Archive for August, 2012
I am dozing off in an armchair, the book overturned in my lap has provided a few minutes of entertainment but proves no match for sleep. I am in a house in the mountains of Colorado. In late July, the air is a cool, unusual, and totally agreeable, 75 °F. A light rain has begun pittering against the roof. I am, to be exact, in Heaven.
A drop of pressure on my shoulder has drawn my attention from ecstasy, but not relinquishing so quickly, I go back to my summer fantasy of scratch-off lottery tickets and chocolate underwear. The pressure is more pronounced, and then my ear is wet. This rouses me.
The dog, a Bluetick hound, is staring longingly into my eyes, his face is resting on my shoulder. And copious amounts of drool is attaching his droopy jowls to my ear.
There is no term in the science of speed that can calculate how fast I leap from the chair drying my ear on my shirt. The dog smiles as I do this. Then he jumps in the seat, yawns and puts down his head for a nap filled with dreams of cats in trees and liver-flavored loin cloths.
This is one of the animals of summer.
I am in a blissful state, and there are many reasons for this. I’m sitting at the Horne, which is a bar. This bar is twenty yards from my parents’ kitchen door. Thirty minutes ago I ate a Philadelphia cheesesteak at the kitchen table two feet on the other side of that door. There is baseball on the television and there are beverages in front of me which make me funnier and enhance baseball, making every game seem like the 7th game of the World Series. My bartender, T, is a chalky voiced brunette who has a bent nose and a heavy Jägermeister arm. I love her.
So I haven’t noticed that the room has been begins to fill up behind me. When I do notice, I spin around on my bar stool to ogle the room in the blatant way of men wearing belts with shorts in small town bars. I am surprised to see that there are girls in the bar. Girls. The Horne is a small town bar; it attracts roofers, townies and me. Sure, girls come to the Horne sometimes, but they are usually with roofers, townies or me, and either in a state of abject terror or supernatural intoxication.
These girls are free range.
Shouting into a mobile is OK if you are relating CPR instructions, demeaning Michael Bay or telling someone about a great steak, but none of that is happening today. It seems that the people in downtown Pittsburgh have surrounded me to have some of the most ridiculous conversations someone can have. As I grimace into my book, the conversations get louder and more vulgar, as if they can tell that my discomfort is increasing and mean to push the envelope.
“Don’t you not go nowhere near that car you fucking jagoff. I’s telling you to stay the fuck away from my car or I’s gettin’ the bus and I’s gonna shoot your ass.” Gomer’s left eye is staring to the west and his right eye is staring to the east. His head scar has almost healed. I am mildly comforted by the fact that he is too drunk to negotiate either a handgun or a bus ticket properly. A woman screaming her own conversation decides that he is being too loud for her and, putting her hand over her mobile, shouts, “Shut you fuckin’ mouth, retard.” It marks the only face to face interaction that I witness in that park. Gomer does not hear any of it.
As we near the festival in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, the humid air is heavy with music and the streets become gooey with flannel. The gate is being manned by two men in black jean shorts, and we are relieved that there is no cover charge. We enter and are soon swimming through a sea of too-tight T-shirts and trucker caps. Our goal today is a secondhand book store located somewhere on this street, Collin is looking for a French cookbook and I am searching for a book of Charles Bukowski’s stories. We can’t hear anything as we move along to avoid being gobbled up by the festival.
It’s impossible to hear anything other than the band trying desperately to be cool and uncool at the exact same moment. Still, we look at each other just as everything dawns on us at the same second.
It’s always interesting when you realize something at the exact same moment as someone else. Dual recognition often occurs in movies to convey the idea that two characters are so intelligent, savvy or in tune with each other that one of them can’t possibly win the thought before the other one. As cool, smooth or even unnatural as these moments seem in movies, they are nonetheless intriguing when they occur in real life. Because at the moment when Collin and I are walking into the bookstore we have searched for, we both simultaneously and separately realize that we are in the middle of a hipster festival.
The elevator is large and metal, how I’d always imagined the inside of my own personal Phantom Zone to look. Nevertheless, it quickly fills up with a quotient of Chicago’s most talented language-slaughterers. As personal discomfort brings out the judgmental bastard in me, this does little to aid my feeble attempts at relaxation. You see, we are going up. Way up. Someone asks me to hit the 95 button on the panel, and acting as my own executioner, I do so. The metal box rattles with grueling effort as it chugs straight up.
The elevator seems to be a place, the only place, in Chicago that doesn’t have good phone signal, so my confused fellow prisoners are forced to employ face to face conversation as a last-ditch, desperate effort to kill 110 seconds without a phone. The people start hesitantly, making sounds until they finally produce conversations that are full of grammatical mistakes that my students would be embarrassed to make. Meanwhile, I am trying to ignore the rumbling box headed north.
I close my eyes and recede into my happy place, which, at this moment, is a pizza joint that we visited a half-hour ago. I imagine the pizza covered in sausage, cheese and tomatoes. The containers of hot pepper and Parmesan cheese sitting in between the pitcher of beer and my mug. Occasional strands of poorly spoken English attack my fantasy, bringing with it a reminder that I am in a box going to the 95th floor of a building. Through it all, a familiar voice.
I peep open an eye, not seeing Collin, but a large piece of Chicago style sausage pizza wearing aviator sunglasses. “I am fine, Pizza Man.”
The American Jazz and Negro League museums are in the same building, making the 18th and Vine District in Kansas City, MO, arguably the coolest place in North America. Both are lousy with memorabilia commemorating the most classic American music and entire generations of talented men who couldn’t play major league baseball. Collin and I wander through the museums, taking it in like twelve-year olds: Josh Gibson’s jersey, Cool Papa Bell’s glove, one of Charlie Parker’s famous plastic saxophones.
As men, we have a few happy ‘fields.’ Two of these fields are sports and music. For some men this is NASCAR and thrash metal, for others it’s ping pong and Liberace. For me it’s baseball and jazz. This means that at this moment I have attained a level of content that I don’t often reach without lying beneath a masseuse or without a fork in my hand. Also, the air conditioning is on high. I giggle into the dark hallway.
Things get better from there.
It’s 8 p.m. and we’re at the most active motel in Kansas City, probably the most active motel in the entire state of Kansas. There are more than thirty teenage female softball players running around the lobby filling up bags with ice and discussing athletic subjects at a grotesque volume. There is a constant flurry of activity as people storm in and out the door, most of them talking on phones.
Also, the police are coming.
The only five people standing still are Collin, me, the two men in front of us and the woman working the desk, who, though moving, is doing so with the imperceptible slowness of a sniper as she prepares their room. She is misplacing priorities by telling us the details of the evening’s events rather than handing over keys and pointing us to a room. “There are two big guys beating on a girl in room 320.” She leans in, “and apparently, they threw a toaster at her.”
Our pre-rafting preparation consists of blowing up a boat while getting an instructional talk by a highly qualified guide. It focuses on safety tips, reactions to possible (and various) accidents that can occur, and avoiding mistakes that can lead to either injuries or a watery death.
The danger of mutilation begins within the ostensibly safe confines of the raft. Holding a paddle incorrectly can lead to a broken nose, lost teeth and black eyes. There is the highly possible, even likely event of going unwillingly into the water. And since collision with a massive rock often causes one to fly into the water, the water you fall into will probably not be deep, placid or free of rocks the size of buffalo. A rafter can get stuck under the raft. He can find himself sliding along a shallow rapid with only his hands, knees and genitals to help negotiate his rocky traverse. He can get a foot lodged into a crevice of the river bed, which explains the carved in stone rule: Don’t stand up in shallow rapids. And, in a scenario I have seen in a worse case scenario book, he can get trapped under a downed tree in the middle of the river. I recall the pictures in the book, however, I notice with alarm, not the advice.
“Oh yeah.” I’m looking out the window of the Super 8 Motel that we chose in lieu of a another night of sleepless, airless, gruesome night in a tent. As we pulled into Hot Springs, South Dakota last evening there was a chimney of smoke sloping into the air. As we set out on our journey today we find that there are now two fires. There are now two fires. There are 100% more fires than there were the night before.
Brush fires are a very real traveling drama since at the very worst they are a concrete threat to life and limb and at best they are an impetus to detour. There’s a decision to be made: flee or flight. We, for some reason or other, decide to fight.
So, we gear up the Diesel and head into the fire.