Friday, October 11, 2013

"Mr. Lopate! Tell us a story!"

And the classroom begged, "Mr. Lopate! Tell us a story!" And he stood there and shook his head: did they know the danger that they were in for such a request? They insisted. Well, such is their fate--and his as well--because he obliged. After all, there were far more dangerous things that they had already accepted--such as "Mr. Lopate! Please teach us in the next semester!" Stay tuned for THAT story to be written! But meanwhile...we look back in Time as Our Hero, the College Professor, struggles against the mighty and oppressed in these three tales. But remember, O Faithful Reader, YOU could someday be caught on the Cosmic Comet that carries Mr. Lopate throughout the galaxy on a variety of episodes! It's danger by association!

Mitch Vs. The White Whale, alias
The Stretch Limo From Hell, and
the Atlantic City Players

(Mitch never does anything dull or routine—just ask his friends.  They count on Mitch to keep them amused, giving thanks that their lives are not caught in the embrace of the cosmic marionette strings that are tied to his back.  It is obvious to them that their friend is special.  It’s not only because he has such interesting things happening in his life, but that they are regaled with these epic sagas….and they can say, “That’s a Mitch-tripping episode!!”  Phooey. Next lifetime, someone else gets to be me.)

          Our hero has just been summoned to drive a brand-new white Lincoln Continental stretch limo (seating @6 passengers) late Saturday night.  His fare is “a wealthy guy who’s a big tipper, may pick up a hooker; treat him right, ok?”  With visions of dollar bills dancing in his head, Mitch sets out….and promptly runs into traffic at the local drawbridge.  But he’s not dismayed—at least, not for a while, until the boss pages him on the phone, begging him to get there in a hurry.  Mitch stomps on the gas, but the limo is like a Brontosaurus, and the tail doesn’t always respond as fast as the head would like.  At last, an hour later, Mitch arrives at the condo complex and finds his man, Bob.  He is a chunky fellow, looking to be about 55 years old, balding and very casually dressed, but very easy-going and anxious to return to the gaming tables.  His destination is the Trump Marina, which Mitch had found by trial and error on his last (and first time) trip to Atlantic City.  Bob wants to stay the night and try his hand at blackjack and craps, and has “a system” to come out ahead at the card table.  The limo glides gracefully down the parkway, passing a sequence of cars who flash a portable spotlight as Mitch passes them.  They are parked in the woods with no lights, facing the traffic.  What or who is that? he asks.  Oh, that’s the State Police, looking for speeders, replies Bob.  Mitch immediately takes the limo down to an old man’s crawl, and Bob settles back for a nap.     
    Within the hour, by 10:00 p.m., Mitch, limo & Bob arrive safely and within all legal speed limits at Atlantic City.  Bob instructs Mitch to drop him off, and as ordered, Mitch will wait until Bob has finished his night of fun and games, probably to come out of the casino sometime in the early morning.  Bob has Mitch’s pager number and toll-free phone, and he says as he exits, “Park it over there,” indicating a lot filled with visitor’s cars.  The entrance is winding and narrow, and Mitch carefully maneuvers the limo…..screeetch!
          The sound of metal on metal is not a pleasant thing to experience when you are the driver of an automobile, especially an expensive limo, and Mitch’s heart has just thudded into his chest cavity.  A glimpse in the side-view mirror confirms the worst:  he has brushed alongside the rear right parking light of a “normal” white Lincoln Continental, much like a cat rubbing its tail on a person’s leg.  Mitch throws the car in reverse and disengages the two cars from their mating habit, and steps out to see the damage.  He prays to the gods that they can work a miracle and make Time go backwards, so that it never happened.  The gods, however, are taking a vacation and Mitch’s pleas are cast aside.  The “little” Lincoln has only suffered a partially-broken tail lamp, and the Big Limo (now construed to be ‘the White Whale from Hell’ in Mitch’s mind), appears to be unblemished.  Perhaps the gods were only testing him, ala The Book of Job from the Old Testament?  Perhaps….but Mitch still has to maneuver the Whale through the rest of the parking lot….and thankfully, there are no witnesses.  Should he do the considerate thing, and leave a business card or some other form of ID?  Of course…but the urge to flee is greater than he can bear, so he collects the pieces of broken red plastic and lays them carefully near the back tire of the parked Lincoln as a sense of obligation and decency.  It’s the sort of gesture that one hears in a moment of passion:  “Sorry, I meant to pull out—but you had made me so excited…” but it’s too late for Mitch to make amends.  But there are more booby-traps ahead, and the gods have more desires to play the strings attached to Mitch’s back, to see him quiver and jerk in panic.
          Mitch now has to get the car out of the parking lot, and follows it in a serpentine-like trail.  However, he is much more cautious…and finds himself in a U-shape that he cannot possibly move through.  Will he be stuck here like a prehistoric beast in the La Brea tar pits of California, trapped for future discovery (and the part he played in the Lincoln Continental Courtship)?  No, there is a small driveway available, and Mitch carefully moves the car, which now feels like he’s steering the QE II, through and safely to a new spot…a parking lot for a Coast Guard station at the rear of the driveway.  However, this rekindles too many memories of Mitch’s U.S. Navy days, and so he takes the Whale back up to the casino, where he sits and waits and sleeps.  The car is just in front of the main entrance, and he can see the scene of the crime from his left-side mirror.  No one has come out yet to claim the Continental with the compromised tail light.
          Mitch has not been to Atlantic City for several years, so he cautiously saunters out and heads upstairs for some action.  However, he only finds a five-dollar bill in his wallet, which he carefully inserts into a dollar slot machine…and is promptly disappointed at his efforts.  The gods may have saved him from filing collision insurance, but they do not reward his gambling.  He goes back to the Whale and reluctantly waits for Bob.  It is now @ 2:00 a.m.
          Suddenly, there is a knock on the window, and a carhop, a young man from the casino is standing there.  How long are you going to be here, he asks.  Uh, am I allowed to park here? asks Mitch.  Yeah, but I got some people who want to go to Harrah’s—they can’t get a taxi there fast enough.  Wanna take ‘em over there, and don’t forget to split it with me, all right?  Maybe the gods are smiling after all--and Mitch pulls up alongside the door to pick up his illicit passengers: two young men and women, and they sound as if they was bawn on duh streets uh Brooklyn an’ dey ain’t got nuttin’ bettah tuh do.  Mitch carefully drives away and the carhop rubs his hands gleefully in anticipation of some easy money.  The casinos are shining red and white and bright in the hot night sky, and Mitch faithfully heads toward them.
          Of course, nothing happens by coincidence, and Harrah’s just happens to be across from the Marina…but Mitch doesn’t know this.  So, he drives downtown, past the Showboat, Bally’s, Taj Mahal, The Tropicana, Caesar’s Palace, and other sites…but no Harrah’s.  By now, the two couples in the limo have put up the privacy divider and there is no way to know what’s going on except that the women are cursing Mitch for not knowing where he is, and arguing that their boyfriends shouldn’t pay him anything at all.  Mitch realizes the gods have pulled a fast one on him, and that he needs to get them out of the car as fast as possible.  He apologizes profusely and heads back in the direction of Harrah’s, which lies dead ahead. 
Unfortunately, Mitch has picked some very awful sections of Atlantic City to drive through, the lights are long, the streets are old-age ghetto slums, and the passengers are getting more vocal.  Mitch is following another lost soul in a Toyota, and they turn down one street after another, looking for a direct way out to freedom.  Finally, the Toyota takes a turn and leads Mitch ahead…whereupon the Toyota finds itself (as does Mitch) at a very empty dead-end.  Both cars need to back up, but once again, Mitch has found himself in a very narrow street with no room to move around corners…not at the wheel of a vehicle the size of the White Whale.
But the gods realize that Mitch was trying to help four undeserving souls and not out to score a big cash bonus, so they provide him with a short driveway to creep into and let the Toyota by, and he can inch out and jerk his way to freedom.  Thankfully, the car beeper has not gone off and Bob must still be at play.  Finally…the car arrives at Harrah’s---a two-minute drive has taken nearly a half hour.  Amazingly, one of the boyfriends tips Mitch $30, and the car beeper goes off---Bob wants to come home!  Mitch quickly returns to Trump’s, and sorrowfully hands over $20 to the carhop, not wanting to explain why he was so late.  Bob is happy; he has won some money, and has a floozy blonde in tow.  They are playing Kissey-Huggy in the backseat, and Mitch is watching in the rear mirror.  Would Mitch mind taking the young lady home?  Of course…why not oblige another favor?
The blonde is quite buzzed and cannot give correct directions, and so the White Whale, with Mitch at the helm, drives around a development of houses and condos for another hour.  When she finally finds her street, Mitch faithfully parks and waits for Bob to escort her to the door.  The night is steaming hot and due to a power outage, the local town has been without electricity.  Bob grunts, “Her roommate came buck naked to the door to meet us.”  Mitch wishes that he was in the back seat of the limo instead of the front seat…
It is now 4:00 a.m., and Bob falls asleep as Mitch drives back.  He deposits Bob at his door and receives $60 as a tip.  Not bad, but Mitch was looking for a little more.  The gods, however, remind Mitch that he has escaped with his life not once but twice, and should be thankful for that.  Now all Mitch has to do is get back to the garage, gas up the limo at a selected service station, and go home for some badly-needed sleep. 
          The gods still have plans for Mitch, and the gas attendant asks, “What happened to the car?”  What do you mean? asks Mitch.  Look there, says the attendant, and Mitch is horrified to see a long red burr on the side of the door, along with a thin cut mark, running nearly six feet.  Mitch disavows any knowledge—“It must have happened when I was in the casino!  Someone must have come up alongside me!”  This is the story that Mitch uses when he gets back to the garage.  Amazingly, there is a mechanic on duty, and he is able to power-wash off the red color, and will buff out the damage.  The gods have extended Mitch’s Life Contract after all.  And so, our hero, nerves unstrung, drives yet again and finds himself home by 7:30, collapsing in bed into the limbo of sleep.
          …only to wake up two hours later.  He has to drive to Atlantic City for the Sunday shuttle, meaning that he is available to the casino operators as a driver.  When he stops back at the garage, there is no mention of the damage to the Whale, and Mitch is hoping that it will not be mentioned again.  Oh, and he needs to cash one of the $100 bills that Bob gave him, so he can collect his tip.  Whom is he referred to see?  One of the salesmen in the shop—a vintage antique and specialty car showroom, which is the primary function of the limo operation.  Mitch asks a heavy-set man if he has change of the $100, and the man reaches in his pocket and peels off the bills.  The Samaritan looks like John Madden, but sloppier.  He’s the boss, a man named  Richard, whom Mitch has now met.  How was the ride? he asks.  Mitch bumbles a reply and gets the hell out of the showroom.
          For his second ride, Mitch is given a smaller limo, not quite the size of the White Whale, and he is off yet again in the hot daylight of the 4th of July to Atlantic City.  He arrives safely and undamaged at the Showboat Casino, and is promptly sent out to gather up a fare at the Taj Mahal.  His destination?  Poughkeepsie.  As in upstate New York.  As in, along the Hudson.  His passengers are three men who look like fans from the front seats at any pro wrestling match.  Cannibals would turn up their noses in disgust at the sight of these imitations of manhood.  But Mitch has a job to do, and so he heads back up the parkway, while one of them inconsiderately begins to chain-smoke a pack of Marlboro cigarettes.
          The rest of Atlantic City has the same idea, and Mitch hits traffic snarls and blockages for the next two hours.  Each car that pulls off the side of the road is a beacon for rubbernecking drivers, each broken-down/overheated vehicle is cause for slowing down, and the toll plazas that are the bane of New Jersey motorists only prolong the waiting.  Finally, Mitch is clear of the Staten Island crowd and heading up toward northern New York.
          The New York State Thruway now winds and beckons to Mitch.  The traffic heading back to the city is congealing for miles and miles, but it is heading in the other direction, and Mitch and passenger-slugs are making time count...until one directs Mitch to cross the Hudson and head up on a back road.  The tiny towns fly by, and at last, Mitch is able to disgorge himself of his burden.  His tip?  For three Neanderthals, a hefty $50.  The gods are holding their sides with laughter.  The trip has taken nearly five hours.
          Mitch is determined to sleep in his own bed that night, and takes 9W South.  He is hungry and stops at a pizza shop for a sandwich.  The shop has also experienced power outages, and the temperature inside is hotter than it is outside…which is near the 100-degree mark.  The sandwich is stale and tough.  Mitch crosses Bear Mountain, and soon finds himself driving at supersonic speed down the parkway toward completion and return of the trip.  He gets the car in, and drives back home…and asleep by10:00.  He has no idea of how many miles he has driven, but it has been A Hard Day’s Night.
          And we still haven’t heard about Mitch Vs The Stunt Man and the Rapper from Jersey City.  That’s up next issue**.

**Mitch Versus the White Whale II,
the Stunt Man, the Girlfriend, and
the Rapper from Jersey City

(**When we last looked in, Mitch had just narrowly escaped a hazardous assignment as a chauffeur to Atlantic City.  In Part two of our story, we hear the conclusion.)

Our hero, once again summoned to render his usual performance and duties as a driver for a limousine service, has been notified that he has an “exclusive” opportunity to take a fare to Jersey City on a day when the thermometer is reaching 90 degrees.  This is a big one, a major event, he is told, and he is to oblige the customer to the highest level.  Mitch naturally is ready, willing, and able, and is given his choice of vintage “six-pack” vehicles (able to hold 6 passengers). 
To his dismay, the vehicle he chooses has a faulty air conditioner—but that is not to be revealed until the ride is underway.  However, he delicately makes a verbal presentation to the car he selects, admonishing it with a recount of how its predecessor, a new Lincoln town car model (dubbed by him as “The White Whale”) had caused Mitch undue grief and anxiety when it failed to navigate an S-bend in a parking lot) in Atlantic City and side-swiped another Lincoln (privately owned), featured in “Mitch Versus the White Whale…” from our first essay on the same subject.
          Therefore, Mitch is determined to make up for his previous circumstances and has every intention of making this trip a success.  With fire and zeal burning in his eyes, he sets out to pick up his client, whom he has been notified is a movie stunt man of great fame and acclaim.  The address of this person is along the shore in Sea Girt, to be found by a small restaurant.  Mitch, of course, takes his map out and drives five miles along the ocean to ensure that he does not miss his mark.  The beach crowd is quite active, and the pedestrian traffic is voluminous.  In spite of all this, Mitch does find the domain in question and escorts his man (and girlfriend) into the comfortable recesses of the limo.  He is then instructed to drive to a K-Mart instead of Jersey City.
          At this point, Mitch’s intuition has begun to issue warning signals, but he disregards them because the customer is a big ticket, and our hero naturally wants to do the right thing—so if the request is for K-Mart, perhaps there is a Martha Stewart sale.  He is also directed to a small liquor store.  Mitch faithfully waits like a dog for its master while Mr. X and Ms Girlfriend purchase alcohol and clothes at each appropriate location.  He is tempted to call back to the dispatcher to question why a 24-carat customer would go to a store like that, but obviously, that is not for Mitch’s discretion.  Purchases completed, the two reenter the limo and give Mitch his location:  start for the NJ Turnpike, and please turn up the air conditioning.  Mitch tries to increase the amount of cold air, but...true to its nature, the limo has a cooling problem and insists upon providing only heated atmosphere, much to the dismay of the clients.  Subsequent commands will follow, but first…the panel divider between Mitch and the passengers is raised by their touch of a button…and furtive thumping noises begin to vibrate from the back of the vehicle.  The two are either trying on their new purchases of merchandise for each other’s presentation or…some other maneuvers of physical exercise and social engagement are underway and are taking place.
          After exiting at the appropriate location, the panel is raised and the two passengers engage Mitch in conversation.  He is told that his fare is a daredevil stunt man who has done everything from falling off buildings to jumping out of planes.  The man is muscular, tanned, and ruggedly handsome; the girlfriend is tall, slender, and blonde.  She is an account executive for a major shipping company, and her boyfriend and she are going to meet a rap star who is their personal friend.
          Upon arrival in Jersey City, Mitch is directed to an apartment complex that looks like it was in a war zone.  Broken bottles, rusty furniture, and various means of clothing are hanging from fire escapes.  He carefully enters, noting that the residents are somewhat curious at the sight of a stretch limo, and furthermore, they do not seem to be the type that would be occupying one.  If anything, the sight of Mitch in a white shirt and tie seems to draw their attention.  He steps outside for a minute; more to ensure that his vehicle remains intact, then reconsiders and slides back in, locking the doors after he decides it is better to be safe and not mugged. 
The Stunt Man and Girlfriend eventually return with their Rap Star friend.  He is a tall, thin African-American of approximately 25 years, wearing dreadlocks and a thick wool cap.  All three enclose themselves in the back of the limo, and Mitch is again directed to drive around for several minutes to another apartment, then to return and allow the guest to depart.  While waiting, he asks the Stunt Man about his work.  Mitch is informed that his host is nursing a serious arm bruise from a failed broken window routine.  Upon seeing a nearby drugstore, Mitch offers to buy a tube of a painkiller, “Myoflex,” which he endorses as a sure relief from aches and pains.  Surely, he says to himself, this kind gesture will be noted when he receives his tip at the end of the journey.  Honored, the Stunt Man takes Mitch up on his generosity.
          Business of sorts being concluded with the music industry representative, Mitch is then ordered to a jewelry store so that the Girlfriend may select an appropriate watch.  Mitch again waits for 30 minutes while the two make their purchase, and then it is time to return to the shore restaurant.  On the way back, the Stunt Man asks Mitch if he has any cash that he would exchange in lieu of a credit card payment for the tip, as he has nothing smaller than $100 and needs some smaller bills.  Mitch does have a spare $50 tucked away in his wallet and obliges.  The fare ends, and Mitch returns back to the garage.
          Three days later, Mitch receives a call from the local police force:  would he be able to identify the two passengers?  It seems that the Stunt Man is an ex-convict who has recently been paroled, and that he and the Girlfriend have burglarized a home, absconding with the owner’s purse and credit cards.  The purchases were made on a stolen gold American Express card.  Being the good citizen that he is, Mitch immediately provides an outstanding recollection of places and events…and within three days, the Stunt Man is apprehended in the stairwell of an apartment while hiding from police.  Thanks to Mitch’s testimony, both the Stunt Man and Girlfriend receive prison time, and he makes a note of the Girlfriend’s comments, as she made the fatal mistake of telling Mitch her birthday (serving as positive identification).
          Therefore, once again, let the records show that

(a)  P.T. Barnum was right:  there’s a fool born every minute.
(b)  Crime does not pay—unless it’s from the Girlfriend, who continues to make restitution payments to him via the probation office of Hudson County
(c)   Anybody can get a job either as a Stunt Man or a limo driver.
(d)  The limousine service is no longer in business.

Mitch Vs. The Lost Child &
the Motorist from Hell

(Our hero, having battled errant and negligent limousines and unscrupulous impersonators of the film industry, returns in thought to his early days as a living remnant of the days of chivalry and good deeds)

          Once upon a time when the days were short (it was winter) and the weather not preferable for those who are not light upon their feet and end bottom-up when rock salt is not applied, our hero (known in his early days as everything from “Hey You”; “Stop Thief” and “Listen Mitchell…” (‘Listen’ being his understanding of his first name as given by Mother), has happily but carefully gone home from his job at the local hardware store for an hour’s repast and appropriate luncheon.  The road is very treacherous as there has been a continuing ice storm in the area that has frozen cars to their parking spaces, and Mitch has on his best (and only) pair of work boots.  On any other given day (or month) of better weather, he would normally have run down the hill to his home at a non-stop pace…but he is content today to tip-toe around massive ice bergs and floes like an obstacle course that crowd the street and sidewalk from Mother Nature gone rampant with rage.  Once home and safely ensconced in his third floor single room, he sets back, removes his boots, and sets his alarm for a quick but brief nap…
          …Only to be jarred awake out of his reveries some fragmented time way before schedule by a strange but familiar sound.  Mitch cranes his head to identify the sound, which has all the manifestations of a combination between a siren and a high-pitched buzz saw.  To his horror (he still has at least 20 minutes left on his snooze alarm), the sound slowly congeals into that of a young child who is calling for help—or at least, calling for the entire state of New Jersey to provide assistance.  Certain key phrases like “Get the police!” waft through the air.  Mitch weighs the options available—either help the child or be docked for returning late to work; the fire house is also across the street…but instead decides to earn his daily set of angel’s wings for humanitarian assistance.  (This ability to recognize the cry of a human child in distress (or generally displeased and verbally making a note of it) will soon be put to the test when Mitch becomes a 1st grade summer camp counselor to 26 little darlings at the YMCA site in a few years when all of them simultaneously give voice to his name, much like a flock of ducklings).
          Strapping on his footwear, Mitch maneuvers down three flights of stairs and locates the sound of the apparent dilemma.  A young boy, six-year-old Paulie, who lives nearby, has been playing on the back lawn which buttresses against a concrete retaining wall to the beach.  It has a severe decline, and he and Paulie’s older friend, Tommy, who is about 11, have been generally playing on the ice—until Paulie has forgotten to watch his footing and tumbled down to the edge of the sea wall.  The slope has at least a 45-degree angle, and the ice makes it virtually impossible to crawl back.  Paulie’s mother is also outside, making motions with her hands in little circles and in general looking like a chicken without a head.  Tommy, in the meanwhile, has tried to lower a rope for Paulie, but finds that (a) it is too thin and (b) Paulie can’t tie it around himself.  Paulie is now screaming at the top of his lungs for his mother or any other available adult to summon the local constabulary.
          Therefore, our hero sums up the predicament (although muttering to himself that he will surely be late for this conundrum), and suggests that Tommy allow himself to be lowered to Paulie, then secure him and Mitch will pull them both up to safety and a relative state of tranquility.  However, it soon becomes apparent that twice the weight is not the answer…so Mitch lowers himself down on the rope instead…whereupon Paulie fastens himself to Mitch’s torso and pressing his snotty, runny, chubby, frozen, tear-stained face against Mitch’s nose, blubbers and sobs, “I’m having a bad day!”  Mitch merely grinds his teeth in anguish as he envisions the time clock at work…
          True to form and muscular endeavor, Mitch pulls himself and Paulie to safety, whereupon mother and child make a hasty exit that defies all known laws of movement—they simply vanish.  Mitch brushes off various mucous and ice fragment debris, and glancing at his watch, notices that he still can make it back to work with minutes to spare.  Setting off at a brisk pace as can be navigated, he makes it up the hill and is within mere yards of his job when…he notices a large car which is stuck in the slush and snow on the side of the street in front of a store.  The driver, a young lady, is revving the motor vigorously, but ends up merely “spinning her wheels,” in the classic sense of the phrase.  Mitch looks upon this as yet another test of his morale turpitude and carefully positions himself behind the bumper, then urges the driver to accelerate when our hero applies a strong and sturdy shoulder in assistance. 
          The driver, aided by the comfort and good cheer of Mitch’s Good Samaritan gesture, does just as she is bid—and deftly steps on the gas…churning up a rapid-fire barrage of snow, ice, and slush that tattoos Mitch from ankles to chin.  He stands back aghast at his condition while the driver wiggles the car into traffic and throws him a wave of thanks.  Mitch can only stare aloft toward Heaven with mouth agape at his reward for two acts of superhuman kindness.
          Therefore, once again, let the record show that

(a)  W.C. Fields was right when asked "How do you like children?" and he replied "Boiled or fried."
(b)  Women drivers—they’re everything dangerous that men say they are
(c)  Mitch makes it a personal crusade to sell to bewildered customers at the hardware store the most effective noise-deafening earplugs that can be bought for a reasonable price.
(d)  Virtuous deeds are their own reward. Phooey on anyone who says otherwise.

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