Howie and the Light Switch
by Tom Spader - 8/2015
Howie and the Light Switch
by Tom Spader - Aug 2015
Howie dug into his sandwich with a gusto usually reserved for the just rescued. A impish jailhouse grin slowly spread across his face. He held his food in mid-bite, inches from his thin lips and said, “This will help (raising the sandwich) when I’m back on the inside.”
I cringed at his use of the word, 'when.' I thought I’d heard it all standing behind this Baltimore-city bar day after day, but when the smallish eighteen-year-old kid who sat on the stool in front of me said so matter-of-factly that he was expecting to be in jail again, I could only shake my head. So strange was the “when I’m back on the inside”, part that I almost didn’t question the fact that he had just said that the sandwich that he was eating now, turkey on white with mayo, would somehow help him in his next incarceration. Aside from the obvious nutritional values (ones that would never have entered Howie’s thoughts much less be part of this fleeting conversation) I couldn’t help but wonder how this meal would help … inside jail or out. I foolishly asked.
Howie said, his eyes dark and wild, "The next time they lock me up and I'm let out into the exercise yard I'll just fly over the walls." This would be done, he explained, because all he ate was poultry, mainly turkey. In those dark eyes there was a pride that he would finally have something on the guards and the system. I laughed. I thought he would join me in my laughter, but he just took another bite and nodded his head.
He also said that he did three hundred push-ups a day, but did not elaborate on the reason. Since we were talking about his escape from prison, I figured it was for some winged stamina.
Howie was the Audubon Bar and Grill's one-man-cleaning-crew. Audubon’s was a local tavern just outside the main downtown area of the city. Howie lived nearby. He wandered in through the door one day while the owner happened to be there staring down at the new white tile floor he had just installed...questioning his choice of color. It had snowed the night before and last night's crowd had turned his handiwork into a maze of swirled muddy footprints and crushed cigarette butts. The floor needed to be cleaned before we opened and the regular clean-up guy was out indefinitely with lower back problems, so when Howie walked through the door with that frozen grin asking for work he was hired on the spot. He had a mop in his hand before the boss even knew his name.
As the weeks went by Howie turned out to be pretty handy with a mop. That winter was one with record breaking snowfall and there was always amazing quantities of mud and slop on the new floor every morning for Howie to deal with. His work had a calculated style to it like he was following some master plan of mopping. He worked the floor in an almost geometric pattern hitting every square inch of an area before moving onto the next. As he worked he kept looking back over his right shoulder. Watching his movements I surmised that this talent was probably acquired in his last stay with our correctional system. Every prison movie I had ever seen there was always a scene of an inmate mopping the floor. The over the shoulder glance I figured was a move of self-preservation.
Aside from an occasional burned out light bulb or the mountains of trash and longneck beer bottles to be wrestled into the alley out back there was little else for Howie to do.
Howie’s used to tell me his street tales and the crazy nights he spent away from the job. If his stories were true, and I had no reason to doubt them, he probably would be back in custody before too long. On any given Saturday night it seemed that Howie and his friends would drink heavily and do drugs like LSD and then as the night began to peak they would steal cars and go driving. Pure joy riding. They’d steal a car in one neighborhood and drive for awhile and then ditch it a few miles away and steal another. It was never a crime of money … just kicks. The car that dropped him off that morning he said, with a bit of pride, was stolen. They were on their way to ditch it, also meaning he had not slept yet. His eyes were haunting and electric.
It was mid morning and once again it was snowing. The flakes were coming down with an intensity that was a sure sign that our lunch crowd would be pretty much nonexistent. The main floors were done and the cook was looking for Howie, who was working the floor behind the bar. He was needed in the kitchen. Slow days were used as “project days” and today they were tackling the exhaust fan filters … a nasty job.
While mopping behind the bar Howie decided he needed to shed a little more light on the scene. He had been ridding the floor of spills of beer and booze and various sodas and mixers for two months, but today he felt he felt he actually needed to see what he was doing. Reaching for a red-buttoned switch near an under counter light above the three section bar sink, he pushed. No light. He pushed again. And again. And again. Still nothing. He made a mental note, mouthing the words to himself, "Fix bar light."
The day cook, Re-Pete, named such because the head chef was also named Pete, found Howie behind the bar and told him of the upcoming chore. Re-Pete checked the clock and saw that they’d be at it through Howie’s normal food break and asked him if he wanted to eat before they got started. He never ate anything else. Day in, day out, turkey, on white, with mayo.
Howie had finished his floor duties behind the bar and was lifting the heavy hinged section of the bar that acted as sort of gate, when there was a huge crash from the front of the bar as the door was kicked open. I turned from where I stood, whipping glasses behind the counter, and was blinded by the morning light flooding in from snowy outside as the silhouettes of two crouching, uniformed police officers burst through the door, their muddy cop soles slapping against the newly cleaned white floors.
As soon as I turned in the direction of the police, I heard another loud crash of the hinged bar section slamming down behind me. I could see Howie crouching on his knees on the floor just outside the bar area holding his index finger to his lips. He crawled a few feet then stood and quickly made his way down the narrow hall along the kitchen. As he reached the back door to the alley I was again blinded by light flooding in from the outside, but this time it was Howie diving into the back-alley sending boxes of neatly stacked empty longneck beer bottles flying in every direction.
I turned back towards the police who were looking around the room and then at each other and then looking at me, still wiping he same glass behind the bar.
“What’s the trouble?” one of them asked as they both scanned the scene.
“What’s the trouble with what?” I said moving in their direction.
“That’s what we’re asking you!” one of them said sternly, moving closer adjusting his heavy belt. “You’re the one that pushed the panic alarm … four times. Didn’t you? You know you can be fined for messing with that thing if there’s not a problem.”
“What panic alarm? We don’t have a panic alarm,” I said.
Cop number two was making his way around and through the hinged section of the bar. He stopped, and with his nightstick pointed at the red switch near a non-functioning light above the three-sectioned sink. “That is your alarm. It goes off and we’re dispatched. The way you hit it four times in a row we figured something major was going on. What the hell IS going on?” he said firmly sliding his club back into his belt.
“Sorry”, I said, “ I think our cleaning guy thought it was a light switch. I didn’t even know we had an alarm.”
At that moment there was a loud static crackle coming from the walkie-talkies hanging from their belts. “WE GOT ONE … WE GOT ONE. HE’S COMING OVER THE FENCE FROM THE BACK.” the voice said in a broken cadence as if the cop on the other end was starting his pursuit. “WHITE MALE … FIVE FOOT … JEANS … WHITE T-SHIRT … MOVING NORTH ON EIGTH ON FOOT.”
“THERE … HE … GOES. HE’S FAST! WE’RE … NOT GOING … TO CATCH … HIM … BETTER… CALL IN … BACK UP.” the voice said, now puffing as if gasping for air. “IS …EVERYTHING … ALL RIGHT…IN THERE?”
Cop number two turned to me and said, “Who the hell was that going out the back door! And why is he running.”
“Just Howie, he’s the cleaning guy. He’s OK … I think.”
“We’ll check him out” he said as they left grumbling. I heard them calling for back up units. The radio voice was saying that the runner would be easy to find … he was the only one leaving tracks in the snow.
I made my way to look out the front window. It was still snowing hard with flakes the size of golf balls. It all looked so calm and serene. I turned to look up the block and saw a small figure dart across the road. Moments later a police cruiser followed.
As I stood there I was joined by Re-Pete. “What was all that about?” he said, almost whispering. In his hand he was holding a plate with a turkey sandwich, on white with mayo.
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