Good Morning, OB

To the left of the stairs leading up to the pier at Ocean Beach in San Diego, there is an overstuffed couch. A couple of guys with heavy blond dreadlocks are sitting on the couch and smoking while others in various types of homeless thick-wear (wearing everything you own) are wandering about, chatting, looking bored already. It is just 8:00 in the morning. The guys on the couch are too far away to say hello to, I tell myself. Plus they seem oblivious to me and why shouldn’t they. Another tourist looking at them. I go up the stairs to the pier.

At the top of the stairs, on the little space that is available to stand and admire the ocean and watch the surfers, the rest of the pier shut off to pedestrians for some reason not explained, there is a young woman in a black shirtdress that is gathered snug at the waist with a skirt that puffs out like there is a petticoat underneath. She looks ready for work, sprightly and tailored. She is wearing flip flops which seems incongruous given her dress and when she leans against the bridge railing and stands on her tiptoes to peer at people below, I see that the bottoms of her feet are black, as black as a five-year old going barefoot all day in the summer, but more, days’ worth of black. It has been a long time since her last shower. Still the dress, it seems fresh. I wonder how she keeps it that way.

Next to the pier, a parking lot has every space filled by residential vehicles, mostly vans but not all, some cars. The windows are covered with towels and shirts. People may be living in their cars but they want privacy, for heaven’s sake, reminding myself. People create places for themselves and the places have walls and doors that close even if those things are cars with windows covered with towels or tents with zippered flaps. The parking lot looks like a village. People have lived there a long time.

It is one thing to be homeless but have your place, however ginned up it is, and quite another to be out in the open with nothing, to sleep on the low wall along the sidewalk at Ocean Beach, say, completely exposed to everyone and everything. There are two women doing just that, both wrapped in blankets, sitting up wearily as I walk by, looking as if they are surprised they are still where they were the night before. I consider what it would be like to shut my eyes while I lie out in the open, to sleep exposed to the world although I’ve been told some people would rather be out in the open and see what’s coming than be in a tent and be surprised by what is outside. I don’t know.

None of the homeless people I see approach me. No one asks me for anything. One man says good morning but only one. It’s as if I don’t exist in their world, like I am invisible and I probably am. There are so many of us tourists walking by guarding our phones and our wallets, it must get tiresome, to have to live your life with all the onlookers, especially ones you know will go home and talk about you, all the homeless in San Diego, how they are all over the beach, and what a terrible problem they are.

In Flight

It is a writer’s dream, flying high at sunrise. The plane is quiet in the way it is in the beginning of a flight when everyone is silent in reflection and hopefulness, hope for a good weather, hope for a great vacation, hope the plane doesn’t crash.

As soon as I write those words, the plane starts to jiggle, adjusting itself to new air, a new level. Stepping higher can be rough business sometimes and I never assume a flight that starts out smooth will stay that way.

I start each flight figuring it’s my last. I don’t pray to land in one piece. Instead I just give myself over to the fates. I repeat a mantra I made up thirty years ago the first time I flew after probably five years of swearing off air travel, the reason for the decision forgotten but probably due to heartbreak involving airplanes, not people dying, but them being separated and sad and overwrought. Not people, me. I connected planes with being sent packing, pretty much over and over again by the same person. The routine of it was exhausting  and created in me a place of almost permanent melancholy.

My mantra is a sign-off, a thanks for the memories kind of thing, short so I can repeat it a dozen times between when the plane revs up and when it is completely off the ground. It’s a farewell. To the earth, to my people, to my life. And once I’ve said it those dozen times (not counting, but estimating), it’s like sealing an envelope and putting it in the big blue mailbox that used to be down the street from my house, on the corner where my kids waited for the school bus. The mailbox is gone now and so are they. No one mails letters anymore anyway.

The pilot just instructed the flight attendants to take their seats.  We are in thick clouds and the flying is very bumpy. For a while, it seemed we would quickly be above it all, reach that blue sky over the clouds and sail along like swans on a cool summer pond. I could drink my coffee and marvel at my good luck rather than worrying that the wing is about to snap in half. That I am resigned to the fates doesn’t mean I don’t worry.

It’s smooth now and the seatbelt sign is off. The flight attendant will bring my coffee soon which means I can sit and have the perfect life I imagine myself having. I look at the clouds below, thick like the cotten batting loosed from an old quilt. And I can begin to see the ground, farms with the land in squares, infintesimal houses where people are sitting in their overalls and eating oatmeal. I could have had a life like that. It’s not so foreign. My life could have gone in a hundred different directions.

Nostalgia for Canned Goods

When I was a kid, we took weeks’ long trips out West in a black ’49 Ford, the three of us kids sitting in the back seat, me in the middle most of the time to keep my sister and brother from hitting each other although sometimes that wasn’t enough and my mother would have to relinquish her spot to come in the back seat and my brother would move to the front seat with the window down and he would hold his arm out in the wind as if he was the king of the world, and at night, we would roll into small towns and look for a motel and my dad would send my mom in to see if the room was okay which it usually was if it was cheap enough, the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling notwithstanding, and we would all stay there, my folks in the bed and the rest of us camped out, I don’t remember how, and in the morning, my dad would splash water on us and shout “Rise and shine!” and we’d gather up our things and pile into the Ford and then we’d stop after a good while at a roadside picnic table where my dad would set up the Coleman stove and put the coffee pot on and then he’d dump a can of potatoes into an iron frying pan and then crack six eggs, one extra, and slice in squares of Velveeta Cheese which we ate on paper plates, that was how we traveled.

Lunch at Brownie’s Cafe

“How’s your omelet?”

“Good,” he answered. “Unusual, because there’s cheese inside and on top, too.” But it wasn’t gooey, drenched in cheese, the omelet was dry with brown edges like the cook wanted to make sure everything was cooked hard. It was how I would make an omelet, leaving nothing to chance. There would never be anything runny about an omelet I made. I felt at home at Brownie’s, they did things right here.

My BLT was three inches thick, a layer of well-done bacon and then a fat slice of tomato and a wedge of iceberg lettuce between two slices of toasted white bread. I took a bite of the coleslaw and slid the little dish across the table. “Taste it, Miracle Whip.” He did but didn’t mind it. I puzzled over that, how it didn’t bother him when he’d only eaten real mayonnaise the entire 35 years I’ve known him.

We talked about this for a while and then dropped it. There are entire swaths of the country that use Miracle Whip and we will never know that until we travel to those places because who, after all, would advertise this particular fact to prospective visitors? It did make me consider my earlier affection for Brownie’s to have been too hasty.

At the next table, an older couple sat on opposite sides and ends of the table, as far away from each other as it was possible to be. It seemed their intention was to not have to look at each other, they might have been wiser to sit at the counter. He ordered chicken-fried steak and she ordered a taco salad and when their lunches came, they ate, looking down at their plates, him with his arm on the table and her with her arm clutching her purse in her lap. They said not a single word the entire time.

I wondered whether they disliked each other or had just run out of things to say. You can always inquire about the taco salad, I thought. “How’s your taco salad? Does it have Miracle Whip on it?”

At the next table, another older couple sat directly across from each other. He was a very old, small, Western dude with a button shirt tucked into old jeans held up by a leather belt with a big old buckle. She was twice his size in height and weight, wearing a t-shirt and big, flappy jeans, and her hair was pulled back from her face and held with a barrette like she might have worn it when she was 17.

They were also serious eaters. She was eating French fries in such a careful and appreciative way that I wanted to order some. She dipped each fry in catsup and brought it to her lips like it was escargot prepared by a famous French chef. It was beautiful to watch. He ate with his arm on the table like the other man, but his arm seemed relaxed somehow like he as there to enjoy his soup or chili as much as his wife relished her fries. They didn’t talk either but they didn’t seem unhappy or mad.

We talked. First about the omelet and then about the coleslaw, then about Yuma and how far we were from the cut-off for Ajo and Organ Pipe National Park where we were headed before going back to Phoenix through Gila Bend. We talked a little bit about work, a little about our grandkids, some about other road trips we might take, and a little about Brownie’s and how we’d managed to find such a place without even looking.

We hadn’t run out of things to talk about, at least not yet.

Why Not Friday Round-Up

Why, Arizona can be a question or a place depending on whether you use a comma. The first time we came through “town” I saw the official sign for Why that included when it was established and how many people live there. So the whole time we were somewhere else I thought about how clever it would be to Instagram a photo of that sign with the caption, “This is Why,” but we couldn’t find the sign coming back without making a dozen U-turns to check out signs which you don’t want to do on AZ 85 when the sun is setting.

We’ve been gone for much of March, first to Alaska and then to Arizona. In both places we drank their local beer and we came home fat from thinking every night was a special occasion. We live now in the land of corporate beer and an unforgiving scale which I constantly adjust to make sure the line is exactly on the zero before I weigh myself. I lost half a pound that way this morning.

I stopped writing for a week and it felt good. It felt like I was out from under for a while, free of practically every obligation (being out of town and on the road a fair amount of time will do that), and free from thinking about whether anyone was reading what I had written. I quit the constant checking of my phone, turned off the reinforcement faucet for a while. I decided not to write anything until I missed writing which I did, finally, this morning. In anticipation, I started to make a list of themes last night but I forgot them until now.

Being physically present is no accident. We took a bit of a detour on our way from Phoenix to Organ Pipe National Park to see our grandkids in San Diego. And their parents. But mostly the grandkids – 5 year old twin boys and a 14 year old girl. It was six hours each way which is a lot for most people but not really for us because we like being on the road so much. The next morning while I sat watching TV with one boy, the other one, slow to wake, came out of his room, climbed up on the bed  and hugged me. I sat feeling his blond head resting on my back, his little wordless morning self. I didn’t want to breathe or speak lest he quit to run off and begin his day.

I delivered 4,379 tampons and pads and 60 pairs of women’s underwear to the Salvation Army today. This was after lunch with a good friend who asked me, quite pointedly, if delivering menstrual supplies was my end game for my Time of the Month Club effort or was there a bigger agenda and I told her, yes, that collecting menstrual supplies for homeless women gives me ‘talking rights’ on policy and programs which is true but also true is that packing my pink bags with boxes of tampons and pads and new underwear for women I don’t know and will probably never meet is weirdly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Don’t even ask me why. I have no clue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ambition

What a good trip gives me, oddly, is ambition.

And to feel ambitious is wonderful. I love the potential of ambition, the hopefulness of it, the sense that there are things still to be accomplished, the belief that I could do so many things if I decided to. It’s all in the deciding, not in anything else.

Ambition is powerful.

Here’s why this good trip to Alaska gives me ambition. I only have with me the possessions I can carry. I have my jeans and a hoodie and a lot of socks and three pairs of boots and my parka. I don’t have my office, the shelves full of books, and the drawers full of papers. I don’t have the ice on the driveway, the aged dog on the carpet, people wanting me to show up places. So I’m unencumbered except for my traveling companion with whom I am fine being encumbered.

Seeing people doing different things than I have done gives me ambition. The last Iditarod musher to leave the chute yesterday, #53, is a 67-year old nurse practitioner. She’s run the race before, never won, never placed, but she has finished. She’s 67 and she’s going on a 1,000 dog sled journey by herself, stopping at checkpoints for brief periods where she alone has to care for her dogs, and then taking off in the dark across rivers and mountains alone. So, yeah, she makes me feel ambitious, she makes me feel strong, and not old enough to have already reached my full potential. 

Imagining how it would be to live in Alaska makes me feel ambitious, knowing that I could move here if I wanted to, that I have the gear for it, at least, and the weather is no worse than Wisconsin in most places. There is nothing keeping me from becoming an Alaskan. One could say that about becoming an Floridian as well but it would not be relaxing moving here. I would really have to pay attention, this doesn’t seem to be the place for layabouts. 

Ambition is a gift.

I have been making a mental list of my ambitions – writing, publishing, advocacy, service, travel, physical challenges. There are a dozen beautiful things to do and knowing that makes me feel like a million bucks. It’s what a good trip does – charges me up to go be great. It’s magical.

If you are feeling stuck, go somewhere, anywhere, with your phone in your pocket and a change of clothes in a bag. Go remember how to get excited about what comes next, about what you will make happen next. Trust me, new ideas and new goals will sprout everywhere you look and you will need to keep a list.

 

 

99 New: Fooled Us

In the last episodes, you can see it coming but only if you know how it turned out with Anthony Bourdain ending his unique, envied life by himself in a hotel room while the rest of the world thought he was on top of it, rolling wild flavors on his tongue, sipping endless indigenous spirits like he had all the time in the world, in no hurry to push himself away from the table, the light from the streetlamp and the single candle glowing his worn face, giving his eyes sparkle they may not have had in the day’s sunshine.

____________

Photo: kottke.org