The Towel Market

El Salvador TaxiSo we’re walking down the street. It’s a beautiful day in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city. Sharron is eating ice cream from a cup. I’m eating a two scoop ice cream cone.

A taxi pulls up alongside us. I can see a woman in the back seat furiously rolling down the window. She leans out and asks, “You’re American’s aren’t you?” She sounds agitated, maybe afraid. I’m thinking maybe she thinks she’s in danger, or maybe she needs emergency medical care. I’m also wondering why she thinks we’re Americans rather than British or German.

“Yes, we’re from the U.S.” we both say.

Satisfied that she guessed right she asks, “Do you speak Spanish?”

I nod toward Sharron, “She does.” She’s the Peace Corp volunteer. I’m just a visitor, not exactly a tourist, because I didn’t come to El Salvador to see the country, although it is quite beautiful.

Today, we are visiting the city. Sharron works in the campo, in the countryside with the farmers, helping them improve their business skills. Once every couple weeks she takes a bus into the city to check in at Peace Corp headquarters and to visit some of her friends. I’ve been there a month, will eventually find a job in the capital teaching English to Salvadorans and will stay there almost ten months.

“What’s do you need?” Sharron asks the woman.

Instead of the tale of terrible pain or anguish, maybe the dire need of a doctor, that I’m expecting, I hear one that is more American, more that of a tourist.

“It’s almost six o’clock,” the woman moans, “and I was told I had to get there before six. It’s the place where they sell the towels. I keep trying to tell this idiot, but he just keeps saying, “No habla englise.’ But, I know he speaks English.”

“If he says he doesn’t speak English,” Sharron says, “That’s probably because he doesn’t speak English. What makes you think he speaks English?”

“Well everybody at the hotel speaks English and they all speak Spanish too.”

Sharron takes a deep breath. I can tell she’s frustrated with this woman and might say something insulting to her.

The taxi driver looks nervous. He seems to be hoping we will take the irritating thing in the back seat away, but the woman shows no sign of getting out of the taxi and prattles on. “The woman in the gift shop told me in very plain English that I could find a better selection of towels at the Mercada de something or other. But this stupid idiot keeps taking me to grocery stores. Are all the taxi drivers here morons?”

La Plama TowelSharron clenches her teeth and says, “You’re here in a country where the National language is Spanish and you expect everybody to speak English, but you don’t speak any Spanish at all, is that it?”

The woman shakes her head, no. “I had a book, but I lost it someplace?”

“And you didn’t bother to write down the name of the market?”

“No, I thought he’d know where it was. All I know is that it’s out doors and somebody there sells beautiful towels.”

“I know where you want to go,” Sharron says, looking up at the sky.

“Please tell him… and tell him to hurry.”

Sharron turns to the driver, says a few sentences in Spanish, then turns back to the woman and says, “I don’t know if you’ll get there before six, it’s pretty far away, but he said he’ll do his best. Good luck.”

Watching them drive away, I turn to Sharron. She has a big smile on her face.

“What did you do?” I ask.

“Turistas de los estados unidos, they give us such a bad name,” She says. “There’s a market about ten blocks from here where they sell towels, clothing, lots of cloth. I told him to take her there.”

“And what’s funny about that? Is the stuff cheap or made in the U.S. or what?”

“I told the driver that since she was such a bitch he should drive as fast as he could but to take the long way around and to try to get there when they were packing everything up.”

“You’re wicked.”

“She deserved it. I’d love to be there when he drops her off. She’s going to go crazy.”

It’s only ten blocks away, we head in that direction, but half way there we decide we have better things to do.

#tourist

When I Started…

writing this blog I thought I would write about Chicago, mostly about Chicago sports, at-computerbecause I grew up in the Chicago area and even though I haven’t lived there for more than 30 years I still closely follow all sports Chicago (with the exception perhaps of the Wisconsin Badgers, having lived in Wisconsin for 20 years, and the USC Trojans, having lived in California for the last ten).

I also thought I’d write about times spent in the city – wandering Michigan Ave., State St., Rush, Wabash, etc.; watching fireworks from the top of the Hancock, riding the trains into the city and the subway, eating Chicago Style, watching Second City, jogging along the lake front, going to school at Loyola and Northeastern Illinois, living in the suburbs, living on the North Side, etc., etc.

That hasn’t exactly worked out. There are too many other things that interest me from day to day and I write a lot of stuff other stuff: poetry, short stories, memoir. I tried creating other blogs for those other things: Trails Across White for my poetry, Suddenly Words for my fiction and memoirs, Theretofor for my non-fiction and Caledon Pritz, a site that no longer exists for silly quotes and one-liners I make up. Most of what you see here also appears at my website: RobbMichael.com. At the time it seemed like a good idea to have a different blog for each thing, but some of those blogs never got off the ground and if they did they were sometimes neglected for a week or more. For instance I’ve posted a lot of poetry on Trails Across White, but it’s been a few months since I’ve added a poem.

A friend who’s into guns once told me that he bought an old Springfield rifle and took it hunting. He told me, maybe the things were good when defending against an infantry charge, because one shot might stop or slow down a handful of chargers, but it was terrible for hunting. First he was lucky if he hit what he was shooting at. Second, if he hit it he was lucky if the shot brought the animal down. Third if the animal was down, preparing it was twice as much work because a handful of buckshot had to be picked out of the meat.

That’s what it’s like trying to maintain four blogs. It’s scatter-shot and it’s at times overwhelming and discouraging. I often spend a day working on one thing which does not get published because I’m not satisfied with it. Some things stay in draft status for as much as a week before I publish it or leave it to move on to something else. That would be okay if I was writing just one blog, but when four are involved it meant weeks might go by before something got published.

If you’ve been following this the past few weeks you’ve seen more than just Chicago related stories here. The other blogs are now permanently dormant (with the exception perhaps of Trails Across White – a final decision has not yet been made), but everything I write will be here, now.

You might notice that the tag at the top has changed from Chicago, etc. to better reflect what is going on here.

And that’s what I’m thinking about today.

Hope you like it.

#taglines #blogs

Damn! That’s Not the Best Word Either

Tring to find the xxxxx best wordThis New Yorker cartoon is paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Today’s writers bleed a little less thanks to the computer’s bloody word processing capabilities. I’ve also found  that if I write my first draft with a red #2 lead pencil I bleed a little less. It’s a blood splattered probably hemorrhaging about as easy to scratch blot out a word, phrase, sentence, etc. with a computer as it is with a pencil and paper, but it seems easier to use the pencil. Cutting and pasting is more difficult with the pencil, but for me, that’s the gory second draft.

It often seems finding the best word or a word close enough (the best word  is usually found by rewriting and rewriting and, etc.) is too much of a time, energy, thought,and too many peanut butter or grilled cheese sandwich consuming  process.

While it may not ‘take a village’ to find the best word, it often ‘takes a tree.’

Every writer has different ways to deal with finding the bloodthirsty best word or words but we have a limited amount of blood?

Memoir: Perfection

Fourteen years old, History report. The teacher had made an all but impossible demand: typed.Underwood-typewriter

I didn’t know how to type. Most of the kids in my eighth grade class didn’t know how to type. For a couple of them there wasn’t even a typewriter in the house. A few of my classmates had a parent or older sibling who could type, but not me, so the task was mine.

Required: three sources, I had five.

Required: ten footnotes, I had twelve.

Required: 8 – 10 pages, my handwritten report totaled 2,415 words. That translated to nine pages of typewriting.

Required: follow the teachers hand-out for the report structure: Title, footnotes, bibliography, etc.

Required: Double spaced, with one inch margins all around, check.

I was running out of time. The report was due the next day. I’d put a lot of work into it. I’d read the two books, Encyclopedia entry, and two magazine articles about Alfred Emanuel “Al” Smith, Governor of New York and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate.

Copious notes: six double sided pages worth, handwritten.

Alfred_Emanuel_SmithThe report was finished a week before, but other homework, studying for tests, and playground baseball had taken up most of my free time.

After dinner a little after 6 p.m. I dragged the typewriter, an old Underwood out of the closet, cleared everything off the little desk in my room. Hefted the typewriter on to it, set my report on one side and a small stack of blank paper on the other.

Suggestion: make sure you have a bottle of white out. White Out was new to me and proved to be a learning experience.

The typewriter was also a learning experience. It took me awhile to figure out how to line up the paper so the lines of type ran across the page mostly parallel to the top and bottom.

Since I just had to copy my paper I figured I’d get it done in a couple hours at the most. I did not figure in any extra time for my one finger typing, nor my lack of familiarity with the location of all the letters and numbers, nor my lack of familiarity with White-Out, nor how difficult it would be to follow the teacher’s report guidelines. Just putting the footnote on the right page proved to be daunting. It would have been easy if she had been kind enough to allow us to list all our footnotes on a single page in the same way we listed our bibliography on a single page, but this was preparation for high school where we might have to write a report with the footnotes on the page where they were indicated.

Required: no more than 12 corrections per page.

Required: no hyphenated words.

With the first piece of paper ready, I consulted the guide, carefully typed the title page. Somehow I managed to get through it with no mistakes. It was not lined up exactly in the middle, a little closer to the top, but it was close enough.

Next page: a mistake just three letters into the first second word, Smith. I hit the letter ‘u.’ I tried to brush the White-Out between under the typewriter ribbon, but got it on the ribbon so that when I typed the ‘I’ it was mostly white.

I learned I had to roll the paper up, apply the White Out and roll the paper back down. Since it was an old typewriter, I found that I had to pull the paper up when I was turning the roller to make sure the paper actually moved up the distance it was supposed to move with each click of the roller. I did not do that the first time, so that when I typed the ‘i’ it was a half line too high.

Toss the first page and start over again.

My next attempt got tossed just seven lines in because of the 12 mistakes rule, same with the next three attempts. It was now, 7:30. The worst thing about using White Out was that I had to let it dry otherwise whatever I typed was grossly distorted or simply smeared.

The sixth attempt was perfect, except that I forgot to leave room for the footnote.

Toss the page and start over again.

I trudged along, letter by letter, mistake by mistake, footnote by footnote, page by page.

By midnight I had four pages finished and about a half bottle of White Out left.

I was quite proud of myself when both pages five and six took just one try, one sheet of paper each, even though there were 11 blotches of White Out on page four and a dozen on page five. The sixth page did not go well at all. It had three footnotes on it the first three times I typed it, but by the time I finished it the third footnote was moved to the second line of the seventh page. It was at this point that I realized my nine page report had become a ten page report. Footnotes hadn’t figured into my initial page estimate.

When I was writing the first draft I cut a few paragraphs that totaled almost 400 words because they were more about New York than about Al Smith. However, I probably would have left them if I wasn’t worried my classmates might think I was trying to impress the teacher by going the full ten pages. I wasted some time rereading the rest of my report, trying to find something to cut, but there wasn’t anything I thought my report could do without. I decided to risk whatever my classmates might think.

Just before 5 a.m. I started typing the last page. It turned out to be the worst page of all. Twice I got to the last line, and made my thirteenth mistake. Once I made the same mistake three times. At six o’clock my mom came into the room and asked if I’d been up all night. My hands were shaking. I could hardly keep my eyes open. I was I the middle of the last paragraph with nine mistakes, when my mom opened the door.

“Have you been up all night?” she asked.

“Yes, but I’m almost finished.”

“What’s taken so long?” she asked.

“It’s hard to type and I keep making mistakes.”

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, does it?”

“Well I get only twelve mistakes per page. More than that and I have to throw it away.”

“How much do you have left?”

“Just this,” I said, pointing to the last paragraph.

“Okay, type that, then go to bed. I’ll wake you in an hour.”

“But what if I make too many mistakes? I have to finish this page.”

“There comes a point, Bobby, when you have to say, that’s the best I can do and even if you think it could be better, you finish it. You could spend the rest of the day trying to make that perfect, but sometimes perfect is only the best you can do.”

So, I typed the rest of the report, typed the final footnote, made seven more mistakes. I put a paper clip on the report, and slipped it into the pocket of a folder. Three minutes later I was sound asleep.

Rather than make me wait for the bus, mom let me sleep an extra half hour, rushed me through my wake up routine, had a bowl of cereal waiting for me, and drove me to school. The bell rang just as I was walking into the school. If I stopped moving I probably would have fallen asleep. I’d never stayed up all night before, but I was ecstatic. I finished the report. Sure there were too many mistakes on the last page, but the rest were okay, so I didn’t think I’d lose too many points for that.

As I ran over in my mind everything about my report I startled myself, the Bibliography. I forgot the bibliography.

That’s what I told the teacher: “I forgot the bibliography. The page is still on my desk at home. Could I bring it in tomorrow?” I didn’t mention anything about not having typed it up.

She studied my face a moment, decided I wasn’t lying and said, “On my desk, first thing.”

was more difficult than I thought it would be and took more than two hours, but it was on the teacher’s desk when the bell rang.

Good job: that was the first line she’d written under the A- grade. I was surprised. I would have been happy with a C.

Good job: Your report is good. Your writing is very good. Good use of sources. Well thought out.

Goof job: None of my typing errors were marked, just a couple misspellings, some grammatical mistakes and one mistake on the bibliography.

I learned a lot about writing reports, about footnotes and bibliographies. The most important thing I learned was that there are degrees of perfection and that in the end perfection was the best I could do, whatever that was, whatever it is.

#Perfection

Susie and the Dirt Pile

Susie:

I’ve been told many times that to be successful at anything hard work is much more important than luck. Sometimes though, luck is much more important. For instance, quite awhile ago there was a girl in my neighborhood who would be playing baseball, basketball, and football with the boys if she was born 12 years ago, rather than back when I was a kid. I’ve forgotten her name mostly because even though she was my age, she went to a different school and I only knew her for a few weeks. I’ll call her Susie.

Susie was quite pretty: blonde, blue eyes, some freckles, but she was tough and I imagine most of the boys who knew her well were afraid of her. I hardly knew her at all, but I was afraid of her.

One 5th grade day during recess, when I got out to the playground I walked into this conversation between some of my classmates.

“You’re kidding! She didn’t really?”

“She did. She did. She conked him right on the head.”

“Jimmy, naw? Nobody conks Jimmy and gets away with it.”

“I told you she did. Susie walked right up to him, said somethin‘ to him, I don’t know what, then hauled right off and smacked ‘im in the mouth. Flattened ‘im right there in front of everybody. Then she just turns and walks away. Jimmy‘s layin’ there in the dirt, tryin‘ to hide his mouth, but we can see there’s blood comin‘ from it.”

“And he didn’t do nothin‘?”

Nothin‘ at all. What’s he gonna do? She’s a girl.”

Jimmy Wilton, was a tough, spunky guy. If somebody pushed or hit him, he’d push or hit back… and he was strong. He was one of the leaders of my elementary school class, mostly because he was funny and brash. You wanted Jimmy to like you, and if you were honest with him, he usually did. If you didn’t bother him, he didn’t bother you. You didn’t want to get on his bad side, though.

Susie on the other hand was a bully. From the little I knew about her she was mean and nasty. She’d hit or kick or spit on just about anybody for getting too close to her. She also knew and used every dirty word any of us knew and a few some of us only imagined we knew.

Jimmy never said what happened between them, but it was said that after that he did his best to avoid her. If she was walking down the street toward him, he crossed to the other side.

The Cave:

During the summer between fifth and sixth grades we moved into a new neighborhood. As it turned out, it was Susie’s neighborhood.  Until we moved I had no idea who she was. There was the Jimmy story and other stories I’d heard about her, but if I saw her I wouldn’t have guessed. She didn’t look at all like the girl I’d pictured in my mind… a muscular, ragged, scowling beast.

The house was brand new; no grass in the yard, no shrubbery, no trees, just dirt… so much dirt that there was a hill of it, twelve feet high. It was left there from the basement excavations of our house and the house behind ours. It was a great place to live as far as my brothers andDirt hill I were concerned. Not only was the yard a place where we didn’t have to worry about digging up the grass, much less cutting it, but that pile of dirt was its own playground. With it in our yard we didn’t need the playground across the street. 

At first the hill was a challenge to climb because the dirt was still fresh and loose. It didn’t take us long to pack the dirt thanks to the daily pounding it took from our feet. 

We’d been there a couple weeks when one of us noticed a small indentation in the side of the hill and started digging at it, making a small hole. We saw the beginnings of a cave, a secret hideaway, an underground clubhouse. We went to work with our mom’s garden tools and a small bucket, hauling dirt. It took us most of a Saturday, but by the end of the day there was a cave big enough for the three of us. I found a piece of plywood and nailed a rope handle to it so we could pull it behind us to cover the entrance. It was our secret hideout.

There wasn’t much to be secret about.  I barely remember what we did or what we talked about while we sat in there. It was just fun to sit in the cool darkness and giggle at each other. I’m sure there was talk of bears and bugs. Could a bear sneak in at night? What about worms, ants, and spiders creeping in? A flashlight was our only light and I remember spending a lot of time shining it on the walls watching for crawling things. 

A few days after we finished our cave, I met Susie. My brother, Richie, and I were sitting inside when someone started knocking on the plywood door.

“Who’s there?” I shouted, thinking it might be mom.

“It’s Susie, can I come in?”

“Susie, who?” I didn’t know anyone named Susie, so I thought she might be one of Richie’s friends.

“You know, from down the street.”

I pointed the flashlight at Richie. He was shaking his head no.

“No, you can’t come in,” I shouted, “this is for boys only.”

“You better let me come in,” she screamed.

I thought, who does she think she is? This is our yard and our hill and our cave. We don’t have to let anybody in.

“No this is ours, go away,” I shouted.

“Yeah, go away,” Richie echoed.

Suddenly the plywood door flew away from the entrance. A pretty, tiny, blonde haired, little girl stood there. When she told us what she thought of us in the way she did, all the stories I’d heard about Susie rushed across my memory and I knew who she was. Too late I saw Richie sticking his tongue out at h er. She punched him in the shoulder, knocking him back into the cave. He started crying. She said something nasty about crybabies. I grabbed Richie’s hand and we ran into the house. From there we watched Susie jumping up and down on top of the hill till our cave collapsed. As she walked down the hill she turned, saw us watching her, shouted something vulgar, and walked away.

Now, I was positive I’d met the girl who punched Jimmy and that the stories about her were probably true.

About a half hour after she left, when we thought it was safe to go out we inspected the damage. The cave no longer existed. It was replaced by a large crater in the top of the hill. I got a small shovel to re-dig the cave, but the dirt was too loose. I’d dig a few inches into the hill, but the dirt quickly filled the new hole. Meanwhile, Richie dragged the piece of plywood to the top, got in the crater, and pulled the board over himself.

“Look, Bobby,” I heard his muffled voice saying, “I’ve got my own cave.” Then he pushed some dirt aside, making an opening, and slithered out. We looked inside. It wasn’t much of a cave, about 12 inches deep and three feet across, but it was a start. Again we set to work, digging and digging. The first thing we noticed was that we needed a bigger piece of plywood. Whenever we tried to enlarge the cave, the walls slid in and the plywood sank. 

There were still a few houses being built so it didn’t take long to find a suitable piece of wood. Now we had a large piece for the roof and the other piece for our door. We figured a wooden roof was the perfect thing to keep Susie from destroying our secret hideout again, especially since we piled dirt on top of the plywood to disguise it. Being the experienced cave builders that we were the new cave was finished before dinner.  It as an even better cave than the old one, sturdier and roomier. Also, we hadn’t thought of this when we started, but the entrance was now facing away from the road so unless someone, meaning Susie, came looking they would never see the new cave in the hill. 

Jack:

About that time another family moved in down the street and I met my new best friend, Jack. I introduced him to the cave, which he thought was great.

We’d been inside barely a half hour when dirt started tumbling inside. Dust was filling the air. Someone was jumping on the roof. I heard the board cracking. Jack and I scurried outside. Susie was and one of her friends were jumping with as much force as they could muster.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “You can join our club, just don’t break the board.” She said something to me my parents would never let me repeat, kicked me in the leg, and said to her friend, “let’s get out of here.” I stood there, rubbing my leg as I watched her walk off.

“Who was that?” Jack asked.

“Susie. I don’t know the other girl.”

“Which one was Susie?”

“The one who kicked me.”

“Is she in our class?”

We’d already talked about school. Jack would be going to my school and since we were the same age, we would be classmates.

“Nope, but just about everybody knows her.”

Jack was a baseball fanatic. I wasn’t, so he started teaching me about baseball and how to play. We spent a lot of time across the street playing catch. It wasn’t long before Jack heard about a daily game at our school’s playground. Our first day there, Jack talked the other kids into letting me play. I wasn’t very good and they knew it, but I now that I had a friend who liked the game, I paid attention and tried hard. 

End of the Cave:

On our way home that first afternoon at the school playground, we were so deep in a conversation about the game I didn’t notice what happened to the cave until I was across the street from my house.

Not only had the cave been destroyed, it was gone.

This time it wasn’t Susie.

The entire hill was gone. While we played baseball the hill was loaded into a dump truck and hauled away. Now our back yard looked like the rest of the yard. That weekend my dad bought some grass and bushes, seeded the lawn and planted the bushes. A month later there was no sign there had ever been a cave in my backyard.

As for Susie, I never saw her again. Apparently her family moved away. It’s funny but I thought she was cute, pretty. She showed up at the time in my life when I was starting to notice girls as more than people who weren’t boys. She was the first girl I ever really noticed. Even as she was cursing at me and kicking me I was noticing the freckles across her nose and deciding I liked them. If Susie had been just a little bit nicer, I might have found myself searching for her and might have ended up like Jimmy Wilton. Then again, while I was rubbing my leg and watching her walk away I realized she was not a girl after my own heart.

I didn’t know what it was she was after when she crushed my cave, but it seems she was launching the first attack I’d ever seen for women’s rights.  Who knows, maybe she planted the seed that told me women are equal to men, and often more than equal.