Shelli DeRobertis 9:19 p.m., May 22
Karl “Mind-Your-Own-Business” Smarks lives on the floor below mine, and when he moved in last year we “had words.”
He was carrying a box from a car with Montana license plates and wearing a T-shirt printed: Yeah, I’m Old. Get Over It!
“Looks like you’re moving in,” I said cheerfully.
“Well,” he replied hardly looking at me, “you’re a bright fellow now, aren’t you. But I sure hope you're not the scholar of the neighborhood.”
I know sarcasm when I hear it. I wanted to reply equally sarcastic, but my anger management class stepped in.
“If that’s your attitude,” I mumbled, “I’m sorry.”
“That’s my attitude. Take it or leave it,” said Karl.
A month later we found ourselves in the same elevator. Let bygones by bygones, I thought, and I held out my hand. “Name’s Skip,” I said.
“Karl,” he replied, ignoring my hand and staring at the door. “Karl Smarks.”
“Well, Karl, how do you like living in San Diego?”
“Too damn many weirdoes.” The elevator door opened and Karl exited.
Last month a San Diego policeman knocked on my door.
“Sorry to bother you. Do know a Karl Smarks?”
“Sortta,” I said. “Why?”
“He’s in jail,” the policeman said. “For attempted murder.”
There’s that old saying: You can’t choose your kids’ friends or your neighbors. Your kids befriend whomever they like, whether you approve or not. Likewise, anybody can move in next door, whether you approve or not. Your new neighbor could be a sex pervert or a Nobel Laureate. Or a murderer.
“So whom did my neighbor attempt to murder?” I asked the policeman.
“A homeless veteran in a wheelchair. On the bus.”
“What was Karl doing on a bus?” I asked.
Karl had had a run-in with traffic cops and lost his license. Forced to take public transit, he frequently argued with bus drivers and passengers. MTS Security sometimes had to be called in, as was the case in Karl’s attempted murder.
The next day I went to see Karl in jail downtown. I was worried about his cat, Crabby, alone downstairs. I’d met Crabby, and she hadn’t bitten me as Karl predicted. I was passing Karl’s open door when I saw Crabby on the welcome mat.
“Well hello there, Cat,” I said. “Are you on guard duty today?”
“Watch out,” Karl warned from inside. “Crabby bites.”
I put my hand down and Crabby sniffed my fingers. She rubbed against my leg as I stroked her back.
“I’ll be damned,” said Karl. “Crabby likes you. Always bites me when I pull her tail.”
“Karl,” I said, “did you notice that I didn’t pull her tail?”
Karl entered the visitors’ room wearing orange coveralls.
“What the hell do you want?” he said.
“I want to take care of your cat.”
“Go for it. The key’s under the mat.”
Instead of turning back to his cell, Karl sat down across from me and sighed.
“So how’d you end up here, Karl?”
“People,” he said. “The whole damn human race is to blame.”
At first I thought he was taking advantage of someone to hear his rants and raves. But he was getting something off his chest. Once home, I wrote down what he had told me.
“Say what you want and think what you will,” Karl began, “but dealing with people day-to-day disgusts me. Mankind and all its pointless diversity. Give me a break. You see it everywhere, but it’s worst on buses and trolleys. Pierced lips, hickey-ed necks, gaudy tattoos, purple hair. Trousers below the butt. Where I come from, we take those kind behind a woodshed and teach ‘em a thing or two.”
“Karl, diversity is normal in this day and age, but....” Karl cut me off.
“Then there are the inconsiderate mothers with baby carriages and grandmas with shopping carts, blocking aisles and taking up seats. Or the obese in their motorized wheelchairs, holding up everyone while they board and get strapped in. They hog up fives seats. I’m sorry, but I don’t have the patience to be patient.
“Yeah, Karl, we all feel like that sometimes. But......,” Karl went on.
“How about those idiots on cell phones, telling the whole damn bus where they are going, what they think, why so-and-so is a jerk. I’d like to take their cell phones shove ‘em. And the screwballs who talk to themselves, or to their hands, or to their imaginary friends. They mumble on about corporate greed or racial injustice or the world’s many, many faults. Where I come from we lock those loonies up.
“Then there are the self-appointed tour guides, with stupid remarks about how long they’ve lived in San Diego. ‘I was just a wee lad when Cabrillo set foot on our beautiful beaches.’ Give me a break! Or the spandex spinners who brag about their bicycles. ‘Well, mine has three thousand gears and is made of super aluminum typhoid and I got it at the swap meet for only $9.99.’ They probably stole it from a kid.
“And the foreigners. Yakking away in their gibberish. They're probably plotting to overthrow America. Doesn’t anyone speak English anymore?”
“Yeah, Karl, but....” He wouldn’t let me interrupt. He was on a roll, venting all his annoyances about public transit.
“When I buy a ticket to get from point A to point B, I don’t want to hear about some dickhead’s drab life story or self-inflicted ignorance. I don’t want to exude sympathy, tolerance, patience and all that BS. Hell, if I had my choice, I wouldn’t even be on this planet.
“And the weirdoes are not just on buses and trolley. Hell, I see a guy wearing nothing but a Speedo and a turban, twirling American flags. Or a codger pushing a shopping cart with his belongings, including his pet Chihuahua. He’s a rolling trashcan until the cart tips over. Then he’s a roadblock. No sir, we don’t put up with that crap in Montana.”
“So, what happened yesterday on the bus, Karl?”
“Yesterday? I snapped. I’d had enough. I’m reading the UT in the forward seats—those designated for elders and the handicapped—and there’s a wheelchair across the aisle taking up five seats. I think he’s a vet because he’s got scroll on his hat, a leather flight jacket, and plastic American flags in the spokes. This fat lady in her motorized wheelchair pulls up to the bus door and everyone has to step aside as the ramp lowers. The bus driver says she’ll need my seat. Would I please move?
“And I said no. ‘I’m a senior, and I have a right to this seat’—and I point to the signs in English and Spanish—‘and I ain’t budging!’
“By now the fat lady has motored her wheelchair onto the bus, and is waiting for ‘her’ space to be made ready. So the bus driver looks at her, looks at the vet, then looks at me again before turning to her: ‘I’m afraid there’s no room for you, Mam. You’ll have to wait for the next bus.’
“Oh did she puff up her fat cheeks. Then she reversed her motorized wheelchair and rode back down the ramp, flipping a bird in my direction.
“‘You selfish son-of-a-bitch,’ the vet says to me.
“So I roll up my newspaper and swung at the guy. And then all hell breaks loose. The veteran cries bloody murder. The bus driver gets on the phone as the veteran and I get off the bus to duke it out. Then MTS Security arrives, and I get hauled off to jail.
“And you know what?” Karl said, rapping his index knuckle on the table between us. “That fat lady in the wheelchair scooted back on the bus and took my seat!”
Crabby was glad to see me, and wrapped herself around my legs while I filled her water and food bowls. She slept in my lap while I read.
Karl was released from jail at his first hearing. It’s hard to charge a man with attempted murder when the weapon is a newspaper. The first thing Karl did was knock on my door. His lip had stitches and his knuckles were wrapped in gauze.
“I got to go away for awhile,” he said. “Can you take care of Crabby for me?”
“Sure. Where you going?”
“Montana. Fix some things.”
Then he shook my hand.
Karl’s returned a week later with his son, Karl, Jr., and his son’s boyfriend, Jeffery, who had a pink mohawk and was pierced all over. Karl took them out everyday to show them San Diego. He put his arm around his son’s shoulders and told me his kid was going to graduate from college. “And although I didn’t approve of Jeff at first, my son loves him and that’s enough for me.” Where the lip stitches had been, Karl was all smiles.
One of Karl’s ex-wives—Lulu—showed up in March with her poodle, Snookie, and stayed for a week in Karl’s extra bedroom, which he now called his “guestroom.” The condo wafted with Lulu’s sweet perfume. Karl asked me to keep Crabby so Snookie would feel more comfortable. I sometimes saw Karl and Snookie in the park across the street playing Frisbee. Lulu was there, too, in her wheelchair.
Then there was another ex-wife—Mildred—with her husband and their teenagers. “Uncle Karl” took them to Sea World, the Zoo, and Old Town. He cooked them Mexican dishes—and taught them the names in Spanish—but stayed with me so Mildred’s family could have his place to themselves.
Karl told me that jail was a good thing. In a cell with three others inmates, he was getting on people’s nerves until his cellmates “taught” him how to live and let live. He pointed to the scar on his lip and smiled. “Anger management lessons come in many different ways. For a guy like me, this is what it takes sometimes,” he said.
No, you can’t choose your neighbors. But maybe that’s best for everyone.