True story: One summer while I was in college, I ended up working at a small, independent restaurant not too far from my parents’ house in far north Houston. For my western Pennsylvania fans, this is Houston, as in Texas, not Houston, as in Chartiers- Houston.
Ostensibly a ‘family style’ restaurant, it was a flawed little gem of a place, owned and operated by this guy from New York whose previous experience seems to have been living with his wife and children on a boat in the ocean for several years. Even at the time, this seemed like inadequate preparation for anything but writing either the Voyage of the Mimi or Captain Ron, but what did I know from restaurant management? I was an English Major.
My previous food service employment had been as a fry-cook and burn victim at Red Lobster, so I was hired as the night cook. The ‘boss’ of the kitchen was a grouchy ‘chef’ who did a lot of brooding and smoking; he rarely made it through a dinner rush without screaming at the owner. Prep work was taken care of by a cherubic Polish bubba and her daughter, who had an advanced degree in chemistry back in the old country, but whose rudimentary command of English made her a bit of a risk in the lab. There was a Mexican dishwasher who couldn’t have been more than 25, but was obsessed with the Spanish language recordings of the early sixties country star ‘Gentleman’ Jim Reeves. And running back and forth between the front of the house and the kitchen were a rotating cast of barkeeps and waitresses, male and female, gay and straight, young and old.
Oh, and there was this woodcarving guy who rented the shack next door. He said he had been a circus acrobat as a boy; according to him, he was even on the cover of LIFE magazine.
If this is the cover (and I think it is), he would be the kid.
When I knew him, he looked like Gabby Hayes, smoked a lot of dope with his ‘old lady,’ and played guitar, badly; I think the only song he knew was ‘St. James Infirmary,’ so we played it over and over during the weekly jam session in the bar.
It was truly a summer of education, the kind of learning my Seminary called field education, except this particular field was most assuredly not a church. I had watched soap operas as a kid, but it never occurred to me actual grownups did stuff like that; illicit relationships between waitresses and patrons, affairs between bar tenders and waitresses; dramatic meltdowns in the dining room; awkward fights in the bar; explosive monologues from the owner. At the epicenter of the drama was dumb old me, pretending I knew what I was doing and that all this was normal.
There are no lighthouses near FM 1960.
It was quite a summer. I fell off the smoking wagon for the last time. I dated a waitress, whose brother was my sister’s boyfriend; his name was ‘Bob,’ hers was ‘Eileen,’ and I can’t tell you how many truly awful pun jokes my family made. I drank Iced Coffee for the first time. I learned to make cream gravy and bread pudding, developing a distaste for the latter that remains with me to this day. I learned how to roast a steamship round of beef. I walked hand in hand with a girl on the beach. And I looked down the barrel of a loaded shotgun. That last thing was the cheeseburger’s fault.
Not this cheeseburger.
The restaurant had been busy for a Thursday night, and the kitchen was hopping until well after closing. I grilled myself a burger before clean up, wrapped it to go, and when the kitchen was ready for the next day, I hit the door running- it was about 1:30 in the morning.
In those days, I was driving a big, blue, 1976 Gran Torino station wagon.
Of course, mine wasn’t a Squire…
It had that wonderful 1970s one-finger steering, and the most sensitive brake pedal in motoring history. A former dry cleaning delivery car in West Virginia, it wallowed like a pig with every turn and required a harbor pilot in certain urban areas; I would later find out there was a hole in the floor 2 feet in diameter where my feet rested, but that’s another story. As I left the restaurant, I ran through the evening ritual: sink into the worn-out seat, light a smoke, find a cassette, run the light at Grant Road and zoom off toward home. While eating a cheeseburger.
I was about halfway home when the burger and the bun decided to part ways, with the burger coming to rest in my lap; to this day, I can’t remember where the cigarette ended up. Happening suddenly as it did, the burger’s disintegration took me by surprise; as I looked down at the cheesy lump now resting on my right thigh, the car swerved to the right; I then corrected, swerving back to the left, away from the drainage ditch which runs beside every road in the low country of south Texas. To me, it was business as usual: another greasy, food related stain on my clothes. To the Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy following me, it must have looked like a baby blue whale careening wildly down the highway.
I got lit up like a red and blue Christmas tree.
Now, this was not my first traffic violation rodeo, so I rolled to a stop at the next wide spot and did the ‘pulled over protocol’ – I shut off the car, rolled down the window and retrieved my registration and insurance card. Of course, my registration and insurance card were in the glove box, approximately ten feet away. To get to them, I had to lean way over, across the front seat. No doubt I disappeared from view for a few seconds.
Don’t ever do this. I can’t stress this enough.
When I returned to a full upright position, I found myself looking at a very small Sheriff’s Deputy. She was blonde, with hair cut in a sort of bob made popular some years before by skater Dorothy Hamill. I noticed this, along with the shiny, pea green of her small jacket, the heat radiating off the blacktop around her small booted feet, and the racket of night insects in the piney woods all around us.
Mostly, though, I noticed the barrel of the very large shotgun, pointed at my face.
It was not like this. At all.
Modern shot guns, or riot guns, as they are often called by law enforcement, look very different than the shot guns I was used to seeing in movies and cartoons. Unlike those old fashioned, side by side fowling pieces, a riot gun is usually black, with a big bore and a really menacing effect on a situation – especially when it is aimed eighteen inches from your nose.
The deputy suggested that I show her my hands. She did this by yelling, “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS! SHOW ME YOUR HANDS!” I showed her my hands, cheeseburger drippings and all, and suggested that I did not want to be shot. I did this by yelling, “DON’T SHOOT ME! DON’T SHOOT ME!”
Spoiler alert: she did not shoot me.
After lowering her weapon a little, she listened to my lame story, saw the greasy mess for herself and then ran my license for wants and warrants. She then let me go with a warning about eating while driving.
I would like to say that experience changed my life, but it didn’t, not really. I still eat while I’m driving, still drop food in my lap, still swerve occasionally. On the other hand, I can never hear of an officer involved shooting without seeing in my mind’s eye that small blonde deputy and her big black gun. I wonder: what would have happened if she had sneezed, or hiccuped, or if a truck had backfired nearby. What if I had been a black student, or a Mexican student, sitting there with cheeseburger in my lap? What if I hadn’t been as quick to put up my hands?
What if this happened today?
Since I began writing this some weeks ago, there have been 66 police shootings in the United States, and at least 36 mass shootings by others. That translates to at least 69 people who have been shot to death, and more than 131 have been injured. 276 people, with thoughts and feelings, who drew pictures for their parents when they were kids, people who may have lived a lot longer, feeling perfectly safe and secure in the greatest country on earth, who instead, looked down the barrel of a gun. 276 people, who heard the click of the trigger, felt that fear, and surprise, and pain that comes with being shot. 276 people. And that number doesn’t take into account the single murders, accidental shootings, self defense incidents and suicides by gun.
I don’t know the answer to steeping out of this vicious circle. What I do know is this: I have a hammer. Actually, I have several.
And yes, I do hammer in the morning.
I like my hammers. They are very good at driving nails, or knocking things together, or knocking things apart. But when I’m trying to fix a small electronic device, or piece a ceramic bowl back together, those hammers are just not very useful.
I have no idea what this says.
Guns are a lot like hammers. They tend to be made of metal; many have wooden parts, you can buy them ay Walmart. And like hammers, guns, whether large or small, are very good for very specific things – mostly having to do with stopping someone, or something from being alive.Trust me, this becomes clear when a gun is pointed in your face. And so, as our nation laments yet another mass shooting, I am left to ponder:
Do more hammers make for better repairs?
How many hammers is too many hammers?
Does everyone really need a hammer?
When will enough be enough?