Confessions of a shop-a-phobe

I hate shopping, I really do.

Malls fill me with anxiety and rage. The modern take on multi-dimensional shopping: “promanades” leave me feeling crazy and exhausted. Boutiques are pretentious and cluttered. Even grocery stores kind of torque my lug-nuts ever since they’ve turned into multi-department megaplexes.

Seriously, they’re out-of-control.  Just today my roommate and I went to get dish-soap and baking ingredients and as we approached the “grocery store” we both marveled at how this arena-sized monstrosity had managed to appear in the middle of a city where real-estate is at such a premium.  The structure easily took up two city blocks and looked as if the Millennium Falcon had crash-landed in the middle of town and someone decided to slap a few overhangs on it and call it a business.  Inside was as multifaceted and confusing as quantum physics.  The two of us staggered from aisle to aisle, and found ourselves utterly flabbergasted at the display of no less than 326 incarnations of dish-soap that lined the shelves like glossy, vibrant elixirs of magic… each promising a virtually transcendent dish-washing experience.

We decided on the purple one… because… purple… and then scurried out as fast as we could… pausing only to take advantage of the discount Easter candy.  Because discount Easter candy is the best thing since the resurrection and if Jesus taught me anything, he taught me to believe in second chances.

yolojesus

Anyway, I’m not sure how my aversion to shopping got started. I suspect it had something to do with clothes shopping with my mother… whose brain was like a hive full of angry bees when it came to sensory overload.  She couldn’t last for more than an hour in any given store, didn’t tolerate arguments and refused to pay for anything that she, herself wouldn’t wear.  I was an 8-year-old kid dressed like an LL Bean housewife.  Shopping was an excruciating process that came to be a source of dread and disappointment as childhood rolled into adolescence.  My inner goth began to seep through the placid, preppy exterior, yet I was still expected to reflect someone else’s style preferences and taste. I was forcibly dressed like Pollyanna, but had the inner roilings of Wednesday Addams.

wednesday

By the time I was old enough to purchase my own anything, my attitude approaching virtually ANY shopping experience was profound exasperation before I even got out of the car. I have EVER only wanted to get it over with.

So, even now, it should come as no surprise that I rarely enter a store and I tend to wear my clothes until they are literally falling off of me. And although I’m required to dress in business casual while on duty… my general stance is to acquire all my work clothes from Goodwill since there’s every likelihood that I will end up covered in blood, soot, mud, brain matter, motor-oil, tree sap or any other number of substances.  My fashion philosophy reads like a spoiler for Game of Thrones… “Don’t get too attached.”

Still, I I suppose I get attached to my clothes, but only because I don’t want to buy new ones… even when they’ve reached a ridiculous degree of “worn out”.  I recently had to admit to myself that my work boots had achieved that state.  In fact, they did so quite a while ago.  For the last couple of months, I’ve noticed that when it rains… my socks get wet.  I tried to convince myself of any number of explanations… for example… the water… like… seeps through or something.  The seams aren’t sealed… or whatever. But the other day, I actually examined the bottom of my work shoes and confirmed the soles had split, probably some time ago, and there were holes in my boots.

Even knowing this, I managed to squeeze a couple more weeks out of wearing them. And when I finally decided to go shopping, I was on shift. I figured that since I had worn out my boots by stomping around the county in the service of dead citizens and their families, the county could damn-well pay me while I went out to buy new ones.

(Let me explain. Because I work on-call… technically, I’m get paid to be available for the dead citizens and their families.  If no one needs me and my paperwork all is caught up, technically… I’m essentially getting paid to hang out and wait for someone to die… and while I’m waiting, I can do what I want. Which means technically the county has, at times, paid me to play video games, walk my dogs, go to trapeze class, write this blog.  And on a couple occasions,   the county has paid me to have sex… high-five!)

thumbs

Anyway, I started out heading to a Ross Dress for Less, figuring that I had bought my last pair of boots there and it had been a relatively painless experience.  Their selection is pretty limited, everything is relatively cheap, their store-layout is boring and predictable, the lighting is good and there will be absolutely NO store employees bugging to “help” you.  (It’s basically, everything that most stores try NOT to be)

Well, as I am woefully under-informed when it comes to all things trendy, it came as something of a surprise to discover that April is the advent of spring fashion.  Walking purposefully into Ross, I was confounded to discover that the entire women’s shoe section was inhabited by nothing but sandals and lap-dance-worthy-stilettos.

“…” said our illustrious heroine.

I needed something with adequate traction, a low heel and a thick enough sole that I would be comfortable walking through puddles of… stuff. They needed to be durable enough to handle trekking through foliage, or burned out buildings, or climbing on top of over-turned cars and/or machinery.  I should be able to scale a tree in them in order to cut down hanging bodies.  I also needed them to be roughly knee-height in case any dogs decided to run up and bite me as I entered a house (It happens). But I needed them to look at least half-way professional in order to go with my requisite “business casual”.  In a perfect world, I would have just gone to all of my calls in jeans and combat boots.  But this isn’t a perfect world… this is a world where women’s’ shoe departments are full of ornamental foot-wear that isn’t supposed to serve any other function beyond looking cute, sexy, or whimsical.

And while I might be a cute, sexy and whimsical medical examiner, the last thing I need to do is bust an ankle on a scene and fall face first into a decomposing corpse.  It really fucks up your street-cred with law-enforcement.

Now I love to feel the wind on my toes and slip my size tens into some sultry, slick-strapped, whip-wielding stripper platforms that will pump me up to over 6-feet tall and make my ass look great. AND I’ve been known to wear such shoes… briefly.

sexy

… but not at work.

And the shoe selection that I found at Ross Dress for Less suggested that most women don’t, in fact, work.  Ross seems to think that women spend their lives reclining in deck chairs on cruise ships…

cruise

James… tell the concierge to bring me another mimosa… I simply cannot be bothered…

…or taking long, leisurely walks on the beach, during which they hold their shoes in one hand after fancifully taking them off in order to experience the blithe, effervescent swirl of sea-water around their ankles…

beach walk

Ahhh… it’s lovely to be idly decorative

and if women DO work… they work on a pole. (Not to say there’s a damn thing wrong with working on a pole. but the rest of us need shoes too.)

stripper

They’re certainly one-up on me… I take my clothes off everyday for free…

But hey, I figured, “It’s a discount store… you get stuck with whatever is leftover from more legit stores.  I’ll try a different location and see if I do any better.”

So I went to a DIFFERENT Ross Dress for Less… sandals and heels.

So I went to a couple of random stores in the strip mall next to Ross… sandals and heels… and a few pairs of fringed, open-toed “ankle-booties”

So I went to a fucking Marshals I… I… can’t go on…

I was five stores deep and starting to feel a little… crazy.  I think all of the fluorescent lights were starting to fuck with my head, either that or it was the rat-trap layout of these establishments that’s specifically designed to disorient people once they’re inside. (Seriously, Google it… it’s a thing.) My breathing was inching closer and closer to hyperventilation as I frantically speed-walked laps around every shoe department… trying to find anything that might serve in the stead of my long-expired work boots. I came up dry on every front.

It was getting late: close to 3 p.m. on a Friday. I had been at it for almost two and a half hours… which is two hours and twenty minutes longer than I wanted to spend on this errand.  I was sweating in my leather jacket as I drove across town, and stress-ball squeezing the steering wheel as I watched the afternoon traffic coagulate into an un-moving clot around me.

“Fuck! Fuckitty Fuckaroo Fuckberries!” I muttered.  I was agitated beyond functioning levels. My brain was soaking in a soupy quagmire of latent childhood trauma, mixed with recent irritation at my wasted time as well as a low-grade panic as I contemplated the drive home.  I was just about to exit on to the highway (which was moving slower than a government employee) when I suddenly remembered there was a Kohl’s just around the corner: another low-priced department store that had an extensive shoe department, as I recalled.

moreshoes.jpg

I risked it.

I pulled the county truck into the parking lot and stomped toward the front door of the store with a renewed sense of determination.  Surely, it was just a matter of time before I found the right place. I believed! This was going to work out!

Except that I was already lost after having taken less than 10 steps inside the front door.  Kohl’s was a labyrinth of product and advertisements.  A kaleidoscope of shelves and lights… scarves, hats, jewelry, make-up, bras… My eyes were full and yet I couldn’t see anything.  Where the hell were the shoes? The last of my patience seeped out my voice as I snatched a nearby employee from her task.  “Where… Are… The… Women’s… SHOES” I growled.  Her eyes widened.

“F… F… Follow this aisle to the back, then turn left,” she stuttered, wide-eyed and fearful.

Without another word, I swiveled in the direction she had pointed and stomped back to the women’s shoe section… where I was greeted with endless aisles of…

…sandals and high-heels.

I scrambled from one display to the next… following a pathway that seemed to be populated by more respectable and practical flats and modest pumps… suitable for an office worker, but still far from appropriate for my grisly occupation.  Nothing… there was nothing I could wear… However, as I paralleled the endless stacks of offending shoes, I spied a store employee, squatting amongst a pile shoe boxes with a pricing gun in hand.

“WHERE… ARE… THE WOMEN’S… WORK SHOES?”

She looked up at me in confusion, undoubtedly wondering how I escaped the mental asylum. “What?” She gasped.

“THE WOMEN’S WORK SHOES! I NEED A PAIR OF WOMEN’S SHOES!”

She glanced around her, at the piles and piles of women’s shoes that would probably qualify as “work shoes” for any job other than mine.

“Ummmm…”

“LOOK!” I barked. “I am the county medical examiner and I need a pair of fucking SHOES.  I am frequently standing on the side of the road in the rain… often in a puddle of BLOOD or BRAIN MATTER and I need some goddamnned SHOES, OKAY? THESE ARE NOT SHOES!”

…and to demonstrate my point, I grabbed a black-velvet, 3-inch-heeled pump off the nearest shelf and brandished it in her face as though I was waving a murder weapon in front of my chief suspect.

She shrank back from me in a not-unreasonable show of self-preservation. “Uuuhhhh… ummm…” she mumbled helplessly.

Dissatisfied with her response, I continued with my tirade.

“I have been to five fucking stores in the last three hours… YOURS is the SIXTH and I have YET to find a decent pair of SHOES!”

“Wh.. where have you been so far?”

“What?” I scowled.

“Where have you tried so far?” she asked again, probably hoping to get a feel for what I found so unacceptable about these other places.  But I wasn’t having it.

“Look… do you have women’s WORK shoes or boots or whatever?”

“Ummmm… I think maybe you should try Big 5 Sports This is pretty much all we’ve got.”

It was a smart move on her part.  I think it was clear that I was not going to be satiated with a nice pair of penny loafers, and any attempts to up-sell me on a useless pair of shoes would have met with a swift beheading.  Instead I snarled a thank you at her and bull-dozed my way back out of the building.  Then proceeded to sit in traffic for an hour.

The day didn’t end there… The day didn’t, in fact, end until that night. Or technically, the day didn’t end until the next morning , at. 3 a.m. when I was called to a suicide. Some dude had managed to shoot himself in the head in a very small room… Which wouldn’t have been a problem, but for the fact that there was blood all over the floor, and I mean ALL over the floor of this tiny room… Where there was nowhere to stand… Other than in a big puddle of blood…. In my old boots… with the holes in the soles.

The detective, the patrol officer and I were on scene for almost 3 hours… Each of us staring at the skyline, willing the sun not to come up… Praying we might be able to stagger back home and crawl back into bed before dawn.  Of course,  my attention was split between the encroaching daylight and the fact that I could feel my socks getting wet as I stood in the swamp of this dead dude’s blood and cerebrospinal fluid.  But all things considered, I didn’t have it nearly as bad as the patrol officer, who had to kneel down in the slop to fingerprint the guy.  He sighed in dismal resignation as he squatted down and tried to wipe the dead guy’s hands off with a napkin we had purloined from the kitchen.

“You know,” he said as he did his best to roll a clear rendition of our decedent’s fingerprints, “today, my entire family left to go on vacation in Jamaica… And here I am…”

He looked so forlorn, and I was so sleep deprived at that point, that for reasons beyond logical description, I pulled out my phone, opened the YouTube app, and played the song “”Work From Home” by 5th Harmony.

harmony

Nice shoes!

“Come on guys!  Shake it out,” I hollered at them, as I commenced having a small-scale dance party, holey boots and all.

The detective stared at me like lobsters had just crawled out of my ears..

On the other hand, the patrol officer on the floor started head bobbing and singing along with me:  “You don’t gotta go to work… Work… Work…”

“Jesus, Grace,” barked the detective as I twirled around, waving the phone over my head.  “”What are you so goddamnned cheerful about?”

“Hey man, it could be worse… We could be shoe-shopping”
Epilogue: I ended up running something like 2 more calls that morning. I was tragically exhausted and couldn’t bring myself to forage for new shoes again.  On the upside, when I came home from my activities, there was a brand new pair of Doc Martens waiting for me, left by a certain dark horse who had been lurking in the wings waiting for his entrance.. But that’s another story… Stay tuned…

mystery

Jack the Who?

So…

I’m weird.

Being a medical examiner is weird… if you don’t start out that way… you certainly become that way pretty damnned quick.

But it’s a weird you don’t feel happening.  It’s subtle as opposed to acute. A smouldering heat as opposed to a sudden, scalding burn

It’s not like waking up one morning with a razor-cruel case of strep-throat… it’s more like the gradual growth of a cancer.  You certainly don’t notice the symptoms, or at least you can explain them away.  That soft, feather-like blurriness to your vision was simply the result of getting up too fast.  Maybe you’re a bit dehydrated.  You don’t quite remember where you left your keys or you’re searching for the correct word that dangles a whisper outside of your mind’s hearing.  You justify, you dismiss, you rationalize… and then one day a doctor tells you there’s a tumor nestled into your head like a dinosaur egg.  It’s some strange, petrified object with a dormant monster inside.  No telling what it might decide to do.  Probably nothing…

Being a medical examiner is something like that.

One day you realize that there’s a city of dead people in your head… and it’s much like any other population of people.  Some are addicts and criminals, some are children, some are kindly old folks who can’t find their glasses.  One day you realize that the concept of mortality isn’t so much of a struggle anymore and you understand that everyone around you could die at any time… of virtually anything.  And it’s not like you understand this on a existential, emo-music kind of level… I mean you KNOW it.  To the degree that every now and then you call to check on your friends and loved ones, just in case.

One day, you realize that carnage hardly bothers you anymore.  You might see a head split open by a car-wreck like a melon that fell off a picnic table… or a severed limb… or a guy who’s been decomposing in a bath-tub for a few days… and it doesn’t affect your appetite at all. In fact isn’t it time for lunch?  There’s a new pho place around the corner that’s supposed to be pretty good.

That one day came not too long ago… and I was on vacation when it happened… the one time that you’d think I WOULDN’T have to worry about mortality.

holiday2

I had never been to the UK before.

London had never been very high on my destination list.  Reportedly, every street stank of urine and you could expect to hear the word “cunt” used as often as any pronoun or preposition.

assholes

Neither of these reports really endeared this legendary city to me, however my friend and fellow medical examiner from another local county, Emily, and I were on a European adventure to Greece and figured we might as well toss London into our itinerary while enroute.  It was a nice little English-speaking stop-over on our way to the cradle of civilization… and since both of us were well-rounded international travelers, we figured that navigating this mighty metropolis was well within our skill set.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened, really. Except surprisingly and contrary to my previous travel experiences , I discovered that this time around I had absolutely NO tolerance for jet-lag.  Consequently I spent the first 48 hours of our London adventure mired in a seemingly endless wasteland of foggy ennui, (or… now that I think about it, maybe that’s just London) During this time, Emily’s sadistic side came out and she convinced me that I really needed to sample a plate of eel pie and mash.  It’s hard to say which was more dismal, the early spring weather, the greasy, slop of pastry that made up this local delicacy… or my mood as I was subjected to both in one day.

eel

Cue projectile vomiting in 3… 2…

Fortunately, by day three I was back in the saddle, ready to fend off Emily’s other culinary suggestions and eager to immerse myself in some British culture.  And as luck would have it, my spirits lifted just in time for the two of us to seek out pretty much the only destinations we had planned out prior to actually getting on the airplane:

1)  First of all, we were off to visit the tower of London, the reputed last domicile of doomed queens, discarded royal advisors, heretics (of both the Catholic AND protestant pedigree) and anyone else who unwittingly stumbled into a king’s ill favor. Basically, I wanted to see where Anne Boleyn lost her head to her husband’s temper and an executioner’s blade.  If nothing else, I wanted to stand upon the ground where the psychotic, power-mad, sociopathic King Henry VIII had a truly remarkable woman murdered… and proclaim a victory for fiercely unrepentant females everywhere.

We’re like dandelions.  You may cut us down, but our roots run deep, our seeds fly far and we’re as stubborn as spring… stampeding into summer whether you like it or not.

anne-boleyn-1

Work it… Girl!

2)  We wanted to have a drink at the site of the “Winchester Tavern”: the haunt of the unwitting, bumbling anti-hero, Shaun in the classic zombie movie “Shaun of the Dead.”

How’s that for a slice of fried gold?

winchester

Unfortunately, it turns out the pub is closed and the building has been converted into “flats”… which is a fancy, British term for the far less sophisticated reality: “apartments”.

pub

How’s that for a slice of soggy disappointment?

Our last destination, and the one I was REALLY looking forward to, was the “Jack the Ripper Walking Tour” through the streets of the Whitechapel district.

It occurs to me now, that every single one of these events had something to do with murder and mayhem, and one may be compelled to ask why the hell two medical examiners would travel to the other side of the world, just to indulge in more of what they already do for a living.  I don’t really have an answer for you.  Death is death, more or less… but this was a chance to hear about it in a cool accent.

So, for those of you who don’t know, Jack the Ripper was a fearsome serial killer in Great Britain who committed his heinous crimes in 1888.  By today’s standards, what with horror movies, YouTube and all, Jack’s exploits were relatively tame.  But for his time, he was a figure of unspeakable depravity and violence.  You can read all about him here. Have fun!

jack

Anyway, despite the advent of far more brutal and sensationalized killers, Jack the Ripper is still a figure of mystery and conjecture, largely because he was undeniably sadistic, but also because he was never captured or identified. (Recently there have been some developments regarding Jack’s identity.  If you like, you can read about them here. Have fun!)

Anyway, it’s a big, fat tourist industry in London.  Every night there are local historians dragging groups of locals and foreigners, alike through the gruesome tracks of Jack’s heyday.  Our tour-guide was a lovely “bloke” who graciously described each of the victims and the circumstances of their bloody demise as we wandered from one crime scene to the next.  It was interesting, but not exactly chilling… seeing as how most of the murder sites are now, “flats” or parking lots in what appears to be a relatively clean and quiet neighborhood.  I’m not sure how it was for the others on our tour, I’m not even sure how it was for Emily.  But at one point, as the tour guide was describing the evisceration of a victim… it struck me that I actually HAVE eviscerated people… and technically, I’ve eviscerated more people than are credited to Jack the Ripper.  And I felt this gave me some insight into the theories about who Jack was and what inspired his activities.  Of course, I didn’t share my ideas with the tour because I figured I wasn’t the one getting paid to lead it and I was on vacation, after all.  But I will say that the theory that Jack had a working knowledge of anatomy is not terribly astute.  Just because Jack managed to remove some organs while in the throes of his blood-lust doesn’t imply that he was looking for them… nor does it imply that he actually knew what they were when he stumbled upon them.  So he found a kidney… So what? That’s not so hard.

Also, I disagree with the allegation that Jack was, undoubtedly, a man.  The senior pathology tech at the medical examiner’s office is a dainty little 60-year-old Asian woman named Barb.  And despite her diminutive size and sunny personality, Barb can dismantle a large human corpse faster than a Marine sniper can field strip an assault rifle. She’s terrifying.

dismantle

(If you’d like to know more about Barb, you can read about her here. Have fun!)

Anyway, all these thoughts were cascading through my head as our tour-guide unveiled his coup de gras.  He had been carrying a folder around with him all night and as the tour wound down, he decided it was time to march out the crime scene and autopsy photos.  But before he started passing around the pics, he warned everyone that they were gruesome and awful and if you’re of a weak constitution, you oughtn’t look and blah blah blah.

Well, the photos came to me and… I mean… they’re not anything I would show to my mom.  But I guess I’ve been ruined for the average murder.  They were gross, I guess.  I dunno, maybe it’s because they weren’t in color.  But in a now-characteristic lack of self-control, I leaned over to Emily and muttered, “Dude, I’ve got photos worse than this on my phone right now.”

It was true.  In the not-to-distant past one of my illustrious co-workers had dropped and broke our work camera, the one we used to take scene photos.  Our boss still hadn’t given us the funds to buy another one, stating that he had no intention of shelling out for a new camera until we could offer him a “good explanation” for what happened to the last one and prove that we could take care of our equipment.

We had been without a functioning camera for some time since the best explanation we could come up with for what happened to the last one was: “gravity”.  And the concept of “essential equipment” was apparently lost on administrators who hadn’t left their office-chairs in 20 years.  So, without another option provided by our employer, we had been taking scene photos with our cell phones… a solution that was far from ideal.  In fact, I’m pretty sure taking scene photos with cell phones is one of the biggest breaches of confidentiality you can commit as a medical examiner… since often, people’s cell-phone photos are uploaded to some”cloud” or something and end up on Facebook.  Fortunately that hadn’t happened to any of us so far.  But still, it’s a dicey business.  Especially when you forget to erase the pictures and you’re scrolling through your personal gallery, showing your buddies pics of your dog and suddenly everyone gets an eye-full of a fatal motorcycle accident… the kind of thing that would even make old Jack flinch.

I expected Emily to agree… or at least sympathize.  But it would seem she works in a county where they can afford to replace broken equipment, because she just gave me a weird look and passed the Ripper pics to the next tour participant.

And I felt weird.

I realized I was weird.

I am weird.

It’s weird to have human evisceration in your wheelhouse.  It’s weird to have pictures of dead bodies on your phone.  It’s weird to come to London and only want to see places where people either died… or where movies were filmed of people dying.

But you’re weirder… you’re the one reading about me.

Weirdo…

Wanna see some pictures of my dogs?