Thursday, December 24, 2009

I don't see this on the itinerary

(Edit: I'll have a new post after the New Year, I am leaving this one as the most recent as I go through contacting everyone that wanted more info on the accident.)

It’s been one week since we left home for Africa and I am feeling surly. I have realized that I am not used to traveling in a group, so I go to the bar to have a beer to get my psyche in a more amiable place. I let the group sort out the transportation options while I throw down some drinks to get over my control issues (i.e. I am used to being the planner/leader of a trip and have trouble acclimating to a scenario where someone else is calling the shots.)

Two beers later, my wife comes in to inform me that, rather than wait for a van that can take all seven of us to the restaurant, three went ahead in a cab that will turn around and come right back and pick up the remaining four.

Shortly after, we are in the cab that will take us the 15 or so blocks to the restaurant. I love talking to cab drivers because they always seem to really have their finger on the pulse of the city. I make small talk asking him how he likes it, what he thinks of the streets, and what his favorite neighborhoods are.

Then, something goes wrong. My brain recognizes that entering the intersection we are about to cross is a car that shouldn’t be there. My mouth makes a sound of confusion along the lines of ‘Ummmmmm….’ and there is a loud crunching sound as the vehicles collide. My muscle memory from years of skateboarding kicks in, my body instinctively thinks “Don’t try and stop yourself, go limp and roll.” My right shoulder hits the dash and I roll upwards until the right side of my head cracks the windshield. My left side from my shoulder down goes instantly numb.

I am lying in the fetal position in my seat assessing the damage. I wiggle my toes, wiggle my fingers, blink my eyes and turn my neck back and forth slightly. I hear my wife yell “Are you ok?! Say something!” and feel pins and needles as feeling comes back into my left arm. I say “I am ok.”, stand up, and get out of the cab. There is a hospital nearby and medics that happened to be exiting the building come sprinting over. They convince me to sit back down, one talks to me while the other holds my neck stationary with her hand. Soon, an ambulance arrives and they say they want to take me to the hospital. After disagreeing and saying I just want to go back to the hotel one of them says, “Look, you might have a compression fracture and, although you feel fine now, in a couple of hours you could just fall over and not be able to walk again. I’d feel a lot better if you would have an x-ray just to be sure.” I think back to the EMT blogs that I read and how he is manipulating me by phrasing it as ‘doing him a favor’ since I am not in the mood to do myself a favor. However, I know he’s right, so I agree.

They lower me to the ground onto a trauma board (a plank, basically.) put me on a gurney, immobilize me and roll me into the ambulance. The medic steps outside to explain to everyone what is going to happen next and I get claustrophobic as I realize I can’t look around or move at all. I breathe deep and think calm thoughts. Soon we are driving to the hospital and I start joking about how I am glad we had the crash since the trip is all about me now. The medic whips out his cell phone and starts taking a video of me talking all about it.

At the hospital, they admit me and give me something for the pain. Things get pretty fuzzy at that point. I remember telling the nurse that being forced to look at the ceiling for hours has caused me to see things in the stains – sort of like watching the clouds and identifying what they look like to you. He acknowledges that the pain medication has obviously kicked in. After being on the trauma board for over two hours I wrote a song about it, the lyrics were:

I just want to get off of this trauma board
I think I’m going to go out of my gourd
All I want is to go home and have a beer

Things sorted out pretty quickly after that. X-ray showed no fractures, they gave me some pills and a neck brace to wear for a day and sent me on my way.

All things considered, I was very fortunate. No seatbelts worked in the cab, so it’s very possible it could have been much worse. People ask if it ruined the rest of my holiday and I really don’t think so. It definitely changed it since I was walking through a haze of codeine and muscle relaxers.

One thing is for sure: My wife now has incontrovertible proof that I am hard-headed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The wheels on the bus...part 2.

I am sitting on the cold concrete floor, back against a long brick wall waiting for the call to get on a bus that will take me to San Jose, my final destination. A guy in his mid-twenties sits down next to me. He has about a dozen visible tattoos and a pierced septum. We’re both staring off into space.

A man walks up and asks, “Can you watch my bag for a minute?”

I nod and wonder if I just look trustworthy or too tired to steal anything. Shortly after a second man asks the same thing, and I nod again. Then another and another.

The next thing I know, the two if us sitting against the wall are surrounded by a semi-circle of luggage that we have been recruited to watch. I turn to my wall-mate and ask, “Do you have any idea of whose bag belongs to who?”

“Nope.”, he says and chuckles. After a minute he says, “Man, I hope the next bus comes soon, I am exhausted.”

“Me too”, I say, “there was a dude on the bus that freaked me out that I couldn’t sleep.”

“Wait, did he have one really jacked up eye?”

“YES!”, I yell.

“Ok, that’s it. For the rest of this trip we are sitting across from each other. Deal?”, he puts out his hand which I grab and shake. Shortly after the bus pulls in and we all board. I sit across from my bus partner and Hobo-Man comes down the aisle and glares at us. We stare him down, he flinches first and walks back toward the front of the bus and finds a seat up there. We look at each other and grin and nod- together we have conquered our monster of the bus.

We sleep most of the ride back, but both wake up and chat the last 45 minutes of the trip. He makes jewelry out of chainmail and he’s out to visit the Renaissance Faires in California to sell his wares. When we finally arrive, the first person waiting by the bus is a girl with about a dozen tattoos. I turn around to see them in a minute-long embrace, when he opens his eyes I give him a short wave. Still entwined in his hug, he give a short wave back and then closes his eyes while lifting the girl off her feet and spinning her.

I’ve always felt that I would run into my ally again someday. If we traded names, it was lost and forgotten in the fog of sleep deprivation. In fact, some of the details may be a bit off since I was in a half-dream state. (However, I remember him telling me a story of someone that came into his martial arts school and challenged people even though he only got his training from watching cheesy kung-fu movies. How he would jump around like a monkey.)

Sir, if you read this, drop me a note, I’d love to hear the story of what happened after that fork in the road when we parted ways. I hope your time in California was successful and free of spooky hobos.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The wheels on the bus...part 1.

(Note:I am back from Africa and boy do I have some stories. It also gave me a chance to reflect and jot down a bunch of ideas for stories I had forgotten about. While I type up the most memorable item of our visit, here's a two-part story of my first and only Greyhound ride.)

I am coming home for the first time since I have moved away from my family in California to set up camp in Colorado. Since funds are tight, I take the cheapest mode of travel I could find – the bus.

The plan is to leave after work on a Friday and arrive in San Jose sometime Saturday afternoon. I have several books to read, my Walkman for music and some accumulated fatigue that will ensure that I will sleep through most of the ride.

The first hours are uneventful. People get on, the bus stops, people get off, different people get on, rinse and repeat. At about Midnight we stop somewhere across the border of Nevada. I know it’s Nevada because I look out the window and see bright neon signs that let me know that they have plenty of slot machines. People pile out to use the restroom and grab a sandwich in one of those plastic triangle containers. I see one person put a few dollars into a slot machine and I wonder if he thinks he is going to win his fortune in the middle of the night while in the middle of nowhere.

I am one of the first ones back on the bus, I pull out my book, flip ahead and see that the chapter ends in about 5 pages. My plan is to finish the chapter and then nod off to sleep. I sink into my story as the haze of sleep presses heavier and heavier on my eyes.

Then I feel something odd. Something wrong, I tense up immediately. I freeze and listen. No strange noises from the bus, nothing around me. I slowly turn my head to the left toward the aisle.

He’s staring right at me from about 8 feet away sitting in the row across the aisle. A scrawny older man with a week’s beard growth and a knit cap is staring with a vicious intensity right into my eyes. My first thought was ‘Is this guy an extra hobo from the movie Journey of Natty Gann?’ I shake the cobwebs out of my head and ask, “Yes?”

“Somebody got into my bag.”, he snarls.

“Excuse me?”, I ask.

He leans a little closer and says “SOMEbody got into my bag. And when I find out who, I am going to kill him.” I see his face in better light and see that his right eye is injured, like someone beat on it with a pretty solid object. It’s swollen and colored with dark purple and red and yellow-ish green.

I have no idea how to react. On its own, my mouth says, “Well, it wasn’t me.” One thing is for sure. I am not falling asleep. I turn back to my book and can feel him glaring at me for another 15 minutes. After about an hour I look over and he has his eyes shut and appears to be sleeping, but I remained glued to my book.

At sunrise, we have to change busses. We all pile out of the bus taking all of our gear and wait in the cold empty bus station. I sit down on the concrete floor with my back against the wall and see Hobo-Man making his way toward the closest restaurant. I assume he actually was sleeping since he appears to be full of energy – moving erratically, talking to himself, eyes darting every which way occasionally looking into mine. I pray that he’s not on the same bus all the way to San Jose so I can have the chance to get a few hours sleep.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The King is dead. Long live the King!

(Quick note: I am about to go away for two weeks, but I WILL be updating this blog. I promise. To keep your interest, here is a short post about one of my favorite restaurants.)

We first found the King’s Head Pub as newlyweds. It’s a traditional British pub in Campbell that was as close to the “real thing” we could find. Bangers and mash with a side of mushy peas is one of my comfort foods and theirs warmed my heart at first bite. They even had the caber used by the Campbell Clan in the annual Scottish games hanging above the bar. (For those not familiar with the event known as the “caber toss”, picture someone picking up a telephone pole and chucking it as far as they can, trying to make it flip end over end when it lands. I am not making this up.)

Even though it was about a 20 minute drive from our home in Mountain View, it became a staple of my routine. I worked in a Network Operations Center at the time and it was extremely stressful. On Thursday nights, a group of workmates would meet up at King’s Head to essentially start Friday’s festivities a day early because we had reached maximum stress tolerance before the end of the week.

Thursday night was Celtic Jam night so there was a core group of fiddle and bagpipe players, but there were usually at least 5 other random people that would show up with penny-whistles, drums, more fiddles, or guitars. It was always high energy and made you feel like you were in another world rather than Silicon Valley chained to a desk all day.

Often we would play a game called Munchkin which you can click the link to read about, but rest assured it is very very nerdy.

Fast forward five years. We have returned from Amsterdam, my job is stressing me out, our housing situation is stressing us out, and other stresses are impatiently waiting outside ringing the doorbell. A light bulb goes off above my head and I tell Wife, “We’re going out for dinner, I’ve got an idea.”. We start driving up the highway and as we get close she asks, “Are we going to King’s Head?”. I smile and say “Maybe.”

We pull into the parking lot and something is not right. I see a wall painted bright red and pull the car closer. That’s when it hits me.

It’s a club. There is a sign out front announcing it as “The Spot.” I see a pack of twenty-something guys in muscle-tshirts trying way too hard to look cool. The King's Head is gone, replaced by something foul to me. I haven’t even parked and I can tell that it’s a scene I want no part of. We drive away to find solace somewhere else.

I spent the next few hours in shock. If I had a dog for years, that I had spent time with and loved, and suddenly that dog turned and bit me – I think I would have had a similar feeling. Am I sure that just happened? Why did this happen? What do I do now?

Their website is still up if you want to peruse the ghost of a place I once loved - if you click the "Celtic" link at the top they even have some pictures of what I am talking about (although they say it was on Wednesday, they must have changed it at some point).

I like to think that sometimes, on a real quiet Thursday night, off in the distance, you can still hear the bagpipes playing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What Americans call "soccer"

It’s early 2002 and it had been several months in our rented room a stone’s throw from Dublin, Ireland, days spent searching for work every morning by going to our favorite internet cafĂ© named Right-Click. We were beginning to feel less like tourists and more like locals.

Not having watched much football, I didn’t have a clue as to the enormity of the fact that Ireland had qualified to be in the World Cup. However, since it felt like something I should be interested in, our plan was to go to a nearby pub and watch them play Germany in their second match. It’s happening late morning and there’s not much else that needs to be done.

We walk up the street and it’s barren. Not “light traffic” barren, more like “ghost town that is going to spew forth vampires as soon as the sun goes down” barren. Shops are closed, streets are empty, and barely any cars are on the main roads. It was eerie.

We open the door to the closest pub with a TV and freeze – we can’t even cross the threshold it is so packed with people. The thing about pubs in Dublin is there are a lot of them; it’s a well known puzzle to try and figure out how to cross the city without passing in front of a pub (I suspect it’s impossible, they are everywhere.) We shrug and go toward the next pub.

We walk up the block a bit and open the door – same thing. Wall-to-wall people. After a couple more tries we change our strategy: in the center of downtown Dublin there is a magnificent Westin hotel which has a pub downstairs called The Mint (it used to be a huge bank vault a long time ago.) The staff are great and since tourists want to walk outside and go to an “authentic” pub it’s usually empty.

We walk downstairs and it’s extremely crowded but we can at least walk in. We slap our hands down on the bar to hold a space large enough to set our drinks. We flag down Carl the bartender who brings us pints of Guinness and gives us status of the game: “We’re losing 1 to nill. We knew Germany was going to be tough, though, for as many times Ireland has qualified to be in the world cup, Germany has won it.”

The mood is energized but somber. I look around and think that it’s a good reflection of the Irish culture. No matter what comes at them, they’ll keep fighting through it by finding strength in their ancestors doing the same for generations. British rule, potato famine, you name it – they’ll write a poem or song that will break your heart and then drink and dance because that’s how it is done on that island and how it always will be done.

The official 90 minutes are over and a few minutes are tacked on to the end to account for time spent dealing with injuries. Suddenly, an Irish player breaks past a defender. A surge of energy goes through the crowd, and then he breaks past another defender and sprints toward the goal. Everything went silent, employees stopped working, everyone held their breath save for one man in the far corner that screams “Off you go, lad! OFF YOU GO!” The player (Roy Keane) fires and scores, tying up the game. Everything erupts, people scream for drinks, an old woman wearing a hand-knitted cap with the colors of Ireland’s flag starts crying, an old man grabs me and hugs me tight and I start to tear up as well.

One minute later, a German player breaks past a defender and there is a collective gasp. I hear a woman say “Oh, sweet Jesus.” Fortunately, the next Irish player knocked the ball back up field and the game ended in a tie. Drinks are raised, people start singing, and we head outside to look for lunch.

I did not expect the scene waiting for us outside – complete chaos and celebration. I counted about 30 people with their arms locked, dancing in a circle in the streets. We walk past a store that had televisions in the window and we saw an interview of random people in a pub near where Roy Keane was born. I heard the phrase “We always knew that boy would grow up to do something special.” My wife is snapping pictures as fast as she can take them to record the storm before it passes. She aims the camera at three young men leaning out a railing a few stories up. One of them yells, “Wait! Wait a second!” We assume he is going to grab a flag or cap or something, but instead reverses his now naked backside out the railing and yells, “Ok! Go ahead!” At that point, there’s not much you can do but take the picture, so she does.

I spend the next several days caught up in World Cup fever and, despite having an American accent, feel that I am starting to really be accepted as a Dublin Man from south of the river. I learn the life lesson that it’s not about winning, it’s about celebrating life win or lose. Sing your heart out, cry if you have to, but be sure to have a drink and make some friends, because that’s how it’s done on that island.