Archive for March, 2007

a painful extraction

Posted in literally happened on March 22, 2007 by samsondoggie

I am sitting in a white plastic lawn chair inside the cafeteria of the Orange County Correctional Facility.  To my right is Larry, 43, an inmate from Roxboro, North Carolina who I have made a connection with over the past few months.  Larry is in the eighth year of his sentence.  He has an 11 year old son.  He is lucky.  His wife still visits him.  Most of the prisoners lose not just their freedom but also their families when they go behind bars.  Then again, I like Larry and I can understand why someone would want to stick with him.
But that is not really my story.

The room is loud.  It has eight foot ceilings.  There must be forty-five visitors and almost 100 prisoners in the room.  With everyone talking, the din reaches 80 decibels.  We are in the corner, next to a quiet piano, so its easier.  Still, things can be challenging.

I offer to Larry that I will be getting my wisdom teeth out the following morning. “Yes, all four of them,” I add.

He has his own story.

“You got your wisdom teeth out?” he says.  “Oooh.  I did that, too.  In here, you know, we don’t get anesthesia.  Just some pills and a shot.  We can take 800 mg of advil.”

“Yes,” I shout, “I have vicodin!”

The guards look over.  Hmm.

“They took me to the state dentist, in Butner.  It was fine, but then one of my teeth cracked.  So he took a screwdriver to get it out.  He sort of dug into the gum, twisted, and then popped it out.”

Did I mention, I am actually kind of afraid about this operation?

He goes on.  “I had deep roots.  So he took the chair and swiveled so that my head was down near his ankles.  Then, he pulled with two hands, as hard as he could.  Right out of my head.”

I cringe some more.

“Larry,” I say, “you are scaring me.  I am going in tomorrow, I hope. ”

“Oh, you are going in tomorrow?” he asks.  “I didn’t get that.  I thought you meant you had already had the surgery.  Sorry!”

He has a big smile.  I think he wants to reach out now.

“I will pray for you,” he says.  You will be fine.”

I did get my wisdom teeth out.  I remember asking the doctor if he had put in nitris, or if the nurse did that a few minutes earlier.  He smiled, said it was going in now, and then I remember being pushed into a waiting room.  My teeth were out.

Small cuts

Posted in hit bull win steak on March 14, 2007 by samsondoggie

I spent the summer of 1994 covering the goings on of Boone County, Missouri. It was my auspicious beginning as a news reporter, working at the Columbia Missourian. We were a large staff for a small college town in the summer — maybe 12 photographers along with a limitless score of news reporters from J140.

My first assignment involved the Boone County Fair, but that summer I would also find time to witness bigger things: Olympic Qualifying Games in St. Louis, the primary elections for County Commissioner. I remember writing an assignment on how fill flash and a red filter gave extra value to the readers who caught my coverage of the overturned port-a-potty on Route 65N. Yes, it was only the beginning.

But it was still summer in Mid-Missouri. That means being caught in a battle between the forces of heat and humidity, with an occasional respite for a flood or a tornado. I lived in a one bedroom apartment. It cost $265 per month with utilities. Like most, I had no air conditioner. Prayer is waiting for a breeze to cool your wet chest at 1 am in a Missouri June.

My granddad visited it once. Once he was back out in the air condish of the Cadillac, he let me know what he thought of it.

“A place for tramps!,” he said, “What if your grandmother saw that? Come on!”

Actually, it was one of my better pied-a-terres in the Show-me-State. Certainly my basement apartment ($230 per month, free cable tv) in Marshall or my first place right next to I-70 (Jake Brakes no charge, rent $250 per month) could not compare. It even had a back yard and a front porch.

I followed a strict diet to keep up my energy for all of this reporting in the heat. That usually meant yogurt, granola, blueberries, honey, strawberries and about a quart of espresso for breakfast, followed by whatever they were serving at the Boone County Fair for lunch and then a few slices at Shakespeare’s for dinner. I could eat for a week for under $50.

But I digress. The point of my story is the people I worked with. None of us actually came from Boone County, or even the Midwest. Short of two friends from Arkansas and St. Louis, we were a pretty bi-coastal crew. What we all shared was a curious passion for photography. Not just any kind of photography, but the photojournalism we saw in Aperture monographs of Roy Stryker or Robert Frank. I swooned for Eugene Richards. I had leafed through photos from the best years of Barney Cowherd.

We were young people with heroes.

Those heroes were real forces. We moved to the epicenter, and staked our young twenties not to the frivolity of a place like the tv show “Friends” but instead to at least two or three years in Columbia. That our initial sacrifice required further humiliation was hitting us all hard. Photography is a hard field to break into — its not really work like a textile mill, almost anyone can learn to operate a digital camera, and it doesn’t follow that someone with high SATs or an ordered mind will prove worthy of a job.

“Let’s rent a movie,” offered Sarah, always the leader in our group’s social calendar. Sarah had a black coffee mug from Texaco that was taller than the length of her forearms. It could hold half a gallon of coffee. I think Sarah might have used that capacity a few times.

“Yeah,” I said, “sounds great. We can meet over at my place and make a pasta before.” I was real cool, not calling spaghetti by its grocery store name, but instead by my fancy waiter terminology. “A pasta…” Good thing I had “a pot” to cook in.

I put on water. Someone got a movie. The night was young.

Soon enough, Reggie, Thorne, Toby, Michael, Janet and Melina were there. I did have a television. It made a loud popping noise when you changed the channels. There was no remote. Someone had to get up. My apartment had a front porch with a swing and a back exit with a three step stoop. Because the stoop side was closer to the darkroom, most people came in through the back. It meant that you could leave both doors open and actually get a breeze.

After eating, we set down on my fold out bed to watch the film. We were decent people. Everyone took off their shoes. Sarah had socks with Mickey Mouse. They got some attention, but people were quickly taken with the enormity of my toe nails. It is true, they were big boys.

“Adam,” said Thorne, “your feet are disgusting. ”

“Ooh,” said Sarah, turning impatient with my disgusting interruption, “I will not let you make me think about that!”

“No really, Adam,” said Thorne, “what is the story here?”

These were friends, I felt like I could reason with them.

“My honest opinion,” I said, and I know I said it but that doesn’t mean I can explain it, ” is that being in graduate school and all, with so many assignments, well, who really has the time, you know, to cut toenails?”

Sarah got up.  She grabbed my offending toes.  Thorne locked my arms.  I kicked, screamed.  It did nothing.  They lifted me up and booted my butt out of my home.  They promptly locked me out of my house. Someone threw some clippers out the back window.

Now we are older.  I have better toe nails.  Sarah works at the Washington Post.  Thorne lives in Amsterdam.

Some slices

Posted in hit bull win steak on March 14, 2007 by samsondoggie

In Fairfield, you had two choices for Pizza: Mike’s and Luigi’s.

Mike has a small shop. It butts out of a parking lot on the Post Road. It shares space in a commercial building with a trading card store and a watch repairman. It is very small – four tables lined up against each wall. At the end of the corridor created by those tables is a counter. In the 30 years that span my visits to Mike’s, the walls have never grown out of their wood paneling. To this day, the decor still consists of an RC Cola sign and a ficus plant. The ficus plant is about to die.

Mike made great pizza. He had a lot to learn about customers.

There was only one door. It served as the vent for the oven at the opposite end of the building. Diners were caught in the cross wind. You could drink extra RC to slake the thirst from the dry air. You’d have to buy that, Mike didn’t do any refills.

When you come in, you don’t notice all of that decor because you immediately notice that Mike is already glaring at you. Like, as if you are just another one of those kids come over from the trading card shop, just want to loiter good for nothing in my shop again. Are you going to order, or what?” is what I think he means to say.

I will order.

It would be wrong to skip past the virtue of Mike’s pizza. The sausage, in my opinion, stands out. And that crust: it must be made with a lot of egg, because it is very thick yet also very crisp. Couple that with loads of mozarella and you have a great slice. I would say that each slice probably ships 500 calories across your tongue — to eat a pie would sate most for two days or more.

Mike had these wide forearms. If it wasn’t for the kudzu-like black hair adorning them, you might miss them. I suppose the effect is like kudzu-in-winter: they remain under several layers of flour.

Here I am, consuming pounds of cheese, slowly drying out while sipping on a twelve ounce can of RC.

I want to tell Mike that I relish his pizza from my youth. I wonder how I can let him know that a visit to Mike’s was the respite against the harrowing days of middle school. I want to tell Mike that I ate my best pies ever, here, with my Dad.

“You know, it is great you have had this place all these years…” I begin to say.
What I am trying to get across to him is that he has done more than just make pizza. He has been one of the good people. His store has always been here, in a community that seems to set aside most everything with the first scent of relative mediocrity. Fairfield is not loyal.

Those eyes reveal exhaustion.

“Yeah,” says Mike, “great to who?” He turns around. “This guy thinks his five dollars gets him a shoulder to cry on,” he says to the assistant in the back, also covered with more of the same flour. “What do you want? Another RC?”

Every year Mike went on a summer vacation for two or three weeks. The sign would say “Closed,” as if that was normal for a restaurant. I suppose Mike could have hired an employee to make the pies while he was gone, but Mike didn’t work that way. Mike had a sisyphian-burden.

Luigi was the opposite. There were waiters at Luigi’s. There was air conditioning. You could get mints and toothpicks after you paid your bill at Luigi’s. You could get refills. A waiter would bring them.

Luigi always made Perfectly Normal Pizza. It had a thin crust and the cheese was a little greasy. You could get pasta or salad or things like antipasto, too. There were forty tables at least in his store. The oven was in the back. We never went there. Why?

Today, Mike is still breaking his back making pizza. I have never met Luigi. His store has its own parking lot now, and I think he opened a second restaurant in Black Rock. I think Luigi probably made so much money that he never even has to come to work.

Today (March 10), the first daffodil bloom appeared in our yard.

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