Cross Country

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The AAU Cross Country Nationals were held in Rock Hill, South Carolina this year. My little guy, Coleman, is 8 years old and he qualified in his age group, the Sub-Bantams. I think that means little chickens and I try not to read anything more into it than that. Cole runs Indoor Track, Outdoor Track and Cross Country. He’s always been fast and annoyingly energetic but track has given him confidence, discipline, a team he loves and a place to belong. He identifies with his group, which can be a two edged sword but the coaches are adamant about supporting the sport through respect for all runners regardless of team affiliation.

Cole has qualified for The Nationals before but we never went to anything beyond the Regional Championships. It isn’t the kind of thing we can really afford but at the same time, he’s been running track for about a year and a half and this is his last go ’round as a Little Chicken. He loves it and we’re very proud of him; we just felt like he deserved it and once he moves on to Bantam, being on the younger end of that group, he may not qualify again for some time. We booked the flight, a car rental and the hotel. The whole team has a block of rooms at the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn, and we’re all set to go.

Why is it that just when you think you’ve got things pretty well figured out, that’s just about the time when they fall apart?

Two days before the flight we get a message on our answering machine. The message is from Randy, the manager of the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn. Randy says our 99 dollar room was booked wrong and do we still want it for 227 dollars. This is not good. It was a stretch to go in the first place. The added expense makes the whole thing suddenly seem like a bad idea. And by the way, what do they mean it was booked wrong? We called Holiday Inn’s 800 number and booked it more than a month ago. They gave us the room! They told us the price! It’s not like we haggled over it and they reluctantly accepted our ridiculously low offer. And why, a single day after the booking deadline, after mind you, not before but after, has this become an issue? I call the hotel and what sounds like a female parakeet with a southern drawl answers. I explain the message and she says she’s sorry but the manager has gone home for the night but we can call back in the morning. I can see our hotel room, with it’s plush kingsize bed and free continental breakfast, dissolving in front of my eyes and I launch:

 

“Look lady, you need to call the manager and he needs to call me and explain why
I am holding an 81/2 x 11 sheet of paper, complete with confirmation number
and price, that you are about to sell to the highest bidder. Now listen to me!
I do not want to get down there and find my room gone.
Do you understand me?”

~

“Yes sir, I’ll call him! Thank you for calling the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn.”

~

I email the coach and he says he’ll follow up. The next day I get his email; the hotel manager is immovable and the booking agent is claiming ignorance of the whole thing.

One way or the other, I always believe a claim of ignorance.

I don’t hear from the hotel manager or anyone else before the flight and I have to say I’m worried. I feel like my only chance is to have a face to face with this guy but in my heart I know it will be useless. There is money on the line and I have no leverage whatsoever.

The night before leaving I have a dinner date in Philadelphia with The Fungi Social Club, about whom I may write at a later date. I make my way to Philly and stop at my mom’s. I don’t write much about my mom. What can a person say about their mom that won’t end up sounding schmaltzy or maudlin or get everyone at the bar crying in their beer. Better to acknowledge the lady respectfully and move on. Everyone, or at least every son, knows what I mean. But setting all that aside for a moment, it is worth mentioning that my mom has a better Scotch collection than your mom.

I was sampling some of that collection and recounting my Lilliputian woes because moms always like that kind of thing; they always take your side and occasionally they even have good advice. This wasn’t going to be one of those occasions. Her logic was that Southerners are well mannered people and therefore I should basically throw myself on the mercy of a court that still seems to be licking wounds suffered during the Civil War and its apparently endless aftermath.

I have often wondered about that; how The Civil War seems to be a defining part of Southern identity, especially when compared with The North. I’ve worked with a lot of guys from The South and invariably there is a Confederate flag somewhere in the mix, often tattooed directly upon their person. In The North it is a non issue on every level. It is not on anyone’s mind in the slightest. Except as an academic matter, it is a fully forgotten event. No grudge is borne, no resentment nursed, no offense taken. There is no gloating or self satisfaction regarding the war. There are no meaningful reminders; nothing to jog the collective memory but even if there were, nobody cares. It is not part of how Northerners define themselves for the very simple reason that Northerners don’t define themselves as Northerners. Only Southerners do that.

There are monuments of course; there are always monuments. But Civil War monuments are few and discreet and really kind of anonymous. Monuments are meant to evoke history but in fact they seem to isolate and entomb it. Stone is noble and there is stately grandeur in the Beaux Arts and NeoClassic architecture typical of the period but that’s all you get. On the actual subject at hand, The Civil War, the stone is mute; bloodless; amnesic even.

Just to go that extra mile, because I’m an extra mile kind of guy, I have returned to my old neighborhood. For a time, I lived on West 89th street. At the end of the block, in Riverside Park, is Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Every time I walked the dog I would go look at it; try to imagine a past when it was new. When the war was still a memory within easy reach. Nothing.

Now I’m here in Morningside Heights, 122nd and Riverside Drive, to stand in front of Grant’s Tomb, just to check for residual emotions and I’m getting nothing. It doesn’t help that in 1865 my people were busy being persecuted in Eastern Europe but still, I’m an empathetic person and I have a good understanding of history; I’ve done my reading. Also, I’m a middle child; I see everyone’s point of view and they are all equal before me. I have no trouble putting myself in your shoes or anyone else’s shoes; the more so if you’re sporting an 11 1/2 wide, in which case we’re as good as siblings. When confronted with history I can usually force an emotion but then, I get choked up over the pastoral section of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture too. But honestly, Grant’s Tomb elicits nothing. A total blank. I mean, who the hell is buried here anyway?

Ok, so back in Philly I wandered off to my dinner, which included a Scotch tasting, a wine sampling and an excellent bottle of Port. I shall forever be grateful that the last bus back to New York was a 9 o’clock. Had it been an 11 o’clock, I may well be there even to this very day. An evening like that can so easily slip down that slope that can only end in Tequila and regret. I made my farewells to my fellow club members and scooted back to the safety of Brooklyn and the promise of an afternoon flight into an uncertain set of accommodations.

I spent a mostly sleepless night rehearsing the coming confrontation with the front desk. I tapped around the internet looking for a Bed & Breakfast in the Rock Hill area figuring that this event alone would probably use up almost every available hotel room. I was encouraged to find some beautiful spots at a fraction of the cost of my anonymous room; if that room was still even mine. The only real advantage of staying at the hotel is mixing with the other kids and parents on the team. It may not seem like much but really it is a very rich part of the whole experience.

The next day Cole and I made it out to LaGuardia without running into traffic. The plane ride was smooth and uneventful and my hangover was well within the nausea control limits recommended by the F.A.A.

So far, so good.

With the ultra-friendly chatterbox Dean, at the wheel of the Dollar Rent a Car bus, we headed out to the aptly named Rental Car Road. As a person who gets lost almost every time I get behind the wheel, I appreciate that kind of simplicity. I would recommend a trip to the Charlotte Airport based solely on the chance of getting a ride from Dean. He is too good to pass up just because you have no reason to be there. Personable doesn’t even begin to describe this cat. With the looks of an aging Rock-a-Billy star and a kind of affable southern charm, he strikes me as a man who, in another time, would have been a riverboat gambler. And not just any old riverboat gambler. A real cardsharp. The kind they used to hang. He would have worked the Proud Mary or the Natchez or the Mississippi Queen. And you know what? I would have considered it an honor to lose my paycheck to him. Dean seems to me to be an inhabitant of the new south but a product of the old. Not only that but he’s super helpful and inquisitive beyond anything that can be covered in a 4 minute bus ride. I want to tip Dean just for being Dean. As I reread these last sentences I have to wonder if I have an unusually low threshold for what constitutes acceptable entertainment. Whatever the case, this trip is starting out well even as we are heading towards the OK Corral of booking conflicts. We step out of Dean’s chariot and into the Dollar Rent-a-Car office:

 

“Welcome to Dollar Rent-a-Car. How are you today?”

~

“I’m good. How you doin’ ?”

~

“I’m fantastic!”

~

And you know what? She is fantastic! Her name is Shelae and she is an attractive black woman in her early thirties with an attitude so positive, so genuinely upbeat, that she makes me feel ok about renting a compact car. As if it really isn’t a reflection on my personal prosperity, not to mention my manhood. But I have my son, my smile and my strong chin; I can get by on that.

“How can I help you today?”

~

“Yeah, me and my friend are here to pick up our rental.”

~

At first she’s confused; maybe she’s thinking I’m schizophrenic. Then she leans over the high counter and spends a few moments exchanging pleasantries with Cole. She makes a nice attempt to seduce me into some unneeded insurance and points us towards the area where the compacts are. I ask her to repeat the directions because without a doubt I am going to get lost in the parking lot. Shelae cheerfully escorts us out to the compacts. She’s a sweetheart. I feel bad about not buying the extra insurance. I don’t need it but I feel like it would have made her even happier, if that’s possible. I’m starting to sense a trend here. Something about southern hospitality and being pleasantly separated from one’s money.

We’re in the lot now and there are no compact cars:

 

“Oh well.” says Shelae. “Take any car you like.”

~

I’m really beginning to like it here.

So let’s see. There isn’t a lot of choice. I can either take a Nissan Something-or-Other or a Dodge muscle car. Come to think of it, I guess there’s really no choice at all. We exit the lot, I put the pedal to the metal, skid around a corner and off into the North Carolina afternoon with squeals of terror and delight coming from the back seat.

We shoot down I-77 and cross into South Carolina. Over the border, I-77 becomes The Billy Graham Parkway. For an urban sophisticate, that’s creepy. It’s creepy for me too. A quick station seek on the radio reveals about nine stations. Most of them are religious gobbledygook, one is political gobbledygook and the remainder are playing the top 7 songs of their respective genres in lightning fast rotation. It looks like the genteel hand of civility is fixed to a strong arm of conformity. This does not appear to be an environment of competing ideas. Lots of black and white; not a whole lotta grey.

Exit 79 off of I-77, a left, pass a giant shopping center, two lights and another left, to the back of another giant shopping center and there it is, the Holiday Inn. The hotel looks the same as the surrounding car dealerships, the Sears, the chain stores, the chain restaurants and every other retail outlet I’ve seen thus far. I know that as far as I may travel in this state, every town will be dominated by a shopping center and every shopping center will be identical. I believe they call this Low Risk Architecture; not because it can’t offend anyone, or inspire anyone for that matter, but because it is built so economically that even a total business failure isn’t going to cost anyone a whole lot of money. Pour a concrete slab, throw up the prefab stucco walls, fill it with cool stuff from China, man it with low wage workers, open the doors and complain about how your culture is disappearing. Or, as I like to say, “Aim Low.”

Ok, so we enter the lobby and I see a young guy at the reception desk. His name tag says Randy. Randy is the manager. From my perspective, Randy has been the point man for the hotel in this debacle. Everyone who has tried to correct this situation, the booking agent, the coach, whoever all else, have had to deal with Randy but I haven’t actually talked with him yet. Randy is just finishing talking with a very large and clearly irate black man. I can see the hopelessness of my situation but Cole is by my side and I have to both spare him any anxiety about this, his first big trip, and get him to the bathroom because he’s turning yellow.

I am all smiles and urgency. I ask where the bathroom is and ever so nonchalantly slide our reservation across the desk. Who knows, maybe we’ll slip through the corporate cracks.

When we return, there is a local cop standing by the desk. I think the big black guy rattled Randy and he’s decided to call in reinforcements; a little bit of cavalry. Better to have and not need, than need and not have. Turning to me, Randy says there’s a problem. So much for corporate cracks. The details of the conversation are not interesting but the bottom line is that he, as the local representative of Holiday Inn, can not honor this reservation which was made by them, the Corporate Holiday Inn.

I’m calm and make my case; he recounts the recorded conversation of my wife and the Holiday Inn 800 number operator. Our mistake was not booking through the local, graft approved, booking agent. How that bears on the 800 number folks I can’t say; either can Randy. He parses the language but his case is weak, or would be if he weren’t holding the magnetically encoded key card to my room. I ask him if I’m the only one who is having this problem and he says no; not by a long shot. He’s had cancellations and arguments all day and most of the guests have yet to arrive.

My assessment of the man and the situation is rolling over and in all fairness I need to adjust my expectations. He’s not a bad guy but he’s been put in a bad position by a system that doesn’t integrate the local booking process with the national booking process. Throw in a wildcard third party like the booking agent and it’s time to call the sheriff. Randy’s kind of been left holding the bag by an uncaring machine whose executives would never dream of staying in one of their own hotels. I see him as just another little guy. Unfortunately, I’m littler still. Our conversation has been cordial but has come to an impasse.

Randy offers me the room at $227 a night and assures me that this is the discounted price. For that kind of money I could have stayed on Times Square but then, we’re not on Times Square. When handed this defeat I turn to the only option I have left and wouldn’t you know, it’s my mom.

You see, I’ve lived in New York City for half my life and I have found that New Yorkers have a very fine sense of injustice and are hair trigger adamant about their rights. When you live in an eat or be eaten environment it only makes sense to bite first but it can be cause for misunderstanding. However today, with my mother’s gentle guidance, and the good manners and quiet nature borne of my native Philadelphia, I have not bitten. Dean and Shelae have prepared me for this:

 

“Would you still like the room?”

~

I do not let slip any anger or resentment. He has won the battle and it’s time to move on. My tone is all good humor; our conflict, no more than a game of checkers:

 

“Well, we’re not gonna chase all over town looking for a room. Sure, I’ll take it.”

~

Randy prints up the papers, I sign them and he hands me the key card. That’s when I make my move; after the surrender of Fort Sumter. But here’s the thing, it wasn’t premeditated; it just came out:

“Hey man, is there anything you can do for me so that I won’t feel so bad about this?”

~

Randy takes a moment and I can see he’s honestly reflecting. Then he says:

“You know, you’ve been so nice about this, how about dinner for both of you.
And drinks. As much as you want.”

~

He hands me his card with instructions to the restaurant staff. It reads:

:

—Dinners free. Drinks free. Everything free—

~

“Wow, that’s great! Thank you so much. Honestly. It makes a big difference.”

~

“And full breakfast too. As long as you’re here.”

~

“Wonderful! Thank you so much!”

~

“I’ll tell you what. Let me change the price of the room.”

~

He tears up the contract and I get a much more reasonable rate. Coupled with dinner, drinks and breakfast, I’m shaking his hand across the fortification of the the front desk and we’re pals. Truly and honestly.

Randy notes that we are in a room with a single king size bed and he offers to upgrade us at no charge.

I say:

“Look Randy, unless this is the honeymoon suite and you need it, you’ve already been really good to us.

Really, we’re fine. Thank you.”

~

So I sign the new contract, he hands me the keycard and the last thing he says is:

“I gave you free Internet too. The code is inside your key envelope.”

——

When we get to our room I have to laugh. It was all so easy. Like the song says:

As easy as

ABC123

Which, perhaps not coincidentally, happens to be the access code to the Internet.

~

A little while later Cole and I are sitting down to dinner and the influx of guests has begun. Arguments are breaking out even as a second cop arrives. I have a nice piece of fish with lightly sautéed vegetables. Cole has a hamburger as big as his head. I am sipping a craft beer and Cole is working on a lemonade. We have a low angle view of the devolving state of affairs at the desk. The booking agent, wherever he may be, has outdone himself. Rooms have been changed, without notice, to other cheaper hotels but the booked price remains the same. Rooms have been given away without warning; tensions are escalating.

“Overbooked?!”

 

The word is spat like an obscenity; an outrageous question; an inconceivable statement. Voices are being raised and fingers are being pointed. It’s a profit taking frenzy and poor Randy has been left to fend for himself. He’s doing his best but he’s been surrounded. I find myself witness to one individual’s capacity for stubbornness as he fights off one assault after another. I am reminded again of Southern pride and Southern sensitivities. His professionalism and dedication to the cause of hospitality, whose motto could easily be:

 

The Customer Is Always Right In All Matters That Don’t Concern Money

 

are the only things that can explain his not yielding to a demand for unconditional surrender. That and the fact that he’s probably the only one here who is actually armed. Bottom line: Corporate policy sucks and the booking agent has clearly screwed everyone; communication between the elements is non existent and the situation is simultaneously unraveling in both an ad hoc and post hoc manner, which I guess is kind of an accomplishment.

I feel bad about it and especially bad for Randy but the parties have engaged and there is no turning back. Fresh skirmishes are breaking out all over the lobby; North and South are locked in a struggle, the scope of which neither understands and the forces of which are out of either’s control. Forces at a distance, powerful and determined, have set events in motion. Once again the result is conflict, played out at a local level between individuals who don’t understand each other. One party cannot let go of the past and the other does not recognize the past even when it is staring him in the face, asking for a credit card.

Cole and I were the sole exception. We the meek, we the pacifists, we the noncombatants. The generosity of our host was not just our good fortune. It was a peace offering to god, before the onset of hostilities; our dinner, a sacrifice cast upon the waters in hopes that the inevitable conflict could somehow be avoided. Of course, nothing inevitable can be avoided.

Later, after the money is shed like blood, the rivals will retreat to the bar. There, they will nurse their wounds, have a nice snack and wonder at the conflicts unfolding on the wide screen TV and at the ever present possibility of man biting man.

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.