The Coast is Clear

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Yesterday I walked out on the 14th Street pier and stopped in Ocean Eddies. It was the dive I would frequent the summers during college. Back then the bar money was kept in a box and the register was a big brown monster. There was no a/c and the windows had to stay open in the oppressively humid night, but the live bands would wake up guests at the hotel I managed next door, so I had a deal with Eddie: I’d not call the cops on him and he quit the music by 1. Yesterday I paid for a drink and noted the same wood slat floors, but now there is a  deck. It felt good to have a drink above the sand, though thirty-five years ago the beach wasn’t as wide and more often than not the tide was just feet below the floor boards. 

I was nineteen when I got the job at the Sandcastle Hotel at 14th Street on the beach. The owner, Johnny Vakos, and I got along, and the manager, Jack, had a heart attack about a month after I started, so John made me manager. I stayed that way for four summers, May until August, working all shifts, dealing with every character conceivable. Sometimes at night I’d head out to Ocean Eddie’s on the pier behind the hotel and swap stories with other locals over margaritas. Sometimes when I worked the overnight shift, come morning I’d head up to the seventies past all the hotels and sleep on the beach, and later in the day friends would show up and we’d waste away an afternoon swimming and listening to music. At night we’d all head to Sondra’s Restaurant or the Jewish Mother or Fantastic Fenwick’s Flying Food Factory to listen to our friend Jonmark Stone play guitar. But come the IMG-20160524-04409following morning I was back at the beach, working the desk, talking to Niki the bike rental girl, bs-ing with guests about where to eat or the weather or surf conditions. I only have to think about those days and I can smell the salt air.

That part of my life stayed in my blood and every once in a while it passes through my heart and becomes real again. We all have periods of long ago like that. For me it’s probably this place because I’ve almost always lived near the ocean, or maybe it’s because our brains and bodies and this planet are all about seventy percent water and I simply feel the tug of the tide. Perhaps I just like the sound of the surf. But I’ve not come upon many places in my travels which simply don’t change. Old neighborhoods seem smaller, the trees suffocate the once open fields, and old hangouts usually have new crowds, or shut down, weeds pushing through parking lot pavement, some window broken and boarded near the rusted dumpster.

The rest of nature can show signs of change as well. Forests give way to fires, or new growth simply pushes out old oaks changing the landscape; rivers erode at the banks, and while the mountains can retain their majesty, trails and roads can rip small scars across the land, or some new cabin is built whose windows catch the sun and the glare flickers across the valley.

But I can stand on the sand behind the pier and know what i’m going to see. Certainly some days are rougher than others, and in winter a white foam can gather at the break point, but it is the same as it ever has been. The strength of a wave is like no other natural force on earth. Just to stand in the surf waist deep is a lesson in mobility and resistance no physics class could replicate. At some point you give in and fall back or dive forward, and feel that dark, salty, always slightly cool water sweep across every aspect of your body.

And when you look out across the vastness of nothing but blue water, steel blue, metallic greenish slate blue water, you are looking out at exactly what John Smith saw when he first landed a mile and half up the beach four hundred years ago. It is what Powhatan saw, and whatever wandering seaman or viking or ancient civilization saw, exactly the same. Maybe rougher, maybe in the morning perfectly still like glass. Maybe the tide was higher, or so low they could walk out to the scallop beds and pull them up by the load. But it is the same. Exactly.

I can stand here and it might as well be 1979, or ten years earlier and four hundred miles further north, on the beaches of Long Island. It simply makes sense. We all need a place to go that makes sense. 

I read once that we all should discover a “third place.” We have home, which comes with it certain responsibilities and routines. We have work with its predictable patterns of give and take. But we need a third place that is neither, that is ours to claim how we want, and gather with friends, or be alone, and let our stresses and expectations dilute in the deluge of “somewhere else.” For many it is a bar, or a coffee shop, or a park or a gym. For me, back then, I thought it was Ocean Eddies where I learned more about people than I ever cared to know. But it wasn’t; it was outside, on the sand, looking out toward Portugal, toward Spain, and Africa. Looking up the coast toward the Island and wondering if anyone I used to know was looking south. 

We all need a third place. We all have somewhere that gets in our blood. 

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Stealing Home

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This Monday, May 23rd, is my dad’s birthday. He would have been ninety-one. A few years ago I wrote a trilogy about Dad which remains some of my favorite writing and memories. This is Part Two of the Trilogy originally published in Kestrel Journal, with part three later picked up for a Norton Anthology.

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Sons

“Big Al” came in the Harris House Pub by eleven-thirty every morning for a few Buds and a pack of cigarettes. He couldn’t see well, and in fact worked at a nearby diner whose proceeds provided aid to the blind. He’d sit at the bar and talk about his daughter and how she doesn’t call anymore, and about his son who he hasn’t seen since he was young, who told him once, “I’m not spending my days dogging it for my blind dad.” Al was truly a big man and moved slowly. He’d gaze with difficulty across the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen, and walk the snowy streets with his hand touching the wall. He’d pause every once in a while and wait and then continue, eventually swinging open the old door to the Harris House to sit on the same stool closest to the door, order his Bud and begin the questioning.

“Who played in the first world series? Who won?”

I’d laugh and make a few drinks for other customers then wander into the back. When I returned with ice for the bin I’d say, “Pittsburgh versus Boston, 1903, and Boston won …um…five to three!”

“Excellent, Bob, here’s another quarter,” he’d say and laugh, saying to his friend Kenny at the next stool how I was a walking encyclopedia of baseball facts.

“Who struck out more batters in his career than anyone else?”

I’d return with hot food from the kitchen for a customer. “Too easy, Al, I grew up watching him when he was with the Mets! Nolan Ryan!”

Another quarter hit the bar.

My co-worker Sandy figured I had a baseball encyclopedia in the back but I told her I didn’t.

“When was the first professional baseball league formed?”

I’d roll out a keg, and while tapping it tell him, slowly in a state of recollection, “1871.”

Two bits more.

Kenny followed me to the kitchen after one of Al’s questions and heard me on the phone: “Hey, highest batting average. Cobb? What was it? 367—got it, talk to you soon.” I turned and he laughed. “Some hotline?” he asked. “Dad,” I told him.

“Cobb. 367,” I said, placing another beer on the counter without charging him. Al never lost a dime.

Back before cell phones, when payphones were standard, my father had an 800 number at his desk, and wherever I traveled in the United States I could call him for free—from the Arizona/Mexican border, from Maine, from every dusty state in between. I’d tell him where I was and how life was progressing, and he’d tell me what was new with him, my mom, and life in general in Virginia Beach. A certain peace permeated the air back then, a silent sense of security until the next payphone in the next state.

Dad’s hearing, of course, has grown weak, and he rarely talks on the phone. He watches the games with subtitles on, but they don’t always keep up with the announcers rapid-paced reporting. It’s harder to see the score box on the television and sometimes keeping track of what’s going on is frustrating. When that happens he tells me about his youth in Brooklyn, the Branch Rickey days of the Dodgers, and going to Ebbett’s Field with his friends or his father. He still knows the players’ names, the records, the managing staff and where they went after the Dodgers went to California. He asks me to read the time so he can watch the weather, unless the Mets are playing, and David Wright is on deck, and while the World Series may not be in the cards for the home team this year, Dad takes each game one at a time.

We’re into extra innings now, breaking records just by marking time. I loved going to games with him in New York, or watching New York games with him on television in Virginia, like I loved calling him up for facts.

Through it all, though, baseball had nothing to do with it.

 

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I miss you Dad.

 

 

Student Comes to See Me

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I cleaned out some old boxes in my office last week and found an old postcard from Australia. Then I remembered where it came from:

Student comes to see me. He says he can’t handle the pressure of school. I tell him I think he’s a good student and he says yes, he can do the work, he just can’t stand it. He hates it, he says. He gets bored fast. It’s a good conversation, honest. Had we been somewhere else we would have talked over beers. He looks at his watch and says he has to work in a few hours and sighs. He runs his own roofing company but hates that too. He has six grand invested in equipment and no help and he just dreads doing the work now. He says he’s at some fork in the road, two paths that look the same so he’s frozen, easier to just stay put. He gets quiet and stares at a photograph on my wall of a village in Africa. Looks nice he says, like he wants to say anything to forget what he’s really thinking about. Then he remembers and sighs again. He’s quiet for some time and I find myself drifting.

I worked at a bar. No bills but good money and mindless work; the kind of work where if you don’t think too much about what you’re doing, you can keep on smiling. I know I spent a few years there but it seems like it was always winter, all grey and bone-cold. One morning I woke on a bench near a lake in a park and didn’t know how I got there. I had to work a few hours later but never made it. I drained my accounts, stuck a little aside, then bought a ticket to Africa. Turns out changing my life, kicking my own ass out of the same ‘ol same ‘ol, was as easy as jumping off a cliff knowing you’re either going to land on your feet or learn how to fly. I landed on my feet and boring disappeared from my life.

But this student has trouble talking about it, so I talk: I get that feeling in my chest too, I say. Tight, constricting, difficulty breathing. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the sense that something needs to change. It’s the Philosophy class with five minutes left of three hours and the prof starts another chapter because there are still five minutes left; it’s the meeting you can’t tolerate but you’re in a row of seats with too many people on both sides so you can’t leave; it’s that this-homily-is-way-too-long feeling. It’s the feeling you’re just one day away from something else, but then that day comes and you find yourself one day away from something. It’s the Whitman poem about astronomy; the wide awake at three am feeling and you can’t move so you stare at the alarm clock. Exactly, he says. I’m always staring at the clock, he says. I’d love to know what you’d do, he says.

I tell him about a bar somewhere I didn’t belong. I remember working and then not working but I don’t remember what happened between the two. I just recall waking up one day in the peace-of-mind of another world, centuries away from being behind bars; like I could finally breathe on my own. I remember dreading the moment between what was and what was next so I just kept pouring drinks, but then one day I didn’t. He looked at me like I was looking in a mirror. Then he says he’s going to work and he leaves. 

Six months later he sends me a postcard from Australia. Don’t know when I’ll be back, it says. When I am, let’s get some beers and talk. I look forward to it but, of course, way leads on to way, and I doubt he ever came back.

Outback 7

The Genderfication of America

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I had to fill out an online form for a writer’s conference and I knew all the answers about my identity but one.

Gender.

Okay, hold on: I know I’m “male.” Or at least I thought so. The anatomy suggests so, as does my need to shave daily, my voice, and my bend towards dark beer.

But the form had a drop down menu, and when I hit the little arrow to expose what I thought would be a binary choice, male or female, with a possible third entry of some form of Trans, I found these eleven options:

Male

Female

Agender

Adrogenous

Bigender

Cisgender

Gender fluid

Intersex

Transsexual

Transgender

A gender not identified here

I had to look up some of them.

The first two along with Transgender and Transsexual all seem obvious, though one might argue that if a Male or Female does trans to the other, once the trans is done they are officially the other gender. Transsexual and Transgender, like Male and Female, are well established terms, one being the operation is complete, the other the “identification” is complete but the packaging is original. For the latter Trans option, I asked myself if I identify more with the other “standard” gender—Female—than I do my birth gender, Male. If the answer had been yes, then I’d have checked Transgender. That was an easy one, though it almost sent me searching for a bathroom.

Agender totally baffled me. Bigender I understood, particularly if I had been born with a mixture of gender identifiers (see Intersex below), or I never quite Transed all the way and am still walking the line between genders—bigender it is. But agender—having no gender—doesn’t make sense to me. I suppose if I simply couldn’t identify with either (as opposed to having tendencies to identify with both), I’d be absent gender—agender. But then I still feel like I would have to make some call in the matter. At the end of the day I really do have to pee, and at some point I need to commit. Bigender implies I can use either bathroom, of course. But agender leaves me hanging. I have nothing on that one.

Adrogenous was easy; I am of the age to well remember “Adrogenous Pat” of Saturday Night Live. In this case I am drawn toward parallels with bigender, though now I think this might better explain agender. The middle ground here gets murky. Bigender, agender, and adrogenous all imply similar non-committal answers to the initial question. Still, I do not think they’re synonyms. In fact, agender and bigender might be precise opposites with the same outcome. One identifies with neither and the other both, leaving both in a holding pattern when it comes to decision making. Just writing that makes me feel uninformed, so my confusion could very likely be lack of experience and information more than lack of clarity on the part of the form. This is a writer’s conference, after all.

Cisgender is crystal clear. Cisgender is when I solidly identify with my birth gender. No freaking pink paint or rainbows in my room, Bucko. This is where the answer to the initial question is not “Male” but “you’re damn right I’m male, asshole.”

Gender fluid makes me uncomfortable. As such, it basically means at any given moment I can move unseen between the two dominant genders, which is very different from transgender where the move is deliberate and usually one-way. There is a breed of sandpiper here on the east coast that is gender fluid. I am not belittling people who are as well. I just don’t know of any but I have seen the sandpipers, so relax.

Intersex is less confusing than it seems. It feels a lot like gender fluid but it turns out this is when someone is a hermaphrodite—born very clearly with both dominant gender organs apparent. I figure by the time someone is old enough to fill out a form for a writer’s conference and has to choose this option, he/she has already transitioned, or at least might probably check the bigender box, though bigender implies “identity” whereas intersex is a physical reality. It is possible to be intersex but completely identify with only one of the two, making an altogether new, hyphenated category.

What makes my mind wander, however, is gender not identified here. In coming up with that option, wouldn’t the list creators had to have at least entertained at least one other, or is that option to leave the door open for some combination not yet considered? They may have been thinking about the US Navy vet who went through an operation to become like a tiger. He grew whiskers and had a mechanical tail surgically implanted. Check transfeline if you fall into this category.

For the record, I have friends in nearly every one of these categories, and they can share a bathroom with me anytime. I’m going to have a Guinness Stout and finish the application.

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