Monday, April 02, 2007

Best Git to Church, Ya Heathen

I decided to go to church today. Yes, I know it’s Monday. Yes, I know I haven’t been to church in years. And yes, I know that I’m not baptized (they still let you in—just don’t touch anything with your unclean soul is all they ask). My alarm went off at precisely 5am this morning. I dragged myself out from under the warm covers, fumbled for my jeans, a heavy jacket, a warm hat and a folding chair, got in my truck and pointed it toward the nearest cross in town. It was only a half-mile away… nearer my God to thee.

Strange you may say? Well, you’re onto something there, because I found the behavior just as peculiar; that is, until I saw a dozen other people doing the exact same thing.

For those of you that don’t get up at that time of morning, the sun isn’t up at 5:10. When I pulled into the dark parking lot, the moon still hung in the murky western sky. It was peacefully quiet, as this particular church is surrounded on three sides by ancient orange groves, throwbacks from the long-gone citrus industry this city used to be so proud of. I spied a ghost white owl swoop across the sky, which always makes my heart race a little at seeing such a rare sight, and there was that chilled breeze that accompanies cold mornings, enough to scatter your hair and make you clench your teeth.

I was the first one there, and I had felt as if I had won something, an invisible little prize of punctuality, the Golden Early Bird and a bronzed statuesque worm. I left the radio on in the truck for company and settled in for the three hour wait until the church opened for business at 8am. A few minutes later, my solitude was shattered as two cars pull into the parking lot, their headlights piercing the still of the night. Competitors, bent on taking my spot at the top. Not this morning; I didn’t get up two hours early (after going to sleep only three hours before) for nothing. I’m in it to win it…thank you very much Corbin Bleu.

One of the cars pulled up next to me and parked, and a lady hopped out, a morning person. Let’s call her Chatty Cathy, as she has one of those internal neuroses that forbids her from not talking. Silence is death to her and a break in the conversation means a deafening crack in the communication system that could very well bring down society as we all know it. She made three phone calls in nearly as many seconds, each time, talking like John Moschitta (remember those FedEx commercials? Nah, me neither. I had to look it up.), and I wondered who she could be possibly calling at 5:20 in the morning. I didn’t even bother to wake up my cell phone; let it sleep in. I’ve nobody to call.

We got the “we’re no longer strangers because we’re in a similarly strange situation” chat out of the way, deciding that either of us would make for a good candidate for extreme behavior from a parent. I asked myself why I was here so early any number of times, especially since it was just the two of us for nearly 20 minutes. I expected throngs standing shoulder to shoulder, coffee-clutching helicopter moms bent on getting the first pick, doughnut-scarfing coach/dads who will not settle for second place, not for their boy, no. But instead, Chatty Cathy and I were, so far, the soul survivors of a situation we both expected would be a zoo of humanity.

Were we misinformed? Perhaps, but I wasn’t about to waste a precious opportunity for a couple more hours of sleep.

The second car was back. It had circled around to the other side of the church and snuck into a parking spot at the other end. Two darkened figures appeared at the far side of the building, lurking, scoping out the situation before coming in for a closer look. Chatty Cathy and I agreed that if we were to maintain our one-two spot, we’d better take roost in a closer proximity to the administration door and stake out a claim. Squatters be damned.

I brought my folding chair, and if you were to open that administration door suddenly from the inside, you would have knocked me down. I was number one, first in line, numero uno… but for what, you’re asking?

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. What would make me get up at five in the morning and sit in the cold outside the front door of a church on a Monday? Were they giving away Cadillacs to the first five souls saved this week? Did they find Jesus’s image in a toasted bagel and I wanted to be the first to witness it weep tears of blood? Was there free concert tickets to the Stryper revival tour?

Sadly, none of these. I was giving up on precious sleep for little Natalie’s future. You see, this church became our preschool of choice, and we were informed that people come far and wide to camp out on the doorstep like abandoned orphans in order to have the chance, nay, the privilege, to enroll there for the ever-important year before Kindergarten. At a tour of the facility last Tuesday (where they actually corralled me and put me to work helping with the See’s Candy fundraiser), I was told that they had only 12 spots available in Natalie’s class and that we’d better get there early if we wanted to ensure a spot on the rolls.

Chatty Cathy and I were soon joined by people I’m going to call The River Rats, two nice enough folks who share a typical motif with a lot of other people in this city. They have a boat, a pontoon boat, and they go to the river... a lot. She was as tan as a leather shoe, so much so, that her skin seemed to be completely impervious to cold temperature. I was bundled up in a jacket wishing I had brought a pair of gloves, and she only had a sweatshirt… well, silicon doesn’t get cold, I guess. Stereotypically, he was in construction, complete with a logo hat, jacket, jeans and work boots. All that was missing was the pack of Skoal in his pocket and a Budweiser in his hand, arm cocked slightly from resting on the throttle of his boat on the mighty Colorado River, eyes squinting Eastwood-style from the sun. They spoke a lot about blue-collar work, travel trailers and coolers full of Bud.

Then, something happened that really chaffed me, and it goes on my list of pet peeves. Two Asian women showed up and didn’t get in line behind everyone else. The line was forming to my right, away from the door, and they stood next to me on my left, as if they didn't even see the line. So now I’m fretting over two things: 1) Do they think all of these people are standing in this order by sheer coincidence and the natural progression of lines don’t apply to them? or 2) Did they just feel that they don’t need to conform to the structure of the line, knowing that they arrived after the Suit Guy but before the Fat Heavy-Breather Guy, and we all have to make a mental note to allow for the extra space? It just bugged me that they won't get in line. Were they going to try to overthrow my first place spot? Did they think "first come-first served" means that whoever is first in the door, by whatever means, is first. By the end of my internal rant, I had decided that they were elitist bastards who lack any common courtesies normally shown in polite and civilized society.

In their defense, they spoke very little English (the older one tried to convince us that the line formed on the other side of the building under the canopy—which she pronounced kun-OAP-ee—Yeah, right. I’m not falling for that lady…line forms here), and maybe waiting in line is a western thing, like rock and roll and liberal fascism. All I knew, after waiting in the cold for three hours, if they had plans to cut in front of me, they were going to see nothing but elbows.

During this, the preschool had opened for business, and between 7:00 and 7:30, parents came to drop off their children, and not a single one of them looked surprised or puzzled by the sight before them...they had all done it, I surmised. One of the women who worked there, felt bad that everyone was standing or sitting on the concrete (except for the one who was prepared with a chair of his own, of course), so she hoofed out tiny pint-sized plastic chairs for the first half-dozen or so. One lady sat down on it and the chair disappeared; it looked as though she was sitting on four chrome sticks.

Surprisingly, all the people in line that I spoke with had one thing in common: Every one of us knew by heart the schedules of enrollments for the four major preschools in the city, and we weren't shy on sharing that knowledge to anyone who was slightly confused. One was today, another tomorrow, and the other two were in May. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” became a running gag, and we discussed schedules and ages and classes. We reassured each other that we all will have no trouble getting our children enrolled, never mind the poor suckers further down the line… as long as you have their birth certificate, immunization records and a fat $110 check (non-refundable, of course). The Suit Guy didn’t have the birth certificate, so he left a copy of Golf Digest magazine to hold his place, and it worked! Thirty minutes later, he returned, the place holder was honored and he jumped back in.

The line began to fill. The sun finally chased the chill away (I could even take my hands out of my pockets and stretch out my fingers again), and Chatty Cathy had to go to work. So she passed the baton to her husband, a man that I will refer to as Art Linkletter. All his words came out slow and rolling, highs and lows, and his emphasis was so scattered, I wasn’t sure what he was saying. His wife made him out to be an idiot, and maybe he was, who knows what people do in their own time, but we assured her that he was quite capable of dressing their two kids and making sure they were decent before taking them to school, something he apparently doesn’t do (she called him four times with detailed directions...once to find the church, even though he had been there twice before). But, when he arrived, her reservations weren’t completely unfounded I guess. He did have a bumbling buffoonism about him, kind of a scattered and misdirected gangly loon quality, like he has a lot to think about an no real place to do it. He made eight phone calls in the hour that he was there, and told me he works in inventory… that’s it. No further explanation. “What kind of inventory?” I prodded. “The usual stuff… materials.” I’m sure my disgusted sigh was heard half way down the line. Stuff, materials, things. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he claimed he inventoried ideas. I’ve got one for you.

Then the excitement built to a stupefying crescendo! The director arrived. The eagle had landed! I announced it to the rest of the line because I was the only one in earshot that had met her before. Art Linkletter exclaimed that she looked like a director--whatever that meant--and everyone in line followed her every move like she was going to start shooting free enrollments from her fingertips. From her car, down the steps, through the gate, around the dew-wet grass and up the side of the line, all eyes were on her in a reverent silence, waiting for her to speak. Hellos were doled out, and since I was at the head of the line, I deemed it my responsibility to find out what we needed to do, so I can pass along the instructions to my fellow line mates. After all, it is the primary duty of he who is first.

The word was official: We were to wait. Ten more minutes, maybe 15. Art Linkletter pointed out that it was already three minutes past eight, and I feigned astonishment.

So, after three frosty hours of waiting, many repetitive and useless interactions with strangers in a strange situation, the door opened—I gave the Asian ladies that “don’t even try it” look—and I walked in as the first person to enroll their child for the Fall 2007 school year at our first-choice school.

Well, after all that, did she get in?

They’ll let us know by the end of the week.


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