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Joseph E Bird

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creative non-fiction

it takes a thief

“Don’t worry about parking the car,” says the art thief. “Anywhere near the museum is fine.” When it comes to stealing from museums, Stéphane Breitwieser is virtually peerless. He is one of the most prolific and successful art thieves who have ever lived. Done right, his technique—daytime, no violence, performed like a magic trick, sometimes with guards in the room—never involves a dash to a getaway car. And done wrong, a parking spot is the least of his worries.

— Michael Finkel, from GQ Magazine.

A fascinating story by a great writer. It’s got to be a movie some day. Click the link below to learn everything about Stéphane Breitwieser and the art of the steal.

https://www.gq.com/story/secrets-of-the-worlds-greatest-art-thief

missing

empty bench 2

He used to come by every couple of weeks.

My office has a back door to the alley, and every so often I’d hear the thump, thump, thump, and I knew it was Keith because no one else ever knocked on the door.  He lives in a high-rise in Dunbar, a couple of towns over.  He takes the bus to St. Albans, sometimes to Charleston.  You used to see him everywhere.  He’d show up at church on Sunday mornings, but never went inside to hear the sermon.  He’d stay out in the narthex with the ushers.  I sensed he never felt comfortable among the Sunday best.

When he’d show up during the week, I’d go to the back door when I heard his knock and we’d catch up for a couple of minutes.  He’d tell me about his daughter, who like him, battled addiction.  We’d talk about his counselor, Lisa, who seemed to be very good to him.  Helped him get through the everyday tasks of life, like keeping groceries in his apartment and making sure he had a good coat for the winter.

“What are you up to today?” I’d ask.

“I guess I’ll go back to Serenity Club,” was a common answer.  The Serenity Club, I gathered, was a safe place for those battling addiction to go and hang out.  Back near his high-rise.

I’d give him a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee and off he’d go.

Halfway down the alley he’d turn and yell, “Thank you, Joe.”  He was appreciative.

But he’s been missing.

I didn’t seem him through last winter.  Probably just staying in, I told myself.  Then spring became summer and I realized that I hadn’t heard his knock on the door for some time.  I began asking around.  Nobody had seen him.  He has relatives who go to our church but no one knew anything about him.

A few weeks ago I drove to Dunbar.  I knew where the Serenity Club was so I drove around the neighborhood looking for him.  Nothing.

This past Tuesday my wife and I were in Dunbar visiting an old neighbor in the nursing home.  We drove by the Serenity Club.  A man and a woman sat on a bench in the alley.  I parked the car and approached them.

“Is the Serenity Club around here?”  I asked, even though I was pretty sure of its location.

“You’re looking at it,” he answered as he thumbed to the building behind him.

“I’m looking for a friend who used to come here.  Keith.”  I told him his last name.

“Never heard of him.  What’s he look like?”

“In his 70s, I think.  Not too tall.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.  How long ago was he here?”

I didn’t really know.  I told him I thought he had been coming for years.  Keith is not the kind of guy you easily forget.

We drove to the high-rise.  A half dozen people sat outside under the entry canopy.  I asked the same question.  I got puzzled looks in response.  Nobody knew Keith.  As if he had never existed.

I got back in the car and circled the lot.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a man walking down the sidewalk beside the high-rise.

“There he is!”

I stopped.  My wife got out.

“Keith!  Where have you been?” she says.

He stops.  He looks confused.  “Who are you?”

I’m thinking this isn’t a good sign.

“It’s Joe and Gloria.”

“Oh.  Hey.  What are you doing here?”  Turns out it was just the sun in his eyes keeping him from recognizing us.

I tell him the story.  That we’ve been looking for him.  Been missing him.  Told him I stopped by the Serenity Club but nobody knew Keith.

“Nobody knows me as Keith.  They know me as Harry.”

“Harry?”

“Keith is my middle name.  I go by Harry.”

All these years, I’ve called him Keith.  Everyone I know who knows him calls him Keith.  He’s never corrected us.  Even his relatives call him Keith.  And then I realize that those who really know him, those who live with him, those with whom he spends his days, call him Harry.

So we spend a few minutes catching up.  He fell sometime in the last year and busted his knee cap.  He seems to be completely recovered but he doesn’t travel around like he used to.  Just stays around the high-rise and the Serenity Club.

His daughter died.  I didn’t ask how, just assumed she finally lost her battle.  Keith is still winning his.  Twenty-three years coming up in a week or so.  His anniversary date is also his birthday.

He’s had a hard life.  The roller coaster, as he says.  It’s worn on him.  You can see it in his eyes.  But if you look closer, you can see the warmth, too.  There’s a kindness about him.

He introduces us to some of his friends at the high-rise.  Friends from church, he calls us.  We all have a laugh about the Keith-Harry confusion.  It’s clear they like Harry.  He seems happy and content.

We give him a few dollars to celebrate his upcoming anniversary/birthday.  We promise to come back and see him.  As we leave, Keith gives us a wave.  But he’s Harry now, back among those who know him best.

coffee people

Tuesday – that’s her name – served me a cup of coffee today.  I know because her name tag said so.  Sometimes it’s Tara.  Sometimes Gina.  Savannah.  George, the Australian.  Others don’t wear name tags.

I’ve tried calling them by name.  They don’t like that.  It’s as if I’m crossing a social boundary and that makes them uncomfortable.  So I’ll just be anonymous coffee buyer and you be whoever you are and we won’t let our worlds collide.

The crew has changed.  I still see the old crew on the street now and then.  The guy with the long hair who wears a trench coat.  One of the old girls worked at KFC for a while.

I never knew the tough guy’s name.  Wore tight t-shirts to show off his muscles.  Friendly enough, but always had a smirk.  Like the guy in school who sat in the back of the class, always on the edge of trouble.  The guy you thought was funny but you always wanted to keep your distance because you didn’t want to be the center of whatever mayhem was brewing.

One morning he has a big bandage on his arm.  I ask about it.  He gives me the smirk.  Then launches into his story.  Some kind of altercation at the drive-through window.  The other guy had a knife and cut him.  But he got the knife and the guy drove off.  Big smirk.  Just another tough-guy story.

The franchise changed hands about a year ago.  The old manager left.  The old crew was replaced. Where are they now?  What’s trench coat guy doing?  Tough guy?

The new people are ok.  I haven’t seen Tara in a while.  She’s probably moved on.

Tara’s a little shy, but I get the feeling she wants to be outgoing.  She has a slight speech impediment.  Can’t pronounce her Rs.  I had the same problem when I was a kid.  My mother and my sisters tried to help.  They started out with good intentions, thinking they could really help me, but when I continued to fail, I became a source of great amusement.  Uncontrollable laughter.  Not cruel, just fun.  Eventually a school speech therapist helped me figure it out.  I always wanted to talk to Tara.  Because we had that in common.

In the world of #MeToo I think it’s important to point out that I am so much older than the kids that work at the coffee joint and I know I’m older and I’m very happily married and have no intention of being the old man creep.  Just to be clear.

I’ve never been one to have many friends.  I never have long talks about life.  Maybe that’s the difference.  Other people have friends and the imaginary boundary between coffee server and customer is easier to maintain.

And so I sit at my table, sipping my coffee.  I think I’ll quit reading name tags.  They don’t really want me to.  They don’t want to know my name.  I’m just anonymous coffee buyer.

 

 

how to squander your right to vote

I tried to vote today.

Of course that’s not the story.  I vote in every election, if I’m able.  Last year (I think it was last year) I voted by filling in circles with an ink pen, just like I did on high school tests back in the olden days.

But technology has finally arrived to the backwoods corner of my world.  This morning at 7:15, I arrived at the polling place to find brand new touch screen voting machines.  The poll workers felt obligated to teach me how to use them.  Not that I couldn’t figure it out by myself.

So I slide in the ballot to get things going and start touching away.  I knew some of the candidates, but rather than vote for people I don’t know anything about, I’ll skip to the next office until I see a candidate in which I have some confidence. On these new machines, it meant I touched “Next”.  I did that a lot.

I finally finished and then the machine started making me review all my choices.  I didn’t have time to do that.  I had to drive to Lexington.  More on that in a little bit.  I needed to end the voting exercise.  So I hit “Exit.”

And out came my ballot.

I took it to the next station where it was inserted into the magic vote counting machine. The magic machine spit it back out.  They tried again.  Same result.

“Did you hit Exit?”

“Yes.”

“You weren’t supposed to do that.”

“Oh.”

“You should have hit Print.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, Jimmy.  He hit Exit.  What do we do?”

“He should have hit Print.”

“That’s what I told him.”

“Try it again.”

“We did.  It didn’t work.”

They huddled to consider the options.

“Nevermind.  I have to go.”

“But sir.  We’ll figure it out.”

“I don’t have time.”

They were still huddled when I left.

It’s ok.  The people I vote for never win anyway.

First Place

Of the top five finishers in the 5K this morning, one had run 8 miles before the race. Another had run 13 miles.

I was doing well to get out of bed and drive to the race just a half mile from my house.

The winners’ times were fast, these young men in their man-buns and the sleek bodies of youth, who are not even bothering with water as they stroll easily along the sidewalk, not even out of breath, because they finished 6 minutes before I did and have already cooled down, as I labor to the finish line, feeling like a runner, but knowing that I’m just another old guy, old being anyone over 25, because anyone over 25 is just a pretender and not even an afterthought to those who run in the fast lane of youth.

So I won my age group.  First place, the little trophy cup says. So what. Who cares.

I care a little. Because I made myself get out of bed. I made myself run those 4 miles on Wednesday when I didn’t really feel like it.  And the speed work on Monday, which is ridiculous and serves no purpose other than to satisfy my ego. And the 7 1/2 miles last Sunday that I don’t have to do.  But there’s something gratifying about being out on the road in the early morning by yourself, and wanting to quit after a couple of miles while you still feel good, but enjoying the morning so much that you just keep pushing until your legs become weak and a little wobbly but you have to push on because you just can’t quit because you have to push on.  Because you have to push on.

And because of all of that, there’s a little cup that says First Place that means nothing to anybody but me.

More miles to go.

shoes 1 for web

Looks like my running days are over.

I first said that probably twenty-five years ago. I was struggling to finish the Charleston Distance Run, a grueling 15-miler. I had run the race several times before and done fairly well for an amateur runner. Not this time. At about the 12 mile mark I was so beat, I questioned why I was putting myself through it. Being as competitive (prideful?) as I am, I didn’t want to run if I couldn’t be constantly improving.

Looks like my running days are over.

I haven’t run the Distance Run since, but I shelved my pride and kept running.

Then about 15 years ago my orthopedist said I had a condition called spondylolisthesis. Bad back. He told me to quit running.

Looks like my running days are over, for real.

I started sleeping in on Saturdays, but I wanted to stay in shape.  I found an old video from the 80s and started doing step aerobics. Then Tae Bo with Billy Blanks.  I did this for maybe three years. But I missed running.

I started out slowly. Not even a mile on my first run. Kept adding a little bit each time. I was soon running about three miles every other day. I wasn’t running like I used to, but I was running. And no back pain.

So of course I kept adding miles. Then hills. Then speed work. I ran a few races and actually won my age division a couple of times, which, really, is nothing to brag about. At my age, just showing up for the race almost assures you of a trophy. And if I can manage to knock out the guy with the walker ahead of me, then I win.

So I kept running. Then came the knee pain. I tried running through it but it only got worse. I laid off for a couple of days. When I tried again, the pain was almost unbearable. I did what you’re supposed to do. Ice and pain relievers. Nothing helped.

Looks like my running days are over.

I went back to step aerobics. After a couple of weeks, I tried the treadmill. The pain was still there.

More aerobics.

After about four weeks, I tried the treadmill again.  No pain for a quarter mile.

More aerobics. Treadmill. Half mile.

Aerobics. Treadmill. One mile.

And then I was out on the road again.

That was a year ago. Yesterday I did about four miles of hills and speed work.

I’m sure some other ailments will pop up. I’ve had hamstring problems. Foot problems. But I take it easy for a few days and then I’m back at it.

Here’s what I’ve learned from running:

The body is very resilient.  Sure, there may be a time when my running days are really over. But it won’t be for lack of trying.

Be patient. Be positive. Be persistent.

 

And then there was Bach.

I heard a piano playing.

I recognized the hymn, despite the missed note here and there. Probably coming from the gathering place where the residents sit in wheelchairs on Sunday afternoon and listen to the local Church of Christ preacher.

Except I had already passed the gathering place. The piano sounds were coming from down the hall.

She sat in her doorway in her wheelchair, the keyboard resting on the armrests. She kept playing as I approached.

That’s really very good, I said.

She laughed but she didn’t look up. She was unable to raise her head. She looked at the floor as she spoke.

I play by ear, she said. I can’t read music.

Then I noticed the plastic rat sitting on the keyboard. It was so out of place that I couldn’t bring myself to ask about it. I should have. There’s probably a good story to go with it.

This hand doesn’t work very well, she said as she held up her twisted right hand.

Well, you sound great.

And she did. Not that she was going on tour anytime soon, but I’d love to be able to play at her level.

I went on.

While I was visiting, I heard her playing. One hymn after another.

And then there was Bach. Unmistakable.

The rhythms and the patterns of the master composer. And a familiar tune. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Another hymn, of sorts.

As I was leaving, she had quit playing but was still sitting in her doorway.

I heard you playing Bach, I said.

Bach? As if she didn’t know who I was talking about.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, I said

She laughed. That’s Bach?

Yes.

She laughed again. Good old Bach, she said. Good old Bach.

Privilege

He’s pretty much lying on his back on this unique contraption, part wheelchair, part gurney. He’s in the sun, because when it’s not too hot, it’s good to get out of the building, out of the darkness, out of the smells. A lot of people are out. Some are by themselves, smoking, some are just sitting. They all acknowledge visitors, maybe with a smile or a sideways glance, but they all notice. Even the guy on his back, strapped in so he won’t fall off, follows me with his eyes.

He’s wearing a Cowboys jersey. I offer a quick hello as I walk by. He returns the greeting.

Are you a Cowboys fan? I ask.

Yes, sir.

I can’t tell if he can move his head or his arms, but he pushes the joystick with his fingers and his chair moves to face me.

They looked pretty good at the end of the season, I say. They have a good quarterback.

I want to talk specifics, but I can’t remember the quarterback’s name.

Yeah, he says. Dak Prescott. He’s going to be good.

And the running back? What’s his name?

Elliott, he says.

Then he says the defense has to get better.

I say something about how the Cowboys are fun to watch, but my knowledge of the team is limited. Like all conversations with strangers, this one has run its course.

I’d better get inside, I say, not really wanting to. I turn to go and remember to ask.

What’s your name?

Del.

Hey, Del. I’m Joe. I’ll see you around.

After my visit inside, I leave, but Del’s no longer outside.

I see him again a few weeks later, in the same chair, the nurses taking him in for rehab. I wanted to say hello but before I reached him, they had pushed him on down the hall.

I go on and make my visit. The usual ten minutes.

Then I leave this world of offensive odors, vacant looks, cries of loneliness, incoherent conversations, and people who depend on others to help them eat pureed food or drink juice through a straw, and guys like Del who have no other options.

I walk to my car and drive away. A few minutes later, I stop for coffee, maybe drive around a bit because it’s such a nice day. It’s Sunday, and I have no other obligations. For me, it’s a day of rest.

I think about privilege, and how that term is used today. It’s become a pejorative. I have able-body privilege. I have sound mind privilege. I have the privilege of good health and mobility and the privilege of being able to make my own decisions and act on those decisions.

I have all of that. Del doesn’t. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

tough guy

tough guy

A couple of weeks ago my father, who is 87, called me on a Sunday morning around 7:00. He asked if I could run him up to the emergency room. If I wasn’t busy. I told him I could be there in ten minutes. Make it thirty, he said.

His left arm was hurting. Had been for a few days. He had mowed his grass on Tuesday and sometime after that his arm started hurting. At the time he took pain pills, it felt better, so that was that.  Through the week it seemed to be getting better, so Saturday night he skipped the pain pills. But the pain was back and woke him up around 3:00. He waited another four hours before deciding that maybe he should have it checked out. You know, just in case it was that heart-attack thing.

So I drove him up to the ER.  He walked in while I parked. They took him right away and he got to exchange funny quips with the cute triage nurse. Then they took him back and ran more tests and blood work. More quips with another cute nurse.  All ER visits should go like his.

After four hours no one had rushed in declaring his need for bypass surgery so he was starting to get the idea he was ok. But he was bored. I didn’t notice when he held his breath to see what that would do to his oxygen reading.  Beep, beep, beep. Then he tried rapid breathing. Beep, beep, beep.  Then he wanted to know how that thing on his finger read his oxygen level.  So I looked it up.

A little while later a young Physician’s Assistant said they were going to send him home.  The nurse would come in and disconnect him from the monitors.  When she was slow to arrive he started to take out the IV port. I said that probably wasn’t a good idea. So he waited.

Though he was being discharged, they advised against any strenuous activity until he had a follow-up stress test, just to make sure. In the meantime, I mowed his grass a couple of times. I’m in pretty good shape, but his yard is no picnic. It’s strenuous for sure. I used the opportunity to suggest that maybe, at 87, it was time to start hiring it done. No. He wanted to do it himself.

So last week, after getting the green light from his Primary Care Physician, or PCP as he likes to say, he was back to mowing in the heat of the summer.

No big deal.

Yeah. One tough guy.

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