Sturm und Drang

Today’s post was written live and direct.

~o~

I am on an airplane, on my way to Florida. I am helping my friend Clem, a steel sculptor like myself, install some large scale pieces. We have 48 hours to accomplish this task. I think we started drinking as soon as we hit the airport but we may have waited until after checking our bags.

The plane is paid for, my meals are paid for, my own motel room is paid for and we’re heading to the beach just in time to intercept a major tropical storm. So far so good.

But let’s back up a second here. Maybe we should begin this story at the beginning.

Clem, John Clement, is my excellent friend and studio mate of over a dozen years. Whether or not it is true, I consider myself instrumental in getting him and his girlfriend on the same page that led to their successful and wonderfully good looking marriage. I did this by providing an outstanding example with my own ultra-groovy marriage as well as offering advice to both parties that may not have been stellar, but at least it wasn’t poisonous.

One of the sculptures that we are installing is Clem’s. Two of the sculptures that we’re installing are not Clem’s. One of these two sold for 450 thousand dollars. This is by no means your ordinary installation. Somehow, all three sculptures are arriving on the same truck and the other galleries involved are piggybacking our installation services. I am the go to person for this installation because I owe Clem a bunch of money and I don’t have it, so this way I am able to work off my debt. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m ten years older than Clem this trip would have none of that ever so tasty embarrassment factor attached to it at all. The other reason I might be here is because I have over twenty years experience at rigging and I can operate machinery and tools accurately and efficiently.

Clem has other people that he can use for this sort of job but they are young and prone to recklessness. I, on the other hand, am more moderate, more considered in my actions. It wasn’t always so but it is now. I may not have grown up but I have definitely slowed down and on a big job like this, where other peoples property and money are on the line, it pays to go with a more experienced hand. The more so when that hand is free of course, but still.

~o~

The trip starts where all these kinds of trips start; at the airport bar. Two rounds of beers, two shots of tequila. Did I mention moderation? Not my fault or my doing. I’m only along for the ride and this ride starts at the bar. I’m traveling with a bar owner; it’s only to be expected. By total and complete coincidence we have just run into one of Clem’s ex-bartenders. This ex and his girlfriend buy us a round, we buy them a round and it’s time to head to the gate. The plane is delayed. Back to the bar. This developing drunk seems inevitable and the fact is, I don’t like to tamper with the inevitable.

~o~

I have only just learned that our destination is Sarasota and that Sarasota is on the west coast of Florida. I like to think of every experience as a potential learning experience so I’m already way ahead of the game and I haven’t even finished my drink. This should be good.

~o~

The delay is never officially explained though I do see a lot of arm waving by the weather guy up on the flat screen. There is a hurricane passing through our destination. But never mind our destination; after more shots and beers I do believe the hurricane has made landfall at our point of origin right here at LaGuardia Airport.

~o~

We’re now in flight and I have Coltrane on the iPad; Equinox. Cool happened a long time ago now. So much music has happened; so much time; so many ears but this one song is such a concentrated dose of perfection that it overwhelms the before and after of popular music. I divide music as before and after this one song. You may not agree but that just makes you a putz.

~o~

The airline has blessed me with a free in flight snack. It isn’t just me, its everyone. It’s amazing what we’ve become accustomed to eat. A moderately salted chip made of crushed popcorn, it immediately reminds me of the coarse compressed paper of old fashioned egg cartons. My guess is that after extracting the corn syrup and fermenting the remainder to make ethanol the refiner gave the desiccated remains to a waste contractor who’s pals with a cattleman. The cattle refused to eat it and, left with tons of the stuff, he figured there was nothing else to be done but make it into a salty snack, put it in snappy packaging and tout the health benefits.

~o~

We land on the late side. We rent the car and find that no one is available to bring it around from the lot. We have 2 fifty pound bags of tools as well as duffels full of clothes and rigging so it’s actually a small problem, but there is a reasonable excuse for the poor service. The wind is blowing a steady 60 miles an hour outside the door and it’s raining horrendously. Maybe I’m just old fashioned but wouldn’t you think that this is exactly the circumstance in which providing the car at the door service would really be a ……. what’s a good word to use here….. Ah yes… Service?

~o~

If it wasn’t for the palm trees you could be anywhere in America that is prone to hurricanes. I say that because we have passed through miles of franchised businesses before we found something local to eat and there is a tropical storm thrashing around a few feet away from our outdoor table at Walt’s Seafood shack. Walt’s has kind of a grass covered tiki hut porch so we’re sitting here drinking Longboard Beer and eating alligator bites. Nothing happens without a beer or cocktail or shot in some peoples world. I am in the company of one of those people. It is both refreshing and disorienting. Very much like alcohol itself when I am able to think about it.

The wind is thick with moisture. Humidity has to be hovering around 110% as the sports radio guy would doubtless report it, because, you know, everything is bigger than life in professional sports. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe professional sports are smaller than life and need to be exaggerated in order to bring them up to life size. Just a thought.

The wind keeps changing directions as the storm revolves around its quiet eye. We are obviously nowhere near that eye. The lights at the bar flick off for a fraction of a second along with all the other lights as far as I can see and it is absolutely black until someone’s Plan B trips into effect and all is bright again. Still, everyone seems made nervous by it. The fry cook kid who so lovingly dipped our alligator into a bath of hot oil comes out from the kitchen and tells us where the alligator comes from. “Out in the country”, as he calls central Florida, “or from over in Louisiana.” He has a slight look of distaste when he says Louisiana. It has always been my observation that in tall states like California, the north and south hate each other; in wide states like Pennsylvania, the east and west hate each other. A map of Florida looks tall and wide so maybe that means they hate everyone. I don’t know but it seems like everyone needs someone to hate and the go to first choice is bound to be your neighbor.

~o~

After a short drive through bands of blinding rain and flooded streets we end up at our motel. It is on a street of motels that all have similar names, mixing and matching words like Bay, Cove, Beach, Harbor, Key, Pointe, Grove, View, Club and Lagoon. Every motel complex runs into the next and they all look alike so it’s best to come here if you already live here. Otherwise, like us, you will need to pay careful attention to the bogus directions the front desk guy is giving us over the phone, guiding us in like a plane lost in a storm. None of this helped by the fact that the pilot and navigator are full of fried ‘gator and beer.

~o~

Up early. Let’s get this thing started. We stopped at the 7-11 for weak coffee and something claiming to be an apple doughnut. It has no apple in it and it is not a doughnut. First off its missing a hole. Secondly, doughnuts are supposed to be fried in oil, right?; not just soaked in it. On the upside it seems to have been submerged in sugar paste for 36 hours so “Apple Donut” it is.

~o~

 

We’re driving out to the house where we will be installing the work. The road is thigh deep in water that smells of sewerage. Our brand new GMC Equinox is not loving the water and starts flashing lighted little icons across the dashboard. The on board diagnostics don’t know what to make of seawater up the tailpipe but clearly this is exceeding some kind of warranty fine-print.

~o~

We get to the house, make introductions and I leave the group and walk the thirty paces to the beach. I want to assess the tide because the wind is going to be driving the next several cycles. I have already checked the tide tables and we are near high water. As the tide peaks, rolling waves pour over the dunes; the water running in widening channels down the driveway into the lagoon that used to be the front lawn. The howling winds try to strip foliage and siding and the rains overflow swimming pools up and down the Key. Talk turns to what’s playing at the local movie theater. We need to reassess our situation and the wisdom of proceeding with a plan that didn’t include a variety of elements trying to kill us.

~o~

We have no choice but to go to breakfast. We head to the local shopping center diner. It is huge, full service and utterly empty. We walk in and ask if they have a table available. There is something about a life threatening situation that brings out the best in people and the two waitresses are as friendly as can be. If time and desire allowed for it, I think we could arrange poached eggs and grits with a happy ending. Diner chatter usually revolves around the weather but in this case the lack of customers and the rising water in the parking lot makes weather talk a little more urgent. We finish up and leave a nice tip. I think our waitress may have four and possibly as many as eight extra teeth in her head but it gives her an exceptionally large smile.

~o~

I’m watching Clem closely for signs of our direction. I don’t have anything hanging in the balance here but I know he does and I’m game for anything; a matinee, a sculpture installation or ransacking evacuated beach houses; it’s all the same to me. I see his knit brow and I know he’s as sober as we’re going to be today. Out comes the phone and I know that he is calling in the experts. His sister and her husband live on the east coast of Florida and they are both exceptionally good looking. They are also world renowned oceanographers and climate experts but in this family everyone is noteworthy for there beauty. Their surpassing intelligence is a given.

The only question is “What is it going to be like tomorrow?” Clem’s brother-in-law, Kenny, is just finishing up a helicopter lesson. Kenny  says that if we’re going to do it, today is the day because no matter how bad it is today, even with the most advanced gadgets in the world, they can’t tell us what it’s going to be like tomorrow. Words to live by no doubt. Kenny is the National Geographic Explorer of the Year because he does insane things everywhere he goes but the fact is, we’re looking for an excuse to do this job and, as the saying goes, “Any excuse in a storm.” Time to call the truck.

~o~

The truck is parked twenty miles away because the driver has more common sense than we do. I am listening to Clem’s end of the phone conversation. “Yeah man, it’s not too bad, we’re gonna do the job. Yeah, yeah, just pull into the parking area just past the guard booth. Yeah, you’ll see the booth as soon as you make the turn unless it’s floated away. No man, the parking area is high and dry. Ok maybe not dry but not nearly as submerged as the rest of Siesta Key.”

~o~

We make our way back out to the house and the sewage smell has pretty much abated. The lagoon and the street are a single body of water with a very pleasant current running through it freshening everything in its path. The wind is blowing hard out of the Gulf and by this time it is clear that the tide will not be ebbing, therefore the next high tide will be the one to worry about as it overruns itself.

~o~

The owner is happy happy happy that we are going to do the job. He hasn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary about the weather. I think it must be typical of very successful people. You and I are always weighing the worst case scenario against the best possible outcome. For people like our client, best outcomes seem to be a given. One of us is clearly unbalanced but given that he owns two beach houses right next door to each other and that these are by no means his only properties; that he collects art and toys, and that we work for him and not the other way around I have to think that maybe it’s he who is tapped into the light fantastic. We’re all excited by the prospect of getting underway and the real possibility that we are going to regret this but it also has the prospect of a heroic adventure.

Oddly enough, now that we’ve decided to go ahead with this venture, it seems like a shame this raging tempest has been designated a tropical storm. I mean, if we’re gonna do this I want to do it in the teeth of a hurricane. Life is full of these little disappointments and there is nothing to do but turn into the torrential rains and the massive, locomotive winds and carry on. Oh well, you work with the hand you’re dealt.

~o~

We’re ready to begin and I climb into the driver’s seat of the reach-lift. A reach-lift is kind of like a fork lift with a telescoping boom, big balloon tires and a single, caged in operator’s seat. I’ve operated these in the past so it only takes a quick run through and I’m ready to go. Clem confirms the truck is en route, finds a nonlethal spot on the machine to sit, and we make our way back to the beach club parking area through a shower of waves crashing over a makeshift sea wall of rocks that are all that remains of the sandy beach. Throughout the day and into tomorrow we will be subject to repeated soakings from bands of circulating rain but the winds are so high that our clothes dry within minutes and the temperature is so tropical that there is never a threat of even a chill. Today I’m working in shorts and a T-shirt; tomorrow I think I’ll work in a bathing suit and a smile. There’s always room for fine tuning, you know what I mean?

~o~

Once committed to our course of action we are all business. And now that we have the tractor trailer here, we are eager to get it unloaded and back on the road before the sea carries the rest of the seawall into the Siesta Key Beach Club parking lot that is our staging area. Judging from the handsome beach club, tidy cabanas and palm shaded tennis court I have to believe that the beach here was pretty nice. It’s all angry water now.

Common sense dictates that we start with Clem’s sculpture. Get the learning curve out of the way on something we can at least replace should the need be. Nevertheless, we are starting with the biggest, heaviest and most fragile sculpture; sale price $450,000. If your gonna go down, go down big, right? Everyone, including the client, his house manager and the gallery director, has an opinion about how to carry out the transfer from truck to house, over a mile away. None of them agree with us. Well, we’re either gonna look real good or real bad. We decide, against the naysayers and take the piece in backwards. We’ll figure out how to turn it around when we get there. The advantage in our method is that we’re less likely to tip over. That seems like it’s important. Clem and I discuss the options but it’s only a formality. Communication between us is easy and neither one of us needs to be schooled. It’s very slow going as the roadway is invisible beneath a few feet of water. I don’t steer the reach lift so much as aim it through the overhanging palms and florals. The disappearing fire hydrants and mail boxes have pushed this whole outing to the point of epic.

~o~

The concrete pad for the $450,000 sculpture is about 60 feet from the crest of this dune. Maybe 50 feet. We’re getting splashed by wind driven surf. While we’re getting the piece rotated and into its final position there is a wobbly metallic sound. Everyone is looking at each other when I see the eaves fly off the house and head towards the mainland. Ok, so that answers that question.

~o~

During one of my trips back to the beach club to get a packing crate full of tools I end up nose to nose with a drowned 2012 Mercedes Benz SUV. The owner, a woman in her 40’s, was trying to make it out to her beach house to check on some landscaping she’s having done. Why she feels compelled to do that, in this storm, is anyone’s guess but my guess is that she’s an idiot. I had met the landscaper in the parking lot earlier and his high clearance truck was able to make the trip through the flood waters by taking it nice and slow. Aside from blowing smoke up the clients ass I cannot imagine what he hopes to accomplish today. The SUV on the other hand was being driven as if it were a Boston Whaler. The landscaper tells me she was leaving a deep wake in her tracks and when she slowed down, all that water converged on her. She is asking me to move the car with my machine. “Sorry lady but this machine will tear that car to pieces.” I think maybe I can tow her out of my way but she has fried the computer. The electronics won’t even allow her to put the car in neutral. The landscaper thanks me for even considering it. He says the car is five months old and this is the second time she’s done something like this. She seems nice enough but she is thoughtless in the way that only the wealthy can afford to be.

~o~

All good things must come to an end, of course, and as we finish placing the last piece on its concrete slab, that feeling of exhilaration and focus ebbs and we are able to take in the scene. The lagoon is in the street, the ocean is in the pool and the beach is in my underwear. No doubt about it, things get misplaced in a storm like this. I’m looking around and there are broken things everywhere. But not the things that are supposed to be here. Palm trees have shed a few fronds but that’s about all. The Mangroves, Saw Palmetto, Inkberry, Blanketflower, Salt Grass, Beach Verbena, Matchweed, Sea Lavender, and all the other salt resistant shrubs and ground cover look fine; healthy even. The rest of the landscaping is a landscapers wet dream. And I do mean wet. Ferns, lawn grass, Olive trees, northern perennials, decorative flowers and anything else that needs to be near a sprinkler are either stripped bare, knocked over (too much wind resistance I would guess) or wilted and burnt from the salt. Calm throughout it all are the birds. And not little birds either. Big lanky things, Herons, Egrets and Ibis that have been sitting in low mangroves as if nothing is happening at all and for them I suppose nothing is happening. Occasionally they poke at the fish swimming across the submerged lawns but, as a long time observer of birds, I’ve noticed that birds don’t seem to reflect on their situation very much. Sure they’re driven by the same anxiety to survive that the rest of us are but they don’t seem to sweat the details. Rain or shine, wind or calm, they really seem to be in the moment. It’s an enviable quality.

~o~

I parked the machine and we’re all piling back into the gallery directors SUV. I don’t know what this beast of a vehicle is but every idiot light on the dashboard is blinking it’s disapproval as we sputter along just barely keeping water out of the intake. Bubbles are coming out of the subaqueous tailpipe. With proper cropping and an overhead view, a picture of this vehicle could be mistaken for a fat man in a bathtub.

~o~

We’re back at the motel. I have water coming in under my door. I’ll bet Clem doesn’t have that happening up in his second floor room but if the roof blows off tonight I’ll have the last laugh.

The motel is ultra-standard. Two floors, outward facing box rooms, one big window with blackout shades and a huge air conditioner that does everything but cool and dehumidify. The bathroom is a study in mold.

~o~

We shower and change and go looking for dinner. All the high rise hotels around us have hurricane shutters drawn on every floor. They are sealed tight against the elements. It turns out that dinner is immediately next door in the form of a Gilligan’s Island themed establishment. In fact, most of the restaurants are open. It defies my expectations but the tourists are out and they’re hungry and thirsty and in need of a scruffy middle aged guy playing a guitar and singing along with an iPad karaoke app. He is the paid entertainment. The waitresses are pretty, the food is practically tolerable and the beer is beer. We are so tired that we quickly fall silent and relax into crowd watching.

~o~

Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, I feel like I’m an anthropologist observing the primitive rituals of a culture that I barely recognize as my own. I live my days among these people but I share so little of their interests.

Everyone here is interacting in the way that humans typically do but it seems foreign to me. A few feet away, through a wall that is inches thick, there is a howling, shuddering storm. We have only just come in and I want to go back outside again. I want to soak it in; open my eyes as wide as I can. The wind is thick as water; I want it to pick me up. I want it to but it won’t. I am too earthbound. I don’t understand why no one else sees what is going on out there. But really, I do understand; it is feeding time and my species, like all species, is obsessed with feeding time.

~o~

We finished up at the house this morning, parked the reach-lift, toasted the whole affair with a beer and we are on our way. Its close enough to lunch time that we are able to find a reasonably good Mexican restaurant to renew ourselves at. Renew is shorthand for wolf down some heavy food and get on with the business of drinking Margaritas.

~o~

We’re walking around Sarasota Harbor, killing time before our afternoon flight. There are a dozen or more boats washed up onto the sidewalks and beaches, gently rocking in the shallow surf, waiting for an insurance adjuster. All the nice boats have weathered the storm, attached to their moorings by braided Samson lines. Every beached vessel is a once proud possession that has passed through too many hands and has, finally, fallen on hard times. I remember reading that, in the old days, elderly Eskimos, so as not to be a burden, would wander out onto the ice when they felt their time had come. Sometimes they even had a little help from the family if food was scarce or if Grandad was particularly annoying. The same rule applies here but the idea seems to be that when you are done with your boat, you wait for a big storm and then tie it to its mooring with dental floss or a medium quality shoelace.

~o~

The morning has been a lot like yesterday weather-wise but now, as the afternoon wears on there are occasional breaks in the clouds and the sun comes out for a few minutes of absolutely brutal heat and humidity. It is immediately apparent why this town is empty in the summer. When we first arrived Clem told me that this is a favorite destination for snow birds; elderly northerners who come here in the winter months to escape the cold. The winters here are lovely, so I’m told. A five minute burst of summer is grotesque. I finally understand that the shuttered buildings and lack of people is less about the bad weather then it is about the good weather. A sunny summer day here is a curse. It’s time to head to the climate controlled airport.

~o~

 

The airport is empty, and I don’t mean lightly peopled. Our flight was cancelled and we are awaiting the next one; the last flight of the day. We are the only ones at the bar and have been for hours. I’m drinking rum. We close the bar. I haven’t done that in 25 years. We go to the boarding area where the last bar is closing. More rum. Time to get on the plane. Clem says “No. Wait.” The final call is announced. A few stragglers wander on; the attendants are getting ready to close the gate. Clem nods his approval and we board. We haven’t looked at our tickets. We don’t even bother looking for our seats. We each pull into an empty row and spread out. Done.

~o~

That was awesome.

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The Dream Job

I had a strange dream last night. It may have been the take-out food, laying heavy in my stomach or it may have been the election season, weighing heavy on my soul.

In the dream, I was driving along a road. It was not a new road; it was rough but it was serviceable. The road was running by the side of a vast construction project; the beginnings of a bridge I thought to myself. The project lay in the middle of a rolling sandy riverbed with a small but growing stream meandering down the middle. It had been the dry season but now it was raining and the stream had turned to a river and the river was building towards a serpentine flood.

The site was abandoned except for two guys in waders working under a pile cap; the thick concrete slab sitting on top of the driven piles that together provide the structural support required for any building that’s meant to last. They were bracing the formwork and getting ready to pump concrete. The one was supporting a heavy timber with his shoulder while the other was securing it with hammer and spike. They were chest deep in water that was swirling with sand; as if they were standing in the middle of a concrete pour themselves. The spot they were working was tight; their bodies were hunched but they were getting the job done.

They couldn’t see that waves of water were heading towards them but I knew they didn’t care. The job had to be finished. I know that feeling. I’ve been in that moment. I’ve been on that kind of job. It is a situation where pride and necessity and sacrifice are braided together.

This is who we are. This is what we do. There is no time for later.

My friend and fellow Dockbuilder, John McCrudden, has just finished burying his father after a years long illness. It wasn’t easy. His father was a time traveler. John texted me not long ago and our exchange went like this.

John- “My dad is reading the paper to me but I think he’s making it up.”

Me-  “What makes you think so?”

John- “Germany just annexed the Sudetenland.”

Me- “Again?”

John- “No, this is the first time according to him,”

Me- “I see. Still, I was a believer right up until that “First Time” thing.”

John- “Germany just invaded Poland. More to come.”

Within days of his father’s funeral, his father-in-law became gravely ill. His sister was recently diagnosed with cancer.

As John might say: “My plate is full but there’s nothing good to eat.”

John has met this wall of abrasive water. It has been relentless and wearing but his resolve is firm. He has waded in, taken hold of the bucking, angry python that is a concrete hose, and done what needed to be done. He is driven by need and guilt and faith and responsibility and honor. All the things that drive the best in us.

John has been a great support to me as I deal with my own father’s infirmities. I can only hope that my friendship is of a comparable quality. I think it is. I think we are together under that pile cap and its threatening load. That is why, in this business, we never work alone. We always work together because to build this bridge, to make this crossing successfully, requires more hands than any one person has and more skills than any one person can master.