Stepping off the curb an immaculately dressed woman hails an approaching cab. “Taxi!”
The approaching yellow cab changes lanes and stops abruptly. The driver, a middle age man in the standard cabbies livery of black slacks and pressed white dress shirt, steps out and opens the rear door.
Shepherding her four children into the back seat with a shhh and a nudge, “Please take us to the nearest police station.”
“We’ll be there in ten, no fifteen minutes- if the traffic holds.”
“Thank you, but we’re in no rush.”
Taking his seat the driver adjusts the rear view mirror, turns off the radio and starts the meter.
“You know you could have called 911. That’s what 911 is for. Emergencies- you know for when things get out of hand at home.”
“What makes you think anything’s out of hand?” sounding more aloof that she intended.
“Ma’am…you’re dressed for an upscale job interview, but you have all these children with you like you can’t trust to leave them at home. That, and it’s the dead of winter in Canada and you’re wearing big sunglasses that hide half your face.”
“Not a very good disguise then?”
“The clothes were a good idea. Looking like a professional business woman might get you taken seriously. Of course it could backfire too. Try to get a female officer if you can. Ask for one if you have to. ”
“I’ll do that. Thanks for the advice.”
“Here we are. Newton RCMP. Good luck.”
Herding her children in front of her like ducklings on an adventure, “Please hold hands now. We don’t want to lose anyone.”
The police officer at the front desk appeared disinterested and bored out of his dimwitted mind. Glancing up from a pile of paperwork, obviously irked by the interruption, his attention focused briefly on the woman and a huddled mass of fidgety little kids. All four kids appeared well dressed and scrubbed clean like the mother, and under the age of seven. Great! I can add brat-sitting to my list of to do’s today.
In a tone of mild contempt he uttered, “Well? Why are you here?”
“I want to report a crime. My husband…”
Holding his hand up to stop her from spewing the entire sordid story all over his pristine lobby, he indicated a row of uncomfortable plastic yellow chairs “Miss, if you and your children would wait right over there I’ll find an RCMP officer to take your statement.”
“Could that be a female officer?”
The officer turned away absent-mindedly brushing crumbs from his uniform, tossing an “I’ll see what I can do.” over his shoulder as his attention returned to his mountain of paperwork.
A few minutes later she overheard the desk officer speaking with another man.
“Hey Mike! Got a minute to take a statement? There’s a woman in the lobby with a pack of kids, said something about her husband and some crime she wanted to report.”
“Miss. Officer Mitchell will be right with you.”
“Thank you. But if it’s not too much trouble I really would prefer to speak to a female officer. ”
“Miss, I’m sure Mike here can address your concerns and take your statement. He’s a good guy and he’s been on the police force forever. ”
“Hello Miss, I’m Officer Mitchell. Could we step into this office so that you can speak freely without worrying about your children overhearing anything that may upset them?”
“Sara Smith, please call me Sara. But my children…”
“The front desk officer will supervise the kids, and they can see you through the window so they’ll know you’re close at hand.”
“I guess that would be ok.” Sara nods at the man at the desk.
Addressing her children, “Be good and mind what the policeman tells you. I’ll be right over there talking to this nice officer. I won’t be long.” She points to the adjacent office windows.
Officer Mitchell escorts the woman through the door shutting it tightly behind him. As she settles herself into a chair, he takes a few moments to evaluate the young woman. She appears to be twenty-seven to thirty years of age. Attractive, blonde, average height and build. Four kids, obviously hers. Claims to be married. Overdressed, trying hard to impress others? Controlled and nervous, but that may be due to her leaving the children alone in the lobby. With the usual marks on the right side of the face and head. In his mind he summarizes his assessment, the woman looks like a typical Monday afternoon domestic abuse report.
Officer Mitchell knows that- nine times out of nine- after the report’s filed the case is dropped because the victim refuses to press charges. The abuser apologizes and promises to never do it again. Oh baby I’m so sorry. Case closed. Total waste of time. With this foregone conclusion in mind Officer Mitchell launches into his interrogation.
“So Mrs. Smith, looks like you’re dating a southpaw. What’d you do to piss him off? ”
“Nothing. My husband Greg, Greg Smith, came home late and his dinner was cold. He got angry and hit me.”
“Cold dinner. That’s it?”
“Lady I’ve been doing this a long time and a man doesn’t beat his wife just because his dinners cold. He’s usually got a list of excuses. You’re sure that’s the whole story?”
“Yes. He came home around midnight, got angry and started hitting me. ”
“Where were your kids when this happened?”
“They were in bed asleep. Bedtime’s at 9.”
“So the kids didn’t witness the event?”
“No. Nothing.” she silently prayed that this was true.
“Mrs. Smith I’ll have to speak with your husband Greg to get his take on the evening’s events. There’s two sides to every story you know.”
Pointing to the right side of her face, bruises blooming around her right eye, cheek and jawbone,
“Well Officer, I’d like to talk about this side.”
 Royal Canadian Mounted Police- total misnomer as most drive patrol cars and wouldn’t know the business end of a horse if it bit them. Canadians call their police force Mounties.
 Newton-A dodgy neighborhood in South Surrey, British Columbia. Between White Rock and Vancouver.
 Whalley-(Wally)- An even dodgier more dangerous neighborhood of Surrey, north of Newton.
 North American # to call in an emergency for assistance. You’re kidding me right?
 Identity unknown, and unimportant.
 RCMP Officer Mike Mitchell is a figment of my imagination derived from Jeff Foxworthy’s anecdotal references to Officer Mitchell in his “You might be a Redneck” routine.
 Sara Smith-not the wife’s real name.
 Left handed boxer.
 Greg Smith –not the husband’s real name.
Author’s note and official disclaimer: Although written in present tense, this event occurred more than 20 years ago. All names have been changed and dialogue has been recreated to tell the story. The events recorded are sadly not altered in any way.
The Castle is a biker bar in Sedro Wooley, Washington. A bar where motorcycle parking demands a place of honor at the front door, and the rough and tumble riders find the warm embrace of community, a cold beer, and every Sunday night the Church of the Blues open jam for aspiring musicians. Come one, come all.
Upon my arrival I carefully back into the spot next to the motorcycles taking care to not get too close to the customized Harley Davidson 1200cc Dynaglide or the bare bones 883 cc Sportster. Knowing full well that a scratch on the chrome would set me back a minimum of a hundred bucks on the spot. Heaven help me if I nicked the paint as some of these bikes sport 3k+ custom paint jobs. A stupid parking error is too rich for my American Express card, especially now that I’m a full-time student.
My goal, arrive early to unload the gear and re-park across the street before the men in riding leathers see the rainbow sticker on the rear window of my Scion xB. My boxy toaster is not hip or tough enough to hang with these fellas and I’m not looking for trouble. I’m here for the show.
Setting up the gear is a breeze and after a few minutes of adjustment the sound is not perfect but deemed good enough. Seems this crowd prefers loud, the louder the better. If you can imagine a wall of sound striking you in the face with an iron glove you get the picture.
From the audience I shout “the drums are miked too loud, and the guitar is too quiet” only to get a “what?” screamed back at me. I should have known better, Gary B., the drummer was the organizer of the jam who followed up with “we’re gonna play now, unless anyone wants to criticize the sound some more.”
I shut up and ordered another Elysian Men’s room beer while trying to figure out where the bathroom in this fine establishment might be located. Practically on the dance floor and behind the bandstand are two adjacent doors marked with an image of a cat and a rooster. Subtle.
Christ! what have I wandered into.
I wait until the first set is over to begin my pilgrimage to the cat door. Not only because I am cognizant of the fact that a trip to the loo would be in full view of the band and the entire bar, but also because I’m sitting like a mother hen on the purse of the guitarist for the evening and have to wait until her return regardless of my bladders protestations to the contrary. Eight songs can feel like forever, and the cat door looked like a looooonnnnng way away, even though in reality I’d waited 45 minutes and walked approximately 38 feet.
In an urgent state I discover that the stall doors don’t lock. Not a single one of the doors lock or even latch haphazardly, leaving the door and your privacy flapping and dependent upon the whim of the next person who enters the cat door. Juggling the door and my pants was too much for me so I left it to chance. From a crouching position a tall person with an optimum positioning of doors might be obscured from the chest down while gaining full view of the dance floor and band. Perhaps this was their intended result?
A night of rip-roaring song ensued. Large lusty ladies belted out their sexual bravado like the challenger in a bullfight, managing to remain in tune without ever dropping the melody or derailing their innuendo. Skinny men with fat sounding guitars wanked and wailed in public with satisfied grins all-round the room. One lady keyboard player announced mid phrase that she’d prefer to play with a band but could perform by herself if necessary. She wasn’t kidding, she didn’t need accompaniment. Musicians rushed the stage in support but in truth she was correct. She didn’t need anyone.
The hired gun for the evening had a bad case of perma-grin on her face as she finished her last song. People at the table commented on her enthusiasm and skill while clapping heartily for more. What the crowd didn’t know was that the hired gun would have played all night without an audience simply for the joy of playing.
With a wink I asked my wife “I’d like to take the guitarist home. What do you think? ”
Completely deflating my cheeky comment she replied “Yeah. I’m ready when you are. ”
For the most part Saturday nights are pretty boring around my house, but once or twice a month I pack the car full of gear and sit in a Canadian bar all night sipping on a Guinness (or two) watching the following…..
Sorry for the short clips, but the dance floor was full of people all night and I could only get short bits of video without dancers obscuring the camera lens.
In any person’s life there will be incidents that occur where, after the fact, one wonders aloud;
Why did I do that? What the heck was I thinking?
Sometimes events are so surreal one might wonder if their recollections are accurate.
Did that really happen?
I call these McBeal moments in reference to the Fox television character Ali McBeal, who seemed, at least for the duration of the legal dramady- 1997 to 2002, to have these surreal incidents all the time, and oddly often in the unisex bathroom of the fictional law firm Cage and Fish.
There exists in my mind neither a logical reason nor rational excuse for my actions that day. I could say that my curiosity got the better of me. Or maybe it was a situational thing because of course I’d never find myself there were I at home on the west coast of Washington State.
No. Definitely not a logical progression, but as they say when in Rome, or in this case Germany. You do as the locals do. Right?
I could fault the Romans who created the bathhouse in Baden Baden which literally translates to bath! bath! (emphasis mine). The redundant name’s a handy reminder that there are two baths for the lucky local townsfolk to enjoy, Freidricksbad and Caracalla Therme.
The Freidricksbad spa building itself is modeled on a neoclassical palace complete with elaborate room sized frescoes marbled roman arches and luxuriant architectural flourishes designed and built at the behest of Grand Duke Freidrick von Baden in 1877.
Whether it was the Germans, or the more egalitarian European sensibility towards nudity that led the excavated ruins of the ancient Roman baths to be transformed into a coed bathing facility, I don’t know.
When given the choice of the two spa options Caracalla’s advertising brochures strongly resembled admittance to a Disneyland water theme park complete with water slides and rampant unsupervised children clogging up the wading pools; as opposed to the more stately communal Roman Irish baths complete with soap brush massage, and 16 treatment stations. Without hesitation I chose the more traditional, adult exclusive, non-touristy option.
Upon the suggestion of European travel guru, and Edmonds Washington resident, Rick Steves, I’d actually built part of my travel itinerary around a visit to the spa. That and Baden Baden, Germany was on my way through Bavaria on my way to my final destination, Paris, in the winter of 2006.
The spa experience at the Roman Irish bath, for it truly is billed or promoted as an experience, concluded with a sunny westerly facing atrium, chaise lawn chairs and warm fluffy bathrobes. After two weeks of frigid, drizzly, foggy weather, exposing my skin to the direct rays of the sun was my idea of paradise.
I cannot say whether the day after Christmas was a particularly busy spa day, but it appeared as such from the crowded state of the parking lot. After parking our 4 cylinder Renault roller skate rental car my partner and I silently approached the front entrance as though we dared to enter a holy sanctified cathedral dressed casually and without a formal engraved invitation. I fully expected to encounter a bit of saintly remains discretely buried with a prominent marker noting the spot, or publicly enshrined in a central location available to the groveling masses to bow and scrape and beg forgiveness for their transgressions.
The marble portico could have easily granted us entry into a museum housing the world’s most famous oil paintings, or been the summer home of an Austrian Arch Duke, or perhaps the final resting place for St Benedict’s earlobe. It certainly did not appear to be a place where normal plebeians cavorted around naked, dipping themselves into lukewarm mineral baths like little emperors out on a lark.
For three and a half hours one cold and windy December day I was one of those little naked emperors.
Once inside the customer is swept up with German efficiency. You are instructed to pay a small entry fee calculated in Euros and an attractive young woman gives you an overview of the spa procedure. It’s called a procedure or a treatment in 16 steps. Each step isn’t really a step per say it’s simply a part of the overall whole, and the Germans are fond of numbering systems, or organizational systems in general. I’m not sure which exactly, although I’m sure they would have explained it to me had I asked.
Step one is: Visitors stash their clothes in a locker, get bath sandals and a robe, and start off with a shower. From the shower the bather gradually increases their core body temperature by frequenting two steam rooms, and a series of thermal baths of varying temperatures. When your skin glows red like a partially steamed lobster, your name is given to one of a dozen soap brush massage therapists who must all be named variations of Helga, Brunhilda, or Olga.
I firmly believe that in order to apply for one of the soap brush massage positions the prospective job applicant must be built as solidly as a tree trunk, speak no written language other than German, lack any personality whatsoever, and answer to one of the above mentioned names.
The soap brush massage which lasts for exactly 8 foamy bristly minutes, and not one second more as indicated on a slippery yellow egg timer, is station 5. As a willing participant, or steamed and scoured guinea pig, you will be made aware that your time is up by receiving a firm slap on the buttocks as an indicator that it’s time to go.
Trust me on this.
Unless you have masochistic tendencies and an affinity for woman with forearms bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, you do not stick around for a second reminder. It’s time to go.
A tepid 82 degree segregated wading pool filled with mineral water awaits you. As you dip yourself into the water with two or three dozen other women with red hand-prints on their backsides, you mentally congratulate yourself for successfully running the soap brush gauntlet and come out the other side. You feel an affinity with these other women who have shared this prideful rite of passage with you while discretely rubbing your smarting bum.
Here’s where my curiosity got the better of me.
There are two wading pools separated by a span of roughly three meters. Each pool is approximately one quarter the size of an Olympic sized swimming pool, under a giant domed roof the size of a typical American high school gymnasium.
In the other wading pool were more than two dozen men. Naked little emperors having their own spa day soak, presumably after successfully running the gauntlet and getting their own little smack from the Helga’s on their side of the facility.
I didn’t actually count the number of bodies in either of the pools or look for the telltale red marks. That might have been considered gauche, or demurely American to the Europeans and I was already having trouble fitting in. But whether it was 24 or 32 isn’t the point.
I was cold.
Having scalded myself in the sauna, and scrubbed off the outer layer of dermis with the Helga’s, once completely submerged the water in our little pool I was downright chilly. Goose-pimply. So I peeked over at the men’s pool and they seemed to be quite comfortable. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe the water in their pool was warmer.
It’s a co-ed facility, there are two pools. It’s possible. Right?
Thankfully there were no water slides, diving boards, or swim ladders, or I’d have looked even more ridiculous doing a cannonball or belly flop into the shallow four foot mineral bath. I exited the ladies pool traveling up a set of shallow stairs, traversing the short distance between and into the men’s pool with as much aplomb as I could manage, which given my absolute lack of clothing or facility with the German or French language was next to nil.
I applied the proven “Fake it til you make it.” tactic never letting on that by the time my toes touched the water I was feeling like a stupid moron.
Their pool was the same temperature as the one I’d just left. Damn.
To their credit the little emperors were a welcoming group of fellas, not overtly staring at the invasive species, me.
Once in, I felt it might be rude to leave immediately, so I settled in for a few minutes. As I sat there I wondered how I’d tell this story to my mom. Somehow “so I was skinny dipping with this bunch of fellas in Germany last Christmas, when…” didn’t quite work. Yeah that story won’t fly, that won’t even hover.
Looks like I figured it out.