Back Stories

We had been driving up and down the rows of the airport parking lot for over 30 minutes. The other nine passengers had long since been left safely at their vehicles.  Clearly I would be the last one to leave the warm bus – dropped with a heavy bag into the dark night and minus 26 degree weather.  I was tired and hungry and knew I also would soon be freezing as my car had been sitting in that cold lot for over a week.  We couldn’t find my car. The bus driver had started out being pleasant enough but now even with his minimal English, it was obvious he was getting frustrated as he repeated  This row?  Your car?  It would have helped if I hadn’t lost my ticket stub but I wasn’t worried as I was so sure I had parked in the middle of the last row.  After the 4th time of slowly creeping past the packed cars and not seeing my Mazda, I was beginning to wonder.  It just wasn’t there.  We expanded the search to include more rows to no avail.  Finally he threw up his hands, called the lot office and we headed in.


After much head scratching and asking me over and over again if I was sure I parked my car in the last row, the light bulb was turned on in one attendant’s head as he asked what day I had parked my car and suddenly remembered the lot had since expanded, by moving the fence and adding 5 more rows.  It had also grown lengthwise by a third.  No wonder it felt so strange.  We all piled into the bus and found my little car waiting patiently in the 6th row from the end.


It had been a long week on the road working on a project that meant travelling every day and taking care of a group of 6 people who all had their quirks.  The logistics of the trip were my responsibility so I had to be on my toes arranging flights, hotels, renting vehicles, organizing meals and setting up interviews. To be honest, I was glad it was over and happy to be heading home to my dog Annie and Christmas preparations.  Part of my anxiety in trying to locate my car centered around Annie who was now long overdue for her dinner.  I told my dog sitter that I would be home in plenty of time to feed and take her out for a pee and poo, not expecting my plane would be late and my car lost.  Annie is usually fed at 6 and it was now well past 8.


I drove home as fast as I could on the icy streets, parked and hauled my bag into the house where a very anxious, pacing dog awaited.  No time for me to pee or change into warmer dog walking clothes, I just put on Annie’s collar and leash and headed back out the door.  As I was locking the front door, Annie began to bark like crazy and almost pulled me over on the slippery porch. Annie is not friendly to other critters and I mean not friendly.  I adopted her when she was two and have thwarted numerous fights in the eight years since – some started by her, some seemingly unprovoked, all scary.  I instinctively grabbed her before looking to see what the cause of her frenzy was.  On my front lawn and running towards us was a black lab on the loose.  The dog’s owner was at the front walk not looking too worried about the situation.  I called to him to please get his dog and he responded with don’t worry, he’s friendly.


-       Great but my dog is NOT friendly and that’s why she’s on a leash.

-       CALM DOWN.

-        Don’t tell me to calm down. GET YOUR DOG. Your dog is in MY yard.

-       Alright, alright.  CALM DOWN. Stop making a fucking big deal out of nothing.

-       PLEASE grab your dog before something happens.  I can’t hold my dog and control yours at the same time.

-       For Heaven’s sake, please RELAX.  (finally getting his dog)

-       AND please pick up your dog’s poo.

-       My dog did NOT POO in your yard.

-       Maybe not now but you NEVER pick up his poo.

-       What the hell are you talking about?  You are a fucking idiot!  What a stupid jerk!  I have NEVER EVEN BEEN HERE BEFORE!   Fucking bitch!


Still yelling and swearing up a storm and I mean really yelling and swearing, he turned with his dog and took some packages out of his old station wagon parked in front of my house, crossed the street and entered an apartment building. There was no space in his curses for me to respond.  I stood in the cold, stunned by the force of his words.


I headed off down the street trying to shake off the negativity.  I can’t remember anyone ever talking to me so badly.  As we pattered around the block however, I realized that even though he was a total jerk, I had been wrong to accuse him of the ‘poo’ thing and in the dark, had confused him with someone else.


Side story:  One block away lives a very arrogant man and his black lab Bob.  Everyone in the neighborhood is annoyed with this guy because since Bob was a pup, the owner has simply opened his front door and let Bob run free into our inner city streets.  We have rescued Bob time after time from near death.  He has been picked up by Animal Services often and many fines were pending.  On the rare occasions that this guy walks Bob, he leaves poo wherever it drops.  He simply doesn’t care about his neighbors let alone his dog. I had a run in with him one night months ago as I saw Bob poo next door and watched the owner walk away.  I called out to please come back and pick it up but he ignored me.  I wondered when I would run into him again and what I would say.


As I walked with Annie that cold December night, I thought about what I should do.  I was furious with the way I had been spoken to but kept coming back to the fact that I had been wrong and should take responsibility for that.  I finally decided that I had to admit my mistake.  Upon returning home, I grabbed a piece of easily seen orange paper and wrote a short confession:

“I am truly sorry.  I mistook you and your dog for a very similar dog and owner who live nearby.  The dog is a good dog but runs free and the owner never picks up after him.  I mistakenly thought you were him.  Have a Merry Christmas.”

I put my hastily scribbled note on the windshield of his old car, thankful I didn’t run into him and went to bed content at least that I had owned up to my error.  The next morning I took Annie out for her morning walk expecting to see my note crumpled or ripped into shreds and thrown on the ground.  The station wagon and my note were nowhere to be seen.  It was a beautiful winter day with blue sky and sun glistening on the snow.  When we returned home I noticed a corner of orange paper sticking out of my mailbox.

I often picture him on that frigid night, returning to his vehicle in the dark – with his black lab tagging along behind.  No doubt still mad at me, not the best state of mind to drive in winter.  His dog jumps in the backseat and as he opens the driver’s door, he sees a piece of orange paper tucked under the windshield wiper.  Still standing at the car door he takes off a glove, unfolds and reads my note, his breath a white cloud clearly visible by the light of the street lamp.  He stops, looking into the distance before getting into the car.  A few minutes go by without any movement and then he turns on the overhead light and searches for a pencil.  All anger has left and in its place is a decision to be vulnerable. Turning my note over, he writes a reply:

“I too am very sorry.  I just lost my  job along with a lot of money and since my dad died my dog has been my saving grace.  I’m more alone than anyone should be and Christmas has been the hardest time of year for far too long.  My outburst was selfish and uncalled for and I apologize.        You have a Merry Christmas as well.”

My heart stopped when I read his note.  All annoyance gone, relief flooded over me – relief that I had listened to my inner voice and written that note.  My small confession had opened a heart.  I still keep that note on my desk so that every day I am reminded of a cold night and a sudden clash between two strangers who then changed the course and power of an angry exchange. By being open and accountable, we were given a small and rare glimpse into each other’s story and came away with compassion.  


Tobacco Fund

Start Smoking.  Save Money.

An epiphany can’t be planned.  When you least expect it, something hits you and in some way changes you – spiritually, emotionally – and why not?, even practically.  I had one a few years ago, in of all places a gas station, while I was patiently waiting for my tank to fill.  I reached over to pat my dog Annie, and happened to glance up at a large advertisement pasted on the gas station window. Cigarettes.  $8.75 a pack.  Apparently this was some sort of ‘deal’.  I almost fell out of my car.  Being an ardent non-smoker,  I truly was not aware that a pack of ‘smokes’ had climbed so high.  Unbelievable.

I used to know how much cigarettes cost.  There was a time when I actually smoked occasionally.  It started years ago when I was living in Japan and was constantly surrounded by cigarette smoke -  in planes and taxis, waiting on train platforms, walking down crowded streets and of course, in any of the many bars, restaurants and karaoke joints.  I taught English at a well known language school where most of the teachers smoked and usually all at the same time.  Each hour we taught one on one for 50 intense minutes waiting for the bell announcing the end of the high pressured drills.  As soon as that bell rang,  all the teachers left their small classrooms and quickly headed to the equally small teachers lounge for the highly anticipated 10 minute break.  Almost everyone lit up and if you didn’t, you were smoking anyway.  Ten people greedily sucked away until another bell  sounded and everyone scurried back to nervously awaiting students.

At some point I decided it was impossible to fight so I simply joined in.  When I left Japan,  I became one of those annoying non-addicted smokers, the take it or leave it type.  I would smoke a cigarette a day for a week and then go 3 weeks without even thinking about one.  When I came to my senses and decided that I could not go around hating cigarette smoke while dragging away on the side, I jumped off the fence and landed on the side of reason.  Since that day, I confess,  I have been known to relentlessly nag my misguided friends who still have not seen the light.

Back to the gas station.  What struck me as so unbelievable on this cheery summer day, was that given the prices clearly printed in large hard to miss letters, a pack-a-day smoker was actually spending over 60 after tax dollars a week on the nasty little habit.  In my world, $60 is nothing to sneer at. To add to the initial shock,  I began to realize that most people I spotted smoking on the street, appeared to be pretty ordinary. They certainly did not look like they made any more money than I did.

Here comes the epiphany part.  I decided right then and there – if they can afford to smoke, then so can I.  The next day I went to my bank, opened a savings account and called it my Tobacco Fund.  I began saving up to smoke.

I decided I would not be a full blown ‘pack-a-day’ smoker.  Fifty dollars a week would be enough to keep my habit going.  Since that day, I have deposited $50 in my Tobacco Fund every week without fail.  It doesn’t matter how tight my budget is, I am irrevocably committed to my habit.

The best part is, even though I am saving up to smoke, I have absolutely no intention of ever again smoking.  All the money I save by not smoking, goes to whatever I want as long as it’s not rent, food or anything else considered essential.   My Tobacco Fund is in essence, my ‘mad’ money which when you think about it, is ironic since with all the knowledge about the ills of tobacco, one would have to be ‘mad’ to smoke.  Since opening the Fund four years ago, I have taken trips to London, Mexico and Cuba, bought a flat screen TV, and added to my wardrobe.  The Fund also pays for the upkeep of 4 rescued elephants in Africa, two donkeys in France and a manatee in Florida.  I plan to ‘adopt’ a parrot this year.  My Fund can be used for whatever my heart desires, as long as it’s not smoking.

In this world of financial advisors and a multitude of money saving schemes,  I highly recommend the consideration of a Tobacco Fund.  Or call it an Addiction Account and save for any number of addictions (no need for a list unless you’ve been living under a rock).  Not only will financial benefits be reaped, the gloat factor alone is a very strong incentive.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  Every week, I look forward to making that deposit.  It’s like having a secret; pulling one over on the smokers of the world, not to mention our tobacco-tax addicted government.  When I see one of my fellow citizens puffing away and realize how much money is being burned, I simply smile.