Off to the Big Easy

23 02 2012

The drive to New Orleans was fun. We rented a car at the new Panama City airport and departed on a gorgeous January day. A new year beginning with longtime friends reuniting on a trip across the Gulf Coast.

Bjork didn’t have an American driver’s license so I handled the chores and was glad to be behind the wheel of a new Chevy Cruze. Like most seasoned travelers, Bjork was eager to check a few more states off his bucket list. This trip would be his first venture into Alabama and he joked that a new controversial immigration law the state had recently instituted might place us in danger.

I doubt those lawmakers had Brits in mind when they crafted this legislation. Nevertheless, we skirted across the Alabama coastline, stopping briefly at a “welcome center” to use the facilities and study some the of historical images plastered across its walls.

Bjork was fascinated by the civil rights struggles of the Deep South and the antebellum traditions that still remained entrenched across Dixie. In New Orleans, we toured some of the landmarks, cemeteries and museums that contained those stories as well as some of the more modern aspects  of Southern life.

On our first night in the Big Easy, we dined at a very upscale French restaurant. Bjork made the reservations in advance and I donned a jacket for the special occasion. It had been a while since I had been in such a nice restaurant and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. We talked a lot about my future, the frustration of my extended unemployment and desire to relocate.

Bjork has always been a good listener. I wonder sometimes if I shouldn’t have snapped him up a decade ago when I had the chance. I could be living in London now, living the ex-pat life with the intellectual elite crowd.

“David seems like a really great guy,” Bjork said, moving the conversation to what I did have.

“Yes he is,” I replied. “He has saved my life.”

“In what way?” Bjork asked.

“He has rebuilt me,” I said. “And he has brought me closer to God.”

For some thinkers this admission would have opened a whole debate about religion and the very existence of a higher power. Bjork didn’t go that route, however, and for good reason, I suspect. He had recently had a book published about the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe and confessed he was a spiritual person.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” I said. Bjork grinned and sipped on his glass of wine. It was one of those moments.

After dinner we rode the streetcar back to a boutique hotel in the garden district, where we bedded down for the evening. Along the way, I received a familiar text message from David.

“I love you” it read.

It was just what I needed to keep the allure of Bourbon Street at bay. I went to sleep that night happy to be traveling again with a dear friend and comforted to know I had a hero waiting for me at home.

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Monroe Management

20 12 2010

Monroe, Louisiana the night before Thanksgiving. Not even the gay bar is open. We did manage to find a local, independent restaurant by the river, built on warehouse site with beautiful cedar interior walls and a reputation for friendly service.

Jim went straight for the bar, passing by a pretty young waitress with no tables to serve. The place was empty, sans a few of the help.  When we pulled up the stools, the waitress, ever persistent, followed, but seeing three guys behind the bar, Jim didn’t give her the time of day. He put his order in with the bartender who turned to cook, who spoke to the manager, who approved and the waitress went home. Such a pro, that Jim.

We spent dinner mostly catching up on the past year’s events in local politics. Being a Republican, Jim kept his distance from my campaign. He did, however, attend our kickoff party on the Beach, which, as luck would have it, came on one of the most rainy and nasty days of summer. I recall my points on solar power getting a few chuckles that day.

After dinner we went back to the hotel, where a friend of Jim’s was working in the lounge. He was a native of Monroe and had seen Jim make this trip many times before. We chatted briefly about the economy, the oil spill, mutual connections in New Orleans, that kind of stuff. Nothing too probing.

The lounge was full with members of a wedding party. There were a lot of guys dipping smokeless tobacco and drinking out of bottles. Some made croonin’ attempts on the karaoke machine. It was rather amusing.

Jim and I retired back to the room after just one drink. As is customary, Jim sleeps with the television on, turned up loud — Fox News still his choice for information. We talked a little bit about Monroe. Jim told me how he did a lot of business with the paper mill here and the emergence of natural gas as a major industry for the region. Then he drifted off to sleep.

I settled into my bed and did a little social networking on my I-phone. The drive to Monroe didn’t seem near as boring as last year. I think my new glasses helped. This year, I was noticing different things, seeing people through different eyes and, there was no doubt, I was a different man.

Tomorrow we would give thanks — and we both had much to be thankful for.

 





Decompressing

13 12 2010

Hello All!

Just returned from vacation again with Jim. This year we were stronger, wiser and mucho mucho happier. I feel as if I grew up emotionally on this trip. I saw Las Vegas through new ideas. I met people with different perspectives, from different backgrounds and enjoyed our discussions.

At 74, Jim managed to drink me under the table. A former pilot, he adjusted to the altitude well. The Southwest continues to amaze me. The landscape so beautiful and the natives very hospitable.

It’s a newer America, wide open spaces, visiability for miles and miles. People live on ranches with large tracks of land. We city dwellers back East tend to forget just how close our quarters can be.

Monroe, Louisiana was the first stop again. An eight-hour drive from Panama City. It was the night before Thanksgiving and the city seemed quiet. There was a wedding party at the hotel and the festivities eventually spilled over into the bar.

This is where our adventure begins.

 





Hats off in Monroe

9 12 2009

The bartender at the Holiday Inn in Monroe was a woman with hair so red thoughts of Reba McEntire came dancing into my head.

Jim ordered us a couple of beers as I walked around the empty, darkened lounge. Football jerseys of past stars were framed on the walls. Most of the names I did not recognize, with the exception of an old Packers jersey, once worn by the great Brett Favre — Southern Mississippi’s favorite son.

It was the night before Thanksgiving and the lounge was dead. Reba bemoaned the local economy, serving quick notice that there would be no “2-for-1” specials on her watch.

This was no happy hour.

Reba said drugs were ruining Monroe and gambling was sucking the life out of the city.

Depressing stuff.

Before sinking deeper into Monroe’s sorrows, we left the lounge and headed into town for dinner at a nice riverfront establishment. Built on the banks of the Ouachita River, Warehouse No. 1 Restaurant came highly recommended.

There was valet parking out front, but Jim opted to handle that himself.

Once inside, we were greeted by the instant smell of cedar.

“Let’s eat at the bar,” Jim said.

This would become another signature of the trip. Eating at a restaurant bar was a somewhat foreign concept to me, but as Jim pointed out, “you get the best service when you eat at the bar.”

I ordered a steak filet medium well and they burned it pretty good. My beverage of choice, sweet tea, seemed to irk Jim and the young bartender, a burly fellow from Pittsburgh.

“I gotta pace myself,” I told Jim. The days ahead would provide ample drinking opportunities and I had to wade into those waters carefully. After all, my college years were well behind me.

Jim, however, drank like a fish. After dinner, he insisted we return to the hotel bar for another round. Reba was still there, as peppy as ever.

Jim tried to lift her spirits by promoting Panama City Beach as a prosperous place to relocate. He praised the emerging Pier Park development and told Reba if she wanted to make some serious cash in the service industry, PCB’s Margaritaville was the way to go.

That night, I had to help Jim back to the room. One too many rounds had made his walk a little wobbly.

Back at the room, Jim had a surprise in store for me.

“You’ve never seen me without my hair, have you?,” he said.

Jim proceeded to tell me about how he began to lose his hair at a young age. This was a huge confession on his part and I nodded understandably at every word.

He took off his silver-colored wig and went to bed — with the TV on, as was his custom, and the volume cranked up.

I had known Jim for more than seven years and always knew that he wore a wig, but seeing him without it was a shock to my system.

It made me focus more on his eyes.

His vanity made him appear more real.

Just one day into our trip together, Jim had revealed so much.

I wondered if I was doing the same.





Engineering a Road Trip

8 12 2009

Jim picked me up at half past eight on a Wednesday morning. As I would come to find out — Jim was a stickler for schedule.

“You’re going to learn all about engineering on this trip,” he said before setting his in-car computer with the necessary coordinates.

We were driving to Las Vegas and back from Panama City Beach and, yes, there was a daily itinerary.

The first leg of the trip was to Monroe, Louisiana, a place I had visited once before during my sports writing days. And much like its college football team, Monroe is quite depressing.

I was so ready to go that morning that, in the process of loading up the car, I forgot a very important piece of clothing….a heavy winter coat.

Thankfully, Jim came prepared with several coats and jackets. From leather to suede to material I can’t begin to name. Jim had it all covered. And as well he should, seeing how he had made this trip many, many times in the past.

Always at the same time of the year.

The Nissan Murano

Jim had most of what we would see already planned out. Reservations were made and dinner dates set.

My only request was that I see family in Dallas. It had been two long years since I last saw my brother…on his wedding day, in fact.

Keith was a father now. My how time flies.

On the way to Monroe, I tinkered with the I-phone, checking weather, stocks and Facebook. Social networking is a lifeline for so many these days, especially the country’s rising unemployed.

Jim wasn’t sold on Facebook. He scoffed at the idea of “strangers” knowing his daily activities. I found this somewhat amusing considering the fact Jim’s life was so planned out, you really didn’t need Facebook to know where he would be at any given time.

“John was a tappin’ and Gabe was a nappin’,” Jim liked to say.

This being a reference to the previous escort, Gabriel, who accompanied Jim out West last year.

Gabe, according to Jim, slept a good portion of the way. He was your classic hustler. A good looking boy with dark features that knew how to work a pool table.

While Gabe was a napping, John, the nerdy kid from Port St. Joe was a “tappin'” at his new I-phone, an “engenius” gadget that, however so cute, at any time could cause World War III.

John didn’t have Gabe’s stunning beauty, but he did keep up on current events.

At every layover from Florida to Nevada, Jim would have the television tuned to Fox News, a brodcast he felt was very “fair and balanced.”

We watched the news together and I tried hard to agree with Jim, although sometimes we had to “agree to disagree.”  Ultimately, each night we found common ground at that famous, and timeless, watering hole.

The hotel bar.