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At this point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t disclose that I almost ended up in prison once. It was a long time ago, at least more than ten years ago, but I was nearly sent to the clink. Like Al Capone, I was brought down for a minor lawful transaction and punished heavily. Unlike Capone, however, I never, to the best of my knowledge, killed anyone, died of syphilis, or had any dealings with Geraldo Rivera. Sure, there was a brief shoplifting phase and dalliances with ill-gotten chemicals and, maybe, certain acts committed in flagrante delicto which would be considered illegal in some of the less progressive states, but I was, by no means, a career criminal. But, regardless of my squeaky-cleanliness, I almost was imprisoned.

As it turns out, driving at excessive speeds in the great state of Ohio is considered criminal behavior. If caught, an offender can usually expect to be given a stern look and an admonishment to “slow it down” by the police officer, a fine in the area of $100 and points on your license. Those points, when allowed to accumulate, will result in higher fines, suspensions of driving privileges and, in some cases, jail time. Each speeding offense was three points and, if memory serves, you would face the stiffest punishment when fifteen was reached. What I didn’t realize was the law that if you are given three speeding tickets in a year, you are sent before a judge.

I remember that night so well. Michelle and I were driving back from her folk’s house and we had just passed the exit for London, Ohio. I remember this, because we made the same joke we always made when we passed the exit for London, Ohio: “Whoa, we must’ve taken a wrong turn if London is right there.”(The “United Kingdom” part of that was implied, by the way.) We were listening to Pulp’s Different Class and I drove with the acute pressure of a man who needed to be home by the time X-Files started. As the car hit eighty-three miles per hour, I noticed blue and red flashing lights in my rearview mirror. Actually, for the sake of accuracy, it was Michelle’s rearview, since I was driving her Saturn.

“Shit, damn, fuck.”

I eased to the shoulder, turned on the interior lights, removed my license and insurance information and wound down the window like the old pro I was. The cop came over and gave me the standard “Do you know how fast you were going” routine and I returned with the “Gee, I just lost track. I’m really sorry about that and will be more careful from now on” before returning to his cruiser. I turned to Michelle casually commenting that I wasn’t in much financial shape to lose $100, but I’d make it work. After a short time, he returned and informed me that he was going to issue me my third traffic citation in a year and I’d be required to face a judge.

“Shit, damn, fuck.”

Really, was he kidding?

Fact: Cops don’t have a sense of humor. Their sense of humor usually involves beating the shit out of a handcuffed minority with nightsticks, which, I hope you’ll agree, isn’t really that funny at all.

He wasn’t kidding and to make my night that much better, he informed me that I faced possibly jail time. “Have a good night,” he said as he turned away. The rest of the night was not a good night, but, by morning, I was over it having convinced myself that the worst I would get was a bawling out by the judge and a fine a bit heftier than I was used to.

Several weeks passed before my court date. That morning, I woke, put on my Sunday best and drove to the courthouse in London. I found my way to the courtroom and sat outside, passing time with a guy who was awaiting sentencing for dealing, illegal possession of a firearm and assaulting a police officer:

Him: Damn man, it was only four ounces of weed and my cousin’s .44.
Me: Just weed? Man, that’s nuts.

Him: You got that straight. What are you in for?
Me: Three speeding tickets in a year.

It took a while for the derisive laughter to stop. Perhaps I should’ve said “Reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon,” but hindsight is, as always, 20/20.

The bailiff called my name and I entered the courtroom having given little thought to how I was going to plea. Obviously, “guilty” was right out, so it was either “innocent” or “no contest.” Innocent would result in me having another court date and no contest seemed like a good fit, although, admittedly, I had no idea what it meant. What it means, I’ve since learned, is “I’m guilty as hell, but don’t have the balls to cop to it.” So, with the confidence of the mentally challenged, I made my plea.

The judge took a moment before handing down my sentence. Sixty days and a $500 fine. Well, if you’ve seen me, you know I am way too pretty for prison and it was only by the grace of God that I did not shit my pants and weep like a Nancy right there in that courtroom. Being the astute arbiter of character he was, that judge offered me an out. By attending a driving course and keeping my driving record clean for a year, he’d suspend my sentence. But, if I skipped the class or if I got even a parking ticket in the next 365 days, it was three hots and a cot for two months. It truly is amazing how contrite one becomes when faced with a frightening situation. 

I gathered the money, paid my fine and, later, attended the class and managed to go a year without a ticket, so that is how I avoided prison. And, as an aside, my iTunes is playing “Protect Ya Neck” by the Wu-Tang as if to mock me.

My prison story is not just something I wrote to pass the time because I forgot about my quest for “Songs in A&E.” No, it serves a greater purpose. It is an allegorical reference for my fear of being locked up and, yet, despite that fear, I’ve willingly allowed myself to be imprisoned several times in my life. While those prisons aren’t quite like San Quentin or even the ones Metallica must sing about, they are vessels in which movement is restricted and I find myself surrounded by the scourge of decent society.
You’ll know them as cruise ships.

Look, if you enjoy cruising, that’s swell. Good on you. Heck, I’ve been on four cruises and have had, more or less, a good time. It’s a terrific way to see a bunch of sights in a short period of time. But, I like spending time in a location, finding grotty, urine soaked record stores, dank bars and other places where I feel a bit more at home. And, heavens forgive me; cruises attract an inordinate number of “those people.”

“Those people” are the people who buy seasonal theme sweaters, have sweatshirts with American flag/eagle motifs, wear fanny packs over their stretch pants, consider Hummel as the pinnacle of sculpting greatness and use the words “cute” with alarming frequency. They are the people to whom Old Country Buffet is not a dining option, but rather a challenge. Those are “those people” and cruise ships are filled with them.

In the event you don’t believe me, consider this: I was on a fall foliage cruise several years ago. Michelle and I were walking around the vessel, getting our bearings, figuring out where the bars were. We were strolling through one of the restaurants and I saw a squat, middle aged woman headed towards me. As my brain processed the information, I became aware of details. She wasn’t just headed to me; she was waddling towards me like a Weeble-Wobble on a steep hill. She was decked out, head to toe in Pittsburgh Steelers gear. She had a mall perm and really bad teeth. She was looking at me…no towards me…no through me. I took stock of my environment and, to my horror, realized that I was the only thing between this yellow and black behemoth and the cocktail shrimp buffet. Like a matador, I leaped to the side as this dangerous creature charged through the space I was only milliseconds before occupying.

I sound like a dick, don’t I? [Editor’s Note: Yes, he does] But understand that I saw this woman hundreds of times during that cruise and there were several common elements which accompanied each sighting:

1) She was dressed entirely in Steelers gear.

2) She had that zombie-like stare

3) She was either always eating or preparing to eat

As is required by law, I would be loathe to not say that I was surprised that she was a Steelers fan. Steelers fans are a slight notch above Cubs fans who are a slight notch above Phil Collins, who is on par with Goebbels, Satan and James Taylor. She was the kind of person who probably has her “nice Steelers” sweatshirt for those special occasions like weddings, funerals or formal nights on cruise ships. She was the perfect embodiment of a Pittsburgher.

So, in an attempt to bring some coherency to this, I was on a cruise during my quest for that Spiritualized album. Michelle’s career as a travel agent frequently allows us the privilege in traveling quite affordably. Because of her career choice and my ability to marry very well, we’ve seen some pretty amazing sights, stayed and dined well above our station and can’t argue at all when our friends gave us the nickname “The Posh Bastards.” And it was because of her job and that winning raffle ticket at a conference that we ended up on a stupidly swanky cruise ship. To put it in perspective, I’d have to work for half of a year to pay for this cruise, some of the men wore cravats and, the week after we disembarked, the new Russian prime minister booked the entire ship out for a private tour.

We were viewed by the other guests as a bit of an enigma. We were quite a bit younger than most. Eyeballing the average age, I’d guess that we were at least thirty years younger than most. By the clothes we wore, my hair and nose ring, we weren’t of corporate or political money (these days, is there a difference?). When we told them that we owned a tea house and I worked as a librarian at a small Jesuit university, they were even more perplexed. Occasionally, one would pull Michelle to the side and ask, “Is your husband a rock musician or a professional basketball player?” Michelle would laugh and say no, prompting the “are you on your honeymoon?” question.

When I think of how baffled some of these people were that we were there, it just makes me giggly. But, for the most case, the passengers were pretty good. They were in a completely different stratosphere than we are, but after the initial curiosity wore away, we ate and drank with them. We gambled and participated in games with them. It was quite a Diane Fosseyian experience. On the sly, we gave them nicknames:

Crazy Sea Captain: snarled teeth and a face that had seen the worst of scurvy and mutiny.

Templeton: the Italian guy with a huge overbite and over all rat-like mannerisms.
Christmas Tree Guy: the man who wore the same red shirt and green pants for most of the cruise.
The Stockbrokers Club: Those four men, who always seemed to be wearing pinstripes, always seemed to be drinking martinis and always seemed to be plugging away on their Blackberries.

The reality of these people’s lives pale in comparison to the elaborate stories we’d make up over our fifth drink of the evening, so I’ll continue to blur the distinction between story and reality. When in doubt, print the legend, as the saying goes.

C’mon on me, focus.

We were on this ridiculously posh cruise and had seen/were going to see some incredible sights, so despite my reluctance to cruise, I was managing to have a pretty good time. But, on our fourth day in, I was faced with a challenge. The whole prison allegory now, finally, comes into play because that day was our day at sea. I was trapped in prison, granted a ridiculously opulent one with a five-star cuisine, top shelf liquor, and impeccably professional service, but I could not, under penalty of drowning or injury, leave that ship.

We left Antwerp headed towards the Kiel Canal, which is, apparently, an engineering masterpiece. It connects one body of water with another. Without the benefit of a memory or Google maps, I’ll say it was the North and Baltic Seas, although I’m probably wrong. And although I was feeling somewhat claustrophobic, I was quite excited because this was to be the first time I’d be in Germany, a destination I had dreamt of since I was pre-pubescent.


My interest in Germany began in the sixth grade when I was taking French and German. The seventh grade demanded a choice, so I naturally went with the language I thought was the easier of the two. And since I got “A’s” in German and “Not A’s” in French, it was Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles. Please forgive me for not umlauting “uber” (and “umlaut” for that matter). My interest also was reinforced by my high school teacher who looked a ton like the Solveig Dommartin, which is a very good thing for a teenage boy. I studied that language for the next eight years, reaching a point where I could watch “The Great Escape” and laugh derisively at the actor’s attempts at speaking German.

But, I never really ever got to use the language outside of a classroom setting, that occasional Wim Wenders’ movie or Einstürzende Neubauten “song” and, as a result, I lost whatever fluency I had. Up until that cruise, I had only really met three bona fide Germans. I suppose that I probably rubbed shoulders or waited on people from Germany at one point or another, but I had only conversed with three, and one of those, now that I think about it, might have been Swiss (or as a friend calls them “Germans with superiority complexes). One of the remaining two went to high school with Michelle and just only this week tracked her down on Facebook. The other, Michelle and I met on our honeymoon in Australia. He was an owner of a club in Berlin, fellow SCUBA enthusiast and totally uninterested in listening to me speak German as he wanted to practice his English on me.

Germany, however, is full of people who speak German as their first language and having prepared myself with a viewing of “Der Ãœntergang” and “Die Himmel Ãœber Berlin,” I felt a tingle of excitement as the ship briefly docked in the canal and let the oompa band board. I watched excitedly as the men and women of the band, dressed in ridiculous Sousa-esque uniforms, set up on the pool deck. And, despite my loathing for traditional German music, I was resolved to stick it out until their first break. Thankfully and a bit oddly, their choices of traditional German music pretty much revolved around a prolonged medley of Beatles tunes. It seemed strange, but I figured that it was an opening to chat with one of them.

After thirty or so minutes of tuba laden “Michelle,” “Lucy & the Sky With Diamonds” and “Hey Jude” they stopped to take a break. Summoning whatever courage I had, I ambled over to one of them and said, “Guten tag. I höre deine Musik sehr gut. Was ist mit bei Beatles alle Leiden?” which roughly translates to “Hello. I hear your music very well. What is with by the Beatles all suffer?”

Of course, that isn’t at all what I wanted to say, but this gentleman was quite kind. He turned bright red, took his glasses off, cleaned them on his shirt before saying, “Danke, thank you. We enjoy the Beatles.”

Oh, so that’s his game, trying to practice his English on me, will he? I wasn’t having it. “Ah, I möchte the Beatles.” (I would like the Beatles). “That’s nice,” he replied, his eyes desperately trying to catch the xylophonist’s attention. “Es ist mein erst Zeit im Deutschland. Ich bin fröhlich und….und…und…” (It is my first chronological time in Germany. I am happily. And…And…And….) I couldn’t think of the word for excited, so I made the universal body motion for being in a state of profound excitement: jazz hands and clenched teeth.

The man sighed, muttered something about needing to get something to drink and rose to leave, leaving me to really wish I had brought that Rick Steve’s phrasebook with me. Luckily, I still had a day in which little was planned, so I could spend a bit of quality time boning up on my German. Worse comes to worse, I’d just need to be proficient saying, “Guten tag, wo kann ich ein Rekordlager finden? Ich brauche Spiritualized.”

My parole was to come that following morning and I’d be released in to the wilds of Rostock and Warnemünde.

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