Chapter 43 – Pet Names for Neighborhood Weirdos
Once I’d arrived at the airport and found my bag that’d been sent there four hours previous on a separate flight that I’d drunkenly slept through, I took a cab to the Mong Kok district on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. As opposed to Hong Kong Island which is super built-up and boasts one of the most modern skylines in the world, the Kowloon side of the SAR seemed to be a bit behind the times. I’d be lying if I said that the area didn’t have its fair share of newer buildings, but most of this modernity was all to be found along the shore of Victoria Harbor. However, in Mong Kok – the part of Kowloon where I stayed that’s a bit more up towards mainland China from the harbor – block after block of shitty old dirty-looking identically outdated Communistic high rises served as the norm.
What the Mong Kok area had no shortage of, hanging from every available inch of said shit-ass structures, was a blinding plethora of massive neon signs, jumbo screens and flashing lights. Around ten o’clock at night as my cabbie drove along a street called Nathan Road – wouldn’t it be funny if it was called Nathan Lane? – I felt as if I needed a pair of polarized Ray Ban’s with UV protection to shield my eyes from the overindulgent illumination that’d been singeing my retinas.
Back in grade school, this greasy scummy-looking unshaven guy with a massive beer gut and a perpetually stained shirt who worked at the local bowling alley would occasionally hang out with our butt-chin-having gym teacher Derf (“Fred” backwards) while we had class. If I had to compare him to anyone else, I’d say the guy was the spitting image of a real-life version of Barney Gumble from The Simpsons. The man was the epitome of sloppiness and if Derf’d brought him around to serve as an example of what we’d turn into if we didn’t do our push-ups and sit-ups every day at the beginning of class, well, then, bravo to him because it worked.
Once a year every year my grade school had what we referred to as a “roller skating party.” The roller skating party was an extracurricular activity that took place in a building called the Playdium at a rival Catholic grade school known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help in north-suburban Glenview, Illinois. With the exception of eighth grade, we didn’t have school dances so these gatherings were our equivalent. Skating around while holding hands with your sweetheart was how it was done for young lovebirds at St. Juliana grammar school. And every year the fat slob bowling alley guy would chaperone this event.
During these outings, while the speakers blasted all the hottest tracks from the day – presumably songs that appeared on discs one through fifteen of the NOW! That’s What I Call Music collection – all sorts of crazy-ass cosmic trance lighting would fill the arena. During these times when all the young dudes had been trying to make out with all the young babes and cop a feel of their stuffed-with-Kleenex bras on the skating track, it was a guarantee that the bowling alley bum would fall to the ground, start foaming at the mouth and have an all-out seizure where he laid.
Something like this happening once would be understandable and I’d empathize with his sensitivity to flashing lights but that’s not the way it went down. This guy would volunteer to chaperone the roller skating party year after year and in spite of his proclivity to have seizures in front of all the children, the school would welcome him back with open arms, basically teeing him up for another shaking fit. And it’s exactly for this reason that the bowling alley slob came to be known by us as “Seizure Guy.”
Whenever Seizure Guy was around, we’d always be trying to come up with ridiculous scenarios that might trigger one of his neighborhood-famous fits. They ranged from the reasonable, “I wonder if Seizure Guy has a seizure every Saturday night when they do cosmic bowling over at Brunswick,” to the absurd, “I wonder if Seizure Guy ever had any of the lighting in his bedroom attached to The Clapper and was subsequently thrown into a fit while having rowdy sex with lots of spanking that caused the lamp to keep flipping on and off at a seizure-inducing rate.” The most recent one I’d thought of had been on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong when I thought to myself, “I wonder if Seizure Guy would have a seizure while driving down Nathan Road on his way to Mong Kok.”
After my cab driver dropped me off on the corner at the intersection of Nathan and Argyle, I spotted a 7-Eleven just a bit down the way. Since I’d remained horribly hungover and dehydrated from the abuse I’d put my body through in Koh Samui, before heading up to my hostel that I had yet to find, I decided that I’d pop in there to stock up on drinks.
As I approached this convenient store I was accosted by some wacko-ass bitch who ran up to me, started yelling in my face and then burst into laughter as she sat on the curb and lit up a cigarette where she continued talking to herself. Too tired to give a shit, I ignored the unusual encounter and entered the store. After purchasing the goods I returned outside to find the same woman curled up on the sidewalk, hugging her knees and mumbling in a state of terror.
When I was much younger, probably around the age of ten, there was a frazzled gaunt homeless woman in my neighborhood who’d always worn an orange rain jacket. Thanks to her attire, in my house we’d refer to her as The Pumpkin Lady. Although she hasn’t been seen in well over a decade, back in the day The Pumpkin Lady could be spotted all over the Edison Park neighborhood of Chicago acting as erratically as the crazy-ass ho I’d just encountered there in Mong Kok.
Along with whatever other few worldly possessions she could schlep around in a shopping bag, The Pumpkin Lady would always be carrying a rake. Although it might not have proved useful during the other three seasons, during the fall you bet your ass that that rake’d come in handy. Since the area in which I live is filled with trees that shed annually and most of the residents are quite anal about the appearance of their properties, getting leaves off the lawn is a matter that seems to be treated as urgently as getting a blood transfusion to a stab wound victim who lies leaking to death on a table in the emergency room.
As I learned firsthand from watching her do this on my very own front lawn, what The Pumpkin Lady used to like to do was find properties that’d been freshly raked and then carry a bag full of leaves she’d found in the alley near a garbage can and scatter said bag onto a confined portion of said freshly raked lawn and then ring the doorbell.
“Hello,” she said through her rotten smile, “you need somebody to rake your lawn? I’ll do it for…” I don’t remember the price but I’m sure the cost was equal to a gram of whatever she’d been fiendin’ for.
“Yeah, no thanks,” my dad said, “we just raked our lawn.”
“Looks to me like you might’ve missed a spot.”
“We missed a spot? Are you kidding me? We just watched you dump that bag of leaves on our property and kick it around before ringing the doorbell.”
This is when The Pumpkin Lady would start yelling, swearing and throwing her rake around as we shut and locked the door.
Right around that time, one of my mom’s friends told her that The PL had done the same thing to their house on the next block over. According to mommy dearest, the interaction with her friend’s husband had gone pretty much the same way as it had with my dad at our house.
“But I’m hungry!” The Pumpkin Lady said after this dude Lenny had told her “no.”
“Well, if you’re hungry I can help you. If you wait right here for two minutes, I’ll make you a sandwich and bring it out to you. That I will do, but I’m not paying you to rake up leaves that I just watched you dump on my already-clean lawn.”
“What!?” she was offended. “A sandwich!? I don’t want that!”
She then threw the same tantrum she had at my house and went on to try the next one.
In a tiny little plaza at the intersection of Touhy and Overhill, during the embarrassing period of our lives when Pokemon cards were all that mattered – I think we were like eleven at the time – there used to be a place called Phoenix Comics wedged in between a Sara Lee bakery and a generic convenient store that we Catholic grade school bigots used to refer to as “Chinky Mart” because of the ethnicity of the people who worked there. It’d been at this location where my buddy Kutasi was accosted by The Pumpkin Lady.
“Yeah, so I come out of Phoenix Comics, right? I just paid that fat-ass loser who owned the place ten bucks for this pack of Pokemon cards. I was by myself. I rode my bike over there but was too fuckin’ pumped to wait until I got home to tear the pack open and look for any holographic cards – or ‘foiled’ cards as they were known to some. Foiled!” he laughed. “Only fags called ‘em foiled cards.”
“Well, maybe the faggier denomination of us fags called ‘em ‘foiled,’ but by virtue of the fact that we played with Pokemon cards, I think that that made us all pretty big fags to begin with.”
“Yeah, you’re right. But did I ever tell you about the time I was in Phoenix comics and the only other kid in there when I was asked the fat-ass comic book guy for a ‘soiled’ Charizard?”
“It sounds familiar.”
“Yeah well, the kid obviously confused the words ‘foiled’ and ‘soiled’ and so the comic book fat-ass says, ‘Sure, I can give you a soiled Charizard.’ And he takes the card out from the glass case and shows the kid. He’s like, ‘Is this the card that you’d like soiled?’ And the kid’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s the one.’ He doesn’t yet hand over the card, but the guy says, ‘Okay, that’ll be fifty bucks.’ The kid pays him and the fat fuck takes the card into the back room and pisses on it! The fuckin’ guy pissed on the card!” he laughed. “So then, he brings it back out and hands it to the kid and the kid goes, ‘What’s this? Why’s it all wet?’ And the fat guy goes, ‘You wanted a soiled Charizard, so I gave you a soiled Charizard. There will be no refunds so if you’re done shopping, it’s time for you to leave.’”
“Dude c’mon, that never happened.”
“Oh my god, yes it did! He gave the kid a soiled Charizard!”
“Whatever dude. Just get back to the story about The Pumpkin Lady.”
“Alright, alright. Where was I?” he asked. “Okay, so I walk out of Phoenix Comics where the fatass owner absolutely did once upon a time hand an unsuspecting kid a soiled Charizard and tear open the pack of cards. I’m standing there by my bike, not paying attention to anything around me, shuffling through the stack in search of a holographic Charizard or Blastoise or whatever faggy made-up shit our lives used to revolve around.
“And as I’m standing there with my head tilted down focusing on my haul, out of nowhere a dirty hand with long yellow nails reaches in and slaps the stack onto the ground. I look up and it was the fuckin’ Pumpkin Lady with a far-out look on her face and disgusting white stuff crusted on the sides of her mouth. She points right in my face and yells, ‘Bobby!’”
My buddy’s first name is Brian.
“‘I told you those baseball tickets are dangerous!’ Baseball tickets!” he laughed again. “And so I’m just standing there stunned with all my freshly-purchased Pokemon cards scattered all over the ground as she runs off into the alley screaming with her hands up in the air. It might’ve been the weirdest thing that ever happened to me.”
Although The Pumpkin Lady was weird as hell, she was only around for three or four years at the most. Since the time my family had moved into the Edison Park area when I was in second grade, I gotta say that when it comes to neighborhood weirdos the longest-lasting staple was and still is a guy we simply refer to as The Communist.
The Communist is a Vietnam War veteran who lives by himself near Brooks Park on Chicago’s northwest side in a red brick house which sits atop a cement slab and is only about the size of most people’s garages in our neighborhood. I think there might be two windows and one door on the entire homestead or “fort” as he probably refers to it as. The Commie’s house is surrounded by what looks like an untreated wooden Civil-War-era-style fence consisting of logs that stand six feet above the ground, are all nailed together and sharpened to a point at the top. The exterior of this fence is adorned with a series of intermittently spaced Red Commie stars and the only way onto the property is through the front gate.
During the summer months The Commie likes to remove the backseat from his sky-blue Chevrolet minivan from the 1980s and set it up in front of the fort’s aforementioned front gate. There, often wearing a baseball cap, sporting a long gray beard, sitting shirtless and looking overall a lot like an old fat-gutted Ernest Hemingway tanning his later days away on the shores of Cuba, The Communist will spend endless hours sitting on that car seat just staring into space.
During the colder months, the backseat is back where it belongs in the interior of the van and often hosts a crowd of life-size stuffed Looney Tunes characters, a big-ass Garfield the cat and other dolls with whom The Communist likes to drive around the neighborhood. On the exterior of the van near the gas tank is a red sticker of a sickle-and-hammer. Aside from interaction with his stuffed animal friends, The Commie usually keeps to himself in a creepy Unabomber style sort of solitude.
One day after we’d lived in the neighborhood for about three or four years but before we’d gotten our kitchen remodeled, our shitty dishwasher from the 1970s crapped out on us and stopped working. Since our family didn’t have the money at the time to get a new one, my parents decided to try and get fixed the one we had. Neither my mom nor my dad knew of any mechanics who worked on dishwashers, so they opened up the most recent of the neighborhood phone books that once upon a time had been left on our front porch annually. I have no idea what the name of the business was but my parents found an ad for some fix-it guy that said something along the lines of “located in Edison Park, same-day service available.” So, they called the number up and the guy said he’d be right over.
Less than an hour later, the doorbell rang. Pulled up to the curb in front of our house had been the sky-blue Astrovan – empty of animals – and at our door The Commie who’d been holding a bag of tools. After my parents greeted and led the man to the kitchen where they told him what’d happened, he informed them that he’d take care of the problem. As most men tend to when other men are doing manly work, my dad stood by and watched the neighborhood weirdo get down to business.
“Do you by chance give discounts to fireman?” my dad asked.
“No, my prices are already as low as they can be,” the guy imparted while toiling away. “Sorry.”
“Hey, no problem. Just thought I’d ask,” he replied then continued watching The Commie do his thing.
Now, my dad doesn’t know jack shit about appliances, electronics or anything that requires any sort of technical knowledge whatsoever. But even someone as inept as himself could tell that something about the way The Communist had been fixing our dishwasher didn’t seem quite right. I guess it takes one technological retard to know one.
While the function-controlling console the guy had forcefully ripped off the front of the appliance had been left dangling by a colorful set of wires, the two dish racks and parts of the fan thing which’d been removed from the bottom of the interior lay scattered across our kitchen floor. With nothing else to disassemble, the Communist leaned back and took a deep breath while scratching his head. He appeared flustered and began throwing all the tools he’d used to dismantle our dishwasher back into his bag. Once he’d finished the gathering, he stood up, grabbed his tool kit and started heading for the front door.
“Wait,” my dad called after him, “where’re you going?”
The mysterious beard-o looked back and shot my old man a glare as frigid as the Siberian tundra in the dead of a Soviet winter.
“You’re a fireman,” he shouted, “why don’t you fix it!”
The Commie then slammed the heavy wooden door of my hundred-year-old house, leaving our dishwasher even more fucked up than it had been when he started working on it.
Neon lights in Hong Kong…