Unorthodox Angles/Andrew Gramling


Tales Across Time: The Challenges Keep Getting Bigger Part 1

ll of the driving I had been doing began to wear on my little blue Tercel. The front right brake pads had worn down to the point where they crumbled into dust. Despite living in a neighborhood full of drug dealers and killers, I actually felt more comfortable here on Gilmore Avenue than most other places I had been in Florida. I wasn’t looking around the parking lot nervously as I jacked up my vehicle and prepared to change brake pads.

Jimmy, who I regarded as the neighborhood king, saw me attempting to change brake pads and volunteered to do it for me without me even asking. It took him about five minutes and the operation was done. I felt that I should show my gratitude with an equal gesture of kindness.

Jimmy, you wanna go to the store?” I asked.

“OK!” Jimmy said with zero hesitation.

I drove Jimmy down to the corner market, now that it was safe to do so with the new brake pads. I let Jimmy walk around the store and pick what he wanted. To my surprise, all he picked out was a 40 ounce bottle of Natural Ice.

A lot of people stereotype the hood and think absolutely nothing good comes from it. I actually met some decent folks here, including Jimmy. The man runs the show around here, makes hooligans tremble in fear, yet pledges his protection to me and offers to fix my car without even being asked, and takes very little in return when offered.

There was also a woman probably in her late forties who often sat in a chair at the end of the balcony. I would talk to her sometimes and she often had wise words. Of course there were characters like the cop-killers who lived across the street on the side of our apartment complex.

One day I was walking by myself in the parking lot not far away from their house. Suddenly I hear from behind me, “Hey, buddy.” I turned around and there were about four of them on the front porch standing there, staring at me and waiting for my response. The wrong move could offend them and invite disaster, or being too friendly could cause them to see me as prey and invite an equal amount of disaster. My 21 year-old brain only had a split-second to come up with an appropriate response before I took suspiciously too long. I waved to them without saying anything while lowering my head slightly, turned back around, and kept walking back to my apartment.

I think it worked, because they didn’t say or do anything else. If those guys kill cops, then what are they going to do when they have a guy like me in their sights? They would fit in with everyone else around this region that was trying to kill me. Sadly, I was almost becoming used to people trying to kill me, like it’s just another day. That didn’t mean I was eager to get into that kind of situation, though.

One of my neighbors who lived a couple of doors down was out on the balcony at all hours of the day talking to himself and making himself laugh, even at 2:00 in the morning!

“Who are you talking to?” I once asked him.

He pointed across the parking lot to an opposing apartment complex.

“Those people are messin’ around over there,” he said.

I don’t know how he was aware of anything anyone that far away was doing, especially when nobody was even visible. I suspected it was some kind of paranoid delusion, or maybe he really was picking up on something that most people wouldn’t be aware of. I can’t say I don’t know what that’s about.

One night, the man was walking around in the parking lot by himself. Scooter, who was basically the neighborhood clown, took the opportunity to make fun of the unsuspecting man who was not completely aware of what was going on around him.

“Ay, big chunky! Ay, big chunky!” Scooter hollered at the man, but he received no response at all.

“Man, he gonna come over here and whoop yo ***!” Anna, another neighbor of mine said.

Anna kept staring at him as he was aimlessly wandering around the parking lot at a slow pace.

“He look like his booty stank…” Anna said.

I started laughing because I didn’t know there was a “look” associated with that.

Anna was a single mother of one child. There was a time when she was worried that her ex-boyfriend was going to pay her an unwelcome visit, and she seemed terrified. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I told her I would guard her door.

That night, I spent much of the night sleeping on the ground at the end of the balcony with my sword I had bought from Merlin’s Bookstore like it was The Middle Ages or something. I guess I was getting acclimated to this rough zone with little reference to my life back in Wisconsin. Dangerous Florida had changed me. Here people’s tempers were quick to explode. I wasn’t a fan of that behavior, but I was prepared to match the heat when necessary. If you’re in people’s crosshairs anyway, running isn’t really much of an option.

Sometimes people don’t like getting what’s coming to them. A week or two later, Scooter came by the apartment building complaining about three girls at McDonald’s who were harassing him for no apparent reason.

“Y’all don’t know me well enough to be talkin’ to me like that!” he said while summing up the situation in front of us.

They didn’t seem to care, just like he didn’t seem to care about calling the man, “Big chunky” the other week. Karma just does its business. It’s not about knowing someone well enough or caring. It’s impartial, and it shows us what we are actually doing rather than what we think we’re doing.

Speaking of McDonald’s, my neighbor Rusty, who knew how to keep out of trouble and was a decent guy to talk to, came running up to the apartment building in a panic. I knew he had plans to take a bus to move to New Jersey soon, and he had stored some of his things in our apartment, but he looked really panicked and distressed and was sweating.

“Hey, Rusty, I got your stuff! Let me get it all back to you!” I said.

“Forget all that stuff! Just give me my suitcase!” he desperately insisted.

I went back into the apartment, grabbed his suitcase, and gave it to him. He hurried off, almost forgetting to say goodbye, but he turned around to say his farewell and rushed off, presumably to the bus station.

The reason I said “Speaking of McDonald’s” is because Rusty had been working at the McDonald’s just up the street, the same one where Scooter had his little incident with the three girls. Rusty really seemed to hate his job. I could understand if it was anything like working at Ryan’s. Who knows? It could’ve been even worse than Ryan’s.

The next day after Rusty left, the news reported that the McDonald’s that Rusty worked at burned down the night he left. I thought between him hating the place and his very rushed exit, it seemed a bit suspicious. I wasn’t going to say anything, though, because nobody asked.

At Ryan’s, it was still as competitive as always. I heard that manager Steve and Pokie raced outside and somehow Pokie won. Steve was a big athletic guy who often went jogging, and Pokie, while not incredibly short, definitely had a round body type and didn’t appear to be much of a cardio man. Pokie then challenged me to a race out back.

“Don’t give him any head start,” Steve cautioned me.

We went out back by the dumpsters. Verne, the meat cutter from Haiti, manager Paul, and James, the cousin of Scott, the line cook that nobody liked, came outside to watch. Pokie took his position next to me.

“Can I get a little head start?” Pokie asked.

“OK,” I said.

I figured I’d beat him easily, so why not give him a chance.

One of the others told us when to go. We both started running. I looked ahead at Pokie. I expected to pass him instantly, but he took off running as fast as me.

“Whoa!” I said as I put in extra effort, realizing I had severely underestimated Pokie.

Pokie was the first to cross the imaginary finish line. I was thunderstruck as we walked back.

“What happened???” I said.

“He beat you,” Verne said plainly and simply with his somewhat quiet voice, and he walked back inside.

Verne worked all by himself most of the day in the meat-cutting area and didn’t have to deal with the drama, hence his laid back nature. He wasn’t to be mistaken for a meek individual, though.

“I told you not to give him a head start!” Steve said.

When asked what happened when he raced Pokie, Steve said it was like a fishing line that was slowly being reeled in the way he was gaining on him. I wasn’t satisfied with the loss, so I challenged Pokie to a rematch.

Pokie actually showed up, knowing that he wasn’t going to be given any advantages anymore. He had tennis shoes on and I had black work shoes on, so I took them off and prepared to run barefoot. When they told us to run, I burst ahead of Pokie, but Pokie caught up to me a short moment later. At the end, though, they said I won.

I paid a high price. It felt like my feet were burning. I sat down on the smoking chair that was out back and looked at my feet. The skin on the bottom of both of my feet was torn off!

Steve was mad about losing to Pokie. He drew a picture of him on a small piece of paper with an S on his chest and called him “Super Fatz.”

“He’s the fastest fat man at Ryan’s,” Steve said begrudgingly.

Steve didn’t hold back on insults. He had a supreme way of getting underneath people’s skin, and he loved doing it.

“Steve’s an a******,” Allen, one of the servers, said about him.

Allen was kind of a fast-moving, wheeler-dealer gambler type. He and Steve were always talking like wing men in the buffet area as Allen would hardly pause for even a moment as he rushed from table to table and to and from the dishwashing area.

Steve made a lot of people mad. There was a younger dishwasher, about 18 years old, named Chris who was often walking around the dish area sulking and would occasionally say things like, “Imma bout to drop somebody!”

“What are you so upset about,” I asked him once.

“Steve…” he said.

Chris didn’t work long at Ryan’s and disappeared suddenly one day. I wasn’t sure if he left because of Steve or not.

Steve made fun of me when manager Dennis called me up the day after the race and asked me if I wanted to take the evening off to let the skin on the bottom of my feet heal a little, since a whole layer got peeled off and it hurt pretty badly to walk. He didn’t spare anyone.

On a Saturday morning, Eric came into work still drunk. He was hanging on one of the meat cutting machines with a silly look on his face and slurring his words. Other people were gathered around him, listening to his foolishness.

“I might have to put Eric on the floor if he gets out of line,” Steve said quietly to me as we looked across the hallway at an unsuspecting Eric.

It’s always interesting when managers behave this way toward employees.

And his behavior didn’t get any better. One afternoon, as I just finished my shift and was in the break room, Steve walked into the break room from the kitchen with Eric following behind him.

“You can’t be me, Eric. There’s only one me,” Steve said with his exaggeratedly loud voice that was slightly high-pitched.

I laughed into one of my hands. Steve walked over to me quickly.

“Don’t you wanna just take him and…” he said as he made the action of snapping my neck.

I pushed Steve back with one hand.

“You better watch it!” I said.

Steve was looking to the side, slightly off-balance.

“You wanna go outside?!?” he said and pointed.

“OK,” I said and took off my apron, looked him straight in the eyes, and walked towards the front door of Ryan’s, win or lose.


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