right shoulder and turning as if to check for bad business at his five o'clock. He wouldn't make my gaze.
"Great," I said, "I guess I'll see you in a bit, at the store. You work tonight?"
"Naw," he said, "I got stuff to do, and I'm not scheduled." He said most of this while walking away. Something was wrong.
Scott had been going to the most prominent local Baptist Church.  He'd given himself fully to the Church's activities, and programs. And, as should be the case, he found the values in his fellow parishoners to be worthy of emulation.  He'd been doing a great job with that, and seemed to be thriving. I stood there a little worried, from his tone, that something was throwing his game off.  I really cared about him, and wanted him to be OK.  I was rooting for this guy I'd met straight out of jail.  He had never stolen my car.  In many ways, his story had stolen my heart, however.
On his way back, Scott looked up, and his mien was not that of an old friend.  "Still here?" he said, without smiling.
"Yeah, man. You've got me worried about you," I said.
"Worried about me?" he said, somewhat accusingly.  "Andy, I'm  worried about you.  Aren't you?"
"No. I'm not. Why are you worried?" I asked.
"I'm worried that you don't seem to have a problem with John's behavior as long as he still gives you your money," said Scott.
"Do you think he's stealing, Scott?" I asked, genuinely interested.
"No, you fool," he said, disgusted. "I don't know why I'm wasting my time talking to you.  Can't you see he's screwing his help?"
"Well... sure, he shouldn't have hired Nadia. That's unethical.  I'm pretty sure the corporation is more in love with their numbers then they would be proving something in a court of law.  But that's just my sense of things."
"Naw, Andy, they're not going to need no court of law," he said, looking out over the pine trees above Westlane Laundermat.
"Well," I said, "I agree... I'm mean, Scott, look around."
"That's what you need to do," he said, looking straight in my eyes. "You know the truth, but you aren't paying any attention. I used to respect you. But you are putting your friendship ahead of the right thing here.  He's got you fooled.  And a smart guy, Andy, who acts like a fool?  What do you call that?"
"Well fine, Scott. I'm a fool then.  What else is going on? Is he stealing?"
"He might be stealing, but I'm not gonna worry about any of that.  He's screwing everyone, Andy. Everyone! Everyone under twenty-five and female.  That's how he does the schedule, man. That's how they get their hours. You didn't know this."
I was having, I admitted, a bit of trouble focusing just then.  My heart growing with gratitude toward this wonderful, tough, smart man; I felt like an idiot. And my wallet was starting to feel thinner (though truthfully, also a bit familiar).  I spoke to John about the allegations.  He agreed and he denied. But mostly he just seemed bored by the conversation.  It didn't concern him.  It was merely about him.

I called my regional and district managers.   I told them that I was aware that I had been working for a sexist and fairly conservative corporation since the beginning, but I had to ask if they were aware that their star manager in the area was having trouble keeping his ink pen in the modern style.
"What do you mean by that," said the dumber of the two.
"Well, Terry," I asked him, "when's the last time you dipped your nib?  I hope you're recording this conversation.  Your star manager, John, has been screwing his employees.  This has come to my attention, and I'm sorta figuring you already knew.  Then again, I had been sorta paying less attention then I should have.. so.  I'm going to help you transfer in a new guy, but after what these girls have been through, and given that in the society I live in today they have no other real choices... I think the ethical thing would be for me to train the new guy, and leave within the month."
And that's more or less what happened.  I went and worked for minimum wage in my home town. I had always thought it would be great to work in my home town at this job that had been so dangerous, at 71st St.  But, when I got into the actual job in my home town, across from all the old familiar buildings... I just had lost any desire to be associated with the job or company.  Within a few weeks I quit.  I had three hundred dollars in my pocket. I went to a few organic farms and tried to get a job. They laughed.  They didn't know or need me.    So, with a rental car I couldn't pay for, and enough cash to make it for less then a week, I drove to Bloomington. I told myself I'd moved.  I had visited a few weeks before on a cool May day.  Once enough rain fell over my cheeks, I felt just the slightest bit clean for the first time in a few years.  Even if I had to sleep beneath the Hostas ( which, the first day I was there, I saw pushing their leaf mould straight off the ground) I would sleep better than I had in months. 
I moved to Bloomington and slept in my car for about thirty-five days.  I met some new friends and got an apartment and a job within two months.  I'd settled in with a girl within fourteen months. I felt slightly sick of, but incapable of leaving my new home town within two years.  That's when I knew I'd found my place.  And I don't think it was raining that day.

Two years after I moved to Bloomington, I was returning to Indianapolis to visit my therapist and an old friend of mine in Broad Ripple.  My usual route to Broad Ripple was over 71st St. past Michigan Rd to Meridian. Mostly for old times sake. I still love Pike Township from New Augusta to Meridian Hills.  Memories of childhood and the playing of softball with bad guys heads in the hood, seems fresher than fresh when you've spent a few years around your average well behaved cat from Bloomington. I couldn't even fathom a black eye.  And hey, just the other day a woman saw me playing with her kid and asked me if I was married.  I didn't ask her why she didn't worry about her child's safety around me.  I was glad she noticed how much I love kids.  I was glad I noticed how much I loved kids.

Anyhow, I went to see my therapist, Jim, and then went and had dinner and spent the night on my old buddy Daniel's couch.  The next morning we went for coffee and scones at the local coffee shop, and I took off, retracing my route back toward my past... toward 71st and Michigan. Noticing that my gas was a bit low for the short trip back to Bloomington, I pulled into the Shell gas station that remains where I used to work for those years... and have driven past my whole life. 

While pumping my gas I looked around me.. like everyone pumping gas.  I looked over at the window where I once knew all the attendants names: they were thankfully on to greener pastures... I hoped.  And I looked to where the public phones were, and noticed, given that someone was on the phone, they obviously, unlike in prosperous Bloomington, got some usage.  The man on the phone hung up and turned around.  I felt a strange sensation of extreme joy, and a haunting fear.  It was Scott. My old friend who straightened me out.  Who never would have stolen my Olds.  Who looked odd.  Then again, he was squinting at me as well.
"Yeah, man.  I haven't got any hair left... it's Andy, Scott.  I'm uglier than ever."
"Andy... holy.. Andy how you doin..." he called out to me, and walking toward me, I could see he had a pronounced limp.
"I'm OK, man... not making the kind of money I used to in Nap Town. Bloomington is wage slave heaven, and I'm a baker making very little.  But I'm happy, and have a decent girl.  Things have been worse... as I'm sure you recall."
"Uh," Scott smiled, showing an extremely gapped-toothed and worn smile,"you were all right..."
"Scott," I said, "I wanted to thank you when I left.  I never had your phone number.. and when I came back they'd moved the store to Georgetown Rd.  I went there and no one had ever heard of you.  It's Scott Brinks, right?  Brinks?"
"Yeah," he said, trailing a little at the wonder of my remembering.  We were both surprised. "Brinks. Scott Brinks."
"Are you doing OK, Scott? You still with pastor Jim, and his troublemaking brothers?  It was Boys to Men back then... right?  What is it, Jars to Clay these days, coming to see your famous Church in Indy?  Trust me, they aren't going to Zionsville."
"Oh, they might be going there, Andy.  We're all Christians in the eyes of God."
"I guess I'm as arrogant as ever," I said, in remorse.
Scott laughed, "we're all of that in His eyes as well!"
I smiled, a wave of sadness rushing over me. "God, it's good to see your face."
"You too." he said.
"You know, I'm not a very busy man. Can I give you a ride... can I buy you a coffee or something."
Scott got a somewhat startled look, and gave a sidelong glance, then said, "I got somewhere to be... but I'll see you again."
As always, when it is brought to my attention that someone else isn't feeling exactly as I am, it startled me.  He had been being nice.  I had been warming up.  He'd been being polite.
"Oh, yeah," I said, "of course.  Thanks for talking to me.  You were like... I don't know, my Virgil to this place, Scott.  It would have been impossible to come here, without you. And in the end... you were the reason I left with some of myself intact. "
"You always had something nice to say," Scott smiled sadly, " that I couldn't make sense of.  You got rid of that car--- the Olds?"
"Yeah... you wouldn't buy it from me." I said.
"Yeah!" he cried, "you brought that broken down piece of junk and tried to leave it at my house."
"Well..." I said, defensively, "outside of my Uncle's best friend, you were its biggest fan. Besides, I owed you."
"For what?"
"For not stealing it sooner."
We laughed.  I did what pathetic memory of our old handshake remained in my stupid honky arm... and gripped his hand, looking into his tired smiling eyes.  "Good to see you."
"Yeah, man.  Take care."
In his face, and his limp, as he walked away I could see his exhaustion.  Only a few iterations away from what should have had happened to me.  And frankly, given my nature, he probably had made it far longer than I ever would have.  Who knew?
My heart sank, as I got in that car, and turned away from his figure, as he continued down Westlane, on the apron of the street where the pedestrians in that neighborhood walked.  There was no sidewalk. Just a flat graded gutter for errant vehicles, plowed snow, and slowly eroding men.

Six months later, another old friend, Jaykita ran into me at the grocery at Westlane Plaza.  We laughed about funny memories.. and I asked her why Scott was limping when I had seen him that Spring.  Jaykita looked at me strangely, "Scott... Andy; he's died." 

He overdosed two months prior.

Knowing that some people can construct a rationale for his demise that could none the less endure my cultures perspectives: it gives me strength to listen sometimes to this heart that he helped to better shape.  And it helps me realize that nobody is half as good as they think... nor half as deserving of any fate that is the going wage.


2 comments:

Harlequin said...

andy-- this is such a gut level real account of lives intertwined, connecting and re-connecting; of how small things are big things and how fleeting the time we all have is.... nicely done!! your honesty is as impressive as it is unsettling... but unsettling in that good way....

Andy Coffey said...

Harlequin,

Thanks. Obviously, I am grateful to Scott, for everything he showed me. It's strange, however, how often it is the case that we are grateful for simply having enjoyed someone. More often than not, in my life, I have analyzed what I could simply have enjoyed. And in so doing proved myself the undeserving recipient of our worlds blessings.