My old coffee shop

At this coffee shop, the second week I was in Los Angeles, I walked in and asked if they were hiring. It had been a long day and I was tired and honestly just wanted a coffee. The guy behind the counter called my bluff.

“Yes,” he said, “We are hiring. would you like to interview right now?”

I nodded enthusiastically.

“Can you make a latte?” he said. I had ordered a latte. “Then make me one and then make yourself one”. The line was building up behind me. I went back behind the counter and made two lattes. “Can you work tomorrow?” he said.

I only worked there about a month. I wasn’t great at the coffee part

but much better at talking with the customers. but that little job paid my first months rent, got my foot on the rung of the ladder and let me stay in Los Angeles for as long as I did.

I went back there years later, to clear my mind a little, get some normality, some substance, recover some ground. Lo and behold the same guy was behind the counter. He recognized me and laughed to himself and I heard “How you doing these days?” from the far right corner of the place; the cook asked, this short Nicaraguan woman with a ten gallon smile.

“I'm good,” I replied “Theres lots to think about”. The guy behind the counter gave me my coffee.

“You were a bad employee, your mind was always somewhere else”, he said, “Always looking out the window”.

He rang me up for a dollar for a four dollar coffee.
“Not that that was a bad thing”, he continued “Not a bad thing at all”.

The best teacher

Her name was Peggy and she taught English and she taught it in a classroom behind the music room; you had to take a small path around the side of the building and duck under a low hanging tree branch which, after it rained, meant that most everyone who passed through would get hit in the face with soggy wet leaves. It was small things like that that made it one of the most indelible classroom experiences I’ve ever had. Peggy was a short woman with a short black hair; the kind of near bob that she may have had since the 1960’s, as she was most assuredly a

product of that era. She could always beat (and would occasionally be the one to insitigate a challenge to) any one of the bigger students at arm wrestling, a feat that she liked to show off once in a while, perhaps on a slow Friday when there was little work to be done. She couldn’t have been more than 5’2”, yet never lost an arm wrestling match.

She made me want to read more, and during the two years I took classes with her my mind grew exponentially. She had the kind of influence on you — should you care to listen — that made you want to learn. And not in a way that included just taking notes; the kind of desire to learn that kept you up at night, scouring thesauruses for the exact right word, rereading the last page of a novel simply because you never wanted it to end, the desire to write only true words.

Anyway. On the first day any of us had class with her she decided to read us Edgar Allen Poe’s "The Telltale Heart".

Let me backtrack a little by saying this was an Episcopalean school in a very white-bread neighborhood in a very well-to-do part of the lower Bay area. Rich mothers came through all the time scouting out the best school for their kids, and that day was no exception.

Peggy was the kind of teacher that when she read out loud made you forget that there was anybody else in the room. She starts reading “The Telltale Heart”, almost mumbling. As the story progressed, she gradually — and I do mean graaaaadually — got louder. For those of you familiar with the story, the protagonist is racked with guilt over what he percieves to be a beating heart under the floorboards. She rapped on the desk with

her knuckles - thump thump, thump thump - and we leaned in a little closer. Thump thump. Thump thump.

“I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides,”, she said, reading from the book, pacing the floor of the classroom with heavy strides.

“...as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! what COULD I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! SHIT!” she said, swearing.

“I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards,” she said, swinging the chair upon which she had been sitting and placing it with a loud thunk on the floor.
“But the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly , and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no? They heard! — they suspected! — they KNEW! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again — hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER!”

She screamed the last part. Screaming. At the top of her lungs, clutching her short black hair at her temple with her free hand.

She suddenly looked up at the door.

In the doorway stood a prospective mother and her young son, apparently on a tour of the school, and the look on the kids face was that of sheer, abject, and total horror. Peggy, for one split second, broke character and shrugged just a small apologetic shrug, and continued to read.

“Villains!” she shrieked, “Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! —

tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!” She held her fist aloft, as if a heart was indeed in her hand. The mother shook her head, turned around, and left, never to be seen again. Her face, it seemed, showed that she would never be able to understand this sort of behavior.

But inside that classroom we all wore the kind of smile you can’t hold in, as if someone had just let you in on a very special secret, the kind of secret that a good teacher will be happy to tell you, and the kind of secret that you can’t wait to share with the right people, at the right time, on the right day, in a little classroom behind the music room.

Actual conversation with a guy in a guitar store

“So, I was wondering how much this would get me” “Why you want to sell that?”
“Moving. Need the money”
“Looks like this thing got kept in good shape” “Yeah” (couple of minutes go by as he looks at it) “Yeah, don’t sell this”
“Why?”
“Because guys come in here all the time selling shit. And you’re looking at that thing like a puppy”
“Well yeah, I used to want to be Kurt Cobain...”
“Motherfucker, Kurt Cobain didn’t even want to be Kurt Cobain”
“... yeah...”
“How long have you had this?”
“Since I was 17”
“(Sinatra warble) It was a very good yeeeear...”
“Ha”
“Hold on to this, man. Money comes around. Do you know the Federal Reserve just MAKES UP money?”
“Yeah I heard that on NPR”
“Yeah me too”
“So don’t sell it?”
“You’ll regret it. And I’m saying that as the guy that would buy it. If you’re not willing to part, you’re not willing to part”
“I dunno, man. I need the money”
“Then get a job”
“I have a job.”
“If I buy this, you’re going to think about it. I get guys in here all the time pulling out their axes and getting all misty eyed.”
“The guitar reminds me of when I thought I was gonna change the world with it”
“Dude”
”?”
“Dude, look around you. All these guitars here have the same story. This? This consignment part of the store? This is where dreams go to die. Are you ready to let the dream die, man?”
“I don’t know what the dream is anymore” (by this point I’m wondering why this guy, at this guitar store, was giving me the talking to, and why this is such an existential conversation)
“Look, even if you just hang it on a wall, even if you take it down once a month to noodle around on, you’ll still have that reminder. It’s like selling a typewriter. Theres a lot of love in something like this. Even if you were just a kid. I dunno. Too many suits come in here, man. Too many weekend warriors think they can just get a Stratocaster or a Harley Davidson and remember their youth. Or something, you know? This? This right here, man? This is the genuine article. This is you. You want $500? That’s a small price to pay for a piece of your history, man. I - “
“I get what you’re saying”
“Yeah”
“...”
“Heh. Well shit, dude. I think you’ve answered your own question”
“This is cheaper than therapy”
“Keep it alive, man. There’s a guy behind you. I should help him.”
“Yeah. Hey, thanks, man”

Memorial Day BBQ Restaurant, May 2018

I forget the name of the guy that told me it, but he told it to me all the same: "Go where you're invited." So, heeding his advice, I went to Mission BBQ to take pictures during a service for veterans. It's a veteran-themed restaurant, with memorabilia all over the walls from servicemen and servicewomen from all kinds of battles. It's a great place to eat. The line goes quick. The food is fantastic. You could wait for longer for food half as good and still be satisfied. You'd drive by it a hundred times before you saw it, on the outside of a giant mall on the outskirts of the outskirts of Nashville. It was about a month before we moved, so Texas was looming in my mind.

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I got there early and it was hot, my shirt already sweated from the walk from the car to the door. They gave me a shirt so I would blend in as I took pictures. It's one thing to take pictures of a stranger. It's another to be a stranger yourself to them, so mitigating that, either through trying to illicit some sort of laughter or reaction from them, or wearing a shirt with the logo of the place, makes people ease up a little.

I got there as the first veterans started to arrive. There were about twenty, all in all, who arrived over the course of an hour, stayed for lunch, stayed for the salute.

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None of them liked having their picture taken, in the classical sense of the word. They put up with it the way one might a new distant relative. One of the guys thought I was shooting video, and started to tell me about his book. One of the guys, Chief, I misheard as Keith.

Chief 

I have zero frame of reference for what these guy have seen, what they went through, as they are painting with colors both darker and brighter than any on my palette. I think that is why America's relationship with its own vets is so skewed. Most of us, save for perhaps a week's worth of tragic days a decade—have no idea what it's like to truly lose someone. To be around, in a physical and demanding way, loss on every level. To be amongst these men is to be amongst the white noise of a thousand planes traveling overseas with no clear idea of if they're ever coming home again. There is a certain resonance in these guy's hearts that comes from something missing; the kind of hollow that makes a cello sing, or a guitar glide. And you can feel it if you're looking for it.

America's relationship with its own veterans is skewed because they've faced their fear of death; the rest of us do almost everything in our power to stay away from it. To resist it. We run screaming internally to stores, to the bottle, to the TV, to anywhere that presents itself as an immediate escape to the grim reality that we all will die. Even if you don't agree with the overarching military ideology—and I don't—you must respect the fact that at the very least, e these men and women have the courage and the audacity to die for something that they believe in. Speaking only from personal experience, and while I'm sure there's many exceptions to this, I have yet to meet a veteran who goes to war for strictly idealogical reasons. From what I'm told, they go to war to fight for their friends, their family, their flag. That last one, I feel, has the unfortunate reality attached to it that those in charge, the ones who don't experience the wars first hand, merely order it, are the ones with the pen to write the history of it.

War is political, but by and large the men who fight it aren't political people. That comes in after. Even if your side wins (in the grand sense of the word), there is unimaginable loss. And how you respond to loss, how you respond to any situation, is sometimes more emblematic than the situation itself. I can't speak for any of these men and women's personal beliefs — or how political parties attempt to play their own narrative behind these fighters. That, I don't agree with. But I don't agree, too, with the idea that these men and women fought for oil, or fought for strategic land grabs, or whatever the overarching ideas are behind these campaigns. I really and truly think they fight to the ability for us to stand in line and get good BBQ, to sit and talk with our friends and families. They fight for our ability to disagree with them. These soldiers fight for that cohesion between us, which is stronger than politics. No matter how much politicians on either side co-opt the message.

One of the vets came in alone. He stood in line and waited behind a family of four. He gave his order and waited by the soda machines. He checked his watch, stood next to a framed article, leaned in to read a few sentences, smiled, heard his name and grabbed his tray, thanking the manager. He walked by the article again. He was wholly unremarkable in presence, but if you were to walk up to that article and read it, you would have found out that the man standing next to it moments ago was the man the article was about: a prisoner of war who had survived 60 days of torture, refused to give up information, ended up being freed.

He came alone, but when he walked to his table, holding the tray, the room seemed to breathe out. I don't want to sound lofty. It's a barbeque restaurant, and a wonderful one at that. But for a few seconds, you could sense the men that didn't come home, that didn't make it there that day.