Thursday, February 01, 2007

I Shoulda-orta* had a Tomato Juice

Years ago, I developed a routine of sorts. Every three months, I would have to take nothing by mouth after 10 pm to be ready for fasting blood work at my 8:30 am appointment with my doctor the next morning. I would drive down to the clinic without having had coffee, a potentially life-threatening event for me and every other driver on the road. Once at the clinic, I would stagger into the office to check in. After a wait in the lobby, I would go back to an examining room where the doctor would come in and assess my situation before ordering the tests that she felt I needed. I would walk down to the laboratory to have several vials of blood drawn to check, among other things, my fasting glucose levels, my triglycerides and cholesterol, my HIV viral load (the number of particles of HIV in each milliliter of my blood) and my cd4 count, formerly known widely in the HIV community as the t-cell count.

By the time I would finish up at the clinic, it was often 10:30 or 11 am and I would be starving. Since I saw the process as a bit of an intrusion, even a threat, not unlike looking into a crystal ball that could reveal a rather disturbing picture of health, I often rewarded myself after leaving the clinic with what can only be described as comfort food. Some of you might question the reward that I offered myself, but it was perfect for me. Some would even go so far as to label it as discomfort food. Either way, I would head down a few blocks from the clinic to one of those breakfast restaurants that line the interstate highways in the US. These greasy-spoons are known for their hash-brown potatoes that can be topped with onions, cheese, and/or chili and for their breakfasts of eggs, bacon, sausage or even steak or pork chops.

I love these restaurants because the food that is served there is like any breakfast that you can find in any truck-stop in the country and it reminds me of breakfasts at my mother’s restaurant when I was a kid. I also love these places because I frequently find local color sitting right there at the counter, just waiting to shine for me as I eat my breakfast.

***

I recall having spoken once with a colleague from the UK who had been housed in a hotel out in the Research Triangle Park, an area that is relatively deserted on weekends. He had found one of these restaurants on a Sunday morning and gone there for a breakfast. He started telling me of the most bizarre thing he had ever witnessed in a restaurant. He said, “I place my order with the waitress, and she just turned around on the spot and started screaming at the fry-cook something like, “ I need a plate, over easy, scattered and smothered with wheat and bacon.” He said that the waitress was standing no more than three feet from the cook as he fried up food right in full-view of all the customers in the place, and she shrieked the order to the guy. I said, “Oh, you found a gem of Americana…the interstate diner!”

“But why did she have to scream?” he asked.

All I could do was shrug and say, “Because that is the way they do it there.”

***

One morning, after I had contributed blood to my doc’s laboratory, I drove over to the familiar building that overlooks I-40. When I entered the restaurant, I found it to be packed and the only available seat was next to a man at the counter. This fellow caught my attention, not because the seat next to him was empty, but because he was slumped onto the counter as if passed out. His face was precariously located near his runny eggs, and when the waitress walked up, I mouthed to her “Is he ok?” to which she rolled her eyes and shook her head. It must have been fairly common for him to nap during his breakfasts there.

The waitress spoke up and said, “What can I get for you this morning, sugar?”

I ordered two eggs, over-easy, bacon, hash-browns with onions and a pecan waffle. She waited a moment and then said, “Anything to drink, baby?” When the word “coffee” left my mouth, she turned on her heels and screamed my order to the fry cook. Apparently, the noise of her screams awakened the dormant diner in the seat next to mine.

“Have you heard the one about the prostitute and the parrot?” I heard him bellow. I looked over at him to find he had sat up in his chair and was looking squarely at me.

“No, I can’t say that I have,” I said with some trepidation at the thought of hearing it.

“A prostitute walks into a bar with a parrot on her shoulder. This guy looks up and says ‘That is the ugliest pig I have ever seen.’

The prostitute responded ‘This ain’t no pig! It is a parrot!’

The guys says, ‘I was talking to the parrot!’”

Oy! I thought it was bad, but little did I know it was going to get worse. The misogeny of his joke not enough, he decided to share his views on life with me, and his initial foray into the sharing of his philosophy left me feeling that I must have had a sign hanging from my neck that labeled me as gay, or maybe even “Freak-magnet”.

“I can see why…,” he proceeded, “yes, why… two women who have been abused by their husbands or boyfriends might seek solace in the arms of one another from time to time, but I can not, for the life of me, understand why…why one hairy-assed man would ever want to have sex with another hairy-assed man.”

I had not indicated to him that I am gay. I had not solicited his views on why two men might find each other sexually attractive to each other. This was completely unprovoked and, well, as you might imagine, I knew that I was simply going to have to come out to this old fart sitting next to me before my breakfast was consumed.

I looked at him and said “Maybe you were not meant to understand it.”

Apparently, this was a response that he had never heard before. He actually paused for a few minutes, stared away into the universe of the tiled floor, and then continued to tell me the story of his life and to spout additional inanities about his views of sexuality. When the moment was right and he had made yet another homophobic comment, I finally finished up my eggs, took one last sip of coffee and wiped my mouth dry with a napkin. At that point, I turned to my dining companion at the counter and I told him that as a gay man, I had found his conversation most enlightening and that I hoped he would come to understand his role in the world of gay men and lesbians. I smiled, placed my hand on his shoulder, and then walked back to my truck for the drive home and another day in the life of Ron.

***

On another occasion, I walked into a near empty restaurant. There were a couple of waitresses working, one an older Caucasian lady who looked with disgust at her co-worker, a young, wiry, African-American woman named “Little Bit”. Little Bit was about five feet two, thin, and built a bit like a boy or maybe even like a very short point-guard on a championship women’s basketball team. Her energy level was high, so I think she must have retained her fat-free figure from burning large amounts of calories, a little bit like a hummingbird. There was just a hint of masculinity about Little Bit, but not enough for me to assume that she might have been anything other than a young African-American woman who worked waiting tables.

I was recounting this story later to my friend Steph. I told her how I was sitting there and a pickup pulled up outside. A rather masculine looking, elderly lady climbed out of the truck and entered the restaurant. As soon as she walked in, she looked around the place and then addressed the older waitress behind the counter.

“Is Little Bit working today?” she asked.

The woman behind the counter muttered and shook her head as if in disgust, then indicated that the new customer could sit anywhere she wanted. In a few minutes, Little Bit came out of the back of the restaurant and went over to the lady who had just arrived. They chatted for several minutes before Little Bit took her order and screamed it at the fry cook.

So then I told Steph that another pickup pulled up out front and yet another rather masculine looking woman climbed out. She reached back into the truck and pulled out a couple of boxes that were wrapped in brightly colored wrapping paper. She threw her back into the door of the restaurant and wedged the gifts in through the door before addressing the woman behind the counter.

“Is Little Bit working today?” she asked.

The first woman who had asked for Little Bit looked up to see the boxes of gifts. Her facial expression immediately changed to register surprise, then shock, and finally anger. I saw the changes on her face and thought that perhaps it would be a good time for me to get the heck out of the restaurant…just in case. Granted, I have no idea what was up with the two visitors and their common interest in Little Bit, but I figured it could get ugly, and I didn’t want to be the only guy there should the grits hit the fan.

At this point in my recounting the story to my friend, Steph interjected “Sounds like there was a little bit here and a little bit there!”

“Yeah, and it sounds like a little bit goes a long way!” I said.

***

Although I used to hitchhike in Europe when I was a student, I would never do it today, and in fact, I would never pick up someone who is seeking a ride. However, one day, I was at a gourmet grocery store buying some coffee beans. When I had completed my shopping, I went outside to my car to find a lady walking toward me.

She spoke up, “How far is it to Northgate Mall from here?”

I looked at her and told her that it wasn’t far, only a couple of miles. She started talking again, and I recognized her accent and vocabulary almost immediately. She was from Robeson County, North Carolina and was apparently of Native American heritage, one of the native groups who are now known as the Lumbee nation.

“You’re from Robeson County, aren’t you?” I asked.

“How’d you know that?” she asked me. I explained that one of my best friends was a Lumbee girl who had lived next-door to me in college and that I have family from Robeson County.

She started talking to me.

“Listen, can you give me a ride to Northgate? I just got off the bus from Greensboro. I was working as a live-in caregiver for some old woman there and she died yesterday. Don’t ever take a job like that, child, because, when those old folks die, your ass gets put on the street. I shoulda-orta known better. So they put me out yesterday, and I had no where to go, so I got on a bus to Durham because I heard there was more work available here.”

I told her that I would give her a ride to the mall.

“I am going to Northgate ‘cause they got some kind of job center there and I need some work. Lord, my life has been so damn messed up lately. I was married for 32 years and about 3 years ago my sorry-assed husband walked in and handed me divorce papers without any warning whatsoever. I looked at him and didn’t even think about what I was doing. I signed. The next thing I know, I was kicked out of my own house because I had signed all my rights away. That is why I was living with that old woman in Greensboro. Anyway, my husband treated me so bad, and you know what, God don’t like ugly. My husband was so ugly to me that he married a new woman and within a year, she had taken him for all of his money and he died of a heart-attack. Uh uh, naw, God don’t like ugly and if you are ugly to someone, your time will come.”

I told her how I was sorry to hear about her situation and all the bad that had happened to her. As we drove to the mall, she asked me for some money just to tide her over until she could get a job. I told her that I don’t carry cash with me normally, but that I had a couple of dollars. I gave them to her and then told her that I, too, had had a bit of bad experiences in my life. Just to give her an idea, I told her about how I had lived with HIV for years and that most of my friends had already died of it by then.

She was reflective for a minute when we pulled up to the Mall Entrance. She turned to me and thanked me for the ride and the spare-change. She said that she had a good feeling about me and that I would be ok because I was a good soul. I thanked her for her kind words and then said goodbye.

Several months later, I walked into my breakfast restaurant and sat at the one empty booth that was available. When the waitress walked up, I looked up to find my new friend had found a job working there.

“Hey! How’re you doing?” I asked her.

“I’m fine, thank you. I got a job as you can see. You’re looking good, baby. How are you feeling?”

“Oh, ok, I just visited my doctor for blood tests, so I am hungry,” I replied.

“OK, sugar!! What can I get for you today?”

And when I had finished placing my order, she turned around and screamed it out to the fry cook behind the counter.

* Shoulda-orta is a lingustic expression that is frequently heard among the Lumbee people of Robeson County, NC. It is a mixture of "should have" and "ought to have".

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