Thursday, August 28, 2008

Coming Into New York City: 1988

So, I was living in Champaign, Illinois with Fru until about mid-february. Life with her was going well, but work and a hard cold winter (and I was not used to hard cold winters then) were not. Jimmy--from Florida--had asked if I wanted to meet him in NYC and rent a sublet in Queens. I said yes. I'd never been to NYC, had had little interest in NYC or the Northeast in general (I'd always favored the West--Southwest, Northwest, Mountain West, didn't matter--and had a snobbish or anti-snobbish midwesterner's view of New York, Boston, New England and the Mid-Atlantic/Eastern Seaboard; so why visit?) but I was ready to see it and did not want to pass the chance up.
But how the heck was I going to get out there?
I owned a car, but didn't want to own one while in a big city, while in a crazy non-car town like New York. So, that was out. I could have flown, but I didn't fly very much and had an anti-flight, too-costly view to go along with my anti-east-coast-big-city view. There was the old Greyhound Bus, but it's a long freaking way from Illinois to NYC on a bus. The train? Sure, I kind of like the train, but for some reason I didn't consider it. So, I did the thing I'd been wanting to do, which was contact a car delivery service in Chicago to see if they needed anyone to drive a car out to the NYC area. I can't recall where or how I got their name and number, but I called and they had a car from a Chicago suburb car dealer that needed to be driven to some kind of co-dealer in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And so, Fru and I went to Chicago (by train or maybe Don drove us up), spent the day and night and then I went to the service's office on Michigan Avenue in the Loop, handed over a photo, a copy of my driver's license and I was good to go.
Either Don or Ted (who we had stayed with) gave me a ride to the dealer who had the car. I went in and they signed me up and took me out to the lot and here was this new big Pontiac--gold, four door sedan--that they wanted delivered. It was winter--cold and grey with humps of old snow plowed in the corners of the lot--and the car wasn't all that clean on the outside. But it was nicer than anything I'd been driving. They were very nonchalant, I was very nonchalant, and they gave me the keys, the address of where it was supposed to go and that was it. I think I said goodbye to Fru right there and then and drove off into the clogged Chicago highways, down the Dan Ryan, down around Calumet City, Gary and the Indiana Parkway toll road. I hated toll roads, but it was my best shot across the midwest. I was headed for Cleveland, where a friend from Iowa days now lived--Keith--and where I'd stay the first night.
The Indiana Toll Road became the Ohio Toll Road and it took me into Cleveland. Keith lived in a town called Solon, where he taught high school, and I found my way there. He lived with his first wife and I'd met her in Iowa City and he had a couple of cats and they took me around the little town, then into Cleveland. I'd never seen Cleveland. I like Cleveland. It was winter and stark and cold and gritty gray and we saw the city and the football stadium by Lake Erie and the stadium was dark with big ugly empty parking lots where snow huge lumps of dirty snow were piled up: cool. They took me to a spot with bars and clubs and eateries along the fabled Cayahoga River (a river which had actually caught fire once) and we did a little drinking there and it was blue-collar inner-city pleasant enough: cool again. And the next day I was on my way to Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania may as well have been Transylvania for all I knew about it, but it was a long drive between rolled cold hills.
The thing was, sludge and ice and frozen slush had built up all over the delivery car by then. It was ugly ugly ugly. The stuff was thick around the wheel wells and between the hood and the windshield so that the windshield cleaner fluid did not work. I'd hit the button, the wipers would flap, but no fluid could escape--so I drove half blind into the night and New Jersey and the Poconos. It was night now and my vision was even more clouded as I headed to the great expanse of outer NYC. I was surprised I had to pay, like, ten bucks just to take a crazy tunnel to get into the city. What was with all these tolls just to get out East? But I paid and drove into New York and was properly astounded and confused. I had a map and was trying to find the direction Jimmy had given me and before I knew it I was in downtown Manhattan and then past downtown Manhattan and into Queens, going down this wild-traffic road that followed the East River. It took me a while to realize that the map of the city was very detailed, very small of scale, and that what I thought would take many minutes to get to on the map actually came right up in  almost-seconds. I pulled over to get some gas at this weird semi-station and made a phone call to Jimmy for better directions.
Jimmy wasn't at the place in Queens. He was with some musician friends in Brooklyn and I was supposed to meet him there. That was the number he'd given me. So, I made another mad and confused dash with the giant pulsing electric skyline of Manhattan on my right, heading into a dark quilt of streets in Brooklyn. By then, I'd adjusted to the map scale of my map and actually found the place. These two guys lived upstairs in some brick building and inside their apartment they were playing music (Jimmy was a musician) and had their own artwork all over the walls. I was worn out, beat, addled from driving and the city and lack of sleep. I was subdued and quiet, shy and Jimmy couldn't figure out why I wouldn't join in (I sang, sang strange and funny songs that I made up off the top of my head). But I was too worn out to be extroverted, too sober. Eventually we left and went to the place in Queens.
The place was an upstairs to a less than modest house on 69th Street in Flushing. But it was fine. I had to clear out a back room that was used for storage and through a small thin mattress on the floor for a bed. But the great thing was, that storage room looked out over the rooftops, across the river and right square at the Manhattan skyline (when Jimmy discovered this fact later, he wanted to switch rooms with me, give me the big master bed room--which he let me use when Fru came to visit--but I said, "No way").
So, I had been wrong about New York City. Foolish. Just looking at it, just being in it jolted me with energy and excitement (it still can). I realized I was in one of the great cities of the world. No doubt about it. Fantastic, baby. And though I elected not to stay, though I was broke and hungry, man, I had a great time.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Related Memory #1: Last Spring Break

In a related memory to Spring Break, just last year I drove along the beach in Daytona by myself (after camping in the Ocala national Forest for two nights). It was early morning and I had spent the night at the Whale Watch Motel in Flagler Beach. It was December and a cold front had come in the day before (which ran me out of the woods), leaving everything crisp and clear and near freezing. So I drove on down to Daytona Beach--had not really been there since the 1980s.
It was way off-season, not yet even mid-morning, and the beachfront was essentially deserted. The strip's multiple and tall-storied hotels were empty, shabby in the hard sunlight and cold air. But I remembered them. I--we--had always camped at Tomaka State Park, just outside of town, but we spent our days in town, driving and parking right on the beach, crashing the hotel parties and special events, using their pools, mingling with their guests. And as I drove slowly through the stretch of tourist hotels, with glimpses of sand, shore, water, a strange feeling came over me.
It was memory and nostalgia, but not just direct memory of times spent in that town, rather it was almost a wholesale recollection of who I was, how I used to feel and think. It was like recapturing my limited worldview from my early twenties. It was intense and real and discombobulating. It was also wonderful and exciting. Such true memory is so rare to me these days. I used to thrive on it--the emotion and re-conjuring of places and thought patterns, of people and small events and landscapes of places I had been--I used to disappear into my ability to recapture my past. Wallow in it--which wasn't always a healthy thing to do. But I had not done it--had not even been able to do it--for twenty years or more. And here it came to me in full force. Very odd. It lasted but a few fleeting minutes, maybe only seconds, yet it was strong and powerful and made me feel alive, made me feel like my own life was a long and unending stretch into the future . . . And perhaps that's also what made it sad: that feeling of youth compared to how I feel now. And it was triggered by driving down Daytona Beach.
But what good is it all? What purpose or gain does it serve to remember and feel, to reconnect to times past? I don't know. Yet for those seconds, I was lost. Transcendently deep into my own old self. 
It's good to get lost sometimes.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Last Spring Break: Key West 1983

I still have a photograph from that last trip to the Florida Keys, somewhere. In it we're all posing at a picnic table, except for one of us who took the picture. There's Mike and Matt, Todd, Brian, Dave, Doug, Brian's sister and her friend (whose names I can't recall). We'd driven down non-stop from Iowa in Dave's father's Winnebago and camped at a place called Sunshine Key (on Ohio Key, I think), near Bahia Honda State Park. We drank and smoked and went to Key West about every day. It was my last spring break while in college and--for a very long time--my last trip to Key West.
By then, I had a long history (at least in my limited experience and mind) with Key West. Had been there once a year--sometimes twice--since 1977. It was a magical place for a midwesterner--especially an unhappy one--and I often felt like I had discovered the island myself. Of course, now it's old hat: everyone knows about Key West and the Keys and almost everyone has been there. But in 1977, I was fresh out of Urbandale High School--in a suburb of Des Moines--and I owned a van and I got some pals together (Kevin, Bobby, Mark) and we went to Florida in the spring. I was working full time, not yet in college, and we went to Daytona Beach. Which was fun. But I'd heard of the Keys, of Key West, and since it was my van, I insisted we go further, all the way down to where the highway ends. And we did. And I never looked back after that: in my mind, for many years, Florida was about the Keys and Key West and nothing else. 
I went to Key West twice--no, thrice--before I went to college. Once, I went by myself with the intent to stay and slept in my van (the old bowling alley parking lot on Roosevelt Blvd. was always a good spot to spend the night, better than the White Street Pier), but I did not get a job or an apartment. Instead, I decided to return to Iowa and go to college. It was a good decision. But in school, the real and official Spring Breaks took over and I could travel back to Daytona and the Keys, bringing my new-found friends along.
Oh those long car trips--straight through with only bathroom breaks and multiple drivers. Ah the sudden warm weather after months of snow and cold and low light. The beach and palms and bikinis. All the usual stuff. The vacation from the vacation that was college life. Spring Break as a right of passage. I know nowadays the kids travel to Cancun or the Bahamas or Hawaii. When I went it was still about piling into cars and getting by as cheap as possible. By the time I went, Ft. Lauderdale had been supplanted by Daytona, just as Daytona has now been supplanted by Panama City--though it sounds like Cancun has supplanted them all . . . But as I said, I went to the Keys. To Key West.
By 1983, I had the trip down. I knew of places to stay, camp, eat in Florida--I always drove and had that long stretch of highway from Iowa down also. But in 1983, I was teetering on the edge of graduation. I was headed for the Keys in a big old vehicle with a bunch of people (instead of a small car with maybe four at tops).
I did not think of it as my last spring break. I'm not sure I fully realized what graduating from college would hold for me (just as I did not think deeply about moving on from high school). But Spring Break meant a lot to me: no classes, yes, but travel, friendship, sun and new landscapes--out of Iowa and into Florida. I wrote a lot about Florida, about the Keys and Key West by 1983. I always thought I'd move to the Keys, at least for a while, and I always thought I'd eventually settle down in Washington or Oregon.
I usually camped at the state park, Bahia Honda, but that spring they were full and we could only get a spot at the private campground. (I'd camped at Boyd's on Stock Island my first few times in the Keys--always camped, was too cheap for a motel/hotel room.) Matt had brought an unconscionable amount of dope and so we were stoned all the dang time we were down there. Also--because we were poor and cheap college students--we bought a slew of bottle of alcohol, stuff to make Long Island Iced Teas with, and we got very drunk to go along with getting very stoned. So, we didn't really make it to Key West every day (KW was about forty miles down the Overseas Highway), but instead sat around the picnic table and the Winnebago just being idiots in the sun. Fitting. But, really, Spring Break was never so much about sex and debauchery to me (that's what weekends in Iowa City were for), but more about new landscapes, the beach and warmth, camaraderie among my fellow travelers.
Okay. This little memory isn't really going anywhere, just like I wasn't really going anywhere. I mean, physically I did. Just a few months after being in the Keys, Matt, Brock and I drove to Alaska for that summer. And I was back in Iowa City by the fall and graduated in December. I finished my undergrad degree and took off for more of the same without the classes to hold me back. But I never went back to the Keys, to Key West. Not for a good twelve or thirteen years. I was living in Los Angeles when I found out that Brock had moved to Key West and that Matt had joined him there. I was envious. I don't know why I didn't just drop everything and head on down there myself, I really don't. I don't know why I never--outside of sleeping in my van for a few months--moved to Key West by myself. It was my #1 favorite place for so many years. It was the destination I always had in mind when I thought of wonderment and escape and where I'd like to live. Yet I never did "live" there. I just visited.
I have been back since, numerous times. The Key West I knew is not the Key West of now, yet it also is. Which is a common feeling as you get older. The Key West I knew when I was in my teens is not the Key West other people knew from when I was born. Cities, towns, worlds are not museums. Everyone knows this but it takes quite a few years to experience this.
I remember that, after I graduated from the University of Iowa and left Iowa City, I used to joke that everything would stop afterwards: "Man, I thought they'd close down the University after me, keep everything the same," I'd say. And the people who 'got it', understood the sentiment behind it, would laugh. But the problem is, deep down, I wasn't really joking.
It was the same with Key West for me.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Coming Into Grayton Beach: 1985

I'd been living and working in L.A.. By then I'd moved out of the Oakwood complex in North Hollywood and was staying with Jeff at his pregnant girlfriend's mother's house in the outer reaches of the San Fernando somewhere. (Mike was with his own girlfriend, in Thousand Oaks maybe.) I was tired of the city and the work and it was time for me to go. So, I had been in touch with Matt, who was back with Holly, who was living in this little town in the Florida panhandle. And that's where I decided to go. I got a plane ticket for Pensacola--the closest airport--and arranged with Matt to pick me up.
But it was hard getting out of Los Angeles.
First, Mike and I had to say goodbye. Which meant drinking and smoking and snorting cocaine in Burbank. I said goodbye to the gang at Pago Pagos--goodbye to Bob and Brenda, to Jeff, to Julia, Lenny and all the others. Mike and I had rented a cheap room along Olive Avenue for the last night--a place close to our down-and-out pals and the Burbank Airport--and when we got back we did more coke and talked and went wild-eyed. We set an alarm, as the flight was early, but the alarm never went off. So, I missed my flight.
Mike got me to the airport. We were hungover and deflated. I said goodbye. The person at the counter was nice enough and found me a later flight, though I had to wait for hours. In the meantime, I had to try and contact Matt to let him know I wouldn't be in Pensacola when he was in Pensacola (I had no concept about how big or small Pensacola was, or how far it was from the little town where he lived). This was a time with no cell phones or emails. I'd set most of the trip up by letter and I'm not sure Matt even had a phone. I had no credit card and was poor and cheap, but I had Mike's father's phone card number (because of work) and I guiltily used that to try and contact Matt. All I could do was leave a message with his workplace (the Paradise Cafe) and with the airline counter at the Florida airport.
Finally, off I flew, feeling like a hundred pesos. Lousy. I don't recall much of the flight, it was probably only the third or fourth flight in my life (my family never flew and I never took a flight until I was in my mid-twenties, from L.A. to Chicago). I believe I changed planes in New Orleans, got on a little puddle-jumper to Pensacola, which, though not a small town, was a very small city. It was late in the evening when I arrived--what with the time difference from California and missing my flight. Matt had been and gone and, after a call, he could not come get me until after the restaurant closed, which was like 11pm, and after the 1 & 1/2 hr drive to Pensacola. So, I sat and waited. And waited. The airport cleared of people until it was just me and the cleaning lady. And the cleaning lady--who only spoke Spanish--kept staring at me and asking (I think--my Spanish is very limited) if I had no place to go. I thought that maybe she was coming on to me, but wasn't too sure. Anyway, I was going to wait for Matt.
And, after midnight, he showed up.
I hadn't seen him in quite a while. He'd been living in Key West with Brock (who was still down there) and some crazy guy from New York City. Matt and I drove off in his car--the same broken down red Chevy Vega that we'd driven up to Alaska and back in 1983. I was still dazed, confused, crapped-out. I could not gather in where we were, what direction we were headed in: he drove down an endless strip of highway, flat and dark except for the sprinkling of lights. In my mind, after having been in L.A. and working all over SoCal, it was all part of Pensacola, all the same city stung out for miles. Though, really, it was a series of towns and communities along the Gulf of Mexico.
Finally, there was an obvious break in the lights and community, then a drive down a little, quiet, forested road, to another road, and I could smell the sea as we headed into the town of Grayton Beach.
Again, it was dark and I was bleary and my surroundings, my understanding of where I was, did not really register. I was in some backwards burg in north Florida, yes, but I had no idea of its proximity to anything else.
Matt pulled up to some small, dark blue house and we got out. I got my U.S. Mail duffle bag and stowed it inside. And inside was Holly and some other people who I met and they told Matt that there was a big party--that some bar up the road had closed down without paying the staff and the staff had stolen all the liquor and they were all drinking it up at Sam's house in town. Whoa. So, off we went, walking down sandy streets, to Sam's house and Sam was a young woman and her house was packed with other young people, just mobbed, with music blasting and heavy drinking and cigarette smoking and marijuana smoking and other things going on. And I was new in town and spent and had come from the smoggy-dry air of complex L.A. to this heavy-lidded humid air of tiny town Grayton and--Jesus from Mars--here were all these wild young people partying down.
I jumper right in.
I got my fourth wind and we were up all night. At some point Matt and I and a few others I'd met left the party and hiked out to these dunes, sand beneath me, but I was tired drunk stoned and, again, it just didn't really register with me, Matt and I sat and talked, talked, talked until the sun came up. And when the sun came up I was blown away.
Grayton Beach was Right On The fucking Water! The sand was white as milk, white as salt, sugar, calcium, snow. It was silky and pure and stacked into tall dunes and laid out flat all the way to a calm Gulf of Mexico, whose water was a bright blue and green and bluegreen/turquoise. I. Could. Not. Believe. It! Here was this sleepy little town of low beach bungalows with sand streets and a wide white beach and blue calm water and little amber/whiskey/tea colored lakes and streams and limegreen pines, sabal palms, live oaks entrenched with hanging moss and other sandy plants; here was a town full of wild young people, bohemians like me and Matt and Brock, people easy-going and friendly and sweet and Southern. There was the beach and lakes and woods and dunes and a big bay to the north. The sun had come up and revealed all of this to me with its light and I was very happy.
Very happy.
I was very happy for almost all my time in Grayton, along Highway 30-A in south Walton County in the Florida panhandle. I ended up living in Gulf Trace and Sea Grove Beach and up towards the Bay--and in Destin, in Pensacola--as well as Grayton--but south Walton, the whole panhandle, was all and still is all Grayton Beach to me. I can't think of anywhere quite like it and would not sell my years there for the world. The place changed while I was there, of course. It was too beautiful and individual not to be discovered. In fact, I was back there for the first time in many many years last May. And it was crowded, the south county developed and bustling, Grayton grown and a little shabby (a bad shabby, not the good shabby I remember--of course). But it was still Grayton. The place was still stunning. Only, now it belonged to throngs of people. Before, it only belonged to "us", it only belonged to me.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Work, Friends and the Unconsummated Relationship: Santa Fe 1984

I've always had a talent for friendship. No matter if I was new in town or even in the depths of my own self-pitying depression, I still made friends, I still had lovers. Maybe it's just me: though I don't possess a bubbly personality, or even a gregarious one, I am pretty much sincere and nonjudgemental. I enjoy cutting past the surface of people and am not afraid to divulge my own shortcomings, but I also like to keep things light and funny. Maybe it's because my family moved so much in childhood--from Sioux Falls to Vancouver to Johnson City to Des Moines--and I followed suit as a young man--from Des Moines to Iowa City to Santa Fe to Los Angeles to Grayton Beach and so on--that I got used to meeting new people from different backgrounds on a regular basis. Santa Fe is a good example. I came to town knowing one person--Joel--and he wasn't even my closest of pals. He put me up but I went into town and found my own little tangle of friends.
I got a job downtown, waiting tables at The Forge, a restaurant attached to the Inn of the Governors. I'd never waited tables before--never worked in a restaurant--and, not being a gregarious person, I didn't like it at first. But I needed a job and liked having tip money in my pockets at the end of the day, so I adapted. But from that job I met cooks and other waiters, busboys and bartenders and dishwashers and cocktail waitresses. I met some regular locals--including politicians. I also, eventually, met the friends and even the family of some of these people. (I later had a job as bouncer at Club West and met a whole slew of other people, but I left Santa Fe before getting to know them very well.) I also met some of Joel's pals from St. Johns University, but did not hang out with them very often.
So, let me think, there was John the cook, there was Alex the waiter, Vince the busboy, Sherri the manager (who hired me, who I slept with once), there was Hally who was John's girlfriend (who I slept with more than once), there was a hostess and other busboys and fellow workers whose names I can't recall, there was Maria, a waitress who was from Sweden and working illegally (and who I did not sleep with though there was enough attraction between us that I thought we would--but she was traveling with a boyfriend, also from Sweden, and he didn't like me too much) and there was the tall blonde New Mexico girl cocktail waitress, Tana.
Tana was a classic beauty. She was statuesque. She was blue-eyed and golden-haired and long-legged. And she liked me . . . I'd been working at the Forge for a while by the time she was hired. Sure, found her attractive but never really thought to pursue her. I was just a waiter from Iowa and I figured she must have better things on her mind. So I was surprised when the other cocktail waitress told me that Tana was indeed interested.
"Okay," I said. "Interested in what?"
"In you, you idiot."
"Oh. Okay."
The thing was, I still really wasn't that interested in her. But, she was such an obvious beauty, that I felt I needed to see her, that, like some gift from the heavens, I couldn't turn the opportunity down. It was my duty as a man to at least date her for a while. And so I did.
It turned out that Tana had worked all around northern New Mexico, that she was a local girl, that she was outdoorsy--liked camping and rafting--that she had worked with horses on ranches (I'm not making this up), breaking wild horses, that she had been a Girl Scout and then a Boy Scout leader of some sort supervising the big national camp outs they have in New Mexico (bet the scouts enjoyed that), she also played guitar, sang like an angel. She drank a little, but enjoyed smoking dope more . . . So, what wasn't to like?
But somehow, I just never did. I mean, I liked her. I admired her, for her accomplishments, for her sense of living. And yes, I thought she was pretty as hell and it interested me that she was interested in me, if that makes sense. But I never lusted after her. Never felt a kinship with her--never dove beyond the surface of who she was. It wasn't her fault, it was probably mine. Or maybe it was just that we were different in some simple and profound way, though she seemed unaware of this divide . . . so, maybe it was her fault.
Tana and I went out a few places, went to a party or two. She took me to her place--a house she was housesitting out in a valley south of town--where she cooked me dinner and we drank red wine and watched a rain shower cross the mountains, leaving a full double rainbow as big and  bright as a slab of candy in the sky. It was a nice house, too, out in the open with neighbors just distant enough. She was pretty and young and we were alone. I slept with her--but only sleep. We slept in the bed fully clothed. I don't even recall if we kissed. Maybe that was what I felt or saw--there was some lack of sexuality. It wasn't that she was cold or imperial, she just didn't give off the need for sex, for passion, just a need for companionship, to be held. Maybe. And it didn't bother me. I was surprised I didn't try harder--she had a great body--but really, I already knew something was missing between us, so I didn't try to push it.
Later we went camping. We went up to a state park where, as we drove up the mountains, above the desert, suddenly the landscape changed: green grass and ferns, huge pines wooded the world. I was pleased and surprised. We brought some food and beer and she had brought some whiskey, we brought her guitar and sleeping bags but no tent. It was cool up on the mountain, there were few other campers. We hiked, ate, had a campfire and ate again, drank whiskey with coffee, beer, smoked a little weed and she got out the guitar and sang for me. It was the first time I'd heard her sing.
She had a very pretty voice--much like her looks. A voice tall and controlled, yet also sweet and not overpowering. She sang folk songs, sincere and sad. I sat on the picnic table and listened. What was I doing here in these beautiful woods with a beautiful girl, I asked myself. I should be ecstatic. But I wasn't. Instead, inside of me, I was laughing.
There was the campfire, the mountains and trees, the stars and New Mexico twilight, there was the blue-eyed blond girl strumming her guitar, singing her seraphic songs with her seraphic voice and there I was with her, polite, applauding, looking interested. But inside I was cracking up. I thought it was funny as hell. It was too much. Too perfect . . . So maybe it was my fault . . . I was pessimistic and satirical, skeptical, I liked my sex straight up, emotional and animal and she didn't seem to have that vibe.
We slept cuddled together in twin sleeping bags on the dry ground. She slept under my arm. My arm went numb. I was freezing. But I couldn't bring myself to disturb her. At no time did she seem inclined for more than just sleep. And I didn't ask for anything more--which mystified me as much as she mystified me.
We saw each other for a while longer. She read one of my stories--liked it--but thought it was about someone else I loved (and maybe it was). We drifted apart as easily as we had drifted together. There really wasn't any point--any promise--in the relationship. Eventually an old lover came to town and took her back. Maybe that's all she was waiting for and I was just a companion during the interim. That was okay. She quit The Forge. Worked at a little dress shop near the Plaza. I saw her around here and there. I knew other women, who I didn't hesitate with.

When Bill drove down from Iowa to visit, and before I left Santa Fe, I made sure to introduce him to Tana. I knew he'd be impressed and he was. I was showing her off, even though nothing had happened between us. 
I never told Bill that I had secretly laughed at her.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Feat of Strength & the Swimming Hole: Champaign 1988

This was late in the summer, after I'd been working the concrete construction job for a while. It was a hot summer--days in a row over 100 degrees--with little rain. There was a bad drought that year. Anyway, we--Doug, Kurt, Leroy and I--had been working east of town, maybe around Danville. We did a lot of basements, using huge aluminum forms to make faux-brick walls, then the floors (as well as footings, drives, the occasional sidewalk) and by August the work was getting long and dreary. So after a long day, I was surprised when Doug--who was our foreman--ask if we wanted to go swimming.
It turned out there was a small chain of private lakes in the area and Doug had a membership in this "club". (The midwest has a lot of strange little areas, places where a section of river or small lake can be a large venue for sport, fishing or entertainment.) So he drove and some of us followed in another vehicle and there was this wooded area with a small road that had an electronic gate. Doug swiped a card--or punched numbers, I don't recall exactly--and in we went to this area which was a series of small lakes, man-made from some stream, where people could fish or picnic or swim or whatever. Some lakes were of good size and stocked with bass, perch, walleye or pike (I guess), others were tiny and secluded. We went to a tiny secluded one. We'd picked up some beer and so, after a long hot day of concrete work, we parked in the shade of trees, took off our work boots, socks and shirts (we were wearing shorts, usually cut-off jeans) and jumped into the water.
Man that felt good.
The day's sweat, the heat in our bodies, the tired muscles, all washed away . . . The water really wasn't much as far as water goes. It was muddy, midwest, indecipherable water--the kind I find difficult to swim in anymore or at least hesitate to wade into. I'd been used to the clear salty Gulf of Mexico water by then, to the invisible clean fresh water of natural springs. But it'd been 100 degrees and I didn't hesitate to jump in that day . . . And the tiny lake was surprisingly deep. Just a little ways out from the embankment we could no longer touch bottom.
We goofed around, drank beer, told jokes, insulted each other in a friendly way. Kurt was my best pal that summer. He was kind of a wild guy personally (he did a lot of drugs--the kinds I would never ever even think of doing) but was also a curious man, had the mind of an intellectual at times yet could never quite focus it on one subject for very long, though it made him interesting and he was openly a nice, good-hearted person. Doug was a good guy also, but he was our boss (but not the big boss, who was David and who was rarely around and was a pain most of the time when he was), so Doug had to keep some separation from us lowly laborers. Then there was Leroy. Leroy was a kid: young, enthusiastic, wire-muscled, laughing. I don't think he was even twenty one at the time. He had a girlfriend who lived in the same building as Kurt and Kurt could hear them through the thin walls when they fought, made up and made love (which evidently was often). Though by then Leroy and his girl broke up and he moved to a trailer where he had a pet iguana and a pit bull named Nitro.
Anyway, anyway, anyway...
So we swam and drank innocuous beers and then began to dunk each other in the lake. I remember I dunked Leroy with ease quite a few times. Then he tried to dunk me, rising up in the deep water, splaying his hand upon the top of my head and pushing down hard. But I wouldn't go under. I mean, I was ready to be dunked, thought I'd go under, but I also treaded water with my arms and legs to prevent it. And it worked. So Leroy tried again, pushing hard, but I still wouldn't go under. I was surprised and I laughed. So he tried again, with two hands and I put up no defense other than churning my legs and arms and again he could not dunk my head below the surface. Man, he got frustrated, a little angry. I laughed. I was dumbfounded. I wasn't touching bottom or anything, just had enough power to keep my head above water no matter how hard he tried to put me under. And I could dunk him at will. I don't know if it was just him--he was not a small or weak person by any means--or if the others could have dunked me (they didn't try), but that day I was not to be dunked. It's a good feeling.
It's a good feeling to be strong, to surprise yourself with it. A strange strength to have in circumstances like that, in the water where one often feels more vulnerable. I've always been physical, though not in a body-builder, obsessive way. One thing I liked about labor--when I had jobs like construction or landscaping--was that it kept me powerful, it let me use my strength. But those jobs also wear a person out. Now that I'm older, I've seen it. I know people who've worked construction all their lives, or played too hard at sports for too long, and they often have broken-down bodies. I don't know where the cut-off point is, where years of labor go from building you up to suddenly being detrimental to you physically. It's an odd thing, really: something that's good for you, that builds you and can enhance your chance for survival becomes the thing that disables you, harms you and can lead to a painful life.
I haven't worked a physical job in many many years. Sometimes I miss it, but not so much. I used to watch football and never thought for a second about the players getting hit and tackled, running and falling and smashing into each other. No big deal. Now, when I watch, I'm like, good god, how can they stand it? I don't even see how someone can run full speed and fall onto the hard grassy earth and not feel pain, let alone being hit sideways by a flying human being. But who knows, I'm still kind of strong, maybe I could still do it, take the punishment--at least until my back went out and I'd be crippled for life.