I inadvertently stole a set of keys last night as I left the Business District for the Residential. Yet another reminder of my state of mind as of late as I felt them inside my black leather pocket while pacing over to the Vietnamese mess hall. An illusion, as it were, perpetrated by a healthy need to run away from runaway thoughts.
With no pertinent song going through my head this evening, I hoped to look up from the antiquated sidewalk beneath my strolling feet to find old man Chino’s car in front of the Vietnamese Refugee Camp. Alas, no car.
“Hurray”! I thought, pedantically to myself, as the grape eating fox in an old fable of lore, as my mind took over my very spirit and replaced my present experience for no more than a split second. Enough time, however, to reminisce of another day.
A day I scanned the antiquated sidewalks of the Airport Business District in desperation. A keen eye on the outlook for a prized set of bottle caps for my collection. Royal Crown.
At the corner of Oregon and Benson, there was an antiquated car repair/tow shop, where old men would gather with their beer and hidden pint-whiskey bottles, speaking of what a bastard Nixon was. Some of the old junkies from the area would need a little nip of sugar and would purchase the only soda-pop that was stocked in the store’s vending machine – Royal Crown.
The pewter looking bottle opener, firmly bolted on one side to the front of the machine’s locked steel and glass door was inoperably broken in half. The owner of the shop was usually too drunk to find the bottle opener I had once brought to him. An offering it was, in exchange for his silence regarding my crimes of ditching and hitching the Pacific from Empire.
The junkies would venture to Yosemite with unopened bottles of RC Cola, and have them opened by various people in various places that happened to have bottle openers. Failing that, they would open them somehow from the Pool shop to the Iron Gate. And it was along this fascinating sidewalk path that I had built my colossal and prized bottle cap collection.
But that was more than thirty years ago now. A much more innocent time, when I was ignorant of all of the stress and suffering about me on the streets of the Modesto Airport District. My only concern being one of getting caught having stowed on the Pacific Railroad train and jumping off from Empire Elementary (now “Teel”) into the Modesto Airport District.
Such a place in memory, cut out so perfectly for escape, until I can see my friend, cooking for the next day’s fare in the back of the Vietnamese Refugee Camp. Another place to run to, away from those things too painful to remind myself are real for today. Swapping Menthol Kools for Cambodian cigarettes and back again, with experience and discussing proclamations about what is cool and what shall be cool. Rolling out the dough of tomorrow, dough stolen from the Americans.
I watched as the storm troopers descended on all that is now left for us of our extended family. A family that was a vital organ in the body that makes up the Modesto Airport Business District. Traffic everyone shared together as the Airport District has grown and evolved through it’s never ending quest for survival – and at times, even recovery. Again and again.
Urged on by others, I boldly jay walked across the street. Proudly holding my Bic lighter in my clenched fist I set at re-lighting the candles, incense and a couple of things I did not recognize back aflame.
The Security Guard at the Gospel Mission finally called me by my proper name again, “Mr. Stanford, how are you this evening?”
“Sad.”, I said.
And then suddenly some lady appeared out of nowhere. One had only to witness her clothes to know that she had probably never been on Yosemite Boulevard before, and had been, like so many others for the past 25 years, deceived by the outer appearance of the Vietnamese Refugee Camp. But we knew how to play our part. Besides, it was American dough – she would never even know the difference.
She did not want to partake of the stolen American dough though – that wasn’t why she was there at all. Just a small cup of Vietnamese “Cup-o-Joe” that within moments she was sobbing into, with her hands shaking out small amounts of the hot liquid, dripping across her fingers as her tears ran down her face, saying all the while,
“I am so so sorry. This is so senseless. Oh God. I am so, so sorry. I put a flower and a little bear in front of their store….Oh God…..”
Our Den mother tried her best to comfort her, “It OK now. They in better place now. It OK.”
As myself and my otherwise giggling confidante looked deep into each other’s eyes, he said, “I don’t know. My friend he say he order some for us. It four dollar. we get five pack. I like only one mint cigarette. I don’t know how you smoke those man.”
“I like the Cambodian ones. Not all the time though”
“Me no like either. The mint. One when you here. But that enough for me.”
The sobbing Lady from out of town looked over at us as though we were horse playing in the pews of her own mother’s funeral. So when she finally allowed our Den Mother to wait on other customers, I followed her out to her car.
“Excuse me. Um. Excuse me. Hi. My name is Robert Stanford, and I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate someone not from here understanding us. I can tell you understand us. That is very special. I just felt like I should at least say that to you. Thank you. Thank you for caring…”
She looked at me with Betty Davis eyes and said, “What?”
Copyright 2011 Robert Stanford all rights reserved.