Thursday, 27 July 2017

Cats' Breakfast


It was my fault - my idea, so I only have myself to blame. I don't recall how many cats we had at the time, but it was a good few less than we have now. They'd been living on dry food because that was how Bess had done it since before we were married. I'd raised an eyebrow, vaguely recalling something about cats fed on dry food alone having medical problems, possibly something to do with a brand inanely named Cupboard Love; but it turned out that I was remembering something from back in the eighties. Dry cat food had come a long way since then, so it turned out; plus there was the advantage of being able to fill a cat feeder and it being good for a couple of days, with cats eating just when they felt like it.

Yet something about this system felt wrong, and it was hard to ignore the detail of how excited the cats would get when I bought them the occasional tin of food as a treat.

'I'm going to start giving them a regular breakfast,' I announced one day. 'Same time every morning. I don't mind getting up to do it.'

My logic was that firstly it would be fun for the cats, giving them something to look forward to; and if they'd been outside during the night, it would provide an additional inducement to come home, hopefully reducing the occurrence of anyone vanishing for a couple of days at a time. Also, the more varied diet would probably be good for them, and we'd save on bags of dried food.

So now it's a regular thing, part of my routine; and I like routine because it means you get things done without having to think about them, freeing up the day for more important stuff.

I wake at any time between six and seven, rarely later. If it's summer, it will be light. If it's winter, it will be getting light. If any of the cats stayed in during the night, usually they'll be waiting outside the bedroom door, or Jello will already have forced the bedroom door open. Only Jello and Kirby seem to have this ability, although to be fair the locking mechanism of the bedroom door is crap, so all it really requires is a good, hard push.

I get up, throw on a robe, take a leak and then enter the front room. Occasionally Fluffy will have either produced a hairball or else laid an egg during the night, so I usually deal with that before anything else, if necessary. Fluffy isn't keen on the litter tray, despite that it's kept clean, and all the other useless advice you'll find on the internet when Googling why does my cat keeping taking a dump on the rug? Online wisdom suggests that he poos in protest, but none of us can work out what might have prompted him to express his reservations in this way. He has a pretty easy life, all things considered. I suspect he simply dislikes the litter tray and would otherwise prefer to use the facilities outside.

So I enter the front room, and if there's no damage control to be undertaken, I throw open the front door. This means Fluffy can go and take a dump in a bush if he needs to, and Snowy is usually sat on the garden path awaiting breakfast. Where once I'd step outside and call out their names, now I simply leave the door open and let Grace, Holly, and occasionally Kirby arrive in their own time, not least because Grace has usually found her way up onto the roof during the night and sometimes needs a bit longer.

I go to the kitchen and arrange seven metal bowls on the counter, then open the back door and let Nibbler in, and sometimes Jello if he's been outside during the night. By this point I usually have the full complement of seven cats marching around the front room or in and out of the kitchen, and the meowing can be deafening. Snowy is always right up on the counter top, quite happy to be fed directly from the tin. I've tried to find some way around this, so as to enable me to at least open tins in peace, but there isn't one, so Snowy gets first dibs - an entire five ounce can to herself because she has twice the appetite of everyone else.

It's probably a good thing in certain respects. She went missing earlier in the year, and we found her twelve weeks later trapped in the garage of a neighbouring house which had been unoccupied for some time. She'd somehow survived three months in isolation without regular food and water. She was the weight of a newspaper when I picked her up, which was kind of horrifying, but has nevertheless since fully recovered. We assume she must have caught mice or cockroaches or something, but she probably had a bit of stored fat on her side too.

Once I've shaken the hockey puck of food into Snowy's bowl, I put the tin down on the kitchen floor. It gives Jello something to think about and keeps him from joining Snowy on the counter top whilst I fill the other bowls. It's all a bit like juggling, but by this point I can do it in my sleep.

Fluffy, Nibbler, Grace, Holly, and Jello each get the contents of a three ounce can. I can usually shake these out, then convey the five bowls to different parts of the front room in a single trip, which at last silences the chorus.

This leaves just Kirby, who gets Princess food because she's weird and highly strung. She'll eat what the rest are eating, and have no qualms about finishing off abandoned bowls, but for some reason you have to start her off on Princess food, which is a fancier, marginally more expensive version of what everyone else is eating and comes in a sachet. It would be annoying, but I'm used to it.

Kirby came to us as a kitten which some friend of my wife had rescued from an unpleasant neighbour. The unpleasant neighbour had taken three tiny kittens from a feral cat, declared them guilty of having been born in her yard, and then left them to die in a metal bin with the lid on beneath the scorching Texas sun, because that's the sort of thing unpleasant neighbours do. Anna heard the cries, rescued the kittens, and then found it in herself to not drive her car back and forth over the head of the unpleasant neighbour, which is what I would have done under the circumstances. Anyway, the point is that Kirby had a seriously rough start, and then suddenly she was our cat and I was her Daddy; and I'm still Daddy all these years later. She follows me around the house. She sits and watches me, waiting to see what I will do. When I look around, usually Kirby is there. At times it drives me nuts, but there's not much point getting pissy about it, given that she's a cat; and I suppose I should be flattered.

I fill Kirby's bowl, convey it to the hall, and pull the door closed so that she gets the required couple of minutes to eat without interruption, because the rest have usually taken to a game of musical bowls by this point.

Then comes phase two.

All the while, a group of five or six strays will have been waiting outside our back door. This is also my fault. It began shortly after I began providing a regular breakfast for our cats. There would always be some food left uneaten, so I took to leaving the bowls outside the back door for the benefit of passing strays, of which there were a couple, specifically a couple who told their friends.

Feral cat populations will tend to stabilise, rarely exceeding a certain number of cats per colony, and you can look it up online if you don't believe me. So far as our back yard is concerned, and keeping in mind that we already have seven cats, that number seems to be about six, although it recently dropped to five when Garak stopped showing up.

Garak was a slightly elongated cat from a house at the end of the street. He wasn't actually a stray, but was nevertheless happy to help out at breakfast time.

Don't mind if I do, he seemed to say as he sauntered onto the porch each morning. For the sake of calling him something more personal than that one over there, Junior named him Greenie after a lame character in something called Maze Runner. The name Greenie implied a new arrival and this cat had just showed up, so there it was; but I wasn't going to call him Greenie because I disliked the name, and Maze Runner sounds rubbish, and when the boy has emptied his first litter tray, maybe then and only then he gets to decide what we're going to call those cats he occasionally notices over the top of his iPad. Anyway, this cat looked like a Lester to me, so that's what I called him until a neighbour informed us that he already had a home and was known as Garak, presumably after the Cardassian tailor from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Garak was fine by me, because somehow the cat really did resemble the character played by Andrew Robinson.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Garak simply stopped showing up - although I've seen him out and about a couple of times since so I know he's okay - and the b-team now comprises just Gary, Mr. Kirby, Charlotte, and the Gus sisters. These are the strays I feed, although technically Gary isn't a stray either. He lives at a house at the opposite end of the road to the former residence of Garak, but his owner is deranged and calls him Fat Cat, presumably because he's huge and fluffy and she doesn't have much imagination. I call him Gary because he's large and not very bright and is always hanging around whenever I open the back door, much like Gary my neighbour from when I lived in London, whom I miss.





Charlotte is a Siamese cat, named after my wife's stepmother, the one who was niece to Johnny Cash.

The Gus sisters, whose obvious affection for each other suggest that they're almost certainly related, are named as such due to their shared resemblance to the late Gus, short for Asparagus.

Mr. Kirby is a stray we first noticed when searching for Kirby, who briefly went missing. We noticed him because he resembles our Kirby quite closely, but for his possessing a massive pair of knackers. Like his female counterpart, his black on grey stripes divide into spots in places, suggesting some Bengal heritage, and unlike our Kirby, he makes a hooting noise in lieu of a meow.

So, with the indoor cats fed I step out onto the back porch to feed the rest, unless it's winter and not yet light. If it's still dark, there will usually be a couple of trash pandas hanging around in the hope of getting in on the act; and while I like trash pandas, they hustle the cats away from their food and have a habit of taking everything to the water bowl to wash it before they eat, which may sound endearingly weird or even cute, but gets a little annoying after a while given the state of the water afterwards.

Anyway, Mr. Kirby remains a little feral. I can stroke him when he's eating, but he will otherwise avoid coming too close if he can help it; and yet at breakfast he hoots away like I'm a long lost friend.

I have six bowls which I place on the glass table on which we keep pot plants in the corner of the porch. I have three of the five ounce cans and I divide the contents between the six bowls with a fork. Mr. Kirby gets the first one because he's usually right up there on the table. Then I give Gary a bowl, because even though he has a home - albeit one in which he may not be appreciated as is his due, judging by how he spends all of his time at our house - if I don't give him a bowl, he'll just nab one from someone whose need may be greater. Finally I set the other four bowls down, and the three girls watch and wait for me to leave before joining in. The fourth bowl was originally for Garak, but now serves as a spare. As I go back inside, Nibbler usually slips past me in search of further gastronomic variety, and so the fourth bowl means everyone gets to eat.

This done, I make my toast and coffee and go back to bed to read for a while. Some days it's a pain in the arse, but it never takes longer than ten minutes, and even on a bad day it brings a great sense of satisfaction as I watch them happily stuffing their faces.

So now you know.


Thursday, 20 July 2017

Get at Me, Dog


It's about seven in the evening, still light, and we're watching King of the Hill. For the past half hour I've been dimly aware of a dog barking, although it's more like yapping because it's a small dog. There are dogs around here, mostly spread out in an assortment of yards so we hear rather than see them. One of them gets to barking and they all join in and it becomes background noise, something you no longer notice after a while; but I notice it now because it's on our porch, right outside our front door.

'That arsehole,' I mutter as I get up.

I suppose it's a stretch to say that we live in the 'hood, but at times you could be forgiven for thinking so. By zip code we're in the affluent part of the city, except we're in the crappy, run down corner, which suits us just fine. It's affordable, and we don't have to look at no socialism signs stuck in anyone's lawn, or have doctors, lawyers and dentists complaining to the city about the state of ours. More obnoxious relatives tend not to visit, possibly for fear of some neighbour stealing their hubcaps, so it all works out quite nicely. On the other hand, we get to be neighbours with Shooty the drug dealer. He's a young man living at home with his family and certain social issues meaning that he doesn't play well with others. He's been inside the stripey hole for something or other, but now he's toned it down, just selling the occasional baggie to fellow enthusiasts.

Once he called out, 'Nice bike!' as I rode past.

Another time he asked if I'd like him to mow my lawn, which struck me as a stupid question given that I was myself in the act of mowing it when he made the enquiry.

That's been the full extent of our interaction, although I once helped his mother push her stalled car to the side of the road. She was intrigued by my displaced nationality and I had the impression she was taking the piss out of me, just a little.

A couple of years back Shooty supposedly shot someone in the head inside his own home. I guess they must have had a disagreement about something. The entire street was full of cops, and even a television news crew, but no gun was ever found. Everything returned to as it was before, except that now I had a nickname for the guy which saves me using the more nebulous those people qualified with similarly vague hand gestures.

Shooty has a dog, a chihuahua. He's had it for about a month. It roams up and down the road, just yapping away. It never seems to be inside his house. It's always there, sometimes yapping outside our window at two in the morning. Sometimes I see Shooty walking his dog, which just means that he walks alongside it as it covers its usual ground, up and down the road, yapping away. We have cats, so it's becoming more and more annoying.

'That arsehole,' I mutter as I get up and rush out onto the porch to chase it off. No-one fucks with my cats.

Shooty himself is there, stood at the end of our drive, stood on our drive. 'Good boy,' he says in his stupid sing-song voice. 'Good boy.'

He's a walking, or at least shuffling, cliché. He makes me think of Chico and the Man, although truthfully I barely remember the show. He's the racist beaner caricature of the stupid, simple Mexican who wobbles his head from side to side as he grins and admits I no know, Señor. It's a bit of a shock to realise that such people exist.

'Good boy,' he says as he watches his dog bark at the side of my house, as though this isn't something the dog would be doing regardless of his tutelage, like this is some fucking trick he's managed to teach his pooch. 'Good boy.'

How the fuck is that good?

I stand on the porch, arms spread like I'm Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood as Ferris drives past. It's a challenge. Get at me, dog.

'You maybe want to call him away - off my lawn,' I suggest kind of forcefully. I should probably be scared of this arsehole, but I just can't get there. I can't bring myself to respect this walking cliché; and besides, twenty-one years as a postman has made me pretty hard to kill. I can feel myself wanting him to start.

'He like to chase the cats,' Shooty explains happily, because like, liked, likes - that be some complicated shit right there. Ain't nobody got time for that.

'Yeah, I can see that,' I say. 'That's why I want him off my lawn. I don't want your dog chasing my cats. Do you understand what I'm saying here?'

Incredibly he doesn't, and I hear some sort of question forming as I slip back into the house and close the door, because I've remembered that there's never anything to gain from getting into arguments with morons, and this moron supposedly shot someone in the head. Additionally, it's mainly just the yapping that's driving me batty. Not even Holly, our smallest cat, is bothered by the chihuahua.

'Something's going to happen to that dog,' my wife mutters darkly, and over the next few days we realise we've both been thinking the same thing. The dog is always there, with his owner usually nowhere in sight. All we need to do is to lure him into the car, drive out to Boerne or Selma or somewhere, and let him go, hopefully to find a better home with owners who actually give a shit and don't just let him roam free. The plan changes to taking him to an animal rescue center in another city, then to the one in our own city because it's not like Shooty's going to bother to check.

One week later we hear Shooty having an argument with the guy over the way. The guy over the way owns a couple of large flat-faced dogs, quite vicious looking. One of them escaped a few years ago and met me as I returned home. It was sat on my own porch growling at me, and not that happy waggy-tailed growl of when Fido or Rags or Scamp just wants to play; so thankfully the guy over the way makes sure his dogs stay inside his yard. Excepting this one occasion, I guess.

'How can you be so stoo-peed?' Shooty is screaming. 'He jos' a leel' puppy dawg! He never done no harm to no-one!'

My wife and myself peer out of the door, across the way, then duck back in before we're seen. Shooty is stomping back to his own house. As keen practitioners of the detective arts, my wife and I are able to ingeniously piece together a scenario equating to what we think must have happened.

The chihuahua was roaming up and down the road unsupervised, as it always is. One of the larger dogs escaped and attacked the itinerant chihuahua. Elementary, my dear Watson.

So fuck it, we're definitely going to dognap the yappy little bastard. Truthfully, we feel sorry for him having such a shitty owner. Maybe he'll have a better life with someone else. We're definitely going to do that.

Then I go back to England for a couple of weeks, and a couple more weeks have passed following my return before I remember the chihuahua and realise that I haven't seen him around.

I mention it to the woman next door, having previously established that the dog's constant presence was likewise getting on her nerves.

'It died,' she tells me.

'What? Seriously?'

'I saw her just putting it in the trash so I had to ask, and she told me it died. It had been laying around ill for a week, then it was gone.'

'Maybe it ate something.'

'Yeah maybe - you know they just let it run all up and down the street. It could have eaten anything. They didn't really care for it none, just let it loose.'

I step back inside, a little shocked.

Poor little cunt.

I didn't like the dog much, but I didn't want it to die. Maybe somebody else enjoyed the constant yapping even less than we did and laid out poison.

Then again, I wonder if Shooty even bothered to feed the thing.

I guess I don't really want to know.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Enter Catman


We're driving around the neighbourhood as usual. Sometimes we come straight home, and sometimes we cruise, circling this block, that block, doubling back and driving in what is almost a spiral pattern, and all because we like to see cats. We live in a web of suburban sprawl strung between a couple of highways, Harry Wurzbach and Rittiman - single story homes with massive yards and a lot of trees like much of San Antonio. It's a good place for cats, our little corner, because there isn't much traffic and the roads are mostly crappy so no-one races out onto the highway at unreasonable speed. There are a few regular places which we like to drive past so as to admire the cats - the little calico and ginger colony down on the corner, then a couple of snowshoe cats who are usually sat upon the immobilised car at the house opposite; or we'll cross Rittiman into the Heights, the wealthy part, and drive past the house of Kitler, so named because black patches of fur on his otherwise white face give him a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler. There's the sea of tails house, identified as such because my wife passed it one morning as she was out running just as the door opened and the yard briefly swam with happy tails aloft as everyone went in for breakfast. Bess says she couldn't actually see the person stood in the shadows holding the door open, but something about the scenario suggested the phrase fuck my life.

We have seven cats, or twelve if you count the strays which I feed and which don't really belong to anyone but tend to spend a lot of time hanging around our yard. Personally, I don't officially count the strays due to a city ordnance preventing us from having more than eight cats, which is probably for the best.

Our cats, in order of age, are Fluffy, Nibbler, Grace, Snowy, Kirby, Holly and Jello; and for the sake of convenience I address the outside cats - in order of size - as Gary, Mr. Kirby, Gus III, Charlotte, and Gus II. Gus was our senior indoor cat before she passed on to the great couch in the sky. Two of the strays approximately resemble her, and are hence titled as her successors. Gary isn't technically a stray because he belongs to a neighbour, but they don't appreciate him so he spends all of his time at our house. His actual name, as heard screeched by a mad, old German woman, is Fat Cat, which seems undignified so we call him Gary instead, after a former neighbour of mine with whom he shared certain characteristics, namely that he's massive, pushy, and always hanging around whenever you go out into the garden.

Suffice to say, we like cats.

We like cats so much that we drive around looking at other people's cats; and one of the places past which we drive on a regular basis is the home of Catman.

He lives on a corner a few blocks from us, a distance of maybe a mile. He probably has more cats then even we do. His yard is heavily shaded and always full of them. Sometimes he too is there, sat in a wicker chair with his cats, so we wave as we drive past and say, 'Hey, Catman!' in the general amiable spirit of Earl Hickey greeting the Crabman on an episode of My Name is Earl. Catman can't hear us but he usually waves back.

Sometimes I encounter him in the local supermarket. He's difficult to miss because he has long straggly hair and a huge white beard of Gandalf proportions. He looks a little like a crazy person, and his shopping trolley is always piled high with cat food and cans of twisted tea - an alcoholic variant on iced tea which is popular hereabouts for obvious reasons. Sometimes he's talking to somebody, because I guess everyone knows Catman; and sometimes he's just talking to himself so I'll say hi, and he'll smile and return the greeting because I guess he says hi to everyone. Sometimes he is accompanied by a certain aroma, but nothing so strong as the bouquet of the eye-watering park tramps I recall clearing the upper decks of Lewisham bound buses in south-east London. Texas is fucking hot, a place where you can work up a real world class stench if you really put your mind to it, and possibly also your arse; so I guess our boy at least makes some concessions to personal hygiene.

A few nights ago we drove past Catman's place and saw kittens, only a few weeks old by the look of them, three or four little black ones with the spike of fluff tails and all jumping around, pulling air-ninja moves on each other. Naturally, we're back for more.

'Hey, Catman,' we call in unison as we notice him sat over by the tree. He waves back, puts down his twisted tea, and comes over to us. I realise that this is in response to my wife having slowed the car and wound down her window.

'We saw you had some kittens,' she says.

'You want a kitten?'

'Oh no - no!' We wave our hands with some urgency, sign language approximating no thank you, we already have twelve and that's more than enough.

Catman extends his hand into the car and we all shake.

'Mark,' he tells us.

I can see four or five cats behind him, lounging around in different parts of his yard. I don't see the kittens. Maybe they're inside.

'How many cats do you have?' my wife asks.

He doesn't answer directly, or indeed at all, instead telling us about his cat colony permit. It sounds like something he's made up, although I later discover that there really is such a thing and that they cost only ten dollars. Anyway, he talks and I immediately recognise a cadence consistent with someone living at a tangent to what the rest of us generally agree to be reality; it's kind of as I suspected, and why a small part of me wanted to scream what the hell are you doing? when my wife slowed the car.

Then again, I've known my share of nutcases over the years, and statistically speaking most of them are a lot more sane, or at least a lot more fun, than the regular boring arseholes and shitbags one is obliged to deal with as part and parcel of daily existence. Mad isn't necessarily a problem, although what kind of mad can be a concern, partially because we've now been here five minutes and Mark hasn't stopped talking, or even given indication that he might pause for breath any time soon. He tells us about the neighbour shooting at his cats with a BB gun and we're duly horrified.

'She doesn't like cats,' he sighs. 'I went round there and you know she has all these hummingbird feeders all in the trees in her garden, everywhere you look, and she loves her hummingbirds. She has names for them, and so I guess I can see why she wouldn't like cats, but I tried to talk to her. I told her when she shoots at a cat, can't she see how that's like someone shooting at one of her birds? She just couldn't seem to see it. So where do you live?'

Bess tells him. I tell myself that he probably won't remember the address.

'I had this beautiful Siamese cat and you know this guy wanted to buy her. I said, I told him, she ain't even mine. I have a permit, you know. I went to the city and got me a permit for a cat colony. He lives over that way.'

Mark gestures towards Rittiman, beyond which are the Heights and the home of Kitler.

'I was at his house and you know it has these big metal gates and all of the security alarms. He wanted to buy my cat but I wasn't going to sell her.'

I study his face. It's been hard to keep from noticing the little cuts and scrapes. They show because he's the palest man I think I've seen in a long time, which must take some doing in Texas. He doesn't look unwell, despite reddish rings beneath his eyes, but he looks as though he's had a bad fall, or he's recovering from something; and yet his eyes are clear. He looks at you and understands. He is intelligent.

Nevertheless here it comes, just as I knew it would.

'You see I was dead and they brought me back to life.' He lifts his shirt to reveal pale green scabbing on a couple of burnt patches around his ribs. The injuries look painful. He's telling us something about being revived with electricity, like you see on the television with the doctor yelling clear, but the account is becoming confused and his testimony leaves no room in which to refer to that which we've already been told. This is one jigsaw puzzle we won't be piecing together any time soon. He was in the house in the rich neighbourhood, or else he was in the pharmacy on Broadway, just across the road from the old Methodist place. My wife later tells me that the wandering spirit was supposedly that of the dead guy to whom the funeral service was dedicated, but somehow I recall a different version. Possibly the confusion comes from Mark's telling.

'The pastor - I mean the preacher - he came in through the door and I could hear him speaking to me, but not with my ears. It was like telepathy in my head. I knew then that he wasn't a good man. He was fallen - you know like the yogis in the Himalala - Himalya - the Himmo—'

'The Himalayas,' Bess suggests.

'That's the place. He was talking to me but there was no sound, and I was just in the pharmacy.' He pauses, maybe realising what he's just said. 'Doesn't that sound crazy? I mean, I ain't saying that was what really happened, but that was how it seemed to me.'

The story continues, branching further. He was in the pharmacy and he was dead, or he was somewhere else, maybe the rich neighbourhood. He was in space looking back at the Earth from a great distance, and there was that light we always hear about, but he wasn't going to go towards it. Jesus Christ was there with a censer like the kind used in a church, swung back and forth on a chain, but there was blood in the censer.

As he relates the tale, he pauses to remind us that he isn't suggesting that any of this is literally what happened, only that it constitutes his experience of something. I recall reading of a similar defence made by Philip K. Dick, the science-fiction writer who famously experienced all manner of visions and delusions whilst remaining otherwise lucid and aware that what he experienced might not be entirely real by any accepted definition of the term. I have also read of some condition whereby the two halves of the human brain fail to communicate with each other as they should, meaning that thoughts crossing the divide will sometimes appear to have originated from somewhere beyond the self - hence those voices in the head we've all heard about. It strikes me that some of this may apply to Mark.

He doesn't know when to shut up, but otherwise he's polite and he's amiable and intelligent. His madness doesn't express itself as anything malign or necessarily likely to endanger anyone excepting possibly himself. Clearly he is able to function as well as any of us. He has a place to live and he takes good care of his cats and he gets by; and as he talks I can't help but notice how it's difficult to truly dislike him. He's weird and eccentric but he's kind of a regular guy too, in all ways that count.

'Where did you say you live again?'

This time my wife amends the address given so freely earlier, subtracting five from the house number. He probably won't remember, but it seems a little early in the relationship to be inviting him in for iced tea and further discussion of psychic forces he has known. I breathe an inward sigh of relief and hear myself saying, 'Listen, Mark - it's been nice to meet you but we really have to get going.'

We've been here thirty minutes, just sat in the car listening. Notice of our impending departure caused a brief stalling as he acknowledged that maybe we had other stuff to be getting on with, but he somehow manages to keep us there another ten minutes, and the narrative begins to eat its own tail: died, met Jesus, brought back to life, there was a light, planet Earth seen from a distance way out beyond the moon, brought back to life again, the censer full of blood, the pharmacy over on Broadway...

We leave, and he doesn't seem to mind. He's just happy to have met us, and we're happy to have met him. He goes on a bit, but I'd still rather listen to some guy tell me about mysterious lights and astral travel than how much he earns or how to get ahead in business.

Crazy probably depends on where you're standing.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Airport


Here's how a modern airport works. Far beyond the end of the runway, beyond all those fairy lights, off in the long grass stands a little man with a pair of binoculars and a notebook. He spends the day looking up into the sky, looking at all the planes that come and go and noting down their number plates. Sometimes there are too many planes, and in such cases he'll count them all a couple of times over just to be sure, then mount his bicycle and get back to the control tower as quick as he can.

'Too many planes,' he'll shout up at the window, and providing someone up there hears him, they'll talk to the men flying the planes by means of a special two-way radio, just to make sure they don't all try to land at the same time. Sometimes there are only a few planes, but on other days there might be a lot of planes, especially when one of those new countries has been discovered - like Valeria or Lexavia to name but two of the most recent; so that's a sudden increase in tourism and, by association, air traffic, and before you know it, there are just too many planes up there. Worse is that we have no way of telling just how many planes there might be. There is simply no way to be sure. It's something we shall never understand. It's a mystery.

I'd spent three weeks back in England. I'd had quite a time. I'd met up with family, friends, and old friends I hadn't expected to see. I'd packed a suitcase full of ancient cassette tapes - obscure and mostly noisy bands from the eighties and nineties whose work I intend to digitise and make available on the internet - and this time I took the trouble to check what luggage restrictions would apply.

Back in 2015, I turned up at Heathrow with as much crap as I could physically carry, materials which never made it into the shipping container when I first moved and which were subsequently marooned at my mother's house. I had an earlier suitcase full of ancient cassette tapes, an acoustic guitar, a large portable art portfolio, and three or four additional bags all bursting at the zippers. I knew there might be some kind of excess baggage fee, but I didn't mind paying another twenty quid or so. Unfortunately the anticipated twenty quid fee turned out to be closer to four-hundred, so I wasn't going to make that mistake again.

This time, I'd weighed the suitcase on my mother's bathroom scales, then taken out one cassette after another until the weight crept below the permitted limit. This left me with a surplus of twenty-six cassettes which I posted to myself. I spent about a hundred quid posting stuff to myself because it wouldn't fit in my luggage, and thankfully it all arrived at the other end in one piece.

My mother drops me off at the coach station in Coventry, and this time I manage not to cry. I give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, which represents a gaudy demonstration of affection in our family because we're civilised and not inclined to ostentatious sentiment. The coach trip is boring, but it gets me there in plenty of time. I bum around Terminal Five looking for things to do, smoking my last ciggies for a while and eating bland sandwiches before getting into a fight with a machine. It's the check-in machine, one of those features installed for our increased comfort and convenience so as to dispense with human inefficiency.

I press an icon on the screen and it asks to see my passport, face down in the scanner.

It asks to see my green card.

This unit cannot process your request at this time, it tells me. Please seek assistance.

I get the same response from a second machine.

I find a human and she suggests that I simply go straight to the check-in desk, which I would have had to do anyway even if the machine had worked. I suppose it's okay for me to go straight to the check-in desk because at least I made the effort to use the machine. The human at the check-in desk tells me that my possession of both a passport and a green card probably confused his mechanical colleague. I hump my permitted twenty-three kilo suitcase of industrial noise onto the scales and begin to sweat, waiting to be told how many thousands of pounds I've just incurred in excess baggage charges.

'Is it okay? ' I ask after a silent minute. 'Not too heavy?'

'It's fine,' he tells me.

The flight is long, cramped, and boring, and I'm stuck right in the middle. I watch Rowan Atkinson in Maigret Sets a Trap, which I find soothing because I've spent the last three weeks watching relaxing crime dramas - Midsomer Murders, Lewis and the like, these constituting my mother's preferred viewing these days. Then I watch Doctor Strange - which is okay despite the presence of Cucumber, Arrival - which is excellent, and finally a sappy American made music documentary which compensates for minutes wasted on boring Fatboy Slim by showcasing the altogether more entertaining Virus Syndicate. Once I've watched all the in-flight telly I can stand to watch, I fill in a customs form, declaring that I'm not bringing anything naughty into the country. I value my precious suitcase of noisy tapes at five quid, because there's really no point in trying to work out what they're all worth. It's not like I'm going to sell my rare Opera for Infantry cassettes and use the money to fund the downfall of the dangerous orange shitgibbon.

Eight hours after take off, we land at Chicago. We land at Chicago later than anticipated because there were too many planes at Heathrow. Apparently they had all turned up at once, completely unexpected, not even a phone call or anything; and so we were unable to leave on schedule. As I shuffle from the plane, I consider asking a stewardess whether she thinks I'm really going to be able to make it across the airport in time to catch my connecting flight to San Antonio, but I already know the answer. I already know the answer because when travelling in the US, I always miss the connecting flight. Every single occasion of my coming back across the Atlantic, I've ended up stranded in Philadelphia or Charlotte or New York because they can't find the plane, or they've found the plane but some kids have drawn cocks on the side, or they've run out of fuel, or it might rain, or there's poo on the fucking runway. It has happened every single time, and tonight I get an unscheduled stay in the windy city. I've been in transit for thirteen hours and somehow I'm still thousands of miles away from home.

As I squirt from the connecting tunnel into the womb of O'Hare international, I raise a finger to catch the attention of a stewardess, but before I've even finished my question she directs my attention to the wall upon which an array of envelopes are affixed with tape. I see that my surname is written on one of the envelopes, but my thoughts are momentarily elsewhere, flustered by the blandly efficient tone of the stewardess telling me that I'm screwed, albeit not in those specific terms. I thought they had been trained to sound like they at least give a shit.

Amazingly, I don't lose it. I was expecting this eventuality. In fact, I would have been more surprised had I made my connecting flight without disruption. The envelope contains a letter telling me how deeply everyone regrets everything, along with tickets which will secure a room and breakfast at some local hotel.

I am swept through baggage claim by tidal crowds exiting the plane, then on through to customs and Homeland Security. Every few minutes I have another piece of paper shoved at me. They all go into different pockets as I try to concentrate on what the hell is going on and where I need to go. I ask directions of a woman who turns out to have a near impenetrable Swedish accent, and who helpfully barks at me whilst pointing at a line of machines, features installed for our increased comfort and convenience so as to dispense with human inefficiency. I can't even get to the machines because there are too many people and the crowd is chaotic, and I don't even know what the fuck I'm expected to do once I get there. After some wrestling, the robot asks for my passport and I answer a series of questions. It prints out my forty-seventh piece of paper to add to all the others I will eventually be expected to hand over to someone or other. Eventually I am through to passport control, or whatever it is. I am asked a couple of questions by a guy who doesn't care, and I'm subsequently waved through. My pockets are still very much stuffed with pointless forms, tickets, declarations, dockets and bits of paper. At no point has anyone asked to see any of them, and yet I've already entered the United States. Almost an hour has passed since I stepped from the plane.

I wait outside with other disgruntled passengers. It's dark and hot, a temperature differential which confirms that I'm back on American soil, accordingly bringing me the only twinge of pleasure I am able to experience under the circumstances. We wait forty minutes until a minibus bearing the name of our hotel appears. It fills to capacity before I can get a seat. The driver tells us that his colleague will be along in another half hour.

We continue to wait. I compare disgruntled notes with a fellow traveller, a German. He is unsure as to the departure time of our replacement San Antonio flight in the morning. I empty my pockets of all the slips of paper I've accrued, but somehow I've mislaid my boarding pass, the one piece of paper which actually does useful shit, the ticket which will eventually get me home.

Fanfuckingtastic.

A second minibus eventually shows. It's after nine. We landed a couple of hours ago. I talk to an old couple who take up the seat in front of me. They tell me that they very much enjoyed England. I tell them that I'm glad to be back in America, despite this evening.

I phone my wife once I'm at the hotel. She already knows what has happened, and knows not to wait for me at the airport. I think she's more distressed by it all than I am. I consider phoning Joe, my friend who lives in Chicago. About a month back I told him that my connection would occur in his city, and that it almost certainly wouldn't be happening given my previous experience of trying to catch a fucking plane in America. I may be giving you a call if I end up in some hotel, I told him, but now that I'm here I realise my mood is best kept in quarantine, and that I will make for terrible company this evening. I don't know Joe very well, but from what I do know, I already respect the guy too much to ask him to babysit some pissed off English dude.

Next morning, I have breakfast at the hotel. It's free, as it should be. I kill time, watch some television, then eventually make my way back to the airport. The missing boarding pass turns out to be no big deal after all.

Yesterday I wore my Lone Star shirt and stetson. I wear the stetson as a matter of course, but I figured that wearing it in combination with the shirt would give me a notionally patriotic appearance, reducing my potential significance to those factions within the Department of Homeland Security who now - so I am informed - make it their business to check your social media to see if you've referred to the current president as a dangerous orange shitgibbon, an identification you might imagine would be covered by that whole deal with freedom of speech, that thing which is supposed to make America great. I had already deleted all references to the dangerous orange shitgibbon from my facebook page, and also any links which might expose me as one of those bleeding heart liberal faggot types; but still, I'm reluctant to take chances, hence the shirt and the stetson. However, I'm now behind schedule and I'm not going to wear the Lone Star shirt a second day running because I have standards. Instead I opt for my Henry Rollins for President t-shirt because it at least suggests patriotism in some form.

I make it through customs and security just fine, aside from one officer having a rummage through my backpack, seemingly intrigued by all the funny looking shit which showed up on the x-ray machine. He scowls at my ancient tapes of industrial noise, but thankfully doesn't find my pornography - a 1993 issue of Knave which I own because I'm in it. Specifically the magazine features an article about A Reflection, an unpublished comic strip written by myself and drawn by Charlie Adlard way back at the beginning of his career. Ignoring the bongo periodical, the security officer finds a set square once owned by my grandfather. I guess maybe it looked like a weapon on the x-ray. Once it's obvious that I'm not about to blow anything up, I'm through. Weeks later I discover that my friend Jane, another English citizen living in the US on a green card, experienced just the sort of difficulties I had anticipated. She was detained at length, and interviewed twice before being allowed to re-enter the country. I'm inclined to wonder whether it was the stetson which helped, which eased the process for me.

I head for my departure gate and an old coot similarly kitted out with a stetson squints at my t-shirt. 'Who do you want for president?'

'Henry Rollins,' I tell him. 'It's a long story.'

My estimation of his voting habits thankfully turn out to be entirely wrong. 'Well, I ain't got no idea who that is,' he sighs, 'but he can't be no worse than that dang fool we got ourselves right now.'

My flight back to Texas runs without incident.

Finally I am back in San Antonio.

Heading for baggage claim I see Daisy Bee hamming it up on the concourse before a bunch of school kids. She is my first familiar face, our famous local clown. She is our equivalent of Krusty because, as I've noticed, there are certain peculiar parallels between life in San Antonio and what you see on a typical episode of The Simpsons. We have a clown. We almost certainly have a guy in a bee costume. We even have our own version of Kent Brockman. I've watched him on the news and I've shaken him by the hand.

Baggage claim echoes traditional song from a marginally less traditional trio of female Mariachi musicians - violin, guitar, and guitarrón. It feels like a personal welcome, as though they're playing just for me, and it makes me think of Michoacan, which makes me happy. The air is hot and the music is sweet.

I am home.