Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

I almost shit my pants. Almost. I managed to duck-walk to my hotel room, seconds before impact. I had become a character in a Farrelly Brothers movie, and I wasn’t happy about it.

Moments earlier, as my bodily functions began their doomsday countdown, I was checking into the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Louisville.

The woman checking me in, Mary, according to her golden name-tag, was a twenty-something blonde, with a dialect I couldn’t quite place. She may have been local, or she may have been from Alabama for all I knew.

Sadly, to my ears, any dialect from the southern Midwest, and most of the south for that matter, all sound the same to me. Except for Texas and Georgia. For some reason, I always know if someone is from Texas or Georgia. It’s weird.

Anyhow, Mary seemed nice, but she had a lot of questions, and I was a road worn traveler. A traveler, I might add, who ate a giant burrito earlier that day, and who was now paying a steep price for his bad decisions.

My stomach spasmed. Something terrible was happening in there. Goose bumps rose on my skin, a trickle of sweat beaded my forehead, and all the while, Mary, with her damn questions.

“What brings ya, to Luuuville?”

“Uh, work.” I replied, as I tightened my aging glutes.

“Any floor preference?”

“Nope.”

“Did you park with us?”

“Yep.”

“Are you a Hilton Honors member?”

“Nope.”

“Would you like any restaurant suggestions?”

“Nope.”

“Any directions?”

“Nope.”

She paused for a moment, there was a mischievous glint in her eyes. She knew. I could see it, now. She was toying with me.

I bet she saw a lot of this, while working the front desk. Middle-aged business travelers, in desperate need to relieve themselves. Road weary men and women, who just wanted to check into their room, thereby granting them a private facility to do their unmentionables.

Seconds passed, she was either thinking of another question, or waiting for me to shit my pants. Probably both. I had to intervene.

“Listen, I really need to get to my room.” I said, through clinched teeth and sphincter.

“Of course.” She replied, with a slight frown. As she slowly, much too slowly, swiped my key cards on their activation pad.

In spite of of my new nemesis, and her evil plans to ruin me, I made it to my room. And soon, all was right in my world. Little did I know, my harmony would be brief.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, I decided to take a walk and find a meal. I strolled through the lobby with purpose. Mary gave me a nod, as if to say, “You got lucky… but there’s always check-out.” We locked eyes briefly, and I nodded back. My silent reply, “Bring it on, lady.”

It was a warm night for mid-November, as I arbitrarily picked a direction. About a block down from the hotel, was a heavy-set African American man. He was disheveled, and hopping toward me.

He had removed one of his shoes, and was carrying it in his arm like a football. The man appeared to be homeless. Having more than my fair share of encounters with the homeless of American cities, I did my best to not lock eyes. But it was too late. He spotted me.

Hopping toward me he asked “Hey man! Can you help me?”

I shot him an impatient look I save for just such scenarios. “Actually, I’m in a hurry.”

I picked up the pace, hoping to lose the man within a few more strides.

He called out to me as I went. “Come on call me an ambulance, man!”

I continued walking, but something wasn’t right. My stomach did that spasm thing again, but I didn’t have to go to the bathroom. I stopped walking, and turned to look at the man.

He was resting against a store front. He faced the other direction. Apparently, he was taking a break. If I was to guess, all that hopping really takes it out of you.

My stomach rumbled again. Damn it. This was worse than having diarrhea. This was a case of sympathy, or maybe even empathy. I didn’t know which.

It doesn’t happen often to me, but when it does, my stomach does this weird thing, and I know I’m about to try and help someone, and it’s probably going to be giant pain in the ass.

I walked up to the homeless hopper.

“Hey man, are you okay?”

“Nah, man. My foot’s fucked up. I need to go to the hospital. Can you call an ambulance?”

I quickly did the math on this. If I called an ambulance, I’d have to sit with this guy until they came. And I had a feeling that was going to be a long sit. Also, I was hungry. And lastly, there just so happened to be a way to kill two birds with one stone.

“Aw, jeez. My phone’s out of battery.” I lied.

“I’ll tell you what, do you think you can get to the Hilton Garden Inn, down the block.”

The man warily eyed the glowing neon sign in the distance. “Nah, man. I can’t hop no more.”

His words seemed profound. As if, in a just world, he would hop on forever, but it was mortality that poisoned his hope. Yeah, something like that.

“I’ll help you get there.” I said, surprising the both of us.

“Come on. Put your arm around me, and lean on me.”

I quietly hummed a Bill Withers tune as we made our way to the HGI. It was slow going, and we adjusted our embrace a few times.

I looked down at the man’s foot and it was really, really fucking gross. Swollen and discolored, and in need of a nail clipper, but that was a different issue all together.

“Hold up, I need to rest.” The man exclaimed.

We stopped for a moment, our arms still interlocked.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it just, it hurts, ya know?”

I did know. I mean, not about a swollen, messed up foot. But about things that hurt. And suffering is terrible, and I felt sad for the man that he had to endure it alone.

“I’m sorry.” I said, and I meant it.

After a couple more minutes, he was ready to continue. As I held onto him and kept him off of his bad foot, I noticed a small hospital band around his wrist.

“Were you in the hospital?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah, I was.”

“For your foot?”

The man shook his head. “Nah, not for my foot.”

The man glanced up at me earnestly, as we stumbled toward the HGI together.

“The doctors say I’m homicidal or something like that.” He said, and then laughed heartily.

I quickly broke eye-contact and stared up at the glowing neon beacon ahead of us.

“Well, that’s not good.” I whispered, not knowing how else to respond to something like that.

“Yeah. It’s whatever.” He said nonchalantly.

We had finally made it to the lobby doors of the HGI.

“Okay, I’ll bring you into the lobby and you can sit on their couch, while they call you an ambulance. Is that cool?”

“Aww, yeah, man. It looks nice in there!” The man said, smiling brightly.

We stumbled into the lobby together, the man’s arm over my shoulder, like two wounded soldiers making it back to camp.

Mary scanned the situation. She took in the homeless hopper, before returning my gaze. My eyes said “Checkmate, baby.” As I eased the man onto a couch.

I gave Mary a shrug of the shoulders as I approached the front desk.

“Hey, this guy’s really hurt and he needs an ambulance.”

Mary had no choice and she knew it. She’d have to let the man sit in her corporate, faux-hipster lobby, while he waited for an ambulance. An ambulance that would hopefully take the long way there.

“Oh. Yes, of course.” She replied.

I knew that she knew, that I helped our homeless friend. And she knew that I knew, that she had no choice but to also help. There would be no shooing away of any homeless folk, especially while a guest, and also clearly an upstanding citizen, was present.

I smiled broadly, before leaving Mary to it. As I turned, to head out into the night, I saw that my homeless friend had made himself comfortable.

He had taken off his shirt and laid down on the couch. It was a glorious scene. And on top of it all, my stomach thing had went away.

Epilogue:

The next morning a cleaning woman knocked on my door, much too loudly, at 7:30 a.m. After that, it took twenty minutes to get my car back from the valet. And the icing on the cake, the coffee in the lobby was as cold as the road that lay ahead.

Coincidentally, Mary was working the front desk that morning.

This wasn’t over. Not by a longshot.

 

Well, the kids are back in school, the dog days of summer have buried the last of their bones, and Labor Day weekend is upon us. I’ve been more than a bit negligent with this blog over the last couple of months, and today feels like a good enough day as any for a blog post. Supposedly, Friday is a bad day to update your blog. And a Friday before a holiday weekend is even worse. But if my track record is any indication, cultivating hits to this site is not something I’m very good at.

Maybe that’s because I’m not really sure what this blog is, any longer. It’s morphed more than a couple of times. At first it was a webcomic, and when that chapter came to its inevitable conclusion, it morphed into a travel blog of sorts, and for the last couple of months it’s just lain dormant.

Mostly because I’ve been slowly hacking away at a new screenplay. One that I’m both excited about and also dread working on. I guess a minor case of writers’ block, and a new found aversion to social media (Political memes are the herpes on my Facebook feed), are both partially to blame for my absence from this blog. Not that anyone cares too much about blogs, let alone the lack of them.

All that said, this blog still remains a convenient writing exercise, for this hack.

Especially this afternoon. Seriously, I wish this stupid screenplay would just write itself. Writing most of the time is a tedious endeavor, especially if you’re doing it for free. Some might say if you’re doing it for free then it’s a hobby, or they might spout some take on “for the love of the game”. But on days like today, it’s just a glowing screen and silence.

Static and a girl crawling through a television would be preferable.

And, now I’m veering off course. So back to it. What’s new with me, you ask? This is my blog after all, so “me, me, me,” it is. Thank you for asking.

Well, first off, I’ve still been traveling for work. And while the road has lost some of its luster, I have found ways to pass the time. Some are tried and true, like the godsend known as Audible. Though my book picks have been hit or miss lately, I did stumble upon “The Hike” by Drew Magary.

It was a fine way to spend ten hours in a car. Along with my co-pilots, coffee and cigarettes. The latter of which I can’t quit. So please don’t kill me, Cancer.

Then there’s the occasional hit from a Californian vape pen (you know the ones), and after that, shit usually gets weird. The other day, I worked out for two hours straight in the hotel gym. The last time I worked out was two weeks earlier. I could barely walk the next day. And that same night, I ate half-dozen white castles in my hotel bed… at midnight. Like I said, shit got weird.

Let’s see, what else. Last month, there was a family vacation in South Haven. That was nice. The kids played with their cousins and friends, while the parents drank a bit too much and soaked up the sun. I grilled a lot, which is therapeutic for me in some strange way. I think it’s because I’m Serbian, although it’s more likely just a middle-aged guy thing.

I brought our dog with us, and in the mornings we would stroll through town together. Looking back on it, I think South Haven was a pretty good vacation spot. But sometimes, after more than a couple of days on vacation, I feel like my wheels are spinning. It’s kind of like my shifter is stuck in the neutral position, but I keep giving it gas, waiting for some sort of forward propulsion that never comes.

After days of observing other out-of-towners, I suspect this might be a common occurrence amongst a good deal of folks.

At one point, midway through our vacation week, I was driving home from the grocery store (we had run out of hot dogs and beer), and I saw a man trying to ride a bicycle to the beach, but he couldn’t get the hang of it. This guy must have been mid-fifties, yet it appeared that he didn’t know how to ride a bike.

His wife, possibly girlfriend, maybe sister, or perhaps caretaker, was half a block ahead of him. While the man, losing ground to her every second, veered left to right, catching himself just before crashing, on multiple occasions.

It was like gravity worked differently on him, playing some strange cosmic prank on this poor unsuspecting bastard. And when I slowly passed (he was all over the street) he glared at me and actually shooed me away with his left hand, which not being on his handle bars, forced him to veer off into someone’s yard.

Let’s see, what else? I was in Nashville the other day.

Full disclosure: I’m in Nashville a lot. Also, I despise pop country music. I don’t think these two things are mutually exclusive, but I could be wrong. Pop country music is pop music for people who want their pop music to be more manufactured and less nuanced. Lucinda Williams rips farts with more soul than any pop country song I’ve heard on the radio.

If you’re wearing store bought, pre-torn jeans, and your teeth are too white, and you have a craving for endless cornfields, and Budweiser, then you need to stay off of my radio. But you probably don’t care, and you’re undoubtedly wealthy, and quite satisfied with yourself. So I’ll just swallow my contempt for your craft, and shut up about it.

Back to the “me, me, me” of it. I ran into some friends who were celebrating their 40th birthday, in Nashville. It was a surprising, and refreshing coincidence, which resulted in me not spending another night bellied up to a bar, with a copy of the USA Today to keep me company. We drank, listened to live music, and had an easy going, fun night.

The following morning however, was reserved for my hangover and the long drive home.

Hmm, I feel like this blog post might be a tad too negative in spots.

So, I’ll brighten the overall mood a bit.

I’ll be travelling to Detroit soon. No, I’m not being sarcastic, this is indeed the mood brightener. There’s actually something really positive about going to Detroit, I swear.

Little known fact: Detroit’s hotels have the best bathtubs in the Midwest… Seriously.

I’ve been to multiple hotels in most of the major cities in the Midwest, and over-priced suites aside, the hotel bathtubs in Detroit are a glorious reprieve. A hidden gem of Midwest business travel.

My personal favorites include the Athenaeum in Greek Town, and the Motor City Casino and Hotel.

Long soaks in the tub are something that I’ve recently taken to. Mostly, on the suggestion of my doctor. You see, countless hours of traveling takes a toll on a very specific part of the anatomy.

Namely, my ass.

Full disclosure: Hemorrhoids are a very real problem for the middle-aged traveler. And according to my doctor (after a thorough and humiliating exam that I’d rather not get into) a good soak in the tub goes a long way for the ol’ butthole. There’s a reason you always see cowboys soaking in tubs and chomping on cigars in the old west. After hours on a horse, there were no amounts of powders or pastes that could relieve a case of the butt darts better than a nice soak and a good cigar.

So, there. A happy note.

 

ODDS & ENDS:

-I’ve recently sat through both a Marvel and a DC superhero movie, and I can’t help thinking that Pepsi and Coca-Cola really need to get into the movie business.

-Also watched Anomalisa, while on a solitary road trip. And while it was quite well done, I would not recommend a viewing, especially if you’re feeling a bit lonely in a foreign land. Seriously, suicide prevention hotlines are more heartwarming.

-I was listening to a podcast while driving home the other day, and one of the guests dropped a profound piece of knowledge on me. She stated that Dirty Dancing is the female movie equivalent to Point Break.

…Let the truth of that sink in for a moment. I mean, holy shit. Right? That’s the most observant thing anyone’s ever said… Like ever.

-Last night I laid in my son’s bed, while he and his brother read to themselves. The window was open, and a cool breeze was blowing into the room. It was a fall breeze. And it was just right.

 

So long summer. Until next time, here’s a pic of my dog.

My dog under a blanket. Random but adorable.

My dog under a blanket. Random but adorable.

 

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Well, after a few hours of lounging underneath a beach umbrella, and even with the occasional dollop of sunscreen, I was once again wearing God’s straitjacket, and it was a hideous shade of red.

It was our last day in Puerto Rico. We had already attempted, as best as middle-aged Midwesterners can, to get in touch with our adventurous side. It was now time to relax on the beach, and we had overpriced fruity drinks and a couple of decent books to keep us company. The problem was, beaches and I have always had this sort of love/hate relationship.

And a sunburn is usually the period at the end of my vacation sentence. A necessary piece of punctuation, which tells me in no uncertain terms that it’s time to go home. That said, this trip was one hell of a sentence.

OLD SAN JUAN: In which our travelers explore the sights, meet some new friends, and get quite drunk.

I’m a planner. Not a good one per se, just one that needs to know what’s on the docket. If we’re going for a walk, I’d like to know the direction. Is this a walk I can do in sandals? Or am I going to need a pair of sneakers? Do we need a map? Or are we purposely trying to get lost?  I’ve learned that answering the simple questions allows for less fuck ups, and getting more out of the day.

That said, my plan was a basic one, which had more than a few holes in it. We were going to start on one side of the city, at the fort San Cristobal, and work our way to the del Morro fort, which lies on the northern tip of the old city.

Fort San Cristobal is a huge, sprawling fortress that was built by Spain in the 1700’s to protect against attacks on the city. Apparently, a lot of attacking was going on back then. Now, with most of the invading going on elsewhere in the world, it’s a historical site that visitors can explore. We toured the grounds for and hour or so, climbing to the top of the fort and looking out at the city and the sea through the various sentry boxes. The most interesting part of the fort is the tunnels that zig-zag underneath it, and the dungeons and rooms you invariably spill into.

In the dungeon there was a portion of the stone work protected by glass, where a prisoner had once drawn ships onto the wall. The guy was a pretty damn good artist, especially considering the lighting situation in that dungeon.

18th century graffiti is surprisingly sophisticated,

18th century graffiti is surprisingly sophisticated.

After we covered the San Cristobal grounds, posed for our obligatory selfies, and took in the great views of the city and sea, we were on our way.

As I said earlier, my plan was patched together rather recklessly. And we quickly learned that two major obstacles lie in your way during midday in Old San Juan. The first was a lack of water. The second was a lack of shade. It gets hot and sticky, and if you’re coming from forty degree days, filled with overcast skies and weird forms of snow-rain, then this might come as a shock to you as well.

Soon, we were scurrying around the city in search of both. Finally securing a couple bottles of water at a local café, and finding shade in the form of this beautiful tree near El Convento Hotel in the heart of the old city:

Seriously, this tree looks like it was made for a Darren Aronofsky film.

Seriously, this tree looks like it was made for a Darren Aronofsky film.

After a brief recharge, we were hoofing it to Del Morro. A walkway runs from Old San Juan proper through an enormous grassy park, up to the entrance of the fort. On the right, bordering the sea and the fort’s outer walls, sits Santa Maria Magdalena Cemetery. It’s a beautiful colonial era graveyard that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. I read that it was built there by the Spanish to symbolize the spirit’s journey to the afterlife. Those Spaniards were a poetic bunch.

After a visit to the cemetery, we walked through the grassy park, passing children who flew kites with the help of the ocean’s breeze. Upon reaching the fort, we were confronted by our first encounter with the many lizards of San Juan. They were the chill sort, sunning themselves on the fort’s walls, as tourists posed for selfies with them.

Full disclosure, I’m not a reptile person. In fact, reptiles of any sort trigger a sort of caveman switch in my head, which then sounds an alarm that sounds kind of like this “Awooga! Kill it with fire! Awooga! Run away!”

At first, I was certain the little dragon would scurry up the arm of one of these selfie-taking tourists, and rip open the person’s throat with a casual snap of its demonic little jaws. Fortunately, the little beast must have already fed (Probably on human flesh), because it just laid there, stuffed and sunbaked, as the cameras clicked away.

As evidenced by my own clicking camera phone:

If you look closely, you'll see that our lizard is being photo bombed by one of its brethren.

If you look closely, you’ll see that our lizard is being photobombed by one of its brethren who is sitting off in the distance.

After taking in Del Morro, with its giant walls and great views, we headed back into the city. At this point, we’d been walking for a few hours and needed a drink and some grub.

On the subject of grub: At this moment, I’m still in Mofongo withdrawals. Anyone that’s sampled local Mofongo or Trifongo dishes will undoubtedly share my plight. For those of you that haven’t, Mofongo is a mashed mound of plantains, which are usually served with a combination of fresh seafood, meat, or vegetables. My words don’t do them justice.

Also delicious were the Alcapurrias. These are fried dough sticks made with plantains, which have a spicy ground beef center (More on those later). Rounding out my vacation go-to grub list, were Tostones Rellenos. These are fried plantain cups, with the good stuff pressed into them. The ones I ate were filled with Octopus pulp. I had never heard of, let alone tried, any of these dishes. So you can imagine my inner fat boy’s delight when I took my first bite. If I had a gif of Gilbert Grape clapping, I would use it here.

We had reserved a room at La Concha in the Condado neighborhood. This area caters mostly to tourists. And while it was fun to walk Ashford Avenue (Puerto Rico’s version of South Beach’s Collins Avenue). The most fun we had was walking around Old San Juan at night. We popped into random little bars, while meeting our pickled counterparts, and friendly locals alike. At one bar in particular, we spent a late night slugging down shots of different rums with Luis, our bartender, who was possibly even drunker than us.

During our rum soaked night, we met our new besties Ta and Maria. They were a fun couple from New York, on a weekend getaway. They also happened to have the combined alcohol tolerance of Bukowski, if he were the size of a rhinoceros. Let’s just say, they drank us under the table. Hell, from what I remember of it, they drank us under all of the tables. Seriously, there are no tables left in San Juan. And it’s all their fault.

El YUNQUE and LUQUILLO BEACH: In which our travelers navigate treacherous terrain, climate change, and chickens in the road.

The afternoon before our trip to the rain forest, I stopped into Charlie’s Cars. You guessed it, a car rental shack near our hotel. I reserved a little compact car for our following morning’s excursion. We planned on driving around the island, heading to El Yunque and hiking the La Mina trail to its falls. This was all fine and dandy, but the path to this trail is not for the faint of heart. A tight, winding road that keeps climbing, isn’t something you want to drive up in the pouring rain. But if we weren’t looking for a little adventure we wouldn’t have headed up there to begin with. At least that’s what I kept telling myself between the muttered curses, and the constant tapping of my brakes.

While lower on the island it was a balmy 80 degree day, up the mountain it was at least 10 degrees cooler, with a constant light drizzle. The forest itself was something to see. Rolling, overgrown vegetation surrounded us from all sides of the trail, as birds cooed and hollered from overhead. Almost as if to say “This really is something, ain’t it?”

The hike to the waterfall wasn’t too taxing, about couple hours there and back. The La Mina falls itself was breathtaking. Nature’s power emanated from the crashing water. And though my wife had reservations, we climbed the slippery rocks and went in.

The water was frigid, and once underneath the waterfall, I was filled with a couple of concurrent and contradictory thoughts. One, was of how weak I was in the grand scheme of things. The second was of how empowered I felt to have the falls wash over me. It was as if they were mine. I guess this speaks to the profundity of nature. Swimming in a waterfall can bring out delusions of grandeur, and also humble you in the same moment.

La Mina Falls looking all sexy.

La Mina Falls looking all sexy.

After our trek through the rain forest, we got back in the car and I muttered some familiar curses, as we descended the winding road to the bottom of the mountain. Along the way, chickens kept crossing the road, and I always hated those jokes, and yes –to get to the other side– it was cheesy, but there they were –crossing the fucking road.

Once out of El Yunque, we headed to the other side of the mountain, where a beautiful local beach resides. Luquillo beach was where the locals were sunning and barbecuing, and they had the right idea. The water was tranquil, a cool breeze was blowing, and yours truly was trying Alcapurrias for the first time. I stood in front of the kiosk devouring my fried stick. The first words that came to me, after a couple of burps, were “This is what hot dogs are supposed to be.”

And so began my Alcapurria love affair.

ODDS and ENDS: In which our traveler figures out how to end a blog.

San Juan is as safe as anywhere else, but just like anywhere else, there’s still a whole bunch of ways to die. I guess what I’m getting at is they use ‘big boy’ rules, which I respect.

Was there a lifeguard on duty at any of the beaches we were at? No.

Is that a good thing? Probably not.

But I also know not to fuck around in the ocean. Stay within a few feet of water, especially when it’s choppy, and you’ll be fine. Big boy rules.

Could the window of our hotel room also double as a sliding glass door? Sure.

Were we on the 11th floor with no balcony and a deadly drop? Yep.

Did we fall to our deaths? No. Because we’re not clumsy idiots.

And as a frequent hotel patron, I respect a hotel room with a strong window game. And this place had mad window game:

"Oh my god! It's a window that actually opens in a hotel room! Someone get a camera!"

“Oh my god! It’s a window that actually opens in a hotel room! Someone get a camera!”

Our last night in Puerto Rico was a relaxed one, mostly because I had been poisoned by the god damned sun, and was now bed-ridden.

As we lay there watching a disturbing documentary about those old MTV spring break shows, and how young idiots ruined Daytona Beach, while older idiots put them up to it. I was happy to be enjoying a middle-aged spring break, and happier still to be doing it with the missus.

Sure, I wasn’t chugging beer bongs and running naked through the streets, but that’s a young man’s game. And I had more important things to worry about. Like where the aloe gel was, and how long after a glass of wine do I have to wait to take a Tylenol.

 

 

 

 

 

Moments after landing at LaGuardia, one thing was evident. Middle seats on airplanes are equivalent to cherry filled chocolates. Both seem harmless, until you try them.

I had a meeting scheduled near Newark, but flights to Newark were three times the cost of flights to LaGuardia. Like most things New Jersey related, this ridiculous price discrepancy was a mystery to me. A mystery that now left me an hour and a half further away from my customer.

At the rental car counter, I was surprised to be given an upgrade. Soon, I was sitting in a newer Cadillac. It smelled faintly of marijuana, and when I started it up, Hot 97 blared from the speakers at an obscene volume. This was the coolest I had felt in quite some time.

Admittedly, I had reservations about driving from LaGuardia to Newark. Although, as is often the case when driving in unknown cities, I put my fate (and sanity) in the reliable hands of my GPS. Unfortunately, my pimpin cadi was equipped with OnStar. Those unfamiliar with OnStar should know this: If GPS systems were phones, I was rocking a Motorola Razor. And sometimes vintage is a bad word.

I hoped the GPS would follow my logic and steer me around Manhattan. Instead, I was wading through the heart of commuting darkness. And soon, I found myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic at the Holland tunnel. During my long wait at the mouth of the tunnel, I debated whether or not to light a cigarette in my rental. Then Jay Z reminded me to brush my shoulders off. It was all the push I needed.

My overall plan was simple, I would go to the meeting, and hopefully the sales gods would watch over me. Afterward, I would ditch the rental at Newark airport and then take an Uber into Manhattan. Once there I would have a decent meal, go for a long touristy walk, and have a drink or two along the way.

My pagan prayers were answered, and the meeting went as planned. I made a mental note to sacrifice something in honor of the sales gods, at a later date.

After a quick train ride from the car rental facility to the airport, I was in an Uber and proud to have completed a traveler’s trifecta of planes, trains, and automobiles.

On the way into the city, the uber driver and I discussed a not-so wide variety of topics. The popularity of uber for one. The amount of ubers there are in NY for another. And let us not forget what every conversation about uber either begins or ends with: The net worth of uber.

After a couple of failed attempts to steer the conversation away from all things uber, I sat silently, resigned to my fate, and let the uber-verse wash over me.

I reserved a room in Greenwich Village, a couple of blocks from Washington Square Park. I hadn’t been in this area of Manhattan before, and was curious to explore it.

My room, like every other room I’ve stayed at in Manhattan, was one size too small. I had a brief flashback to a suffocating middle seat with no leg room, and quickly fled out into the night.

Washington Square Park reminded me a lot of Italian piazzas, its arch included. I sat there and people watched for a spell. This was an eclectic mix of park patrons.

Hip students, photo-taking tourists, young families picnicking, and hipper couples having conversations I secretly tried to overhear. And of course there were a sprinkling of crazies here and there, but they seemed to balance the scene in some existential way.

Soon I was wandering the streets, slowly heading toward the west village. In need of a refreshment, I finally settled on the White Horse tavern. A pub that had a history which included an over-served Dylan Thomas, a disruptive Kerouac, and even a brief reference on an episode of Mad Men. Thank you, Wikipedia.

The White Horse looked like any other old tavern. But what else did I expect?

Had I briefly hoped that Paul Auster and Yogi Berra would be bellied up to the bar, passionately discussing all things literary and Yankees related? Sure. Why not.

I found a spot at the bar, opened my newspaper and ordered a beer. Halfway through my beer and still working on the front page of the paper, I was already itching to hit the street. At about that time, a young Australian couple sat down next to me and we began to chat.

As it turned out, they were doing a month long, cross country tour of America. And soon, we were discussing some of the places they had already visited. Their trip began in Los Angeles, and they slowly worked their way through California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and New Orleans. Until finally, they ended up on the last leg of their journey, here in NYC. I had to give it up to my new Aussie friends, this was exemplary vacationing.

Our conversation bounced back and forth breezily, and soon we were comparing our cultural differences. This inevitably led to each of us taking turns imitating the others accent. The pair were much better at impersonating an American accent, than I was at an Australian one. I blamed Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman for this.

The GOP primary was being discussed silently from one of the televisions. And I quickly realized the only things I knew of the Australian political system was gleaned from half-remembered snippets of an old Bill Bryson book. After comparing notes with my new friends, I came to the conclusion that Australian politics were too confusing for my American brain.

Much to my surprise, and perhaps delight, they knew about the same of American politics. And next to nothing of the primaries, or our current crop of sorry candidates. I found a strange joy in this. Perhaps the rest of the world was still in the dark on how ridiculous things had gotten, but I suspected otherwise.

After a walk and some tacos, we went our separate ways, and this being 2016, sent friend requests and confirmations via Facebook.

I trudged back to the hotel, and was completely lost on more than one occasion. The Lower Manhattan grid system seemed more like a random series of ‘Y’ intersections. There was a maze of different streets spread out in every direction. Deciding on where to turn was like navigating through a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

It’s safe to say that Google maps saved me from a decision which would have led to a bed made of sidewalk.

The trek back to the hotel had left me hungry once again. Tacos and a slice of  Two Boots pizza can only go so far. I stopped in the lobby bar and ordered a fancy salad, hoping the antioxidants (or whatever) would counteract the six pack and greasy meats currently coursing through my bloodstream.

A thin, older man slid in next to me at the bar, and ordered a scotch. Noticing my newly established, health conscience ways, he struck up a conversation about exercise and diet. Two subjects I looked forward to talking about almost as much as the advantages of uber. Although, the story he preceded to tell was interesting on a couple of levels.

The runner’s tale:

The man had once been about forty pounds overweight. His wife, a pragmatic Eastern European runner who didn’t mince words, told him that he was fat. She reminded him of his growing gut at least once a week, and soon was demanding he join her on her morning runs.

The man admitted, that yes, he had gained a few pounds, but he wasn’t the fat slob she kept insisting he was. His wife told the man that he was definitely a fat slob, and if the man’s family and friends cared for him like she did, they would also tell him how fat he was. But they didn’t, and that’s why they kept quiet.

At this point in the tale I began to suspect his wife might be a sociopath, but she was his problem not mine.

Soon, the couple were running every morning, and in a few months his gut was gone. When his friends and family saw him, they would remark “Wow! You’re so thin!” and “You look great!”. The man enjoyed the compliments, until his wife reminded him that this was just an indirect way of telling him they always thought he was a fat slob.

I wasn’t sure if the man’s story was meant to be inspirational, or if it was a terrifying warning of some sort. Either way, I decided against dessert and called it a night.

The next morning I had a cup of coffee in the park. I pretended to be a New Yorker, although with my carry-on luggage sitting on the bench next to me, this was a half-hearted game of make believe. After a quick peek at my uber app, I decided to hail a cab to the airport instead. My time in NY was at an end, and I craved the humdrum return to normalcy that only the Chicago suburbs could deliver.

Thankfully, my Delta flight had no middle seats. There’s something to be said for small victories.

The television was droning on, as I regained consciousness. McCain was being asked by a CNN reporter whether or not the birthplace of Ted Cruz should be investigated. He thought it would be a prudent move. I rolled over and let out a sigh. It was 4 am. Ted Cruz was of questionable origin. And I was in Detroit.

This was yesterday.

I rolled back over, and burrowed my face deep into the pillow. I briefly wondered if self-smothering was an actual thing. And then I smelled it. The scent was immediately recognizable. It was the smell of my Grandmother. Or to be more exact, my Nana.

She helped raise me as a child, and to this day, she still smells exactly the same. A mixture of Revlon perfume, Revlon hairspray, and old foreign lady. It can be a reassuring, even pleasant scent. Not so much, when I’m alone in a strange city in the wee hours of the morning.

Confused and in need of fresh air, I lifted my head. The fragrance danced through my nostrils. Needing to get to the bottom of this, I burrowed my face even deeper into the pillow, and inhaled deeply. This was weird, not quite disturbing, but definitely weird.

I played out the different scenarios.

SCENARIO A). The Supernatural One: My Nana has a ghost scent. It may have developed from years of working on a Revlon assembly line (which she did). And now, this phantom odor had for reasons yet unknown, decided to haunt me in the only way it knew how… by making stuff smelly.

SCENARIO B). The Practical One: The cleaning woman must be an older woman from another country. She obviously also believes in the beauty and staying power of Revlon products. As she fixed the bed, her old lady smell must have crawled its way down from her hands and onto my pillow. Until finally, it climbed up my nostrils with the determination of a hundred Navy Seals.

I chose the rational explanation. After all, ghost scents were reserved for mysterious old homes, not chain hotels. Even if this one happened to reside in, what some might consider, a haunted city.

I slowly rolled off of the bed and stood. Stretching out the cobwebs, and wiping away the smell. Unfortunately, it was still with me. The cleaning lady’s nana scent clung to my face and maybe even to the rest of my body. The thought of a nana scent all over my body, was uniquely repulsive.

I headed to the shower. After a thorough soaping and scrubbing, I was once again myself. The nana scent had released me from its clutches. I methodically trimmed my beard and combed my hair.

Then I reached into my toiletries bag, which my wife packs for me along with an occasional lunch, because I am perpetually twelve years old. I quickly removed the hairspray, and doused my head. Cementing what was left of my hair into place. My eyes went wide in terror. The scent was back. I was once again a giant, hairy, eighty year-old woman.

Shocked, I glared down at the can of travel hairspray in my hand. It wasn’t the travel size can of big sexy hair (don’t judge me), which I usually used. Instead, this was a dented old can of REVLON hairspray. The image on the can showed a beautiful woman with windblown hair, sort of Medusa meets the runway, staring at me with cold, soulless eyes. She was a mythical witch of Revlon, and she had cursed me with a scent reserved for loving foreign grandmothers, not a thirty-something salesman. A Greek tragedy had played itself out in my hotel bathroom.

I hit the showers again, and made a mental note to call my wife regarding this matter, at a more decent hour.

Resigned to my fate, I trudged into that morning’s meeting with unkempt hair, and smelling faintly of old women. God only knows what the men I was meeting with would think when they first saw me, or worse, when they first smelled me.

Hopefully they thought of their own grandmothers, and of simpler times. Perhaps reminiscing on such innocent thoughts might help propel any future business along. But who knew with these types. Perhaps, they might’ve thought I was rolling around with old ladies, and didn’t own a comb. And worse still, maybe they were into that sort of thing. I hoped not.

I guess that’s how things sometimes go. We hope for the best, but nervously fear the worst. And if we’re lucky, life falls somewhere in the middle of our imaginary spectrum. And sometimes we smell funny, and there’s always a bad hair day right around the corner.

And that’s fucking life, man.

 

 

I remember going to a turkey testicle festival a few years back. At least I think it was called a turkey testicle festival. It was some kind of strange shindig at a VFW hall in Elmhurst, one that revolved around fried turkey nuts.

And though I knew in advance that this gathering had something to do with charity and turkey parts, I still didn’t have the deductive reasoning to put the pieces together.

What were they doing with the turkey balls? Why were they frying them? Is this how we were expected to support the troops? Or were fried turkey testicles a new miracle cure for some sort of cancer (Most likely testicular).

“We’re supposed to eat those?” I asked.

I watched as a middle-aged woman walked past. She held a plastic cup at arm’s length. Steam rose from it, and on closer inspection, I noticed it was filled to the rim with fried nuggets of unknown origin. These cups put the testicle in the festival.

Full disclosure: At the time, I didn’t even know turkeys had testicles. I thought they laid eggs or something. I’m still not sure if they have testicles and/or penises and vaginas. Do they? Eh, that’s a question for google, and I’m straying off topic.

Elmhurst’s first (and apparently last) turkey testicle festival, wasn’t exactly a hit. My younger cousins went with hotdogs over turkey nuts, not that there was much of a difference. When in doubt, it’s the devil you know.

At one point, someone suggested placing the half-eaten hotdog between a pair of the fried turkey testicles, and that got a decent laugh from our table. Savages, the lot of us.

I decided to give it a go. If this festival was an actual thing (which it apparently was), and if the organizers had put in the work to host such an event (which they had), and if said event was subsequently raising money for charity (which it was), then the least I could do was gobble on some turkey nuts.

That is, if turkeys really had nuts (I still wasn’t sure on that part).

So I finally bought my cup-o-unmentionables, and stared into it for a long moment. Then I sniffed it. Then I scanned the room. Watching for any facial expressions that would give a glimpse at what my future held.

What I saw was not a comforting sight. Gags, followed by laughter, followed by a frantic hand gesture that seemed to suggest: “Pass me the hot sauce, dude. Pass me the goddamn hot sauce!”

I brought the first fried nut to my lips. I bit into it. The volcanic inner-nut (The core if you will) squirted into my mouth like an M&M forged in hell. It burned my taste buds with the force of a thousand suns, as it bid farewell to a cruel world.

And I knew there wasn’t enough hot sauce in Chicagoland to make it right.

“My nuts are in your mouth, human.”

After a long overdue google search, it appears that turkeys do have penises and vaginas. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, and I started getting nauseous trying to understand their genitalia and mating habits (Biology isn’t my strong suit). Long story short, there’s no magical stork that flies in with turkey eggs, unless he’s there for a turkey orgy, and likes cooking breakfast.

It also turns out that there are other turkey testicle festivals out there. A popular festival at Parkside Pub in Huntley IL, is apparently the home to a world famous one. I can only assume that by ‘world famous’ they mean the only testicle festival still in existence.

After tooling around online for a bit, I began to wonder what were the roots of these festivals. How did this strange phenomenon begin? Was it one overzealous cook on Thanksgiving day? A rogue patriarch who dabbled in a special brand of hijinks?

It turns out that the turkey testicle festival actually did begin this way. A mischievous pilgrim would take recently removed turkey testicles, and sneak them onto the plates of his unaware dinner companions. These devilish pranks kept escalating until it all came to an abrupt conclusion with a mass of witch burnings. And also everyone was wearing those weird hats.

Okay, that last part might not be 100% accurate. But this is a blog. Accuracy has no power here.

Since my first and last T.T.F. (it deserves an acronym at this point), I’ve steered clear of testicle festivals, and animal genitals in general. The experience didn’t turn me into a vegetarian, although it was close for a few hours there. And it also didn’t drive me to devour testicles on a regular basis. (that would be an unfortunate fetish). Instead, it firmed my belief that the world is strange place. And that some traditions are for me, while others aren’t. Thanksgiving is the former rather than the later.

If there was Thanksgiving themed music it would be playing in the background as I write this. And I may or may not be currently eating a turkey leg, while being thankful for my family and friends, and also eyeing the betting line on the Bears vs. Packers game. God bless America.

Happy Thanksgiving week, y’all!

I’m drunkenly smoking outside of a random bar on Bourbon Street, when I notice her speed walking in my direction. It’s hard not to miss her, and even in my inebriated state, I know this is going to get weird.

We make eye contact, and I realize much too late that I should’ve looked away. She has those Bourbon street, shark eyes. The sort of eyes that are looking to simultaneously hustle a tourist and find a safe place to hide.

“Hey! I just need to stand here for a minute!” The woman shouts, coming to a sudden stop a few feet before crashing into me.

She’s a tall, pasty blonde, with giant fake boobs, a gold tooth, and weird hair. My friend Rob will later remark that she used to wear cornrows, and her hairline must’ve been thinned out because of that. His theory seems plausible. Although, I’m fairly certain he’s just spit-balling possibilities.

“Um, okay.” I respond warily, not sure what her play is going to be, but preparing a polite “No, thank you”  to whatever it is, just in case.

I watch as a tall, African-American man, walks by and glances at her for a beat too long, before turning and walking off.

“You see that shit?” She nods her head in the fleeting man’s direction.

“See what?” I ask.

“Pimps, man! They don’t take a hint!” She asks for a cigarette and I give her one. She lights up.

“I gotta find a white boy every time, and they’ll leave my ass alone for a minute, you know?” She is also white, and no, I don’t know, but now I want to head back into the bar and find my friends.

“That’s um, okay, whatever. Are you alright?”

She looks up at me, and lets out a loud laugh, as if to say Are you fucking kidding me, dude? I smile and laugh as well. We finish our cigarettes, as one of her friends, and one of mine, show up at either of our sides. We nod our goodbyes and head our separate ways.

In a couple of hours, I will witness a sloppy street fight, while eating pizza from atop a garbage can, which I am using as a table. I will experience the most amazing live jazz performance of my life. I will watch as newlyweds dance lovingly down the street, while a marching band plays them further into the night. And I will try to keep up with a city that’s too big to handle, and too easy to get lost in. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and that’s easy to do when trying to recount a lost weekend in New Orleans. A lot of the trip now resides in that part of my mind reserved for blurry scenarios and hazy conversations.

How it Started

Tim, Rob, Dan, and I, had this trip on the books for months. It was to be the first guy’s trip we had taken since the last guy’s trip, which was three years ago, and landed us in Myrtle beach for a drunken weekend on, well, the beach. Rob and I were the married-with-kids contingent of the group. Dan, was the knowledgeable music buff, and the closest thing we had to a New Orleans expat (He visits the Big Easy annually for Jazz fest), and Tim was our wisecracking wild card.

So after months of waiting, a tedious slug through O’Hare, and a quick cab ride, we finally arrived, with our baggage and expectations in tow.

Our hotel was in the French Quarter, and it had a pool. These were the consensual sticking points for everyone in our group. We checked in, dumped the baggage, but kept the expectations, and let out into the night.

First thing on our list was food. We wandered over to the Acme Oyster House, but the line was a block long. We scanned the street and headed to Felix’s across the street. We hungrily ordered as much fried seafood and raw oysters as we could handle. After having our fill, we decided to take our chances on Bourbon Street. My stomach was queasy as we began to bar hop. Half a dozen drinks later, and I was on top of the world. We people watched and cracked wise as we went, stopping periodically to fill up on booze.

The deals never stopped coming our way… the Bourbon Street Carnival barkers shouting them at us, while brandishing large signs with the same deals on them. Covering their bases, just in case we were hearing impaired or blind.

“Two for One Beers!” followed by “Two for One Hurricanes!” Followed by “Multiple Grenades!” Followed by “Two for one tits!” Followed by “Topless and bottomless and well drinks too!” followed by “Don’t be scared!” And on and on it went.

A wild yet gregarious atmosphere, the street was the embodiment of a drunken uncle. Late into the evening, we decided upon a to-do list of sorts. If we limited our stay to Bourbon Street, all of us would be in need of more life insurance and a liver transplant by day three.

The list consisted of a few things we all wanted to do. Hit Café Du Monde for Beignets and Café Au Laits. As well as a walk around the market and Jackson Square, and take in the best live jazz show we could find, and of course eat and drink ourselves stupid. I also wanted to get my fortune told. But I was alone on that one.

The Puking Man Play-by-Play

We found ourselves sipping grenades on a random Bourbon Street balcony. To say the drink was sweet was an understatement. I wasn’t sure what would hit me first, the diabetes or the booze. While we drunkenly shot the breeze, I noticed the puking man, and being the sophomoric man-child that I am, I managed to film him, as he added to the stagnant puddles of tourist fluids that line the corners of Bourbon Street.

Here’s the poor bastard in the act: Part 1. Where I realize how lucky we are:

 

And part 2. Where we break it down:

 

Preservation Hall and a Sad Song

Just off of Bourbon Street lies Preservation Hall. A legendary jazz music venue situated in an intimate, two hundred year-old building.

We waited in line on our second night, and just missed the cut off for the 8pm show. Knowing we couldn’t stand in line for another hour for the 9pm show, we made a pact to wait as long as it took on our last night to get in. On the last night, our luck improved, and we found our way to the standing room area.

Inside the venue:

Preservation Hall

At first, a bit of claustrophobia began to set in, and I found myself taking deep breaths, subconsciously fighting it off, while trying not to think of the fire hazard we just trapped ourselves inside of. Soon however, the musicians made their way to their seats, and after they began playing, all was okay. Live Jazz has a therapeutic, perhaps even a healing effect, or at least that’s my takeaway from the handful of live performances I’ve seen.

That’s the good part of a live show. The bad part is sometimes you’re stuck next to someone who wants to make a shared experience about them and them alone. Tim and I exchanged a look as the middle-aged spaz in front of us, clapped his hands rapidly in the air, and let out high-pitched yelps, during the quieter and more nuanced moments of the concert. Tim shook his head and took a step away from the man, as did I. To be too close to his neediness was to become his neediness. Or something like that.

All of the musicians, most of whom were in their twilight years, gave it their all. And to my newbie ears, they were the Jedi masters we were looking for. The clarinet player in-particular caught my eye, or ear, or both eye and ear in this case, or whatever. Anyhow, I never heard a clarinet sound like that before, and given the fact that the guy looked to be nearing 100 years old, I thought it was quite the accomplishment.

My oldest son has recently taken up the clarinet, and I couldn’t help thinking of him, and how much he would’ve loved this performance. I vowed to take him and his brother to a live jazz show in the near future.

Late in the show, the bandleader announced they would sing a sad song. It was the St. James Infirmary Song.  And it was sad, but sad in that special kind of New Orleans way, where even if you’re fighting back tears, you still might be tapping your foot to the beat. Dan later filled me in on a couple of the gloomier elements in Louis Armstrong’s life, and the song resonated even more.

Here’s the Louis Armstrong version:

 

To the Bachelors and Bachelorettes Everywhere

There is something distasteful, or at the very least, odd, in wearing matching outfits with a dozen other women. Throw in a random tiara and my cringe dial goes to 100%. It’s like a very small cult that worships a penis straw deity. I know these facets of the Bachelorette party are tradition, but so was cannibalism at one point.

I don’t have much more to say on this subject, except that in the future I hope a bill is passed, which somehow relegates all of these parties to Las Vegas. It’s the only place that does this sort of buffoonery justice.

Not to be outdone by the ladies and their phallic accoutrements, here’s a video of a bachelor party-boy playing with a blow up doll by the pool:

 

The Old Guys at the Concert

On Dan’s suggestion, we cabbed it to a concert on the westside, which featured Dumpster Funk. They were a great funk band that had us head-nodding and half-dancing between pulls from our beers.

There were a couple of takeaways from the concert that were clearly obvious, even to the half-dancing and fully-inebriated. One, People’s Blues of Richmond (the opener), was an amazing band. Someone remarked that they were kind of like a young, coked-up Led Zeppelin. And I remember thinking that was a decent summation. They played as if there were thousands in attendance. There were probably forty of us at the show.

The second, and the much sadder takeaway, was that we were most likely the oldest people there, and we’re not even forty. The average age of the concert goers seemed to be around 21 years old. People that young gross me out. Mainly, because I know I gross them out, and fuck them for being grossed out by the inevitable. I’ll do the judging around here, damn it.

Regardless, we drank our beers and listened to our funk. And the show proved a good experience, even for the crusty old farts in the back.

 

Café Du Monde and the Violinists

We sat waiting for our beignets and café au laits. Our collective hangover growing stronger by the second. If we didn’t shove fried dough into our bodies soon, our sickness could very well become sentient. On the scale of Global catastrophe, Skynet had nothing on the Tequila flu. It’s the super flu, only with Tequila. Game over, man.

Lucky for us, and the rest of humanity, the beignets did come, and they were exactly the type of fried goodness that can cure hunger, centuries long conflicts, and even our hangovers, within a few bites. Soon, we were caffeinated and back on the street. After hovering briefly outside the window of a praline shop (They looked like what I imagined snowflakes in Candy Land would be), we made our way toward Jackson Park.

While in the park, we heard what sounded like a violin in the distance. I couldn’t be sure, because I never heard a violin sound like that before… except for maybe on the soundtrack for Last of the Mohicans. We walked with purpose toward the sound, hypnotized like Odysseus’s men to the sirens.

There was a couple in the square. They played their violins in unison, as we sat with others in stunned silence. A couple of us managed to pull our phones and record a portion of their performance.

The Sirens of New Orleans:

 

They worked their instruments effortlessly and in the sort of union that I hoped bled into other areas of their lives. I imagined them traveling carefree through a strange world, together. Making enough to comfortably live out each night. Only to wake and make music in some other park, the next morning. And so it would go, until they were old and world worn, and their violins, the same weathered ones they played in New Orleans all those years ago, followed them to their next gig.

And a longtime from now, they will be in New Orleans once more. And it will be the home that they hoped for. And their violins will sit on a dusty shelf, except for special occasions, or when the morning is just right, and then they will take them down and reminisce.

 

 

It was a coffin factory. I was in an honest to God, coffin factory.

I had made the call two days earlier. A shot in the dark, but one that I took every now and then. New business is often without aim. A target floating in the ether, waiting on that lucky bullseye.

I was tipped off to their general whereabouts from an old colleague of mine. The casket company appeared to be doing quite a bit of welding. And if you’re spot-welding, then you’re most likely using a lot of welding consumables. These parts are made from nonferrous metals, and need to be changed out often, due to the large amount of current, and heavy force, which this particular process of welding entails.

Brass tacks: Sooner or later you need new parts. We happen to make those parts. Buy them from us and we’ll love you forever.

I should have put one and two together. A casket company, is most likely making caskets. But the word casket sounds a little too much like gasket. And my mind glazed over the word lazily. I assumed it was automotive needs that I would once again be trying to fulfill.

The company was located in a rural area of Indiana. An area which most recently made headlines for the staggering amount of new HIV cases that were popping up in its various townships. Apparently, the numbers rivaled those of New York City. The only difference being there wasn’t nearly the resources, medical personnel, or awareness, that most major cities have. Long story short, the CDC were setting up shop.

Not that any of this had a bearing on my situation. I wasn’t planning on sharing needles or genitals anytime soon, but still, news of this sort always carries a bit of doom and gloom with it. The fact that I was driving through rural Indiana in the midst of a downpour didn’t help either. My eyesight isn’t the best, but I’ve staved off the opportunity to don hip eyewear for this long, and I tend to keep that going, at least until the DMV advises otherwise. Unfortunately, a downpour can be challenging for those of us not blessed with sniper-like peepers, especially when the street signs are mostly lying face down on random dirt roads.

Although, my frustration at the amount of attention needed for the simple task of driving quickly fizzled, as I stumbled upon one of the stranger sights I had seen in some time.

While stopped at a red light, an Amish couple turned and clopped down my street, riding on a horse-drawn carriage. This was my first encounter with the Amish, and their means of transportation (Not counting Kingpin), and I stared wide-eyed in fascination. My jaw hanging and the light changing, as I took it all in.

The rain was flying in at a 45 degree angle. The drops were  the size of mini-water balloons, coming in quicker than a Cuban little leaguer’s fastball. The Amish couple kept low, their hat and bonnet impossibly glued onto their soaking heads, as the gusting wind fought to rid them of their ancient accessories. The man handled the reigns capably, as his wife, or sister-wife, or whatever it is with the Amish, held the umbrella up and out like a makeshift windshield. The scene was equal parts human innovation and cultural stagnation.

The other party in this shit show was, until now, an unseen trucker. He laid on his horn from behind me, reminding anyone within earshot, that we all have somewhere else to be. Even the Amish.

Moments later, there I stood, soaking wet inside of a coffin factory. The Amish might’ve remembered their umbrella, but I did not.

The head of maintenance, I’ll call him Jimbo for this blog, greeted me with good ol’ boy charm.

“Gotdamn. It sure as hell is coming down out the there, eh?”

“Yeah it is.” I replied warily.

“Well, come on then, let me show you round.” Said Jimbo, as he spun and headed deeper into the factory.

I followed Jimbo through the maze like turns of the offices, until we finally spilled onto the shop floor, where I was promptly greeted by hundreds of open coffins.

The sight was a slap in the face from the bony hand of the Reaper himself. I let out a stunned stammer, trying not to let my mortal fears show. Jimbo turned and smiled brightly, reveling in my surprise.

“Lots a damn coffins, amirite? Shit, we build and ship em all over the gotdamn world. This is the house of a thousand soon to be corpses. Heh!”

I just nodded and smiled, as he went on. Jimbo really loved his job.

“Imagine if this place flooded, eh? Whole damn county would be screaming and running for their lives. Floating coffins everywhere!”

Jimbo chuckled hard at his imagery, and I couldn’t help but let out a snort and laugh as well. I believe it’s known as gallows humor, and it does the trick in a pinch.

Soon, we strolled around the shop, as Jimbo showed me the manufacturing process of coffins. All the while, the coffins traveled back and forth, over our heads, and all around us, on various conveyor belts, like a conga line from hell.

Jimbo showed off the really custom ones, which, according to Jimbo, went for upwards of fifty thousand dollars. The big man shook his head when he dropped that number. He looked like a man who wished he had some chew to spit at that moment, but settled for just shaking his head again.

“Can you believe that?! Fifty grand! Hell, if it was me, I’d take that fifty grand and throw a party instead. Dancing girls, my man!”

“A lot of money.” I said, as I nodded in agreement.

I found myself morphing into an extra from King of the Hill. A yes man of sorts. Agreeable to the end. “Yup, what you said, Jimbo.” Or “Damn right, Jimbo.” It was an easy transition to make, Jimbo had ideas enough for the both of us.

And there was no doubt that Jimbo had thought out this scenario, and probably most scenarios that had anything to do with the funeral trade.

Unfortunately, our meeting ended abruptly, when Jimbo was pulled away on an urgent matter. A matter that would presumably result in an angry conference call with one unhappy deity or another, and thus perhaps resulting in a bold move toward cremation.

And Jimbo would let out a frustrated sigh and exclaim “That’s the gotdamn death business for ya.”

I drove back to my office under a sun-filled sky, with clouds like cotton balls. I hoped to steal another glance at the Amish, who undoubtedly made their own coffins, but it was not to be. Instead, I settled for a guy with a funny mustache, at the first Starbucks I could find.

Close enough, I thought.

Stratford, Ontario. 2012

On the long and desolate drive, I kept myself occupied with a book on tape, or a cd in this case. I hadn’t discovered audible yet, and podcasts still weren’t a thing. The book was No One Belongs Here More Than You. A collection of short stories by Miranda July.

They were odd and strangely beautiful, but these stories were the type of reading better suited for warmer months. And they proved all the more heartbreaking, when listening to July’s tender voice, as she read them aloud, on a very cold, and very lonely stretch of highway.

This trip would prove to be the first of my driving-while-cry-vacuuming spells. An affliction where the afflicted, has too much time on their hands, and listens to, or thinks of, something that leads to an emotional swell. While also moving at a very rapid rate of speed, in a large, and potentially deadly, motor vehicle. Cry-vacuuming is the process in which the vacuumee fights off the sudden threat of tears, with a complex maneuver that bears a striking resemblance to an allergy attack in reverse.

It’s an inner-battle that is difficult to describe, but one that most of us have had to contend with at one time or another. The trick is to think of your face as an emotional vacuum cleaner. Turn it on, and suck up your tears and snot, leaving the weight of those emotions in the vacuum bag of your gut. This will most likely kill you over an abbreviated lifetime. But hey, at least you’re not crying like a baby, on the side of the road.

In company, I’m mostly a conversationalist. A pop-culture fueled blabber-mouth, who might resemble an extra from a Judd Apatow film. Although, when planted in the solitary confines of my car, for an extended period of time, moodiness will have its way.

I debated whether or not to pull over as I cry-vacuumed the tears from my blurry eyes. Deep breaths, calm shall conquer all. It was her words, or more likely her voice, that caught me at a moment of weakness. My eyes continued to well, and I was already too far gone.

I thought of my wife, as she gave birth to our first son, Aleks. There were slight complications, and an emergency caesarian was called for. Maria, drugged and beautiful, whispering to me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Over and over again. Why I replayed that scene is beyond me. But in those moments, when true art delivers a swift kick in the pants, we can’t help but recall something from the past. Something that might be beautiful and terrible and real. It’s a fucked up game of tag we sometimes play with art.

After a few hours in the car, I become susceptible to either laughter or tears. This is dependent on a few factors: What I’m listening to, what I’m daydreaming about, the weather, human contact, and what I’ve eaten that day.

On this day, there was a slow, constant rainfall. It pattered rhythmically onto the windshield. Earlier, doing my finest imitation of a Burmese Python, I swallowed a quarter-pounder with cheese, somewhere in Northern Michigan. I was now in a different country, and the roaming charges alone, were reason enough not to call anyone. And for some reason, I was thinking about a scary blip in an otherwise pretty okay life. And the damn rain would not let up.

The dependent factors had given word from on high: My battery was in need of charging, and in all likelihood, this was going to be a miserable day.

I pulled over on the side of the road, and paused the book. I quietly cursed Miranda July. I cursed her voice, and her words. She needed to get out of my head. I quickly ejected the cd, and threw it in the back seat. I lit a cigarette and put in another cd, one featuring a bunch of songs I burned for just such an occasion (The road trip, not the cry-vacuuming).

I was back on the road, and it was time to rock out. After a while, I honed in on Shelter from the Storm. Dylan’s bleating vocals and lyrics boring their way into my subconscious. It was on repeat for the rest of the drive. He was a traveler too. And his storm was biblical in its telling. I tried to memorize each word as I sang along through multiple cigarettes and cold coffee.

I imagined myself singing it un-ironically during karaoke at a bar. Perhaps with my wife, and a few of our friends. Maybe a girl or two from the past, were there as well. How would the scene play out? I was no longer some drunken day player at a karaoke bar. Go big or go home. This was my fantasy after all.

His lyrics, now mine. As I sang along to the song in my tone-deaf way. I was Dylan, and I sang a song about a foreign land, and my own crown of thorns. Perhaps a crush from a lifetime ago was watching intently, the passion of the moment taking her, as she realized much too late, that we had something special there, for a second.

My wife and I locking eyes, and knowing in that split second, that there was more to it all. That the adventure was just beginning. And of course, there were the assholes from different eras of my life. As they looked away sheepishly, ashamed at how they did me wrong. Soon though, like most juvenile fantasies, mine lost its imaginary steam. And the daydream sputtered out, without so much as a whimper or a croon.

After a time, I found my way to Stratford. I navigated the town and ended up at a small hotel known as the Queen’s Inn.

Upon check in, I walked through the Boar’s Head pub, situated on the first floor. I noticed it packed with locals, working their way through what I assumed were after-work drinks. I passed on a drink of my own, and headed directly for my room. I threw down my bag and lay on the bed. After a few minutes of staring at nothing, I jumped with a start. My body’s self-preservation mechanism had kicked in. Something was not right. I scanned the room.

There were way too many fucking doors. The room had four separate doors. There was the front door, which I walked in from. Two doors on the wall in front of me, and a fourth door to the small bathroom on my right. After thinking it over, it did make sense. One of the other doors was for the closet, and the other, a connector for the rooms. Still, it seemed like way too many doors for one room. Usually, there’s a turn or even a second room, which splits up the amount of doors from the hotel patron’s view.

This was unsettling. I stood, and moved to open the closet door, and then thought better of it. I imagined a black hole. Ready and waiting to swallow me up into the abyss. Or maybe a tiger. I wasn’t sure which would be worse. I needed to walk.

Stratford was a bit different, even for Canada. I hadn’t researched much about the city before I arrived. The fact being, I was there for a work-related meeting. So, I was taken aback when I noticed how many restaurants and theaters were condensed into such a small town. It was considerable overkill for a population of perhaps 30,000. I stopped to read some of the signs and posters around town.

There was quite a bit about Shakespeare. Again, it seemed like too much culture for a town of this size. And I was fairly certain the bard never got out this way. So, I didn’t think it had anything to do with historical sites on his behalf. It was all very curious. This was a case that needed solving. One that would require my finest deductive skills in doing so. Plainly put, I would have to ask someone what in the hell was going on.

The city itself had more of a European feel, architecturally, than a lot of what I had already seen of Ontario. It felt as if the town was transplanted from Switzerland, or perhaps Belgium. I had never been to either Switzerland or Belgium, but both of those countries seemed right to me for some reason.

I ate dinner at a small restaurant. I took my meal at the bar. It’s not as sad when you’re eating alone at the bar. A person, by themselves at a table, always looks as if they were just stood up on that first date, but they’re going to finish their meal anyhow. The stubborn sort, which may explain why they were stood up in the first place.

The bartender was good for a bit of company. Although, the TV news was going on about election coverage. And all he seemed to want to do was snort in disgust at anything one of the TV pundits uttered. I couldn’t blame him however, pundits have a knack for bringing out the inner-snorter in any moderate individual.

It was 2012, and Obama was owning Romney in the polls. I guess I was pleased by this. The bartender, knowing I was American, wanted a partner in his political discourse. I am not a fan of politics, nor snorting, and even less a fan of political discussions with strangers. This topic of discussion always seems to begin with that strange feeling out process. Is he one of ours? And this was further complicated by an international context, even if in this scenario, the countries were bordering one another.

Soon though, we both commiserated over the fact that neither of us liked Romney all that much. Albeit, this wasn’t a difficult common ground to find. Unfortunately, I could tell, in that salesman-y way of mine, that the politics flowed passionately in my bartender. I tried to divert our path, but it was not the success I had hoped for, and I left soon after. I made sure to over-tip, and hoped this would lighten his thoughts on folks south of his border.

It had begun to snow, on my way back to the hotel. Big flakes, dancing slow and gracefully down onto the street. There was no wind, and it was quiet, almost silent outside. A nice night for a walk, and a pleasant town to do so in. And I had it all to myself, for a time.

I stopped downstairs at the Boar’s Head for a drink. I bellied up to the bar, and had a nice conversation with a grizzled older fellow. He cared less about politics, and imposing his will on the world, and more about passing a cold night with warm conversation. He told me of the town, and the famous Bieber kid, who came from it. A twinge of pride evident, even in his ribbing of the beebs.

He answered my questions on Shakespeare’s strange influence, here. And he told me about the Shakespeare festival, and of the tourists from around the world, that would flock to it. I made a mental note of going to see more plays in general. The only one I had actually seen in person, not counting Blue Man Group, or carnivals, was a version of True West performed by a cast of college theater kids at Lewis University. A friend of a friend performed in it, and while it was entertaining enough, It left me underwhelmed.

Piece by piece, the puzzle that was Stratford came together. Its doors opening, each one revealing a bit more of its history and its people. Or what a traveling salesman from Chicagoland could put together of it, in the brevity of a single night. Still, the city had stories to tell, Shakespearian and otherwise.

I finished my drink and went outside for one last cigarette, before calling it a night. A night that found a second wind and its third act.

I watched, as across the street, a man and woman stood by their parked cars, hoods popped, speaking to one another as the snow fell. Jumper cables connected their cars, and batteries were being charged.