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The Myth of Brand Loyalty

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“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” — Michael Corleone

I’m done with Starbucks.

For now, anyway. Unless and until they hire me to work at corporate HQ down in SoDo. Because I’m not above selling out if someone makes me a compelling offer.

But I’m done with throwing my money at the Siren. At least until the next time I need caffeine in an airport where she’s the only game in town.

And increasingly, Starbucks is the only game in this town. It’s a coffee town. It’s a company town. Their town.

But as I write this, I’m drinking my last venti latte for a while.

I just cleared the last 96 cents off the Starbucks app on my phone.

I’m out of reasons to need them anymore and looking for an alternative supplier in my general vicinity. (I had one, but they’re gone now. More on that shortly.)

I’ve been a faithful of patron of the Siren — and coffeehouse culture in general; I am equally if not more supportive of independent coffeehouses — since my first Starbucks latte at the Beverly Connection in West Hollywood roughly a quarter century ago. During that time I’ve poured untold thousands of dollars into the company coffers and whiled away countless hours in their stores and on their patios.

Is there better coffee to be had out there in the world? Almost certainly. And I’ve heard all the arguments about how it’s corporate and soulless and overpriced and “not even good coffee.” It’s actually better-than-average coffee, but perhaps its consistency is more important than its quality, because for 25 years I’ve been able to walk into any Starbucks from Los Angeles to Kansas City to Chicago to New York and points in between and get the same reassuringly familiar cup of coffee every single time. And that matters to someone like me, for whom the ritual of one’s daily cup is as necessary as the contents of that cup.

But over the past year, Starbucks has been slowly pushing me away. And yes, while the decisions they’ve made have been strictly for business reasons, it’s hard not to feel as though they’ve been passive-aggressively letting me know that my business isn’t as important to their bottom line anymore.

It began when I learned that they were discontinuing the single-origin Ethiopian coffee that had been my preferred home brew for several years. (Despite my otherwise unrefined palate, I have long been an ardent and discerning consumer of African coffees in general and Ethiopian coffees in particular. It’s said to be the birthplace of coffee, in fact.) The reason I was a gold card holder at all was because, working from home and drinking a pot of coffee a day, I bought so many pounds of whole-bean Ethiopia that I racked up reward stars right and left. And now they were discontinuing not only that mainstay but its reliable backup, their single-origin Kenya, as well. Meaning no African coffees at all except for their Premium Select or Passport Series or Starbucks Reserve offerings, sold in smaller bags at more exorbitant prices.

This Is Just to Say,png

And that’s fine. It’s not like I can’t find another purveyor or roaster to sell me Ethiopian coffee. It’s just that I had grown accustomed to the ubiquity and convenience of Starbucks. Which is how they get you. Until they decide they don’t need you anymore.

Then this past Christmas, my mom put a few $5 Starbucks gift cards in my stocking, whereupon I discovered that, since the last time I had handled a gift card, Starbucks had changed its app so that you could no longer add the value of a gift card to your own existing gold card. You could still reload your existing card with money but not with other gift cards. Which just seems petty as fuck. Why would you remove that particular convenience from an app that millions of people use? It’s not an improvement or enhancement, so they must not want to credit you with stars you didn’t pay for out of your own pocket.

So now I’ve got four separate cards with four separate balances loaded onto my phone, meaning that over the course of my last few visits I’ve had to cycle through a couple of them during a single transaction. That is, until today, when I burned the last 96 cents off the last card.

And truly, the gift cards were the only reason I had been dropping into Starbucks at all of late, because there was an indie coffeehouse nearby that I had patronized regularly since my move to this area — quiet, comfortable, with a courteous staff and a consistently delicious latte.

Until yesterday, when I drove past it for the first time in a couple of months — due to both my work schedule and the route I regularly drive to work — to discover that it had been bought out. By Starbucks.

Those motherfuckers.

This is why I can’t have nice things. (Well, this, and other extenuating circumstances, as it turns out.)

So Starbucks bought my indie oasis and turned it into a drive-thru/walk-in–only operation with no indoor seating. (I know this because it’s where I chose to close out that last gift card, for reasons having to do with both curiosity and a sense of narrative closure.) And I’m left to search for a new hangout and a new supplier if I intend to be a citizen of the world and a habitué of coffeehouse culture as I’ve been for the last quarter century.

Otherwise, there’s always my balcony and my books and my own company and my own coffee, brewed as I like it, right here in my own refuge, my own private oasis, far from the corporate interests who have made it clear that my loyalty isn’t that important to them anymore and that they were never loyal to me to begin with.

Written by Shepcat

May 24, 2019 at 3:46 pm

Posted in Life, The PNW

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A Tale of Two Men

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Monday I met a gentleman, 75 years old, who was aging-movie-star handsome — I mean disarmingly, unsettlingly so. Lean, angular, with thinning silver hair combed straight back, and a neatly trimmed mustache on a face lined only at the corners of his clear blue eyes. His was the face of a man who had never smoked, had never drunk to excess, and, most importantly, had discovered the importance of a sunscreen and moisturizing regimen years before any of his peers caught on.

He bent my ear for a few minutes and as he spoke I tried to place who he reminded me of, but I still can’t summon a proper analog. Maybe … some combination of Christopher Plummer and Terence Stamp, but thinner, wiry, and assuming that combination had aged as well as Paul Newman while maintaining Richard Farnsworth’s pleasant, easygoing demeanor. I don’t know. That’s all I’ve got. He’s a cipher.

Most striking about this man, though, were his hands. In the starkest contrast to his face, these were the most gnarled, abused hands I have ever seen. I have the delicate hands of a typist that aspire to be the hands of a boxer, but I’ve known men whose hands display the wear and weather of lives spent performing manual labor — of houses built, of cars repaired, of freight loaded; taut, calloused, sandpapery — and none of them had hands like this man’s.

This gentleman had been an aerospace machinist for 33 years, half of that at Boeing. His fingers and nail beds were darkened in a way that implied not that he had been working on something greasy or dirty that morning but that he had resigned himself years ago to never being able to scrub away the stain of his labor. Most of his knuckles were split open, like dark craters at the joints of his fingers. His hands didn’t look like they had operated or repaired machines for three decades so much as engaged them in fierce mortal combat.

I erred on the side of holding his piercing, youthful gaze just so he wouldn’t catch me staring in wonder at his hands. What little I pieced together about his life in our few minutes together — “I wanted to do something different, but my wife kept having kids” is the line that stuck with me — were details that I could almost reconcile with his leading-man-in-twilight face. But there’s an entire biography that someone should write about that man’s hands.

Written by Shepcat

April 9, 2019 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Life, The PNW

The Dignity of Work

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Last Saturday night on the swing shift I singlehandedly — my hands, my arms, my back, no mechanized or human assistance — loaded 27,000 pounds of freight onto two outbound trailers.

That’s a sentence I never imagined I’d write. That’s an accomplishment that can never be taken away from me. But it nearly broke me.

After only three days on a job billed as “light industrial work,” I quit the following Monday because, at 51, a generally sedentary person coming off a year-plus of unemployment, my body would need more than a Sunday to recover from the physical toll exacted by that volume of manual labor.

I’ve been blessed with a college education and a professional life spent alternately in office settings, on a studio lot, and in the comfort of my own home. While I’ve often quipped that I’m the laziest person in my family, I also have my father’s work ethic encoded in my DNA, and I’ve never thought of myself as looking down on manual labor. I’ve even done a little of it in the past, but not enough to prepare me for the situation I entered last week, a little misguided and misinformed, when after a long layoff I decided to reach out for any kind of work I could obtain to be back among the gainfully employed again.

It’s an idea I began taking more seriously last fall when actor Geoffrey Owens, formerly of The Cosby Show, was “outed” by the Daily Mail and Fox News for taking a job at Trader Joe’s to make ends meet between his acting and teaching gigs, sparking a national conversation about the dignity of work. Shortly thereafter, my brother took a seasonal job with UPS, assisting a driver on a daily delivery route, to help pay the bills during a fallow period in his own line of work.

I know I should have explored these other, blue-collar options sooner. The main reason I didn’t is that at my age, I may be entering last-chance territory in terms of finding the kind of job at which I excel, at which I have experience, and which I might see myself doing for the rest of my professional life. During this search I have already been shunned for being “overqualified,” which is another way of being told either that I’m too old or that I might expect a higher salary than an employer is willing to pay when they can hire someone younger on the cheap.1

So I felt fortunate, at the time, to have landed that so-called light-industrial job before real panic could ensue about my finances and day-to-day necessities. Again, though, I was unprepared for the reality of the work itself, and while I adjusted and adapted quickly to the environment, it still proved to be work that I was not cut out to do, for reasons both physical and temperamental.

“A man’s got to know his limitations,” goes an old Clint Eastwood line. And there were a couple of occasions on those three nights of work when I consciously pushed myself beyond mine because I wanted to finish the task at hand and make it to the end of the shift. In the end I don’t think my value to the employer would have exceeded those limitations, to the extent that I felt I was doing the job well but too deliberately to be appreciated. It’s work that emphasizes speed and strength more than contributions like my math skills and attention to detail, so I probably did us both a favor by showing myself the door before they did.

As of this writing, I’m awaiting an interview for a white-collar job that I applied for around the same time. I try not to get my hopes up about these things, even though I need to work as much as the next person, but it would certainly help matters if I could land that job and the salary and benefits it offers.

And if not that job, perhaps there’s another one on the not-too-distant horizon — even a blue-collar job — to which my abilities are better suited. Because I can say now, with a little more clarity and credibility than I might have summoned a few weeks ago, that every job matters in this country and moves us all forward — one person, one family, one community at a time — toward the quality of life we all deserve if we work hard and hold up our end of the contract … and employers hold up theirs.
1 As someone who spends a lot of time scouring job listings online, this is a particular bugbear of mine (there ought to be a law, in fact): Employers, just tell us up front how much you intend or are willing to pay, and let us, the job seeker, decide whether that represents a sufficient living wage for work we might apply for. Then let us stand or fall on our merits alone.

There’s an old line about job interviews: The first person to mention money loses the negotiation. So when advertising for a job, an employer puts a prospective applicant at an immediate disadvantage by asking for their “salary requirements” or “expected compensation,” when it’s just a way for lazy human resources departments to shrink the stack of résumés they have to consider for a particular opening. If you want someone cheap, say so, in no uncertain terms. Employers have all the power to begin with. Don’t put people struggling in a competitive job market in the position of undervaluing their own skills and expertise so they can underbid other applicants for a job you’re too coy, too lazy and too cheap to promote honestly.

End of rant.

Written by Shepcat

February 4, 2019 at 3:08 pm

Posted in Life, The PNW, Work

My Accomplice and Muse, First of Her Name, Queen of Our Realm, Ruler of My Heart

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When the love of my life left for Hawaii, she left in my care, as it were, the last great love of my life.

Adriane’s rationale was that at Maow’s advanced age, the sedatives, the long transoceanic flight, and the stress of relocation would wreak too much havoc on her tiny heart and her short- and long-term health. And I agreed.

Adriane decided. I agreed.

Because a drowning man doesn’t politely decline the offer of a life preserver. More than that, it was a great sacrifice Adriane was making for me, an act of love, of trust, of kindness — the single greatest gift anyone has ever given me.

Without Maow, I’d have roamed that empty house alone like the aged, diminished Kane in his Xanadu. It would have seemed cavernous and isolated, haunted, unmoored and adrift, like a ghost ship tossed about the dark waters of the gray, gloomy Pacific Northwest. Maow imbued it — and me — with life.

I woke every day knowing I could get through it with her at my side. “It’s going to be a very pretty day,” I would tell her, “because you’re in it.”

It was too much to ask of this tiny, chatty, cranky 7-pound bundle of bones and fur, this sentient miracle of evolution, that she bear the weight of my love and grief and anger and self-loathing. She took me on as her project anyway.

She kept me afloat and helped me find our desert island. I was Crusoe, and she was my Friday.

In the beginning, she was called Trixie.1

When Adriane discovered her in a shelter in San Diego in January 1999, she learned that the 8-month-old kitten had belonged to a sailor whom the Navy shipped out to another port and who had cried, heartbroken, when he had to return her to the shelter.

Adriane, whose genetic predisposition toward pragmatic pet names has always been a source of wonder and humor to me, brought her home and rechristened her Kitty, and Kitty she was for the next 11 years or so.

Some months later, an enormous, fluffy Maine coon entered their lives. Adriane named him Big Cat2, or B.C., and though he was afraid of virtually every other thing in the world (e.g., the ceiling fan in our bedroom, hilariously), he would proceed to be Kitty’s bully and tormentor for the remainder of his life.

Adriane and I moved to Sacramento together, and after six months I had only just begun to develop a relationship with B.C. — though not so much with Kitty, who habitually made herself as invisible as possible so not to invite any more of B.C.’s attention than was absolutely inescapable — when we had to euthanize him at Thanksgiving.

Within a few days, upon realizing that B.C. was gone and was never coming back, Kitty came out of hiding and out of her shell. With a vengeance. Previously resigned to silence, she began to speak up and express herself as though for the first time. And would not. Shut. The fuck. Up.

In short order, we began referring to her as The Mouthy Broad, the cranky, bitchy, opinionated soul of our home.

Alternately, because of her habit of crossing her little white paws in front of her (they looked to me like the dress gauntlets women of high society wear to the opera), we called her Fancy, a diminutive of her full title, The Disapproving Fancy Who Disapproves.3 (When she lay with just one leg stretched out in front of her — see above — she was “half fancy.”) And though officially still Kitty, we continued to call her Fancy off and on for about a year or so, up to and after our next move, to the Pacific Northwest.

During that time, I began to develop a closer bond with her, slowly earning her trust, giving her as much attention as she’d allow as she sorted out whether my attention was as toxic and unwanted as B.C.’s. This included my grabbing and squeezing her rear haunches in the transaction that would come to be known as grabass. Amazingly, she indicated that she liked this particular bit of attention. Instead of fleeing me upon release, she’d walk a few steps, stop, wait for me to grab her butt again, repeat. This became the hallmark of our daily interaction, prompting Adriane to remark, often, “You two have such a weird relationship.”

I also developed a habit of conversing with her in her own language. As long as she now had so much to say, I wanted her to know that the home office heard and understood her concerns. So when she maowed at me, I maowed back at her, and before long she became, inevitably, indelibly, Maow.

Now you know.

I never liked cats.

I understood all too well that other people did — adored them, in fact — but they just seemed like furry little assholes to me. With rare exceptions, they still do. Asked if I’m a cat person, my typical response is, “No, I’m a Maow person.”

The first cat I ever loved was my cousin Jeff’s cat, Lindberg, with whom I forged a fierce, unbreakable bond after a harrowing day together — and apart — on my very first day in Los Angeles. I became his go-to sitter for the last five years of his life. He was affectionate and willful, playful but corpulent and leisurely, and more than a little vindictive if you crossed or slighted him. He was, I’m almost entirely certain, the reincarnation of Orson Welles.

After Lindberg left us, I went back to not having any use for cats. Until Adriane.

Inasmuch as any creature, let alone a 7-pound ball of fluff with a brain the size of a walnut, can understand human language and human love, I repeated certain phrases as often as possible (see “pretty day,” above) in the hope that they would begin to imprint themselves on Maow’s DNA, so that she would understand at a molecular level that I loved her, and how much.

In Casablanca, Leonid Kinskey portrays the Russian bartender Sascha, endlessly infatuated with and solicitous of Madeleine Lebeau’s icy and manipulative Yvonne. Though she repeatedly, coldly fends off his advances, Sascha always cheerfully responds, “But, Yvonne, I love you.” And it was in Sascha’s voice, a little mockingly but entirely truly, that I first responded to Maow’s objections, “But, Maow, I love you.”4 Before long I ditched Sascha’s voice altogether.

That said, Maow lived in dread of our more demonstrative displays of affection. As someone once pointed out on Twitter, the reason cats are so pissy is that they’re God’s perfect killing machines but they weigh only 7 pounds, and we keep picking them up and kissing them all the time. Despite the rare occasions when she’d purr, Maow hated being lifted into our arms, suspended 5 feet above the floor and cuddled until we got our fix, burying our noses in her fur and inhaling deeply. (Always a fastidiously clean cat, Maow had the best smell, though hard to describe — a little smoky, a little like fresh laundry, not like an animal at all.) It became my habit, just before kneeling to release her from the indignities and encumbrances of my affection, to whisper into her ear, “Thank you for letting me love you.”

And though, whenever we left town, we left her in the care of others who would check in with her regularly if not daily, she would roam the house in our absence, looking for us, yowling her plaintive little yowl until her voice was hoarse. We’d return home to find her waiting, pissed off, expressing her discontent with a series of raspy little exhalations where words ought to have been. Depending on how long we had been away, it would sometimes take days for her voice to return. The length of time during which we’d await her forgiveness became shorter with each subsequent trip, and I want to believe that it’s because I told her often, “I will always, always come home to my Maow.” Even if I was just going out for groceries or to the movies or into the city for an evening of drinking with my fellow Men of a Certain Age, I would announce upon my return, “Who always comes back to his Maow? This guy.”

The night I took Maow to the emergency veterinary clinic, they let me go back to the big examination room where she was being processed, to see her before I left. All sharp angles and gleaming surfaces, the room was bright and noisy, and there was a yelpy dog in the cage next to hers. She was absolutely miserable, burrowed into the blankets, already smaller and weaker because of her illness, but she summoned enough energy to raise herself a little when they let me open her cage door. I loved her up and rubbed the bridge of her nose and spoke to her as reassuringly as I could, and when finally I willed myself to leave her in the clinic’s care, I reminded her one last time, “I’ll be back for you soon, because I always, always come back for my Maow.”

I’ll always feel bad that the last six months of Maow’s life were so stressful.

When Adriane and I finally put our house on the market, the daily peace of The Silent J was shattered and life suddenly accelerated into overdrive. Workmen came to floor our bathroom, steam our carpets, clean our windows. Maow’s once vast, open landscape became strewn and stacked with boxes as I packed for our move. Our real estate agent dropped by frequently, and the staging of our home meant that furniture and other familiar items disappeared from view and were replaced by alien presences not to be trusted.

Our first weekend on the market, as other agents and prospective buyers invaded the sanctity of our made-over home, Maow was incarcerated multiple times and removed to the park uphill from our house. Though it was only five minutes away, she hated her carrier and rides in the car and the fear and uncertainty they portended. Even though I often fretted that her world was so small, she fretted even more the wider world outside its boundaries. As objectively pleasant as our park and the time we spent there were, she was so distrustful of it that on our first visit she never emerged from the carrier she so hated.

Then came moving day, on which her world was invaded and pillaged, even her hiding places removed as she cowered under them in panic. Then she was left alone for a few hours in the completely empty house before I returned, incarcerated her again and drove her across town to our new apartment, the familiarity of all our things in one place providing no comfort to her at all.

Next, just as we were settling into our new environs, came the bedbug infestation, which didn’t victimize her, thank God, but which resulted in multiple exterminator visits, more incarceration and removal to distant places, more moving of furniture and vacuuming upon our return.

Then a visit to the vet.

One stress- and/or diet-related question to which I sought an answer prompted the office’s suggestion that it was about time for Maow’s annual wellness checkup and that we could get a fuller picture if I brought her in.

Incarceration. Car trip.

She was examined by the charmless lead veterinarian, the more coldly clinical, less comforting of the office’s three vets, who referred to her in the abstract as “the geriatric kidney patient” and “the individual” as he talked through her various conditions — the ongoing but not as yet prohibitive decrease in her kidney function (“stable” was the only prognosis we had received from her most recent bloodwork), the discovery of a heart murmur and a slightly accelerated heart rate since her previous visit, the possibility of hyperthyroidism and decreased metabolism, and other age-pertinent generalities to be on the lookout for as she declined. Which she did, almost as if on cue.

Not long after that appointment, Maow stopped eating, stopped pooping, became withdrawn and disappeared for long stretches behind the gold brocade chair (once my grandmother’s, adopted by Maow as her preferred perch after the move), as though she was trying to make herself smaller and invisible all over again.

I called our charmless vet to express my concern, and when he returned my call at day’s end, his only suggestion was to mix up her diet as much as possible, to try to entice her with new things. Which worked, however briefly and if only in small amounts. I allowed myself to be encouraged that Maow was eating again at all, but even that was short-lived, and she continued to become weaker and smaller.

On the advice of a vet Adriane knows in Hawaii, we made an appointment for subcutaneous hydration, which we hoped might also stimulate her appetite. The tech informed me that Maow had lost 2 pounds in the last month — which I knew, hence the appointment — but seemed otherwise indifferent, offering no suggestions and deflecting any questions I had, saying that our charmless lead vet could answer them all when he called back with the results of Maow’s latest bloodwork.

Which he never did.

Rather than wait until Monday for answers from someone who showed no urgency for or interest in our pet, rather than spend the entire weekend watching Maow starve herself to death, Adriane frantically consulted yet another veterinarian, and we ultimately settled on my taking her to the aforementioned emergency clinic. In the 48 hours she spent there, and again upon our return, I dealt with no fewer than nine different people — receptionists, technicians, nurses and doctors — each of whom went out of her way to be warm, considerate and comforting to both Maow and me. Adriane and I will be forever grateful to them, even as we remain perplexed and outraged that we didn’t feel one-tenth of that consideration from Maow’s own vet.

Maow rebounded in their care, however little and however briefly, and was discharged to me Monday night, with our hopes that I might have at least the coming week with her, to make her comfortable and spend as much quality time with her as possible.

It wasn’t to be.

At 9:44 p.m. Tuesday, November 14, 2017, Adriane and I said goodbye and let go of our brave, patient, perfect girl.

I had woken that morning to find that Maow was still lethargic and unresponsive, dismissive of food and oddly distrustful of water, though she’d at least make herself drink occasionally. Three times in the ensuing 24 hours she had urinated on the carpet where she lay, too weak even to walk 3 feet to the litter box I had brought out to her. Any energy she still had was spent resisting my attempts to pry her tiny jaws apart to medicate her. Twice she spat out the Prednisone tablet I was trying to force her to take, and after a failed third attempt I couldn’t will myself to continue fighting her. Even though the vet who had called with her ultrasound results said it was a matter of days, plural, I knew I couldn’t make her endure another day, singular. I called Adriane and told her I’d take Maow that night to be euthanized.

I decided. Adriane agreed.

It was the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced, knowing that I was escorting Maow to her death, but Adriane assured me repeatedly, however counterintuitively, that I was doing her the greatest kindness I would ever perform for her, thanked me for being her caregiver, apologized repeatedly for making me go through it alone. We had discussed the possibility of her catching the next flight out from the islands, but it quickly became apparent that we’d be making Maow hold on for hours that would become increasingly painful to endure.

We had a nice last day together. At least, I hope some of it felt nice to Maow — that she felt love — through the fog of her pain. Adriane FaceTimed with us in the morning and again that evening before we left, so she could say her goodbyes to the perfect creature whom she had loved for half her own life. In between, Maow and I spent the long, quiet day together in our favorite place: in our ratty old leather wing chair with Maow on my lap, as we had spent so many long Sundays while I drank coffee and proofread, awkwardly reaching over her whenever I needed to type or use my trackpad, and most evenings in front of movies and ballgames on TV.

When we took our last ride together, she was too weak to require incarceration. I removed the lid and gate from her carrier and padded it with a towel. I drove with one hand and stroked her with the other the entire trip.

Upon our arrival, a surge of adrenaline made her hyperaware of her surroundings, and I had to steel myself against this false resurgence of life, calm her down, soothe her nerves, and get on with the terrible task at hand. We spent a quiet half hour together, I reasserting my impossible, undying love for her, before I summoned the doctor.

I held Maow on my lap, and the first injection put her to sleep in a few seconds, her weary little head slumping over the side of my leg. The second injection — the coup de grâce — was quick and painless. Maow’s tiny, remarkable heart finally stopped, only because I told it to. Only because I let her go.

Thank you for letting me love you, Maow.

What I owe you is beyond evaluation.

1 An aside to those of you who knew Maow: God, can you even imagine?

2 In the years during which Adriane and I fell in love and were separated by a thousand miles, B.C. would occasionally enter the room while we were talking on webcam. Adriane would pick him up, and as he went limp his full weight would go completely square in her arms, like an enormous, furry suitcase. Hence, forever after he was Suitcase to me.

3 This is why, when Facebook insisted on a vanity URL longer than four letters, her presence there was signified by /disapprovingmaow.

4 Look, I’m a movie guy. I can’t help myself. When I imagined what Suitcase might say to me if he could talk back, for reasons I’m helpless to explain I always imagined he would speak in the voice of the French actor Jean Gabin from Grand Illusion and Pepe le Moko. And in my mind he always referred to me as “the tall one.”

Written by Shepcat

November 15, 2017 at 7:17 pm

Posted in Life, Love, The PNW

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So That Happened: A Vignette in One Act

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Doorbell rings.

It’s the kid next door. Good kid, unfailingly polite, takes care of Maow whenever I’m out of town. Always rings the doorbell like this to ask if he can get a ball out of my backyard, as he does today. I’d be fine with him just going back there to retrieve his wiffle and tennis balls whenever I’m not quick enough to get out there and toss them back over the fence, but him always ringing to ask is a sign of his polite upbringing, so it’s worth the trip to the door.

But this also happens: He comes to door alone, but as often as not, it’s him and one or two other kids I see running past my windows in the backyard, ostensibly to retrieve a ball.

One ball.

Once, one of his friends was parkouring onto and off of the rocky terrace in our backyard, and all I could picture was the kid twisting an ankle and eating rock or crashing to the yard below and breaking a tibia and some parents suing me for medical damages because their kid’s a spastic moron to whom I didn’t give express permission to be in my yard.

Today, though, it’s only two of them — the neighbor kid and one friend — who go darting past my windows. The friend — these are 12-year-olds, by the way — is carrying some sort of clear plastic container in one hand and its lid in the other. And they’re back there awhile — like, long enough that I wonder was I really so engrossed by work that I didn’t notice them leaving the yard. So I get up and walk toward the dining room, and I don’t see them through the curtains in the part of the yard where I expect them to be.

But I hear voices.

Now I go over to the living room–side window, where the blinds are completely clapped shut and I’d look really obvious and creepy if I try to separate two of the slats to look out there and see what they’re doing. Still, this muffled conversation is taking place that sounds a lot more detailed and intricate than anything involving the retrieval of a ball.

One ball. With a lidded plastic container.

I should note that there’s absolutely nothing of value in the backyard that they could cart out without my noticing. So honestly, whatever’s back there that they can fit into this container they’re welcome to.

But the mystery persists.

And yet I’d be the creepy asshole in this picture if I just asked them point blank why are they really back there and what the hell’s with the container.

… and scene.

Written by Shepcat

August 29, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Posted in Life, The PNW

Missed You in Seattle, Wished You Were There

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With biblical fervor — if not quite matching the sheer volume reported in the book of Genesis — the first autumn rains are falling in Los Angeles.

I’ll take the rap for this one.

It all started Saturday, when my trip to the VW dealership for a $40 oil change resulted in a final tab of $475, for corrections and improvements I’d prefer to pay for now rather than later (battery, brake pads, what-have-you), as later is when one tends to get into trouble. Anyway, after the work was complete, they moved my car to the back lot and washed the exterior for me, so when at last I peeled away from the dealership, my Bavarian steed was gleaming like obsidian under the warm October sun.

As I could have predicted, I was shortly visited by the twin fates I refer to as the “car wash quinela”: a bird shat on my hood, and it rained. The latter of these fates I was doubly responsible for.

That night, my friends and I went to a movie and afterward retired to a coffeehouse on Melrose that I like, although I don’t go there often. My favorite feature of the coffeehouse is the L-shaped booths that occupy the front windows on either side of the entrance. The booths, such as they are, have no tables, but one can stretch out a bit on the padded green vinyl seats and balance one’s drink on the window ledge. I particularly like to sit at those windows on gray, torrential afternoons and watch the traffic outside spray arcing waves of rain onto the sidewalks like a special effect in a Cecil B. De Mille epic. Armed with writing instruments or reading material, I can kill an entire day in this fashion, rising only to order more coffee.

No sooner had I explained this predilection to my friends Saturday night than the clouds opened wide and with leonine ferocity emptied their contents onto Melrose Avenue as if to punish it. (To the extent that I can convince these simple natives that I am the pissed-off god of thunder now descended to exact his vengeance upon Los Angeles, you may soon see the designation “Rainmaker” added to my curriculum vitae.)

I was disappointed by the dearth of precipitation in Seattle, my damp, drizzly Thursday notwithstanding. Perhaps I’m the only tourist you can name for whom inclement weather is a selling point worthy of inclusion in the brochure, but given Seattle’s reputation, I was looking forward to seeing what the fuss is all about. Instead it was gorgeous, serene, a freaking postcard.

Since my return I’ve spoken to others who have complained vigorously about the rain there, saying things like, “I don’t know how anyone can stand to live there,” “It would depress the hell out of me,” and “I could take only so much before I’d have to get the hell out of there.” And yet, I’m fairly certain I could handle it, perhaps even thrive in it. Even during the particularly wet season L.A. endured during the first months of 2005, I never quite reached my saturation point, so to speak.

Perhaps because of my nocturnal nature, overcast conditions in general and rain in particular have, for me, always been imbued with romance and the ambience of film noir. Like the night itself, rain often drives less intrepid souls indoors — their numbers proportional to the increasing volume of the rain — eventually lending the streets and sidewalks an eerie but inviting emptiness, in which I can move undisturbed and unchallenged in a city all to myself, a ghost town minus the tumbleweeds.

It’s as close as I ever come to experiencing my oft-invoked, idealized Los Angeles, described thus: “This would be a great town if it weren’t for all the freaking people.” Sadly, one rarely gets to choose the ghosts with whom he shares the city streets.

Written by Shepcat

October 17, 2005 at 11:09 pm

Posted in Life, Los Angeles, The PNW

Romance vs. Reality: The Return Trip

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  • The tradeoff (read: punishment) for spending an inordinate amount of time in the lounge car is that the attendant on the southbound leg of my journey played on a continuous loop the only CD he had, a Smooth Jazz compilation whose lowlight was a cover of “Careless Whispers” that miraculously managed to be at least 30 percent gayer than the original George Michael recording.
  • There is no darkness quite like the darkness outside a train at night. Twisting, winding, weaving through the countryside, through tunnels, between embankments and beneath the canopies of trees, miles away from the lights of any city or town, the landscape sinks away and even the moon and stars can disappear into an abyss of the deepest black. During particularly smooth stretches of rail or in the stillness of a track delay, one is overcome with a sense of being cast into a chasm and falling through space, waiting for impact.
  • Early in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is stranded while patrolling the ice planet Hoth, and his friend Han Solo leaves the rebel base camp astride a tauntaun (the galaxy-far-far-away equivalent of an arctic camel) to go looking for him. When Han finds Luke freezing to death out on the tundra, he saves his friend’s life and his own by slicing open a dead tauntaun with Luke’s lightsaber and climbing inside the steaming carcass to keep warm through the long night until the dawn patrol could search the planet for them.
    This is what I was thinking about during my second endless, frigid, black night aboard the Coast Starlight: that I should perform a reconnaissance of the train, select the fattest person aboard (from which to choose there were plenty) and gut him or her to ensure my own survival (and, in turn, that of the Rebel Alliance).
    In the complete absence of warmth, perhaps my saving grace was the complete absence of comfort. Despite some modifications that give it a slight edge over a commercial airliner, the train is mostly right angles, sharp edges and cramped spaces. Because I could never get comfortable, I would wake every 20 minutes or so to shift position, trading a numbed limb for a cricked neck, and I believe that this required just enough mental alertness and physical effort to prevent me from lapsing irretrievably into cryostasis.
    I ended up on the lower level of the lounge car, which for some reason was the warmest location on the train. Wedged into a booth, my only comfort was in the knowledge that I’d surely become a Brentsicle if I went back upstairs. An added benefit is that I was there the moment the lounge-car attendant arrived at 6 a.m. to serve me that first scalding hot cup of caffeinated salvation, which, in combination with the rising morning sun, made the world right again.
  • I don’t want to entirely diminish the experience of rail travel. I’m still very happy I took this trip. And I hope to take it again someday, but not without a beautiful travel companion, someone with whom to share conversation, warmth and actual romance, as opposed to the perceived romance of a lone wayfarer communing with the American West as it rushes past outside his window. (Here, I’ll say it along with you now: What the hell was Shepcat thinking?)
    I can imagine it already: Late at night, in the quiet of the low-lit train, as our fellow travelers slept around us, my beloved and I would curl up as comfortably as possible in our seat, huddled together to share our body heat, and softly, in whispers barely audible above the rumble of the train, in the intimate confidence and shared solitude of our insomnia, we would make plans for the future, discussing which of our fellow passengers we’d eat first if our train derailed far from civilization.

Written by Shepcat

October 11, 2005 at 9:24 pm

Posted in The PNW, Travel