When I lived in Las Vegas several years ago, I really wanted to be considered a regular at my favorite bar, Champagne’s. It was a locals place, off the Strip, divey and very cool. It attracted all sorts of patrons — hard-drinking old timers to younger people — all eager to sit on the red upholstery-covered seats while gazing at the black and white photos of Old Vegas on the velvety wallpapered walls.

I always ordered the same thing, a vodka tonic, and sat roughly in the same area. After a year or two, the main bartender, Roger, began to recognize me and greeted me warmly.  I  knew I’d achieved “regular” status when he greeted me by name, then asked, “The usual?” I thought I was so cool.

I didn’t get much time to settle into my new role as a Champagne’s regular. I couldn’t believe it when Roger quit and went to work somewhere else a short time later! Whomp whomp. The thought of trying to re-establish myself as a regular with a different bartender seemed exhausting, so I didn’t bother.

That’s the only time I ever wanted to be a regular anywhere. Normally, I like to be a random, anonymous, fly-under-the-radar type of person.

A few years ago I used to stop at the same Wawa every morning for coffee on my way to work and once the cashier started recognizing me and chatting with me, I changed my routine and started hitting a different Wawa instead. It just makes me uncomfortable to be noticed, and then having to make small talk on top of that makes me panic a little.

Until now.

Like I’ve mentioned before, I work from home, and once a week I bring my laptop and work out of a coffee shop on East Passyunk Avenue, right around the corner from my house. Nine times out of 10 it’s Thursday. It’s almost always in the mornings, too.  I’ve been doing this for more than a year now, so the guy behind the counter knows me, and he remembers my complicated order.

Mike picking up his breakfast from me.
Mike picking up his breakfast from me.

I always get black coffee and a plain bagel with butter for here, then I get a second bagel, either plan or everything, to go, and that one gets cream cheese. The second one is for Mike. The coffee shop is on his walk to the subway, so he stops in and gets the bagel from me, and we hug and kiss and chat for a minute then I send him on his way. The really good days are when he looks through the window as he’s walking away and waves. Swoon.

If I have to go to the coffee shop on Wednesday or Friday, the usual Thursday counter guy isn’t there, and I feel a bit of anxiety at having to explain my order to a different person who might not understand it and get it wrong, and I also hate inconveniencing people or asking for special treatment.

I seem to have struck a happy medium here — they know me now so I don’t have to explain my order and I’m left alone. I’m sure if someone there started chatting with me every week I’d have to start going someplace else.

Are you happy to be a regular someplace, or would you rather be a random stranger?

 

For this exercise, I’ll tell the stories behind five photos over the course of five days.

In March of 2008, my sister Laurie and her husband visited me in Las Vegas. To me, one of the best parts of Southern Nevada — no, the best part — is the hiking. That day, we decided to hike Kyle Canyon, about 45 minutes from Las Vegas. It’s not a desert area, it’s at a higher elevation so everything’s green and there are pine trees and snow. We wanted to see Mary Jane Falls, a waterfall in a rather remote area.

It was 1.5 miles up a mountain to the falls. We started walking and it was really steep. We walked across a lot of snow, even though it wasn’t really even that cold. We couldn’t tell if we were on any sort of trail or anything, but we decided to just go up and we’d get there.

I had to stop frequently because of my asthma, and because the air is so thin and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was really struggling.

At one point, while were stopped for a break, my chin went down and I passed out for a split second. Laurie rushed up to me and caught me before I fell backwards. I had no idea why she was shouting — I was completely out of it, sort of in a weird daze.

I’m clutching my asthma inhaler and wearing a Morrissey t-shirt.

But I had some water and some snacks and I took a rest on the ground for a few minutes and felt better. That’s when this photo was taken. We kept trudging on.

Finally, we made it! The falls were so cool. When we got there, a few other people were sitting on rocks resting. They saw where were came from and asked us if we just walked up the side of the mountain.

We said we did, and they told us about the switchbacks, where are basically unpaved ramps that were not far from the route we took, but we couldn’t see them because it’s so heavily wooded. They said it was really easy to make it up going that way.

Aaargh! We couldn’t believe it! People brought little kids and dogs up by using the switchbacks. Oh well — when we got up there we felt we had really accomplished something, so we didn’t regret hiking up the side of the mountain like we did.

We ate some snacks we’d brought and then Laurie said she wanted to go up to this cave that was next to the falls. To get there you have to scale a rock wall about 20-plus feet off the ground.

She’s tall and managed to make it on her own. Then Nick went. He didn’t make it on his first try — it’s really hard to find notches in the rock to hold onto and to place your feet.

I decided to try, but my arms and legs weren’t long enough to stretch to the footholds. I tried a second time and didn’t make it.

I was just sitting on a rock with our stuff. They said, “We’ll be down in a minute,” and I thought, “This is really lame. I know I can get up there.”

So without saying anything (they were in the cave and couldn’t see me coming up) I tried for a third time. I was almost there, then one of my feet slipped.

I was holding on with my fingertips and started yelling, “Help! I’m gonna fall! Help!” and I burst into tears.

Laurie rushed over and told me I wasn’t going to fall, it would be OK, and grabbed my arms. She pulled me up and we both fell in a heap right outside the cave.

I was shaking and crying…but I made it. They asked why I didn’t say anything about coming up and I said wanted to surprise them.

Pretty stupid. I really could have fallen and cracked some bones. But I was grateful that my sister didn’t let me fall either time.

For this exercise, I’ll tell the stories behind five photos over the course of five days.

My Uncle Eddie, my mom’s brother, died in December 2010, almost exactly four years after she did. I went up to North Jersey with my sister and two aunts for the funeral.

Afterwards, my aunts (sisters of my uncle and mom) said we should go to Holy Cross Cemetery to find the old Ward family plot. My grandfather, grandmother and Uncle Tom are all buried there.

My aunts, who are in their 70s, hadn’t been to the cemetery in years, but remembered roughly where the plot was and what it looked like. We drove very slowly through the cemetery path, craning our necks to see if we could spot it. Finally, one of us saw it, but it was quite a distance off the road.

There was also about six inches of snow on the ground, and nobody was dressed to make the trek out to the headstone. I decided to just go out there, even though I was wearing heels, tights and a skirt. I ran, literally — I thought if I ran it wouldn’t be as cold. I remember hurling myself through the snow and leaping deeper into the rows and rows of headstones until I got there.

I brushed off the snow to reveal the name WARD with a flaming heart under it, followed by, “James (1961), Irene (1972) and Thomas (1965).” I took a few pictures, then ran back in the same footprints.

I’m not completely sure how my grandparents died. I think my grandfather James had liver disease, and I think my grandmother Irene had Alzheimer’s, although it wasn’t called Alzheimer’s back then. Tragically, my Uncle Tom died of leukemia when he was in his 20s — he and his wife had a baby and they were expecting another when he got sick. My parents, aunts and everyone in the family were devastated when “Tommy” died — I don’t think any of them ever stopped grieving. They spoke of him often.

When I got back to the car, my Aunt Irene said she really wanted to see it because it had been so long, maybe 20 years, since she had visited the grave. So, she and my sister Laurie traced my footprints in the snow.

My other aunt took this photo of them as they made their way back to the car. I’ve always loved this photo — I love how the light is hitting the snow in such a hauntingly beautiful way and I love Laurie’s coat and how she’s helping Irene get through the snow by holding her hand.

I’ve also always loved cemeteries. When we were little, my friend Karla and I used to hang out at an abandoned cemetery called Frick’s Meetinghouse Mennonite Burial Ground near where we lived in Hatfield, Pa. with graves that dated back to the 18th century. So many kids died young back then. We used to love wandering around, reading the headstones, and wondering what life was like in the 17 and 1800s.

It’s not visible from the road and, at the time, we had to trespass on private property to get there. The cemetery and tiny, modest church had fallen into disrepair, and it didn’t even have a sign. So, everyone just called it church hill because it was on a slight embankment and flanked by a creek to the east.

I visited it a few years ago and it’s all fixed up now, with a plaque detailing the cemetery and church’s history. Plus there’s a driveway leading to it now, marked by a sign by the road. (It also has a Facebook page! Interesting.)

Does anyone else enjoy exploring cemeteries?

I just realized that this is another post about death. It was unintentional!

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Irene and Laurie at Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, NJ on December 2010.

For this exercise, I’ll tell the stories of five photos over the course of five days.

In May 2005 a woman who was planning her wedding decided that she had enough. The wedding was shaping up to be a huge affair, with 14 bridesmaids and ushers and 600 guests. So, she did what I would do if faced with such a ridiculous situation: She ran away.

At first officials thought she was abducted, but then they found evidence that she took off on her own, so it was much less newsworthy…to me. She took a bus from Georgia to Las Vegas, spent the night, then took another bus to Mexico. That small Las Vegas connection was enough for the local and national media to anchor the story to the city. I didn’t even want to write about it (I was a crime reporter at the Las Vegas Sun at the time) because there wasn’t really anything to it. No crime was committed, she was an adult who just left, and she has the right to do that.

The cops said they were investigating, but there were no credible reported sightings of her. And frankly, I was busy with a bunch of other stuff and it seemed like a stupid story with such a tenuous connection to us.

So, I panicked when I received a call from Fox TV’s show, “On the Record” with Greta van Susteren, and they were looking for a Las Vegas police reporter to come on the show, talking head style,  to chat about this runaway bride. I didn’t want to do it because it was a dumb story and I hate TV news (and still do) and I hate Fox News (and still do) and tried to get out of it. But within a few hours I was sitting in an empty studio on the other side of town with a microphone on my shirt talking to Greta van Sustern on live national television.

I had been on television before, but just locally in Las Vegas, just like all of the other reporters at my paper. And then later I was the spokesperson for the Las Vegas chapter of the American Red Cross and speaking to all media was part of the job. But this was the first and only time I was on national TV.

It wasn’t so bad, and it only lasted maybe a minute. This runaway bride was said to have stayed at one of the resorts on The Strip, but she only had X amount of money on her at the time. So Greta asked me how much a room at this hotel would cost and I just made something up because I didn’t know, and a few other contextual questions like that.

The show didn’t air until 10 p.m. EST, so I told my sister in Philly to stay up and watch it. But the 10 p.m. show was the rebroadcast — it was shown live at 7 p.m. on the east coast. (In Las Vegas it was on after midnight.) So when I was answering her questions with the camera aimed at me, I didn’t realize I was on live TV right then. I’m not sure why that wasn’t explained to me but it’s probably better that I didn’t know. I might have vomited.

When I left the studio I was handed a VHS tape, which I still have somewhere (but no VCR). I took this photo of the TV as I played the tape later.  I broke a lot of cool crime stories and some did get picked up by the Associated Press, but it sort of sucks that this trashy story held more appeal.

Appearing as a talking head on "On the Record" with Greta van Sustern in May 2005
Appearing as a talking head on “On the Record” with Greta van Sustern in May 2005