Archive for October, 2009

A chance encounter, Part III

Monday, October 5th, 2009
Michael McGuire

Barry lay there, tipped over on the corner of Mitchell and Silver streets. Wheels still spinning, pointing crooked toward the sky. Eyes red, puffy. He did not move. A gaggle of carts gathered around him.

“I don’t see anything,” one of them said, poking around Barry’s undercarriage.

“What are we looking for?” said another.

Barry spoke: “You’re looking for some kind of electronic device.” His voice was hoarse. “Something this computer chip fits into.” He held it out for them to see. No bigger than a Wheat Thin. “I think it fell off me while I was tossing my cookies in the honeypot. All that heaving must’ve of jimmied it loose. Busted some blood vessels, too. My eyes are sore.”

They searched. No device. Just a few rust patches, some enflamed. Comes with the irritation and discomfort of growing old. Barry closed his eyes, feeling defeated. It’d been quite a trip – over a year since he blacked out on that snow bank and woke up 1,200 miles away in The Big Easy. He did what he had to in that strange place to make it, to see Norwich again. Broke his heart finding out seven others had been taken, still missing. Tammy, Rick, Randy, Pocky, Owen, Jan and Bernard. Like him, they were some of the oldest, most respected shopping carts in town. Bumping curbs and chilling on the corner before it was hip, even legal. Gone. Barry wanted to know why, but he was tired.

“I found something,” said a cart named Rich, sharp kid, pointing at the advertisement below Barry’s handlebar. “That placard, on the back of your carriage, didn’t it used to say ‘buy one, get one free’ Hamburger Helper?”

“Yeah. Stroganoff and taco,” Barry replied. “Good stuff. Expired back in June 2004, but I dug the design.”

“Well, now it shows some old guy smiling, holding a 32-ounce can of Metamucil. Says you can get one half-off with the purchase of another at full price,” Rich said. “Somebody wanted you to be regular.”

“Nobody more so than me,” Barry said distantly, sadly. He would’ve noticed the fiber advertisement sooner, but he hadn’t looked in a mirror since before disappearing. He was scared to see himself dressed as a woman; a crossed-up, caged heat sin buggy rolling down allies in search of strange men to push him around a little, ride in his basket.

Barry, refocusing on the ad: “Pull it out. Let’s see what they’re hiding.”

When something wanted out of Barry, be it food, beverage, firewood, lawnmower parts, or the occasional used futon, the force of its exit was legendary. And like a griddle exhaust pointed the wrong way in a diner, the old shopping cart’s enraged puking uncovered mysteries that both excited and confused. It dislodged the chip, which led him to the Metamucil advertisement. Behind the fiber ad, as expected, was a circuit board, an empty space where a Wheat Thin-sized chip should go.

“It’s a TrackUsense,” said Rich, pointing to the circuit board. “A popular homing device they put on expensive cars in case they get stolen. You are, or were, being followed.”

Barry: “What do you mean were being followed?”

Rich: “The board is fried. The wires are all burnt and the components are melted. Judging from the corrosion, looks like it happened months ago. Probably got wet or something.”

“For a while there I was selling hand grenades on Bourbon Street for extra scratch. Drunks were always spilling them on me. Sticky business.”

“Makes sense,” Rich said. “You must’ve felt a burning sensation when it flared up. Did you not notice?”

“Kid, after working a few nights in that part of town, I only would’ve noticed if there weren’t a burning sensation.”

“Good point.”

Rich called the customer service number on the back of the device and entered the license number. Like I said, sharp kid.

Rich set down the phone. “I know who it’s registered to. You’d better sit down, Barry.”

Apple pie

Friday, October 2nd, 2009
Melissa Stagnaro

For as long as I can remember, fall has been synonymous with one thing in the Stagnaro household: apple pie. Some of my earliest memories involve helping my mom make the cinnamony sweet pastry creations.

When I was young, my job was layering the apples (always Cortland’s or, in a pinch, Mac’s) in my mother’s carefully prepared pie crust and coating them with the cinnamon and sugar mix. As you can imagine, I pilfered almost as much as I layered.

When I was deemed worthy, I graduated to pealing and paring, both tasks my mother was eager to pass off on someone else. I never minded, since I’d always wanted a shot at using that nifty little apple cutter.

My mom has always taken a great deal of pride in her pies, particularly in the crust. I don’t know how many crust recipes she went through in my youth, before she found one, provided by an ex-girlfriend of my brother Dennis, which met her exacting standards. Because heaven forbid the crust didn’t meet those standards. It didn’t matter how much we’d all rave about the finished product (and they were always amazing), in her eyes it was a failure.

No one was allowed any part in the preparation of the crust but her. If I was lucky, I’d get to poke the hole in the top, and add the final fluting to the edges of the crust. But only if I was lucky. If I wanted to actually help cut in the shortening or roll it out? Forget it. And having witnessed the aftermath when she wasn’t happy with a crust, I didn’t want to press the issue, lest she turn the blame on me in the event that it didn’t achieve that precise degree of flakiness.

Throughout my formative years, my mom’s pies were legendary among my friends. While I was in college, my father would fly down to pick me up, usually to the airport in White Plains. My friend Tim would always agree to drive me. He’d turn down gas money, though, preferring instead to be compensated in apple pies. Mom was always happy to comply.

I didn’t begin experimenting with apple pies myself until I moved to Northern Virginia a few months after college.

Unsurprisingly, my friends were always willing to volunteer as guinea pigs. For a time, pie became a staple of their diets. (Along with their contribution of shake-n-bake pork chops.) And with their help, I was able to perfect my apple pie baking abilities to a point where mine could (almost) rival my mom’s. (She gets incredibly cranky if anyone even suggests that mine are superior, a fact my father has yet to grasp. Either that or he just enjoys torturing her.)

Over the years, I lost touch with most of my former guinea pigs, although they remained close. Recently (thanks to Facebook) we’ve become re-acquainted. It had been six or seven years since I’d seen any of them, but apparently my reputation had lived on. (I was a little flattered when one of them told me he had reminded his wife, who I had never met, who I was by telling her “you know, the one who baked the pies.”)

But of course, having such a reputation meant there was a certain expectation of me. From that first visit, they kept demanding pie.

At the beginning of September, I got an email from Ed, one of those former guinea pigs. An avid baseball fan, Ed wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming down to see the Washington National’s final Friday home game of their rather uninspiring season. He even offered to buy the tickets, so how could I say no.

Even though it wasn’t expressly stated in the invitation, I knew what would be required in return. And I’m not talking about buying the first round of ridiculously overpriced ballpark beverages, although that was a given as well. Nope, I knew I better get baking.

The night before my departure, I dug out my apple pie recipe. And while I was excited at the outset, that initial enthusiasm faded about halfway through the pealing and paring process, which was decidedly more tedious than I had remembered. Maybe I should have just planned on making one pie, not two.

Of course, the apple prep is the easy part of making a pie. I still had the crust to deal with. As out of practice as I was, it wasn’t fun. I regret to say that not as much love went into making that particular pie as others that I’ve baked in the past, and a whole lot more blood, sweat and tears. (I obviously take after my mother.) Putting it in the oven felt like more of a relief than an accomplishment.

It was all worth it of course in the end. The baseball game was a heck of a lot of fun (despite the National’s rather dismal performance), and after a bit of post-game celebration, we headed back to Ed’s for pie.

The crust, I’m happy to say, was perfect.

It felt a bit patriotic, actually, enjoying two such American traditions in our nation’s capital. Because what could possibly be more American than baseball and apple pie.

Reporting the scene of a fire

Friday, October 2nd, 2009
Tyler Murphy

The smell of smoke. I almost always smell it first. The squelched aroma of burnt garbage. The bobbing county road was draped in a slight film of gray haze, like fog but the air was dry.

A half mile from the scene and closing the smoke’s hues darken slightly. Before my eyes cross the top of the hill I can sense the faint reflection of red and blue strobe lights bouncing off the thick air.

There must be at least a couple hundred flashing bulbs on the fire trucks, ambulances and private vehicles lining the roadway. The kind that are so bright that to look at them directly leaves a residual pulsing image stamped in your brain for several seconds after.

In the throes of a fire the scene seems like ordered chaos. Crews dart back and forth from emergency vehicles carrying all manner of equipment. A few tired looking men in full turn out gear sit on the bumper of a fire engine as their oxygen tanks register depletion and set off with the sound of an old ringing alarm clock.

The sound rattles periodically, muffled slightly by the constant sound of crashing water, roaring flame and revving fire trucks. It lets the firefighters know when their oxygen tanks are low and indicates to me that the first people on the scene must have arrived about 15 minutes ago.

Navigating through puddles of water, hoses and heaving firemen I snap pictures as soon as arrive because flames make for dramatic photography and only dwindle as crews work.

The smell is like smudged charcoal beneath your nose and it will linger in my clothes and car for the rest of the day even through I never cross paths with any plumes of smoke.

Soot and wet ash cling and steal the color of everything they touch- including the stained uniforms and faces of responders who can’t avoid getting emersed in the stuff.

A man, typically wearing a pair of pajamas (sweat pant’s in this case) who’s running around the scene is a good indication of the home owner. A second personality often seen is the one sitting on the back of an ambulance in disbelief… again in whatever clothes they threw on at the last minute.

As the urgency of the situation wanes and the crews gained control over the scene you see a few of the firefighters standing and watching those taking their turn at toiling in the heat. This is the time to grab remarks for the story. As I wait for this moment to come I walk around taking pictures and trying not to get in the way. I walk down the road and inspect all the logos of the attending fire departments to ensure those who came get the earned credit.

The who, what and when already known I look for other basics:

What was the condition of the scene when you first arrived?
Was anyone hurt? How and to what extent?
What’s the damage? Does the family have a place to stay?
What was the point of origin and cause? (Often only half answered until hours later in the day.)

After spending over 45 minutes there I usually leave the scene while the crews continue to mop up the last of the dying flames and start the clean up.