It wasn't my idea to work as a reporter for the school newspaper. I was pushed into it because they knew I liked to write and that meant I should want to write for the school paper. They wanted me to interview people for human interest stories. I said I would give it a try and received my first assignment. They wanted me to interview Chuck, the guy who drove the lunch truck and serviced the area around the school. He was even known to skulk up onto school property from time to time to sell his tightly wrapped sandwiches and bruised apples to kids at the school. He was rather creepy looking, with big hairy forearms, each with matching anchor tattoos. He had a perpetual five o'clock shadow, greasy hair and called women "dames." I was understandably nervous approaching him about an interview for the school paper.
"What d'ya wanna interview me for?"
I tried explaining to Chuck that it was a human interest story and that it was one of a series. He laughed and asked if this was some way to keep kids from dropping out of school since that was a mistake he had made. Chuck had gone back to get his GED, but during the decade between dropping out of high school and getting his GED, he lost too much time. He worked down at the docks, unloading freighters and engaging in night fishing and beer drinking to entertain himself.
"I knew love once, but it wasn't for me."
His tone of voice made me more than a little uncomfortable. There was a tear in the corner of his eye and his voice warbled as he spoke the words. Then he opened the side panel of his lunch truck and began nervously moving pre-wrapped sandwiches around.
"Is this the kind of stuff you want to know about?"
This was my opportunity to steer the interview in another direction. The last thing I wanted to know was the details of this man's love life. I asked him about his truck, whether he owned it or not, and how he got started in the business. This seemed to relax him a bit.
"This is my own business, I bought the route from another driver three years ago. He bought it from the company, where we gets all our food and drinks from. We get in trouble for carrying outside products. Sometimes I get special requests, though. I do my best to satisfy the customer. Regular customers are like gold. I got this one car mechanic down on Maple who buys a ham and cheese sandwich and a carton of chocolate milk every day."
He was in a hurry to leave, but I pushed him for more information. I couldn't go back to Theresa, the editor of the school newspaper, and tell her that Chuck hadn't done well in love and had bought his route from another man and cared about his customers. I needed to know more. Chuck told me he hung out in the parking lot behind the supermarket every night and asked me to join him if I wanted to know more. I quickly agreed, shook his hand and waited until the sun had gone down before driving to the supermarket.
I found him parked out back in an El Camino, drinking beers and cursing at the seagulls hunting in the dumpsters. At first he didn't recognize me, then he got out of his El Camino and embraced me. A full body hug was just what I needed to shake off the doldrums. I felt a thousand emotions running through my mind at once. I thought about love and death and sex and birthday parties. After he broke his sweaty hug, he handed me a beer and told me he wished that I was his daughter. When I told him that I was a boy, he shook his head.
"You sure don't look like a boy."
I thanked him for that and asked if he wanted to look at the family photos I had brought. He agreed. It was the perfect ice breaker. While he looked through the photo albums, I brushed my hair and looked over my notes. This interview was going to get me noticed. I had the fever. I had accurate and insightful journalism fever.
"So, what else do you want to know about me, kid?"
Some junior high school kids came by on their bicycles. Chuck told them I was "cool" and begged them to come closer. They quietly slipped him a wad of bills and Chuck handed them four very bad smelling bags of cold cuts. With the meat in their possession, they raced over behind the dumpster, popped open the bags and began smelling the rotten cold cuts enthusiastically.
"They have no idea how bad that shit is for them, but if I didn't sell it to them, someone else would."
I agreed with him. If people want to get messed up badly enough, they will find a way. Making a little profit off someone's elses foibles and miseries is simply the right thing to do in a free market economic system. I put my hand on top of Chuck's hand and told him that he was "tops" in my book. Then I asked him more questions, and collected a great deal of data for the piece I would write for the school paper. This would blow them all away. They would know that I had a head for journalism.
"Have you ever traveled in time?"
I told him I had never done anything like that before and that I didn't believe in traveling in time. He told me that not many people did, but that some people were willing to believe. He closed my photo albums and opened his glove compartment. There were several snapshots in the glove box. He handed them to me.
"As you can see, these are scientific proof of my time travel methods."
I looked them over curiously. There was one that showed Chuck standing next to Napoleon and smiling. It was rather blurry and Napoleon looked stiff. I imagined he was made of wax. The second photo showed Chuck standing in front of a painting of dinosaurs. He was patting a brontosaurus on the top of its head. The third photo showed Chuck standing completely naked, having just gotten out of the shower.
"Which one is your favorite?"
I liked the one with the stiff Napoleon the best, and I told him so. He was pleased with my choice and told me I could keep it, since he wasn't sure that one had anything to do with time travel. I dropped it on the floor of the El Camino and had to go down to get it. As I did so, someone came to the door. I sat up straight and looked over to see a very attractive police officer with a very well trimmed moustache.
"We're not doing drugs, officer. We're just gettin' to be friends is all."
The cop left and I felt more relaxed. Chuck asked if I was hungry and took me over to the fast food restaurant. They were closed, but Chuck had a key and knew how to get in through the back door. We enjoyed hamburgers and freedom fries, although the burgers were so greasy that we both had trouble keeping our meat between the buns. I asked if he did this often, and he shrugged. He was a free spirit, a man who lived a life that was all his own. This would be the centerpiece of my story for the school newspaper. Chuck was a great guy. I spent several years writing about him in my secret Strawberry Shortcake diary.
My story didn't do so well in the school paper. They printed it, but no one read that particular issue. It was during exams week and no one had time. Everyone was very devoted to their studies and when it came time for exams, you would never find a face that was not buried in a book. Public school is funny like that. Everyone is so concerned with their grades because of the paranoia that they will have trouble getting into a good college because of the "public school" stigma.
I didn't become a journalist. I became a drunk and a pill popper. I joined a couple of cults and drank a lot of vegetable juice. Even now, though, when I see a bunch of junior high school kids sniffing bags of expired meat behind the dumpster, I think of Chuck. He died a couple years ago in a tragic harpoon accident while whaling. I remember reading his obituary. He was a brave man.