commuterchroniclesdbh

Driving and Biking in the Big City

Archive for September 2012

Ghost road

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It’s at this time of evening and this time of the year that I most like to go biking on a path near my original Kingwood neighborhood. It is a straightaway that leads me through the concrete caverns of the North Park underpass before the greenbelt opens up in two directions. This is where the path becomes a trellis of the lushest, most honeysuckle-laden greenery of “the Livable Forest.” 

If I time the last leg of my ride just right, it is likely I will see lightning bugs popping out like fairy lights from the hedges. And, if I let my imagination escape with the fleeting sunlight, I see more than natural wonders.  

It is on this path a few years ago that I started seeing an old girlfriend of mine. My friend had died unexpectedly and too young.  We raised our kids together. We went to parks together, the neighborhood pools and out for Happy Meals when the kids were young. When I left Texas for Detroit, we talked for hours on the phone, comparing the loneliness and exhaustion of young motherhood, giving each other advice and talking about the long away future.

Her visitations always happen near our old neighborhood when we lived near each other. I had not lived there in years, but she had been part of our neighborhood babysitting co-op.

The first time it happened, it was sudden and out of the blue. Nothing I had been thinking on or worrying about. Of course, I missed my friend, had been saddened by her untimely death but I hadn’t thought of her in a long while.

She appeared several yards away, moving perpendicular from me at the crossroad. She looked straight ahead and not at me, so that we never made eye contact.

As I describe the experience of her visitations, it dawns on me that I never see her face. How did I know who it was?  And, when I hyper-analyzed the experience, I realize that it was more of a feeling and a knowing. It is so other-worldly as to defy specifics and explanations.

And so the sightings went for quite some time. It came to happen with such frequency that I seldom took a bike ride in that area without seeing her. The feeling of her presence would come first, then the sighting. Never close or clear but always sensational and true. She was an image up ahead, moving just beyond my true vision.

I took to avoiding the path, especially as darkness approached.  It would have been comical had it not felt so intense.

One hectic evening ride, I felt forced to head that way just at the wrong time of day. I’d tied my sweatshirt around my waist and was pedaling as fast as I could. Bizarrely and like some contrived scene from a teen slasher movie, the sweatshirt began to unravel. I saw it move in slow motion, much because I was pumping for dear life. Then, just at the spot where I was visited most often, my sweatshirt fell loose and onto the pavement. I was forced to stop and regroup. My heart was pumping and my nerve shattering as I resumed my ride, hitting the underpass toward home at breakneck speed.

Finally, I decided to face the problem head on. On my next bike ride, I went down Ghost Road intentionally (and in full daylight.) I sat on the bench at the crossroads and invited the memories and the feelings, breaking the barrier between me and whatever was waiting for me just out of sight.

In the end, it was a simple talk to myself. I promised myself that I would stay in touch with her boys and that, given the chance, I would tell them stories of her deep and overwhelming love for them. We would talk about how she tried hard every day to do right by them and to make them happy.  How proud she was of them.

I still see her on occasion. It doesn’t happen as often and has never again been overwhelming or scary. I’m glad we talked about it and faced it.  Now, it feels simply like a visit from an old friend.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

September 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Praise for free Wi-Fi and dip cones: a guest commuter

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Laura in her classroom

Hello, my name is Laura, and I am a commuter. My sweet little four-door Nissan Sentra is named Daisy. Most days the drive from my downtown apartment to the elementary school where I work takes us about 30 minutes. I am a reverse commuter; while everyone else is going into the city, I am leaving it. I miss most of the heavy traffic coming and going and will give my mom traffic reports as she heads into the med center.

One of my favorite commuting stories from last semester happened while I was heading north on U.S. 59. I got caught behind a car that was going 45 m.p.h. in the fast lane. I was thinking many not so nice things in my head as a passed the tan sedan. I glanced over to see if I could catch the eye of the driver to give her my “teacher look” of disapproval. When I looked over, I saw a nun in her full habit!  I immediately repented and have been trying to stop thinking mean thoughts about the driving of my fellow commuters ever since.

This year, a twist has been added to my life and my commute. I have started grad school to earn my master’s in Special Education from A&M. My classes are all online. I attend them through a web-based program and sit from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on my computer in my classroom on Mondays and Tuesdays and after my students have all gone home. Due to this change of schedule, I am learning the new way of nighttime commuting. Just as I was getting used to the rhythm of my new schedule, life took me on an adventure.

This week I had a workshop in Austin on Monday and Tuesday, which made attending my Tuesday class a little problematic. I went back and forth about missing class or staying in Austin until 7:30 p.m. and driving back home late.  Because I wanted to get home at a reasonable hour and  I had a quiz, I decided to embrace technology and hit the road.

I left Austin at 3:30 p.m. with the goal of making it to the Starbucks in Brenham by 4:30 p.m. As I drove through Central Texas, it became very clear that I would not make the hour and a half drive from Austin to Brenham in under an hour. As the start of my class rolled around, I decided to pull into whatever I saw next. I saw a few gas stations but didn’t feel they would be conducive to taking the first quiz in my grad school career.

Finally, I spotted the Dairy Queen in Giddings. I pulled over, took out my laptop and praised the Lord for free Wi-Fi and dip cones! I took my quiz with my ear buds on as customers came in to get their Blizzards and Hungerbusters. At 5 p.m., I packed up and drove the 45 minutes to Brenham where I finished the lecture with an iced mocha and an everything bagel at Starbucks.

I am proud to say I passed my first grad school quiz even with small children running around my table like mice looking for cheese.  Also, I made it home by 9:15 p.m. and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in a long time.

I love my grad classes but have been a little anxious about figuring out how to make my life work with my new schedule. As I was driving home from a long day at work and school one day last week I was praying about how I was going to handle everything and asking the Lord for help. As I prayed, I saw a star shoot across the 610 Loop. I took it as a sign from the Lord that all of the stress and the long hours are going to be worth it, and that He will not leave me out here to do the commute by myself.  

Happy Commuting!

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

September 15, 2012 at 1:36 pm

It’s never over at the end: A sequel

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The last time we left our contemplative blogger, she had considered the mystery of the “old-fashioned connection” resolved and at an end. That story was a year in the making and seemed to tie up with all loose ends connected. If you will recall, she finally spoke to the elderly gentleman caller and all were satisfied that the wrong number had been righted. Surprisingly, it took only a couple of days to learn that the end is not yet here.

This week when I returned to work, the red light on my message machine was blinking again. Again, I thought there was some early morning emergency for me to get after right away. My balloon never lands. This is why I’ve never made any money off my own dysfunctional childhood. I always think my ship is just about to come in with the next phone call.

My elderly caller, who had been leaving me messages for more than a year, had called again that morning and after we seemed to have straightened out his confusion. This time he broke his pattern of leaving a message in the deep night. Instead, he only missed me by minutes and just because I was away from my desk. Typically, he would have been likely to have caught me in person.

Again with the gravely voice but a bit more lively than some of the past messages.  It went like this:

“Hey, son (do you think it’s been “son” all along and not Don, John or Tom?)

“I’m just back from therapy and wanted to let you know how it went.” (Are we talking physical or mental therapy?)

“I really wanted to talk to you, Buddy. Can you give me a call back?”

Do I fool myself into thinking this elderly gentleman planned to reach me this time and continue the conversation from Friday when we spoke about Houston weather? Was he just happy to hear a friendly voice and knew he was making the same dialing error as he’d made perhaps 50 times before.

I call in the intrepid Thelma for advice again. She’s an objective naysayer , of course, being the more practical of the two of us. She thinks I’m romanticizing and fictionalizing this relationship – me thinking I’ve become an important voice on the other end of the line for my caller who you will remember we have determined lives perhaps at a war veteran’s home in Virginia. (Did I make that up? I never know what part of this story is what I think compared to what I know. I remember thinking in early days that he was a patient at nearby DeBakey VA, but later we found out he was in Virginia.)

Thelma is a good counterbalance to my whimsy. She is the reader of non-fiction, organizational guides and project management how-tos. Her theory in life is: Touch it once. She knows that my theory in life is “beat it to death, and if it comes back to life, go at it again.”  She sees the line in the sand; I’m all gray area and beaches.

“Get a life,” Thelma suggests. “We’ve got real work to do.”

She’s right, of course. I don’t write this blog for a living.

And still I have no callback number from my caller, but I do know the misdialed number from my conversation with the old gentleman on Friday. After all, it’s just one digit off from my work number. Thelma, always the thinker, suggests that instead of calling me on purpose (as I believe) that perhaps the son or someone from his real life has mis-saved the correct number in his speed dial and that’s why he’s calling my number by mistake so often.

Bubble buster that she is, she agrees I should call the correct number and let his son know that he’s looking for a call back.

And so, the saga continues. Some strange younger voice in Virginia receives an even stranger call from me, probably sounding as desperate and weird as his father ever sounded in messages to me.

“Hi, you don’t know me, but your father wants you to call him back,” I tell the son’s message machine. After all, this is a mystery played out by message machines and missed connections.

“You see, your father has been calling my number at work by mistake for about the last year. I’m thinking maybe you should check his speed dial and see if the number saved there is correct.

“Of course, I don’t mind hearing from him,” I end, and I leave my number. “Hmm,” he must think. “What a weirdo.”

That day, I didn’t hear back from son or father. But tomorrow is another day. Will I be surprised by the flashing red light again? After my long commute, I’m never quite prepared  when I open my office door.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

September 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm

An old-fashioned connection

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Most every morning for at least a year, the red message light has been blinking on my office phone as soon as I arrive at work from my commute. I’ve got to tell you that few people leave me messages in these texting, blogging, Facebooking and email days. So, a flashing red light on my land line at work always gives me a bit  of a rush. Nothing  like a potential emergency first thing in the morning to make me put down my Starbucks and grab a pencil and paper.

However, to my great relief and increasing chagrin, this message was always a wrong number. Not for me. Nothing to be done. I would simply forget it, but it turns out to be the same wrong number from the same old gentleman every few days with arbitrary consistency. No other messages for me. So, I grew increasingly worried and wary that this caller was  at death’s door with my number perhaps the last one he had energy to dial.

“Hello, it’s me,” he says in the most gravely of voices. “I really need your help. I need you to come see me. Call me back as soon as you can.”

You get a message like this a few times in a row, and you start worrying. I couldn’t call him back because his number was a main line and not an individual number. I’m thinking he’s in assisted living or in the hospital because of the weak sound of his voice. To make matters worse, he never leaves a name, and I can’t quite tell what he’s calling me. Is it Don, John or Tom? I have nothing.

And so it continues. Every few days with each day’s work erasing him from my mind. I forget about him, the light blinks, I overreact and it’s him again.

Eventually, I called in a second opinion from Thelma, one of my most can-do and level headed of co-workers. Where I can be a bit of an over reactor, Thelma typically is a careful responder. I thought she would put my mind at ease, and we could get on with our work. No further obligation on my part. But no.  Thelma was as devastated as me at the sound of this poor guy’s voice and his plea for help. She looked up the number and immediately found its link to a veteran’s home in Virginia. We are working in the Texas Medical Center and near the DeBakey VA Center, so we are thinking this is not a coincidence.

I know I’ve got very little to go on but have to do something. I call the main number. I get a really nice nurse or receptionist who spends a careful amount of time interrogating me to see if we can discover who this might be — calling my office number late at night and leaving increasing desperate messages. She takes down my information and phone number and promises to let the supervising nurse know or call me back for more help. I am somewhat relieved, especially when I go another month or so with no calls from the old gentleman. Again, work invades my mind and I forget.

Then, this week, it starts again. This time, though, the message is about “the game” and that he needs help with his television reception.  I know excellent reception for the big game is a huge emergency for most people, but I’m no longer overly concerned.

Then comes Friday. It’s about 2 p.m. , and my office phone rings. I answer and hear the same old gravely voice. Live for the very first time. Not on the recorder. I settle in like I’m speaking to an old familiar friend.

He’s shocked to learn he’s been calling the wrong number all these months. No, it’s not any trouble for me, I say repeatedly. I just want him to know so he can get the help he needs. No, he’s not disturbing me right now. Finally, we realize his finger has been slipping for one digit. He needs a zero and sometimes hits a one. I want to prolong the call for some reason. I want to know more about him, but he is so formal and old-fashioned. I draw it out as long as I can. I’m in Houston, I tell him. He’s surprised and intrigued. I talk about the weather. He continues to apologize; I repeatedly tell him it’s no bother.

I’m relieved. We’ve finally connected and taken care of business. Mystery solved. I won’t miss the flashing red light first thing in the morning, but I may miss the old gravely voice.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

September 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Thelma, Louise and Me

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You know you are in for a Texas-style road trip when it starts with the question, “Do you mind if I bring my gun?” Vinny and I always feel pretty safe on the Big City streets, but we are never ones to encumber our guests. Thus, we hit the much traveled road from Houston to Dallas for a weekend at my girlfriend’s ranch, only miles from the original Southfork for the TV series, “Dallas.”

All the law and order talk was highly appropriate for my travels north because the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex was the sight of this old cop reporter’s heyday. The towns and streets become places in my mind instead of places on the map. I revisit big stories, and, in my case, they were mostly murder and mayhem in a day when crime wasn’t so common place.

First inkling that I’m reliving my glory days is the big city of Ennis, Texas. I covered a man’s murder of his four young kids, his wife and then himself. Turned out he was a religious zealot who had become more and more introverted until he saw no way out. Sound familiar? Everything old is new again.

There’s always a small town near a big metropolitan area that becomes known as an easy place to stash your unwanted victims. Kennedale was that place when I was covering cops in the area. When I was at the Beaumont Enterprise, we had the nearby beach front for unsuspecting joggers to trip over a long dead murder victim. High Island comes to mind.

Nearby is Mansfield where I wrote a really fun story of the police chief. He was a legend in the cop shops during those days because he had solved a hit and run with good old fashioned detective work. At the scene of the crime, he picked up some pieces from a headlight and stashed them in an evidence bag. Only miles away, he was at a gas station, filling up and spotted a car that looked like it had been in a wreck. He took his chards of glass and fitted them perfectly into the broken headlight for an arrest.

Then, I’m in Arlington, my true stomping ground and one of the first suburbs where a huge mall was built. That’s where I attempted to solve the tragic murder of young Cheryl Calloway who already was a cold case when I moved to town. I spent weeks revisiting the clues and witnesses and wrote a beautiful story that I read over and over again in the classes I taught at University of Houston. I’m sure my students got tired of it, but I never did. It almost had a happy ending when I received a tip in the mail. “I know who killed that girl,” it read simply. I thought I’d solved the case, and so did the cops  . . . until the suspect passed a lie detector test.

The cops did give me credit for solving a diamond salesman’s murder. But first, they credited me with being a big pain in the ass. I was the only reporter who took a family’s story seriously and ran a missing person piece. As you CSI watchers know, no one gets serious about a missing adult. But this gentleman had gone missing with a trunk full of diamonds and it made for good headlines. When the story ran, a bartender spotted some familiar details from one of his regulars. The poor guy was found dead in a traditional unmarked grave, having been killed the day he’d gone missing.

Of course, I can’t tell stories of the olden days without thinking of the biggest crime ever in Dallas – the murder of John F. Kennedy by lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. On the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had a team of reporters revisit the event. My assignment was an interview with Marina Oswald Porter. I was the only reporter she spoke to that year, and we had a very brief but unforgettable chat. She reminded me that she was only 19 years old at the time her husband killed the president and then was killed himself. She had lived another 20 years by the time we spoke and was 39 years old.

“Who were you at 19?” she asked me. “How can you compare yourself today to that person?”

During my tenure in Dallas and Fort Worth, the old Texas School Book Depository building was the source of many news stories. Should it be demolished? Sold?  The subject was very controversial. Most folks wanted to put this terrible event in the past.

Historic minds prevailed, and it has now become the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. I recently revisited the finished site and was pleasantly surprised. I probably enjoyed myself because it is as much a tribute to the newspapers in the area as it is a record of the tragic events of the day. The exhibits weren’t gratuitous or political; it was a simple chronicling of a pivotal time in history. Those were the days when you could be proud to call yourself a newspaper reporter.

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September 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm