Women Jumping Out of Cars

Last week I waited to make a left turn into my neighborhood and saw a woman jump out of the shot gun seat of a car idling at a red light.  She looked as if someone had goosed her.  The driver made no effort to call her back though she stood on a nearby curb and stared intently at him.  She bounced on her toes as if waiting for him to make a move.  She began to walk away after a minute passed, and then he finally turned the car in her direction.  Negotiations had begun.

I saw a more vivid version of this story a few years earlier.  I heard yelling inside a car beside me on Semoran Boulevard.  We were stopped at a red light.  The front passenger door flew open.  A twenty year old woman slammed it shut and stomped away.  She veered behind the car, stepped onto the median and quickly put distance between her and the car’s driver.  He leaned out the window and called, “Hey, baby!  Come back!”  She ignored him and kept going.  Then he began to cuss her out in Spanish, shook his fist at her, and hit the horn once.  She kept going.  When the light turned green he made a u-turn and slowly headed in her direction.  He looked grim as if he expected no success in retrieving her.

Twenty years ago I heard yelling up the street from my house.  It was 1 a.m., so I peeked out my front door and saw a woman staggering across a lawn at the neighbor’s across the street.  Two or three men were inside a car idling at the curb, and one ordered the woman to get back in the car.  She screamed at him.  Her speech slurred, but I believe she told him to go to hell.  She knocked on my neighbor’s door–no one answered.  The man in the car yelled again, this time with greater violence.  I stepped outside and headed toward the woman.  When the men saw me they realized that a witness had arrived, and they sped away.

The woman spotted me and staggered to where I stood at the bottom of my driveway.  She asked if she could use my phone.  I let her inside and pointed to our land line.  I asked her if she wanted some coffee to help her sober up.  She glared and said, “I’m not drunk!  My boyfriend hit me!”

I retreated to the kitchen to get her some ice, and while I was gone my wife woke up.  Judy came out to the living room half awake.  She found a strange woman with crazy hair talking on our phone.  The lady’s outfit, cut offs and a sweaty tube top, gave her a street look.  I took Judy aside before she could make unfortunate assumptions and explained the situation.  The woman put a hand over the mouth piece and asked, “Where am I?”  I told her, and then she gave instructions to the person on the line:  “Pick me up at the 7/11 at Forsyth and Aloma.”

She hung up, and I offered her a ride to the convenience store.  She refused and headed out the door.  I followed after her and watched her walk up Bougainvillea Dr.  I worried that her tormentors might return.  A police car turned the corner and stopped next to her.  She waved her arms, shook her head and refused to get in the cruiser.  They let her go shortly after, and she strode away with firm, determined steps.  She turned the corner and disappeared, and the cops drove on.

Fifty years ago my mother stepped out of a car after an argument with my father.  We were stopped at a light about three miles from home.  We three kids huddled together in the back seat and wished that the nightmare would end soon.  My father drove off, and Mom’s figure grew smaller and smaller in the rear window.  I felt an odd sensation that I was the one left behind.  Two hours later Mom opened the front door to our house, came inside, and hung up her coat in the hall closet.  We all pretended that nothing had happened.


Now I lay me down to sleep

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come down with a common malady:  getting enough sleep is an erratic and fitful nightly exercise.  I have to be completely exhausted to sleep seven or eight hours in a row, and my average night’s sleep when all of the fragments are added together usually adds up to around five or six.  Some of this is my fault.  I don’t have a bedtime ritual that I follow with any regularity.  Sometimes at eleven I write, or read, or catch up on e-mails, or watch TV.  I tell myself that it’s lights out at twelve, but am not good at following my own orders.  I often find myself twisted like a pretzel in an odd position while lying on my living room sofa with the TV playing an infomercial.  It’s usually three in the morning, and the last thing I remember before dozing off was a comedian telling a political joke.

At other times something random wakes me up after having gone to bed at a decent time.  A tree branch may have landed on the roof.  The neighbor, whose carport is twelve or fifteen feet away from my bedroom window, often receives predawn guests who toot their horns or engage in loud conversations about their exciting young lives.  Critters contribute to the disruption of my rest.  Hoot owls have been known to perch in nearby trees, and the neighborhood has its share of dogs that are left outdoors at night and given the opportunity to bark at passing raccoons, possums, and armadillos.  Cars slow down for a turn around a corner across from my house, and some of their drivers like to play music loudly enough so that the thumping of the bass notes reminds me of the more traumatic passages from Poe’s, “The Telltale Heart”.

And sometimes my body wakes me up.  I don’t suffer from prostate issues yet, but my neck and shoulders and hips sometimes decide to say hello to me in the wee hours.  My spine has a slight curvature in my upper back leading to intermittent pinching of nerves in the aforementioned joint areas and tight muscles that try to lock me into a robotic inability to freely turn my head and lift an arm.  When I paint a lot I further aggravate these symptoms.  A satisfying day of work can lead to a long night of sleeplessness.

If I wake up after getting three or four hours of sleep I’m usually alert for one or two hours before finally feeling the urge to close my eyes.  I have plenty to think about; my mind races and just won’t slow down and shut up.  I’m a man my late fifties so I’m visited by all sorts of mental specters.  I can worry about retirement, the health and future of loved ones,  and job concerns.  I can brood over career disappointments and past actions that I still wish that I could take back.  I can also wonder about that odd noise I just heard coming from the opposite end of the house.  It sounded like the refrigerator rumbling as it went through a defrost cycle, but might have been some neighborhood druggy trying to open a locked door.  There have been break-ins in our neighborhood throughout the quarter century that we’ve lived here, and it’s not an idle worry to wonder if our house is next.

This week I’ve had two very different experiences while I rested my head on my pillow.  On Tuesday I heard a helicopter chop-chop-chopping overhead as it circled the neighborhood at a low altitude.  I closed my eyes and tried to ignore it, and was nearly asleep when I heard a voice calling down from the heavens.  The tone was so flat and mechanical that I doubted that I was being visited by anything celestial.  The message was repeated twice more, and I finally deciphered it.   I heard:  “You there by the fence, behind the building–come out with your hands up.”

Normally I would have been concerned that the police were hunting down someone within 50 or so yards of my back door, but for some reason I didn’t care.  I was reasonably sure that I had locked all my doors and wasn’t concerned that a punk on the run might manage to break in in an attempt to hide from the police.  I’d deal with it if it happened.  My fatalism probably came from deep fatigue–I was too tired to care.

Last night went much differently.  As I lay down I was overcome by a feeling of peace that washed through my body.  I’ve felt this comforting presence before in times of trouble and illness, but have never been able to identify its source or to predict its erratic schedule of visitations.  It comes when it comes and can’t be invited or coerced.  At times the visitation feels almost personal, like someone or something is looking out for my welfare.  Sometimes I receive intuitive messages from this presence, and last night it was, “I will always be with you.”

My departed sister and grandfather have come to me in dreams before.  This wasn’t a dream, and my consoler’s identity remained hidden from me.  My solace vanished like an elf in a fairy tale when I asked it, “But who are you?”

I felt stupid for letting my curiosity get the better of me instead of just being thankful for the moment.  Nevertheless I slept through till morning and woke with the feeling that I had been touched by something eternal the night before.



Winter Park, Florida Reinacts “FootLoose”

Christmas on Park Avenue Park Ave., Christmas Time  by the author (pedestrian safety was in no way threatened during the making of this oil painting).

I always thought that the plot of “Footloose” was a bit far fetched. Why would any town ban music? It turns out that Kevin Bacon’s silly movie about teen rebellion has become the inspiration for a recent ordinance passed by the Winter Park City Commission. Street performers will be banned from performing music on Park Ave. and in the Hannibal Square district along New England. Performers will be allowed to exercise their right of free speech in Central Park, possibly in restricted “First Amendment zones”. Street performers include anyone playing an instrument, actors acting, dancers dancing, visual artists making visual art. Jugglers and mimes beware.

Interpretation of the ordinance may be tricky, and it’s unclear whether poets and novelists writing and photographers shooting pictures will eventually be banned. It may be difficult for the police to decide whether a person stopping for moment to jot down a note or a doodle while standing on a sidewalk along Park Ave. should be ticketed, or whether a tourist taking a snapshot will be wrestled to the ground for performing a visual art form. It is also unclear whether humming and whistling will be met with official hostility.

The stated reason for enacting the ordinance is to maintain safe pedestrian traffic flow in the busy district and to ensure that business doorways are not blocked. Street musicians have been setting up outside of business establishments and playing amplified music on occasion. The ordinance writers decided, for the purpose of maintaining arts suppression neutrality, to include the visual arts in the ban. Plein air painters have set up easels along the streets of Winter Park on rare occasions to paint the views. Painting a cityscape, in the view of the Winter Park elders, is the same as performance art, though the process of making a painting is not considered a performance within the creative world any more than the process of writing a short story is.

The true nature of the objection to the arts invading the shopping district is based more on class than on safety concerns. (Pedestrian traffic is blocked on more occasions by the idle rich standing in clusters in front of high end shops. Diners at tables set up outside of restaurants along the street also provide hazards and delays to walkers attempting to pass by.) Park Ave. caters to the wealthiest subsection of the Central Florida populace, and street performers with open guitar cases distress the immaculate and bejeweled patrons. In the eyes of the wealthy the musicians and caricaturists and balloon animal makers are nothing more than beggars. Art and culture, in their minds apparently, only happen inside galleries, museums, and concert halls. Any form of spontaneous expression occurring within their sphere of influence is unwelcome as it is uncontrolled by the power of their wallets and their “refined” sense of taste.

Some of the put upon rich have complained that the ordinance doesn’t go far enough. They say that allowing performing and visual artists to set up camp in Central Park will destroy the tranquil and family friendly atmosphere of the green space. Some have lamented that the performers are making Park Ave. like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, though no one has ever reported seeing anyone throw beads or lift their blouse in downtown Winter Park. The ideal model for the district, in their minds, is an antiseptic but highly manicured outdoor mall that provides an unaccented backdrop for the display of their wealth.

Winter Park, oddly enough, hosts two annual, outdoor arts festivals that include musical performances. A sidewalk sale is scheduled by the chamber of commerce to coincide with one of them. The city’s walkways are jammed with visitors on both occasions, but apparent safety concerns are put aside for six days of the year as cash flows into the coffers of the shops and restaurants downtown. I wonder, after the passage of this ordinance, whether artists in the upcoming show this spring will be allowed to leave the confines of their booths. They might do arty things along Park Ave. if let out of their cages. Would a portrait painter in the show be fined $500 if he took a sketchbook to a bistro, sat outside and drew passersby? Local artists at any other time of the year will.

Sometime in the early seventies, when conceptual art was dominant in New York, an artist wrote to Art Forum magazine stating that his next bit of creativity would involve thinking the word, “blue”, for twenty minutes on April 11th from noon until 12:20. If he travels to Winter Park and tries that again in the downtown district he better do it on a bench in Central Park…at a location far away from families with children…while keeping an eye out for the cops.

The Chihuahuas Must Die: Rental House Blues

When we bought our home on the outskirts of Winter Park we didn’t mind that the house next door was a rental unit. It looked a bit run down, but not as bad as the worst examples in our old neighborhood in Orange County. And we had rented houses for nearly all of our married life and had been responsible about the upkeep of the properties. My wife and I had no fear of being tormented by the folks next door. We were lulled further into a state of complacency when the first three families beside us turned out to be friendly, reasonable people.

The first sign of trouble came when a couple moved in with a beagle named Copper. Copper was an aggressive, territorial dog who charged the fence separating our two back yards. He never accepted us as natural inhabitants of his environment, and saw us as invaders hovering on the edge of the land that he had sworn to protect. Sometimes he dug his way into our back yard and would bark and charges at us when we went to open the side gate. He apparently believed that he had a right to defend any piece of property in which he currently found himself enclosed.

We moved to Gainesville for Judy’s first sabbatical after earning tenure, and when we got back we discovered that three young men lived next door. One came over soon after we unpacked the last box, and he showed us his two Dobermans. He said that they were really friendly, but that was hard to believe when I saw the predatory look in their eyes. Our neighbor also gave us his phone number and told us to call if he and his housemates ever played music too loudly or if a party woke us up at night. He was more than willing to personally address our concerns, and there would never be any need for us to call the police.

We discovered about a year later that the police were interested in our neighbor without receiving any complaints from us. My son looked out his bedroom window one morning and saw men wearing black hoods in the rental’s back yard. They had guns drawn. Alan reported the news to us, and I yelled, “Get down!” I heard a loud bang just as I entered his room and saw white smoke billowing out of the French door of the neighbor’s house. Two hooded men charged inside.

I didn’t call the police. There were officers in the front yard and more men in black hoods. When I looked closely at their jackets I saw the initials, DEA, on their chests. A half hour later I walked down to my mail box to deposit a letter, and startled one of the officers in the rental’s front yard when I opened the squeaky lid. His hand went to his gun and he stared me down. When I backed my car out a few minutes later to take Alan to school the same officer reacted the same way when the brakes squeaked at the bottom of my driveway. I began to wonder if the police expected an imminent shoot out.

When I returned I saw them handcuff the young man who had befriended us and stuff him into a patrol car. We found out that he had been involved in a grow house operation, though the rental house hadn’t been the actual site of illegal, agricultural pursuits.

We began to miss the druggy Doberman guy a few months after a fresh set of tenants moved in. A young couple and their disabled boy were our new neighbors. When Judy said “hello” to the mother and began a conversation, the father stepped out of the back door and yelled, “No! Stop that. Get away from there.” His wife obediently turned on her heel and left Judy standing there.

They mostly pretended that we didn’t exist if we encountered them at the mailboxes by the road or in the adjacent driveways. I was content to ignore them, but had to engage with them several times when the father’s brother moved in. The young man liked to do yard work while playing rap at high decibels. I went over several times to ask him to turn it down, and at first he complied. He figured out eventually that I had no plans to assault him and grew more and more reluctant to do the decent thing. Sometimes he left the boom box on after having gone to meet up with friends.

I called the police and made a complaint two months after the two brothers installed a pool table in their carport. Judy was awakened night after night at three or four in the morning by the crack of pool balls and the loud, obscene conversations held by the men. I listened in once and discovered that human beings could construct sentences that included a noun, adjective, adverb, and verb all built around the root word of “fuck”.

The younger brother moved on shortly after a police officer gave the two brothers a chat about being responsible neighbors. Silence, intensely hostile silence, reigned once again between the two households. But a few months later The Chihuahua Scourge began.

Our neighbors owned two female Chihuahuas that occasionally barked at us when we worked in our back yard. One day the father brought over a stud, a male Chihuahua with a jaunty bandanna tied around its neck. He mounted the compliant bitches, and a few months later the two dogs pupped. The tiny, newborn, bug-eyed creatures looked cute until they grew up to the point where their ears stretched long and pointy and their barks got loud enough to be piercing. After that they became very aware of their environment and yipped at butterflies, crickets, airplanes passing high overhead and phantom intruders that only they could see. We began to close the blinds when we discovered that they could spy us within our bedrooms and would consequently yip whenever we came into view. Our backyard became a forbidden zone: the high pitched barks of a chorus of seven Chihuahuas were devastating to both the eardrums and nervous system.

I hired a man to enclose my carport and turn it into a studio after my last workshop closed down. We needed a place to store the garden equipment, bicycles and mower, and I paid a local company to put up a shed in my back yard. Two lean, muscular men went to work sawing, hammering and using a nail gun to erect a wood frame shed. They worked at a high pace, and when they finished after a couple hours I approached them with checkbook in hand. One of the men was covered in sweat and his chest heaved as he struggled to catch his breath. I asked them why they had driven themselves at such a furious pace. They told me that the seven Chihuahuas had pestered them the whole time that they had been working. Three took up a position across the fence and near to where the men worked, and they barked and yipped. When they grew tired a second shift of dogs took their place near the fence and renewed the harassment with fresh vigor.

The man with the heaving chest held on tight to a nail gun, and I could see him flexing the muscles in his forearm. He looked over his shoulder at the Chihuahuas who still tormented him with their barking, and he grimly said, “I want to kill those little motherfuckers.”

A month or two later our hostile neighbors sold the five pups and used the cash for a down payment on a house further north. As they pulled out of their driveway one last time I was glad that they and their two remaining dogs were gone for good, but I pitied their new neighbors.

We visited Bill and Carmen after the Chihuahua people left. They were an elderly couple who lived on the other side of the rental house and had suffered torments similar to ours. We compared notes about how many exterminators had visited the rental during a massive clean up operation, and speculated that the house must have been crawling with fleas while all those dogs were in residence. Bill shook his head and said, “I can’t believe that they were here for seven years. Seven years!” I answered, “Seven Chihuahuas!”

We talked about how it would be nice if the rental management company left the house vacant while it took its time making the repairs, and Judy related her dream of buying the property, razing the house and turning the lot into a garden. But I just hoped that the next tenants would not surprise us with something worse.