Friday, June 27, 2003

Open Ground

It was late. Or it was early. That line gets pretty fuzzy east of 3 a.m. Anyway. Riding the Western Avenue bus south. Headed home from my best friend from high school's place. Hung out there a lot back then. Don't know what we were doing that night. Playing cards. Or video games. Or just shooting the shit. Haven't heard from her in years. Doesn't matter. That is now. This was then. On the Western Avenue bus. Sometime before dawn on a January night. Or morning. Take your pick.

The bus stopped at the O'Hare Blue Line. Runs 24/7/365. Been on it many times. Even at that hour. Once threw up off the Belmont platform after a party in Logan Square. Had gotten on the train going the wrong way. Haven't touched grain alcohol since.

A couple people get on the bus at the stop. One guy about my size threw himself down in the seat across the aisle from me. Light unkemped brown hair. Dull, hooded eyes. A nose that looked like it had been broken at least once. I went back to staring out the window. Then he started talking to me.

"Comin' back from a party, huh?"
I looked at him. Wearily shook my head. Went back to staring. "So, where's the party?" I looked at him again. "No party, man. Just goin' home." He stared. Unblinking. Looked drunk. Maybe high. Couldn't smell anything from him. Didn't want to get close enough to.

Two stops closer to home. He started up again. "C'mon, man, Where's the party?" I looked at him again. Unwillingly. "No party. Just tired and headed for home." He continued to stare. Unblinking. "C'mon, man. I know you know where the party is. I wanna go to the party." I stopped looking across the aisle. Just a few stops to go. Just a few stops to home.

My stop came up. I grabbed the pole. Swung up quickly. Sprang out the door. Crossed at the light. Made the turn toward home, Just a couple blocks to go.

Someone walked up beside me. About my size. Dull, hooded eyes. Nose that looks like it's been broken at least once. Moved more quietly than you'd think.

"We're goin' to the party, right?"

"I told you, man. There's no party. I'm tired and just want to go home." Getting irritated. Nervous. This guy's not high. Not drunk. Not right.

"C'mon. Take me there. The party at your place?"

My place. This freak was going to dog me all the way to my place. Mom and Dad's place. Home.

At the last intersection before home, I stop. "Look. There. Is. No. Party. I'm going home. You should, too. Goodbye." He blocked my path with his body. "What. Is. Your. Problem?"

He shoved me against the apartment building at the corner. Not hard enough to bounce me. Or ever jar me. Just an attention-getter.

"I'm going to kill you," he said.

He had my attention.

It's not what you say. It's how you say it. He didn't say it like a threat. Or a promise. Or even something he particularly wanted to do. He said it like it was a forgone conclusion. I was going to die. He was going to kill me. Simple.

I wasn't scared. Strange. But I'd been threatened with worse. Had worse done to me. Survived. And Mr. Broken-Nosed Psycho wasn't displaying any weaponry. No knife. No gun. Not even the "finger in the pocket" trick. Just his hands on my army surplus coat. And unblinking, lifeless eyes.

"Okay. Why would you want to do that?"

No answer. Stare. "Let's go." No reasoning with him. Not right. Started walking down side street. Away from home. No telling where he wanted to take me. His place? An alley? Abandoned building? Didn't plan to find out.

Options? Few. Could have tried to slug him. We were side by side. Not a good angle. And hadn't slugged anyone in years. Not a fighter. Back me into a corner and I'll come out swinging. Like any other animal. But that would be a last resort.

Best bet? Pick a moment and run for open ground. Put a few steps between me and Mr. Broken-Nosed Psycho. Open ground. More options. More of a chance.

We walked. But only a few feet. The apartment building he'd pinned me to ended at an alley. My alley. I didn't look at him. Didn't say a word. Just waited for my right shoulder to clear the burgundy brick and made a quick, hard right at the corner. Tooled down the alley. Took long, loping steps. Open ground.

Didn't really have a plan. Mom and Dad's back gate was maybe 30 yards ahead. A bitch to open at any time. Much less when a broken-nosed psycho is right behind you. I'd have to jump it. If I got there far enough ahead of him. Maybe grab something in the alley to hit him with. A pipe. Two-by-four. Anything. Keep running, stupid. Keep running.

Tricky footing in the alley. January. Snow on the ground. Packed down by passing cars. Like running on wet glass. Could have been worse. Could have been wearing dress shoes. Or boots. Instead, trusty Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Good traction. Long, loping steps. Open ground.

Mr. Broken-Nosed Psycho? Not so fortunate. Had dress boots on. Not ideal for sprinting at any time. But especially not this late. Or early. In January. On packed-down snow. After someone wearing Chuck Taylor All-Stars with a few steps on him. Not ideal at all. Too bad. So sad.

Maybe it was God. If I still believed. Which I'm not sure I do. Or fate. Or dumb luck. Whatever. But just ahead of me were two horizontal columns of light. Slicing the cold, thick night. An open garage door. With a car. And a man behind the wheel.

I slid to a halt. Right between the headlights. Started screaming. "HELPTHERE'SAFUCKINGPSYCHOBEHINDMEWHOSAYSHE'SGONNAKILLME!" Driver didn't speak. Didn't move. Kept his hands on the wheel. Ten o'clock. Two o'clock. Just stared ahead.

Mr. Broken-Nosed Psycho? Never broke stride. Kept sprinting down the alley. Picked up speed as he went. faded fast into the distance.

Strange. Now that he was gone, now that I was I felt afraid. Maybe it was like in the movies. Teenager thinks he's safe. Psycho in hockey mask pops up and bisects his stupid, trusting ass. Happened all the time. In the movies.

I approached the car. Driver still didn't move. Hispanic male. Medium build. Thick cookie-duster mustache. Staring at me. Maybe afraid himself. How would he know what he'd just seen? Maybe a lovers' quarrel. Or a drug deal gone bad. Or two crazy-ass mofos chasing each other around on a bitter-cold January night. Or morning. How would he know?

"Can...can I cut through your garage to get to the street?" Voice shaky. Winded. Relieved. Scared. Driver finally moves. Takes right hand off ten o'clock. "Go around and use the gangway." I nodded. Thanked him. He never got out of the car. Hand back at ten o'clock.

I took a deep breath. Exhaled not slowly, like you should when stressed to the Nth. But quickly. Like spitting. Or letting smoke out of your lungs. Then I headed for the yellow light of the street ahead of me. Craned out around the corner of the building. Like a wolf in a Warner Brothers cartoon. No one on the street. No one walking. Or driving. Or anything. Open ground.

Quick, long steps. Keys out and ready. Top lock. Bottom lock. In the door. Through the living room. Up the stairs. Home.

Never told Mom and Dad about that. They worried enough about me as it was. Chicago streets can be dangerous. Any of them. At any time. No need to confirm this for them. They'd both been mugged before. Dad was held up at gunpoint once in a diner. They knew. They worried enough.

Never saw that guy again. Never want to. Hope the karma train came and took his broken-nosed psycho self away.

I'm not a lover. (Not for years, anyway). I'm not a fighter. (Not unless that's all there is left to do.) But a survivor? Oh yeah. I'm that. At the very least.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

The Orange Tree

On the small rectangle of decaying, gray-painted boards that passes for my back porch stands an orange tree. An odd thing to find in Chicago, which is not know for its citrus groves. A small thing, too--it stands around two feet tall, counting the pot, but manages to tower over the shamrocks and cacti that stand atop the alley-acquired end table that all the plants in the house stand on from as early in April as they can be set out (in other words, once the snow has stopped) to as late in October as they can safely stand it (in other words, until the snow shows up again).

The orange tree belonged to Dad, who grew it from a seed. Really, he did. Ate the orange. Laid the seeds out on a paper towel. Laid the paper towel out on a shelf in the basement, safely away from the cats, to dry them out. Planted each seed in its own small pot. Set the pots out on the deck atop the back porch (a proper, full-sized back porch). Let them grow.

Most of the seeds didn't take. No news flash to Dad. he was always trying to grow odd things. Cherry trees. Pineapples. Avacadoes. Rasberry bushes. (Those actually grew--you can still collect quite a harvest in the fall in Mom's backyard.) A tomato tree bought out of the back of a seed catalog. Dad liked to experiment with many things. He was a carpenter. An electrician. A baker. (His doughnuts were more fit for pounding nails than for dunking in coffee.) A horticulturalist. Jack of all trades.

Most of the seedlings didn't survive. Again, no great surprise. One did, though. It grew steadily during its first season. I lived in the second floor apartment at the time, so the orange tree wintered with me among my plants. It not only survived, but thrived with regular watering and northern exposure sunlight. During the summers, it sat out on the deck, anchored with bricks all around its base to keep it from rolling over on windy afternoons. (the deck rests between two taller brick apartment buildings; on breezy days, especially when a front strolls up from the south, a wind tunnel effect kicks in and tosses around anything not nailed down.)

Five years later, it bloomed for the first time. Tiny white flowers dotted its green branches. By the end of that summer, the damn this bore fruit. Nothing edible. Nasty, bitter stuff. Oranges. Freshly grown on the cusp of Ukrainian Village. In Chicago. Amazing.

After Dad passed away--two days before Father's Day of that year--Mom gave me permanent custody of the orange tree. Made sense. It spent the winters with me anyway, and the deck was technically part of my apartment (since I lived on the second floor). When I moved into La Casa del Terror later that year, the orange tree came with me. It winters in my office (soon to be converted back into a bedroom). It summers on the back porch. It blooms small, fragrent white flowers. And it bears fruit that, someday, may be edible.

All because a man from Alabama living in a cold northern town wanted to see what would happen if he planted orange seeds. Maybe that's what he and Mom were thinking when they decided to have me. They wanted to see what would happen. That would make the orange tree my litte brother. Or not.

I think he was pleased with the progress of both though. Proud, even.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads I've known. Especially one.

Monday, June 9, 2003

Review: Finding Nemo (2003)

Most of the reviews I've read of Finding Nemo have focused on the computer-generated animation. That's understandable--if Finding Nemo isn't the most brilliantly animated movie ever, as some have claimed, it's certainly one of the most visually complex films ever committed to celluloid. Every frame is packed with colorful detail and playful in-jokes, most of which I missed.

Why? Because, silly person that I am, I was paying attention to the story and the dialogue.

I feel the same way about animated motion pictures as I do about live-action flicks: you can throw as much CGI at me as you want to, but you damn well better tell me a story, too--and make it a good one. The folks at Pixar understand this. Their previous efforts (the Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc.) all had fabulous animation, but it was the quality of the storytelling that held my attention; I didn't even notice the look and feel of Toy Story until about halfway through it because I was so enjoying the detailed characterizations and and witty dialogue.

To be sure, Pixar has developed a recognizable, if highly successful and flexible, formula: Establish a setting and characters (a child's bedroom full of toys, an ant colony, an ocean community); throw in an event that causes one or more of the main characters to go on a quest; have said characters meet colorful (in the case of Finding Nemo, literally so) friends/foes along the way; stress the importance of the love of friends and/or family; repeat as necessary.

The formula varies slightly from film to film, of course. In Nemo, tragedy strikes Disney-style in the first few minutes, as Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks, though he sounds remarkably like Tom Hanks to these ears), a clown fish, loses his wife and most of their eggs to a barracuda, making him afraid of the very ocean around him and overprotective of his one remaining child, Nemo (Alexander Gould). Marlin's smothering attention to Nemo, who also has an underdeveloped right front fin, makes the younger clown fish rebel, much to father and son's mutual regret: Nemo swims up to a boat and is promtly scooped up by a scoobadiver, who takes the captured little fishy back to the aquarium in his office in Sydney.

The movie thus splits into two stories: Nemo's adventures in the fish tank with other "inmates" (voiced by the likes of Allison Janney, Brad Garrett and, most memorably, Willem Dafoe as an escape-minded angelfish); and Marlin's quest to find and save his son. The latter is the more involved of the two, with Marlin meeting all sorts of fish along the long trip to Sydney, like Bruce (Barry Humphries), a shark who's sworn off of eating fish; Crush (voiced by co-director Andrew Stanton), an accomodating sea turtle; and Nigel (Geoffrey Rush), a friendly pelican.

Best and funniest of all, though, is Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, in a bouncy vocal performance that would be worthy of Best Supporting Actress consideration if the Academy considered voice acting as acting, period), a Royal Blue Tang (yes, I said "Tang"--stop giggling now) who suffers from short-term memory loss and perpetual curiousity that is both help (gathering information to help Marlin rescue Nemo) and hindrance (damn near getting both of them killed numerous times).

Love of newfound friends (though not romantic love, dancing around a cliche live-action movies would be better off dropping as well), accepting responsibility for actions, succeeding in spite of substantial handicaps and against daunting odds--empowering themes that Pixar touches on regularly, enriching their characters and giving their adventures a surprising degree of emotional heft (when I wasn't laughing, I was tearing up).

Add levels of humor aimed at adults and children with out excluding or condescending to either audience, and what you wind up with is a movie that touches, amuses, entertains and emotionally satisfies like far too few movies do.

Oh...and Finding Nemo looks really pretty, too.