Here I am, sitting on the stone tiles of a gated front porch on a block in Colombia, waiting on hold for a hospital back in the USA to send me written proof of a negative COVID test.
Not sure how often cops ask for proof of negative, but the Airbnb host told me to have something ready.
And she told me to practice saying, “I have proof I’m COVID negative,” in Spanish. Tengo prueba de COVID negativa. Or something.
I set the phone’s on hold jazz music to a quiet speaker setting, and watch the block wake up.
People aren’t going to work today. It’s Epiphany, and that’s a national holiday here. That’s when the Three Wise Men brought gold, Frankincense & Myrhh to baby Jesus.
There’s something about watching a day start in a foreign country that’s like seeing a play begin. Queue the woman shaking a washed blue shirt over her balcony and hanging it on a white line. Queue the couple opening the front door of the apartment and assembling a ramp over the steps for the man’s moped to drive down.
This morning, everybody is out on their apartment balcony doing chores or eating breakfast. Each of the four balconies visible is like its own world.
One with a grandmother-age woman and her daughter, one with a couple, one with a family of four, and one family of three, are all having a day-off kind of morning.
Instant coffee and a cigarette while leaning off the rail for one dad, pancakes and orange juice for the kids, and moms bustling around on mom business.
Colombia has barred travel again, but I got here just before the gates closed.
Now, I must stay in my Airbnb unless I can get proof of a negative COVID test. But the hospital’s hold music will not end.
No cabs run, and many restaurants are closed. I start to realize I may not be able to get a bite to eat today.
But no wait, look across the street. A few apartment doors to the left.
A woman is pushing an industrial grill out the door. She and a man walk a big striped restaurant sign out of their front door. The sign reads Donde Toby. (Where is Toby? That’s what that means, right? The street food place is asking me where Toby is? For its name?)
I can’t get over how different the apartments are here. You never think about building codes until you see what happens when they’re not there.
Each building is slightly different creating a patchwork of odd angles and different colors. Motorcyclists and moped buzz down the block.
A skin and bone man in a baggy polo and ripped jeans has two trash bags on his arms. He rifles through bags of trash left on the ground.
Around the corner, on a second story balcony, somebody is reading what must be the gospel through a megaphone. I can hash out enough Spanish to know it’s the gospel, and based on the day it must be the story of the Three Kings.
Black haired mothers in pandemic masks walk their children down the block. And underneath it all that hospital hold music won’t end.
And it’s times like these, hungry in a foreign country that’s closed most of its restaurants, unable to leave and delivery service on holiday, yes, it’s times like these that make you ask the big questions.
Such as, where is Toby?
My patio is four feet above sidewalk level, made of brick-colored stones standing behind a painted white iron gate. If I walk to the end of the patio, I can see down the street where the man is preaching. There are lush green mountains rising behind him. They are covered in mist, but in the morning you can see their looming, rolling shapes.
A voice crackles through the hold music. It thanks me for waiting and asks how it can help. I explain my situation.
Sizzling grill, Spanish megaphone sermon, the rising buzz of a motorcycle’s engine. Dogs yap. A little bit of rain comes and goes. It’s all a symphony nobody could ever write.
A harsh voice amped up through the funnel of an electrical bullhorn wakes me up.
Hard Spanish syllables rattle the windows of every apartment on the block.
The fog of the night clears. Oh, yeah.
I’m waking up in Colombia today.
And there’s a lockdown in effect till Tuesday. Is that what the bullhorn is about? Is that how they enforce it here?
If so, this room feels as big as a milk carton.
The wall that faces the street is mostly a glass sliding door with a metal gate behind it, and a full-length curtain behind that.
One gust of wind with the glass door open, and the curtain would blow back and pedestrians could see you snoozing. It makes you want to hunch to the corners of the room. But I had the glass door shut all night, so that’s more of a theoretical concern then a pratical one.
There’s no AC in here, just a fan, a mini-fridge, a hot water kettle, and miraculously, a bathroom and shower crammed in there as well. The size of an airplane’s bathroom. All immaculately clean and well organized.
And the host put those beachy, barfy, housewarmers up on the walls, the wooden boards with golden letters reading, “Dream on, Wild Child” and “Home is Where I Hang my Hat”.
And speaking of messages, that bullhorn is back again. What is it saying? I don’t have the Spanish to understand it. I pull the white curtain with blue flowers on it just an inch, expecting to see a police car with a clove of bullhorns jabbering away on top of it.
It’s funny, no two apartment buildings on the street match. Far from uniform, utilitarian living complexes, it’s a series of brick or concrete or wooden sided buildings all with different shapes and designs. No two second story balconies are at the same height. A glance down the block and how it’s built is enough to tell you, the rules aren’t the same here.
Christmas lights and bows are on some of the balconies. A small black dog wanders through the street. The bullhorner is out of sight, but his voice echoes around some corner.
Tone-wise, the bullhorn voice seems sharp and official. What on earth could that be about? Stay in your rooms till Tuesday? That would make sense. Stay off the street? The street is empty, now.
(Or are they saying ‘we’re looking for that guy, the American who got here last night. Somebody knows where he is. No harm will come to you if you hand him over.)
The things movies will do to your head!
The bullhorn voice is getting closer. This time, I’m going to see the police car, or whoever he is, pass.
It’s not a police car. It’s not even a car at all. It’s a two-wheeled wooden fruit cart with a PA system mounted on it. There’s a suntanned, wrinkly, cranky dude pushing the cart through the streets, and finally, I pick words out of the garbled bullhorn noise. Papaya, guayaba, aquacate. Banana, mango.
Ha! Police. Lockdown. Silly me. Now to find a cup of world famous Colombian coffee.
Yeah, some year in my early twenties when I couldn’t scrape together airfare to fly home for Turkey Day, I had been hanging out with a crew of maybe four people, evenly split between guys and girls, because we all did Brazilian Jiu Jitsu together.
None of us had plans for Thanksgiving morning, being neither football watchers, Turkey Trotters, or Thanksgiving day chefs.
We had all kind of drifted in shouting distance of each other on the different lifeboats of our young adult lives. One guy slept on the mat of the gym, to give you an idea of our rootless and fleeting circumstances at that time.
Personally, I was renting some dim, roach-eaten Craigslist room in walking distance of the dojo.
We agreed to meet for a Thanksgiving morning roll, which is a sparring or grappling session.
The temperature had dropped to what counts as very cold in South Florida. The dojo was this dim, really beat down kind of place. I was new to the sport with all the tapping out and choking that comes with being a beginner.
Still, it was something to do, and we did it almost religiously. The guy teaching us spent two hours creating different grappling matchups and we all rolled ourselves to exhaustion.
Then came a small social poker game in which nobody wanted to show is or her cards.
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Me? Chilling. Eating. Probably going to call home. You?”
“You buy a turkey?”
“No,” I said. “To roast in what kitchen?” I didn’t have one back then.
“So what are you going to eat?”
“Um. Not sure yet. How about you, did you get a turkey?”
“A whole big turkey? For one person? Nah.”
Sensing the circumstances, I decided to tip my hand of cards first.
“Yeah, I don’t have any plans if you guys want to get something to eat after this.”
And the other three, in their drenched and dripping BJJ gis, kind of glanced up, then around at each other.
“You guys can come too, if you’re free, I know you probably have family plans.”
“No. We don’t,” said one, speaking for all.
“What place serves turkey dinner?”
“Nah, nowhere does. Let’s get Chinese”
But somebody was allergic to MSG, and she suggested Italian, which was met with major enthusiasm and agreement.
That’s how, two hours later, showered, Tiger Balmed, and thickly sweatered we all met up again in the outdoor garden of an Italian restaurant that I have never quite been able to find again. We chat about BJJ.
“When you’re being choked, you got to look towards the guy. Your natural instinct is to turn away, but that just deepens his grip.”
“Don’t let that knee sit on your stomach. Buck sideways, sharp as you can, early as you can. You’re just losing oxygen and energy if you don’t.”
Calamari arrived soon after red wines and winter cocktails.
“Just like the pilgrims had,” I said. Small laughter.
“And don’t push the other guy too far when you’ve got the arm bar, it’s just a rolling session, you’re not trying to break bones here. Expect that tap to come really soon.”
“At the end of the day, it’s about consistency. People think they’re good or going to be good, or supposed to be good at it right on day one, but no. Nobody is.”
Think I ordered the chicken parm at entree time.
“Just like the pilgrims had!” and the second time around, the line got a bigger laugh. Even from the waitress.
And then, came a second social poker game. See, we all probably wanted desert, but who wants to be the first so-called “warrior” to admit yeah, they wouldn’t mind wrapping up with a little cannoli or lava cake.
“Are we thinking about desert,” asked the waitress.
We look around. Who gave out first? Someone said yeah, and relief spread around the table. Yeah, we’ve been training hard.
“Could I please get the tiramisu?” I asked. “Just like the pilgrims ate.”
And the third time around, the line got the biggest laugh of all.
“It’s that special kind of joke,” I said. “The more you make it, the funnier it gets.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure about part,” said one girl.
But her girlfriend recently dumped her, so you have to factor that into her point of view.
My tiramisu arrived. Phenomenal stuff. They went heavy on the rum. House made mascarpone. We all ordered coffees, too.
I wonder where those people all wound up, I wonder where they all went. We didn’t stay in touch. I wonder if anybody but me ever thinks about our weird Italian food Thanksgiving dinner at that mostly empty restaurant after a long morning of trying to choke each other out. Hope they’re all doing well.
Dim purple and orange light shining through the little round window.
Going just by the big flat tarmac alone, Medellin, Colombia, looks like Miami, Florida.
I’m watching the tarmac for signs of Colombianism, you might say.
Meaning what? Meaning having seen tarmacs in England, Russia, the USA, and now Colombia, I always watch to see if they, for example, drive the suitcases in a different kind of tiny truck. Yeah, it just looks like more Miami for now.
A couple of friends of mine will be here in a few days. They’ve been before. They said I should come down this time. Just for a few stories. Just for a lark.
And as you do, I larked my luggage out of the overhead bin and larked myself out the double sliding front doors.
“Where you go?” asks a cabbie. And I set one bag down to fish an address out of my pocket, and he grabs my bag and starts stomping towards his cab, being the aggressive salesman he is. And wanting to keep up with my socks and underwear, I stomp after him to his cab. I mean, one ride seems as good as another.
He’s got this stick shift Hyundai. A ceramic Virgin Mary is glued to the dash in front of the passenger. Two rosaries are looped around her stand. He floors the gas pedal shooting between rows of waiting cabs and Ubers, and those rosary beads rattle against the dash.
We drive under palm trees and so far it is nothing I haven’t seen before.
But the cabbie is getting agitated over something.
“Get ready, get ready. Man, you gonna see something here, man!”
Whoosh! The treeline ends, and there is all of Medellin, a city built in a green valley. Yellow town lights run up the sides of purple mountains. Clouds drift in front of the tops of skyscrapers. A yellow biplane circles near the mountainsides.
“Hey! Where we going?”
I can’t stop staring.
“Where we going?”
I hand the cabbie the address of the Airbnb.
“I don’t know, I don’t know!”
I check the dash for a GPS. Nothing.
“Can you use your phone?” I ask.
That’s a shame. My own phone is dead as a brick. The battery decided it couldn’t hold a charge anymore sometime in the middle of my layover at MIA. The charger takes ages to wake it up, if it can bring it to life at all. Bad timing, you know, going to a foreign country, but you can’t put things off forever or wait till everything is perfect. Otherwise, you’ll never do them.
The cabbie barks, “Policia! Policia!”
Oh great. Meaning what? Get passports, bribe or bail money ready? Chuck this bag of coke out the window before he sees us?
There’s the cop in military green with a lime green helmet on a motorcycle by the side of the road.
But then the cabbie screeches the Hyundai to a stop in the dead middle of the road, and tells me to roll down my window. The cop is checking a phone in a heavily padded case.
“Hey, it’s alright, we don’t need to bother him,” I say. “We can go.”
The cabbie whips his hand in circles to tell me to roll down the window again. Grudgingly, I do. The cop looks up.
Cabbie grabs the address. He must be asking the cop how to get there in Spanish. The cop does some gesturing. Left at the this and right when you see that.
And bang, we’re off again!
“I would never, ever stop in the middle of the road to ask a roadside cop for directions in the US,” I say.
“No, they’re by the road to give you tickets, you can’t just roll down your window and yell, ‘hey, where’s Dairy Queen?’ at them.”
“La policia es mi seguridad!”
Must be, “police are my security.”
His voice rises to a full bellow in this tiny cab, with just him, me & ceramic Mary. What I lack in Spanish, he’s making up for in sheer volume.
“¡La policía es mi protección!”
He thumps his chest.
Not in the milkiest suburbs of the states could you find this kind of confidence in the boys in blue!
“La policía no es corrupta!”
Not even a little bit corrupta? I’ll still keep my distance, you mad cabbie you!
We scream around a bend in the overpass. His whip the wheel & tilt the tires driving style makes this yellow cab shoot through the dark like a bullet.
But what incredible greed my eyes have for all things Medellin! The dance of mist over moonlit mountains, the jungle plants and flowers growing from every island in the road.
Has my battery pack brought my phone to life yet? I check it. Still dead. A motorcyclist appears in sideview mirror’s reflection.
“Phone down, phone down, other hand, no window hand,” yells the cabbie, who is now sweating heavily into his stiff-collared shirt.
He then mimes and chatters and explanation.
Medellin runs on motorcycles. They rule the streets by day. And sometimes, a motorcyclist will steal an iPhone right out of a driver’s hand, even at a full 60-70mph.
Which strikes me as a rather acrobatic, visually stunning kind of a crime.
Imagine, you’re rocketing along in the passenger seat of a cab. A motorcyclist’s image swells in the sideview mirror.
The biker’s shoulders dip left. His arm swipes through the window, scooping your phone right out of your hand, then zoom, he vanishes off into the night, carrying your drunk texts, your photos, your alarm clocks, your work email, your apps, your absolutely everything down into the underbelly of a world about which you know nothing, and if you’re lucky, you never will.
Anyway, my phone stays in my pocket for the rest of the ride.
Finally, the cabbie pulls off the highway into some side streets. The odd angles of apartment buildings are jammed together. They’re smaller, more cramped than you might see in the states. Everybody has a small balcony.
“Peligrosso, peligrosso,” the hoarse cabbie stage whispers.
There are enormous piles of garbage bags on street corners. Street art of the Joker, for some reason. Windows covered with large metal shutters, and bars. Doors made of solid metal. Possibly bulletproof.
And city zombies (they are in every city) shuffle around in a nearby park. Bug eyed, broken toothed, slack jawed and jonesing for poison, no doubt.
There’s a man with a shopping cart in a poncho and straw hat. There’s a woman in cutoff shorts, heels and a halter top. Nails a puma would envy. I don’t mean to make assumptions, but she probably has an engineering degree.
One rail-thin guy is standing in the middle of the street, arms crossed over his ribs. A cigarette burning in his fingers. He looks like one of the city zombies. The cab squeaks to a stop, and the cabbie shouts for directions again. This cabbie will ask anybody where a street is!
Three turns later, he drops me off at a place. This neighborhood looks a little better.
Iron gate painted white. A lockbox with a key inside. Luckily, I wrote down the code before my phone died.
The room is the exact size of a queen-sized bed. There’s a full-sized bed in the center. You have to scoot sideways like a crab to get around the bed to a miniature bathroom and shower.
Can you drink the tap water here? Folks back home told me no. I boil tap water in this electric kettle, and drink tea-temperature water, unmixed with anything.
This tiny plane is climbing and circling higher and higher.
When I say tiny, I mean tiny. There are no seats. Just room for four people to sit on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. Two first-time skydivers practically on the laps of two instructors, crammed on the floor of the airplane.
Outside the windows of the cramped canister, we’re gaining altitude. Big, flat Florida is getting smaller and smaller. It’s an overcast day. We feel every lurch, every tilt, every time the plane tips its wings to turn.
“I know you’re the pilot but do you jump sometimes, too?” Dalina asks the pilot.
“He does, and he’s working now,” her instructor says.
She giggles and claps a hand over her mouth. A confirmed adrenaline junky, she’s practically bouncing off the cabin walls. She and I met when I was surfing, recently. And shockingly, this skydiving trip is the first time we’re hanging out.
And when the plane tips, the vast view of Earth itself rises up the windows, like when you tilt a glass of OJ and the juice runs up the side. Criss-crossing runways, a double baseball diamond, pine-green grassy fields, all rapidly shrinking.
Spiky heads of palm trees. Squiggly, slithering rivers. Roads, quiet, with few cars at this early weekend hour. The beach is misty. You can see the lapping shoreline, but you can’t pick out where the water stops and the sky begins on the horizon. It’s all one grey, foggy, shimmering sheet.
The beach hotels look like dollhouses. The propeller whirs & roars.
Man. Can’t believe I’m going to jump out of this tiny airplane. I have dedicated the past week to not thinking about it.
Now the moment is here. Back on the ground, when the pilot asked who wanted to jump first, Dalina and I both said, “me!” at the same time.
She tried to let me go first, but a, “ladies first” settled the matter. She’s sitting by the window now. It was actually open when we were starting to take off, but they rolled it down.
She and I kill time with some getting to know you chit chat, because after all, we just met by chance on the beach a couple of weeks ago when I was finishing up surfing. She sent me a message in the middle of the night making if I wanted to skydive. I answered yes, and woke up to a screenshot of skydiving ticket receipts.
The plane climbs in higher and higher circles.
Her jump instructor grabs the door handle and lifts it upward. The door rattles open, and there’s a great gaping hole in the airplane cabin, showing a view of wispy clouds & a forever of grey sky out there under the wing. The cabin is drowning in roaring wind, propeller whir, and shivering cold air.
Dalina puts a sneaker out on the metal step over the wheel with all 14,000 feet of air racing away underneath this Campbell soup can of an airplane.
“You’ve got this, you’ve got this,” I yell.
Dalina closes her eyes, and arches back like the instructor told her to do. And then her instructor grabs the doorframe and dives. And they’re gone. Vanished, so fast, and so far. It’s like witnessing an execution.
Scoot! Slide! My jump instructor is sidling on his bum over to the door. Fast. My hands grip my harness.
“Head arched back, feet together pointing back when we go!” the guy yells in Camel cigarette breath.
The wind speed makes putting my boot out onto the metal plate over the wheel like moving underwater. I fight the wind to shove my boot onto that rusty metal step.
Earth curvature, water bodies, moving mist, whipping clouds. Ocean below. System buzzing and clammy like it’s time to die.
View out the airplane: the thin body, and tail of the plane. The wing of the plane above me. Metal ridges, a coffee-color rust stain on the underside of the wing. A red stripe and a yellow stripe on the white wing. A row of white bolts.
Stomach drops. Air roaring in ears. Whole body in free fall. Fighting air pressure to inhale thin air. Arms out like wings now. Giddy, terrified. Rushing at the misty morning ground. Like dropping from the top of the world’s tallest rollercoaster, but without the rollercoaster.
A flapping, unfurling snap of fabric overhead. A great jolt. And then silence. No more rush of air. Gentle, downward motion. I look up, and there’s the parachute, spreading overhead like a bodega awning.
“Don’t get scared, I’m going to make your harness a little more comfortable.”
He doesn’t even need to raise his voice anymore. It’s the type of sound quality like when you’re on a ski lift, chatting with somebody.
He unbuckles something on my harness and I drop down on one side. This feeling, I hate. I’m gripping my shoulder straps again. About to tell him not to worry about the harness. Imagine, he unbuckles the wrong thing, and I plunge away from him. There’d be nothing anyone could do. Then he unbuckles something on the other side and I drop-lurch down a little more. He’s done. The worst is over.
I’m swinging in this harness, thousands of feet in the air, with the purest, most unblocked, un-windowed view of a Florida field, town, and beach you could ever have.
We tilt way to the left. Glide in circles. Over a river. Over a highway. Back around towards the jump office.
Now lower, probably even with the height of a skyscraper’s top. Dropping down story after story towards the blown-around long grass in pine & grey colored fields. We swing out hundreds of feet over two big water towers. Then keep dropping.
“Point your feet straight out,” says the instructor. I do.
We circle down, fast now. Green ground skim-skipping away. And ground starts skidding under my calves, under my legs, bootheels skimming and skidding until I stop, watery & high-eyed, every nerve singing.
Stand & stretch. Can’t stop laughing. Glad I did it. Glad it’s over. Glad to be alive. Where am I? Turn, and there’s the one little trailer that serves as the office. I can hear soccer moms cheering their kids in the field on the other side of a chainlink fence. It is all very normal, but I am very different.
They ask me to go to the trailer and return my harness. I do. Weightless Dalina is slower to fall, she’s still gliding hundreds of feet above us.
“How was it?” the next two jumpers beg to know.
“You’ll love it, you’ll love it,” I tell them.
Dalina soon lands. We meet in the trailer with a hug & giddy, garbled recap. Then walk out on the sweet, solid, ground to find breakfast.
Three times, at three different locations I’ve seen Waffle Houses provide for a regular beggar.
The first was in South Carolina. Some sunburnt scarecrow hobbled through the door. A waitress tapped the manager on the shoulder. I assumed the manager had the tricky job of running off vagrants. Instead, she brought the beggar hashbrowns to go, and coffee with two sugars and three creams.
She knew how he took his coffee, which is how I knew he was a regular even though I was just drifting through town and never saw that location again.
On a second occasion, in Georgia, when a homeless guy wandered in, a cook shouted, “Dale’s here!” And Dale left with a plain waffle, a sweet tea, and a cigarette cadged off a landscaper.
Somewhere in the indistinguishable middle neck of Florida, another Waffle House manager did the same thing. Short on teeth, this beggar preferred grits.
Now it’s impossible that such a rule is written in any corporate booklet or slideshow, but some spirit of Southern Hospitality, maybe even Christian charity, does seem alive in Waffle House management.
At least, I choose to believe it is so, elbow to elbow with two friends in the yellow-orange light of a Florida location. There are a million like it, but this one is ours for now.
Which is not to say it’s all roses at Waffle House. Once, when served coffee in a mug with the last customer’s lipstick print on the rim, I asked the waitress, “what’s this?”
“Givenchy Dual-Tone,” she said. “Very in this year.”
She swept the mug away and came back with a clean one.
But thank goodness for soft yellow light. Sterile fluorescents are for jails, morgues, and public schools. Plus, they’re brutal on hangovers.
What better white noise than the vast metal field of the sizzling griddle to our right? Its sputtering fills the dead air in our sparse conversation. There’s nothing to say this late in the weekend but re-cap the events, the boozy barbecue, the lazy river, drinking card game, and the goofy volleyball game that would affront any decent volleyball rulebook. And now, mostly quiet, we wait for something to starch out the mean ghosts of white rum & tequila.
Speaking of which, our order has just arrived.
“They gave me a pecan waffle instead of peanut butter chip.”
“The cook probably read PC for shorthand. They scrambled my eggs over easy, too.”
The remember the poor, but forget my egg order.
“It’s all good.”
We eat. When Americans go abroad, even if they only eat healthy at home, even if they have sophisticated palettes, some night in their trip they will awake craving flavors such as these. The crispy hashbrowns. The greasy bacon. The artfully weak and endlessly replenished coffee.
It does a diner’s spiritual work, and that’s to feel like home, like a refuge, no matter where you are on the road.
If you’ll tolerate such a slim and esoteric category of analysis, if you have any patience for deaf cooks & sloppy dishwashers, if you’re attuned to any such thing, you must rate Waffle House poor in practice, but five stars in spirit.
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Camp alone in a swamp and you will believe in everything again, and I do mean everything.
My camping buddy bailed on me. Going solo this time.
A great yawning, swallowing mouth, that’s what the prickly tree canopy over the creek looks like as I paddle towards it. Right now, I’m in a kayak on a round lake that vanishes down into that slow, shadowy creek.
On the shore of the lake, there’s rental booth with a fat, pimply troll taking cash only for boats. He is a red, spotty, pig-nosed, blonde creature. Squinting through eyeglass frames dusted with yellow pollen.
This is not one of those well-maintained natural attractions, with pubs and craft breweries and brunch places awaiting return hikers. Finding an operating gas station took some work, to give you an idea of the barren surroundings.
This place is in the middle of moss-covered, pollen dusted, swampy, run-down nowhere. Awaiting return hikers here, is one half-stocked Coca-Cola vending machine.
I have no destination in mind, just planning on getting as far up the creek as I can before sundown. Going to hang a hammock for the night.
I pass a crew of three returning kayakers. Their loud chatter bounces off the water.
We saw alligators out there! One was just sitting there on the mud! He must have been fifteen feet long. I screamed the whole time! But It didn’t do anything.
They float on back to return what is due to the booth troll.
Now I’m paddling alone once more through streaky pollen water towards the arched branches with hanging vines and boas of light tan Spanish moss.
The tree canopy is knit thickly overhead. When the clouds roll over the sun, it gets very dark very quickly on the creek.
Now there’s no sound but the never ending ohm-hum of rolling water and sawing crickets and a host of chirping, croaking, creaking, swampy entities all burrowed in mud holes or crooked in tree branches, gibbering to each other about the one, weird boater out a little later than everyone else.
Shafts of sun still sometimes shine between the branches.
The farther I row, the larger the roots on either side of the creek get. At first, they were small enough to step over. Then they were the same length as the kayak. Now they’re big enough to paddle under, sometimes without even ducking. They are like footbridges but grown instead of built. Mossy tree bark sagging in flabs with old age.
The whole creek begins to look wicked. The hanging vines and Spanish moss sway like fake spiderwebs in Halloween haunted houses. Strange smells of swamp rot appear and disappear on the wind.
And of course, there are real monsters here.
Somewhere in the gurgling water, alligators are grinning, creatures older than the creek itself, anchoring themselves in the current. Every ring of rising bubbles could be a fish, or it could be a gator. I watch the banks but they are empty. Maybe the last kayakers of the night annoyed the gators so much they slid off the mudbanks and under the pea soup water.
When at rest, gators can do a two-hour breath hold.
If they’re working, they can still go twenty minutes no problem. When they take hold of you, they drag you into deep, dark water and just roll and roll down there. They can do it in an instant.
And there it is. Up ahead of me. First gator of the trip. Something green-brown, it must be a gator head, is bobbing up and down in the water. I paddle just a little closer to see for sure. Then float. I’m drifting towards it. I push my paddle flat in the water to brake myself. I stare at the bobbing object.
It’s a stump. A stump sticking straight up and down in the water. It’s bobbing straight up slowly, then straight down into the water. Then up. Then down. Then up. Then down under the water.
I peer into the forest on either side of the creek. Checking for what? Pulleys? Levers? Fishing line? I paddle closer to the living log. It bobs up. And sinks down. I smack it with my paddle, wondering if I’m falling into a trap. It tips sideways and floats downstream. Behavior more fit for an inanimate object. No longer looking like a living thing. I paddle on.
Up in the branches, a handwritten sign comes into view. It’s written in orange all caps letters.
“BLISHGREER SUNK HERE”
A person? A vessel? One name Blishgreer or two names Blish Greer? All caps and bad kerning. There is nobody to ask and no way to look it up right now. Nothing to do but float twenty feet over the deeply submerged bones or wreckage, ten feet under the memorial, and past the reach of any ghosts in the algal blooms.
The shape of the river expands out into a large, round basin, and there’s another handmade sign reading Lemon Lake.
Under the sign, rows and rows of roots have grown straight up. They’re wooden, but they look exactly like stalagmites in caves. They stand in tombstone rows.
The sun will be completely down soon. I should make a fire and hang my hammock. I paddle over to shore. I build up all the speed I can. Deep, long paddles. Hit the mud bank and grind to a stop.
Wedged still in the mud, I look around for snakes and gators and then get out of the boat. My foot sinks in the mud halfway up my shin, and for a split second, it seems like I’ll keep sinking. I grab one of those stalagmite roots, put my other foot on the base of a tree, and heave out of the mud.
I grab some line and tie the handle of the boat to a stalagmite root. Grab my pack from the kayak seat.
At least the ground is more solid the farther up the shore I walk. I pull out my hammock. I can’t believe how dense those straight up spikes look. I hang a hammock between two trees.
Time to gather long strips of bark, dry palm, twigs, bigger twigs, and branches for a fire. There’s plenty of fuel everywhere. That means Lemon Lake doesn’t get many guests.
I build my fire and light it. Fish the kettle out of my pack and fill it with a glug of creek water. Set it on to boil. Find my tea and granola bars.
I should have planned for a bigger dinner. With nobody else around, the evening feels too open and too empty. Cooking would give me more to do.
Long, loud whistle of the ready kettle. I make my black tea with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Unwrap a bar while the drink cools. I sit and stare at the creek, which crawls by slow as syrup and hypnotic as a snake. Gurgling, rippling and giggling but saying nothing.
If the creek could speak, what would it say? Again, probably nothing. It would keep laughing at you and your little problems.
It would say, your name is a role you accept and agree to play. Your wallet and pocketknife are props you pick up every day. And when the curtain pulls back on the stage of your job every Monday, aren’t you in position, ready to say your lines? I was here before your kind came up with a name for me. And I’ll be here after.
What’s hiding in the slug-crawl, the algal murk of the creek? The world is fantastically bigger and murkier than this creek. And it would be the simplest thing to do, to disappear in it.
The sun is down. I sit by the fire and drink tea by the creek. Night noises double in decibel. SPLOOSH. Something splashed into the creek on the other side of the water. Something big, it sounded like.
I can’t see the other side of the creek anymore. Fireflies flair over there in the black dark like sprites. The wind shivers through my camp. Palms rattle. Moonbeams shine down on the toothy, tall roots all around me. Mist generates itself around the spikes.
It’s time to get ready for bed. I take my hat and fill it with creek water. Pour the water into the bed of coals under the fire. It hisses and whistles and belches up white steam. It takes five more hatfuls of water to kill the coals all the way.
Now next to the one column of white steam, among the stalagmites and mist, under the moonlight, I’m gripped by a stomach-churning thought that this was all a great big mistake.
I get a mega-blast the one real message ghosts ever send, which is that ice-cold, full-body, skin-crawl and skull-buzz that wordlessly urges, “get out of here now, and don’t ask why.”
I have a careful look around, then I make myself ignore the chill and keep moving.
I can barely see my hammock hanging out there. I hit the button on my headlamp, and pick my way towards bed. Flop into the nylon. Wriggle into the sleeping bag. The night noises grow louder. Branches snap. Maybe squirrels. Something gives a long, wraith-like wail. Maybe a big swamp bird. Maybe the waterlogged spirit of bitter Blishgreer.
Somewhere out there, there are uncountable grinning gators and slithering snakes. Adding light snare to the forever-drone of creek noises. Swaying in the hammock in the darkness, sleep feels like it would be a great surrender. A failure of self preservation. It seems impossible to close my eyes, place myself at the mercy of the swamp and see what I get. But what else am I going to do? Swaying in the wind, I let darkness and the swamp swallow me whole.
Glowing pink morning arrives.
I roll out of the hammock and step between the stalagmites under me. Glass creek water. Golden light in the mist. Sweet, cool air. Humidity gone. I spark up my backpacking boiler and make a mug of tea. A hot mug of I’m-Alive-This-Morning! Tea.
Time to pack up camp and paddle home. The roots shrink from big enough to paddle under to small enough to step over.
And there is the top of one gator’s head. Thirty feet away. A long, slim shadow disturbing the creek water. More bored than anything else. I paddle past him without event.
The ticket taker booth troll, he’s just a kid with a summer job he hates. He checks a clipboard when I drop off my kayak.
The spell of the night has lifted. There’s nothing but the normal dirt and pollen parking lot and the long drive home.
Enjoy this piece, and grab my book for stories you won’t find online.
They make it look easy as a dream.
Riding green, foamy curling waves on a surfboard.
I rented one while I was back in Florida for a wedding.
Now, in the water off of Cocoa Beach, I’m getting chafed red by a giant, oblong, wobbling blue surfboard that wants to tilt, dip, and pitch me under the water at every second.
I can see other beginners not having much luck on their own tropical colored boards (yellow, pink, key lime green).
The board is twice my size.
Squeaks and slips right out from under me.
The water is cold, but it’s clean.
No seaweed. Cocoa Beach both sounds nice and is nice.
After getting swamped by a few more waves, I swim the board into knee-deep water. The new plan is to catch a little wave and just stand on this thing for once.
It works. I ride the board standing up for maybe ten or fifteen feet.
Feels like being a billionaire.
As I’m sinking down into the now ankle-deep water, I see my small success has not gone unnoticed.
“Can I try that?” a young voice screams.
It’s a bunch of kids. Maybe five of them. Three girls, two boys, and a mom.
One of the girls is asking.
“What’s your name?”
“Gemini,” she says.
“Ask your mom.”
“She says it’s OK!”
I need a rest anyway.
“Sure, give it a try.” I un-velcro the strap from around my ankle.
Gemini, her brothers and sisters swarm the board in a flash. They’re screaming and fighting over it like a game of King of the Hill. I have thrown an entire family into chaos.
Gemini secures the strap around her ankle.
While this may sound like snatching the crown, it’s a serious tactical error. The weight of her three siblings carries the board into shin-deep water. She’s being pulled along as it surges up and down in the water.
I have thrown an entire family into chaos. The blue board seems as alive as a giant eel, bucking and chucking brothers and sisters into the water.
They’re trying to stand on the sinking board. Look-amme-momma-look-amme. This doesn’t last long.
In under a full minute, they figure they’ve got my money’s worth.
They shove the board back to me. It floats towards me in the water.
Their mom calls, “Thank you.”
I return to trying to do short standing rides on the board in shallow water.
I can pop into a standing position and ride the board ten or fifteen feet at a stretch. Tomorrow I should do even better.
The sun is setting. The water is lighting up warm orange. It makes a shimmering, blurry reflection of the sky.
Cold water wipes me out.
After one more standing ride, I figure I can’t top that this evening.
Tuck the board under my arm and return to the shop as the sun goes down.
The last time I wore a suit was for a wedding in May, 2019.
After all, at many jobs, you only need the suit at the interview.
But where have my shirts and ties vanished to?
Some ties were snagged by scavengers in Brooklyn after an argument that ended with clothes getting thrown out the window.
Some shirts are dressing someone poor or thrifty in Florida after I dropped boxes off at a Goodwill before moving.
At least one shirt is sitting in the trunk of taxi cab in Medellin.
Now here are I am with a suit jacket and pants but no shirts and ties.
And the closest Macy’s is an hour and twenty minutes away by car. Rush hour traffic is slow. I will barely make it there before closing time at this rate.
The Macy’s is almost empty when I arrive.
I find the section with the men’s dress shirts.
Rows of identical shirts with sets of three numbers. Measurements, of course. I don’t know mine.
Signs are posted everywhere.
“We’ve suspended our fitting assistance services as a COVID-19 safety measure.”
I pick up a shirt.
It’s held stiff by a piece cardboard stock. It is filled with lethal pins. Tissue inside it crackles. I hold it up over my chest and glance in the mirror.
“Need any help, sir?”
A woman with a name badge asks me.
“Are you the one who helps people dress themselves?”
What a dumb way to ask that question.
“No,” she says.
“I don’t know my measurements at all.”
“We stopped helping with that for COVID-19.”
“Thank you, I saw the sign.”
“Let me know if you need anything else. We close soon.”
Loud speaker announcement overhead: ten minutes to close.
I look around.
This store is a big, lonely, unhelpful, place.
And I’m not going to get my shirt and tie before the television show tomorrow, am I?
“Perhaps I can help,” says a thick accent. Hard to say where the accent is from.
The speaker is an older guy. Argyle sweater, black slacks. Macy’s name tag.
“The sign says you can’t help me with the measurement.”
He stands six feet away. Squints his eye. Holds up his hand with thumb and forefinger apart like an old carpenter who doesn’t use rulers anymore.
“Seventeen, thirty-two, thirty-three,” he says. “Now stand shoulder to shoulder with me in the mirror.”
The starting COVID formalities are over, thankfully. Apparently, tape measures are what really spread disease.
“Would you say your neck is bigger or smaller than mine?” he asks me. “In thickness.”
“They look pretty similar, to be honest.”
“I agree,” he answers.
He brings me two a table of shirts of the right size.
I show him the grey suit I’m going to wear.
He grabs a cream color shirt and black tie.
Tucks the shirt into the suit and lays the tie on top. He gestures over the pairing.
“Here there is melody and counter melody,” he says.
His accent is too thick to ignore.
“Where are you from?”
“I am Armenian,” he says.
I shift my head and look at the dark tie.
“Hey. I didn’t notice it from the other angle, but there’s little glitters in there.”
“Where?” He shift the tie back and forth in his hand. “Ah, yes. It is wrong for you.”
He replaces the tie with another one.
“Here there is melody and rhythm.”
“It’s for a local TV show. That one might look weird.”
“Ah, nothing to make a rainbow in the camera.”
Loud speaker: five minutes to close.
“I know this rule,” the Armenian tailor says. “I was on TV once for music.”
“What do you play?”
“Symphonies, concertos, so on. Piano.”
He puts out a final shirt and tie pairing.
“Here there is melody and harmony.”
He makes a conductor’s grand gesture.
Yeah, that’s the best looking shirt and tie pairing he’s done.
“Ok, I’ll take it.”
We go to the cash register.
“They took away our commissions,” he says.
The bay lights overhead clang off. There’s one little lamp behind him.
“They want you to work with no tape measure and no commission?”
His forehead furrows and I can tell from his cheeks there is a pained smile under his face mask.
I look up at big, dark Macy’s.
“Hey,” I ask. “Do you write your own music, too?”
His eyes crinkle.
“I don’t like to say so, but since you ask,” he says.
He pulls out his phone. Plays a video on it. It is a symphony he wrote. A violin is playing. Then come deeper clarinets and cellos to harmonize with it. The music crashes into a big all-together repeat of the thing the violin was saying at the start.
“It’s amazing,” I say.
He tucks the receipt in the bag.
“Please enjoy your evening sir,” he says.
“Thank you, you too.”
He pauses the symphony on his phone, and tucks it into his pocket.
I leave the closed store, finding my way by the few security lights.