Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The original Homer

I was sitting on my bike at the corner of Priest Drive and Elliott Road in Tempe on Monday, waiting for the turn signal so that I could pedal the remaining quarter-mile to my work when I noticed a car waiting for the light. What I noticed was not the car, but what was on top of the car: It looked like a brief case of some sort.
Before I proceed, I’m going to give a little back-story for new readers of the blog. That I was on my bike is not uncommon. My bike has been my primary mode of transportation since January of 2007. So if you are of the mind that Americans are too dependant on foreign oil, don’t look at me. Of course, it wasn’t really my idea to swear off driving. The state of Arizona sorta insisted on it after sending me to state prison for four months for DUI.
That’s old news to most of you, I realize.
The most recent development is my job. Since Feb. 12, I’ve been working as a sales clerk at a thrift store which - as you all know - has been my life’s ambition. The $8-per-hour is just gravy.
So that’s what I was doing on my bike at the intersection of Priest and Elliott on Monday.
Aware that the light would soon turn and that the brief case would not likely stay on top of the car until the driver reached her destination, I motioned to the woman in the car.
She looked at me, then looked away very quickly. So I moved closer and tapped on her passenger-side window, trying to get her attention.
It worked. She looked at me with an expression of fear and confusion that I had seen only once before - a long, long time ago. And that’s the crux of this story.
I should note that the woman cracked her window just enough to allow me to tell her about the brief case. She hopped out of her car, grabbed the brief case and said, “Thanks!’’
But as she sped off, I remembered the expression on her face and where I had encountered it so long ago.
It was the same kind of look women in East Tupelo used to give Homer back in the late 1960s.
If you lived in East Tupelo back then, you knew Homer. He was probably that part of town’s most recognizable character.
I don’t recall ever hearing his last name. He didn’t need a last name, really. Like Cher or Madonna, Homer was enough.
Truth is, most of what folks knew about Homer was second-hand. While adults generally viewed Homer as a sad case and somewhat of an embarrassment, he was a figure of great interest to the kids of East Tupelo. Kids are always fascinated with the unusual, whereas adults generally like to pretend it doesn't exist.
By the mid-60s, Homer was in his 40s, by most estimations. He was rumored to live in the housing projects with his elderly mother. The story was that he was “shell-shocked’’ from being in combat, perhaps during World War II or, possibly, Korea.
This condition was used as the explanation for the one thing that truly set Homer apart.
Homer did not drive, perhaps could not drive. Homer’s mother didn’t drive, either.
But those two facts did nothing to deter Homer from the one thing he liked to do best: Homer, not unlike many a family pet, absolutely loved to go for car rides.
Ultimately, it was his passion for car rides that made him famous - or infamous - on the streets of East Tupelo.
Homer did not ask for rides. He simply stood on a street corner, waited for a car to pull up to the light and promptly opened the passenger side door and plopped down in the seat, all without a word.
It did not seem to matter to Homer where the driver was headed. He was just along for the ride.
Now, for most of the men of East Tupelo, Homer was not an unwelcomed guest. I can remember on many, many occasions when my dad and I be running some errand and find ourselves having Homer as an uninvited guest.
Homer would open the door to dad’s pick-up truck and I’d scrunch over to the middle to make room for our companion.
“How you doin’ this morning?’’ Dad would ask as he pulled away from the intersection.
“Um. All right, All right.’’ Homer would mumble.
“We’re going down to the feed store,’’ Dad would inform our guest.
“OK then,’’ Homer would say.
Sometimes, Homer would make the entire round trip and we’d drop him off at the intersection where we picked him up. Other times he would simply get out of the truck when it stopped at the next light. You could never tell with Homer.
But it was sure bet that Homer spent most all of the daylight hours hopping rides indiscriminately before finding his way back to his mother’s little house in the projects.
To the men of East Tupelo, Homer was a harmless figure, a gentle character who never meant any harm.
But the women of East Tupelo did not view Homer in the same light.
I am not sure if their reactions to Homer were born out of fear or the sense of impropriety. Back then, there was sort of a Victorian attitude between the genders.
For example, I remember when I was about 12 years old and I was riding with my dad somewhere. We passed the house of Ms. Swords and I saw her out on her front lawn.
Ms. Swords ran a beauty shop out of her home. She did my mom’s hair. Hers was one of the many lawns I cut to make my spending money. We attended the same church.
“Dad, there’s Ms. Swords. Blow the horn!’’ I said.
But my dad didn’t blow the horn.
“You don’t do that sort of thing,’’ he said.
Ms. Swords was a divorced woman. My dad was a married deacon. Blowing the truck horn and waving would not be proper. Who knows what people might think, after all.
So, even though Homer was as harmless as a child, the sight of a grown man getting into the car with a woman…well, it just didn’t look right.
Of course, to a child that sort of thing is a mystery.
Turns out, it was a mystery to Homer, too.
So, when a woman would pull up and stop at the light where Homer happened to be waiting for his next ride, there was nothing to deter Homer from hopping into the car. He made no distinction when it came to car rides.
The women of East Tupelo soon realized as much, and it was not uncommon to see a woman, having spotted Homer at the corner just ahead, brake a hundred feet short of the light in order to reach over and lock the passenger side doors.
Homer tried ever door handle. If the door happened to be locked, he simply waited for his next opportunity.
Ever now and then, new people moved into the neighborhood, though.
And on those occasions, an unsuspecting woman would pull up to a light and soon have Homer sitting in the seat next to them.
And that was the sort of look I got from that lady on the corner of Priest and Elliott when I tapped on that woman‘s window.
“Lord,’’ I thought. “I’ve become Homer.’’
You may be wondering whatever happened to Homer.
Well, I can only offer the rumored explanation. All I know for certain is that, at some point in the early 1970s, Homer just wasn't around anymore. The word was that he had been hit and killed by a semi-truck on Highway 78. The thinking was that Homer had tried to hop a ride in a fast-moving 18-wheeler. And that was the end of Homer.
Again, though, it’s just a rumor.
The Homer I knew was mostly rumor, I realize now. But he sure loved car rides.
That much I know for a fact.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Second-hand Slim

I was sitting in a chair near the front entrance of the second-hand store, waiting for one of the managers to return from running an errand. It was 3:05 p.m., and I was there for a job interview.
The night before, I had watched President Obama’s press conference as he made his case for the $800 million stimulus plan, hoping that he would say something that would give me reason to be optimistic.
The best I can tell, I’ll get a $500 tax credit and an extra $20 in my paycheck. Somehow, I don’t think that is going to materially improve my prospects. After listening to the president, I quickly came to the conclusion that if I’m going to get back on my feet, I’ll be doing it pretty much on my own. This is no knock on the president, by the way. It’s just that when you are almost 50 years old and all of your experience is derived from a dying industry, there’s very little the government can do about it.
The new jobs the president touts as the expected result of the stimulus plan are young men’s jobs. And, when the current recession abates, the white collar jobs that once belonged to the suddenly displaced middle aged workers who have lost their jobs will go to the bright young college graduates of tomorrow.
I suspect this was true during the Great Depression, too. I figure half a generation never recovered. I suspect the same will be true of the youngest half of the baby boomers.
And that’s the spot I found myself in Tuesday afternoon, as I waited for the store manager to return from her errand.
A few minutes later, she trudged into the store and was walking past me, when I spoke to her.
“Are you Meg?’’ I asked.
“Yes,’’ she said. “Are you the person who is here for the interview?’’
“Yes,’’ I said.
“OK,’’ she said.
She was a tall, heavy-set woman in her mid-50s who seemed to be constantly out of breath. “Follow me,’’ she said.
As we walked down the aisles of clothes, she turned and looked at me over her shoulder.
She had my job application in her hand.
“Why would you want to come here after making the big bucks you made at the newspaper?’’ she asked.
“Well, it’s not really like a have that as an option anymore,’’ I said. “The newspaper industry is in a free fall and, well, you can see on my job application that I've got some grass stains on my jersey, you know?’’
She seemed satisfied.
I followed her back to a tiny office in the back of the store where she proceeded to ask me a series of questions, mostly about what I would do under certain circumstances, like what I would do if I saw an employee stealing something.
I gathered this was not an altogether hypothetical scenario.
Of course, she also wanted to know about how it was that I came to be a convicted felon.
So, for what seemed like the thousandth time, I found myself trying to explain it. You would think that by now I’d have that story down pat. But it is still a difficult thing to put into words, mainly because anything I can say in my own defense is certain to come off as a pitiful rationalization.
At the end of my story, I paused.
“You know, if somebody had asked me 30 years ago if I thought I could manage to get through life without becoming a felon, I would have liked my chances,’’ I told her.
The interview went pretty well, all things considered.
She told me she had three positions to fill and that she would call me later in the evening.
A few hours later, she called. “Can you come in tomorrow and fill out your paperwork?’’ she asked.
So, tomorrow I’ll start my new career in retail sales, as clerk/floor person at a second-hand store. The pay is $8 per hour, which was what I made during my summer job in Nashville back in 1976. That was good pay in those days. Now, well, it’s better than nothing.
I am a journalist mainly in retrospect now, but I intend to write about my experiences here. Second-hand stores, after all, are booming in times like these. Maybe working at the store will give me some insight into this dark chapter of American life and maybe my observations will be of some value to readers.
I’d like to tell you that I am excited about the job.
I need to be excited about it, I realize.
But I am not there yet.
And I wonder if there’s much left for me to look forward to.
I suspect I’m not the only one who’s wondering about things like that.