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.

 

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A New Perspective on Family

9 03 2010

I woke up around 10 a.m. Sunday morning. It was one of those rare mornings on the trip that Jim didn’t rouse me at the crack of dawn. And for that I was grateful.

I called Keith and he said he’d be by the hotel in about an hour to pick me up. I was looking forward to spending the day with my brother, Courtney, his loving wife and their beautiful baby girl Dillan.

Keith took me back to their townhouse in nearby Irving, a suburb of Dallas that for many years was home to the city’s beloved professional football team — the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were my childhood favorite team and I watched many a game on Sundays after church. Dad usually watched them with me, but for some reason, he never rooted for the Cowboys. Dad always sided with the team playing the Cowboys. Maybe this was his way of establishing a rivalry between us.

Keith always rooted for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, even when they won just a couple of games. He was loyal like that. Still is.

But on this Sunday, football was far from anyone’s mind. At the townhouse, Courtney pulled out their wedding album and suddenly we were skipping down memory lane. They had been married just a few short years, but the images seemed like so long ago.

For a guy my age, I haven’t been to many weddings. Just not my scene. Maybe one day I will tie the knot. They say it’s a life changer. Much like having a child. My little brother has done both and I am very proud of him.

Looking through the photos with Courtney was a bonding experience. My mother looked so happy. It was fun dancing with her at the reception.

After looking at pictures, we went shopping in the SouthLake section of Dallas. Turns out, dining with a toddler can be quite entertaining. Dillan was well behaved but she requires a lot of attention. You gotta make sure she doesn’t put just anything in her mouth. And luckily, she didn’t throw her food at anyone. I’m pretty sure I did that as an infant.

After we were finished, Keith left a hefty tip. “We like to eat out just like everybody else,” he said.  This was a new perspective on family.

I was impressed at how well Keith navigated the stores, especially that bustling Barnes & Noble, with a loaded down stroller. It made me think about the summer in New York and noticing all those young couples pushing their baby strollers through Central Park.

Strolling through SouthLake

I remember the look on their faces. For some, it was a look of sacrifice, while others appeared downright miserable. And then, there was the couple whose smiles could light up Broadway.

That’s what I saw from Keith and Courtney. I guess you would call it joy.

That night, after baby girl was put down to sleep, Keith helped me download some songs to my I-Pod. We talked a little about the upcoming college bowl season and then it was time for me to leave.

Courtney gave me a big hug and she asked Keith to take a few pictures of us. When I left, she had a tear in her eye. I hope it was a tear of joy. I really don’t care to be pitied. It’s way overrated.

On the ride back to the hotel, Keith and I mostly talked about the economy. He said the recession was starting to creep into his health care sector and, like most of us, he was none too thrilled.

“It’s going to get better,” I tried to assure him. At that point, the entire trip’s air of optimism had taken hold, “And, we’ll all be stronger for it.”

When I got back to the room, Jim was already fast asleep. We had a 12-hour drive back to Panama City ahead of us.

And I was ready to go home.





Dallas ReDeux

18 02 2010

Roswell to Dallas was the next leg of the trip. It was our second go-around in “Big D” and Jim, not one to detour from schedule, had us booked in the same high-rise off the interstate in Irving.

I called my brother as we got into town and we made plans to get together the next day, a Sunday. I was looking forward to seeing little Miss Dillan again.

That night Jim and I had dinner at the Black Eyed Pea restaurant. It was in the Oaklawn neighborhood, a trendy section of Dallas and fairly crowded. I think the drawing power of this place isn’t the food but it’s proximity to J.R.’s.

Erected in Dallas

After our meal, we walked down to J.R.’s for a drink. Funds were starting to run low, so Jim advised we had best order beer. During our first swing through, I had let the conversation come to me. This time, knowing it would be my last metro, urban experience for a while, I decided to get more aggressive with the patrons.

At this hour it was mostly those professional types. Guys with jobs, careers and a whole ‘lotta attitude. Challenge accepted.

As we sat with our backs to the bar, I noticed a group of guys standing around, drinks in hand, and shooting the bull. They were obviously all friends and it was nice to see. Naturally, I focused on the smallest one, a Ginger dressed in a sweater and slacks. Preppy as hell. When he made his way to the bar to order drinks, I saw my opening and introduced myself as a tourist from Florida.

“Oh, ok, welcome,” he said and smiled.

I introduced the Ginger to Jim and then he asked why we were in Dallas.

“I have family here,” I said. “My brother lives in Irving.”

The Ginger thought that was nice and must have picked up a decent enough vibe off me to introduce Jim and I to his gaggle of friends. They were all pretty swell guys. The senior statesman of the bunch was a married fellow who apparently liked to hang out with gay men. I enjoyed talking with him. Turns out it was his birthday and the guys had brought him to Oaklawn on a Saturday night to celebrate. Surprisingly, the married guy knew a lot about Panama City. Much more than the Ginger.

The Ginger was a school teacher. That explained his preppy look. He was a tad older than me, but not by much. One of his friends was an insurance adjuster and surly as hell. One of those queens that thinks he’s better than everybody else. I gave him my card, but he didn’t seemed impressed.

The Ginger, however, was very sweet. He invited Jim and I to join his group next door at the dance club. Jim had been before and was interested in seeing the laser light show. We made it in just before the cover charge kicked in, which was a good thing for a Saturday night. The place was huge, multiple levels with bars, stages and sofas everywhere.

After we walked around for a while, the group settled on an upstairs room with glass walks overlooking the dance floor. Jim took a seat up close so he could watch the lights and the people dancing below. The music was very loud and very trance like.

The Ginger took a seat by me on the sofa. He was clearly smitten and I, quite frankly, enjoyed his company. My aggressive tactics were paying off and sure enough, the Ginger invited me back to his place to spend the night.

“I have to tell you, it’s a small loft,” he said. “But, it’s close by.”

I thanked him, but declined the offer. My priority tomorrow was family and I was determined to get a good night’s sleep. This seemed to impress the Ginger even more and he gave me his number, insisting I call when I was free.

I never did.

Jim and I left the club just as the youngsters began filing in.

“So you turned him down, huh,” Jim cracked as we drove back to the hotel. He knew what was going on. The ol’ engineer wasn’t watching just the light show.

“Yeah, I guess I did,” I said.

Jim laughed and then he said something, I will not soon forget, “The hunt can be more fun than the conquest.”

Wise words indeed.





Leaving Las Vegas

5 02 2010

We didn’t eat well in Vegas.

I had begun to notice Jim didn’t have much of an appetite. He did, however, like clockwork down a full glass of milk each night. He always ordered it warm. Sometimes Jim would get pissed when the waitress failed to follow his special directions of bringing the milk after dinner.

This happened inside the Sahara’s first floor restaurant. It was a pretty shitty restaurant by Vegas standards. Horrible decor. The only cool thing about the place were these huge photos of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior and Dean Martin plastered across the walls. Dining, as it turned out, was one thing Jim didn’t do first-class in Vegas.

The waitress working the Sahara diner was a shapely number, but she didn’t get our order exactly correct. In her defense, she was not an American. I noticed her accent and features and quickly popped the question.

“Are you Russian?,” I asked.

“No,” she firmly replied. “Romanian.”

So the Romanian took our order but did not stick around for any ideal chit-chat. She seemed way more concerned with cleaning off the nearby tables.

There was a decent amount of people in the restaurant. Some families, a lot of old people and booth full of hipsters laughing and having a good time over pancakes and scrambled eggs. One guy and two girls. All dressed just cute as a button and suddenly I felt jealous. Youth can do that you.

It was during our dinner that night that Jim revealed to me his brush with death some years ago. I can’t remember the exact details, but the condition landed Jim in the hospital and was severe enough for funeral plans to be made.

I had heard a version of this story before. Not from Jim, but from his close friend Holley. Holley is the mother of my ex-lover Warren. She was always there for her friends and, to this day, still is.

“Holley was there at the hospital the whole time,” Jim said.

As we ate, I couldn’t help but glance at the hipster table from time to time. I wondered what they thought. Were they laughing at me? So many times during this trip, I had been mistaken for Jim’s grandson. Jim, however, always made the correction which usually produced a puzzled reaction from the inquisitor. I’m sure he took it as an insult. Bill, the bellman, never asked. He knew this routine all too well.

When we finished our meal, Jim downed his glass of milk and we made our way to the cash register where an older black woman was ringing up the tickets. Unlike our imported waitress, this employee had a name tag on. Oddly enough, I can’t remember her name, but I do recall her home state of Arkansas, which was also displayed on the name tag.

Jim, also an Arkansas native, struck up a friendly chat with the woman, who, like Bill, remembered him from his annual visits. She was very polite and smiled at me. When we left, Jim made a crack about her wig.

“Bless her heart,” he said. “Got that wig on.”

I guess Jim could make that crack and not feel guilty. Takes one to know one.

“That’s why I keep coming back,” he said, turning serious again. “They make you feel like family here. You really get to know these people.”

That was the case as Bill came up to the room the next morning to help us to the car. We really didn’t need Bill’s help, but Jim wanted it. I was more than capable of pushing the cart down, but instead, Jim insisted on letting Bill do it.

So, together we loaded our bags onto the cart and Bill pushed it through the hall to the elevator and down through the lobby to our car. Once we were loaded up, Jim and Bill hugged and said their goodbyes. Bill seemed happy with the tip and he turned and shook my hand.

“Hope to see you again next year young fellow,” he said.

“Me too,” I replied.

The Author, Bill and Jim





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.





Potato Making

22 11 2009

Last night I made mashed potatoes for the Church. Peeling those bad boys made me think about my first day in New York.

I had met two nice gentlemen at the Center. They were both retired, white guys living comfortably in Upper Manhattan. Sadly, I can’t recall their names.

Nevertheless, when one of the gents learned of my Irish descent, he proceeded to tell me about the “great potato famine.”

“That’s what brought the Irish here,” he said.

Potatoes in High Demand

Fast forward some 150 years and Panama City had not run out of potatoes, but I was in New York, strolling the streets with two old fogies and sharing stories.

We went to the Barnes & Noble store in Lincoln Center to hear a panel discussion on famous Broadway composers, presented by famous Broadway composers.

Famous, that is, if you follow Broadway composers. These guys did and when a score was played they hummed and rocked in their chairs.

The music, for the most part, went over my head, but I sat and listened and hoped to hear a familiar tune. I felt very uncultured.

After the panel was over we decided to have dinner at a nearby diner. Another fellow joined us, making our party a foursome.

It was a civil dinner. The gentlemen all seemed intrigued about my arrival in the City, but it was a story they had read, heard and witnessed many, many times before.

“It’s really hard for a writer to find work right now, you know,” one of the men told me.

I acknowledged this and assured him that I was up for the challenge. He seemed skeptical.

The four of us split the bill evenly that night and the three wise men went off to their comfy condos in the sky as I headed to meet Barry in Union Square.

Last night, as I peeled potatoes in the sink, thoughts about that night resurfaced.  I remember getting the phone number for the fellow who told me about the “great potato famine” and how I tried to call him a few weeks after our initial visit, only to receive a gruff response.

Why did he even give me his phone number in the first place?, I thought. New York is such a strange place.

Meanwhile, back in Panama City, the mashed potatoes went over big at Church this morning. Food for thought.





Sizing up the Labor force

31 10 2009

Reflecting on my summer in New York is like taking little pieces of random things and making it into one big puzzle.

Like the time, inside the Starbucks on Union Square, I walked past a long line of tourists, waiting to have their cappucinos and lattes and picked up a sandwich and left.

Basically, it was my big Fuck You to Corporate America. Here was a company trying to provide a service without the ample workforce.

There was only two employees and, bless their hearts, they were working as fast as they could.

In New York, time is of the essence. One two weeks into my stay did I finally come to grips with this fact.

Time is money.

Outside of the Starbucks, a man had set up a table with literature displayed about hungry children in Africa. I gave him a dollar and made my way to work, eating the sandwich as I walked.

When I got to the bistro, only Cody, the tattooed drummer with black-framed glasses was there. Cody was a waiter at the bistro. He lived in Brooklyn, like all the rest of the twenty-something hipsters, and was the kind of guy who could fit in at a gym just as well as a comic book shop.

Omar would be the other waiter on the day shift and I would be the bus boy. This entitled the three of us to the ‘house meal’ — served up by Miguel, who was running a tad bit late today.

The General Manager wasn’t there either, nor the sweet little Italian lady who did the books.

Cody told me the liquor license had expired so if anyone wanted to imbibe, tell them all we had was beer and wine.

I did have to turn away one nice couple because Miguel had not arrived. Can’t have a restaurant without a cook.

Cody slammed his notebook on the ground in disgust and that’s when Omar turned to me and smiled.

“I guess we’re going out of business today,” Omar cracked.

But we didn’t. Miguel did show up and cooked up a delicious omelet with rice for the house meal. Eventually, hungry and thirsty tourists would wander in, many seeking to simply use the bathroom.

Previously, Barry had assured me that it was not rude to enter an establishment and ask to use their bathroom.

By the time I had landed my bistro gig, Barry was in France, hiking through the Pyrenees mountains. I was still a little sore at him for so abruptly sending me on my way so when he asked if I’d like to accompany him to JFK for his flight, I politely declined.

The thing is, I enjoyed talking with Barry and, especially enjoyed attending theater with him. During ‘Twelfth Night’ he was like my interpreter, explaining Shakespeare in a way I could really understand and relate to.

O world! how apt the poor are to be proud.”

Alas, Barry was on his way to France and I had found labor in wiping down tables on Prince Street.

My cut from the lunch rush was 16 bucks, thanks to Omar. Cody, that greedy bastard, didn’t tip me out.

When the GM finally showed, he told me to get some black slacks because jeans were not acceptable on the floor.

So I took the money I made from my busy boy shift and spent it on a pair of pants. A foolish purchase, as it turned out.

My time at the bistro would be short-lived.

And the pants never really fit.