A Door Busting Drama

Normally, I’m a bit of a wimp and I try to avoid confrontation, especially if I’m considering confronting a man dressed like the leader of a motorcycle gang.  But I was mad and that made me brave (or maybe just stupid).  So, I confronted the biker.  He had obviously stolen my money and I wasn’t going to let him get away with it.

Photo by Kevin Bidwell

My shopping cart was overflowing as I approached the checkout stand at Pic-N-Save (now called Big Lots).  It was late fall and I was buying all kinds of goodies for the upcoming holidays.  Pic-N-Save was always a great place to purchase cheap decorations and crafting items.  But, during “Door Busting Sales” their advertising tagline rings particularly true, “Pick a little and save a lot.” 

I love to people-watch.  So, while I waited to be rung up, I studied the other folks in the checkout line.  In front of me was a sweet looking grandma of a gal, probably in her late 70s (now that I’m in my mid-70s, she doesn’t seem that old).  She wore really thick prescription glasses and was fidgeting with a handful of carefully clipped coupons.  (I admire people who have the discipline to clip coupons. I have tried to do that, but I’m such a scatterbrain that the coupons never make it to the store before they expire). 

Anyhow, the coupon clipper and a heavy-set checker were reviewing her bill, item by item.  It was obvious the older lady was making sure each item had been recorded accurately and that she’d received full credit for all of her coupons.  (I have a theory about store checkers.  Unless the bill seems completely out of whack, I don’t review it. I depend on karma and assume that I get overcharged about as often as I get undercharged and things balance out in the end.) 

Standing behind me in line was a tattooed titan who looked liked a character right out of the movies, maybe Easy Rider or Hell’s Angels on Wheels (you can take your pick).  When I  first entered the store, I noticed a classic ol’ hog, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, parked up close to the entry.  From this guy’s appearance, it was obvious he was the owner.

Photo by Oleg Magni

The burly old biker had a red bandana tied around the top of his head.  Long stringy clumps of mostly grey hair fell from the sides of the bandana and dusted the top of his well-worn black leather jacket.  His jacket was festooned with colorful embroidered patches, mementos no doubt, of previous riding events he had participated in.  His motorcycle goggles hung loosly around his neck and his t-shirt, barely visible beneath his jacket, sported some kind of message.  The biker’s black leather boots were dirty, and as he got closer, I could smell rank sweat and stale cigarette smoke.  A ring of dust, which perfectly matched the outline of his goggles, gave his weathered face an almost ghost-like appearance.  I gave him a smile as we moved forward towards the checker.  He nodded and grunted a low response.  His eyes were bluish grey.

“NEXT!” barked the seemingly overwhelmed checker towards the two of us as coupon lady finished her business and edged her basket towards the exit.

The checker was dressed in a bright orange company apron with giant front pockets.  She wore a tilted name badge with “Sue” scribbled with black marker under the printed words, “Hi. My name is…”

She had a sad face and sad eyes.  I instantly felt sorry for her and wanted to brighten her day. 

“How you doing today?” I asked cheerfully.  And then, in an attempt to show empathy, I added, “Boy, this place is packed…looks like they’re really keeping you busy.”

“I’m fine,” she muttered back unenthusiastically, “Welcome to Pic-N-Save.”

From Sue’s sarcastic reaction to my upbeat greeting, I wouldn’t have been surprised if her car had a bumper sticker that read, “Thanks for refilling my ‘fed up with you’ meter.”

Sue wasn’t happy but she was fast.  She rang up my purchases in rapid fire succession:

“Twenty-two Thanksgiving swizzle sticks, eighteen gold glitter picks, three elf wreaths with battery-operated eyes, one dozen small, one dozen medium and eight large holiday bags, tissue (variety pack), etc., etc., etc.”

Not looking up at me once, or acknowledging my presence beyond our terse greeting, Sue continued counting my items, ringing them up on the register and shoving them into a couple of oversized plastic bags that began to bulge at the seams.  So as not to slow down the progress, I took five $20 bills out of my wallet and placed them on the counter as Sue was finishing.  (I don’t usually pay with cash.  But we had a big neighborhood garage sale the day before and my wallet was bulging with twenty-dollar bills.)

Just then, from outside the store, we heard the loud screech of car breaks and the bang of something big and heavy hitting metal and glass.  The whole building shook with the sound.

“What the hell?” someone yelled.

People started screaming and everyone turned immediately towards the source of the noise, the front of the store.

It only took a nanosecond to surmise the situation.  A driver had failed to put on his brakes and a big black sedan had run smack dab into the front bay window of the store.  (Now that’s what a call a door buster!)  Shattered glass, metal shopping carts and holiday decorations flew in all directions as frantic shoppers scrambled away from the oncoming car.  The black sedan eventually came to rest on top of a giant, tinseled plastic Christmas tree.  Comically, despite the mammoth tree topper that had just flown in from the parking lot, the twinkle lights continued to blink. 

Instantly the store was a chaotic mess.  The police and fire department arrived with sirens blaring, which greatly added to the noise and confusion.  But, thankfully no one was hurt and eventually the store returned to its holiday activities, and “Joy to the World” could be heard playing, for the umpteenth time on the store’s overhead speakers.

Once things calmed down, I turned back around to the checker and looked down at the top of the counter.  During the melee, my five $20 bills had disappeared.

“Did you pick up my money?” I asked the checker, who’s day had clearly brightened up with the excitement of the accident.

“What money? I didn’t see any money.  Are you sure you put your money down on the counter?”

“Yes!” I answered matter-of-factly, looking down at my still open purse.  “I put five $20 bills right there.”

I don’t know why I thought pointing to the spot would help. 

“Well, I didn’t see any money and it’s not there now.  So, I don’t know what to say.”

Just then, I thought about Easy Rider standing next to me.  Instantly, I knew what must have happened.  The biker had taken my money during the excitement.  He was the culprit.

The cheerless checker was getting frustrated with me because I was now holding up the line.  Shoppers were anxious to get home and tell their family members about their near-death experiences while trying to pick a little and save a lot.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to pay or you’ll have to leave the stuff…that’s all there is to it.”

Normally, I’m a bit of a wimp and I try to avoid confrontation, especially if I’m considering confronting a man dressed like the leader of a motorcycle gang.  But I was mad and that made me brave (or maybe just stupid).  So, I confronted the biker.  He had obviously stolen my money and I wasn’t going to let him get away with it.

As I boldly turned to accuse him of taking my money, the biker calmly said to the checker, “Miss, why don’t you look and see if you accidently put the money in with the items you shoved into the plastic bags?”

The biker’s question did not improve the checker’s attitude.

“Fine,” she huffed. “But I’m telling you there wasn’t any money on that counter.”

With that, Sue grabed up the biggest bag and dramatically dumped out all of the contents.  Everything went spilling onto the top of the counter and onto the floor.  All my purchases.

And the five $20 bills.

Upon seeing the missing money, the checker smiled meekly and raised her shoulders up, as if to say, “Whoops.”

Obviously, I was happy to see my money.  But, I was also mortified to think how close I had come to accusing this innocent guy of being a thief.  Even worse, I was basing my accusation on nothing more than his looks.  I was embarrassed, even if the biker didn’t know what I had ALMOST done.

Do not judge my life story by the chapter you walked in on.” –Lessonslearnedinlife.com

The biker helped me load my purchases back into bags and he quickly paid for his one item, a ceramic figurine of a Chihuahua. 

“It’s my mom’s birthday.  She loves Chihuahuas,” he said laughing.  “I’m on my way over to her place to clean-up before tonight’s ride.”

He went on to explain that he just rode in from the desert.  “That’s why I’m such a mess.” 

I thanked the biker for helping me find my money and for collecting all the stuff that had fallen onto the floor.  When we got to the parking-lot I complimented him on his motorcycle.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling.  “Tonight’s our big annual ride for abused kids.  I’ve been doing it for years.  See?”  He pointed proudly to a series of matching patches sewn on his jacket and his t-shirt which I could now see.  It read, “We ride for the kids.” 

I wanted to give the guy a big hug.  But he waved me away.  “I appreciate the gesture…but I don’t think I smell too good.”

We laughed as I thanked him for his service. Jake Roland, the guy that I had imagined was the leader of a notorious motorcycle gang, was a retired plumber and a Vietnam vet from Palm Springs.  I had let his appearance shape my opinion of who he was.  Obviously, there was more to this man’s person than his clothes had led me to believe.  Like they say all the time, and I had briefly forgotten, you can’t judge a book by its cover. 

When I got home, I looked up a saying I once read by an American novelist, Lauren Oliver.  I believe her words fit the situation perfectly:

“I shiver, thinking how easy it is to be totally wrong about people, to see one tiny part of them and confuse it with the whole.”

Yep…you shouldn’t be fooled by what you see on the outside because what’s on the inside is very often a different story.

Assault and Battery

“I threw the dog’s leash towards my husband and sprinted awkwardly over a short hedge and tripped across the front lawn towards the brick steps leading to the landing.  My mind was racing; the sounds emitting from the child were totally freaking me out.  My mind was in overdrive.”

The other day, my husband and I were walking our dog down the beautiful tree-lined street we live on in Ottawa, Ontario.  A slight wind made the day seem much colder than the temperature displayed on my cell phone.   We were bundled up against the wind and walking slowly so as not to out-pace our dog Chico, who was stopping and sniffing every blade of grass on the pristine green lawns we lazily meandered past.

As we rounded the corner of our block, we could hear a child crying.  The sound was faint, at first, but with time and footsteps, the child’s cries became strong and fluctuated from a loud scream to a slight whimper then back to hysterical wailing.  Obviously, as parents and grandparents, the sound was disturbing.

“What on Earth?” I wondered, looking at my husband.  “That sounds pretty serious.”

We sped up our walk in the direction of the wailing we heard, dragging our old dog along at a stride he was not happy with.  In the distance, we could now see a small figure wailing on the porch of a home.  Her hands were flailing about and she was throwing herself pitifully against the railing near the front door.

“Mommy!  Help, Mommy, help!” the small creature yelled into the air.  “Where are you Mommy?  Please…I need you Mommy, NOW!”

I threw the dog’s leash towards my husband and sprinted awkwardly over a short hedge and tripped across the front lawn towards the brick steps leading to the landing.  My mind was racing; the sounds emitting from the child were totally freaking me out.  My mind was in overdrive.

Why was she screaming?  Was the child’s mother injured inside the house?  (Perhaps a diabetic parent had gone into a coma.)  Was the child a victim of some horrible abuse?  (Had she escaped from the hands of a drunken neighbor. or worse, a house of horrors like the one I had recently read about in People Magazine?)  Had the poor child been assaulted and then abandoned by an uncaring caretaker?

Okay, I admit it.  I tend to over-react. Honestly, when my brain gets going, my imagination has no limits.

This is my dad’s fault.  When I was a kid my dad read out loud every gruesome newspaper headline and story to me and my siblings over breakfast.  His daily orations were meant to warn us, to protect us from the bad things that can happen to little children if they are not careful.  His intentions were good.  But, in fact, he scared the hell out of me and left my brain imprinted with the idea that the world was a pretty scary place.  Between my dad’s terrifying tales and what I saw on television, I was inundated with a daily double dose of disasters.  All that, plus the fact I’m a bit of a mystery series TV junkie, has turned me into an overly anxious adult.

You know the saying, “Some folks see the glass as half empty.  Others see the glass as half full.”

Well, I see a glass as half full … of poison or at least rotten milk.  Thanks, Dad.

“What’s a matter, sweetie?” I called out to the little girl, as I stumbled to my knees, then up towards the front door.

I hugged the crying child as I peppered her with questions.  “Are you hurt?  Were you left home alone?  Are you okay?   Where’s your mother?”

I was freaking out. My hands were shaking and I was almost afraid to hear the child’s replies. (Let’s just say I’m not the best person to call in an emergency.)

The child started to calm down and began to explain, between deep breaths and big sobs, the source of her dilemma.

“My mother is gone!”

Now I’m thinking that the mother is dead or has been dragged away from the home by a knife-wielding intruder.

“Where?  Where has your mother gone?” I asked in as calm a voice as I could manage in my mental state.  I was already imagining the perp (that’s detective talk for perpetrator) as someone I’d seen in a Law and Order episode a few nights before.

“She went that way.” The girl said, pointing in the opposite direction.

“Did she leave by herself?”

“No.”  The girl answered screaming.  “She’s with my dad.”

So now I immediately think hostile divorce and abusive husband and envision the mother being pulled down the street against her will….possibly by her hair.

I needed more answers.  I had to ask more questions.  (Good investigators ask lots of questions.)

“Are they coming back?  Were you instructed to stay put? Can you get into the house?” I could see by the kid’s expression I was moving way too fast for her to follow.

But I couldn’t stop myself.  My mind was churning.  I wished I had a note pad and pencil.  Good detectives take copious notes.

“Are you locked out of the house?  Is that why you’re crying?

“No!” the girl screamed back at me, obviously irritated that I didn’t grasp the reason for the depth of her despair.

NOW I was getting irritated. “What is it then?  Why are you crying?”

The little girl stopped crying, put her hands on her hips, got up in my face and yelled, “My mom and dad are out walking.  My laptop battery is dead and I can’t find the charger!”

“Ahh…mystery solved.”  (What? No fingerprints?  No DNA?)

Just about then, the young girl’s parents came around the corner and waved to their daughter. As she went scrambling off in their direction, I joined my husband who was waiting with our dog near the steps.

“Was there a dead body?” Alan asked with a smirk on his face.

I didn’t answer.  I just looked skyward and whispered into the air, “Seriously, Paula, you need to get a grip on your imagination.”

I think I’ll watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” tonight.  Perhaps a break from murder mysteries will do me good.

The Baby Monitor

Yesterday, we had a baby shower for one of our employees. As she was unwrapping her gifts, I realized how many wonderful new tools have been invented for young mothers.   The baby monitor is one of those tools.

When I was a new mother, some 50-plus years ago, I was the baby monitor.  All night I was up and down, in and out of the baby’s room, checking to see if my little angel was still breathing. Never quite attaining REM-sleep, my ears were alert to the slightest creak in the floor, a small grunt, a tiny sneeze or cough.  Any sound sent me running into the baby’s room.  Honestly, I didn’t have an uninterrupted, full night’s sleep for probably ten years.

I don’t want to sleep like a baby.  I just want to sleep like my husband.

Everybody knows sleep deprivation is the curse of new parents. Babies have to be fed and changed every few hours.  But, in my case, it was MORE of a curse to me than my wonderful husband.  He can hardly hear out of one ear, poor guy (I am being sarcastic) and he sleeps with his good ear down on the pillow.  Except for the first few nights the baby was home, or if the baby was sick, my husband rarely heard the baby cry at night.  On many a morning he would say, “Great…the baby slept through the night” (yeah…sure he did).  In his defense, Alan did have to get up very early for work and he does generally require more sleep than I do…but still.

Plus, I was a complete worry wart when my son was born.  I felt totally inadequate as a mother. In fact, I remember one day saying to myself, “Oh my God, nobody is going to come pick up this child.  He is my responsibility, forever!”  (At 23, maybe I was too young to be a relaxed parent.)

Because I was so exhausted during the day, I sometimes got concerned I might fall into a deep sleep and not hear the baby fuss after his naptime.  To make sure that didn’t happen, I’d put a pillow down outside his door and slept on the floor just outside of his room.

As you can imagine, the sleep deprivation I suffered was acute and made me function in an almost zombie-like state on more than one occasion.

It’s a funny thing…I used to stay up all night by choice and called it “fun”.

Our son Roger (now a parent himself) and his wife Teri used a baby monitor for our precious granddaughter, London (again, what a great invention). They told me how reassuring it was to hear the soft rhythmic sounds of her breathing as they slept in their master bedroom on the other side of the house. Teri told me, “I don’t have to sleep in a semi-awake state because I trust that the monitor picks up the slightest sound.” Plus, with the home alarm system in place, as London aged and began to walk and explore, they didn’t have to worry that she might wander out the front door into the yard without their knowing.  (Home alarm systems, another parenting tool we old folks didn’t have.)

As time progressed and London matured, the baby monitor became an entertainment center of sorts.  Her parents could lie in bed and hear her sing and talk to herself as she played in her crib.

“She always wakes up happy,” Roger told us.  “We love to hear her talking to her stuffed animals, Lamby and Teddy Bear. It’s really sweet.”

But, as time went on, London moved from her crib to a small kid’s bed and with the bed change came an increase in morning activities.  Roger and Teri could now hear her in the morning organizing and talking to her dolls, and playing with Boobie, her imaginary friend (and the recipient of any blame for mishaps around the house).  The noise increased and so did London’s interaction with her sleepy parents.

“Hey you two, it’s time to get up!”  And then came orders for breakfast.  “Daddy, how about some French toast and bacon?  Call me when it’s ready…Boobie’s hungry.”

Roger announced over dinner recently that the baby monitor had been retired.

“Why?” I asked.

“London thinks she’s in charge.  She’s become a bit of a drill sergeant.”  I laughed out loud. “We’re just glad she doesn’t know how to play the bugle.”

MOTHERHOOD:  Powered by love.  Fueled by coffee.  Sustained by wine.



A Memorial Message to Paul E. Swigart, Jr.

“Oh my God,” I repeated silently to myself, “The longitude and latitude of his last known coordinates is all Ludora has left of her precious son.”

I had not seen Paul Swigart’s mother, Ludora, for several years when I ran into her at the supermarket one afternoon in Seal Beach, the city where Paul and I grew up.  Ludora was one of the sweetest ladies I ever met.  Always upbeat and friendly, she was one of those moms that made you feel special when you were a little kid.

LTJG Paul E. Swigart, Jr. Highly intelligent and confident, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was creating an impressive career in the U.S. Navy.

With curly red hair that fell about her shoulders, Ludora had an engaging smile and was still beautiful, despite a cluster of wrinkles pinched around her gentle blue eyes.  We shared a big hug and our conversation quickly turned to Paul, her handsome son, my former classmate and a Navy pilot serving off the coast of Vietnam during the war.  Paul and I had been close since kindergarten.  We often chased each other in a game of “Tag” on the blacktop during recess and ate together at lunch.  Because both our last names started with “S” (Swigart and Strother, my maiden name) and seating was alphabetical, we almost always sat side-by-side in class.  All through junior high and high school, our lockers were close to each other, so our contact was constant.

Goofball that I was, it wasn’t until my wedding day, when Paul and I hugged at my reception, that I discovered Paul had once thought of me as a potential girlfriend.  During that hug, he whispered in my ear, “I always had a crush on you.”

I thought we were just buddies! Continue reading “A Memorial Message to Paul E. Swigart, Jr.”

A Walk For The Cure

We lived in the city of Avalon on Catalina Island when I went into “training” (and I’m using that term very loosely).  Alan, my sweet and encouraging husband said, “Are you nuts?  My God, I hope you don’t have a heart attack or stroke or something. You do realize you’re almost 60 years old?”

That’s me on the left in green standing next to Emily Beckman, my sweet niece with her mother, Kay Bernards. Alice Ryan, our leader, is in pink. Kay was unable to walk with us but met us along the road and cheered us on.

If I am anything, I’m spontaneous.  So I didn’t think twice when my sister Alice called and asked me to join the “Jelly Bean Team,” the group she was assembling for a Susan G. Komen “Walk for the Cure and Breast Cancer Research.”  After all, I knew the heroic battle her sweet daughter-in-law Lori was waging against cancer.  Surely, a sister could step up to the plate, or in this case, out to the street, for such an important event.

“I’m in, sissy.  When is it?”

And with that quick response, I had just agreed to walk 60 miles in three days.  Plus, I had agreed to raise my share of the entry fee … $2,500.

See, Alice had taken on quite a job.  She had agreed to raise not only her fees but also the money for her son and his wife.  With travel costs and hotels, Alice was planning to raise over $10,000.

“That’s a lot of money, sissy,” I said, trying to be realistic without being negative.

But Alice was steadfast.  “I can do it.  I will do it.”

And she did do it.

Normally gentle and rarely outspoken, when it came to raising money for the Jelly Bean Team, Alice turned into a lioness.  First, she got my husband to donate an old Ford van we used for office deliveries and moving stuff around.

“Alan,” she said boldly one morning at the office.  “Why don’t you let me sell the Ford van so I can raise money for my team?”

Without so much as a whimper, Alan agreed. Continue reading “A Walk For The Cure”

Elder Issues

“REALLY, you guys should check it out, my heart doctor is excellent. He’s just a kid, like Richard here.  But he seems to know what he’s doing. I mean, he didn’t kill me or anything.  I can give you his phone number if you want.”

Yesterday, we were having lunch with my husband’s new business partner, a handsome 30-year-old CPA who is so cute he “makes some of our clients, blush.”  There we were, three senior citizens (my husband, Alan, his old college buddy and business partner of 40 years, Bob, and me) having lunch with a young whippersnapper (that’s old folk talk…in case you are under 30 yourself).

When you’re a senior citizen, everybody looks like a kid. One client asked Richard, “How old are you anyways?”

We were lunching at CoCo’s, one of the restaurants we frequent so often that the waitresses call us by name.

Anyhow, as often is the case when senior citizens outnumber youngsters at lunchtime, the conversation moved to illnesses, treatments, stomach issues and other medical stuff.  Bob, the oldest member of this lunch club, started telling us about a procedure he recently had:  a “catheter ablation for atrial fibrillation.”

“Sounds ghastly,” I blurted out, as Bob struggled with the proper medical pronunciation.

“Wasn’t that bad at all, really,” Bob began, as the waitress placed his iced tea with lemon in front of him.  “The heart doctor just runs a tube up through a vein in your groin, up to your heart.  Of course, you’re sedated … sort of.  You are in twilight sleep, but you can hear the doctors talking and joking around.” Continue reading “Elder Issues”