Friday, July 31, 2009

Four Teenage Boys and an Adult Film

I was out with my uncle on a family visitation on our last night in San Francisco and I already felt like I had been pulled away from my new family. Little did I know that I would soon have quite the bonding experience with my roommates.

I arrived back to the hotel after curfew so everyone was already in their rooms. When I got to the door and knocked there was a lot of commotion. The door opened slowly as my roommate Matt peered through the crack. "Oh, it's you," he said, then calling to the other "It's just Paul!"

He pulled me into the room and slammed the door. The other two guys sat nervously at the foot of one of the beds looking as if they just got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Before I could ask what was going on, David pressed the power button on the television and there it was. The reason they were so jump and that Matt opened the door so cautiously appeared on the screen. Two giant palm trees. When the camera panned down to reveal two sweaty naked people, the truth hit me like a rush of blood to the head: my roommates had ordered an adult movie.

The rules of the trip stated that nobody was allowed to order any hotel amenities. No room service, no dry cleaning, no movies - especially the adult ones. We'd all joke about it, going so far as to see what the choices were. It was an X-rated game of chicken. The first guy would check the menu, the next would read off the list, then read a description and so on. If someone felt particularly daring they would attempt to watch the preview which showed roughly 30 seconds of footage.

This time around Matt came back to the room and decided to peruse the selections. As the other two guys opened the door, Matt was startled, and instead of hitting the menu return button, he hit the purchase button. Once he realized what he had done, the panic began to set in. What kind of trouble would Matt be in? Would he be yelled at? Would his parents get called? The worst case scenarios danced through his head and before the opening credits were over Matt was out the door, full speed towards the front desk.

"I didn't mean to, I swear," he pleaded with the reception desk. "I accidentally ordered a movie and I didn't do it on purpose. I'm going to get in huge trouble, please, you've got to believe me." The clerk typed on her computer, pulling up the room account.

"Here's the charge, $9.95 for one movie," she said, peering up at him, eyes full of doubt. After glaring at him she realized that he was legitimately freaking out - sweating and breathing hard. She removed the charge from the room. Before he could thank her she continued, "Just so you know, I removed the charge, but the movie can't be stopped once it starts." The gears in Matt's head began turning, leading him to choose his next words carefully.

"So you're telling me, the movie is on in my room. I won't be charged for it and you can't shut it off." The hotel woman nodded. "Then what am I doing talking to you?" He took off down the long hallway back to the room at twice the speed he traveled to get to the desk in the first place and broke the news to the other roommates.

Up until this point I was still out with my uncle for dinner. Here we were, four sixteen year old boys with a free pornographic movie. We watched for a while before there was a knock on the door. Shit, staff doing bed check. The same commotion that happened when I had originally knocked came out for an encore. We scrambled to shut off the television and one of us ran to the door, while the rest sat innocently on the bed. As we opened it, our staff member Lowell could instantly tell that something was up.

"What was that?" he asked.

"What was what?"

"The noises I heard from the hallway."

I thought about the best possible cover and gave it a shot. "It was one of those shampoo commercials where the women really, really like the way their hair feels." Clearly not buying it, he made his way over to the television and turned it on, There in glorious color was two overly tanned people participating in something I would later learn was called "reverse cowgirl".

We all feigned surprise, another act that Lowell didn't buy for a second. Matt frantically told the whole front desk tale again and the only thing that upset Lowell was that he had left his room after curfew. He looked at the screen, looked at us and then back to his check list. "One-two-three-four. Everyone is here. Have a good night guys and don't stay up too late."

With that, he left. We were free. Immediately we called the other guys to brag. You see, this was no ordinary movie. Matt was a very thrifty consumer - he had ordered something called "Sex in Hawaii - Parts 1 & 2". This was a double feature which ran nearly three hours and didn't even bother with plot, characters or any dialogue at all. If there is one thing to say about porn, guys don't have a long attention span when it comes to watching it - a couple of minutes max. So a three hour feature was far more than anyone could handle.

As our interest wained, we left it on in the background. We began a game of cards on one of the beds. One of us wrote postcards home. Matt took a couple of photos of the screen with his camera. The night passed and when the movie ended we were actually pretty relieved. In the morning nobody called Matt by his name anymore, they all called him "Porno," a name that I coined due to the alliteration with his last name. The nickname stuck for the rest of the summer and way longer.

After the trip ended, Porno was showing photos to his dad. He had forgotten that he took pictures of the television screen that night in San Francisco, when suddenly he got to them. This was back in the days of sending film away and getting it mailed back, so there was no delete button. Thankfully the first one came out blurred and when his father asked what it was, he told him it was "a cave." The next one however, came out crystal clear and his dad glared at him and muttered something about the trip being "money well spent."

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Potter Lottery

Halfway through my 2005 Wheels trip there was a somewhat large event in the lives of the kids on the bus. The 6th book in the Harry Potter series would be released. It was a big deal for them - most of these kids weer 14 or 15 years old, which meant when the first book arrived in the states they were only 9 or 10. The most obsessed kids already had arranged for their parents to buy the book and overnight it to them on the trip at our next stop in Los Angeles. However we were in San Francisco for the weekend. Los Angeles was on Monday - an eternity away, considering the book came out on Friday.

By some stroke of luck there was a Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble in the plaza adjacent to our hotel and Saturday night I agreed to take any of them who desperately wanted to on a walk over to the stores. I told the eleven kids who came that there was almost certainly going to be no copies available - fans of the series had been waiting for this day for two years. Anyone who wanted to read it the night it came out would have reserved a copy ahead of time and there wasn't going to be random excess stock.

We walked to Wal-Mart first to find empty shelves and employees who laughed when I asked if they had any extra copies. Upon arriving at Barnes and Noble it looked something like the Filene's Basement wedding dress sale. It was definitely more people than I had ever seen in a book store at 10:30 pm on a Saturday night.

I approached the customer service counter with trepidation. I had already been laughed at once for asking if there were copies available. By some incredible dumb luck, the woman handed me three copies of the book that were left behind at the customer service desk. She said people had reserved the book at this location then later canceled because another store had a better release party. I asked the woman to please hold the books for me because I had eleven kids who were interested in buying them, now I just had to figure out who got to.

There was a brief thought of a trivia contest or some Potter related skills competition, but in the end we needed something quicker. I went back to the desk and procured a sheet of paper. I ripped it quickly into eleven pieces. On three of the pieces, I wrote "You can read!" and the remaining eight I wrote "Sucker!" Each piece was folded up and put into my hat. The Potter fans lined up and each picked a piece for the right to purchase this $30 book. Before anyone could open their paper, my friend Mordy, who had been visiting with our group for the weekend, switched his camera to video mode.

One of the kids jumped up and down even though he did not win. Another later revealed he had no interest in the book at all, he just wanted to see where everyone was going. Yet another defeated girl willed herself to purchase the audio book version, which was made up of 17 discs and clocked in at a monstrous 19 hours.

There were a few catches for the winners of the contest. Those who now had the book were not allowed to stay up for the entire Saturday night and finish it. The book was 672 pages long and we had a full day of San Francisco sight seeing the next day. It would be easy to tell if one of the kids had forgone sleep to be the first one finished.

The other stipulation was that whoever finished first was to turn the book over to me so I could read it next. It might have offset the first clause but I was willing to wait. As it turns out, one of the girls was finished before the drive to Los Angeles. I took my time and probably finished it in a weeks time, being lapped by several of my kids in the process.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Curse of the Donuts

On the road from Kansas City to Grand Island, Nebraska a lot can go through your mind. It is easy to think about that this city you are heading towards is not an Island and is certainly not Grand. Like a handful of the more rural stops on my trip, there is not much in the ways of Kosher food. When something like this is known, one of the bigger cities, like Kansas City, packs us a second dinner to heat up in the hotel the next night.

It works out great, unless a staff member leaves it in the Kansas City hotel freezer. This fact came to light while visiting the Island Oasis water park, a great place for the locals, but not much for these east coast kids who had seen bigger and better. While the kids were there, I took on the task of dinner by hitching a ride with bus driver to the corner supermarket. By this point in the afternoon, the bus was a disaster. There were extra donuts and crumbs everywhere. Our once brilliant prize had come back to haunt us in the form of smashed and wasted donuts.

Inside the store I scraped together a complete makeshift dinner. Anything that could be put in a convectional oven soon found its way into my cart. Waffles, fish sticks, various Morning Star veggie products and fries made up the main components of the meal. I added in some fruit and vegetables to try and even things out. Anything with a kosher symbol was given a green light. It was a mess, but when we got back to the hotel it worked out.

To avoid further disaster, and because the kids had been bugging me about it, I decided the group would just do laundry that night. The woman at the front desk of our hotel told me about a decent place about a mile down the road. The recommendation seemed suspect, but once I verified the number of washers and dryers, I deemed it to be alright. Anyone who has had the misfortune of doing laundry with 48 teenagers knows it can be a war zone. A lot of them are wide eyed first timers, having relied on parents to do it at home. I know I was when I first did this trip in high school.

Once the loads were started, things began to cool down. People talked, played guitar, played cards and some of the boys were kicking a soccer ball around in the vacant parking lot. I was unaware of this, but certainly one of my other staff members might have thought this was not a very good idea, except for the fact that my staff member all had their usual routines. One was usually on her phone, one usually on his laptop and the other two were on each other.

I sat on the curb watching the Nebraska summer sunset, thinking about how we avoided disaster with tonight's dinner. I wondered what would happen to our large trays of frozen spaghetti and meatballs that had been left. Like clockwork, the buzzers began to go off and people began to shift their clothes to a dryer.

Once the dryers had been rumbling for several minutes, a light blue car pulled up. A skinny, mulleted man in white-washed jeans and cowboy boots opened the back door and put his feet on the ground before it was fully stopped, as if he was Fred Flintstone helping the car slow down. He yelled out "the laundromat is closing in five minutes". It was now 8:30 and the sign on the door said it would be closing at 9:00. I told him that the group almost finished and he said "don't even try it, there was a robbery here last week, so everyone has to be out in five minutes". I tried explaining that these were just kids and we only needed 20 minutes or so, we'd still be finished before 9:00. Mild hysteria ensued when he started opening the dryers and pulling clothes out on to the floor

There were four girls who combined their load in a economy sized dryer that was locked shut. Try as he might, the Mullet Cowboy could not make the door budge. The man granted these girls immunity and said they could stay but everyone else had to move their wet clothing. Despite the fact someone from our group got to leave their clothes in, he still made everyone else vacate the building. I gave up trying to reason with him as he ignored each one of my requests and questions.

At this moment, I was approached by a woman from Arby's and asked me if I was in charge of the group. I said I was. She told me one of my kids threw a rock and broke a window in her establishment. As the lunatic cowboy ran amok through the laundromat, I grabbed one of my staff and instructed them to have all the kids pack their stuff and get on the bus. The laundry was becoming a side note to the situation as Mullet Cowboy was starting to concern me. She said it was one of the soccer playing kids, so I rounded those kids up and questioned them about it. All of them said that they didn't do it to the point where they had no idea there was even an Arby's in the parking lot.

I told the woman that my kids said they didn't do it and I trusted them. This woman, however, did not trust them. She wanted to see what the kids would have to say to the police. While the staff was occupied by the laundromat fiasco and I was with the kids sitting on the curb while on the phone with the program director, trying to figure out what to do next.

It was bad enough being separated from the group, but when the cops arrived, they began to question the kids one at a time while taking down their names and hometowns. All of the kids repeatedly denied picking up any rock in the parking lot. When the cops stepped aside with the woman from Arby's, the kids again pleaded to me that they didn't do anything. After all six had been talked to, one of the cops pulled me off to the side and asked when we were leaving. I told him we were driving to Denver first thing in the morning. He said "That's right," as if we were leaving only because he decreed it.

Dismissed by the police, the six boys ran back to the laundromat to see what was going on. They had a late start gathering their clothes from the machines and getting back on the bus. The Arby's woman threw her arms up in the air and began yelling at the police, at which point I thought it wise to make my exit as well.

When we returned to the hotel, I had the group stay on the bus momentarily while I had a word with the front desk. I spoke slow and calm, like a man about to snap, because at this point I didn't know if I would cry or spontaneously combust. I discussed with them the situation we were put in, including the fact that they were the ones who recommended the laundromat. The hotel graciously offered up their two industrial dryers. It wasn't ideal, but it was our best option - everyone would have their clothing dried together in two giant sized dryers, one of whites and one of colors.

Throughout the whole ordeal the kids were great. They complied with each step of that night, no matter how horrible it got. One by one, they brought their bags of wet clothing through the back corridors of the hotel, through all the service areas until reaching the terribly humid housekeeping area. The manager explained what had happened to the staff and both dryers were emptied. The kids emptied their bags into the machines and returned to the group room for evening services.

On the way through the courtyard I was approached by one kid away from the rest of the group. He needed to tell me something. As soon as he looked at me I knew exactly what he was going to say: he was the one who threw the rock. My instinct proved to be right as he timidly confessed.

I wanted to yell. I wanted to scream. I wanted to react at all, but after the day we had been through, I didn't have the energy. I also knew there was a specific chain of command that had to be followed before issuing any disciplinary action on the trip, so I couldn't do anything on the spot. Instead I used the only method I had free range to use: guilt. I mentioned to him that six innocent of his friends were being questioned by the police for no reason while he sat on the bus and watched.

Following the end of evening services I addressed the group with the same demeanor which I had talked to the front desk. It bordered between breakdown and calm. I told them the plan was for them to head up to their rooms for the night while the staff dealt with the laundry issue. There would be a slightly earlier wake up call in order to take care of dividing up the clothes. Then we'd pack the bus, drive to Denver and pretend like this night never happened.

The laundry was finally done about an hour later. The staff brought it to our group meeting room using huge bins. We stayed up for hours sorting it out. The task was large and we tiptoed towards delirium. We assigned tables in the meeting room for each variety of clothing: one for shirts, one for socks, another shorts, and one for other things, like towels. There was one last table for girlie things that we didn't (and I'm sure they didn't) want laying out in public view. We covered the items with a table cloth.

Some of the kids woke up even earlier than we had told them to in hopes of finding their stuff before the rush. The room resembled people rummaging through the results of a natural disaster. Poking through the shirts, checking tags for their names and trying to find what belonged to them. Some things were surely destroyed because the heat was too high or they were delicate, but nobody complained to me.

The summer had been great and drama free up until the point we got the donuts, so we attributed the bad luck to us receiving them. Before the ride to Denver, we stacked the remaining donuts in the corner, hopefully leaving behind our bad fortune for good.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Blessing of the Donuts

During the summer of 2005 I was the group leader of a USY on Wheels trip. It started out like any other night of the trip. I arranged for the group attend a baseball game on July 6th - the Kansas City Royals were playing the Seattle Mariners at Kauffman Stadium in KC. Seeing as most of the kids on the trip were from the north east, I wanted them to be able to experience baseball somewhere out of the Eastern Time Zone. At the time, the Mariners and Royals were the two absolute worst teams in baseball, so if anything, this was going to be a treat. The game went as expected - close score, very few extra base hits, sub-par pitching - but in the bottom of the 8th inning, everything changed.

The Royals had logged their 11th hit and the stadium began to stir. Being out-of-towners, we didn't have a clue why Homer Simpson's face appeared on the jumbo-tron. I asked one of the security guards what the fuss was, and he said that every time the Royals got twelve hits, everyone with a ticket stub won a free dozen doughnuts from Krispy Kreme. Suddenly the crowd was invested in the game again. There were two outs in the inning when back up catcher Jack Buck stepped to the plate and nailed a double in the gap for hit number 12.

The crowd went ballistic. This probably did not happen so often, being that the Royals sported a record of 27 wins and 55 losses. (Further research indicated the Royals achieved this feat 15 times in the 2005 season.) Who wouldn't be excited about the promise of a dozen overly sweet tasty treats. My kids were psyched and I was excited for all of us. Then the math kicked in. 48 kids + 5 staff + 1 driver meant we had 54 people. 54 people x 12 donuts = 648 donuts.

The group had an early ride to Grand Island, Nebraska the next day. It was nowhere near our longest drive of the summer, so an early wake up time would allow us to claim the donut prize. I decided to call ahead to the local Krispy Kreme before going over. They said they would surely honor the ticket stub rule. When I told them the numbers, the lady on the phone had a mild freak out. From my end of the phone it sounded like when a submarine commander was preparing the ship to dive. She managed to calm herself down and asked us to give them at least 20 minutes.

When we got there, I walked in first. I told the lady we had arrived and they had several dozen prepared. I went back to the bus and told the kids that this would be done in an orderly fashion. I felt bad for the staff of the shop so I encouraged the kids to get drinks even though I knew it would make us have an early bathroom stop during our drive.

The site of 648 donuts was intimidating and there were lots of pictures taken to back up that theory. The staff wore paper Krispy Kreme hats. Everyone had one or two (except for the girl with the gluten allergy) and we had a good laugh about the situation. During the course of the day, one girl ate 30 or so after being egged on by some other kids. Looking back, we should have found a place to donate at least two-thirds of them, but at the time we were all blinded by a combination of gluttonous thoughts and pride in claiming our reward from the night before.

We got back on the bus riding our sugar highs. As we began our drive, many of us drifted off to a morning nap, our stomachs were full and feeling happy. Nobody could have known what was waiting for us five hours down the road.

To be continued...

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Fastest way from Toronto to Syracuse is not through Philadelphia

Two friends from my own 1998 Wheels bus were getting married during my summer as a Wheels group leader. It was on July 3rd and my trip would be in Toronto, fairly close to their Syracuse wedding. I convinced the powers that be to let me take 24 hours off to attend the wedding. My friend David, a former Wheels group leader offered to come in and cover for me during the 24 hours I was gone. The plan was to meet back up with the group in Chicago the next day.

The first thing I learned was that a flight directly from Toronto to Syracuse did not exist. They were right across Lake Ontario from each other, but there was no way to find a flight that didn't go through somewhere entirely out of the way. It would have probably been more direct to take the four and a half hour bus ride, but I wanted to get their as fast as I could.

I had an early flight out of Toronto through Washington DC. I got through customs and was waiting by the gate when the flight was canceled due to plane mechanics. It was certainly an inconvenience, but I'm sure it would have been more so if the pilot decided to chance it and the mechanics became a problem mid-air.

I had to go back out to the main ticketing area and attempt to find a new way to Syracuse. At this point it was nearly 10:00 a.m. and the wedding began promptly at 5:00 p.m. I was supposed to originally land there at 1:00 pm, get picked up and have time to hang out with some of my old friends, but that was looking very unlikely.

Already had gone through customs. Had to come back out and go again later.

I was put on a 12:00 flight to Philadelphia, PA. I would arrive around 1:35 pm. The only flight to Syracuse was at 3:00, but since it was with a different airline, I had to pick up my back and re-check it before getting on the plane. I had no other choice but to comply even though arriving 40 minutes before the wedding started was going to be tough to pull off.

Visual Aid! Toronto to Philadelphia to Syracuse.
The plane touched down in Syracuse at 4:25 and I instantly grabbed my phone. I tried to plead with all my friends who were in town for the wedding. I hoped one of them had rented a car and could get me. Unfortunately, the synagogue wasn't right in the middle of Syracuse, it was out in a suburb called Manlius, about 20 miles away. All of my friends were already dressed and on their way there. My roommate had brought my suit with her from California and I told her to bring it to there and hang it in the coat room.

As we waited to deboard a couple in the row behind me asked if everything was alright. I told them the short, flustered version of my day. As it turns out they knew Jaclyn's father and wished me luck on my journey.

I ran ahead to the cab stand but none of them could understand what I meant nor did they seem to want to drive out to the suburbs. I hung up the phone, starting to feel defeated when the same couple from the plane approached me again. They offered me a ride and said it was only a little out of their way. I offered them money and they declined. They also declined the next offer of me naming my first born child after them.

We pulled up to the shul at 4:51 pm. All of the formally dressed guests were arriving and here I was, a 23 year old sweaty mess wearing jean shorts, a t-shirt and a baseball cap. I arrived at the door the same time as my roommate happened to be walking up. I yelled at her "I got here before you! Will explain later, where's my suit?" She told me it was in the coat room. I grabbed it and ran into the tiny synagogue men's room.

In the next five minutes I felt extremely fortunate that nobody entered the two-stall men's room to find me in my underwear changing into a suit. I splashed water on my face and threw on some extra deodorant before throwing my other clothes in a duffel bag and hiding it in the coat room. I sat down at 4:57 for the wedding. By the time the reception rolled around, my heart rate had slowed and I had finally stopped sweating. It was a great night.

I ended up staying in Syracuse for less than 14 hours, with a flight that left the next morning around 6:00 am. I was meeting back up with my group in Chicago, which, out of Syracuse meant a connecting flight in Washington D.C. I landed at O'Hare, took a cab to the Museum of Science and Industry and proceeded to fall asleep on a bench waiting for them to arrive.

Happy 4th Anniversary Ben & Jaclyn and congratulations on baby Ari!