I’m storm-bound in a cowboy town, and I just high-fived a cop and bonded with a camo-clad local.
I wasn’t planning to meet anybody at all today. I thought I’d just grab a few groceries — some hummus and veggies for tonight’s dinner in my hotel room, and maybe some almond milk for tomorrow morning’s coffee. After coffee tomorrow, assuming the forecast doesn’t change, temperatures will be just high enough to turn the snow to slush and let me drive my trusty Subaru over the mountains to home.
But here’s what happened when I met these new friends today:
I drove on the slippery roads to the supermarket closest to my hotel. No problem with the driving, but walking was a tad trickier. So my attention was on my feet, the ice, the bits of gravel scattered to provide traction in the parking lot, and I was shuffling toward the store entrance. I saw a clutch of women talking to each other, pointing at someone behind me, “Do you see him?” one asked another. “Oh, my God!” another sneered. Two women swiped fingers across smart phones, ready to make calls. All signs that something’s up. Somebody’s gonna call the cops.
I followed the direction of their disgust, and I saw him. Pushing a shopping cart loaded with two cases of cheap beer and two six-packs of fruity wine coolers, a youngish man — 30s, maybe — staggered, halted, staggered a few more steps, wobbled, caught himself, stumbled again on rubbery legs.
Right away, anyone can figure out the story. He’s drunk. He’s just bought more booze. He’s about to get into a car and drive.
I had no sooner thought, I need to call him a cab, when he fell. Splatted, really. Sploot, on his back, in the melting snow. He flailed his legs and smacked them with his palms — impotent rage because they had failed him. I turned to help him, knowing what I’d need to do next. The clutch of women turned to descend on him.
“Uh, hey, dude. You’re wasted! And you think you’re driving?!?” One woman shouted while she waved her smart phone in his direction.
“I’ve had health problems. I was in the hospital. I was on life support,” the flattened man answered between grunts, trying to sit upright and falling several times before he propped himself on a car bumper. The tone of his voice was a plea for mercy.
“Whatever,” the angry woman answered him, still brandishing the phone in his direction, threatening to use it, apparently. “You might be sick, but you’re also drunk. I could see it in the store. We watched you in the store. They should not have sold you any alcohol. That’s illegal.”
True enough, I thought, but also an aside to the immediate problem.
“Ah, well,” I sighed, standing over a flailing drunk while his khaki pants wicked up gritty storm dregs. “Looks like we need to find a safe way for you to get home,”
“Ya! You need a taxi!” the angry woman yelled.
“Good idea,” the wobbly one said while clutching at the cold support of a stranger’s rear bumper.
“Oh, thank you!” I said to him. “Thank you for agreeing to that. We’ll call you a cab and wait until it gets here.” I extended my hand, offering to help him up from the snow.
His voice waffled and his hands waved. He couldn’t quite summon the coordination to raise his arms and grab my hand. Relieved that he hadn’t connected, I knew I wouldn’t have been able to wrestle him to his feet in any case.
That’s when the camo-clad local arrived, deer antler emblem across the chest of his sweatshirt, “Land of the Free” embroidered on his camo-print trucker hat. He looked willing to help.
“Hey, here’s a bigger guy to help you stand up,” I motioned between the two of them like a supermarket matchmaker.
“Yeah. Want some help, man?” camo asked.
“Nah. I’ll wait here,” muddy khakis answered, sounding defeated. “I’m really sorry, everybody.”
“Hey, no judgment, buddy,” I said, “I’m an alcoholic. I get it. Let’s just make sure you can get home in a safe way.” I looked to the angry one brandishing the phone. “Did you call a taxi?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t know any,” and she dropped the phone to her side. She stopped brandishing it. She also stopped yelling.
“Do you know any cab companies?” I asked camo.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure there’s one called Redmond Cab or something like that,” he answered, swiping his smart phone to wake it up.
I pressed the voice search on my phone. “Redmond Cab Company,” I told it.
A few angry people clustered nearby.
“It’s all good, everybody,” I smiled at them. “He’s agreed to take a taxi. I’m calling one right now.” When the taxi company answered, camo helped me remember the name of the street and the name of the store. I told them we have somebody with some medical issues and probably some intoxication too, and he needs to get to an address nearby, but I can’t understand the address he’s trying to call out from the spot where he’s hunched against the bumper.
Camo understood him. “Fifth Street,” he told me. I passed it on to the cab company. It’s just a few blocks, camo told me, but the guy really needs a ride. The cab operator said he’d be there in ten minutes.
The angry ones trickled away. Camo and I stayed. Muddy khaki was tired of sitting in the snow. He wanted to go to his truck, he said. Camo heaved him to his feet and held tightly while khaki’s knees buckled and the soles of his shoes tried to reject the pavement, the way two magnets will buck each other away when you try to press them together by their positive ends. “Is that your truck over there?” camo asked, half carrying and half guiding khaki. His gray pickup was two parking spots away. He had very nearly made it back to his driver’s seat before he fell.
“Let’s have you sit on the tailgate instead of in the truck,” I said. I wanted to spare the struggle of trying to stop him driving off, but I couched it as a favor to him. “If you’re sitting in your vehicle right now, somebody might bust you for that.”
“Oh, yeah,” camo agreed. “That’s a good idea. Is your canopy unlocked, man?”
Thank you, camo.
Khaki guessed that one latch would be unlocked and the other would be locked. I turned them both and they opened. Then I pulled the latch and lowered the tailgate. It would have been far too high for me to sit on it, in any condition.
Camo had khaki in a full embrace. The unexpected intimacy swelled in my heart. Camo bear-hugged and tugged until khaki had one butt cheek perched on the edge of the tailgate.
“This is good,” khaki demurred. “I can stay like this.”
“It looks uncomfortable, though,” camo answered.
“It does,” I agreed. “Let’s see if we can get your whole butt up there,” and I bundled the sleeve edge of khaki’s winter coat in my fist and helped push.
We had just achieved full butt-to-tailgate contact when khaki rolled his eyes at something behind me and camo. “Oh, no,” he announced.
It was a police cruiser, and soon a second. As the first officer climbed out of his driver’s seat, I smiled nonchalantly. “He’s got some medical issues and is probably intoxicated as well. He’s agreed to take a taxi. We’ve called one and it’s on its way,” I said, like a seasoned reporter.
“I like that idea,” said the cop. He motioned to the second officer that everything was under control. The second cruiser pulled away.
Camo repeated the Fifth Street address where the taxi would be delivering khaki. “We’re good to wait here until the taxi arrives,” camo told the cop.
“They said they’d be about ten minutes, and we probably called a few minutes ago,” I added.
“I’m good to wait until then,” the cop said.
And suddenly camo was gone. I stood between khaki and the cop.
The cop scanned the horizon the way cops do, eyes taking in everything, sizing up everyone.
“Hey,” I reached for khaki’s hand and shook it goodbye, “feel better soon, and thank you for being cool and letting us get a cab.” I dropped his hand and turned to thank the cop for waiting with khaki so I could go in the store and do my shopping.
“I’ve been actively working on stopping drinking,” khaki’s voice said behind me.
I realize now the taxi must have taken longer than ten minutes to arrive. By the time it pulled into the parking lot, I’d heard khaki’s life story.
His previous job did random pee tests for alcohol and drugs.
“Ah, that’ll keep you honest, huh?” I said conspiratorially. I laughed in the direction of the cop, who also smiled and nodded.
“Yeah,” khaki agreed. “If I ever drank, I’d have to drink the tiniest amount so hopefully it wouldn’t show up in my pee test.” But he had quit that job to move here, to be nearer to his daughter, he said. He had been to some AA meetings. But the detox was scary, he said. It can be dangerous. And he’s looking for a job, he said. And recently he and his father got an apartment together. His father is 70 and he got sober at age 50.
“Awesome,” I said. “And your dad is still sober?”
He is, khaki said.
“And you’ve got all this booze in the house,” I motioned to the cases and six-packs in khaki’s shopping cart, “and he’s still sober.”
“Oh, I don’t drink in front of Dad,” khaki answered.
“But he knows you’re drinking and he knows you have it in the house, so he’s strong in his sobriety, right?”
Yes, khaki agreed.
“And do you think he’d be interested in supporting you to get sober?”
“Oh, yeah,” khaki answered. “I told him, I think it’s time for me to do what he did.”
“I know the detox can be a little intimidating,” I said. “I didn’t need to be medically supervised and I didn’t get sick. I just drank lots of water and herbal tea and got through those first days. But my brother has been in medically supervised detox, and I know they can offer support while you get through it.” I nodded to the cop, wondering if he’d put on the social worker hat so many of them sometimes wear. He nodded at me but said nothing.
“You only have to do it once,” I told khaki. “And you might be a little sick, but I’m guessing you’ve been damned sick from the booze. We all know what that’s like.”
“Oh, yeah,” he agreed. “But I’m having some health thing too. My legs hurt. I hope I don’t have MS or Parkinson’s or something,” he drifted back into his medical stories.
“I hope you don’t either. But whether you do or you don’t, the alcohol isn’t helping. If you get through that short detox time, then you’ve got the rest of your life.”
“Amen, sister,” khaki bowed toward his lap, and I leaned in to keep him from spilling off of the tailgate. The taxi pulled into the parking lot and drifted past us. The cop waved his arms, but the taxi kept going. The cop jogged toward the taxi to wave down the driver.
As the taxi looped around and stopped behind khaki’s gray truck, khaki shimmied to the end of the tailgate and wagged his feet in the air. They didn’t quite reach the ground.
“You’re almost there. Just about an inch to go,” I told him, taking his right arm to steady him. He took two or three wobbly steps toward the taxi as the driver loaded the cases and six-packs of booze out of the cart and into the trunk of the cab. And then khaki was going down.
The cop lunged to catch him in a bear hug. It looked like the bear hug camo had done earlier. Maybe it’s something men are used to doing with each other.
“Tiiiimmmmmberrrrr! That was close,” I laughed, as I clutched the sleeve of khaki’s jacket again and tried to steady him.
“I know, right?” khaki agreed with me, marveling again at those legs that sometimes just fail.
Thank you, the cop mouthed silently in my direction, still bear-hugging and guiding khaki to the car. “Is there somebody when you get home who can help you get in the house?” the cop asked.
“He lives with his 70-year-old father who’s been sober for 20 years,” I answered, amused by my depth of knowledge of the guy I can only call khaki.
Khaki flopped into the back seat of the cab and the cop closed the door.
“Good job,” I raised my hand for a high-five. “Thank you for sticking around and helping,” I told him as he met my high-five with his own hand. “That was an adventure I didn’t plan to have today.”
The cop thanked me too. The taxi pulled away. Khaki and his beer and wine coolers headed to Fifth Street, and home, and his sober father — assuming any or most of those details are true.
I never found the hummus. Maybe cowboy towns don’t sell a lot of the stuff. But walking through the supermarket, I felt like I had just presided over a successful peacekeeping summit for the U.N.
Nobody had stopped the staggering drunk. Not the cashier or any of the customers inside the store. Even if he used self-checkout, he’d have staggered with his cart full of booze past the long line at the in-store McDonald’s, past the in-store jewelry counter, past the volunteers distributing something from a card table near the front door. Someone did call the cops, that’s true. But nobody approached him until he was on the ground, flailing, surrendering to the gray winter slush and the crimson fury of strangers. And even then, they talked of a taxi but didn’t summon one.
I felt protective of khaki. I felt surprised to hear my own voice say, “No judgment, buddy. I’m an alcoholic.” I belong to a recovery fellowship that rejects the labels. We remind each other every week that there’s no need to introduce ourselves by anything other than our name. I’m Michelle. That’s all I say.
Today, though, in that slippery parking lot, the angry onlookers ready to shout their fury at the fallen drunk heard me say, Hey, no judgment. I get it. I’m like you.
Khaki needed help. When it was offered, he accepted help.
It won’t always work that way, not with everyone, and I know that. If he had refused the taxi and gotten behind the wheel of his truck, I’d have called the cops too. I’d have given them the license plate of the gray truck and hoped they could catch him before he killed someone. I’d have let the full weight and fury of the criminal justice system and the righteous anger of onlookers do whatever they will do.
But this case didn’t call for that. It called for help. A bear hug, a phone call, and a sympathetic ear.
And I’m remembering now what the angry woman said when she stopped brandishing the cell phone and she heard me calling the taxi company that I thought she would have already called. She looked at khaki and said, “It’s not your fault. It’s the store’s fault. They shouldn’t have sold alcohol to you.”
Let’s not forget that khaki had driven himself there. No doubt he staggered and wobbled into the store and through the aisles. Once I got into my search for the non-existent hummus or other hippie vegan food, I noticed that the beer and wine aisle is in a far back corner of the store. I was slightly impressed with khaki’s determination. How did he make it that far with his feet repelling the floor like an equal and opposite magnetic force? It’s quite the feat.
It’s a feat he completed under the harsh heat of onlookers’ judgment. How many watched him and shook their heads? How many stood in silent disapproval while he illegally bought enough alcohol to fuel a frat house? Why did nobody talk to him until he was lying in the parking lot, wicking storm sludge into his khaki pants, apologizing to strangers and pleading for mercy?