Saying Goodbye to a Simpler Time

Ray lived next to me in our old house–the one in the neighborhood that real estate agents like to call “transitional.” What transitional means in land-ease, is that most of the neighborhood is made up of older people who are starting to leave (read: die off) and the influx of new home owners tend to either be “fixer-uppers” or the type of people who want cheap housing in a good school district, but who really can’t afford the upkeep on an older home. They call it transitional until the majority of the neighborhood goes one way or the other at which point it’s either “improving” or it’s becoming a ghetto. We left, so you can guess which way the pendulum was swinging.

Ray is one of the older people. At the age of 70 now, he still stands about 6′ 8″ tall and weighs roughly 230. He played basketball in his youth for the University of Houston and racked up some serious points back in the mid 50s.

I saw Ray out in his yard a lot and for a long time, I just called him “Old Man.” He was eccentric even before I formally knew him. I’d watch from my kitchen window as he dug weeds out of his grass using only a kitchen spoon. I’d shake my head and mutter, “They make spray for that you know,” as he spent hours at it. Thanks to several old pine trees, his backyard was devoid of any grass, but he maintained a couple of  bird feeders and even threw out corn for the squirrels, so at any time I could look out and see squirrels and chipmunks running back and forth across the fenceline that separated our yards.

When I was outdoors working, I had my dogs with me. My dogs were/are quiet and not the kind to run away. Eventually, they sniffed their way over into Ray’s yard and it wasn’t long before he was bringing them treats and talking gently to them in order to coax them over. Turns out his wife fancied herself a cat rescuer and so their house contained–at any given time–approximately 4 to 6 cats and from what I could tell the couple of times I visited (briefly), they didn’t change the litter much.

Eventually I got to know Ray pretty well. Ray is old-school. And I don’t mean that to say that he’s a debonaire old gentlemen who sat around listening to Sinatra. No, I mean he’s from an era when people said what they meant and they didn’t care who heard it or what people thought. By today’s standards, Ray is a raving racist; but by his era’s standards, he’s a man who has worked hard his whole life and doesn’t want to live around people who don’t want to take care of  “the place.” For people like that, his patience was thin–even for his own son-in-law who was a licensed electrician but who refused to hold down a regular job, preferring instead to constantly beg and borrow from family members.

I laughed at what Ray said–a lot–primarily because I was afraid someone else had heard what he’d just said and I didn’t want to get caught up in it. But there was truth in it too and deep down, I think many people would agree with him on some level; they just wouldn’t say it out loud like he did.  All in all, Ray and I became good friends. He’d regale me with stories from the hayday of the neighborhood, when he and his wife hosted “block parties” and he had all the alcohol people could drink because he was a liquor supplier. In return, I’d talk “dogs” with him and occasionally rake his yard when he wasn’t looking because I knew that he was having trouble getting along at times.

One day I came home from school–this was when I returned to college from ’02-’04–and found him lying in his backyard. He’d fallen off his ladder while painting. The drop was about 20 feet and he’d fallen hard. By the time I found him, the blood oozing out of a dozen scrapes and cuts had attracted both the ants and the mosquitos and he was covered in angry whelts. He’d been lying there, as near as we could tell, for about six hours unable to move. Turns out he’d shattered his pelvis upon falling, along with breaking a half dozen other bones.

Ray finally got out of the hospital, but he never really recovered. To this day, he’s limited to the walk from his lazy chair to his bed. He does some very light yard work, and that’s about it. The last time I talked to him, he told me how the people who’d bought our old house had trashed the place and one of the grown sons who lived there with his equally grown brother and their dad, had gotten chased out on the roof by four cops–and still managed to get away. The bank finally foreclosed on the house, but it’s too late to matter. No one is going to buy the house now and fix it up. The neighborhood isn’t worth it. Ray doesn’t care who lives there, as long as they aren’t a minority of any type (my words…his were far more colorful). And as for our President…well, let’s just say that IF Ray could travel to D.C., he’s not too worried about what they’d do to a 70 year old cripple.

In many ways, the world will be better off without people like Ray, but in some ways, it’s going to be a damn shame when the people of his generation are gone. They are a different breed. A more honest breed to be sure and in some ways, I feel that if this country were still run by people like him, we wouldn’t be having this discussion about illegal immigrants, or welfare states. Of course, we’d likely still have slavery too, so I’m not sure how you square that.

I miss Ray–I do. I didn’t have to watch my words around him and he loved my dogs as much as I did. My neighbors now are fine, but we never talk to each other. We’re all too busy working to afford our houses and our cars to stop and have more than polite, surface conversation.

For now, Ray is still living over in the old neighborhood with the chihuahua his wife saved from some shelter or other. Ray refuses to walk him though for fear people will laugh at the disparity in size between the basketball player and the smallest species of canine known to man. But he’s there, and that’s comforting to me even if I rarely ever see or talk to him.

You’re (basically) good people Ray. Here’s to you. May your heaven bring you peace.

Everything I need to know, I learned in boot camp.

The military taught me many things. For example, I learned that quality shoes are essential if you plan on doing any great amount of running. I also learned that if you drink two medium-sized glasses of lukewarm water before every meal, you’ll eat less. These are things you would normally learn on your own–given time. But there were other things taught to us raw recruits–such as how to shave correctly–that many people might never have learned if they hadn’t had the proper teacher(s) at home. The military assumes the very worst about incoming recruits and prepares its training appropriately.

But one of the most useful skills I picked up was ironing. Before the military, I didn’t iron. Oh, I knew how…I just didn’t. Ironing in the Me, ironing.military is not a skill; it is an art. It is an art as time-consuming and tedious as Japanese Bonsai. New recruits are taught how to firstfold a t-shirt and then, using tweezers to pull out and hold the edges of the collar so as to not burn your fingers, press that shirt into a perfect square. If you’ve ever ironed a round-necked T-shirt, you can imagine the difficulty here. From T-shirts, one moves onto the more formal uniforms and battle dress uniform (BDUs–those camouflaged things you see soliders wearing).

Needless to say, I became a really great ironer. I even bought my own bottle of STA-FLO liquid starch concentrate and mixed my own starch spray so I could control the crispiness of my creases. And so I have ironed my own clothes for years. CareerMom–notsomuch.

CareerMom has always been a dry-cleaning kinda gal. Even when the clothes don’t require dry-cleaning, she’ll send them to the dry-cleaners just so she doesn’t have to iron them after they come out of the dryer. When times have been tough and the pennies needed penching, this was an area I always criticized. Recognizing that most professional women’s clothes require dry-cleaning, I haven’t been able to make too much of a stink, but the cost was always there…hovering overhead.

Normally I don’t have to do much ironing these days. Thanks to business casual dress, I might have to iron a couple of pairs of dress slacks, but for the most part my shirts are golf-style shirts that don’t require ironing. But lately, I’ve been interviewing a good bit and thanks to it being both summer, and stressful, I’ve been sweating a lot in my shirts. To save money, I’ve only purchased a couple of nice dress shirts to wear under my suit jacket, so I’ve been washing and ironing these same shirts a lot. And I’ve grown tired of it.

So today, I dropped off my two shirts at the drycleaners. It was a pivotal moment and I expected–at any minute–for the clouds to part and the angels start singing “Hallelujah!”

Unfortunately, all I heard was the “Thank you Ms. Megan” from the Asian dry-cleaning lady who pulled my wife’s account up as she took my bundle.  I recognize that I will probably always iron the majority of my own clothes, but I gotta be honest…they do a better job than I do and it sure is more handy than dragging out that ironing board every night. Maybe I can find a relatively inexpensive men’s clothing designer whose dress shirts REQUIRE dry cleaning. That way, I wouldn’t feel guilty about having to send them off. It works for CareerMom; why not me?