Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon --part two.

Just about everyone on the tour was retired, semi-retired or planning to retire in a year or two. Only a few of them did travel as a full-time gig. Most of them were from the Midwest.

Bob from Minnesota (now living in Florida) put in 30 years with the 3M Corporation before he and his wife 
Mary started working for a tour company that specialized in group trips for seniors.

They were a nice couple who'd met in a bar over 40 years ago. Bob had kind of been a schmuck back then. He didn't call, but they still found each other. 

It was his second marriage; her first and Mary said that had been a terrible scandal at the time. She was raised Catholic and he had kids, too. 

"My mom didn't like it one bit," she said.

But circumstances changed her mind. She wanted to see her little girl married and after a terminal cancer diagnosis, Mary's mother made peace with her daughter's choice. 

Forty-plus years and a daughter together, it looked like it had worked out OK.

They liked to go on cruises. Bus tours were ok, but it wasn't as much fun for them. 

Jan from Chicago spent years teaching art before starting a website based business through Expedia. She was almost 70, had a daughter older than me and a son in his 20s who'd just gotten out of the military. 

Jan dressed like a cheerleader for Aerosmith, wore black nail polish and a black, leather trench coat. Her hair was a suspiciously authentic-looking dirty blond and she spent the first two hours on the bus talking almost nonstop about her nice house, her Porsche, her husband's former fantastic job and how he was going to pull some strings to get her son a job in Chicago.

She just wouldn't shut up. Nerves, I guess, but after the first hour, I sort of wanted to stow her with the luggage.

She was semi-retired and was on the substitute teacher roll for the Chicago school system. The travel business was a sideline. She got most of her bookings from online, but also helped arrange trips for the teachers she encountered in her day-to-day.

The way she talked about it was like she was a pot dealer.

Fae was a former social worker and somehow worked in dentistry before coming to work at her father-in-law’s business in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A small, round woman with short, curly hair, she laughed easily and seemed like she might have been a fairy godmother in a previous life. She had no idea how she'd wound up doing this sort of job. It wasn't what she wanted to do, but she liked it well enough --maybe because some of the places she took her clients were far, far away from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

She really loved the west coast, northern California and, I think, Oregon. The scenery was beautiful and the people seemed very nice to her.

The three-day Post-Fam tour of scenic, rural Virginia (during the desiccated, dead of winter) was just an extra 50 bucks a head after they’d paid their fees for the convention in Charleston. It included motel accommodations, a couple of shows, a few attractions and practically all meals –plus a seemingly never-ending line of people ready, willing and practically begging for the chance to kiss your ass.

As far as getaways go, if you weren’t too particular, it was pretty decent deal.

There were plenty of stories on the bus about much better deals and insider only trips, but generally, the gravy days of travel were all over for these people.

Donna, an agent from got a deal to go to Singapore for two-weeks because she knew somebody in another office who was just looking for warm bodies. She had to pay $500 for that one, but it included airfare, accommodations, meals and who knows what else.

“It was too good to turn down,” she said.

Nobody was getting those kinds of deals now, though sometimes if they booked a certain number of clients onto a cruise somewhere, they got a free ticket.

They shared their horror stories. A couple of them had spent nights in hospital rooms, sitting with clients who'd taken a vacation only a couple of weeks after a heart attack or major surgery. A few of them had seen people die.

All of them seemed to be struggling to keep on doing their jobs and living their lives. Competition was fierce. Nobody thought much of a tour company called Diamond.

A guy named Tim, who knew more dirty jokes than any man alive, called them the K-mart of the touring business.

"They get the cheapest rooms, use the cheapest buses and the customer gets dick."

Just across the Virginia border, the bus stopped at a welcome center manned by a couple of grandmothers who'd brought cookies and cake to welcome us to the middle of nowhere. It was supposed to be a scenic rest stop, but it looked like the sort of place bored, middle-class homosexuals might stop for anonymous sex in the bushes with other bored, middle-class homosexuals.

There were also vending machines if someone wanted to grab a diet coke or maybe some skittles afterwards.

It was a clean, if sort of non-descript location. Inside, dull-as-shit travel pamphlets, brochures and maps papered the walls. I found myself wondering, who in the fuck would stumble in here and be inspired to drive from here to Monticello, to see how the third President of the United States might have lived --you know, if you took away all the slaves and replaced them with poorly-payed state employees in polo shirts with name tags?

I pretended to look at the pamphlets then bolted for the bus after the stop was concluded. I left the cookies, which were a little bland, and grabbed a spare bottle of water out of reflex.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon -part 1

The snow started falling in the gray, early hours before dawn and continued to call to fall even as the bus pulled away from Charleston’s newly remodeled Sheraton.

It was a little after seven o’clock in the morning. Tour South’s three-day convention had finished in the city and there I was sitting in the back of the bus with about 20 travel agents and tour planners from 12 different states, on route to Southwestern Virginia for what was called a “Post-Fam” tour.

"Post" meant after the event. "Fam" meant familiar. Someone had to explain that to me.

The convention had been a big deal for Charleston. Travel planners had come to meet with convention bureaus from dozens of cities and counties from all over the south –places, like Charleston, that wanted tourism dollars.

Charleston had hosted and done its best to put on its best face –not an easy task with a chemical spill in the water supply still very much on everyone’s minds.

How that all went, I have no idea. Everybody was very polite about Charleston, but nobody openly admitted they'd be bringing busloads of tourists to take in the dubious scenic beauty of a place usually referred to as "chemical valley." 

I was not invited to attend that part of the show --or the pre-fam tour which wandered around parts unknown. 

The Post Fam tour was something else. The bus headed to Southwestern Virginia, to Wytheville, Abingdon and Bristol with a few stops in between.

Tour South asked if The Gazette wanted to send someone along –and I jumped at it like a dog begging for bacon. It hardly mattered that I’d been to Abingdon, Wytheville and Bristol; had practically grown up there. Winter had been horrible in Charleston, what with the bad weather, potholes and whatever weird shit was in the water.

Slumped down toward the back, crowded in a narrow seat with a backpack stuffed with an aging laptop, two cameras of suspect quality, plus an assortment of pens, pencils and notebooks, I tried to blend, but I stood out. I didn’t have a badge with a travel company’s name on it. My clothes were all wrong: no cruise ship or airline logo. My bag was a generic. Everyone else had one tagged by a leisure company, resort destination or mid-range city nobody thinks about seeing.   

Also, virtually everyone on the bus was at least 65 --discounting the driver and the two people from the convention bureau. A couple of people were around 80, but most hovered somewhere in the low 70s.

I'm 43 and had never felt so young in my entire life.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cash out

The realtor contacted me to say that she couldn't make our meeting Friday. It was Good Friday and I should have seen it coming. The whole day was a waste --nobody wanted to be on the phone, nobody wanted to do any business.

We rescheduled for Tuesday and I'll probably move it. The week after a holiday weekend, even Easter, tends to get a little harried.

Still, the meeting will take place this week and the house will go up for sale. It's been a long time coming. I've said I was going to do it and then pulled back. The last time I half convinced myself that I needed to take some time to make some improvements, make it more attractive for sale.

That's sort of crazy talk. Most of the improvements the books want you to make when you're planning on selling a house cost more than whatever money you'd get out of it: buy new appliances, get a 70 or 80 percent return on that; put down new carpeting, get 50 percent of the money you put into it back.

It's ludicrous --particularly when money is the chief reason I'm selling the old place.

There are layers to that.

Part of it is the cost of living; that's gone up. Everything is more expensive. Part of it is that my wages are stagnant; I work for people who have no trouble raising the prices for the items in the snack machines every other year by ten percent or so, but can't add half that to my wages every other year.

Instead, they seem to begrudge every penny paid to us, which is demoralizing.

Part of it is the Affordable Care Act. I have no beef with getting health insurance and think everyone needs it, but the reason I didn't have it wasn't because I didn't have access to insurance or because no one would insure me. It was because I just couldn't afford the coverage.

I'm tired of waiting for it to get better. I'm tired of fidgeting over the monthly bills, trying to balance the mortgage with the utilities and the grocery bill. I'm tired of wondering if I need to get a third job just to keep up.

Piss on this.

So, I'm scaling back. If I get rid of the house, it's less money out of my pocket every month. I can maybe move closer to where I work, where I shop and where I invariably end up. Less fuel and time spent.

And if I get rid of the house, when somebody out of the area offers me a job, I don't have as much trouble taking it.

That's a possibility, too.

I love what I do, but what I do doesn't give me much love back.

So, the house is going up for sale. We'll see if there are any takers.

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.