In our diverse and crowded world it seems like we are all destined to be separated by geography, culture, gender, economic and educational attainments, and so on. The list of things that separate us and set us apart is a long one that seems to be growing longer and more rigid day by day. This would make it seem like reconciling ourselves to living together would be an insurmountable task but I do not believe that to be the case. As I look at the people around me I see as many things that we share in common as things that we do not. We all have loves and hurts, we all need to eat, to have shelter, and to have a purpose in life. And that list could go on for a long time as well. But lest I begin to get too lofty in all of this let me share with you all one other thing that we all hold in common. We all, at one time or another, do something embarrassing.
A president will throw up into the lap of a prime minister, a congressman will send sketchy photos to an assumed girlfriend. A radiologist wiil point to some shadows on a piece of film and ask “And what is this?’, and the harassed technologist will reply “I don’t know doc, you took that picture”. A young boy will ask a girl to the dance but call her by another girl’s name, and the girl who does get to go to the dance will see that three other girls, including her sworn enemy, are wearing the same dress that she is and look better in it. This is just the way of the world. There’s no way to avoid it unless you hole up in a cabin somewhere and avoid all human contact, and that is a pretty high price to pay to avoid a little thing like embarrassment.
I have certainly enjoyed my fair share of embarrassment. I am by nature extremely outgoing while my major secondary personality trait is that I am shy and easily embarrassed. That is a poisonous combination. I have already written about my prodigious three-meter belly flop which was committed while trying to impress a young lady at a swimming pool in my story “Age of Aquarius”. Then there was the straw that got thrust into my nostril when I went to take a sip while sitting with several friends in a junior high cafeteria, and when I was giving an oral report and my mind went so blank that I could hardly remember my name. I’ve had others and you, dear reader have had them too. And most of us can remember The One, the worst embarrassment of all time, unless you are so fortunate that your mind has completely repressed the memory and there is no scar on your psyche to show where that particular land mine blew up. My mind has not been that lucky. I still remember my worst time, and now I will share it with the world.
I grew up in San Diego, California, and like many kids in that time I had a paper route. I hated getting up early in the morning then just as I still do now, so I chose to take a route with the afternoon paper, the Evening Tribune, which I could deliver after returning home from school. Upon returning to my house I would find one or more bundles of newspapers, depending upon the paper’s size on any given day, which I would begin to fold in half and then secure with rubber bands that I would purchase from the newspaper company. Porch delivery was the desired model then and broken screens and upended potted plants were things to be discouraged, so we folded the papers as tightly as possible in order to make them as aerodynamically functional as possible.
We would load those papers into a saddlebag-looking canvas contraption that we would then sling over a steel frame attached over the back tire of our heavy-framed bicycles. The smarter paperboys would affix a basket on the front of the bicycle which would hold a ready supply of papers for delivery, but the basket looked really weenie and so most of us rejected the notion out of hand. We would instead withdraw a few of the folded papers from our canvas bag and hold them between the left thumb and handlebars so that we could launch individual papers with our right hand. This is where it got tricky. On the porch roof or through a screen was just a bad deal. Into a shrub or a potted plant was only a little less bad. We were forbidden to ride across our customers’ lawns so we had to launch our papers, at speed and like a Frisbee, from the sidewalk and across the lawn to land neatly with a satisfying ‘plop’ on the mostly concrete porches in the front of the customer’s house. The surprising thing is how often we were successful at doing this.
One other thing you need to know in order for this tale to make sense is that San Diego in the early and mid 1960’s was a city that lived very much outside. The weather in that city was nice most of the year and could be quite warm from summer through fall. There were not a lot of residential air conditioners in those days and people would open up all of their windows and doors to allow any breeze to flow through the house, and in the afternoon and evening they would sit outside on the shady side of the house. On any given day there was a line of people stretching down the street sitting in the shade of their front porches, running the sprinklers for the kids to play in and chatting with neighbors, or just watching the world go by. And this sets the table for my moment of ultimate misery.
Thursday was always a day for big, fat papers because of all of its advertising inserts and announcements of weekend sales within the paper itself. Only Sunday papers were bigger, and they required larger rubber bands to contain them. I had flattened the papers as well as I could and double banded them in the hope that they would fly with more grace and accuracy than a drunken goose and that the bands would not snap and the paper explode into a million separate pages floating across the customer’s lawn and those of their neighbors. I stuffed as many folded papers as would fit into the canvas saddlebags and tied it to my bike. It was now time to deliver my cargo.
I encountered no misadventures that I can recall as I waddled down the sidewalk on my overloaded bike. The papers were so thick that I could only hold two with my left thumb while I launched the third with my right hand. This caused me to be looking backwards often as I sought to fish out three more of my paper projectiles without having to stop the bike. Time is money! I safely negotiated my first block and the action of the bicycle became smoother as I ejected my load missile by missile towards porches that, on that day, looked to be as big as a basketball court. The first load got me two blocks north and then three blocks south on the opposite side of the street. Upon emptying my bags I returned to my house to ram the rest of my papers into the bag and return down the street to where I left off. One of the rules of the job was that we were not to ride on sidewalks unless we were actively delivering papers, so I was wobbling down the street with my unwieldy load attempting to regain my place where I had run out of papers.
About a half block from where I had left off a downhill grade presented itself. It was not a steep hill by any means but it did permit the bike to pick up speed, especially under a heavy load, and braking became difficult and something that needed to be planned. That being the case, I have no idea why I would choose that moment to allow my mind to go somewhere else. Maybe I was thinking about one more girl that I wouldn’t ask out on a date because I was too shy, or maybe about a big wave that I would catch the next time that I got to the beach, or the sports team that I wanted to try out for – – -, naw, it was probably the girl. Anyway, my bike was picking up speed and my brain was AWOL when I planted the front tire of that bike into the driver’s side portion of the grill of a 1956 Buick Roadmaster.
In terms of physics, I am going to lose that one every time. The Buick didn’t budge an inch. The bike stopped on less than a dime however and my mind came back to Earth as my body sailed over the left front wheel well of that square steel beast. My body now took its turn of coming back to Earth and I landed with as much grace as I could, which was virtually none, and bumped and rolled a short way down the asphalt surface of Highland Avenue. I finally came to a stop and popped immediately to my feet. You never want it to look like it got to you. Retreating back up the hill I righted my bike and examined the front end to ensure that it was still usable. Bicycles were built like tanks back then and indeed it was unspoiled and ready to resume duty. It was only after I had ascertained that the bike was serviceable that it occurred to me that somebody may have seen my humiliating brain cramp. I turned slowly to my right and looked across the street to where the front porches sat in the shade on that very warm afternoon, and my worst fears were confirmed.
Arrayed across the lawns and front porches of that side of the street were no fewer than eight families; mothers, some fathers, and a host of children. I stood there silently, blood beginning to drip from multiple road rashes, feeling like a bug stuck to a pin under a scientist’s microscope. After a moment that actually felt like an eternity one of the older kids, a boy of about 14 or 15, began to slowly clap. Several others took up that unwanted applause and my mind raced to find a way to get out of this gracefully. There was of course no way to do that so I opted for Plan B; I propped the bike up against the front of that evil Buick and faced my tormentors. I delivered the best formal bow that my several years of delivering recitals for my piano teacher had taught me.
The crowd appreciated my recovery and gave me a good natured laugh and a wave that said “It’s all right, we’ve all done something like that or worse.” A mom called out and asked “are you OK?” I would have denied a fractured skull. I replied “Nothing hurt but my dignity.” I had read a lot of Mark Twain and I thought that he would have said something like that. Pulling my bicycle upright I mounted it once again and within a moment my bruised, bleeding, mortified self was coasting back down the hill to where I could resume delivering my papers and put this miserable day behind me.
It took me a couple of weeks to recover from the patches of skin that were shredded off by the pavement of that street and fifty years later I can still feel the burn of standing bleeding and stupefied in front of an audience of my neighbors. At least now I can laugh about it.