Sunday, May 01, 2005

Company Pictures

Off time. Rarely happens. I was sitting in my box reading Kerouac, wishing I could’ve seen New York City as he saw it, fresh out of high school. The wide-eyed wonder of it all. Wishing I could be there to walk the streets again, watching the people, just taking it all in. I’ve been to the Fat Apple twice, the virgin venture more satisfying than the second. How I loved it the first time. By myself, just walking, the diners, the delis, the restaurants, the subway stations, the buildings, Grand Central Station, Washington Square, Times Square. I can remember seeing the tops of the twin towers standing as sentinels as I walked the streets of Manhattan. Little did I know at the time how much my life would change when those two giants fell. Watching lovers, thieves, businessmen, bums, hookers, socialites, performers, and the working men, who keep the city pulsing in the background.

You walk into Times Square and you feel like you’ve walked onto the world’s grandest stage, where anyone with any sort of talent has an audience of thousands. A group of kids, on the sidewalk, actually posting the time to their next show, gathering the masses to watch their routine. I have to see it, I can’t pass it by, the crowd gathering, them waiting till just the right moment, attracting as many as possible without waiting too long, not long enough for any to become impatient and leave. And then they start. Damn, if they weren’t some of the finest entertainers I’ve ever seen in person or on the cathode tube. They were good and they knew it, and so did the crowd. They danced, all four of them, three boys and one girl, and they had an audience at least in the hundreds. They made some cash too, and not a small amount. I gladly forked my admission fee, content in my little investment.

No entertainment was needed to earn my compensation though. I’m a bum’s dream. Each one I pass. I don’t care if they’re professionals, making more money begging than if they had a 9-5. Why should I care. I cared about them for some reason. I’m a sucker. They’re naive little dream tourist, making myself feel better for giving. It really wasn’t so much as me wanting to make myself feel good. I was just paying my toll for passing through their lives. This was their land, their peace of the pavement, their little piece of existence, and my heart went out to them. What can I say? It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just something I couldn’t help but do. Some of them probably really needed help, so in that I was justified. Sometimes I would ask if they wanted to eat with me. They usually said no, which meant they probably just wanted the money for whatever it was they wanted money for. Whatever, spend it wisely.

Bums know me all over, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Vegas, San Fran, Charlotte, beach towns in Florida, and good ole New Yorky. I’m their poster boy for how to spot a sucker. Good, better than being the asshole that blows them off or worse yet, tried to give them some kind of speech as to why they should get a job and quit begging. They don’t know these people. Who the hell are they to tell them what to do. Do they know their situation? Do they know the problems they’ve had to face? No. And I didn’t either, but maybe some bum out there somewhere had a better day because he met me. That sounded arrogant. I don’t pretend to bring joy into the live’s of everybody I meet. But maybe they just felt better about mankind in general or the world after I passed them by.

One guy in D.C., I’ll never forget him. He was standing outside a Burger King, asking anyone entering or leaving if they could spare a few dollars. I could smell the sour whiskey wafting from his bearded face. Some people would reach into their wallet or handbag and place a couple of bucks in his hand without even looking at him, as if they were too disgusted, and just had to pay their debt to society for having such a blessed life. Screw that, look him in the eyes and see. I walked up to him, had my hand on the door of the burger paradise, looked him in his blood shot eyes, and asked him if he wanted something to eat. He seemed hesitant, like I was one of those guys, judgmental, not wanting him to spend my money on booze. I just thought the guy could use a decent meal. He said yeah. He wouldn’t come in with me though, oh well. What do you want? He didn’t care. Well, I’ll just get you what I’m getting. This seemed to suit him just fine. I ordered two double cheeseburger meals, one to eat in, and one to go. Walked to a table, sat my lunch down, and out the door I went to deliver my pity or whatever it was. He takes it without thanking. I didn’t care, I knew he appreciated it. I stood there a minute as he turned back to his duties, asking every passer by if they had some money to spare. He’s holding his lunch and Coke in one hand and realizes this sight might be bad for business. He then places the bag and the tall drink into the trash can sitting in front of him. I smile, noticing how gently he placed it in, not tossing it in, but placing it in. He sees a couple of well dressed women approaching. They look like they have money to burn. He scores a few bucks, waits for them to pass, and reaches back into the trash to reclaim his lunch, looking around surreptitiously to see if anyone has noticed. I noticed old man and it’s okay. He saunters off to find a place to eat his cholesterol filled lunch, and I walk back to mine, one in the same. Are we really that different? God doesn’t think so. I selfishly feel good about myself for providing this man a meal. Maybe ole Jacki Boy(Kerouac) was right. Maybe it was all for Vanity. I don’t know. But maybe that bearded bloodshot bum felt a little bit better that day too.

Anyway, I’m getting way off track here. I’m supposed to be talking about Iraq, not bums back home in America. Back to New York for a second. You just feel like the world is yours, if only for the brief time you’re there. I kept exploring, walking, wanting to see more. Oh, and the people. Man, the people were amazing. It’s probably the greatest place in the world to just watch people getting on with life. Most were nice too, even those plying the drug trade. One night, I’m walking alone down around NYU when a couple of guys approach me, hoping to sell a little narcotic. I don’t do the drug thing, never have, something about wanting to be able to tell my kids I never did. But it was cool just to talk to them. As they walk up, I ask them how they’re doing. They’re doing good, so good in fact they want to offer me some of what’s probably making them feel so good. “No thanks man, but thanks for the offer.” “No problem, you have a good night.” “Yeah, you too, see ya later.” And that was it, a nice little conversation with a couple of dealers on the street. ‘See ya later.’ They probably had a little laugh about that later. I always say that. My little niece used to say that to me whenever I left her house. I’d say, see ya later, and she would run jump in my arms and say it back. I guess I’m hoping I might. I wouldn’t mind seeing them again, seeing what they’re up to now. They probably noticed I wasn’t from around there. Maybe it was the accent, I don’t know. I’ve been told I don’t have an accent, even though I from the south. I definitely don’t have the whole native New York City accent though. Go walk around New York City at night by yourself. Look around, talk to strangers, breathe in the smells, ride the subway. You might enjoy it. I sure did. Glorious freedom, the exhilaration of exploring America, unsatisfied with the ordinary.

So I’m thinking of New York when someone comes a knockin’ on my door. “Hey, we have to be up at the company at 1700 for a company picture.” More insanity. Didn’t we come here to fight dammit. I want to fight. Give me a fight. I need it. Lord, once I’m in that fight, deliver me from it. A constant battle with myself. Wanting a fight, but wary of the chaos that usually ensues. Knock Knock. Come on in, I know you’re going to anyway. It’s Sgt. W. “Hey, you guys need to be up at the company at 1645 for a formation. We’re getting a company picture.” Really, I didn’t know. I could have sworn someone barged in here two minutes ago to tell us the same thing. Now it’s 15 minutes earlier. 15 more minutes of standing in the heat with all our gear on. 15 more minutes of mindless nothingness. 15 minutes that could be spent hunting terrorists. I joined the Army to fight, for my country, my family, freedom, for the people in those twin giants, the whole apple pie Norman Rockwell thing, not all this other crap. Waiting and waiting, when we could get there at 1700 and have plenty of time to wait around. It’s already 105 degrees outside in the shade. I have to prep a Bradley at 1900 for a mission at 2000, and now I have to stand around outside and wait for a company picture. Yee Haw.

I’m not complaining about the mission. Far from it. The missions are what drives me. Without them I’m trapped in my own personal episode of the Twilight Zone. Outside these gates’ lies my promised land. The land of opportunity, mystery, danger, exhilaration, sadness, happiness, joy, fun, misery, chaos, death, experience, life. You can be looking at the face of the devil, turn around, and witness God incarnate in some kid’s smile. You’re not truly living unless you’re outside these gates. Those gates may lead to hell, but they also lead to a little piece of heaven as well. They’re magical, forever changing, secretive, always hiding what lies on the other side. Inside the gates it’s cold, unfeeling, familiar, monotonous, boring, insane, ridiculous, tedious, demeaning, ordinary, formations, meetings, rules. Let me outside these walls and I’m back walking the streets of New York City, skiing in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, standing on the precipice of the Grand Canyon, driving down the Oregon coast watching the sun set over the Pacific, rafting down a river in northern California, riding a ferry through the waters of southeastern Alaska, looking out over the Snake River to the Grand Tetons, fishing off the Gulf coast, looking at a Monet in Chicago, seeing a ballgame at Fenway, playing football in front of 90,000 people, talking to a bum in D.C., walking down the aisle with my soon to be wife. You feel naked, but somehow secure at the same time. Sure it may be a little dangerous, but so is sitting idle, rotting into oblivion. Out there you can be somebody; soldier, friend, brother, photographer, humanitarian, lawman, writer, rock star, traffic cop, celebrity, guardian, prey, predator, savior. You can be some child’s hero, a terrorist’s executioner, or a legend. Outside the gates, anything is possible. Inside these gates, company pictures. Company pictures will kill me quicker than a RPG.

I close up Kerouac, trapping his words within the worn pages of a book that is damp from the sweat of my right leg, where it sits ready to be discovered again from the cargo pocket of my DCU’s, relieving me of the boredom during an especially drab part of some dreary day. Grabbing my gear, I heave it over my back, the weight pressing down on me, adding to the weight of stupidity that is already heaped upon our backs. I am a mule, a donkey, a jackass, whatever you want to call them. They’re everywhere in Iraq. Only the dogs outnumber them. I actually feel sorry for these silent animals. They sag in the middle from the sheer volume of crap placed upon their back. As if being loaded down like a cargo ship churning through the high seas isn’t enough, a passenger or two is usually added, making me wonder how their meatless legs hold up under the pressure. And they’re beaten, ‘Go faster you old donkey, go faster’. And they just take it, without expression, never complaining, resigned to their work and determined to get through another day, waiting for the eternal freedom that only death will bring them.

I join the others as we trudge up to the company, all of us laughing and making fun of the stupidity of it all. Guys interrupted from their naps, letter writing, reading, music, movies, sitting, freedom, all in the name of the dog and pony show that is a company picture. And what a dog and pony show it would have been had it actually happened. Our platoon gets up there first(imagine that, us worker bees) and proceed to move around like ants, preparing the backdrop to the eternal image. Getting humvees lined up in front of the company. Dress right dress. Parking them so close together that the poor drivers can’t even get out of the drivers side door. Grabbing some guns, putting them in the mounts. What’s an army picture with no guns? I guess an army picture with no guns. Anyway, there are some humvees that are painted desert tan, and some that are green. What to do? I don’t know, but apparently it takes someone with the intellect of Einstein to actually come up with a workable solution. Lets put two desert tans in the middle with the green ones on the outside. No, lets get rid of the green ones and borrow some more tan ones from another company. The green ones get the ax and are pulled away. Watch this, I know what’s going to happen. They’re going to change their mind. Yep, the green one is backed up again, retaining its original position. It’s now ten minutes past the hour. I’ve been here for 25 minutes. No picture, and it aint coming anytime soon. Finally the humvees are lined up in good order, a few inches separating each one. Time to wait some more though. Apparently not everyone is on hand for this momentous occasion. Can’t have that. Must wait on a couple of guys that should be arriving any moment now from R&R. Everyone takes off their gear, knowing this is going to last a while. My day is slowly slipping away. I had plans for these precious wasted minutes. Not to worry though, I’m getting a picture made.

We wait, trying not to complain but can’t resist. And then it happens. No, not the picture mister glass half full, not even close. Literally at 5:45, one hour on the dot from the time that we arrived, the platoon sergeant’s call everyone to gather round. With a knowing smirk on his face, Sgt. W tells us to go on to chow(as if that’s a reward), that the picture has been postponed for a while until everyone shows up. We trudge back to our boxes to unload the burdens on our back, walk over to the chow hall, and enter through its immaculate doors, feeling weak in the knees from the overpowering stench of grease. I grab a plate of food, sit down, decide I can’t bear to eat it, and get up to wait in the sandwich line. Not eating the food may have something to do with the fact that my plastic knife won’t cut the rock hard steak sitting on my plastic plate. There’s always sandwiches though, and salad. Eating healthy, something I’ve been trying to do lately. I have to, unless I want to run to the bathroom after every meal, which seemed to be the case whenever I ate the greasy stuff. I’m standing there waiting in line for my sandwich, wondering if maybe I should hurry, so as not to miss the glorious picture. Then I laugh at my anxiety, knowing there will be no picture today, it only makes sense. So I gobble up that turkey sandwich, savoring a little taste of home. There’s something divine in such a simplistic little sandwich. As I’m heading out the door I grab a Mountain Dew and stick in it my pocket, knowing I will need the caffeine later in the evening. Me and some other guy are walking back to our boxes to get our gear and notice a group of people walking back to their boxes with all their gear. I look at whoever it was and smile. “I bet you it’s been cancelled.” “Yeah, looks like it.” The picture had been cancelled. Who would’ve guessed it? Me and a lot of the other guys, that’s who. It only stands to reason that we would sit up at the company for an hour only to find out that the hour had been wasted like so many others. Don’t worry though, there’s always tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. Say cheese.


Anonymous stephen said...

wow. your stories continue to amaze me. keep it up

6:42 PM  
Blogger Sgt Cowboy's Girl said...

Isn't that the unofficial motto of the army? "Hurry up and wait."

10:46 PM  
Blogger MountainDad said...

I know it sucks getting a picture taken, but once that photo is in your hands you will cherish it for the rest of your life.....believe me!

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Victor from Fremont said...

Great New York story. Good god in heaven "hurry up n' wait" the only
sure thing in the army. Keep the faith Good Soldier. You got to be

11:52 PM  
Blogger Desultory Girl said...

I love that! "You can be looking at the face of the devil, turn around, and witness God incarnate in some kid's smile."

Ain't that the f'n truth. It really is bittersweet.

1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael, You've done it again. Another work of art. I love your blog!

CJ-Soldiers Angel

2:14 AM  
Blogger Huntress said...

I love walking through NYC inhaling the melodious cacaphony that is the Grey Lady's trademark, exploring every inch her. I am always amazed at how much I uncover and yet how much more there is discover within this beautiful city. NYC: freedom, life, vibrancy, an endlessly pulsating rhythm.

As much as I love, DC and Chicago, for each possess their own unique rhythm and HEART belong to NYC. I Heart NY!

Truth be told, my favorite time of the day to walk around NYC is between 4:30am and 6am.

THe city is at its quietest pulsating but quietly, more calmly, people are either beginning or ending their day...but for the most part...the smells, the sites, the sounds, all bear a slight difference....its that breatking point just before the cacaphony begins.
THere is something magical about the NYC at that time.
I can't describe it...but there is a tingly sensation in the air..some kind of anticipatory energy...that I pick up on during that time as I walk through the city, alone, a tall hot soy chai tea latte from Starbucks in my hands.

This blog entry brought all that flooding back to me...

This entry is my favorite!
As usual your writing is evocative, it fills the senses.

Stay safe!

6:14 AM  
Blogger Chevy Rose said...

My son hated going for high school sports picture in his football gear, he thought it was all a waste of time. Now 25 yrs later I'm glad to have them. Stay safe and press on.

10:09 AM  
Blogger devildog6771 said...

You know Michael, I went to New York several times myself. Everything you said was true.

I rode with a friend on my first visit. When we came out of the tunnel and entered the "city" I was awe struck. My first thought was "my God" how does anyone live here. It's wall to wall buidings and they seemed to reach to the very heavens. But as we continued our drive everything became so fascinating.

Then we proceeded on our journey to Brooklyn. It was beautiful. Granted there were a lot of houses, all looking the same except for the individual landscaping and colors of their trim.

I couldn't see too much because it was just getting dark. My friend took me to meet her family and they welcomed me like a long lost friend.

My whole visit was so much fun and so eye opening for a Virginia girl like myself. I went to a grocery store on "stilts" on the water.

My friend's family was "old country " Italians. Every morning her dad walked to the corner bakery and bought fresh bread and other freshly made items. The meals were huge and also very Italian. I loved!

My first subway ride was crowded but fun. But, it did remind me a little of the cattle cars the "Corps" used to take us places.

It wasn't until many years later that I got to go to the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers, and the Empire State Building. I also had fun on 42nd street. I would not have missed those sights for anything, especially the Statue of Liberty.

I wish I had your gift with words. Mine don't do the sights justice. But just reading your story brought it all back again. It was such a wonderful time and a welcome diversion from everyhting at the base at Quantico. Thank you for that wonderful trip down memory lane. It made me feel young again!

2:14 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I've never been to NYC. Amazing, huh? Boston is cool, but still freaks me out. Cities bring that out in me. I love to observe. It's what I do. Your blog, so well written, and I can see for miles, and miles, and miles.

4:00 PM  
Blogger remoteman said...

Your descriptions of needing to get outside on patrol echoed those of another mil blogger I read. It is, apparently, not a good thing. You might want to read some of the comments posted to his almost identical description of the feeling:

You write beautifully. Keep it up. It will help you deal with the stress.

6:29 PM  
Anonymous MIDN Woods, USN said...

Hurry up and wait...that's the truth brother...I can tell you it's the same in the Navy. When dealing with the tedious stuff in the military, the best we can do is to "do everything without complaining and disputing" Phillipians 2:14 and make the best out of the situation.

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Believe it or not I am an American who has never been to NY. It is so close yet so far away. Your words are so poetic. I can almost put myself there. I was thinking though don't be so ready to leave the boring unless you are trully ready for the exciting. It is not at all what your expecting so please be careful. God Speed Soldier.

12:24 PM  
Anonymous membrain said...

Great New York story reminds me of my first vist. Great writing as usual. As for the Army? FUBAR as usual LOL.

3:56 PM  
Blogger said...

You can obviously write...Check out for another outlet for your stories...It is specifically targeted at soldiers like you.

8:44 PM  
Blogger strykeraunt said...

I love the group pictures and now feel so guilty that my joy comes at such a great expense. Its funny, while I was reading about positioning the humvees and how they decided to take out the green ones, I was thinking to myself, no bring them back the picture will look so much better...then you said they changed their minds and decided to bring back the I sit all alone in the house laughing out loud!!!! Sorry:D

10:26 PM  
Blogger Wluvsacop said...

As a New Yorker sitting here in the Ritz Carlton for some R&R, with the love of my life quietly sleeping... I took a trip into your site. What a wonderful story, and what great admiration we both have for all of our men & women serving in Iraq & eslewhere. I thank you dearly for your valour & wish you all safety. Before 9/11, NY didn't have the best reputation; but the whole country felt the pain we all felt, & know that this beloved country backed us & have changed their view of this wonderful state. We are truly all one. Felt a sense of pride reading this, & others statements. New York is the most wonderful place in the world! NYC will always remain "the city that never sleeps". You will NEVER be bored here...even if our accents are a little "different"..we don't think they are! Smile. New York does NYPD & FDNY...and MOST of all, our brave military. My brother is in military over-seas as well. "Soundly Sleeping" is a Sgt. on the NYPD, & I have 3 bros. on the FDNY, whom I love with every fiber of my being. We truly, truly love New York. Thank you all for giving this New Yorker a warm & proud feeling & a feeling of support from fellow Americans. Stay safe...above all else. God-speed...& let your fellow comrads know that America is indeed very, very proud and owe you a huge "thank you". Dianna

2:31 AM  
Blogger Army Wife said...

great outsiders veiw of New York, It is on my list of places to visist. Thanks for the mini tutorial.

As for the picture, in 15 years you will be glad you have a copy.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Toni said...

I agree with StrykerAunt. I do love those pictures. Had no idea there would be so much rigamarole involved to get the photo.

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Harbormaster said...

I'm a small town midwesterner who, when much younger and less adventurous, has been to NYC a couple of time. I would sit in my hotel, open the windows and listen to the city. Best entertainment around.

And your entries are excellent. My only wish is that I could be beside you over there to see it all unfold. But I think your words do an exceptional job of describing it for the rest of us....

Thanks for what you and all the others are doing over there.

7:52 PM  

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