Caught Between Curfew & Culture | Colombia

I am doing the tightrope walk of organizing a date while sitting here under a plant that’s sprouting from a stone patio, with a view of the mild, mid-afternoon bustle of a middle-classish, family-friendly neighborhood, my back to the door of a $7 per night Airbnb in Colombia.

(In a cave with my book, Odd Jobs & After Hours. Get your copy on Amazon here.)

Food delivery guys on motorcycles with insulated red backpacks putter at slow speeds down the block. The U.S. Marine veteran in the room next to mine is also out on the porch. He is cursing the snot out of a video pundit on his iPhone, and chain-smoking.

And I am tapping, backspacing, Google translating, and double-checking my way through a Whatsapp conversation with a Colombian girl named Carla. We matched on Tinder.

Through clumsy, ham-fisted, beginner Spanish, I am laboring to achieve that detached yet interested, breezy yet clear, kind of gamesmanship that Whatsapp flirting requires. (What? You’re above it? You’re telling respond when you see a message and not when an appropriately coy period of time has passed? You get to the point and you don’t waste anybody’s time? I doubt that, friend. I doubt that very much.)

Ah, but Colombia! Colombia is a nation still capped by the cosmic dome of Catholicism. A people still cupped in the hands of God. Not like the bloated, broken, chimp children of the USA, desperate to suck all the money, food, and flesh they can into their faces while their little rock plummets through the void.

For this fundamental fork in our cultural backgrounds, when I asked for her address so I could send her a cab to pick her up, she snapped back, “A cab? To my address? I’m not a prostitute!”

Now, I thought I understood that in Spanish but I used Google translate to be sure.

I put the phone in my pocket, a take a walk around the block. When I get back to my Airbnb, there is another message from Carla.

“In the USA, the man can go over to a woman’s house for a first date, but it is different here.”

“I understand. I was only trying to offer you a ride to the restaurant.”

“Yes, I don’t have a bike or car, I need a ride.”

I set the phone down again. What’s caused by the language barrier here, and what’s her? Is it even worth the trouble of explaining to this…woman, that cabbie’s need, and actually outright demand, addresses? You can’t coo gently to them like homing pigeons, and let instinct guide them. Go where you feel, cabbie. She’s out there, somewhere. A new message banner appears.

“Can u send it here?”

She drops a pin at a cafe that logically must be within walking distance of her house.

“Yes. Does 6 work?”

“Can we do 8?”

“See you then!”

Time to whittle, time to pace, time to kick cans, and kill time.

But time does move on, and 8pm does arrive, and here I am in collared shirt and slacks, leather shoes, standing on a corner outsides a parrilla place.

Parrilla. It means grill. That seems kind of general. I read the Spanish menu posted outside the joint slowly, guessing my way through words I don’t know.

A cab pulls up to the curb, and out steps Carla, looking more or less like her pictures. Black hair, and good looking, like many Colombianas. Skittish steps. Darting eyes. (Is this neighborhood scary? Am I?)

We meet and do a quick cheek kiss. She laughs at my clunky Spanish. We get an outdoor table. I can pick out what she does: nurse, and share what I do: writer.

I manage to ask her what’s best on the menu, and she points to a mix of grilled meats over a bed of french fries. It has chicharrón, sausages, a grilled steak, some kind of sauce drizzled all over it. Peppers and onions in there, too. We get one of those and two mai tais.

Soon that becomes two mai tais for me, and one for her, because the bartender is quite talented, and all communication is a taxing effort.

She says something fast, something that ends in a rising, questioning tone.

“No sabo,” I say, and shrug. She bursts out laughing. I sip my mai tai, analyzing this. Smiling. Clearly, I am funny. And this is good. Right?

She types at blistering speed into Google translate on my phone. She shows me her English message.

“I can’t believe you said that!” it reads. “When someone speaks bad Spanish we call them no sabos. If you want to say I don’t know, say no sé.

I laugh and say no sé, no sé etching a deep, dark mental note.

The mixed grill over fries arrives. It’s a banger. Hot, fresh, and tasty.

We eat and chat about music, and movies, and work, and life, and English, and Spanish, and the USA, and Colombia. The mixed grill disappears, and the check appears.

Blue-raspberry and red raspberry lights blast through the windows of the restaurant. Sirens wail. The heroic Colombian police department is doing a slow, loud roll down the street. Restaurants and bars up and down the block give their lights the double blink.

“Curfew!” she says.

“For COVID?” I ask. She nods. Spanish roars out of a police megaphone. I check my watch. 10pm. A whole city on high school curfew hours.

I pay the check, and we’re out the door.

There are just so many cops! And that megaphone message, which is definitely enforcing curfew runs on a loop. People are vanishing left and right.

She tells me she needs a ride home, and I tell her I know. As I tap on my phone for a ride, she taps me frantically on the shoulder.

Two cars, two cars! You’re an honest woman, Carla, I got it, I know, we’re cool. The Uber I call for her arrives. And look at me, Captain Charming, I open the door for her. She sits in the cab, steps out suddenly, then gives me a quick kiss on the lips.

“Hide while your cab comes!” she says.

It’s interesting advice, probably wise. I nod.

Then I’m alone. It’s me, the law, and the great specter of COVID-19, making its deadly post 10pm rounds.

Giant potted plants line the outside of a hotel on a corner. I dart over, and crouch behind one plant before the police pass again. Red and blue lights wash around the round, matte ceramics of the plant pots, and shine through their spiky fronds. There’s that same megaphone message again.

The Uber driver sends me a message.

“Sorry! No rides after 10pm for COVID.”

No, that can’t be right. I try three more Ubers, but all decline. I try two yellow cabs. Same deal, no rides after 10pm.

I peek out from behind the potted plants at the empty street.

So here we are. It was 15 minutes to get here by car, which is (maps tells me) an hour fifteen by foot.

Hmm. Cops are out, I saw them tapping people on the shoulder to get them going on their way. Right now, the streets are empty.

What’s the move, here? Stick near buildings and start speed walking the hour fifteen back to the Airbnb?

It’s the only option, and I had better get going. Maybe I can periodically check to see if there’s a rogue driver looking for a final fair of the night.

I get going. Tap, tap, tap. Leather dress shoes, not too grippy, pretty hard-bottomed, on the empty street. Battery life dying fast. I take a notebook out of my pocket and copy down the street turns down in case the battery dies mid-journey.

Ten minutes into the walk. No signs of cabs or Ubers. Compliance all around.

Fifteen minutes into the walk, with the longest steps I can manage. Red and blue lights shine around the corner, so I step into an alleyway. The cops drive past while I’m crouched behind a dumpster. Then it’s back to hoofing it, to pitter-pattering along, making the big long trek home.

Twenty-five minutes into the walk, and 10 percent battery life left.

Ding! It’s a Whatsapp from Carla.

“Home safe! Smiley emoji. Thank you for lovely time. I’m going to bed now.”

And I look up at two stars, shining in the night between the buildings, and I take a deep, sweet, fresh, breath, and write back, “Happy for you! Sleep well.”

Then it’s back to the hike. Police sirens again. They’re getting louder faster which means that they’re not after me, they’re after a real crime. Right? I crouch next to a set of steps under an awning, and a squad car barrels down the street, sirens screaming.

Half an hour left to walk, and that’s easy, that’s doable, that’s practically recreational, but these dress shoes are hard as marble slates on the bottom, and they feel like they are too small now.

It’s around then I start turning over in my mind, “two cabs, you can’t ride with me then tell the driver where to go after, I’m home safe, I’m sleeping, that’s all that matters. I’m good! That’s all that matters!”

Not because I really mean it, but because it makes me laugh, and a little angry, and that keeps you going, going, going.

Phone is dead. Going off my paper directions. City zombies appear. There are maybe twelve homeless people in this next stretch of road. Swaying back and forth. Screaming into the night. I should take a right turn and try to get around them. But can I course-correct after the detour? Should I walk between them instead? They’re skinny, they’re not too dangerous. Right?

Or maybe…Or maybe they’re fueled by bitterness, hunger, and crack fumes, maybe they’re armed with shards of broken window wrapped in rags, and garden hoses with nails driven through the end to make spiky whips. Maybe they’ll smell Gringo on me, and descend like drooling junkyard dogs.

I take the detour, and trust I can still find my next turn.

My collared shirt is soaked with sweat. Feet still mad at me for wearing dress shoes for this unplanned hike.

Wait a minute. Who is this? One moped rider is going down the street. I step out and wave at him to come over. He’s a delivery driver going home. I can tell from the insulated red bag behind him. I hold up some peso notes and point at the address on my paper.

He gets it.

I climb aboard behind him, and he zooms through the final stretch of my walk-in about 7 minutes, even with a detour to avoid a police curfew checkpoint.

I thank him and hand him the pesos. I reach into my pocket for more to give him, but he refuses and drives home.

The veteran is still on the porch, still watching videos, still chain-smoking.

“Date go well?” he asks.

I do a quick recap of the date, the curfew, the trip back, and he finds the scenario hysterical.

“Put that story in your book!” he says.

Let myself into the room. Turn on the shower. Kick off the dress shoes.

I step into the cramped, narrow shower.

Didn’t get mugged! Didn’t get fined for violating curfew! Didn’t get lost. But wait. Did the date go well? Did I do OK? Was I weird? Ah, forget it.

No sé.

Epiphany in Medellin

***

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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.

Landing in Colombia

10 Best Things To Do In Medellin, Colombia At Night: Blast | Trip101
Medellin at Night

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***

Rain splattering the windows of the airplane.

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.

“No card!”

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?”

“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.

But hey, I made it. Bedtime.

To be continued.

Jumping Out an Airplane

skydiver art | Art, Artwork, Moose art

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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.

Jump!

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.

Waffle Home

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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.

Sharing a Surfboard | Florida

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***

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.

End

Symphony

I’m going to go on Merrimack TV and I don’t have any shirts and ties.

Got invited on Chattin’ with Jeanine to talk about my book.

I used to have shirts and ties, though.

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.”

“Exactly.”

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.”

“Very cool.”

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.

“Exactly, sir.”

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.

Drunk Owl

Enjoy this story and grab my book for rare stories you won’t find online.

Hour thirty of driving. Day three on the road.

Packed my life inside a Toyota Corolla.

Left Florida for New England a few days ago.

Now driving on a road in New Hampshire with granite cliffs on one side and mountain views on the other.

Black mountain shapes with red radio tower lights on top in the night.

A line of brake lights flares red ahead of me.

The cars start flowing around something.

Soon I will see what they are avoiding.

Headlights shine on the paved road texture.

They shine on a hooked beak and round face.

Feathery wings spread out their full span.

There’s an owl standing on the white dotted line between lanes.

Cars and trucks give him his distance.

Owl spreads his wings full span. Bobs his beaked head like a boxer.

Come at me, come at me, to every vehicle.

What’s with the attitude, little animal?

You’re only still alive because many strangers gave you a break and a brake.

Or maybe you’re trying to end it all.

Your little owl life got too dark and hopeless.

I come to a full stop and honk at him. He bobs his head at the car.

I lay on the horn. He flies away after a long blast.

Stubborn bird.

Drive on.

Images of South Carolina

Falling in with squatters and getting my stuff chucked out the window in Brooklyn. The violence and trash talk of a college rugby club. Read these stories and more in my book, Odd Jobs & After Hours

Boards of a two-block-long pier on the shore of Lake Marion slither in the waves like the spines of a great creature, creaking and groaning all the while.

Sunburnt strangers, white stripes of sunscreen striping the rounds of their bellies and slopes of their noses, wave from a passing pontoon boat.

On shore, fishermen bring just-caught catfish, grouper, and flounder to the back door of a wooden restaurant.

Soon the catch will be fried, basketed, and served with coleslaw.

Nearly all of the boats fly the Stars and Stripes on the top of their masts.

Three stray cats stretch themselves under trees dripping with Spanish moss, or they make moon eyes at outdoor diners for scraps of fish.

The sun is behind a grey haze of clouds.

The air carries clean water smell, and is loud with the senseless, perfect music of water.

Blonde women, one in a cut-apart flannel tank top and bathing suit, the other in a pink mega church t-shirt reading, “Jesus Loves this Hot Mess” sun themselves on the shore.

Smoke comes and goes in the air, brought by a cobblestone chimney on shore.

Trailers and RVs are hitched up for the night in a nearby parking lot.

It’s a sleepy southern evening, and Jesus loves this hot mess.

Circles in the Desert

Take delight in this free story & snag a wonderful book for stories you won’t find online.

Here I am on the end of a string.

Walking in circles.

The circles are getting bigger.

Why?

Pal Dusty & I are trying to find the head of a pin.

The pin marks the back-most boundary of our land.

I step over a shrub.

I walk through red chunks of broken boulder.

No pin yet. Its head is a little bigger than a 25-cent quarter.

It’s the exact same color as a quarter, too.

We have secured latitude and longitude now.

As well as a satellite GPS tool.

But the coordinates are missing two decimal places.

And for this estimate, we are two hundred feet away from our target.

(At least, this is merely another estimate.)

So Dusty feeds out a little more kite string. And I circle.

Horizon: sharp mountain, no mountain, smooth mountains, trees.

Back and forth across the red desert, searching for the head of this pin.

More kite string out. Wider circle.

Same, yet different shrubs, rocks, dead grass, sand underfoot.

Exact same horizon circle of sharp mountain, no mountain, smooth mountains, trees.

It’s easy work.

But dull.

Found it!

Under thick shrubs and branches so dry they look like beach wood, though of course, it is not, I see that silver metal head of a pin.

We build a brick-red cairn.

Big rock base, medium rock middle, little rock top.

Love cairns.

Dumb thing to love, but there you go.

That was the last pin we needed.

Now we know exactly where we live.

To be continued