Friday, June 29, 2007

My Bus Stop Experience

I arrive early at the the Hunter Plaza bus stop on the corner of 1st and Burnett, two blocks from work. I called ahead and asked customer service whether there was an actual bus stop with a sign nearby because I didn’t want to try flagging down the bus outside the office building and be left in the dust with no time to spare before my flight.

This particular corner is busy. The dozen or so people standing within a hundred feet or so don’t seem to be waiting for the bus, and as far as I can tell they aren’t waiting for anything or anybody. A woman stops her car on the street, not at a stop sign, and not at the curb, but just right there in her lane, and she gets out and shouts at somebody, and I wonder if guns are going to be drawn and if I’ll be able to duck behind the corner of the building directly behind me, but she’s just calling out to somebody and I have no idea why. They talk for a bit while two cars go around her to the right, and other bystanders don’t think this is strange at all, and a couple minutes later a car heading in the opposite direction in the west-bound lane stops, the passenger gets out with his grocery bags, and jaywalks to the other side, not that that matters, and the driver carries on with somebody and this just seems to be the way things are done here.

I want to fit in, I really do, because after all I am riding the city bus and I don’t want to stand out as the lone business guy carrying a laptop and an E-pass hanging from a lanyard around my neck as if to flaunt that I can ride anywhere, anytime on any bus, trolley or train. So I tuck the badge of honor into my shirt and just stand there trying to remember what time exactly the bus comes to this stop.

I think about my dad again, and whether he would hang out on this side of town, and if these might have been his people, and then my mind drifts off to thoughts about how this skyline must have changed in the seven or so years since he lived here.

I take out my voice recorder which I haven’t used since taking notes on the walk to work a couple mornings ago, and hit play to make sure I’m not going to erase anything once I begin dictating, and it sounds like the chipmunks, so I wonder how that happened if I haven’t changed the batteries and shouldn’t it sound slower, not faster? And then I give up.

The bus approaches and only three passengers board, including me, and I greet the driver and he seems surprised. He must have an interesting clientele during his workday, and I imagine how he occupies himself and what he must look forward to, and whether this job is just getting him by until his ship comes in.

A Typical Walk to Work

The damp warmth hits my face as I exit the building and start my southwest walk toward downtown. I drag my bag off the cobblestone sidewalk onto the wet pavement and I’m lucky that the rain has cleared up long enough for my three-quarter mile journey ahead although it was coming down hard while I exercised.

Every day I take a slightly modified route, depending on when the lights turn green, or this week also depending on the depth and murkiness of puddles. Straight ahead is a vacant lot that I guess might eventually be another apartment building or maybe condos, and beyond that in the background are two symbols of my career: a Chase Bank branch with an old-model drive-thru, and soaring high behind it is the Wells Fargo Tower. The morning light glimmers off the latter, and with the reflection from the wet streets there is a glare but I am walking toward the downtown skyline which casts as much shade during my walk as there is direct light. There is a bit of an incline heading into downtown which feels fine after 30 minutes on the elliptical and a shower, and everyday the amount of time I’m walking takes less effort.

Next thing I know I’m crossing busy streets in the heart of Cow Town with the other busy professionals here. I pass the historic Tarrant County Courthouse, parts of it more than 150 years old and still seated at the end of Main Street where it was built a century and a half ago when I imagine it might have been the busiest street in town, horses hitched to posts while busy men, like today, took care of their banking, picked up supplies at the mercantile, or cooled off from the intolerable heat in a saloon. Today the courthouse is a busy hub, but the pedestrians might be heading there, or to the administrative building, or the county jail a couple blocks away.

The Renaissance Worthington Hotel stretches across three city blocks and is the hotel in town, more popular than the Hilton which is the only other major one about a quarter mile down the road. On my previous trips to Fort Worth, once as an employee and once as a consultant, I stayed here. On one visit I exited the lobby elevator at the same time that James Carville, the political consultant, was getting off his elevator directly across from me. Without the courage to say anything, I nodded, and he nodded back. On another trip I saw Lyle Lovett sitting in the lobby, looking like he was waiting for somebody, and again a mutual nod of acknowledgement and no words.

So I walk past, no longer having the privilege of hotel stays because technically I am an resident now and this is my home base, and so I’m walking from my apartment to save money and wondering if I’ll skip Starbucks, which I won’t, but I’m not there yet.

If I walk down Commerce then I’ll approach Barnes & Noble, and I’m glad that it’s there but haven’t visited much since my first week. Instead I’ll turn left going directly west and walk past Jamba Juice without even wanting one, and then past the radio station where somebody is being interviewed and these sloppily dressed DJ’s with resonant voices are asking the questions and not really noticing the pedestrians but still offering something out of the ordinary, at least I think.

The windows at Starbucks are clouded from the contrast between the humidity outside and the air conditioning inside, or that’s my guess. There is a line but it moves quickly, and I self-talk my way to the front of the line: you don’t need a pastry, you don’t need a pastry, and I do it anyway. I order a grande bold coffee with room for cream, and I’m happy with that, noticing the large woman ahead of me who’d ordered a mocha and I remember how much that drink probably added to my beltline all those years.

A few more blocks to go and there are fewer of us on the sidewalk because I’m beyond the main downtown area and walking toward the main branch of the Fort Worth library where I’ll stop to return Oceans 12 which I’d rented because I want to see Oceans 13. It feels like it’s going to rain, and today I’m wearing tennis shoes to work which I know looks ridiculous but I’ve learned to be ready for anything.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Typical Weekday Morning

The alarm on my phone vibrates at five thirty, and the sound comes from somewhere near my head, probably under the pillow because it sinks with the rest of my body into the wide crevasse of my nearly-deflated air mattress. I can’t tell whether the dim glow from the main room is an earlier sunrise than usual or if maybe I left the range light on above the stove. I hit snooze every five minutes for about fifteen, then grab both my phone and my plastic water cup nearly full of melted ice and take them to the kitchen, mostly so I’m sure not to forget to take my phone with me later. The routine is the same: off with the pajamas, on with the workout clothes that I set out the night before, turn on the computer so I don’t miss my reminders, prepare a half pot of coffee before I go downstairs, and grab my keys and a hand towel.

The halls are quiet, and if I arrive in the fitness room before six I probably won’t see anybody for the whole time I’m there. I find the remote control and turn on both TV’s, neither of which lately seem to provide the sports channels like they did before so I can watch baseball updates scrolling on one TV while watching local NBC news on Channel Five, so instead I have Channel Five on both TV’s because why not. I’d like to say I circulate throughout the room and work with all the machines, because after all I’m alone and nobody could hear me moan or cry, but I just do thirty minutes on the elliptical and call it a day. I tell myself that I’ll exercise my arms in the pool tonight, and I usually do, but I’m capable of more.

The aroma of Maxwell House coffee permeates my small living space when I return so I pour a cup even though I’m getting straight into the shower, but it’s my routine. My work clothes, like my exercise ones, are hanging up already but I don’t get fully dressed until the last minute. I turn on Channel Five again, but by now it’s the Today Show with Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, make a one- or two-egg omelet with shredded cheddar cheese and tapatio sauce, pour a half cup of orange juice to drink with my men’s multivitamin, and then wash the dishes when I’m done.

I decide what I need to take with me today, optimistically planning to take care of a few personal administrative details, which I usually fail to do because after all I have real work to do. Nevertheless, always targeting the ideal life in true getting-things-done fashion, I have an updated to-do list and that makes me feel good. I hope to talk to the kids and Melissa before they get on with their day, and sometimes I do but often I’m too late. They’re busy, and that’s good.

In many ways I do act out the bachelor lifestyle. It’s like there’s an internal switch that flips to male the moment I walk through the door. I admit that I leave the toilet seat up, even after instinctively putting it down at home or anywhere else after 17 years of marriage. I hang up towels and exercise clothes over the closet doors and folding chairs so they’ll air out while I’m at work. I eat peanut butter right out of the jar just because I feel like it. If there’s time and I don’t have an early morning meeting to prepare for, then I might sit and read my latest Piper book in my boxers, and trust me I’d only do that alone.

On the other hand before leaving for work I do make the bed every day, clean the few dishes I’ve used, and wipe down the counters, both in the kitchen and in the bathroom. The days of leaving for work before the sun comes up are long gone, and since I’m not trying to beat traffic, I don’t mind arriving at a normal hour. I make sure that I have an umbrella, just in case, and then turn off the air conditioning and bedroom ceiling fan, lock the door behind me, and begin my walk.

Walking in the Storm

My first clue should be watching people grabbing their belongings and running out the door from work early, and these are people with cars. Here I am at my desk wrapping up my work for the day, thinking that if I leave by five thirty then there’ll be plenty of time for an easy Ramen noodles goulash dinner, a swim, and maybe some reading before bedtime. I really need to learn to check the weather sometime in the afternoon to plan my departure.

I pack my laptop bag, which weighs about a hundred pounds, and today I have my Walgreen’s bags full of groceries and a few items that I needed: a screwdriver & tool set for less than four bucks, a silverware caddy, some chocolate peanut butter Balance bars to curb my craving for a Three Musketeers bar every afternoon, and various other things.

So I’m prepared with an umbrella and rain jacket, but it only goes down to here and doesn’t cover my pants, and I’d never heard of “over shoes” until I met Bob Wade for lunch at O’Sullivan’s Crossing one day and he removed his before sitting down to eat, and my point is that I need a set of those.

I say good night to the security guard and reluctantly enter the mess that’s outside, wondering if the T bus will be passing its stop here anytime soon, which it does, but I’m not standing at a bus stop sign, so the driver slows down to a tease, then guns it while I’m left squinting against the downpour. The library is busy and a young woman is running toward her car wearing gray workout shorts and a tee shirt, chuckling to herself as if to admit to herself and others that she, too, was unprepared.

My attempt to cross Throckmorton is a challenge as the streets are becoming paths for creek-like streams and the beginning of flood conditions everywhere in the city. Channel Five News is reporting that this is the most rain that Fort Worth has ever received, and the record was previously set in 1928.

So I wonder whether I’ll stop at Starbucks because I don’t want to spend money and I don’t need caffeine, but decide that it’s a dry place to get out of the storm and I use the trash bag that I’d taken from the apartment this morning and wrap it around my bag, lest I destroy my computer. I chug a tall decaf coffee and then resume the journey that lasts forever, each step adding more water to my shoes, both inside and out, and my pants are soaked all the way through. Stopping under a bridge I make adjustments and double-check my makeshift rain gear and the zippers underneath, then move on, navigating around rushing streams awaiting me at the end of every crosswalk. A half mile from Starbucks I reach the main building of my complex and one of the sales girls inside – a blonde one, but all of them are blonde except Tamina, and don’t ask me why I know that – watches me lumber past the main door dragging my bags, tilting my umbrella and attempting to hide my face so I’m not later ridiculed as the loser in apartment 4406 without a car and having an inability to check weather forecasts before leaving work. I pass no one as I drip toward the elevator, looking behind me to see whether I’ve left puddles or footprints that can be traced.

The elevator is a brief respite before 159 steps to my door, and then inside I take off everything, set my shoes in the bathtub, and toss my pants in the dryer because I’ll need them on Thursday. For a moment I experience the serendipitous thrill of finding a box of hot chocolate packets that I’d forgotten about in one of my empty cabinets. As I put soup on the stove and begin taking every item out of my bags, setting them one by one on every available surface area to allow them to dry, I continue asking myself the same lingering question that’s followed me home: Is this all worth it?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Woman In Front of Starbucks

Through the window at Starbucks I watch the woman seated outside smoking her cigarette at the front door. She has an old man’s face, aged and ruddy, weathered and wasted, and lonely. I imagine there was a time it might have been my dad sitting outside, except there was no Starbucks here on Houston Street then. He would have found a coffee shop in Fort Worth where he’d feel safe and accepted and everything was familiar and right with life. He’d watch people walking by, and he might utter words to himself, laughing aloud and something he’d find funny, and those passers-by would probably look down and pretend he wasn’t there. I don’t remember him wearing hats when he was younger, like in his forties, but toward the end as he realized he was losing all his hair I think he did, and this woman wears hers too small, the plastic strap button too tightly below the “New York Stock Exchange” insignia. She mutters more, turning occasionally to the old gentleman sitting to her right, apparently enjoying his flavored tea as a mere pit stop to wherever he was going. Her giveaway tee-shirt is rolled up on the bottom around her waist, revealing rolls of blubber above her cargo shorts, and the sight tells more tales of waste and neglect and abandonment. She carries her own water pitcher, although she doesn’t touch it, but only the firmly-grasped cigarette as she leans in, propped up with her elbow. And I wonder what her story is, what has brought her here to Starbucks tonight, what brought her to this city once upon a time, and what brought her to this point of life. She is somebody’s daughter, I think to myself. She might have been daddy’s little girl many years ago. Or maybe she wasn’t. A black man in a wheel chair tosses a wave her way as he rolls by, and in response she flicks her wrist to acknowledge him, an attempt to wave back without budging. Maybe he’s an interruption to the story unfolding in her mind, a fantasy for her survival. Or perhaps she makes plans, or recalls happier times, or dwells on a love lost, or wasted wealth. I’d noticed her inside before, so I ask the baristas whether she’s a regular here and what she drinks, which they try to recall, and then I deliver a grande coffee with hazelnut syrup. We exchange “God bless you’s” before I walk away, and I wish I’d said or done something that might have changed her life.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Typical Monday

It’s getting harder to remember when my life was normal, particularly my work life. Today most people will set out on their Monday morning routine waking up around the same time I did at five o’clock, but beyond that my commute and in fact my entire day are quite a different story.

At five I’m up and showering. I have my bags packed and clothes out last night, a regimen that’s getting simpler, and everything is on the kitchen floor ready for a seamless exit. I’ve packed some clean boxers and socks that I’ll need this week, but I still managed to stuff everything into my laptop bag which will be my only carry-on this time. The car that I’m driving is a rental that I picked up Friday night in Chicago where I’ll return it in a couple hours.

Ready with exact change for the toll booths, I leave the house quietly at five-thirty and start toward South Bend making stops at the bank and the Starbucks drive-through before entering the Indiana Toll Road at six o’clock. I’ll look for a clear talk radio station, probably 760 WGN Chicago, or an audio book. This week I started listening to Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope, a father’s day gift.

Approaching the Indiana border where the I-80 and I-90 split, I watch a subtle Indiana sunrise in my rearview mirror, symbolizing my departure from real life and the one that my consciousness will accept as reality until Friday night.

I arrive punctually at Cicero Avenue in Chicago at 6:30 central time, stopping to refuel before turning in this week’s second family car.

Like other road warriors, I know how to navigate Terminal B at Chicago Midway, prepare myself quickly for the security checkpoint, and easily slip the shoes back on and repack the laptop as I take a few steps toward the same counter where I buy a bottled water and USA Today on the way to Gate 26, a routine which varies little from last week except for the hour-long delay that enables me to finish To Be Told by Dan Alender.

On the usual 737-800 I find my seat 1A again this week. I’d started in 2A but the family in Row 2 needs to sit together with their infant, while the 40 year-old mother of a newborn infant in Row 1 handles her sleeping daughter easily with the help of her mother on the aisle.

I’m still deciding which mode of transportation works best from the airport at dfw to work in downtown Fort Worth. I’ve rented cars and I’ve taken Super Shuttle which is less expensive than a taxi but far more than the train which I haven’t tried yet despite buying an Bus & Rail E-Pass last week. Unfortunately, the every-other-hour schedule into Fort Worth is either too early or too late for me. Mike and Terri, the “hot tub couple” at my apartment complex, said they’d heard that Yellow Checker Shuttle was reasonable at $15 so I try it this week and it works out great, dropping me at the Renaissance Worthington Hotel only a ten minute walk from my office.

I walk into the lobby of our building, say hello to Davis the security guard, and he lets me know that my laundry is ready. I tell him that I’ll pick it up when I leave tonight, and he says no problem.

I was clever last Friday and brought a change of clothes into the office before heading to the airport so I’d be able to come straight from the airport in my traveling clothes. I take the elevator to the 4th floor, say hello to people that are becoming more familiar every week, and open my office, grabbing the empty waste basket on the way in. I close the door momentarily, do a quick change while the computer boots up, and then open the door as if I’m flipping the “closed” sign over to “open” to start business for today.

I find the e-mail folder is 10 times fuller than last Monday. The expectations are greater, and that’s okay because I’m busy and the projects I’m managing are important. I don’t stop until six-thirty when I decide that I need to call Melissa and the kids, and then go for my swim without staying up too late.

The walk toward my apartment is warm and balmy, and although I tend to cross different streets and take different routines as I cut through town every night, it all seems more familiar and second-nature. I still look up and enjoy certain sights, like the contrast of modern skyscrapers with their glass faces looming behind the old turn-of the-nineteenth century ones, or the small country music radio station sitting in the middle of a downtown parking lot where I watch the deejay working behind the window before passing Jamba Juice in the same quaint little building. On the same street is Barnes & Noble, but each time is easier to pass without stopping as I look forward to spending time there with Melissa soon.

I’m reluctant to say I’m “home,” but as I open the door with the pog on my keychain, the air-conditioning pulls me in with a cool welcome. The walk down the long hallway toward the elevator is on a downward slope, leading me to end of the hall where I’ll call the elevator, turn the corner to the mail room where I’ll check my weekend mail – usually one item if I’m lucky, and then back to the elevator which has arrived.

I took the time on Friday to clean, vacuum, put away clean clothes and run the dishwasher, and as I open the door I grab the disposable camera that the kids gave me and take a few shots of my clean Texas apartment for them.

First things first, I turn on the A/C, take a frozen Healthy Choice dinner and put it in the microwave, get into shorts and comfortable socks, and turn on the TV because, I’ve figured out, I don’t like the silence of being alone.

I talk to Melissa and the kids, and then take my towel and walk back to the front of the complex and cool off with an easy swim before bedtime. The sunrise has nearly faded, but it still lingers over the trees on Trinity Bluff just over the fence. Suddenly my mind downshifts and mentally I have some capacity for creativity, but I am sleepy. Next Monday will be the same, and that’s okay. But the rest of the week, I tell myself, has to count for much more.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Monday of the Second Week

This has been one of those long days, not any less eventful than the first day traveling to China, only less fulfilling because I am simply going to work and leaving my family behind.

The phone alarm vibrates at 4:45 and I roll out of bed about 10 minutes later. Elisabeth spent the night and woke up with the kids to get them ready for school so Melissa could drive with me to Chicago Midway. It is a quiet ride because Melissa is very sleepy and not feeling well, and I chat normally saying anything that comes to mind. We arrive at 6:45 with enough time to check what I hope will be my last large bag, totaling 150 pounds of luggage transferred into my apartment, and yet it still looks bare.

We kiss four times before she drives off and from there my flight experience on ATA is smooth. I read all the magazines I’ve brought with me and write more notecards to mail from Texas. I’m not ready to try the train since I have my luggage to drag around so I call Super Shuttle from the courtesy phone and they’re ready when I walk outside. Henry Lopez is my driver and is sleeping when I approach the curb, but I after I spark up some conversation about the city of Dallas he’d grown up in, he’s more talkative. There are no other passengers in van number 280 so I figure I have a half-priced cab ride straight to my apartment. Our conversation turns to baseball, the lousy Rangers, and the beautiful Ballpark at Arlington that I’ve never seen before and would like to take my wife to when she comes to visit. At Catholic elementary school the nuns let the kids go see President Kennedy at the parade in Dallas. Henry remembers seeing the president 15 minutes before he was shot.

Next thing I know, Mr. Lopez points to the right and before my eyes is a magnificent view of the home of the Rangers. He drives around the entire perimeter, showing me the Legends of Baseball Museum along with his own tour guide narrative along the way. It isn’t over! He continues to Six Flags, pointing out that I should take the kids there before taking my wife to the ballgame, and then we drive past the construction site of the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium and home of Super Bowl XLV.

I know from my previous trips to the area that where he’s taking me in Arlington is way out of the way from the north side of downtown Fort Worth where I’m going. I tip him $20 and wish him well and no sooner had I gone inside the apartment building have I realized that I’ve left my cell phone on the seat. Without a phone in the apartment, I wait until I drop off all my stuff and change for work before calling Super Shuttle to try to track it down.

It has been a long commute, including car, plane, shuttle and a one-mile walk before I enter the air-conditioned lobby at work and am greeted by the security guard, “Hello Mr. Baldwin! Your laundry is ready.”

I work from noon until early evening and then walk back through downtown past the new main branch of the Fort Worth Library, my favorite restaurant PF Chang’s, Starbucks, Jamba Juice and Barnes and Noble, carrying my cleaning back to the apartment that is warm, quiet and empty. Mom sent a package which turned out to be a “meal, snack and dessert maker” appliance that I’ll need to try out once I buy some ingredients. There’s a slip for another package which I think is from her, too.

I go for a swim and put away all the stuff that I brought with me. I must remember to get to bed on time every day this week so I’m at my best when I’m at home.

Melissa is very sick today and sounds awful. She says she wished she was in San Diego so her mom could help take care of her. I wish she were, too. Also, Mary Lou is doing very poorly and needs home nurse care. I am praying for them tonight.