The Valley heat will drive you mad if you let it. Occasionally the summer will present you the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the weirdest people in the world – from Wal-Mart parking lots to country roadsides – and the range of miscreants, tweekers, and weirdos in the 209 never ends. Most of us have become a bit desensitized by their activities. We see them and hurriedly shuffle past, avoiding eye contact at all cost but sometimes the offer of diving into the public pool of life, and swimming a few laps with these types, is just too enticing. Here is one such encounter.
Last Saturday afternoon I was headed to my 4-year-old niece’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese in Modesto. I had arrived early in hopes of tackling the Mrs. Pac-Man high score. As I made my way through the parking lot, one of “them” made an approach. He closed the gap between us with a panhandler vibe. Like many in this situation, I practiced my pre-panhandler routine internally, “Just politely say ‘No, sorry’ Chris, and continue walking…”The exchange was typical, “Hey man I need gas money, can you...” — I hit him with the “No Sorry” before he could finish, and kept moving but before I could escape earshot, I was blindsided by what may be the greatest question I’ve ever been asked.
Offer to sell stolen
toboggan in the
heat of summer
“Hey Bro, you wanna buy a stolen toboggan?” he asked – fidgeting and avoiding eye contact – in a tell-tale tweeker manner.
I froze like a deer in headlights. Do I look like a man that wants to buy a toboggan? Does he realize it is the middle of summer in the Valley? Why announce it is stolen? Is this some new tactic being taught at Tweeker Sales Camp? How awesome is this toboggan? Just keep walking Chris but there was only one thing on my mind this day: “Man, I really want a toboggan.”
My mom likes to remind me of a story involving a 5th grade parent/teacher conference. My teacher Mr. Cooley informed my mother “Your son is by far the most intelligent kid in his class. He is unfortunately by far the least smart” and on this day, I would not let Mr. Cooley’s words down.
“Is the toboggan sweet?!” I replied. This is a horrible way to begin the parking lot barter game – I’ve already tipped my hand that I’m overly interested. Not to mention the “stolen goods” factor is looming large over this possible transaction. I asked if it was really stolen, in some veiled attempt to appease my inner Catholicism – of course it is stolen Chris! His reply of “It’s actually my mother’s” really threw me for a loop. Is he saying it isn’t stolen or the fact that he stole it from his mother somehow lessens the crime? I couldn’t decide if his absolute candor was refreshing or revolting. In either scenario, I was certain of one thing – his mom is highly disappointed in his life to this point. His decision to become a Parking Lot Toboggan Salesman bolstered this opinion.
We began the walk towards his 1989 Chevy Astro Van. Has there ever been an instance in the history of mankind, that approaching a stranger’s van in a Chuck E. Cheese parking lot has turned out good? But I was blinded by his attire – and may have been hypnotized by its awesomeness. He was wearing a jacket in the middle of summer. What is it that makes Tweekers wear nothing but tank top and shorts in the Winter – but come Summer – it’s parka time? And that isn’t even the awesome part. The jacket was of the vintage 80s baby blue satin Houston Oilers variety. Paired up with his acid washed jeans, he cut an impressive swath needless to say. I couldn’t help myself, “Dude you sure you have a toboggan, and not a Delorean? Did you time travel to get here?” His quizzical look, and reassurance that it was indeed a toboggan scared me. Did he not get my “Back to the Future” movie reference? How am I supposed to trust a man dressed like this, if he can’t at least keep up with a basic pop culture reference?
My cousin Jiana Riella Boudreaux sees me and approaches, “What are you doing?” Our eyes locked, as they have many times before in these situations – and she knew just what to do — “Ok I’ll see you inside” as she kept on moving.
Discussing My Little Pony
collectibles with tweaker
outside Chuck E. Cheese
At this point Toboggan Jim asks “What’d you get her?” He could sense my confusion at the question, and pointed at the bag in my hands. I’d forgotten the pink My Little Pony birthday bag I was carrying —the perfect accessory during the possible commission of a petty crime. I answered “Applejacks”. (Applejacks is one of the many in the My Little Pony Collection). He wanted to know why not “Rainbow Brite”? I was 10 seconds into my explanation that there were no Rainbow Brites left at Toys ‘R Us, when the surreal nature of this conversation hit me. Why am I discussing the My Little Pony line of toys with this man? I expected Alan Funt to pop out of the van and ask me to smile.
Toboggan Jim opened the rear van door, and there it was – the coolest looking toboggan I’d ever seen! Except for one thing. It was not a toboggan, but a sled. No ordinary sled though. It was old, and in incredible shape. Looked just like the one from the movie Citizen Kane. Certainly not something that should be peddled from the back of a van. My great grandpa made it in the 30’s I think” he uttered...and that’s when morality and guilt hit me in the face like a freight train.
“Your great grandpa made this and you’re selling it?!”His demeanor stiffened as he returned fire “Dude who the **** are you to judge me?!” And he was right. After all, there I was standing at the back of the same Astro Van, in the same parking lot. But as I turned to walk away I couldn’t help myself, “By the way, that’s a sled, not a toboggan.” He gave the same quizzical look I’d given earlier, so I felt it fair to give an explanation.
“Like the one from the movie Citizen Kane” I said – at the same time realizing this is a terrible reference for a man that couldn’t keep up with my earlier Back to the Future line. I found myself paused in the moment, for some reason I felt it necessary to close this conversation with the name of the sled from Citizen Kane – but was drawing a blank and as I searched my mental Rolodex for the answer, he blurted out “Oh yeah ‘Rosebud’, the sled the old man had as a kid.”
The impact of meth
What just happened?!! My mind shattered into a million pieces. This guy can’t follow a Marty McFly reference – but drops Charles Kane knowledge matter of fact I had to ask. “You know Citizen Kane, but not Back to the Future?”
He explained to me that his mom was a professor, and he grew up in a strict home – no television or movies. “No movies? Then how did you know ‘Rosebud’?” I asked.
“I read the book” he said.
And that is when my heart sank. In that moment realizing what a horrible drug meth is. How does someone end up this way? He grew up in the home of a professor he proclaimed, more than likely being taught the importance of education. Now here he is in a Chuck E. Cheese parking lot attempting to sell a family heirloom. I’m surrounded by friends and former schoolmates having their lives destroyed by this same drug. I make flippant jokes about it from the stage and in mixed company but moments like this leave you with a sick feeling, one that paws at you for the rest of the day.
Meth is unfortunately the one thing all humans should strive to be: It isn’t racist, Sexist, or homophobic. It doesn’t judge by age or social class. It doesn’t make its decisions based on CNN or Fox News.
It just destroys lives. Unapologetically.
For the record, I still don’t own a toboggan – or a sled for that matter but I refuse to slide belly first down the hill of life, like I see many doing these days. So I will keep searching Valley parking lots until an honest Toboggan Salesman shows his face.
“It’s not Where ya do, It’s What ya do”