THE PUNGENT MEAT RULE

Rahway. Of all the places to escape to, I chose a funeral home in Rahway, the city that housed the state prison.

Most days and most nights, in the beginning, I would think to myself, “This place is not only a literal dead-end; it’s a prison,” and then I would laugh to myself about the ridiculousness of my situation. Technically, the prison was a bike ride away, and technically, I was sleeping three floors above an embalming room and a sterile meeting place in which friends and family members said their last goodbyes to dearly departed loved ones. But none of that seemed to matter. I was out on my own as the cold of winter approached, trying desperately to put bad memories to rest. And for that, I was thankful, despite the shortcomings of my location and the location’s location.

The new environment required some adjustment on my part, but I was ready and willing to make provisions based on cheap rent in a nice house. Our private entrance was unreachable during renovations, so we had to use the back door of the main home as an entrance and exit. It’s still that way actually. Normally, during off-hours, this was not a concern. Viewings and funerals were a different story though. Imagine wanting to leave your house, and having to descend a staircase into a room full of grieving relatives, all wondering “Who the fuck is this person?” My first time scared me. The funeral was for a 15-year old boy, shot in a gang-related crime. The cries of “Why did he leave me!” echoed through the three floors of our house. I was still home, but I had plans to meet friends that required me departing my house during the time that the viewing was still commencing. I descended the stairs, kept my head down and walked as fast as possible through the front door of the house, into the neutral safety of the parking lot. It didn’t help that I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sweatshirt. Nor did it help that I was the only white person on the first floor of our house. In the future, I made a pact to myself. If I had to leave the house during a viewing, I would put on nice pants and a button up shirt, then walk through the house as if I were an employee of the home. This seemed to work, for the most part.

The other adjustment to make was seeing an inordinate amount of dead bodies, prepared for viewing and laying in caskets. Coming home at night, prior to a viewing, there was no avoiding the sight of a peaceful dead body laying in the corner of the home. At first, it shook me. At second, it alarmed me. A few months in, I might as well have been a coroner.

Then the questions started. “Aren’t you afraid of ghosts?” “Isn’t that place haunted?” etc, etc. I perceived it as such: If I die, and my energy or soul is an actual part of reality that allows me to wander the universe and unlock the hidden secrets of life, would I waste my time in a house in Rahway, New Jersey? Hell no (pun intended), I’d be living the afterlife up, visiting my dog and asking God why.

Communication helps too.

A few arrangements were made. The simple solution for us to avoid the workings of the first floor was a dry erase board, which hung at the top of the stairs. When a viewing and funeral was supposed to happen, the director ascended the stairs, wrote the schedule for the proceedings, and asked us to be quiet during the viewings. This was good. I knew when to get out and how long to stay gone for, so that I didn’t have to come home all sweated up after jogging and then walk into a house full of mourning family members.

And then there was another provision; something I took to calling ‘the Pungent Meat Rule.’ Cooking bacon, frying steak and whatever could possibly turn the entire house into a smell that resembled the Outback Steakhouse needed to be curtailed, at least for the time during viewings. All things considered, when a family is saying their final goodbyes to a grandparent, the last thing they need is the pungent smell of bacon wafting through the room (unless that smell reminded them of their dearly departed loved one.)

And so it begun: No cooking of pungent meats during the funeral viewing process. As a vegetarian, the rule didn’t affect me, but I lumped frying onions in with this rule as well. Fish also came to be included later on. Someone added roast chicken too, though the jury is still out on its pungent-ness and its latent ability to waft.

And life for myself began above the funeral home, albeit a few courteous rules. No cooking odors, avoid coming and going during funerals, be respectful.

I argued against the procession bagpipers, but lost. And therein, a few times a week, I would awake to ‘Amazing Grace,’ belted from the lungs of a Scottish American on my front lawn.

I had to laugh. This place, this city, it was far more than a literal dead end or a prison. It was now home.

A Brief Tangent, or Excerpt (Whichever You Prefer)

In the morning, I left Glasgow Central Station on a train bound for London. I purchased two cans of Tennents Lager, a tin of Pringles and boarded the “quiet car” on the Virgin line. The “quiet car” is supposed to be a train whereas mobile phone use is forbidden, but that never really happens. (If it was America, I would be doing much the same.) Regardless, I was more interested in a mother-son combination that sat near the exit of the particular car I was on than anyone breaking the rules of the “quiet car.”

The son was a smoker, and a troublemaker. They call his brand of troublemaker a “Ned” in Glasgow, and he dressed the part to a tee: trainer outfit, gold chains, bad skin, tough guy scowl. He was also a chain smoker, on a 5-hour train ride in which no smoking was allowed. Every ten minutes or so, he would exit the car, walk to the bathroom, light a cigarette and take a few puffs before the smoke alarm went off. Upon exiting the bathroom, a huge cloud of cigarette odor would follow him directly back to the booth in which his mother vainly tried to remain anonymous. This happened for the first hour. After conductors realized who the culprit was, they followed him back to his seat, and issued a warning. If it were to happen again, both him and his mother would be kicked off at the next stop along the route.

The warning worked for maybe half an hour, then the Ned headed back to the bathroom against his mother’s pleadings. We were now about halfway into the trip, somewhere in the middle of England. The conductors again followed the Ned back to his seat after the latest cigarette, instructed him to stay put for the time being, and that they would return at the next stop to escort him off the train. At this point, the Ned got up, slyly lurked away from his mother and attempted to hide in the train, or at least run from the rule-enforcing conductors.

As the train slowed to a stop, the conductors approached the mother.

“Where is your son?” they asked.

“I dunno, ran off that way,” she answered, pointing to the front of the train.

The conductors gave pursuit. They exited our car, walked forward, and from what I could gather, I figured we were near the end of the on-train excitement. Wrong. Two minutes later, the Ned appeared again, running back the opposite way through our train car, with three conductors and a policeman in pursuit. The chase was in and out of our car in a few seconds, headed towards the rear of the train. At this point, the mother, on the verge of tears, began to walk forward in the car.

A few minutes later, on the train platform, I caught the end of the scuffle. The Ned was underneath two policemen, whom were trying to restrain him. The conductors circled the commotion, and pretty soon, the entire side of the train was all staring out from their glazed windows at the wrestling match on the train platform. A few more minutes, the Ned was handcuffed and escorted off the train platform. But this wasn’t the end of the story.

The mother had now disappeared. And after a half hour of searching the car, the conductors located the mother. She was also trying to hide from the conductors, in the hope that she could leave her arrested son behind and continue on with the journey. But the Virgin conductors said “No way!” and escorted her off the train so that she would have to contend with her genetic burdens somewhere in an anonymous English police station.

After an hour or so of not moving at all, we were eventually in motion once again.

“I’m sorry for the disturbance ladies and gentlemen. We grievously apologize,” said a voice over the intercom system. One Ned, five cigarettes and one shameful mother later, we were on the verge of being over an hour later to London. But again, the story doesn’t end there.

It was the day before Halloween. I was to spend the night in Brixton before jumping on the Gatwick Express in the morning and flying out of England. My friend Paul was to meet me at the station. In the hours before, he had bought pumpkins and was attempting to carve them on the front porch of his house. He positioned the pumpkins, set his mobile phone down and readied his carving knife. Then the phone inside his house rang, and he went to answer it. In the meantime, he had forgot to pick up his mobile phone from the porch.

It’s London, and the phone is quickly stolen.

I reach my destination very late. I’m given a free travel voucher from Virgin for my troubles and sent on my way. When I first find a phone, I call Paul’s mobile. There is no ringing, no voicemail and no nothing at the other end. I try again and again, before realizing that, “Oh shit, I might be screwed.”

I then call back to Glasgow, ask around for Paul’s landline, and eventually do get in touch with him. A short train ride later, and a quaint walk down a quiet Brixton street, we are at his house. The Jack O’ Lanterns are freshly carved, the candles burn brightly inside of them, and all seems well for now.

Like every journey in life, nothing goes easy, but there seems to be something bright waiting at the end, and that’s what I’m putting my faith in.

Berlin…

Currently in Berlin, Germany. Planning on returning (eventually) but have changed my flight twice so far to stay longer. Life is confusing and I guess that’s all there is to say about that.
I like it here. I think Berlin likes me here. And I know my passport won’t let me stay here. Someday I think I might make it out of New Jersey for longer than a few weeks or a month. That is the plan anyway. Someday.