(Hey! This post contains some standard adult situations— e.g.: a flasher, some euphemisms for body parts, and some implied curse words. Don’t worry— nothing too awful, but if this were a movie, it might be PG. Read on, readers!)
Three months into my freshman year of college, I moved into a small carriage house on Ogden Avenue. It was not sumptuous digs. A small porch overlooked a green backyard, which was the only luxury. The porch was too small to actually put out a chair, and enjoy the view. You had to lean against the support poles in order to enjoy the surroundings.
The whole year felt like that porch— beautiful, but makeshift. The interior had two rooms. The first room was the living space, which had a hotel-style air conditioner that pumped out little rotten poufs of cold air— no comfort in the Texas humidity. Ugly brown wall-to-wall carpet dimmed what could have been a charming poet’s retreat. The second room featured a bathroom, a cramped kitchenette, and a sad big closet. The place looked, and felt, like a child’s playhouse.
But I chose that location specifically because it was a three-block drive from my apartment to a new coffeehouse in town called Froth. Walking to Froth was questionable because the neighborhood had some dangerous late-night elements (more on that later.)
As for Froth, I drove there every night after class or work, stopping at my apartment to change into my latest costume du jour.
At nineteen, I wore bobbed black hair and red lipstick. I had spent most of my life around adults, so my mannerisms were obnoxious — more appropriate to a hackneyed 1940’s ingénue than a nineteen-year-old college student.
When I look back at those years now, I see only static pictures of myself: a jittery girl in a faux leopard print jacket, a clumsy coquette in a too-short red trapeze dress; a faux debutante in a brown camel hair coat and gold lamé gloves.
When I consider the way I felt about myself, those images move me— I was a goofball in vintage secondhand clothes trying to figure out the next phase of my life and I knew it.
I drank way, way too much coffee. My brain was sloshing over with Important Thoughts. What I had, was three jobs and a full load of classes, but what I needed was a three-day nap and a fully-loaded hug.
Instead I had Froth.
Froth was a one-room coffeehouse with tall ceilings and yellow walls the hue of an English Regency library. Each table had a lamp: my favorite was a plastic world globe that gave off a warm blue glow. College students crammed those tables with books, coffee and sandwiches. The first Cranberries CD played over the speakers on infinite repeat.
I went there to write. That’s not new— I’m always writing. But my writing that year had become more effusive, frantic, grabby. I detailed everything— I was afraid this moment of beauty wouldn’t last.
But really, every ending is a bow to every beginning, and every beginning starts with a reverence to its natural father— the ending that sired the now: our new beginning.
This is the beginning.
Tony worker the counter at Froth. He was a former biker with a bald head and a sweet disposition. The owners themselves looked like they had been cut out from a Pottery Barn ad with mother’s good scissors. The owners were not your typical coffeehouse people, but they were effusive and funny and hopeful.
At first, the owners worked every night. Next, they stopped by, but didn’t stay. Then, they weren’t there at all.
But Tony and his bike stories fit right into the gawp-faced college ambiance, so he was there always.
I liked Tony. Tony always made my coffee extra black and extra large. He walked with a slight limp from laying down his bike on a freeway. He explained what road rash was to me. Apparently, he had lots of it.
Across the street from Froth, sat a klatch of mechanics who would drink beer and listen to Tejano music while quietly checking out the pretty college girls entering the coffeehouse.
They were harmless, but they kept an eye on a neighborhood that barely contained an ever-changing song of strangers.
We, the customers of Froth, were merely a chorus of kazoos in this much greater song during one swift year.
I was consumed, then.
School and work consumed my days. At night, I was consumed again, writing in a fever at Froth. Then I drove the two blocks to my apartment to sleep because I was consumed by exhaustion— only to wake and be consumed by a self-punishing routine the next day.
Froth was consumed by the neighborhood.
The coffeehouse developed a costly problem— a flasher in a wheelchair that no one could catch.
The flasher’s set-up was genius in its perverse use of physics: Every few nights, he parked himself in the shadows by the side of the building where the concrete alleyway provided a natural launch to the street.
A pretty girl would pass by; he would expose his wares, and before anyone could do anything, he would release his break, roll down the curb and zoom down the street.
I had heard the rumors about his activities, but didn’t see them firsthand. Not right away, anyway.
But the flasher lived in my neighborhood.
The owners of Froth were consumed with catching him—
And the flasher was consumed with perfecting his hobby.
In the dark, I walked up to Froth with a handful of schoolbooks. “Hey,” the flasher said from the shadowed alley. I was thinking. I was tired. I wasn’t really there.
“Hey!” He said again.
I turned around. At first I stared at his face, expecting him to ask me for spare change. He indicated downward with his eyes. Cupped in his hand were the tiny manifestations of his manhood.
Startled, I laughed really loud, walked to the door and went inside. “Tony! The flasher. The FLASHER.”
I tossed my books on the counter, and we sprinted outside.
On seeing Tony, the flasher released his parking brake and rolled into the street.
Tony loped after him, limping like an epileptic puma. As he limped, Tony yelled “Mother—f—, I’m gonna get you when you least expect it. Mother—f—, you’d better stop right now, so I can pound in your head. Mother—f—!”
The wheelchair flasher wheeled himself faster and faster away from Tony, from me.
Tony stopped and bent over in the street, winded.
Meanwhile the wheelchair flasher was now a rolling dot five blocks away.
The flasher slowed down, looked over his shoulder at poor Tony, and shouted “F— you, man!”
Life spun fast in the spring.
I wore hot pink dresses and wrote in my notebooks and drank more coffee than anyone should.
I returned to Froth night after night to soak up the light refracted off the yellow walls.
But when I look back at the things I actually wrote at the time, my notebooks are splashed with gibberish.
It the writing of a frantic nineteen-year old in need of sleep, and nothing more.
Here’s the part you won’t believe.
One night, a boyfriend drove me and one of his roommates to Froth.
We got out of his car, and that’s when I heard the first shots.
The mechanics that sat outside the garage across the street jumped up from their chairs. One of them reached inside his windbreaker.
Unfortunately, I had seen that gesture before, and while I appreciated the spirit of the thing, I had no interest in getting hit with someone’s well-meant stray bullet.
I dropped to my heels in front of the bumper of my boyfriend’s car. Then I came up again long enough to pull the boyfriend and the friend down by their shirts to the bumper with me.
During a brief lull between rounds, we crouch-walked into the coffeehouse where we found the brand new post-wheelchair flasher coffeehouse regulars with their faces pressed against the windows. The three of us ordered coffee at the counter and skulked to the back of the room.
The new regulars, all college students fresh out of the cellophane package, counted off the shots in a sing-song voice as the unknown person fired them off. “Seven, eight nine!” They trilled.
(POP! POP! POPPITY-POP!)
I sank into my coffee.
I have always had an unpleasant genius for dangerous absurdity; here was proof of it.
“Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen!” The college students squealed. (POP. POP! POP!) “Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen!”
This kind of evening was my oeuvre, really. I closed my eyes again and quietly sighed.
Real events were happening elsewhere.
While I brooded and sulked and the boyfriend goggled at the roommate who was freaking out and the other customers giggled and counted shots, a SWAT team pulled up and blockaded the whole neighborhood and was attempting to negotiate with the man with the gun.
They ushered all twenty of us out to our cars in thirty seconds or less.
As the three of us got into the boyfriend’s car, one of the SWAT team members told me through the window I had to stay somewhere else that night. The man with the weapon had barricaded himself in the alley right in front of my apartment.
I went to my college boyfriend’s apartment where his six roommates were playing video games and drinking lemonade. I was very quiet Those boys loaned me pajamas and a dubious-looking toothbrush, both clean, but old, and left me alone to brood.
And this is the end.
The last thing I remember from my apartment on Ogden Avenue was staring out the kitchen window as I put my few cooking supplies into a cardboard box.
I peered into the dappled heat of late autumn. The wheelchair flasher wheeled down Ogden with his eyes fixed on a distant point. He looked different in the daylight— more frail, less ominous.
His long, brown hair floated behind him like a worn flag in the thin breeze. Those tempestuous fingers of his slid along the wheels of his chair.
I watched until he was a speck in the distance, admiring the agile gestures of his body, and then I quickly continued to pack.
*This is a reposted story from November 16, 2011. Bluebird Blvd. “went live” on November 7, 2011— ten days earlier. I wrote this true story when I was in graduate school, but didn’t touch it until I started Bluebird Blvd. It’s been through a great number of revisions— because, and I believe this absolutely, the truer and freakier the story is in real life, the harder it is to make it seem believable. If you read this piece and then some of more recent Truer Than True Confessions, you can see the formality of my language dropping away. Hope you enjoy! Go here for an explanation as to why we’re reposting this week. (Hint: It’s all about you!)
PHOTO CREDIT: These photographs are by the wonderful FSA/OWI (Farm Security Information/Office of War Information) photographer Jack Delano, which are reposted here courtesy of the Library of Congress Commons.
THE BLUEBIRD BLVD. GENUINE PHOTOGRAPHY/STORY CONTEST CALL FOR ENTRIES: The GENUINE call for photos/self-portraits/100 word stories is open! See the link for deets and rules.
Here’s something new about this event— A PRIZE!— The most GENUINE photograph and story will win an original-run, hand-pulled by herself in her own darkroom, signed photograph from Courtenay Bluebird! No joke! Some of these photographs are worth hundreds of dollars! See above link for examples of the kind of original photograph (really original— as in shot by me on film, printed in an actual darkroom by me, first run) you might win.