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A Study In Trash

By Tim Hayes

Would you trust a bunch of 12-year-old boys, armed with brushes and stencils and buckets of oil-based paint, turned loose on the utility poles of your local municipality’s main business district?

Well, they did in 1973.  And pockets of proof can still be seen, barely, all these years later on a handful of those old metal standards.

As the U.S. of A. approached its Bicentennial in 1976, the borough thought it would be a nice idea to repaint the metal poles along the business corridor – red and white stripes on the lower three feet or so, and blue with white stars for the upper three feet.  And they let us kids do it.

You can bet I got onto that crew, pronto.  That’s because every other kid working that summer Saturday was engaged picking up trash and depositing it into red, white, and blue barrels with “Help Keep Mt. Oliver Clean” stenciled onto them.  An image of one of those barrels, in fact, could be seen on the free T-shirts we all wore during this participatory exercise in civic pride.

Of course, “free” can be a relative term.  Officials from the borough did not charge us money when they handed out the T-shirts, true, but we worked for them nonetheless that blistering day.  Inhaling that oil-based paint in high-90s temperatures?  By dinner, we didn’t know our last names.

Then there’s the story of how the T-shirts even made it to Mt. Oliver for the big day at all.  I had never heard this until very recently – more than 40 years after the fact – but my Dad and another father had to drive, on extremely short notice, across state lines into the dark recesses of rural Ohio to pick up boxes of shirts that the silk-screener never shipped.

Not exactly “Smokey and the Bandit” smuggling Coors beer east across the Mississippi, but every bit as thrilling, no doubt.  What Dads don’t do, huh?

I remember “Help Keep Mt. Oliver Clean” day quite vividly.  Not because painting iron telephone poles was such a jolly job, but because my friends and I felt pride in helping our hometown get spruced up.  We liked our town, we liked the fact that we lived there, and we liked the idea of pitching in to make it even better.

Years later, during my time working for the state Transportation Department as a district PR representative, I got assigned management of the annual “Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful” project for our six-county region in the Laurel Highlands.  This KPB job had been a moribund millstone around my boss’ neck for years, and he took great delight in sloughing it off on the new guy.  Me.

Whether I took it as a personal challenge to prove the boss wrong, or whether I felt compelled to conjure up positive vibes from the good old days in Mt. Oliver with my trash barrel T-shirt, but by the time the big KPB day rolled around two months later, our district had quintupled the number of Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, entire classrooms and school buildings, civic clubs, you name it, participating.

We had secured sponsorship by a regional convenience store, a bottling company, and a snack food producer, to provide a free lunch to all participants showing their KPB badge.  We had conducted nearly 30 school assemblies to generate awareness and interest.  Our little district, so often left in the dust, turned the project around so impressively that the Secretary of Transportation made a special trip to join some litter-pickup groups, and even got his free hot dog, Coke, and bag of chips at the convenience store.

Turns out that being a good citizen has multiple additional benefits.  At least it has for me along the way.

Today is Earth Day.  All over the nation this weekend, you can find local municipalities sponsoring events, including civic cleanup projects and other initiatives to take greater care of the resources entrusted to us.

If you are taking part in one of these activities, that’s great.  If you haven’t, then please try to do all you can to keep your little section of the world clean and green.  Or organize a cleanup day yourself.  Or make your elected and appointed representatives know that this subject deserves our ongoing attention and action.

Photos posted on Facebook last week show how cleanup efforts continue in my old hometown.  It’s great to know that, decades after we jumped in with our paint brushes and trash barrels, people still care enough to Help Keep Mt. Oliver Clean.

Hope it’s the same where you live, today and every day.  Happy Earth Day.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Mushrooms: A Love Story

By Tim Hayes

“Would you look at this kid?  He could be a brain surgeon.”

The chatter from my parents around the Formica-topped kitchen table became nothing more than background noise.  Important work lay before me.  Lengthy, precise, essential work.

Picking microscopic chunks of mushroom out of that evening’s tuna casserole dinner entrée, that is.

Made with cans of tuna fish, bread crumbs, and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup as a binder, I guess, tuna casserole occupied a regular spot in the starting supper menu rotation.  And on those evenings when it took the mound, I knew it was gonna be a long night.

The Campbell Soup Company – long before the days when anybody could even guess what “Chunky” soup meant – minced up mushrooms into teeny-tiny pieces to go into its canned product.  Not small enough to slip by unnoticed, but just big enough to stand out as miniature tastebud bombs, which needed to be extracted one by one from the dish served to me.  At least in my binary world of really good (hot dogs, spaghetti and meatballs) and unspeakably terrible (liver, city chicken) food selections.

Using tines of a fork, the edge of a butter knife, or the tip of a spoon, each shrinky-dink piece of mushroom got moved to the outer rim of my plate.  A monument to grade school stubbornness from one perspective; a tribute to stick-to-it-iveness from another.

Either way, that gross, disgusting pile of mushroom flotsam would never make it past my gums.  No sir, no how, no way.

Fast-forward to high school, and a side booth at “Danny O’Doogle’s,” the pizza shop a half-block from our school building.  There with a bunch of my friends, scarfing down cheap, borderline-quality pizza and generally horsing around, my best buddy – before I knew it – flipped a big old hunk of something onto the slice I was lifting to my mouth.

I took a bite and immediately noticed something different.  A new texture, a new taste, a new mouthfeel, new vistas opening somewhere in my life.  After chewing and evaluating this unanticipated culinary delight, I swallowed and smiled.  The other kids around the table, by this time, were laughing, thinking they’d gotten the better of me.  But I really liked it, whatever “it” had been.

When told the source of my edible epiphany had been a mushroom, well, you could have knocked me over with an anchovy.

From that day forward, mushrooms became an obsession.  In salads, on pizzas, between layers of ham and cheese on sandwiches, I made room for the ‘shrooms.  As our children grew up, I understood what my parents were thinking about me as a kid.  They couldn’t bear to look at a mushroom, much less eat one.  “Okay, fine, good,” I’d say to myself.  “More mushrooms for me, then!”

Then, a couple of years ago, an allergist performed a “scratch test” to see if any foods or entities might have been causing a recurring rash.  The test came back with all kinds of wacky, off-the-wall allergens, and one absolute crusher.

Yeah.  You guessed it.  Mushrooms.

Our family knows all about how dangerous and serious food allergies can be, so the scratch-test news landed with soul-pulverizing reality, but also a clear dose of realism about the need to stay away from my moldy soulmate from that day onward.  No more fungi for this fun guy.

My love affair smited by modern medicine, mushroom mania soon gave way to an infatuation with black olives.  An infatuation that has only grown over time.  Salads, pizza, in between ham and cheese.  Old habits die hard.  Only the variables change, I suppose.

Every now and then, however, a cook at a restaurant will slip up and leave mushrooms in a dish that I had ordered de-shroomed.  And suddenly I’m six years old again, back at that Formica-topped kitchen table, carefully extricating bits of mushrooms from my dinner, stacking them onto a pile at the far rim of my plate.

You know, perhaps Mom was right.  Maybe I could have been a brain surgeon.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Archie and the Hose

By Tim Hayes

In my old neighborhood, green space remained at a premium.  We had a small backyard, a strip of grass beside the house, and a tiny patch in front.

To prove the point, we had a manual push-mower from Sears.  No gas engine, no extension cord, just you and any kinetic energy you could summon and transfer to the blades.

It wasn’t hard work, but you can imagine the stink I raised whenever it came time for me to cut the grass.  You’d have thought I’d been asked to mow the fairways at Augusta at 4 a.m., when in truth the acreage to be cut might have only been enough for a fair putting green.

So, the ability to sport a decent a lawn – even a Fun-Size one – meant something in my old neighborhood.  Because the grassy spaces had been so diminutive, everybody took a little extra care to keep them cut, trimmed, and maintained.

Everybody but Chick, that is.  Chick lived next door, one house higher than us on the slanted street.

Even though they lived literally 10 feet from my bedroom window, I never understood Chick and his family.  He lived there with a sister about the same age as him, late 20s or early 30s, and a younger brother, Archie.  I assume their parents lived there years earlier, but long before my memory kicked in.

My best guess says that Archie might have been a year or so older than me, but that never became clear.  I couldn’t tell you what grade he attended, because it seemed to get switched around a lot.  Archie was “a little different,” the grown-ups on the block would say.  Be careful around him.

But I never saw Archie do anything weird or dangerous or threatening.  He didn’t talk a lot and didn’t hang around with the guys on the street or down at the park, but so what?  We’d play Wiffle Ball in the alley right outside his back window, but he never came out to join the game.  I didn’t think much of it.  Yet, for some reason, we had been warned about getting too close to Archie.  And he lived next door to me, naturally.

One spring, Chick decided he’d had enough of all this extensive lawn care, and did the unthinkable – he had his entire backyard cemented into an off-street (off-back alley, actually) parking lot.  Just one more proof point that this family up the hill had at least one screw loose.  Probably more, but who wanted to be the one to take inventory?

But Chick didn’t stop there.  Next, he brings home a puppy.  A puppy, and no backyard to run around on, or to do his business in, so to speak.  I guess they took him over to the narrow strip of lawn beside their house for the first month, but a 25-by-5-foot patch of grass can only take so much fertilization.

So Chick shifted to Plan B.  Even more unthinkable than paving over the backyard.  They let the dog leave his doody on the cement – then Chick would turn on his hose and squirt the poop into the alley!  Past our garage, along the back fence of our house, and by all the downstream neighbors until it splashed into the sewer grate at the bottom!

This is how I came to understand the saying, “Shit rolls downhill,” long before entering the world of work as an adult.  I saw it happen!  In living color!  And we did more than see it, if you get where I’m drifting.  Who knew a puppy could produce such vapors?

My buddies and I all thought every Dad down the block – including mine – would march up to Chick’s house and string him up by his own garden hose.

Then, about two weeks after Chick’s Plan B had begun, I heard a tense, heated conversation over the side fence.  The puppy had produced another souvenir pile on the cement, but as Chick went for the hose again, a halting voice piped up, gaining confidence and courage the longer he spoke.

“Listen, Chick, you can’t keep doing that!  We should pick up that poop and put it in a garbage can or something!  That’s really bad, what you’re doing!  My friends don’t like it, and I want them to like me!  It’s hard for me, and you know that.  So stop doing that thing with the hose, right now!”

I stood there, immobilized, silent, stunned, wide-eyed, shocked.  The last thing I wanted was for Chick to know I’d been on the other side of the fence, listening to his little brother’s confrontational comeuppance.  I froze in place until hearing the sound of Chick going back into his house.

The hose never got used again for that purpose.  And Archie had two hits during the next Wiffle Ball game in the back alley.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Making God Laugh

By Tim Hayes

The fellow in the front seat of the car probably was thinking about dinner that night.  Would he go out?  Maybe just grill up some hot dogs, stay in, and rent a movie on pay-per-view?

The lady wanted to get her bicycle across the street.  Maybe to get back home, maybe to go have a nice long ride.  Just another day.

A moment later, however, disaster.

The woman lay, dead, struck by the driverless car cruising the streets in Tempe, Arizona.  She had been walking her bicycle when struck by the car.  Preliminary reports say she may have darted out in front of the vehicle.  Later news updates say the driver inside the car – there to take over operation in case of malfunction or emergency – may have been slow to respond.  The investigation continues.

Here’s the point.  Neither of the two people involved in this tragedy saw it coming.  Life changed – and ended, for one of them – in a second.

Life is completely unpredictable.  People can be completely unreliable.  Getting through any single day has no more assuredness than a crap shoot.  It’s a miracle we leave the house in the morning, travel around, interact with familiar faces and total strangers, transport ourselves back home, and get into bed again in one piece.

I knew a high school senior once, who seemed quite upset that her entire life’s trajectory could not be plotted out with any real sense of confidence.  That was years ago, and where she is and what she’s doing now has little, if any, resemblance to those carefully constructed plans back in high school.  She understands this concept now.

The longer you’ve been around, and the more you’ve experienced, proves this over and over.  I’ve been in the conference room when the grim-faced VPs from the New York City headquarters told us that the Pittsburgh office of their global PR agency would be closing in two weeks.  One day, walking out from my eighth-grade classroom to take my post on a street corner as a patrol boy, a Cadillac taking a short cut hit me and left the scene – fracturing my skull and sending me into a three-day coma.  You never know what’s coming around the bend.  Sometimes literally.

We’re heading into the Christian Holy Week today, and I sometimes think of poor old Thomas.  One of the 12 apostles, Thomas sounded all brave and full of spunk before Jesus led the group up to Jerusalem, where he told them he would be executed.  Thomas pipes up with, “Then let us go with him, to die with him there.”  Pretty bold stuff, right?

But then, when things start to get rough in the Garden of Gethsemane as the Temple Guards arrest Jesus and the saga begins, where was Thomas?  Running for his life, with the other apostles, into the night, as far and fast from the action as his feet could carry him.  Even after Christ rises from the dead and appears again to his flawed followers, Thomas misses the moment.  Worse, he later says he won’t believe it until he actually sees Jesus and touches his wounds personally.

But Thomas ultimately proves his devotion, even after all of these misguided declarations and letdowns, when he becomes one of the first Christian martyrs, accepting death before denying his faith in Christ’s mission and person.  This holy man’s whipsaw journey from valiant disciple to wanton coward to doubtful skeptic to fearless hero proves that nothing’s guaranteed.  Life changes in an instant, for good or for bad.  There’s an old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” meaning that you can’t assume too much in this world of random fate and unpredictable chance.

I guess the best plan is to know who you truly are, what you represent, which principles you believe in and hold fast, and trust that those will carry you through any curve ball the world throws at you.

As the fictional movie boxer Rocky Balboa tells his son, “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.  But it ain’t about how hard you hit.  It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward – how much you can take, and keep moving forward.  That’s how winning is done.”

Keep your head down, your tail up, and your heart moving forward.  What else is there?

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Aiming for Them

By Tim Hayes

The blue Buick Regal sped down the highway, its undercarriage rattling, its shock absorbers pleading for sweet mercy.  Spring in Pittsburgh, and the potholes had begun to bloom.

There I sat, feet on the pedals, hands on the wheel, mere days after passing my driver’s test and becoming a licensed operator of a motor vehicle in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Unlike most of my friends in high school, I never went for my license at age 16.  After they got their licenses, I just had them pick me up if we wanted to go someplace.

A true late bloomer, I only got my license after starting college and falling spoons over teacups for this girl.  She lived in Pittsburgh too, but clear on the other side of town.  You had to cross two of the three rivers to get there, for Pete’s sake.  Here’s how parochial my worldview had been growing up – I had never even heard of her high school.  Thirty minutes away, and life had not given me cause to get within 10 miles of her house for my first 18 years on the planet.

But, boy, I tried to get there by any means possible whenever we came home from college that freshman year.  Bus rides took way too long, with transfers and various assorted weirdos and vagrants striking up incredibly uncomfortable conversations.  No, at age 18 the time to man up and learn to drive a car had definitely arrived.  I had to get to that girl’s house on my own terms.

(By the way, “that girl” is sitting at our dining room table as I write this, completing class assignments while working toward her second master’s degree.  She still amazes me, 36 years of marriage later.  But I digress…)

The blue Buick rumbled and rambled down the concrete toward the exit for my girlfriend’s house.  The highway looked like it had been cluster-bombed.  Shock and awe.  Or, shocks and ow.

The winter that year – just like the one we’re coming out of now – featured weather cycles where a few odd stretches of really warm days would be followed by frigid cold and lots of snow.  The repeated pattern of water seeping into seams in the roadbed, freezing and contracting, then melting and expanding, caused the pavement to crack and crumble into the war zone now being navigated.

Boom!  Crack!  Pow!  The blue Buick smacked into one vicious pothole after the next.  It sounded like one of those old Batman shows from the ‘60s.  Splat!  Crash!  Oomph!  Then came a voice from the passenger seat beside me.

“Good God, are you aiming for them?”

Dad, the owner of the car currently auditioning for the demolition derby under my slapdash piloting, feared for the suspension of his Buick, even as he feared for his life.  Looking back, can’t say that I blame him.

His question – clearly referring to my rookie driver’s inability to avoid potholes in the road – goes a lot deeper, if you think about it.

Are you aiming for them?

As a Type 2 diabetic, I’m supposed to watch my intake of carbohydrates.  But nothing tastes better on a Friday night after a busy week than hot pizza and cold beer.  They’re not great choices for my health.  So, am I misbehaving on purpose?  Am I thumbing my nose at my medical advisors, for the sake of a self-serving reward?  Questionable choices: Am I aiming for them?

We all do things we know better than to do.  Even St. Paul, that old sinner.  The New Living Translation of the Bible quotes him this way: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”

Does that mean we’re aiming for those things?  Those shocks to our consciences?  Those potholes of the soul?  Heavy stuff.  That’s when I’m glad to be Catholic.  We get to go to confession and start over again!

In all the 40 years of driving since that rickety, rattling trek to see my girlfriend in my Dad’s blue Buick, potholes still have a way of sneaking up on me.  I try to skirt around them.  I try to straddle the tires over them.  But sometimes, you just gotta take the slams as part of the journey, whether it’s while enjoying a drive or living a life.  They can be unavoidable.  But not always.

The conundrum remains, regarding the choices we make, even when they’re questionable: Are we aiming for them?  I dare you to think about it.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

This Is The Only Day

By Tim Hayes

We had only been married about two or three years, living for the first time at an appreciable distance from any family, and broke as hell.

After finishing dinner at the all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut Buffet one evening, we carefully loaded some slices into a carryout box to serve as lunches and maybe even dinner the next day.  Walking over to the car, I felt a gust of wind suddenly rise like vicious and well-placed uppercut, sending the box flying into the air and out of reach.

It flew open, tomorrow’s lunch sailing by, pepperoni-laden slices silhouetted against the street lights, before landing, toppings down, on the gritty sidewalk.

“Son of a bitch!” I shouted, the frustration and embarrassment of our just-scraping-by existence bubbling up and out.  Only years later – more than 30 years later, actually – did the truth finally grab me by the metaphorical lapels and issue a good hard slap across the face.

And it came, of all places, from a tweet.

Scrolling through Twitter a few weeks ago, this sentence stopped me in my tracks: “Right now, you are living the life that someone else is dreaming of living.”

So even then, with little money in our checking account, we lived someone else’s dream life.  We were very happy, very much in love with each other.  We both had jobs and a safe, clean townhouse in a good neighborhood.  We had our health and our hope for a long life together.  The money would come later, we believed.  And we were right.

It reminds me of a character from one of my favorite movies, “Field of Dreams.”  In this mystical journey to renewal and reconciliation through the game of baseball, we meet Dr. Archie “Moonlight” Graham.  We see him first as an elderly small town physician, who only played one half-inning in one major league game as a younger man – and who never got the chance to come up to bat.

When asked how that makes him feel, to come so close to your dream and never get it, Moonlight says, “You know, we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening.  Back then I thought, ‘Well, there’ll be other days.’  I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”

What he means is that what’s past is past, and it can’t be changed, so who wants to live there?  What’s yet to come is anybody’s guess, and it’s foolish to spend too much energy or anxiety over it.  No, Moonlight Graham learned the lesson well that today is the only day that matters.

What that’s meant for me comes down to that fateful night when our pizza took a flying leap onto the cement.  And the days when each of our children were born.  And the nights when I’d read to my little girls as they climbed into bed, performing all of the voices and making them giggle.  And the day my son and I drove a golf cart clear across four fairways on a blistering afternoon in Phoenix, laughing like loons.  And the lunchtime phone call when I learned I had cancer.  And the day I watched my father-in-law being taken out the front door of his home for the last time.  And the mornings when I open my eyes to see the most beautiful face in the world beside me.

Life is happening, even when we fail to realize it, appreciate it, or notice it.  Some of the greatest moments occur on the most otherwise lackadaisical days.  John Lennon is quoted as saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

But there is no “other.”  There’s only here.  There’s only where, and with whom, you are now.  This moment is all that matters.

To quote from another favorite film, “Dead Poets Society,” the prep school English teacher played by Robin Williams instructs his young charges, “Carpe diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

Your life, no matter how much or little may be in your checking account, is indeed extraordinary.  It’s worth remembering that whatever situation you may be in, right now you are living the life that someone else is dreaming of living.  I finally connected those dots in my head and heart.

So I plan to appreciate this day, this life, this moment.  Because, as Moonlight Graham realized as a country doctor, long after his playing days had ended, this is the only day.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Sleep

By Tim Hayes

A comedian I saw on TV not long ago did a full five minutes on sleep, and how ridiculous it would sound to aliens trying to understand us earthlings.

“Okay, so you mean that these creatures, the very top of the food chain around here, with brains that can outperform any other form of intelligence, need to completely – COMPLETELY – shut down for one-third of their existence, just to remain functional?”

“Well…yes, General.”

“Great!  This will be a piece of cake!  We attack at dawn!  No, wait…we attack at midnight!”

Doctors, your mother, hell, even Arianna Huffington in her book “The Sleep Revolution,” all agree that eight uninterrupted hours of sleep remains an essential element in mental, emotional, and physical health.  Ha!  Talk about comedians!  Now THAT is funny!

According to Gallup, 59% of Americans get seven or more hours of sleep at night, while 40% get less than seven hours. Those figures are largely unchanged from Gallup polls in the 1990s and 2000s.  Americans on average, though, slept much more in the 1940s.  Americans currently average 6.8 hours of sleep at night, down more than an hour from 1942.

They got more sleep in 1942.  Think about that.  The U.S. had just entered World War II.  The spread of Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism had yet to be reversed, much less defeated.  D-Day and the invasion of France was still two years off.  Nobody knew when or how this global cataclysm would end – or if it ever would.

And yet Americans still got more sleep than we do today.  How is that possible?

I blame the iPhone, an out-of-whack economy, and the twisting of priorities across this society.  Stress makes people wrecks, both outwardly and within.  The physiological effects of stress actually reach down to cellular level, making us sick, constricting blood flow to the brain and other parts of the body.

The absolute worst thing anybody can do at night before trying to go to sleep is the one thing most people continue to do with regularity – watch and listen to the news.  Local news in particular, where every forecast emanates from the SEVERE WEATHER CENTER, every snowstorm rivals Armageddon, and the fate of your neighbors – or even YOU – lies at the mercy of druglords and roving bands of heavily armed marauders, just around the corner.

Then there are the political ads.  Good grief, no wonder we can’t get a solid night’s rest!

Personally, I love to sleep.  If I had my druthers, I would take a two-hour nap each afternoon, just like my rhetorical hero, Winston Churchill.  That crafty old bloke religiously took a London siesta from 4 to 6 pm., then took a second bath of the day, ate his dinner, and worked until well after midnight – from the Battle of Britain to Yalta and right up to the day he fell asleep and never woke again.

But the modern pressures of business, family, friends, and community involvement obligations tug and pull at us all, sapping our energy, fraying our nerves, limiting our rest, shortening our lives.  Wouldn’t it be worth the effort, though, to stop and think about all that?  Why do we feel the need to move so fast?  To take on so much?  To push and reach and climb until we collapse?

The mind can be so much smarter than the brain.  The brain cracks the whip, setting goals, insisting on striving beyond ourselves, using fear and stress to keep us running on that metaphorical treadmill.  The mind, however, remains smart enough to either temper those impulses, or to simply shut the body down entirely in self-defense.

Is that any way to live?  Where’s the balance?  Where’s the fun?  Where’s the perspective?

We have some crazy people running the world these days, make no mistake, but they said the same thing in 1942.  And the situation had become a lot worse for that generation that it has for ours.  Still, they found a way to get their proper rest, even amid the madness.  Old Churchill, too.

We ought to do the same.  It couldn’t hurt.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Claustrophobic Costanza

By Tim Hayes

Okay, so we drive up to Rochester, New York, just the two of us, to see our daughter at college.  We purposely chose this particular weekend because it fell in the middle of a slow time of year, no holidays, no heavy traffic on the New York Thruway.  Just an easy up-and-back trip and the chance to spend a couple of days with our college girl.

The hotel room had been booked a couple of months in advance, so we had no idea.  No clue.  No way of knowing that by the time we arrived in Rochester, every room in the city had been reserved.  An entire American metropolis, booked solid.

Traffic into the city crawled along.  Finding a space in the hotel’s garage – one of the last ones available – we entered the lobby.  The crowded lobby.  A sea of humanity with its luggage in tow.

But wait – that wasn’t regular luggage.  Oddly shaped cases, some very small, others enormous.  We looked at each other and, as former members of our respective high school marching bands, realized that the hotel had been overrun by musicians.

When we finally got to the registration desk, I asked what was going on.  “Oh, we’re hosting the national marching band competition!  There are bands from all over the country in Rochester this weekend!”

Oh.

Well, so much for sleeping in, as trumpets tooted in the next room and drum sections practiced in the front of the hotel.  But that was okay.  After all, we had been part of that world as teenagers, too.

As we spent time with our daughter, going in and out of the hotel that weekend, the impression formed that this facility might have passed its prime some years earlier.  They kept the rooms clean and the place functioned well enough.  But you could just tell that a lot of the luster had been worn smooth, if not fallen off completely.

Exhibit A: The elevators.

Not all that spacious, the cars rode at a snail’s pace up and down.  The doors took forever to open at each floor.  The cars bounced and wobbled in space before the mechanism could grab the latch that opened the doors.

All of which represented little slivers of interior terror for a claustrophobic scaredy-cat like me.

Just walking into an elevator – any elevator – requires a focused, conscious effort in my head to not freak out.  Being in an enclosed space, especially a small one, sends my adrenaline shooting skyward.  Those of us dealing with claustrophobia know the feeling, the very real, very powerful sensation.  You realize you’re trapped inside this box, completely dependent on out-of-your-control mechanics for your release into freedom.  Every moment of the ride builds anxiety into a taller, more thunderous wave.  Full panic threatens to engulf you any second.  As the doors open, relief.  You can exhale again.  Heart rates subside back into normal levels.

Until the next elevator ride, anyway.

So, back to Rochester.  We had been lucky, the elevator rides had been relatively manageable, even though we were staying on the top floor – the ninth floor – of the hotel.  Come Sunday, we gathered our bags for the return drive home, hit the call button, and stepped onto an empty ninth-floor elevator.

Floor 8, another couple got on.  Floor 7, same thing.  Starting to get a little crowded in this rolling box of death.  Floors 6 and 5, we sailed right past.  Whew!  Then the doors opened on Floor 4.  And the world ended.

There had to be eight people crushing their way into that elevator car.  But not just regular people – musicians!  The band festival had finished the night before, and now hundreds of musicians were leaving the hotel at the same time as us.  So on came these folks, with their horn cases, their saxophone cases, their flute cases.

Smashed against the back wall, eyes clenched tight, breathing shallow, I kept telling myself, “It’s only three floors to the lobby, and no one else could possibly fit on this elevator.  Hang on, you can do it.”

Then the drummers tried to enter.  I kid you not.  People carrying drums, trying to get onto an overloaded elevator.  By this time, the car is bouncing on its cables with all the weight.  I’m rapidly losing self-control, hot, sweaty, trembling.  And as the second drummer fought to squeeze in, the rubber band in my head snapped.

Summoning the strength of an NFL fullback blocking to make a tough first down, I started knocking people to the side, to the front, to any direction, so that I could get the hell off that thing.  Like George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” at the children’s party where a small grease fire starts, when he knocks over kids, moms, clowns, old ladies with walkers, to get out of that house, self-preservation kicked in.  Eyeglasses, purses, trumpet cases, and especially drums, were sent flying as I bulldozed my way to oxygen.

This meant leaving my poor wife alone, still pressed against the back of that overcrowded deathtrap.  I hope that in less stressful situations, I would be a lot more chivalrous than that.  But there were just no two ways around it.  I had to get off of that freaking elevator.

It had been years since anything like that has happened.  Although, just the other night, we were visiting someone in the hospital.  On the ninth floor, in fact.  And as we slowly made the descent to the lobby, more and more medical staff piled on one of only two elevators running that evening.

Around the fourth floor, as another team of folks in scrubs fought its way onto our overpopulated car…well, you can probably guess what happened next.  Let’s just say a stethoscope or two got swiftly and forcefully separated from its owner, as some nut ran wild-eyed from the rear.

And did he leave his wife on the elevator?  Again?

Yeah, he did.  Again.  Sorry, Hon.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Tracy the Brave

By Tim Hayes

I can’t even begin to imagine the courage required.

Picture this.  A Catholic elementary school, grades one through eight.  About 400 students in all.  And every single one of them white.  Sure, they broke out by family heritage, the Germans outnumbered everyone else, but you had Italian, Irish, Polish.  Most of Western Europe well represented, but all white.

And you’re the only black student.  The.  Only.  Black.  Student.  Plus, you’re not even Catholic.

Yet, driven by your parents’ belief in a quality education, they send you off to that school, alone.  I can only guess at the fear, anxiety, concern – of that young girl, certainly, but also of her mother and father.

But there she was.  Tracy.  There on the first day of seventh grade, in my homeroom.   Taking her seat amid stares and whispers.  Shock and surprise.  Curiosity and wonder.

This wasn’t to say that prejudice did not exist among my classmates.  I’m sure it did.  In some more than others.  I don’t mean to excuse some of the faculty, either.  This introduced all of us to some very new territory, and it took some time to get acclimated.

Tracy, as I recall, did her best, participating in class, being friendly to her classmates – mostly the other girls – and trying hard to not stand out or stand apart.  She wanted to be a member of our seventh-grade class, the same as anyone else.  Not the “black girl” of the seventh-grade class.  She didn’t want to be a novelty, an exception, a distraction.

At the same time, though, we’re talking about the seventh grade.  Kids in seventh grade can be an unpredictable, ridiculous, reprehensible bunch on their best days.  The first whispers of hormones get carried on the breeze.  Girls become gossipy, clique-obsessed, moody.  Boys get shot full of bravado and testosterone, with no clue as to how to recognize or control it.

Seventh grade can be a full-blown shitstorm, let’s face it.  Introduce a new student like Tracy, in the early ‘70s when society may have been, shall we say, considerably less enlightened?  Well, as I said, I can’t believe the courage required on her part.

Around Valentine’s Day, one of the girls in our class said she would have a party at her house, and that we all could come.  Hallway and playground chatter for the next week dealt with little other than who was going, what would it be like, would anybody chicken out at the last minute?  Even though this all happened in the dark ages before text messages, Twitter, and all the rest, we had our own crude, rudimentary social media going like a house afire.

At last the big evening arrived.  My neighbor’s Dad drove me and his daughter to the party (she was my longtime friend, not a girlfriend), and said he’d be back around 10 p.m.  We went in to the house, then down to the basement, where the streamers and refreshments had been set up.  Other kids trickled in for the next half-hour or so, including Tracy.

At this point, the only boys present were me and two other guys from class.  We sat on one side of the basement, keeping to ourselves, while the girls stood around and talked on the other side.

Soon, shouts could be heard near the basement windows at street level.  Hands started slapping against the windowpanes.  Faces soon pressed against the glass, laughing and yelling.  Other male classmates were trying to disrupt the party inside by provoking trouble.  But what was worse, they said they wouldn’t come in until somebody left.  It didn’t take much to understand who they meant.

And most of these ignoramuses were altar boys.

Well, I’m proud to say that no one left the party.  For my part, it wasn’t necessarily because I had suddenly turned into a fearless advocate for racial justice and harmony.  I mean, I knew those guys outside were way out of line, and I had come to like Tracy as a classmate.  But the bigger reasons I stayed were that my ride home wouldn’t get there for another two hours, and I didn’t want to get beat up.

That night has stayed with me for more than 40 years, though.  How easy it is to hate.  To frighten.  To convince oneself of the righteousness of a cause and to feel brave while part of a pack gathered under the cloak of darkness.  And how hard it is to withstand such needless, warrantless, heartless, pointless abuse.

Tracy stayed at the party that Friday night, and she took her seat again the following Monday morning in class.  If any of that nonsense got to her, she never let it show.

I have no idea whatever happened to Tracy, once we all left for high school.  My hope is that she’s a happy, content, successful wife, mother, businesswoman, entrepreneur, friend – enjoying a life free from ignorance and intimidation.

A life she demonstrated to us in the seventh grade.  A life of courage.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

A Little Neighborhood Hole in the Wall

By Tim Hayes

Everybody needs one.  That place you find that fits your style.  That serves up great food.  That makes you feel at home every time you walk in the place.

We found ours about a year after we moved back to our hometown of Pittsburgh, more than 25 years ago.  This little hole in the wall, just about eight minutes from our house.  After all this time, we know the family who runs it as well as we know our own neighbors.  This comes as no surprise, since we probably spend more time with these folksy restaurateurs during the cold months than we do with the neighbors.

In a converted two-story townhouse, the husband and wife along with their two sons and their families have been serving up the best pasta, fish, steak, pizza, soup, salad, you name it, year after year.  Nothing fancy, but unbelievably delicious – and with a consistent quality that has never wavered.  Amazing.

When we started patronizing the restaurant, our two daughters were babies.  Our son hadn’t even entered the picture yet.  Now the girls are through with college and off on their own, and our son’s college career is mere weeks from wrapping up.  And our friends who have been whomping up great meals for us through it all have watched our kids grow and enjoyed the process right along with us.

It’s so comforting to have a go-to place like this.  When we want to celebrate, we go there.  When we want to crash on a Friday night after a tough week, just to relax, have a drink, enjoy some great pasta, and chat for a minute with people who sincerely are happy you’re there, that’s where we go.  We have reserved the restaurant for private events, including First Communion parties.  We have asked them to cater graduation parties at our house.

Our little neighborhood hole in the wall has been at the center of many of the milestones of our family’s life.  What a blessing.

In the film “Moonstruck,” the family of the character played by Cher frequents its own little neighborhood hole in the wall, the Gran Torino.  “Bobo,” the head waiter, knows them by name and can anticipate their preferences and orders.  In our favorite haunt, the people there can do the same.

The patriarch of the family, freed from the heavy cooking duties in the kitchen, now serves as the roving goodwill ambassador in the bar, the downstairs dining area, and the upstairs dining room.  Stopping by to say hello, he’ll ask where the kids are these days, maybe offer some sage wisdom, then totter off to make some other patrons feel welcome.  His wife does much of the same, while keeping a sharp eye on what’s going on the kitchen and among the wait staff.

The sons, whose roles have risen to cooking the meals and running the place day-to-day, know us well, too.  Even when I call to place an order for take-out, before they ask for the name, they’ll say, “Is this you, Mr. Hayes?”  It probably sounds corny as hell, but to be so familiar and to be recognized with such sincere gratitude and grace – well, it’s one of life’s loveliest little victories.

During one tableside conversation not long ago, as one of the sons asked about our kids, I mentioned that we had been coming here ever since our oldest was about two years old.  Twenty-five years ago, that would make it.  His eyes widened, and he told us that his parents opened their doors 25-and-a-half years ago.  In other words, our patronage correlated precisely with the history of the restaurant itself.

No wonder we all felt such a kinship and connection – we raised a family as they built a successful business.  And now here we all find ourselves again, us making that eight-minute trip over and over to a place we know and love and savor, and them keeping the lights on, the water boiling, the zucchini crispy and hot, and the friendship and smiles abundant and free for the taking.

A little neighborhood hole in the wall.  Everybody needs one.  And we sure have treasured ours.  Who’s hungry?

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes