Bill King was a retired guy I used to see just about every day on my morning walk at Fort McHenry. We had a ten-year friendly interaction, then he died about two years ago. I miss him still. He would usually say “good morning,” then launch into an extended, often profane, monologue about what ailed him. One day, his spiel began thus:
Bill: Felt so bad this morning I almost didn’t come.
Me: But here you are.
Bill: (ignoring my cheerful comment): Then I took a huge crap and felt better—easy two days worth. (Pause.) So that must have been what it was, that buildup of crap.
On another occasion Bill greeted me, then proceeded to relate a vivid story about his feet:
Bill: So I wake this morning and stand up and both my feet are all swole up and blood-red. (Pause.) Then I touch ‘em and they turn green.
That colorful anecdote was delivered without a trace of irony—Bill had no idea how funny he could be—so all I thought to say was: “Damn, Bill!” Then I smiled and kept walking. I knew that if I asked him to explain he’d own my ear for at least ten minutes, and I was pretty sure he couldn’t top his opening lines. I’m sorry I didn’t make notes of more of his stuff over the years—and in greater detail. By now I could have had reams of high quality humorous content for this blog . . .
This is an edited re-post from August 11, 2010.
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Copyright © 2014 Catherine Bruce.
In visiting Spain recently to hike part of El Camino, a trek that pilgrims the world over have been doing for centuries, I was prepared for the big differences that you associate with vacationing in a foreign country: currency, language, and climate. But it was the small differences, like finding a Starbuck’s closed at 7:30 on a Saturday morning in a big city like Madrid, that took me by surprise. (Click images for larger views.)
I’ll never forget the elderly man who interrupted his stroll down a country lane to give me a walnut or the two volunteers at a refugio (or shelter) in El Acebo who hosted a meal for twenty pilgrims from all over the world. The food, wine, music, hospitality and conversation that night were truly memorable.
But in the course of my two-week hiking trip, there were some baffling moments too. These differences, unexplained in guidebooks, jostled my assumptions about the most mundane aspects of daily living. Some of them were positively mystifying and others made me laugh out loud. Take the hamburger. When I ordered one in Astorga, it tasted different. The chef’s view of our American staple was quite literal. The burger was made of chopped ham.
Another time, my limited Spanish put me at a disadvantage when ordering a sandwich. My lunch, though tasty, turned out to be a double dose of carbohydrates: mashed potatoes between two slices of white bread. It reminded me of a trip to Salt Lake City and a restaurant that served spaghetti with French fries.
The public restrooms were also occasionally baffling. At one private refugio for pilgrims in Hontanas, the stall to the women’s toilet contained no seat or throne, simply a hole in the metal floor and an outline of where to place your feet. Being pressed for time, I squatted over the opening in the floor, did my business and wondered how a handicapped person might navigate under similar circumstances. It was only later that I discovered, at the same location, toilets – with and without seats.
Further down the road, in Boadillo del Camino, another restroom had me flummoxed. I looked around for a towel dispenser. No luck. But on one wall hung a metal contraption that resembled an automatic hand dryer. After pressing the knob, water sloshed all over the floor. I’m still confused. Was it for the cleaning staff to put their buckets under or a convenient tap for pilgrims to refill their water bottles?
Another time I tried to order a chunk of Swiss cheese, which was on special, at a deli counter at a local supermarket. The woman behind the counter said I couldn’t have it, but she was willing to slice another kind. Did the sale on Swiss begin the next day? I’ll never know.
Public transportation in Spain is punctual, comparatively inexpensive, and comfortable. But my expectations about how things work were made in America. When traveling by train from Chamartín Station in Madrid to Burgos, I entered the coach and sat down, just as I would on Amtrak or MARC, Maryland’s commuter railroad. A young man approached, pointing and waving his ticket. It took me awhile to realize I was sitting in his seat. Sure enough, if I had looked closely, my ticket had a coach and seat assignment. I moved and the gentleman, who had graciously parked himself elsewhere, smiled.
We worked it out in a civilized way. Poco a poco, little by little, I was learning the Spanish way of doing things.
I wonder what first-time visitors to the U.S. make of our culture?
Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Several of her personal essays have appeared on this blog. To find them, simply type her name in the little search window, or check out the archives in the sidebar, beginning in April of 2009. Also in the sidebar under the Blogroll, Business and Writing labels, there are links to Susan’s website, Have Pen Will Travel.
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By Jim Sizemore
For several years, I’ve observed a homeless man in my neighborhood walking back and forth in front of my house each day, morning and afternoon. I live in the city, next door to a bar, and the sidewalk we share is just two red brick steps down from my front door. The homeless man has a flushed complexion and I suppose he could be a heavy drinker. But on the other hand, I’ve never seen him go into the bar next door, or into any of the many other bars along my street, which is a main drag with plenty of such places to quench a thirst.
The homeless man comes from somewhere west of my house—I have no idea from how far away—and he always walks to a shopping center, which is little more than a half-mile east. On the way back from the shopping center, he always carries two small paper bags, one with a cola beverage of some sort in a plastic bottle—I can see the screw-off cap peeking out from the bag. Since there are no bars in or near the shopping center, I have good reason to assume that the drink is non-alcoholic. The other bag, I surmise, holds his lunch, and perhaps even his dinner.
There have been long periods when I’ve seen the homeless man walking and holding his pants up with his left hand, appearing to have lost his belt. That condition usually goes on for a while—weeks, even months—and then he somehow comes into possession of another belt—or finds his old belt—because he no longer has to hold up his trousers. With both of his hands free again, he walks pretty much like you or me. That is, he walks like you or me except in the shopping center parking lot, where he avoids the sidewalk and claims the middle of a car lane. While strolling in the car lane, he does not look left or right, or behind him, or give way to the cars, so those of us who drive have to be careful to avoid hitting him.
One day about two years ago, the homeless man appeared on crutches, one leg in a cast that began below his knee and extended to, but did not cover, his toes. I don’t remember which leg it was, but what I do remember is that this was around the time that he and I began to make eye contact. After seeing each other up close a few times, we began to smile and nod at each other. That kept up a while, and before long we’d smile and nod and say “good morning” or “good afternoon,” just like regular people. But I noticed that when I carried my grocery bags to my car and we happened to pass each other in the car lane, we did not make eye contact or speak. I’m pretty sure that must have been his choice. If it had been up to me, we would have continued to smile and nod and speak. This is a very friendly neighborhood, and anyway, that’s just how I am.
For as long as the homeless man was on crutches, throughout the winter, he struggled to manage his little paper bags in all kinds of weather. After many months, he was finally off the crutches and walking with just the aid of a cane. This was in the spring, and around that time he also appeared to lose another belt, and throughout the summer I watched him wrestle with his cane and his bags in one hand, the other hand grasping the top of his pants. I don’t know what happened, or when it happened, but at some point I began to realize that things between us had changed dramatically. Now, no matter what the situation or location—or the weather, or the time of year—the homeless man and I no longer made eye contact or spoke.
So what happens on the day after Thanksgiving, comes as a big surprise. For the first time in months, I’ve decided to clean the very dirty plexiglass on my front storm door. This is a big deal because I hate to do windows of any kind. In fact, none of the glass in my house, except the front storm door, has been cleaned since I moved in some eleven years ago. So there I am standing on my little brick stoop, busy spraying and wiping down the storm door, and the homeless man comes by. He has long-since healed from his leg injury. And it seems to me that he makes a point to not look at me. But I won’t let this opportunity go by, and say, “Good morning, sir. How are you doing?” Without a beat, and without smiling or looking up, he replies, “Who can say?” and he continues on his way.