Category Archives: Travel

Wisteria Lane Getaway For Labor Day

 

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This is the porch on Cabin #3. The porch and its swing is one of the best features that many other places surprisingly fail to include.

 

Last weekend, we had a chance to get away for the weekend to Wisteria Lane Lodging. At the last minute, we decided to extend the weekend by a day, if possible. The owner at Wisteria Lane gave us the green light. Instead of 2 nights and three days, we stayed for three nights. We stopped at the grocery store and loaded up on food for four days. The difference the extra day made was immeasurable. Vacationing in far-flung destinations has its appeal, I’ll admit, but knowing that we can drive less than forty-five minutes to be in the middle of nowhere with no one to intrude is difficult to surpass.

No cellphone, no internet, no outside world was imposing upon us. Unlike many of the competitor’s cabins, it’s possible to go and see no one during the entire stay. The cabins have satellite television; the solitude is best experienced without the world’s intrusion, in my opinion. I took a laptop loaded with shows and music, along with cables to use the flat screen television to project them.

Dawn and I don’t leave the valley unless we must. Many people who know me superficially are surprised that such isolation is enjoyable to me. Going without wifi and cellphones probably scares those who haven’t experienced it in the last few years. The disconnection is a welcome privilege. It’s a great way to measure your addiction to connectedness.

For those who love to walk or ride mountain bikes, the area is ideal. It’s possible to encounter no cars during your ride or hike on the maintained dirt rods.

While it only rained a bit during our stay, we sat on the hanging porch swing and listened to the thunder of the insects around us as the sun sank below the upper rim of the valley’s treeline.

Wisteria Lane is located North of Eureka and Holiday Island, in a deep valley populated with five billion trees. Cabin #3 & #4 are the best, in my opinion, given their location toward the inside of the forest. Each cabin has a long, covered porch facing the creek running through the valley. Each porch has a gas grill, which allows guests to cook in any weather, either using the grill or the full kitchen inside.

After our trip, I noticed that I hadn’t been billed for the extra night. The owner told me that she was treating Dawn and me to the extra night at no charge. A great trip made more exceptional due to the generosity of the owners.

 

 

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We usually take the time to paint rocks during our stays. We tend to go a little further than most guests.

 

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Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans

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It’s unfashionable for me to be underwhelmed by the Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans.

People discuss it as if it embodies some unseen quality and conjoining of history and cuisine. The cafe’s proximity to so many of the sights of New Orleans is certainly an advantage. If you get take out, you can walk a short distance and sit by the Mississippi to eat your beignet and drink one of the coffees the cafe offers.

If you’re visiting New Orleans, it’s imperative that you come early if you’re going to try Cafe Du Monde in the morning. Otherwise, you’re going to be crowded into a throng of other visitors. Many tourists don’t know that the French Market location is open 24 hours a day. I’d argue that ambiance is better in the evening, when most of the revelers are elsewhere destroying brain cells with their favorite beverage.
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Despite what visitors say after the fact, I observed many people as they approached, entered, sat, and walked away. The open air quality of the cafe is appealing to some and unappealing to others, especially as they are confronted with crowded and small tables, sticky surfaces, or birds flying inside the canopy where they are dining. Because the cult of the ‘must do’ demands it, most people leave with a notable lack of the ‘wow factor.’ Like a movie that people rave about, the cafe owes much of its appeal due to the cult of tourism more than its actual experience. That’s my opinion, anyway.

Beignets came from France, of course, which means that Cafe Du Monde didn’t invent the wheel, so to speak. I enjoy listening to people enthusiastically argue about the originality of Cafe Du Monde’s namesake food. Even when the Acadians brought them to Louisianna, they were likely to be filled with fruit. Today’s version is simply a rectangle of fried dough in a cloud of powdered sugar. If I point this out to people, it makes them a little irritated, as if recognizing the deviation somehow is an attack on their opinion.

If you’re visiting New Orleans, Cafe Du Monde is invariably on the ‘must do’ list for visitors. Unfortunately, many people are caught off guard by the massive lines, crowded tables, and sometimes long table service waits.

It’s important to note that the cafe doesn’t offer other breakfast foods. Many of the New Orleans partiers visit and find themselves eating large portions of dough and powdered sugar, which leads to the expected result.

As for me, the best part was feeding the birds which fly under the streetside canopy and hunt for morsels. It’s dumb on my part to have enjoyed feeding the birds.

Don’t get me wrong, the beignets are worth trying once. I personally can’t say that the taste of a Cafe Du Monde beignet was noticeable compared to the ones served a little distance away at the Cafe Beignet on the outside of the forgotten Jackson Brewery building. Saying this out loud amounts to heresy, so if you find yourself in agreement with me, it’s best to keep your opinion quiet.

A visit to Cafe Du Monde brings you to the edge of the river, too, so you’re at least in a central location to start your day.

It’s true that visitors should try a beignet if they’ve never had one.
My takeaway is that tourists would be better prepared for the experience if they go to Cafe Du Monde as an locale experience more than a dining choice.
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Like New Orleans, it probably should be experienced once.

When We Went To Boston

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Boston gets fairly rowdy around St. Patrick’s Day. My wife Dawn accompanied me as I attended an event there three years ago. While we’re not drinkers like so many others who attended the conference held around the holiday, we tried to socialize and give our contemporaries a run for their money. It was likely it would be our only trip to Boston as adults.

The first night, we went to the House of Blues near Fenway Park. It was loud, raucous, and phenomenal. We left before the Dropkick Murphys made their annual appearance mainly because I wanted to get up early the next morning and see the start of the Southie Road Race.

The race was impressive. As is the case most other years, many of the runners dressed in bright green costumes, complete with wigs and shoes to match. People had warned us to be careful around the fringes, given the occasional idiot who might want to start a fight, ‘borrow’ $100 or just cause a problem.

It wasn’t until Sunday night that we had any problems. I wanted to hear some live music at Lansdowne Pub. My wife was a little reluctant. She knew I was going to want to walk the strip toward Fenway. Cities can only be really enjoyed by walking them. By 7 p.m. we were walking along and watching people and admiring the array of brick buildings lining the streets. To knock some time off the walk, we cut through a parking garage near Lansdowne Street.

As we traversed the garage, we heard shouting somewhere above us, and then a ‘boom.’ The squeal of tires punctuated the ‘boom’ sound. My wife looked at me in alarm. We decided to move along up against the inside wall of the garage. A few seconds later, a car raced around the corner nearest to us. Simultaneously, a man wearing a green jersey and green top hat stepped from the street outside into the parking garage. A man inside the racing car leaned out the window, pointing a pistol at the top hat-wearing pedestrian.

The pedestrian didn’t move out of the way. The man leaning from the window began shooting toward the pedestrian. At least 5 shots rang out. The pedestrian didn’t flinch. He stood his ground as the shots were fired. The car swerved around him at the last second and popped out of the garage to escape.

My wife and I ran over to the man in the top hat. Our adrenaline was pumping. “Oh my god! Are you okay?” we shouted as we neared him.

“Thanks, mates. Yes, I’m fine. Bullets can’t hurt me.” He seemed to be completely calm. Surprisingly, I don’t think he had been drinking.

He held out his right hand as if to shake mine.

My wife, as always, had a million questions.

“What do you mean, ‘Bullets can’t hurt you.'” she asked.

“My name is Rick O’Shea,” he said, as I shook his hand, and answering my wife’s question.
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We Are All Stories For Other People

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As I was once again in the Little Rock area, I had no choice except to get up early and creep outside. Moronic it may be, but as I’ve aged, I’ve been delighted to discover that walking deserted streets is among my favorite ways to enjoy life. I walked across the river bridge this morning, trying not to scare anyone. I was dressed in black pants and jacket in hopes of being mistaken for a suspicious character as I walked the streets. I left my ID in the car in hopes of increasing my chance for a foot race in the event of a ‘suspicious person’ call and ensuing police foot chase. Note: coffee is redundant if you’ve been tased below the waist. (As is the need to use the restroom, depending on the voltage of the device used.)

Regardless of its purported problems, this town is spectacular in the pre-morning hours. If you’re asking if it feels unsafe to be out alone in the dark, the answer is still no. Potato chips are a more realistic threat to me than what some shadowy danger might plan for me.

Walking across the bridge, I could see the top of the capitol building. I passed a moment wondering if anyone was perhaps already inside, possibly leafing through piles of large bills, quietly but maniacally laughing to themselves.

Leaving the hotel property, I edged into the dark sidewalk near the baseball park. A man walking two harnessed and incredibly large labs tried to dodge me at the last second. The dogs, seeking new people to adore them, jerked him back into my path and began to dance and whimper as I petted their heads. “Sorry,” the man said. “Don’t be. The day just improved for all of us,” I told him.

There were a few joggers this morning. Two of them were very athletic women who were trailed by a bodyguard. All of them looked like they could throw me into traffic if I looked at them wrong. I briefly considered pretending to chase them to see if they’d run faster. Since I didn’t have my health insurance card with me, I thought better of the idea. I don’t know who the two ladies were but they reeked of ‘famous.’ They were wearing perfume that undoubtedly was made using the scent of money.

As invariably happens when I walk the Little Rock metro area in the early morning, I had a couple of moments of divinity, the brief seconds of recognition that I’ll always remember this morning in indistinct yet fond imagery. The breeze above the river was a caress and the sight of the river below me reminded me of how lucky I’ve been in this life. I’m too observant to think that the scythe isn’t already arcing to meet me at some point in my life. It’s probably disguised as an anvil or extra large pepperoni pizza.

Coming back through the motel parking lot, I startled a couple as they gossiped and smoked cigarettes. Whoever Ellen is, the couple would like her to know that she’s a vile excuse for a human being. I wish I knew which Ellen they were discussing. I’ll bet she’d had a vigorous reply to their parking-lot gossip.

As I write this, I’ll note that despite having my “Do Not Disturb” on the door, a housekeeper knocked and waited 1/10 of a second before entering with her master key. The look on her face was priceless as I said, “Hold on, I’m just starting the security cameras now.” It’s worth noting that I was sitting at the desk with two laptops and a pile of jumbled electronics, so my joke was probably taken as serious commentary. “I’m SO sorry” she yelled as she turned and fled. It’s too bad I hadn’t yet started my 30 minutes of naked jumping jacks. I went to the hallway and asked one of the housekeepers in Spanish if the lady who just exited my room was the supervisor. She said ‘yes,’ it was. If she tries any shenanigans tomorrow, let’s just say that her reaction will be befitting of a Halloween scream as I surprise her.

I really did walk past the governor this morning. I instinctively checked to see if my wallet was still in my back pocket as I passed by. Just joking, of course; small bills are a nuisance in a world of wealth.

The picture is one from the riverside walk. Those are fallen leaves rather than crumbled currency. I took a couple of the panorama of the bridge, the jutting dome of the capitol building, and even a selfie as a confused driver passed me as I held the camera aloft. I ran through the leaves, scattering them into the air and breeze. The river breeze blew across me, bathing me in the delicious fall smell. As I walked away, I could see someone sitting on a bench in the near distance, smoking. I hope he was wondering if he had just witnessed a middle-aged white man begin his inevitable nervous breakdown.

We are all stories for other people.

It’s A Place Which We Never Leave

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On the way back home from Texas, I turned off the discolored and uneven blacktop highway and drove through a small farming town in Arkansas. It was almost 7 p.m. on a windless Sunday evening. My windshield was a graveyard of hundreds of insects. The richness of the delta has its gifts.

I had lost all sense of urgency and time. Because I knew I wouldn’t drive all the way home that evening, I chose the blue highways to take me across part of my journey. These highways were once the only way to traverse the country and each one of them pierced rural communities, loosely connecting them to the outside world. As interstates rose to meet the demands of speed and commerce, the blue highways remained, like half-forgotten pictures tucked away in the top drawer of a dresser in one’s extra bedroom.

Downtown was a disintegrating and deceitful testament to the past. The solitary water tower still stood, rusting, and even the town’s name, once proudly emblazoned there, was long erased. The youthful graffiti always found on such a tower was illegible. The few young people who might live nearby attended school in another town, their own hometown mascot supplanted with another. Each of them quietly reminded themselves that they’d leave as soon as graduation came.

The jolt of crossing a desolate set of railroad tracks caused me to reach over and turn off the radio. A town’s railroad crossing conveys a clear message: a smooth transition indicates a thriving economy and nicer vehicles, while an uneven and poorly maintained one usually means that people live lives filled with less. People with money and separated from their agricultural roots clamor for better roads, ones devoid of historical reminders of commerce and transport.

History accompanied me as I made my way slowly across the brick-paved street. Without any evidence, I knew that several years ago, some well-meaning resident with a little money had vainly attempted to rejuvenate the corpse of this place, one founded on the backs of farmers. With his passing, the enthusiasm for saving the heritage of the place no longer loomed large on the psyche of the town. His tombstone, larger than those surrounding his resting place, is easily found in the cemetery not too far from the train tracks. In a generation, most of the cemeteries would be overgrown and many of these buildings would fall in on themselves, a gradual shattering and splintering of history. If I were to look, somewhere in the juncture of the small side streets would be a shuttered museum; its existence once contained within but with time, opened to spread out and include the entire town. My own hometown shares a similar and degenerative trajectory; the fiercely loyal will stay until nothing remains. They are the geographical observations points for entropy. Death need not make haste in these places.

Somewhere within the 4 blocks traversing west to east, I noticed a particular vacant storefront, displaying a single white rocking chair perched haphazardly up front, undoubtedly home to the bones of a once-thriving furniture store. The setting sun illuminated the faces of a hundred stacked cardboard boxes near the front windows. As carefully as the boxes were stacked, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they had been packed in haste and then abandoned, much like the store and probably like the town in general. I was certain that human hands hadn’t touched the boxes in years and that no one had relaxed in the rocking chair since its placement there. People were choosing to leave with as small a burden as possible.

Something about this store spoke to me. I pulled unevenly toward the broken curb and hesitated as I shut off the engine. The brick pavers had ended with the last block, probably as fund-raising dried up and people chose to leave instead. Every few feet a clump of grass was triumphantly sprouting from the untarred cracks in the road. I sat there, hands on the wheel, watching. Nothing moved around me. Maybe nothing had moved in the last hour, day, or week. A block ahead, the only traffic light in town blinked a dull red, casting a strange pall on an approaching evening. The light wasn’t blinking to any certain tempo and its arrhythmia went unheeded.

Looking at the sun reflected in the terrible facade of that building, I felt a creeping sadness wash over me. It seemed like I could feel the glances of the thousands of inhabitants who had passed here, reluctant to leave their hometown, but certain that they must. Brake lights always yield to a foot on the gas as nostalgia loses inevitably to hope. The fondness we so often feel for the places in our rearview mirrors softens our doubts about leaving yet rarely detains us.

The sun gave me its warmth as I sat in my car. Though the air was still and uncomfortable, I couldn’t break the silence by starting my car. The heat seemed to stir the ghosts of this place. I could hear their whispered names: Robert, Henry, Thomas, Samuel, Maggie and Jane Elvira. It was both melodious and cacophonous, like a choir warming up to an unspecified crescendo that would never quite arrive.

I could picture a shotgun house not too far from here, its ancient inhabitant eating cold cereal or buttermilk-soaked bread from a chipped white bowl. The metal fan nearby would be loudly alternating air through the cramped room. Around the person would be dozens of pictures, spanning generations, each of them revealing the face of someone long departed or of one who visits with less frequency. Next to the stubborn resident was a small wooden table. It was adorned with dozens of pill bottles, knick-knacks, and an older telephone, one wired to the world. In the rare event of a call, I could hear the fizzled and tired ring and recite almost every word that would ensue in the phone call, one measured by regret, loss, and small details.

I imagined the smell of cornbread, mustard greens, and fish quickly fried under the shade of any available tree. This place, once dominated by the sounds of screen doors casually slammed, pitchers of iced tea, and enthusiastic summer baseball games, was losing its voice. It seemed that even the echoes of lives once lived were fading now, departing with their particular smells and customs.

Before leaving town, I turned on the radio again. I pressed the ‘next station’ button and to my surprise, Merle Travis was singing “No Vacancy.” I smiled, pressed the gas pedal with enthusiasm, and took one last glance in the driver side mirror.

As I passed over the railroad tracks, I didn’t even notice the jolt.

I would wake up in another town tomorrow morning and this haunted place would fade to become an uncertain memory. All who had departed this place would unknowingly share this in common with me.

I, too, am from such a town. It is with me, always, in my quiet moments.

 

 

Orange, No Juice, Me, Steven Spielberg and Stephen King

I think Steven Spielberg and Stephen King were both with me this morning. As is usually the case, it was very early morning and most people were still dreaming of their own private universes as I meandered across a few miles of the urban landscape. Since I had such a nice adventure yesterday morning in a strange city, I had no expectations that this morning’s walk would be as interesting. The universe proved my assumption to be wrong, for which I’m thankful.

I thought that 6th Street in Little Rock, North was fascinating, coming west from Main Street. An abandoned church sat patiently on the corner of 6th and Main, and its steps were adorned with a small pile of brush and a tire. Perversely, I felt the pull to walk up the short steps and yank on the door. What I might do if it were open to me would have been an interesting conundrum. I’d like to think I would have entered.

There are so many interesting houses packed with peculiarities that it’s difficult to find enough time to swivel one’s eyes from one detail to the next. One house, in particular, surprised me due to the quantity and quality of Halloween decorations the owners had packed into the relatively narrow front yard. The porch roof even had a skeleton climbing down face-first, peering underneath the porch. I thought it possible that the owner himself might be a reaper and was using the astounding mass of decorations to conceal his identity, right out in the open. The house next to this decorated one was a beauty, too. Later in the day, I used Google Streetview to find the houses. To my surprise, the 2nd house from the abandoned church didn’t exist in 2013. Someone built it later that year; whoever did so deserves a clap of appreciation, as it is an astounding residence constructed to reflect the history found literally next door. It is a house of substance and evocative of so many elements we once loved and appreciate in our homes.

Turning south onto Orange Street, though, is where the orange glow of the morning blanketed everything. The lights in the area were dim, just bright enough to cast an eerie sheen on everything. Even the modern vehicles parked meticulously along the curb didn’t seem incongruous against the backdrop of pristinely-maintained historic homes. I felt like I’d been there before, truth be told. There were a couple of residences where the upper windows were left uncovered, as is often the case with higher floors, as people stop thinking that they could be observed through them. In one, a ceiling light was on and I could see the wide white trim and walls. As I looked, a woman passed by the window and as she did, she briefly looked down directly at me. For a moment I thought it was the actress Mary-Louise Parker. She had long, flowing black hair. The light went out in the upper hallway. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mary-Louise had turned back to peer down at me as I walked, wondering what I made of her presence. Since I’ve acquired the habit, I waved up to the window as I walked away, hoping that if she were indeed peering askance at me that she might wonder if I could see her. Early morning hours grant magic to a select few, of this I’m beginning to be more certain.

Passing further along the street, I could feel myself going back in time as I walked along that old street. By the time I reached the area with the community gardens west of the Presbyterian church to my left, the effect was palpable. I felt like Christopher Reeve’s character in “Somewhere in Time,” after he put on his anachronism of a suit and feverishly willed himself backward in time.

In my ear, I could almost hear Mr. Spielberg and King whisper, “This is your time. Stay and drown in this moment.”

And I could have resided there, in space and time, suspended.

Whatever confluence of decisions created and maintained this neighborhood, I will remember it. I almost loathe the idea of returning and seeing it in the duller light of day. The magician of the early morning will have departed, leaving me this memory.

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(I’ll put the pictures below if you are interested…)

 

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Abandoned church, corner of Main and 6th, taken later in the day today…

 

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Google Streetview from 2013, before “new” old house was built…

 

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Google Streetview from 2014, as “new” old house is being built…

 

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Today, the front of “new” old house…

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Mary-Louise Parker place, so to speak, from later in the day today…

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An Excursion in Little Rock, North

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Note to casual readers: this post is longer than the explanation for the finale to “Lost,” so embark only if sufficiently interested; otherwise, watch baseball or golf until anything suddenly seems interesting – and then come back to this.

To start, I’d like to say that I don’t feel ill at ease in North Little Rock. Despite its problems, the area near the Wyndham Hotel and the Riverside Trail is simply spectacular with its weirdly-mixed juxtaposition of contrasts. Now that I’m an old codger, I can appreciate the dynamic. For the record, though, I think all towns with extra geographical points are unimaginative: North Toledo, for example, has none of the charm of the actual Toledo. “North” Little Rock implies that it is simply another place North of Little Rock wherein the settlers couldn’t be bothered to devise another interesting place name for the area where they were going put down roots and live their entire lives.

I was up and out of the hotel room fully dressed in less than 5 minutes this morning. I knew that sleep was going to be an unlikely and impatient visitor last night and if truth be told my walk would have started at 2 a.m. had my wife not been with me to disapprove of such a plan. Now that I’m walking and discovering things at strange hours, I find myself anticipating the pleasure of these moments as much as any activity I might engage in later in the day, where the normal people of my day feel more comfortable.

As soon as I stepped out the side of the hotel, the white expanse of the bridge in front of me caught my eye. Although it may sound like I’m inventing details, there was also a Batmobile, complete with insignias parked alongside Riverside Drive. Later, I insisted that my wife look out the window to see it, lest she would once again roll her eyes and assume I was fabricating such a detail for my own amusement. Turning the corner near the main entrance, I noted a large NLR police SUV parked under the canopy. I resisted the urge to see if the driver door was unlocked, lest I become the unwilling passenger, plus handcuffs.

A man dressed in what appeared to be 6 layers of clothing sped past me on a bicycle. Despite his legs being covered in multiple layers, he was flying down the street. The very next person I saw was a solitary man waiting near a bus stop sign, adjacent to an empty parking lot. I went wide to the left so as to not startle the man, who I assumed was waiting to go to work. As I reached the next cross street a couple of hundred feet away, he repaid my consideration by shouting something incomprehensible into the early morning darkness. I looked to see who he was shouting at, but no one else was around. He shouted again, even louder. The words sounded the same as the first shout, although the words still eluded me. Toward Main Street I went, laughing, wondering what that man’s story might be about. I heard him shout a couple of more times before his voice was lost to the empty city streets.

As two buses passed me, running along the trolley route, I looked up and laughed, as I couldn’t help but imagine that the crosswalk silhouettes of a human figure, the ones used to convey ‘safe to cross’ or ‘danger,’ were running in pantomime, as if screaming and fleeing the scene.

Main Street at this hour was a long dual succession of double-globed streetlights, each of them conveying a gauzy white light. The street is so wide and the sidewalks so ornate that walking them absent other people once again gave me pause. With so many historic places along this route, all of it seemed perfectly preserved in the amber of early morning magic.

As I passed Capeo Ristorante, a large orange cat jumped from inside the ornate metal trash holder near the street, it’s morning breakfast within interrupted by my passing. Once out of the trash, the cat ran only a few feet away and sat, looking at me. His ears seemed as large as a rabbit’s, high and large above his head. The ears bent toward me as I wished him well.

As I passed the storefront of Ozark Escape I wondered what I might do if I had peered inside to see someone forgotten and trapped inside, a participant in the last escape scenario from last night. Sadly, there were no moving shadows within. It seemed incongruous to me to have such a business on the historic strip of Main Street in North Little Rock. But what do I know? Our last election proved to me that no one knows anything and even when they do, no one listens.

Without pronouncement or fanfare, the globed street lights ended and I was suddenly walking up an inclined overpass, a long arc of pavement reaching above the commercial industrial district below. The lighting seemed to evoke all the romance of a county jail or a dimly-lit back alley. As I reached the opposite side of the long overpass I realized that the mass of machinery below reminded me of a James Cameron Terminator sequel. The air seemed full of two possibilities: hope or dismal despair. Reaching the end of the concrete railing, I passed someone who looked like DJ Khaled. As big as he was, his body language indicated that he was way more concerned about me than I would ever be around him. I realized in that moment that I was dressed entirely in black, even wearing a black jacket, black shoes, black socks, and black shirt. Honestly, a white man wandering around in the dark dressed in all black does sound like the clichéd beginning of just about every crime novel ever written, or a Johnny Cash hipster revival in Oakland.

At the corner of Main and 13th, the ambiance took an Olympic dive. The large brick building opposite of me looked exactly like Hannibal Lecter’s first home. In front of the building, a large green rectangular sign indicated, “Waste Collection Facility This Way.” In my mind, I thought, “Of course it is.” As I crossed to take another direction, a police car stopped and waited for me to cross. Again, my overactive imagination dared me to take off running, as if running away from the police. Studies have shown that getting tased is much more effective than Folgers in one’s cup in the morning.

A few minutes later, I looked down and saw that I was high above a wide train switching yard, full of parallel silver rails below me. It was mesmerizing. Something my grandpa once told me came to mind. He had mentioned to me that such yards were godsends to those riding the rails to get back home. Switch yards with so many accesses points always were an indicator that wherever you were, that another train was undoubtedly headed towards the hearth you called home. I’m not sure how many times my grandpa hopped a train because I was young when he shared those stories, often against the backdrop of harsh summer sun or as the sun faded, leaving the explosive sound of insects to buzz and hum around us. Several years ago, when I visited my hometown of Brinkley, I ran several miles to stand above single set of train tracks below, the ones which ran under highway 49, close to its intersection with Highway 70. I ran all that way just to try to conjure that feeling of those stories my grandpa shared with me.  It was staggering to me to picture myself with the necessity and freedom to jump on a moving train. Those are the kind of memories which will fade into oblivion.

After the switching yard, I looked down and to the left and got to watch as another police SUV moved slowly along, its searchlight zig-zagging across the dirt and gravel. I look up at the road my feet are traveling and see another SUV parked at the intersection. It was at that precise moment I realized that I was coming up on the downtown police substation. The long canopy carport containing a dozen silent and waiting police cruisers convinced me of it. Never one to be silent for long, my inner monologue thought it would be humorous to pound on the door and demand to confess to someone that I was indeed guilty of some public crime – perhaps that of using mayo on french fries.

At Skinny J’s restaurant, I stopped and took a picture of the overhead neon marquee sign. Despite how suspicious it might look, I entered the recess of the main door from the street and leaned in, cupping my hands and resting my face against the painted glass. Inside, tables and chairs stood guard, waiting for occupants. I imagined that just 8 or 9 hours earlier I had sat along the side wall, eating and laughing with good people. For a fleeting instant, I could once again taste the pungency of the fried green tomato sandwich I had chosen. The overlap of my memory and looking at the dark and empty restaurant this morning created a delightful sensation of deja vu.

I turned and made a long pass around the horrendous Verizon Arena structure. The building looks like what an alien invader would leave after being driven away from this world, much like Verizon and AT&T did to Alltel’s loyal staff back in the day. I imagined that I could simultaneously hear the millions of conversations, concerts, and activities that had occurred in that place. Most people undoubtedly drive past it without much consideration, their minds preoccupied with other ideas and demands – and probably a few daydreams about throwing a deserving co-worker through the window once they’ve arrived to work. Looking at the NR Bank tower sign, the one digitally indicating the time in 3-foot numbers, I wondered how much agony that timestamp might cause. I could only picture some poor soul looking at it each day. “9:53 a.m.,” it would indicate upon the first glance. An hour later, it would indicate, “9:54 a.m.,” and in bright large numbers, too. Hour after hour, day after day. I think I would be shooting out the bulbs of that bank’s sign within a week.

Passing the Verizon behemoth, I watched as a man wrangled a portapotty next to a new drive-through restaurant being built there. He noticed me as I watched and he waved, probably glad to be distracted. I was hoping he’d knock over the portable toilet just to amuse me. Next to the new building, I noted that a branch of my bank was on the corner. It occurred to me that it seemed reasonable to get some cash from the ATM around the back. It seemed particularly wise to do this, as nothing seems safer than using an ATM card, on foot, in the dark, in a strange place. So I took some cash out for the day, as I loudly recited my PIN. (I’m just kidding about the PIN part. The rest is true.)

As I stopped to take a picture of the ascending trolley car tracks as they ran next to the on-ramp, I looked toward the distant bridge and in the direction of my hotel. I noticed a man dressed in green dart across the sidewalk, stop, and lean over and drop something near the bushes. At this point, he was directly across from the US Bank pavilion. Having seen “The Wire,” I assumed that something loosely described as “illegal” was probably going on. I crossed the street and as I walked, I tried to look with the corner of my eye toward where the man had been crouched. He seemed to have frozen there, perhaps in response to my presence. I turned away just for a second and when I looked back, he was gone, vanished, doing his own “fastest gun in the West” impression. I assumed he was crouched or hiding behind the bushes, probably on the side closet to the pavilion near the riverside. Invisibility didn’t seem like a reasonable explanation.

It was then that I noticed the large turtle sculpture there. My curiosity got the best of me, even overpowering my desire to avoid being bludgeoned to death a few paces from my hotel. I decided to make another pass around the block. It seemed likely that the man in question wasn’t concealing his favorite literary works in those bushes – nor a sack lunch for later consumption. Coming around the block again, I took a chance to walk by the turtle and the bushes again. A large bus waiting opposite the corner pawn shop gave me the excuse of having a witness. I quickly walked by and snapped a picture of the turtle and it was then I noticed what looked like a duffel bag behind it, in the gap of the bushes. It dawned on me that the man wasn’t a criminal, at least not in an interesting way: he was probably homeless and had devised an incredibly clever way to sleep right out in the middle of everything. You’d need to pass by very close or from the other direction, where shadows ruled one’s vision.

Without much thought as to safety or appropriateness, I took out my wallet and the two $20 bills I had just taken from the ATM by the arena. I placed them on the ground in the grass. I picked up a crushed water bottle lying on the edge of the road and placed it on top of the bills. “Mister,” I hollered. “Sorry to startle you. I left you something to do with as you want to. I hope you have a great day – I won’t say anything about you. Peace.”

As I stood up, my phone rang. Although I wasn’t listening to music during any part of my walk, I had headphones on. The ringer startled me, at full volume inside the headphones. It couldn’t have sounded off at a more inopportune time. Later, I discovered that it was my wife, who had called and texted repeatedly. As I had been gone walking a long time this morning, she had begun to allow her imagination to run wild, probably already to the point where I had been abducted by foreign mercenaries.

As I walked away, it occurred to me that if the man didn’t exit his hiding spot to retrieve the money, I was either going to have to go get it myself or leave it, knowing that the unexpected money on the side of the road was going to improve someone’s morning.

I stopped nearby at the corner of the Wyndham, where I was staying. I watched as the man emerged from the middle of the bushes and picked up the $40. He looked my direction and waved his arm high above his head. I don’t think he said anything. I raised my own arm and waved back without interrupting the silence. I’d like to think there was something magical about that moment, even if it was just a simple acknowledgment. What a strange and brutal urban landscape the man had chosen. No doubt, though, that he had chosen wisely.

As for my wife’s concern, she had every reason to be a little worried. Not for my safety, though, but rather for my humanity. In the midst of all this wonder and steel artifices, people were still just people. For me, I was prepared for anything, as long as it gifted me with a story.

Later, when I sat with my wife to eat breakfast, she jokingly told another co-worker about my penchant for giving everything away. It’s important that you understand that I had not shared any of my early morning adventures with her at that point. She didn’t know that I had given the homeless man my ATM gift this morning. As trite as it sounds, North Little Rock had reached inside me a little bit and as always, I changed imperceptibly because of it, even in the most mundane of circumstances.

I thought that it might be incredibly fitting to be remembered with a complaint, one which accused me of being a minimalist and wanting to give everything away, even my last dollar, the one which would have otherwise gone to the tip jar of the reticent man preparing omelets or to the waitress as a tip. My wife didn’t know that I had given a stranger $40, just because he might need it and because it would fuel my imagination for another long set of days.

 

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Later, before going to go eat lunch with my favorite cousin, I wandered some of the same sites, to ‘see’ them with a daylight perspective. In the midst of the bushes behind the sculpted tortoise, I found blankets and detritus from lives lived on the outside. Warm weather will soon turn to cold. I hope that the gentleman I surprised this morning finds a place of rest as the air turns lethal. Standing there, in the daylight, looking at the makeshift home, it was my greater wish that he might remember that not all people are to be measured by one’s expectations.

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Never Buy Chocolate From France?

Never Buy Chocolate From France

Last year, my cousin Wynona went to Europe. When she stopped in France, she spent a fortune buying candy and treats for friends and family. She hadn’t traveled much and wanted to get everyone something to commemorate her experiences outside of the U.S.

Surprisingly, she sent me some chocolate. She included a note to inform me that France was famous for its chocolatiers and confectioneries. (She doesn’t get out much, it seems.) She later sent me a t-shirt from Germany, one missing the right sleeve.

Whether she did so as a joke or not, I’m not sure, but one of the bags she sent me looked exactly like a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. Each candy was foil-wrapped and shaped vaguely like a pyramid, too. The writing was French, though. I hoped she hadn’t spent money on a common chocolate without realizing it. I put the bag in the pantry and forgot about it, as I was trying to avoid consumption of large amounts of treats and unhealthy foods.

A week or so later, I was craving something sweet. I pulled out my cousin Wynona’s bag of candy, opened it, and went to sit on the couch to watch a little TV.

I opened the first Kiss and threw it into my gaping mouth, letting it melt instead of chewing furiously on it.

After a few seconds, I felt something rub against my tongue, like a faint tickle. After another few seconds, it felt like a worm was brushing against the inside of my lip and on the tip of my tongue.

I leaned over the coffee table and spit it out without thinking. In the melted mass of chocolate was a wriggling bit of something which definitely looked like a worm.

“Gross!” I hollered.

Since my friend JoJo speaks fluent French, I grabbed the bag of candy and the melted piece expelled from my mouth and drove over to her house.

When I arrived, we exchanged pleasantries and then I told her about the candy and the ‘worm’ in the chocolate.

When I handed her the original bag that resembled a U.S. version of Hershey’s Kisses, JoJo burst out laughing.

“What’s so funny, JoJo? I think I ate a worm or something.” I’m not sure why, but her levity irritated me a little bit.

“X, read right here,” JoJo said, pointing to the bag.

“That’s a piece of tongue in the candy. After all, they are FRENCH Kisses.”

MoFo Coffee Pot Adventure

My wife should know better than to let me wander in strange towns. It’s like an opportunity to be inside a petri dish, watching – and sometimes commenting.

It’s the commenting part that will one day lead to my body being inside a chalk outline on the sidewalk, probably with onlookers pointing and saying, “He had it coming!”

While Dawn made good use of herself, I went to find a coffee pot. I decided to buy one for the motel room so that we could enjoy coffee-on-demand without the necessity of hiring servants or driving around like electrocuted squirrels. We leave the coffee pot when we leave. They don’t get discarded by the staff. The “coffee pots” provided by most hotels, in my opinion, are secret torture devices that neither make coffee or provide any service, unless it is to test one’s ability to hurl a small appliance out the window and into the parking lot.

As I wandered around the Dollar General store in North Little Rock, I couldn’t help but be amused by the antics of another shopper. His fevered chatter reminded of that time when I gave my Aunt Ardith 2 bottles of 5-Hour Energy Shots instead of whiskey in her coke. (The doctor said she needed to drink less alcohol; the fault is his for not being cautiously specific about this sort of thing.) Not since the early comedy specials of Richard Pryor had I heard the f-bomb and mofo grenade dropped with such frequency. There were so many I thought I was seeing them begin to fall from his mouth and hang in the air, like profane Zeppelins. No matter where I wandered in the store, the F-Bomb Man seemed to materialize, like impossible-to-remove flecks of glitter in one’s underwear drawer.

I finally succumbed to the realization that I had walked around the store so many times that I was about to be made Store Manager. I stopped and bothered a young male employee who was apparently trying to strangle the cash register on the left in frustration. I swear that he said, “Go to the last aisle and jump off the bridge there, where the zombies are.” When I went to the last aisle, there were indeed coffee makers there. There was also an errant display of Halloween merchandise. I surmised that at least some of the keywords in the employee’s reply to my question were reality-based.

Lo and behold, when I got the register, F-Bomb Man and his female companion were behind me. The two children with them were darting around like pinballs in a half-broken machine, one manned by a maniacal player.

After a few more Mofo Grenades, I couldn’t help but to laugh. The little boy with the couple behind me stopped in his tracks and stared up at me, his mouth open, as if he were witnessing a grown man about to lose his mind and/or vote Republican. It struck me as strange that my laugh startled the boy sufficiently to bring his frenzied stomp around the central displays to a halt – but that the impressive onslaught of profanity from the adult male with him hadn’t fazed him. I made myself a note to write that child’s teachers in the future, to let them know that he was in no way responsible for believing that some profane words were substitutes for common adjectives, nouns, verbs, and salutations. (And probably street names too.) I had grown up with world-champion cursers myself. I was quite old when I realized that it was possible to read the menu at a restaurant without inserting colorful and possibly ear-piercing obscenity in the middle of descriptive items.

Turning to make eye contact with the man behind me, I was surprised that he had stopped talking too.

“Hey. How are you doing?” I asked, loudly, as my voice had been amplified by a town crier from the Middle Ages. And I laughed again, possibly from brain damage at this point.

Surprised, the man said, “Just maintaining, man. Sorry about all the cursing.” Which proved he realized he was cursing.

In a moment never to be rivaled by any extemporaneous quip ever, I replied, “Dude, just call me Ritz.”

And I held up might right hand for a fist bump, something I never do.

F-Bomb Man immediately held his fist up and bumped mine.

“Why they call you Ritz?” He asked.

Without hesitation and looking him right in the eye, I replied, “Because I ain’t no common cracker.”

And then we both laughed and laughed, as the man’s female companion and the cashier looked at us like giraffes with top hats on our heads.

PS: This story isn’t about the cursing. It’s like ambient background music to me. Without insult or anger, profanity is just another means of communication; it is often uncouth and undignified, but so too are parts of this life, one which is too busy and too demanding to be derailed by a poor choice of words. Also, the F-Bomb/Mofo Grenade Man was a Rembrandt of his time with cursing.

A Tongue-In-Cheek Travel Story

A Story For All My Friends:.

During my whirlwind trip to Europe last year, I was visiting a place unfamiliar to me. The locals had cautioned me but didn’t specify why I should be careful. At the time, it didn’t bother me at all. The fact that they served me the best baguettes and flavorful coffee I’d ever tasted made such concerns seem foolish.

My only morning there, I very much wanted to take a walk in the unknown hills and fields surrounding the tiny hamlet in which I was staying. It was my goal to see all the sights I could squeeze into my trip, and preferably on foot. I headed toward a large expanse of open field, one I could see from my quaint bed and breakfast. A light fog obscured all the distant edges, waiting for the sun to peek and burn it off an hour or so later.

As I passed the edge of the pavement, I encountered a large yellow and black-edged sign, one which indicated “Warning: Stay Out!” in 3 languages. The urge to get away from people and places overpowered me, so I ignored the warning sign, deciding that the absence of a fence or any other observable prohibition to entry meant it was a forgotten relic, left as an inside joke or an indication of a property owner’s laziness.

About 50 feet past the sign, I still couldn’t see anything which warranted feeling unsafe. The grass seemed relatively maintained and it was quite peaceful. I continued on, but started noticing little bits of black and white-striped fabric. Soon, there were many more scattered whimsically on the ground. After several more steps, I noticed that some of the strips now seemed to be stained with what seemed to be blood.

Still ignoring any sense of danger, I quickened my pace, following the trail of thickening fabric pieces on the grass.

Suddenly, I noticed a large group of thin people wearing unusually clingy clothing and dark berets on their heads. Most were waving their arms in the air, while some seemed to be doing so in patterns I couldn’t quite discern as if they were trapped behind a barrier I couldn’t quite see. Their clothing matched the black and white-striped fabric pieces strewn about the field.

I bolted toward the tree-lined edge of the open field, some yards away. As I approached its perimeter, I could see a large rectangular sign facing the opposite direction, away from me.

As I cleared the field, I swiveled to read the sign’s large black lettering.

My skin crawled and the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up, as the realization struck me that I had just survived the last remaining WWII French mimefield.