Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ambidextrous Stang: Is This Your Lint?

The stories one can hear at the nursing home, if one is willing...

Herbert Stangle, either 98 or 100 years old, told me a little bit about his life.  I was wearing a t-shirt bearing the sleeping cat logo of the Chessie System Railroad, and he brightened considerably when he saw me.  At first, I assumed that that was because he was mistaking me for a loved one, perhaps one of his grandsons, but after five solid minutes of TRAINS, TRAINS, TRAINS, I knew better.

"You know what a hobo is?" he asked me, his voice strong, but full of either 98 or 100 years of grit and gravel.

HA!  Do I know what a hobo is.

"I dropped out of high school and left home in 1931, and I became a hobo..."

"Uh oh," I interrupted. "Your parents?"

"What about 'em?" he coughed.

"Were they, you know, alive when you left?"

He looked at me as if I might have been one of those therapy dogs that frequently visited him.  "Alive?  Of course they were alive - well, my ma was.  What's wrong with you, son?"

"Nothing.  I just... I've heard some stories about hoboes, and their parents often meet the most awful fates."

"Mine didn't. My pop died of a heart attack when I was a baby, and my ma raised me.  She worked hard, and gave me and my sister a fine childhood. She was my hero."

"Sorry," I said. "I shouldn't have assumed. So, why did you leave, then?"

"The smell."

"The smell?"

"Yes. Pop was in the ice box in the garage, and when it broke down and Ma couldn't afford to get it fixed, I tell you, he stunk like hell on earth. I couldn't stand to live there for another minute."

I nodded sympathetically. "Of course."

He continued. "Out on the road, some fellas survived by their wits, some by their brawn, others by sheer luck."

"How did you survive?"

"By sleight of hand, mostly," he sighed. "I did magic tricks - cards and shell game stuff - and a lot of pickpocket work.  They called me Ambidextrous Stang, I was so good."

"Are  you ambidextrous?"

"Nope. Just really, really good at misdirection. I tried to only steal what I needed, but it was a kind of addiction. After a while, I couldn't stop.  I stole watches and lint and wallets, pocket change, cigarettes - you name it. One time, I lifted a hundred-ounce can of kidney beans from a hobo's bindle. Got away clean, too."

"That's impressive. How'd you do it?"

The old man got quiet and stared at the arm of his wheelchair for so long, I was sure he had passed away, right there in front of me. Then, he drew a long, rattly, 98- or 100-year old breath. "The trick is to make your mark's brain focus somewhere else - away from the item you're trying to lift from him. I put my hand on his shoulder and left it there - too long to be polite - and squeezed it too much. He never knew what hit him."

"Wow. Did you ever get caught?"

"Oh, young man - I got busted all the time. It was just part of the game. In the 30s and 40s, it was easy. A night in the clink, a shower, a hot meal, and off you went. It started to change in the 50s. The hoboes were dying off, or going back to the world, and people got less... tolerant." His voice trailed off.

I sensed that he was tired, but maybe too polite or too lonely to stop, but I was searching for some sort of conclusion to his tale. "So, did you stop with the pickpocket stuff? Go back to the real world, or what?"

"I did not. I tried to. Got a job building the Class J's for the Norfolk and Western - most elegant locomotives this country ever produced - but I couldn't break the habit.  In Roanoke one night, I stole a man's jeweled wristwatch, got busted, and spent the next twenty-five years in and out of prison. The hobo life was a breeze, compared to those years. I got out for good in 1975, and got a job doing card tricks on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. Then the 80s and those video game arcades came along - and that damnable Ripley's Believe It Or Not, and I sort of just... gave up.  Been in this dump ever since - going on thirty years, now. I think they're mad at me for living this long."

I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing for a few minutes. After a while, I thanked him for sharing his story. I stood up and shook his frail 98- or 100-year old hand. He smiled kindly and chuckled to himself as I turned to leave.

"Young man?" he said. "Is this your lint?"

I turned back and found him grinning happily, holding my iPhone in a trembling hand.

"Thanks," I said, fighting the urge to be annoyed, and patting my wallet in its pocket, just to be sure.

"No, no, son. Thank you!" he said.

N&W Class J #611 - Photo by Joe Scott, 1992

Another prompted story, thanks to John Hodgman and his marvelous hobo names, and STUDIO 30-PLUS, and their "sleight of hand" prompt.

Friday, March 6, 2015

If Your House Is Afire -or- I Loved "The Money Pit"

Mr. Goren nearly tore the door from its frame as he exploded into the office.  "Assistant Headmistress!  Assistant Headmistress!"

"Albert, how many times do I have to remind you," Mrs. Tyson sighed, "my title is Vice-Principal, and you should just go ahead and call me Anne, like everyone else does."

"Sorry, Ma'am - I mean, Anne.  Old habits from home, I suppose.  And I apologize for bursting in like this, but the school is on fire!"

"On fire?  Where?  Why isn't the alarm going off?"

"Not sure about the alarm, Ma'am, but I smelled smoke in my room, and when I went into the hall, several teachers told me they could see smoke coming from the old wing."

Anne Tyson sprang from her faux leather Vice-Principal's chair. "Pull the alarm manually, and evacuate the school!  Do it now!"

"Hold on a second, Anne," Mr. Walker said, striding into the office with his gut sucked in as far as it would go. "If we evacuate the kids in the middle of final exams, every test will be voided, and they'll have to start over - and that means a day will have to be added to the academic calendar."

Mrs. Tyson blinked at Walker impatiently.  "And?"

"And, and that will be expensive - and mess with everyone's summer holiday plans."

Miss Saguin, Mr. Williams, and Mrs. Nigh burst through the office door.  "The school's on fire!" they chorused.

"It's not on fire," Walker insisted. "Mr. Williams just wants to buy an extra day of exam prep for his slow kids. Besides, if there was a fire, it would have set off the alarm."

Ms. Maher entered the room. "I think the school's on fire," she declared calmly. "I saw smoke - a lot of it - coming from the old wing. We need to evacuate the children."

"The old wing," Mrs. O'Really scoffed as she joined the group, "that figures. I guarantee you - this fire was set by that wretched Jimmy Humanus. That kid's a damn pyromaniac."

"It's definitely a fire," confirmed Mr. Cooper, following O'Really into the office, "I saw the smoke, and I'm pretty sure I saw flames coming from the art rooms - but there's no way that the Humanus boy started it.  My money's on the crumbling ancient wiring in this old tinderbox."

"That's stupid," sneered Miss Saguin. "The afternoon sun heats those old wing rooms so dramatically in the spring.  I'll bet it was enough to ignite all that paint and turpentine, on its own.  Natural causes, all the way."

"No way - it was Jimmy Humanus, hands-down."

"It's not even a fire, guys.  I didn't see a bit of smoke," Mr. Walker said, rolling his eyes. "You guys need to stop babbling like it's the end of the world."

More teachers entered, and several called in on their room-to-room intercoms.  All of them reported smoke, or fire, or both.

Mrs. Tyson smacked her desk with both hands.  "Hush! If the school is on fire--"

"It's not," Mr. Walker sniffed.

"If it is - if there's a chance that there's even the smallest fire - then we get everyone out, period.  We can argue about whose fault it is, or how much it cost us, or whether there ever was a danger - after the kids are out.  Go! Now!"

That argument never happened. 

White Chapel, VA - Photo by Joseph Scott

This week, I combined two writing prompts. My friends at Studio30Plus wanted some BABBLE, while the Light & Shade Challenge gang wanted an EXTENDED METAPHOR.  The babbling was easy, but I'm not sure how this stacks up as an extended metaphor.  Hopefully, it works.  Thanks for reading!