Life

I’m the king of the world.

Seventeen years ago, tomorrow: my first date with the most amazing woman I will ever know.

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We’d traveled south to get away from work and everything else, and to catch a movie at a pizza place. It’s strange now as I think back; not only did we work at a pizza place, but who the hell wants to go watch a three-hour long flick at pizza parlor? Who sits at a table by the door so that every time someone brings a pie to someone’s table, or every time someone requests more parm…or every.single.time a patron needs a refill… that damn door opens, allowing in a flood of the brightest afternoon winter sun you can imagine? Each was a painfully blinding interruption.

I think we could do nothing but laugh.

Didn’t matter. Lizz had kissed my neck when I gave her a ride home a few days before and while she was trying to simply say thanks, she was obviously saying so much more. I’d never felt anything so electric and it was as clear to me then as it is to me now – this girl deserves immediate attention.

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Looked up her number in the staff directory, called her at home during a lull in my shift, and asked if she’d like to see a movie with me. She said yes.

Three hours later, Jack was dead and the ‘Heart of the Ocean’ lay at the bottom of the north Atlantic, but as we sped back to Fitchburg late for our shift, everything felt, well…natural. There was comfort and ease. We’d each found what we’d been looking for.

Pizza had brought Lizz and I together. It swirled around every facet of our lives seventeen years ago and we just had some delivered this past Friday night.

To this day – she cooks or signs for delivery, and I drive.

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We still enjoy the random occasional awkward date and I continue to really like pizza…but I LOVE this woman. She was and will forever be…my favorite.

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Life

Learning To Cook in Belleville

An old friend of mine passed away yesterday. I’ve been following Jason on Facebook for some time and sure, I’d “like” his posts here and there, but I was mostly a lurker (as I am with most of my FB contacts) and our time as real buddies was waaaay back in the mid-90’s. I’ve watched as he’s battled cancer for a couple years now and while over time he looked older in the pics he’d post, his smile just seemed bigger and bigger. I attributed this to what was obviously a fantastic support system: his loving friends and family, and his wife, Christina. My family is thinking of you all in your time of loss.

The last time I saw Jason was a few years ago following many years without contact. We ran into each other at Target (I think) and I believe he was with Christina at the time. He had to remind me when I introduced myself as a former coworker, that we’d actually gone to school together as well. That somehow slipped my mind, as our friendship had blossomed more between a deep fryer and a stove in a tiny-ass small-town-American kitchen than it had at Belleville High way up on Grant Street.

Sure, Jason and I went to school together, but we shared a more distinctly Bellevillian bond: employment at The Sugar River Inn. This was my first job, as it was for so many of Belleville High’s underclassmen around then, and throughout those few years spent learning to cook on Main Street, we had some really fun times in and out of that kitchen.

Here are a couple Jason (I called him Bummy back then) stories that stand out.

Story One:
One night after some random high school sporting event we piled into our beaters and went out looking for trouble. Bummy in his boat (some type of Oldsmobile, perhaps?), I and Jonathan (another Sugar River Inn cook /coworker/friend) in my duct-taped Celica. We almost made it out of the parking lot.

Bumper to bumper we hammered the gas, proceeding with some kind of reverse tug-o-war; a domestic versus foreign-made steal sumo match. One of many things only high schoolers would attempt out complete stupidity and boredom. I think Jason had the edge and would have won but for the town’s one cop that came around onto Grant Street. I threw it into first and we were out and onto Church Street as fast as I could shift that little rust pile.

It was no use.

The cop threw on his lights and had us a block later. Lucky for me, my passenger Jonathan’s last name is Hillebrand so we made out of there with a warning. Regardless, Jason had won that battle, having had the edge prior to the breakup and by not getting pulled over.

Nights like those seemed to happen all the time down there as us young folk tried to fill our time outside of work and school. So much boredom, but so little stress. As we all grow older and sometimes become more physically and/or mentally vulnerable; as our classmates and loved ones start drifting away forever…it’s really hard for me to not long for those stress-free wide-open days and nights in the country.

So many humid summer hours spent sitting on the trunks of our cars. Just waiting. All that youth…wasted on the young, as they say.

Story Two:
Throughout the early part of the summer of 1994 we were completely inundated with Pink Floyd. They’d scheduled a show in Madison for early July and every damned station seemed to play little but – our local “classic rock” station, 101.5 WIBA FM, was no exception. Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of many on staff at the Sugar River Inn, this was where the kitchen radio dial was almost always parked.

I wasn’t really a fan. Not yet, anyway. I liked more modern music at the time. Grunge, alternative, ska…my classic tastes primarily involved Metallica’s earlier albums. However, as psychedelia is wont to do, the ubiquity of the Floyd managed to really open my mind. On a whim, Bummy and I decided to (after a stop at Hooters, of course) head on up to Camp Randall to see what there was to see.

What a zoo. It was my first concert scene and it was amazing. Not only to the eyes of a 16-year-old, this would have been astounding to anyone who’s yet to experience whatever the hell that was. We never made it into the show – we were offered tickets from a scalper, but would have had to spend all that we had for tickets that may have been legit – but we did watch the first song from the back gate. Pressed up against the chain-link, we had a PERFECT view of the stage and lights as Astronomy Domine echoed off the apartments and houses on Breese Terrace.

We didn’t stay long (damn curfew), but that beautiful music on that warm summer night in Madison really stayed with me. A coworker, classmate and friend had decided “what the hell, let’s do it,” and with that, this song would, at least in my mind, forever link Bummy and I.

Come to think of it, I can’t think of one time where I’ve heard this song and not thought of that adventure and how close he and I were to being able to list Pink Floyd as our first concert. So.Damn.Close.

RIP, Jason. Here’s to the good times.

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Life

How about a lift?

I think it was in early 1998, the night when I ran out of gas on Hwy A, just north of Belleville. I was heading home after hanging somewhere after work one night at Pizza Hut and all the gas stations within what I’d deemed to be a reasonable radius were closed. My tank was almost empty but I thought I could make it and as I puttered to a stop (just off my ex-girlfriend’s driveway of all places) I’d made it through only 11 miles of the 16 mile journey.

Now, Google says it’d only take 1.5 hours to walk the remainder in optimal conditions but on this night it was probably 10 degrees and blowing snow. In fact, it was a damned blizzard.

So there I sat, trying to decide my next move. I could have easily walked up to the nearest door to ask for help, but that must have seemed too easy or I must have been too proud, because I began rummaging through my car looking for extra layers to put on before setting out for Village Drive on foot.

Along the highway. In the dark. In a snowstorm.

By the time I finally locked the doors and began my trek, I’d doubled up my gloves via large woolen socks and wore several hats, shirts and scarves. Upon reflection, it’s clear to me that I failed on this night in so many ways. I failed to budget my time and my fuel. I failed to be even a little smart or safe as I failed to go just a little out of my way to ensure that I’d get where I needed to go. Piles of poor choices led me to that place; trotting along in the dark snowy stupidity with the wind burning my eyes while the warmth drained fast from my simple mind and scrawny body.

I was screwed.

Sometimes I think that I should not have made it. I mean, it’s obvious to me now that a trek in such shitty conditions would have left me frozen in a snowbank or clipped by some passing plow, but I did make it.

You see, a few minutes into my hike a van happened by. It’s damn near the middle of the night, and a freakin van drives up. In the middle of nowhere! The driver saw my car and then saw me and figured I’d probably need a lift somewhere. She was a guard at the Oregon Correctional Center on her way home from a late shift on a snowy winter night and she was right.

I needed some fucking help.

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Fast forward almost 17 years and there’s a little part of me that occasionally stumbles upon this memory and thinks that everything I have today and everything that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing since that night – from marriage to parenthood to…everything – may not have been possible if that woman had chosen a different route home that night.

I think about how lucky I am. For family, friends; things to love and hate; experiences to share and bitch about…everything.

As of late I’ve been pondering these mornings at drop off where I run into familiar faces. I’m floored when I see these faces that really throw me back. One, Joanna Susman, is an old family friend who my siblings and I grew up with all those years ago in this same old Madison neighborhood before my time with Belleville even began.

Another is one of my oldest friends; he’s a former Bellevillian classmate and a member of our close circle from 8th – 12th grade. Mr. Daniel William Yunker Gregory Daugherty.

Both of these people had a definite impact on my younger life but at one point or another, they both seemed to slip away into the haze. And then, after all this time, here we are, all of us walking our little children up to the doors of the same school that I loved so damned much when I was nine. Together again in such familiar ways and places. Fitting and natural, these things happen as is predestined, much like the night that woman happened upon me on that cold winter road.

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These things rattle about when I fail to fall asleep before midnight. It gets closer to morning and later in the year, and I try to make sense of the past year and…well, everything that came before it. I build comprehensive lists and try to learn at least something from it all; forever pledging to drink and eat less, exercise more and to TRY to be a little more like someone worthy of all that I’ve been given.

This past year has been something. We lost a giant of a friend and it’s the sort of loss from which we’ll never recover. In fact, I dream about Jeremay Buol all the time. At first I thought they’d taper off, but he’s shown up at least three times this week alone and you know what? I actually look forward to them, these dreams. I really miss him.

This past year has been hard. What little faith I have drifts through me too fast. With no real religion, and with reason and meaning becoming more elusive with every passing year, the idea of some end -of-the-year reconciliation is starting to become something of an equally abstract ideal; just one more odd tradition the well-meaning me would regularly pledge to and subsequently bail on.

I’m an obnoxious loudmouth who complains too much (hell, if you’ve made it this far, good on ya – I owe ya one), but I’ve been so damned lucky in my life. Next year remains lost in the light and I’m positive that I’ll keep making the same promises while continuing to hope that as I grow older I’ll eventually grow wiser; that I’ll continue to be given yet another chance to do so as people pull up beside me to help me along…or to give me a lift.

Lord knows I need all the help I can get.

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Remember that cold night when I should have died? Guess where that driver was headed before she came upon me? Village Drive, Belleville, of all places. MY STREET. She lived on the same damn street as Buol and I. What are the chances of that? What are the chances of any of this?

Buol would have turned 37 tomorrow. He was a guy who regularly picked you up when you needed help. He literally drove me all over this state and lifted me up and out of my sorrows more than a few times. Here’s to him on his birthday and from here on out.

Here’s to all the luck and for every chance we’re given; for every time we’re lifted up by friend or stranger, and for every opportunity we’re given to get together or to reflect and simply say thanks…

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