Monday, February 17, 2014

Ice Age

The kid called me on his cell phone to tell me he'd slid the car into a ditch. Coming up the steep hill near my house, he'd run over a patch of ice. The Impala, an ungainly tank made by Chevrolet, had slipped then lurched to the right and half dove into a trench two feet across and about three feet deep.


The car, he thought, wasn't damaged; just paralyzed. "What should I do?" he asked and me, blind with rage and a crippling sense of despair and disappointment, told him bitterly, "You wait there. I guess I'm on my way."

I hung up in a rage.

He called back. "You just need to call a tow truck," he said.

"I need to see what you've done. I'm on my way." I hung up on him, then grabbed my coat and stopped out of the house.

It was Saturday before noon. I was freshly showered, shaved and dressed --all pretty unusual for a Saturday morning. Usually, I'm in shorts and a sweat shirt, looking like a bum, but today, I was cleaned up and already had my boots on.

Forty-five minutes before the call, the kid caught me on my way to the shower with a request to take the car.

"Ten minutes," he said.

He wanted to run some errand, not an important errand, but I'd barely argued about it and said, "Fine. Ten minutes."

I didn't much care and had other things on my mind.

On my bed, laid a packed dufflebag with a change of clothes, a toothbrush and a few odds and ends for my girlfriend: a bottle of tums, some aspirin and a box of Pepto Bismol tablets --the same stuff we'd brought when we'd taken our trip to Kentucky.

I'd promised a trip away with my girlfriend for months. We needed to get away, if only for a day. After the chemical spill and the roughest winter most of us remember, she and I hadn't spent much time together. Bad roads, a bad reaction to the crap in the water, the stresses of a new job and she'd stayed away from the house.

So, for weeks, I'd been planning, making phone calls and looking at websites, just to come up with a short overnight trip to somewhere a little interesting where the water didn't smell like licorice and make her skin burn.

Things had come together and then they'd started to unravel a few days earlier with the latest storm. As part of the trip, we'd planned to check out a show at the local performance hall, but the band had postponed due to the weather and the forecast for the weekend wasn't encouraging.

Fate, it seemed, was against us.

The roads were slick and even in my boots, I half skated the way to the car. I found it thirty yards from the main road, tipped to the side at a weird angle.

Breathlessly, the kid said, "I checked. The car doesn't look damaged."

"That you can see," I spat. "Give me the keys."

I looked around. The right side front tire was deep in a hole. The back tire wasn't even on the ground, but no body damage. I worried something on the underside was broken or he'd snapped a tire off. I'd just put $1500 on my credit card for repairs and new tires and jeez, where was I going to get the money for more?


Ranting and shouting at the kid, saying everything but bluntly accusing him of driving it into the ditch on purpose, I took the keys and tried to drive it out of the ditch anyway. The car, as might be expected, went nowhere.

"What do we do now?"

"I guess I get a fucking tow truck," I said and then went on yet another rant about how this was entirely his fault or my fault for being decent enough to let him use the car to run what amounted to a stupid errand.

Finally, he said, loudly, "You never asked me if I was OK?"

He glared at me, hatefully.

"I did good to end up in that ditch," he said. "If I'd gone the other way, I could have been dead."

I ignored him and stomped home to try and find a tow truck.

At home, we slammed doors and went online. I went looking for someone to get my car out of a hole. He went to Facebook to denounce me for being a piece of shit, which, of course, I was.

It took me a minute to get that, to really get that.

At my desk, I put my face in my hands and wept out of despair, shame and disappointment. I was upset about the crashing disaster of another one of my great plans coming apart through no fault of my own. I was mortified at the things that had come out of my mouth and that the kid hadn't given me a pass on what seemed like understandable fury. I was embarrassed and hurt and angry at a world where things sometimes just don't go right.

I took a good long minute to process everything before getting to the truth of the day's events: Trips can be rescheduled. Cars can be repaired and girlfriends (if they're worth anything) will understand when plans have to change because of unexpected circumstances.

Sons are irreplaceable, even accident prone ones.

I'd love to say that the epiphany was instant, but it wasn't. The apology was slow coming, but it came and it was real. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Woodstock 99:Powered by Ramen

I've never cared much for camping, which is kind of funny given the number of people who've dragged me along on camping trips.

I like the outdoors. I love to garden and grow things. Cook-outs and picnics are fun. Hiking, boating, cycling, wandering in the woods are all things I like. I'd probably take to hunting, except the intended outcome of the sport seems like more trouble than its worth.

Camping sucks. 

Sleeping outdoors is something you do when you're being pursued by bounty hunters across the Texas plains. It's what happens when you're a refugee fleeing the Captain Trips flu virus and the Walking Dude (That's a Stephen King reference).

I'd rather sleep in my car than sleep in a tent, but I didn't have my car in New York. I had a 30-year-old tent given to me by my father: a reliable piece of equipment and one tested, no doubt to the extremes, but still a tent.

I was grateful to have it, but I didn't like using it.

In the lot designated as my place to camp, I'd assembled my small tent,  not far from the main road into the festival and within sight of the portable toilets and the water fountain. Not too close. I didn't want to smell them, but the potties and the well seemed like something important to have ready access to and good marker for when I needed to find my way home.

I left my clothes and food in the tent, but took my cash. Half of it was stuffed in my left shoe.

The tent went up without much effort and my neighbor, the balding 20-something with the heavy jersey accent, tried to make friends.

He told me his name was Adam and he asked me, "Where you going?"

I looked at the program. I wasn't sure. I just wanted to get a look at the place first and maybe go see LIVE.

"So, we'll catch up later."

A dirt road led to the festival grounds and also the showers, which were already doing a brisk business on a Friday afternoon. Men and women were lined up, holding towels and waiting to go in to a squat, brown building, like the kind you'd find at half the KOA campgrounds in America.

Ahead of the entrance into the festival, a small market had emerged. Sitting on blankets, dealers sold everything from pot to mushrooms to things I'm still not a hundred percent sure about. Sun-bronzed, wooly-haired, bearded entrepreneurs mumbled out their prices and lazily waved people over to look at their many boxes and baggies.

They did so brazenly with the comfortable knowledge that the cops were not invited to this particular party. There was nothing like a badge anywhere in sight --not so much as a crossing guard.

It was my first, "OK, I'm not in Kansas anymore" moment. The second came a few minutes later when an old couple came walking gingerly over the rough road, holding hands. They had to be pushing 70. He was lean, long-haired and bearded with wire-rim spectacles. She looked like she might have been Stevie Nicks's grandmother.

Both of them were naked and smiling benignly. 


The crowd parted to let them pass.

Woodstock 99 was held on an old Air Force base and from what I'd heard, the festival organizers wanted something a little off the beaten path, but easily secured. At the previous festivals, crowds eventually kicked in the fencing and just marched onto the grounds: no ticket, no problem.

Nobody was getting into this place without paying. There were multiple chain link fences surrounding the grounds and the impression was, that even though there was very little real security on this inside, they patrolled the exterior of the festival like sharks in a shiver.

The people who'd laid out the cash for this thing wanted to make every dime they could and that was readily apparent inside. Aside from the three stages for shows, there were vast areas devoted to spending money and prices were predatory.

Four bucks got you a pack of cigarettes (which was a bit high at the time. The price of gas that summer was about $1.10). It also got you a 16 ounce bottle of water or a bottle of soda. The guy selling cases of bottled water on the way in for five bucks suddenly wasn't that big of a moron.

Basic food was expensive and a cup of beer was at least six bucks in the beer gardens, making dope the better deal if you were looking to get messed up during your stay.

In fact, I marveled at the brilliance of a guy who set up a table next to the water hole in my camp. He set up a bottle of Jack Daniels and a single shot glass. He charged four bucks a slug and had a line 20 deep until the booze ran out.   
  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Woodstock 99: magic bus

I woke up halfway leaning on, halfway spooning a 300 pound hippie with a beard like the pelt of some dead animal. He was asleep, too, but I sat up abruptly, looked around frantically then glanced out the bus window at the rolling countryside. None of it was familiar, we'd slipped into rural New York at some point and were edging our way up to a former military base on the outskirts of a town called Rome.

Woodstock was someplace else, but it was close enough for the uses of the festival organizers and good enough for everybody on the four or five buses that had pulled out of a parking lot not far from Baltimore.

I'd driven half the night from West Virginia to get a seat on this bus and had almost missed the mark. My directions had been confusing and I'd spent an extra hour on the beltway driving in circles, terrified and unsure where I was going.

A pair of cops, sitting in the parking lot of a closed gas station, pointed me in the right direction and asked me what the fuss was about.

I'd had to answer the same question over and over. Nobody really got why I felt like I needed to do this. New York seemed like an awfully long way to go to see some music --and to be honest, a lot of it was music I didn't care anything about. I bought my tickets on rumors that the Rolling Stones, The Who and Bob Dylan might be there --and if not them, at least Aerosmith, Pearl Jam or maybe Guns n' Roses.

We ended up getting Metallica and Kid Rock, which wasn't all bad, but it wasn't The Rolling Stones.

In 1999, I was a wreck. My first marriage had fallen apart and I was miserable, though better off then being married to who I had been. Still, I was flailing for equilibrium. Instead of moving forward as an adult, I'd somehow slipped backward. Friends from college had taken me in and in a lot of ways it felt like I'd returned to the dorms.

I'd gone to Woodstock alone. Nobody else wanted to go. I couldn't bribe anyone to come along.

It felt weird going alone. I was a little scared and worried I might end up in a ditch somewhere. I had no idea what would happen if I got into trouble or who I'd call.

At the time, my support system, my circle of friends I felt like I could call on for bail money or would be willing to drive up to New York to get me out of jail seemed very small.

The bus cruised into Rome around noon. It was hot and mostly everybody seemed to be keeping to themselves, but slowly starting to loosen up. At the breakfast stop a few hours back, we'd bummed cigarettes off each other and tried to borrow phones to call home or call anyone.

We were all strangers here, but not necessarily hostile to one another. If anything there was a certain strange camaraderie in no one knowing anyone and none of us knowing what was going to happen next. We had the same misguided expectations and mistaken notions of how things would be. 

On the side of the road, a guy was selling cases of bottled water for $5 and we laughed our asses off.

"Good luck with that."

"New York prices.Yeah, fuck you."

We were so stupid.

The buses pulled onto the formerly abandoned air force base which held the festival and dropped us off abruptly. As a mass, a couple of thousand wannabe hippies marched to the front gates, dragging our gear and hoping nobody searched too closely.

It seemed like the exact opposite of a military induction.

"Any glass or bottles?" The guy asked and started pouring through my bag.

"No," I said. "I got a couple of cans of tuna in there and some noodles."

He looked at me like I was beyond stupid then pushed the bag and the rolled up tent back at me.

"Have a good time," he said.

The guy next to me, a genuinely weird-looking guy who looked like someone who cruised Ren Fairs for chicks, he'd brought a bottle of wine and one of those leather wine skins. Screening took the bottle, but let him keep the other. He didn't seem to care and besides, who brings red wine to a rock festival?

Of course, who brings tuna? I didn't even like tuna.

We moved past the guys at the entrance and made our way to the campgrounds, in hopes of finding a decent place to set up and still get to the festival grounds for the fun.

It felt like we'd arrived late. The sun was so hot and everybody was thirsty.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dead Sea Scrolls

This blog has been around a long time --just shy of 10 years.

It was started as a response to my first blog with the newspaper getting canceled. It deserved to be canceled. The blog was never what my editor wanted and by the time I figured out my voice, I didn't really want to be part of that blog, anyway.

Ten years, but there's a lot missing. If you go all the way back to the beginning of this thing, you won't find a lot of the material from when I first started: the puzzle piece posts about living with and trying to understand someone with autism. The stuff from when I worked at the book store is gone, too --as well as practically everything written about my first ex-wife.

These were part of two great purges. One was legally mandated and the other was more about falling on my sword after I realized I'd written a great number of things that, while honest, were tasteless and not considerate toward the feelings of someone I was involved with.

A lot of material was destroyed --some of it deserved to be. Other parts, not as much.

To a point, this blog is autobiographical. It's more in the recent than in the past, but it feels like past is something I should maybe explore a little.

I have now been in Charleston 10 years. I got here in the early Spring of 2003 and I was wide-eyed and sort of taken a-back by living in an actual city. Before 2003, I'd lived for years on the edge of Princeton, to the south in grubby, old Mercer County. Most of that had been spent in the town of Athens, the same town where I'd graduated college, the same town where I'd gotten married.

Part of the reason I'd stayed was inertia. I didn't know what to do or where to go. I had a bad job at a radio broadcasting company that sounded cooler than it was and paid worse than anyone would have believed.

Radio pays shit. Even when it's decent, it pays shit.

My life in Athens was desperate and monastic. At one point, I was working three jobs --I had the job at the radio station writing commercials, I was managing (poorly) a set of apartments and I was delivering newspapers.

And this was the great period of my life before everything began to change, before I came to Charleston, became a coffee snob, lucked into a job writing for a living and eventually and somewhat unexpectedly became a homeowner with a pair of dogs and a cat.

Like I said, a lot got lost from the early days and part of me thinks that now might be a good time to remember some of where I've been and maybe tell a few of the stories of who I used to be. There might be some life lessons in here, but that seems fairly unlikely. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cousin John


A smaller crowd came out to the ballpark this year for the Polar Plunge --that's a charity jump into an above ground swimming pool that's held to benefit the Special Olympics. We raise money. We get t-shirts and then tell everybody how crazy we are for doing it.


This year, the din of good-natured doo-goodiness was muted. Most of that had to do with the ongoing water concerns here in Charleston. If you can't drink the stuff, why would you want to forcibly wallow in it, especially if you went in after a dozen or so guys marinading in Axe body spray hit the water first?

At least, the weather was warm --up to almost 60 with nothing like a raindrop or a snowflake in the air.

I didn't know a soul there, except the director of the Special Olympics who couldn't pick me out of a police lineup if he had my driver's license in hand.


In line, I listened to the newbies fret and worry, as they always do about the water, and heard the familiar stories of the year the water froze, the year they had fireworks and the year, the water tasted like the ocean. I told a guy dressed as the tooth fairy (a newbie, who seemed impressed when I told him it was my sixth jump) to try and relax when he hit the water.

"You don't want to go in tense," I said. "That'll just hurt."

He smiled and nodded. He was dressed in a tutu and had wings. I don't think he took me seriously.

I jumped alone. There was a family of four in front of me and the group behind wanted to go together. It felt strangely lonesome at the top of the ladder, listening to the announcer banter, trying to get a laugh from the crowd. I just wanted him to count down and let me get the work done.

Finally, he did. I went in then made my way across the pool and exited with as much dignity as a man can. Toward the bathroom, a couple of kids asked me if it was really that cold.

I told them, "yeah. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

They didn't believe me, but they were newbies. Next year, they might think it wasn't so bad.

I dressed in a men's room full of bashful middle-aged men with everyone of them shivering and trying very hard to guard their junk, presumably from the prying eyes of rabid homosexuals who'd use such an event to their advantage.

Also, you know, shrinkage. Judge lest ye be judged, I suppose.  

People act weird when they're naked. I didn't linger.

I skipped the Plunge last year. There were a lot of reasons not to be there.


A couple of years back, I hurt my shoulder jumping into the water. I tore something and it took months for it to get right. I was discouraged, too. At my radio job, I put up a sheet, looking for sponsors. They walked on by and then went back to their regular errand of asking for money to keep things on the air most of them only half believed in.

I didn't need the hassle.

I also considered that I'd done my share: five jumps over five years. Somebody else could and should clock in.

My life had moved on, too. I was in a different place, surrounded by different people and well, come on, wasn't I different, too?

It seemed like I wanted to be.

And it's not fun. It really isn't. Jumping into a cold pool isn't fun.

But when it came around again I wanted to be there. To me, the reasons behind jumping into a vat of icy water in the middle of winter haven't really changed. I still support the Special Olympics and what they do --and while there are probably plenty of ways I could still support them, jumping into the pool seems like the most fitting --a kind of statement that I'm willing to do things other people won't and I do it because I say I will.

My arrogance is intolerable, as is my vanity --but it's still for a good cause.

I'm glad I went. It felt like getting baptized all over again.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Flaming Lips

Nobody is drinking the water. A week and a half in and we're all avoiding the water, staring at it, talking about it; discussing whether it's safe enough to wash our cars with, our homes, our children...

The water was cleared at my place Friday morning and I bled the lines in my house and took the first real shower I'd had in five days an hour after. The shower before had been at the Catholic church on the other side of the county. I'd met a family of hipster/hippies who'd named their children Christian and Damian and a man missing half an ear, who thought everyone took to long.

I've showered every day since, washed my hair, washed my hands, but I won't cook with the water. I won't drink it. I won't even venture a sip to rinse my mouth out and then spit it in a sink.

Nobody believes in the water. The water company doesn't even believe in it. If they did, they'd be trying to convince us all that it's safe.

They're not.

They're waiting for us to convince ourselves and slowly, I think, we're doing that.

At lunch the other day, a group of us ate at a Mexican place. We ordered our drinks, like always.

"We have no tea," the waiter said after I asked and then he rattled off a list of sodas. We chose based on our tastes.

Someone asked, "Do you think they're using tap water for the fountain drinks?"

We all paused then someone else said, "No. I used to work in a restaurant and we used these great big tanks for carbonation." He held up a cup. "A cup like this --16 or 20 ounces --it cost us five cents."

We considered what he said, nodded and then let the subject drop.

Of course, the fountain drinks use tap water. The big tanks only add the bubbles --not that the Mexican restaurant was serving fountain drinks. The sodas were poured out from two-liter bottles, probably purchased down the road at the nearby grocery.

If the restaurant had been comfortable with the water, they might have brewed tea, but they didn't. They didn't trust it either, not to drink.

Still, just as likely, the ice was made from the tainted water, the glasses had been washed in the tainted water.

I don't know what made him answer the way he did.

Before dark, I took wet clothes to the laundromat to dry them. The place was packed with haggard middle-aged women and weary-looking men, some with blue, jailhouse tattoos. Together, as a community of the less privileged (the better off have on-site laundry), we did the wash and watched over enough small children to fill a preschool classroom.

The children, black and white and belonging to half a dozen scattered parents, chased one another around and between the rows of brushed steel washing machines. My headphones snugly jammed into my ears, I listened to the Flaming Lips and smiled at them as they dodged past me.

They waved and grinned and laughed; their grubby, little faces turning pink from the endless chase. I tried to match the brothers and sisters up by their faces, but instead noticed how many of them were wearing skulls on their shirts or skulls on their dirty pajama bottoms.

It seemed like some kind of omen. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Star Wars

It wasn't long after the cold dissipated that we first got word about the weird licorice smell in the air. One of the guys in the newsroom was complaining about it and just wondering what the smell was. By the time I picked up dinner and my girlfriend, the smell was a situation was a disaster and the word was "Don't drink the water unless you want to die."

Reports later reduced that to "Don't drink, cook, clean or wash yourself or anything else with that stuff," but the river has been poisoned by a local chemical company involved in business related to the coal industry. Already, my more liberal friends are shouting "I told you so" about the EPA. My conservative friends are eerily quiet, probably figuring this will all blow over once the crap in the water dilutes enough that it doesn't cause projectile vomiting.

There is some of that going on and quite a few people I know are reporting headaches and nausea, as well as itching and burning. Nobody knows what the long term affects of this shit are.

Out getting bread and paper plates last night, a couple of coal miners were laughing at the crowd who seemed to be throwing stuff into carts left and right --they were 20-ish and looked like they'd scarcely ever been in a grocery store. I figured their moms and then their girlfriends did most of that sort of work. Just a couple of good ol' boys.

They saw me by the picked over bread aisle. One of them laughed and said, "The problem is with the water. It ain't with the bread."

Remembering, when I too was a moron, looked over and said, "Without the water, you can't wash any dishes or pans. You can't really cook much. So, we're all eating sandwiches."

The guy blinked and his face fell. That hadn't occurred to him (probably, because he doesn't wash many dishes).

"People are still making way too big a deal out of it," he said. "I've seen that stuff in the mines. I got a little on me once and yeah, it raised a blister, but that was like a pretty high concentration."

I shrugged. I could explain that nobody knows much about this stuff, that the thing that concerned me wasn't whether the water is going to make me sick now, but whether it will make me sick in 5, 10 or 20 years. We got plenty of cancer here. The chemical spill probably just added another helping.

"It'll be over in a while," I said, which seemed to satisfy him.

I went on home, ate my simple dinner with my kids, watched Star Wars and thought about how when I was a kid, the future seemed so bright. It was all space ships, light sabers and ultimate good triumphing over ultimate evil.

Watching again, the movie seemed to be about the world I lived in now: a dirty, broken down universe on the verge of collapse.