Thursday, June 17, 2010

Football With Hemingway

NOTE: this post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and thematic elements.


I see crazy people. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. It can seem like they only see me. They probably don’t know they’re crazy.

Last week, I accompanied my daughter Alexa’s third-grade class on a big field trip to San Francisco and Oakland via mass transit. I confess I underestimated what would be required of me. I figured I’d be driving a few kids to Bart, and then simply tagging along while the kids marched along behind their teacher in two straight lines. Okay, I guess I didn’t really picture that, but I figured they’d be secured somehow, maybe all holding on to a rope, like rock climbers. Okay, I guess I didn’t really think that either. Really, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t think much about it. I certainly didn’t expect to be told, in writing, “Please remain with your group of students at all times. You are responsible for them.”

Not that this alarmed me. I’m a capable adult. I had only three kids assigned to me: my daughter and two others. Each was instructed to stay with her adult (i.e., me). Surely Alexa would help corral them. Above all, I didn’t expect a crazy person to seek me out; I mean, how often does that happen?

Alas, I actually have a track record of being singled out by crazy people. I don’t know why. I mean, we all encounter the occasional nutjob—the woman standing on a street corner holding a coffee can at her chest, pointing it at cars and shouting profanities; the guy who comes into the bike shop spouting vitriol about the inferiority of steel to “cawbun fibuh” as a bike frame material; the dude on the department store bike zigzagging wildly down Wildcat Canyon Road yelling at my bike club, “You’re all dog crap!”; the woman angrily ripping leaves off a tree and stuffing them in a trash can—but crazy people seem drawn to me and often engage me in one way or another. I suppose if I’d thought to mention this to the school, they’d have found somebody to replace me as chaperone.

In this post I’ll tell the story of the field trip in which I was targeted by a crazy Hemingway lookalike. Along the way I’ll share some tales of other strange people with whom I’ve been briefly enmeshed.

Chaperoning rigors

Serving as chaperone for three kids was much harder than I’d expected. First of all, I’d only encountered my daughter’s classmates, whom I’ll call Yuko and Anna, a handful of times, and thus couldn’t pick them out from the crowd very well. Second, I didn’t realize all of the third-grade classes would be going on the field trip, meaning our group (including adults) numbered about 120. On top of this, the kid trios really made no effort at all to stick with their chaperones, running this way and that like little puppies following scents, and in some cases running off to visit with friends from other classes.

Early on, I made note of what I figured would be easy ways to identify my kids: Yuko had a camouflage-colored vest, a pink sweatshirt, red backpack, and a green ball cap with the logo of some small grocery store, while Anna had a black Cal cap, a mauve backpack with three-inch-tall stuffed animals hanging from it, and a light blue hoodie. Easy signifiers, right?

In practice there were several problems with this strategy: throughout the day the kids would ditch their caps and their jackets; red or mauve are actually popular backpack colors; it turns lots of kids have three-inch-tall stuffed animals hanging from their backpacks; and after lunch Yuko asked me to carry her backpack and I obliged, only to have Anna follow suit, so not only was I burdened with three heavy backpacks (what do these kids carry around, anyway—bowling balls? anvils?) but had lost another shortcut in tracking my kids.

This shape-shifting ability wasn’t my only problem. These kids were fast—one second I’d have all three in my sights, and the next second one would vanish, and by the time I spotted her fifty feet away, the other two would have vanished. It was like Where’s Waldo, or being trapped in a giant pinball machine with four balls in motion at once.

My first big trial was at Bart, our subway system. It turns out it’s very difficult to keep kids away from the edge of the platform. I gave a quick and stern lecture about the danger of the electric third rail. I quizzed Alexa about what would happen if a train hit you even at just one mile per hour. (“You’d be crushed flat and killed,” she correctly replied.) But my lectures didn’t capture the kids’ imaginations; Yuko and Anna wandered off to explore the nubby safety strip with their feet as visions of the climax of Anna Karenina traipsed through my head.

When the train arrived, things only got worse: it seemed impossible to shepherd my three kids into the train car in one group. What if one of them ended up on the wrong car, or worse—didn’t make it on at all? When I finally accounted for all three kids (probably only a second or two after boarding, but it felt like much longer), I got a vivid flashback of a Bart-boarding that was even more stressful.

Flashback tale #1

During my last year of college I was taking Bart from Berkeley to San Francisco to meet my then-girlfriend, Erin. As I waited on the platform for my train, a voice from behind me said, “Hey, could you help me out?” I looked over: it was a guy in a wheelchair with a giant boom box on his lap. “I just need some help getting on the train. I’m blind and they wouldn’t let me take my seeing-eye-dog into the station.” I asked him why. “Well, I don’t have the right papers,” he said. “Plus, my dog bit somebody.” I asked him where the dog was now. “I, uh, had some friends come get him,” he said. The guy was looking me over, which unnerved me because, well, he was blind. He didn’t have dark glasses or anything, but his eyes looked like Charlie X’s, from the “Star Trek” episode, when he’d acquired special powers and became evil.

I was really nervous about getting both my bike and the blind wheelchair guy on the train before the doors closed. When the train arrived, I hurriedly put the bike in, then went back for the guy. It seemed he was taking an awfully long time getting his stuff together. He’d put the boom box on the floor and now struggled to get it back on his lap. Finally, breathing a sigh of relief as we made it through the doors, I got him on the train. “Wait!” he cried. “My leg! You forgot my leg!” He pointed at the platform. Sitting there—or actually standing, I guess—was a prosthetic leg, with a sock and shoe on it.

I had to make a split-second decision: do I go after it, running the risk of not making it back on the train and having my bike whisked off without me, leaving me stranded on the platform holding some guy’s prosthetic leg? Or do I tell the guy sorry, it’s too late, you’ll have to do without it? My snap judgment was that it would be worse for this poor blind guy to lose a leg, after already losing his biting, non-registered seeing eye dog, than for me to lose my bike. I raced out there, snatched up the leg, and leaped back through the doors just as they were closing. Whew!

Cable car

At the Powell Street Station our field trip group got off the train and headed up to the street level to catch a cable car. My kids vanished instantly, briefly reappearing here and there like in that Whack-a-Mole game as I desperately tried to keep tabs on them. I tried in vain to exhort them to stay together but evidently all they heard was “blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah” (cf. Far Side cartoon about “what dogs hear”). All the kids jostled for position to be the first onboard the cable car, so as to get the best seat. This was problematic because not all the cable cars that rolled up were going to the right place. The first cable car that arrived on the right line quickly filled up with another class, and only after it left did I ascertain that none of my charges had stowed away. My greater fear was that a kid would get on the wrong line and end up lost in San Francisco. How terrifying that would be! (My nephew Jake, when he was only like three or four, got lost in a supermarket, and when he was finally reunited with his family through the help of a clerk and the PA system, he told his parents, through his tears, “I was only one guy!” There’s a deep existential undercurrent in that, I think.)

Finally a cable car arrived, on the right line, with room for all of us, and we piled on. I had several small heart attacks as my kids ran around, threading through the throng of other passengers, racing along the running board, separating, regrouping, hiding, popping up, vanishing, reappearing, jumping down and running around the back of the car, climbing back on, sitting down, standing up, relocating, removing their hats, removing their backpacks, and in every way throwing me off their scent, like fugitives. As we rolled up Powell Street, I finally made positive IDs of all three kids and was able to relax and enjoy the ride.

Flashback tale #2

When I first moved to San Francisco, right after college, I would take the bus to work from my apartment in the Lower Haight, making a slow trip down Market Street every morning. During the commute hour on that bus there was a higher than usual concentration of office types like me in a suit and tie, but you still had a wide variety of people from every walk of life. I kind of miss it, actually. One morning, this guy sitting across from me was giving me undue attention, basically staring at me as the bus rolled and lurched along. He was tall, old but robust, bearded, unremarkably dressed. Block after block he looked me over, and I supposed I’d have gotten up and moved except I was lucky to have a seat in the first place. Besides, what if I offended the guy? When I encounter a seemingly unstable person, I generally prefer not to do anything that could possibly upset him.

Finally, the man looked me right in the eye and spoke. “You have a huge schlong,” he said, very distinctly. I struggled to convince myself I’d heard him wrong … but what else could he have said? He had articulated the word quite clearly. Evidently the people around us had heard the same thing, as they were giving me vaguely panicked looks and shifting awkwardly in their seats. His remark could not have been based on any actual visual perception, as I was wearing a long trench coat. I really couldn’t say what had gotten into him.

I didn’t know how to respond. I’m pretty sure there was never a “Miss Manners” column on this. As I sat there, stunned, the man’s face gradually turned bright red, as if he’d only just realized what he said, and then he got up and walked toward the back of the bus. He stood by the door and I thought he’d get off at the next stop, but he didn’t. He just stood there, block after block, and I’d only just begun to relax again when he suddenly strode back up to the front of the bus, looked at me again, and said, “You have nice teeth, too.” This time he did leave the bus, to my very great relief.

Hyde Street Pier

The third graders and their high-strung, weary chaperones took the cable car up Powell Street past the Fairmont hotel, took a left on Jackson Street, and went west a few blocks before turning right on Hyde Street and going over Russian Hill. It was a fair morning, the breeze brisk, the sun and clouds duking it out overhead in a protracted stalemate. The cable car operator did complicated things with a long crank and a couple of antique pedals. I enjoyed watching the clockwork gears visible beneath a large rectangular hole in the car’s floor. Periodically I swung my head around to convince myself my charges were still on the car, and about half the time I could make out their heads as they weaved and bobbed like boxers. We went through my old neighborhood, past where I Fratelli, our favorite Italian joint, used to be. At the top of the hill we enjoyed a view of the bay, with Alcatraz in the background and another cable car just ahead. Much oohing and aahing as we descended the steep grade.

At the bottom of the hill we climbed off the cable car and the kids ran a few laps around it just to keep us grown-ups on our toes. Here is Alexa, having been one of the first off the car, blithely walking in front of it as though it couldn’t possibly begin rolling again.

The group assembled for a photo and then we made our way down toward the Hyde Street pier, where a small triangle of beach faced the old sailing ships, the Balclutha and the CA Thayer. For a minute or two I could relax, as two of my three kids joined several others in trying to drag an anchor out of the sand by a rope. (I figured the mostly-buried anchor was probably six feet across and they could spend the rest of their lives in this vain struggle.) Then a teacher directed me to the water’s edge to prevent kids from getting wet. Several kids helped me by drawing a line in the sand with their feet.

Suddenly, a loud adult voice called out, “Hey, white guy!” I looked across the beach to the near edge of the pier where a tall, bearded man was standing, looking in our direction. He was wearing what looked like pajama bottoms—neither baggy nor particularly tight—and no shirt. His belly hung down over the waistband. His hair and beard were mostly white. He looked a lot like Ernest Hemingway in his later years; I could easily picture him in boxing gloves. Instead, he held a football. “White guy!” he repeated, staring right at me.

This dumbfounded me: if I had been the only white guy on the beach, or perhaps if this guy were black, his salutation might have made some sense. But there were various other adults in our group, including several other white guys (our group overall was the ethnic mix you might see in a prospectus photo of a company’s board of directors). “White guy”? I tried to convince myself he was addressing somebody else, but it was hopeless. I’d been singled out once again.

Flashback tale #3

I was playing basketball at an outdoor public court in my neighborhood with a friend from out of town. We were both playing terribly: not because we were having an off day, but because we’re both terrible at basketball. A spectator appeared. He was a large, stocky black man, probably in his early twenties, wearing a dark grey overcoat despite the warm day. I couldn’t imagine what he was getting out of watching us flail around and repeatedly miss shots, but hey, free country. He silently watched us for several minutes. Then the ball hit my foot or something and went bouncing off in his direction. Instead of throwing it back to us, he joined our game. I figured I’d let him take a shot or two, and then I’d catch a rebound and resume the game, and perhaps then he’d move on. But instead of driving toward the basket, he drove toward me.

He stood before me, dribbling clumsily, and then tried some fancy move and lost control of the ball. I started to run after it, but the guy stepped toward me and, to my shock, caught me in a bear hug. Most disturbingly, he didn’t have booze on his breath. That would have explained not only his strange behavior but his sudden loss of motor control, and of strength: for, though he had started out in wrestling mode, he now slumped on me as if needing my support.

I was immediately reminded of a boxer who, late in a match he’s losing, has a crisis of resolve. His lizard brain takes over, and all he wants to do is hug the other boxer, to keep from getting hit any more. I always despise the heartless referee in this situation, who comes over and pushes the two boxers apart so the loser can be punched in the face some more. It’s particularly touching when both boxers are in the same boat, and mutually seek the hug. It’s like some kind of sudden unspoken truce there in the ring. At such times only the barbaric rules of boxing keep the fight going, with the referee doing more work than either fighter. But I digress.

The basketball long forgotten, I tried to stand the crazy guy up, but he was really heavy. My friend looked on aghast, not knowing what to do. I didn’t either. I tried to maneuver us toward the edge of the court, still holding the guy up. We did a sad, slow dance. Finally, like a wobbling bowling pin, the guy righted himself, sighed, and shuffled off.

Football with Hemingway

Back to the ordeal at the pier: I’d just about convinced myself that the Hemingway-looking guy wasn’t yelling “Hey white guy!” at me, when he threw his football to me. (Ask not for whom the ball is thrown … it is thrown for thee!) Dude had a real arm on him, too—he fricking drilled that ball right to me, a perfect spiral pass, over a distance of about fifty feet. I suppose I could have decided to have nothing with this whacko, which would have meant stepping aside and refusing to catch the ball. But remember, I was surrounded my small children. If I didn’t catch the football, it might have nailed one of the kids, after I’d have seemed to dodge it. Wouldn’t look good. So I caught it.

The most disturbing thing of all about this strange episode was that the ball was flat. It didn’t even have enough air in it to hold its shape. What kind of weird old man goes around shirtless on a cool morning carrying a flat football? Suddenly this guy went from possibly being somebody’s grandfather to possibly being homeless and/or insane. Looking down at this flat, misshapen football, I wanted nothing to do with it. But I couldn’t just toss it aside, because then the crazy man would probably come after it, carving a swath right through our group of kids. I couldn’t have that on my conscience. What could I do? I threw it back.

Of course this was a mistake. Before, the guy had only hoped to get my attention and begin a game of catch. Now the game was in full swing. I felt the teachers’ eyes on me now as the guy threw the ball again. This time the throw was not so good, and the ball ricocheted off my hand and went right into the ocean. It started on its way out to sea and I was seized with the fear that the crazy guy would come after me to avenge its loss. I exhorted myself to have grace under pressure (wasn’t that a major theme in The Sun Also Rises?). The ball came back in with the tide and I scampered after it, managing to retrieve it without getting my shoes wet. Of course I realized that by running out there I’d just done what we’d spent our whole beach visit exhorting the kids not to do. More nonplussed looks from the teachers. Hey, I thought, I don’t remember any mention of this scenario on the handout!

My next throw (no, I had no plan) was even worse than his last one. It fell far short of reaching the guy, and I watched with a strange mixture of panic and relief as several third-grade boys ran after it. One threw it to the guy but also fell short. “Oh, come on!” the guy yelled. “That kid”—pointing at some other boy—“could throw better than you!” At this moment Alexa approached me asking where she could wash her hands, which were up to the elbows in that oddly sticky, salty sand you find at the beach. Without another look at the crazy Hemingway guy, or any of the teachers, I marched my daughter off to the public restroom, to wash my own hands of this football business. When we returned to the group, Hemingway was gone. Whew!

After much reflection, I’ve decided that next time I’m asked to chaperone school kids, I’ll politely decline.

dana albert blog

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