A Houston Connection

28 12 2011

I first met Bjork in Houston, a year of my life I have tried to forget. Things did not go so smoothly during my time in the sultry Texas metropolis, but Bjork was a bright spot that I chose to keep with me and I’m glad I did.

He arrives at week’s end for a long overdue visit. Bjork is a quiet man, whose wonkish demeanor fits all the stereotypes one would expect in a college professor. He was teaching at Rice University, a prestigious private school neatly tucked away inside the sprawling Houston city limits, when we first met. I was holding down two jobs at the time, intent on making my mark in a big city far from home and Bjork, a lifelong city dweller was trying to adjust to driving a car on a full time basis.

We spent most of our time together going out for dinner and sharing philosophical discussions about our backgrounds, which were vastly different. Bjork received his undergraduate education at Georgetown University in the shadow of our nation’s capital, but despite his formal training was unaware of Troy State University and all it had to offer until our paths crossed.

He seemed intrigued by my small town upbringing and big city ambition and I likewise was drawn to his nerdiness. At Rice, Bjork taught European history and would often visit the Borders bookstore where I worked. We could talk for hours about international affairs and politics and usually did. Later, when Bjork moved to England, he would run up phone bills while I ran down the Bush administration.

“You know, John,” he recalled during a recent conversation. “You were pretty radical back then. I was starting to worry.”

Radical and stupid. I did a lot of stupid stuff in Houston. The allure of the club scene was strong for a newcomer fresh from the Alabama backwoods. Bjork didn’t participate in the long nights and early mornings of the Houston club scene, but was always eager to listen to my dating experiences. If you can call them that. I kept a diary at times, but destroyed the evidence after moving away from Houston. Again, I was naive, innocent and stupid which can be a deadly combination in the big city.

It was a miracle I escaped alive.

That was almost a decade ago and since Bjork and I have shared many trips. Not long after we both had left Houston I went to visit him at his new job at Colgate University, making my first foray into the cold winter of upstate New York. It snowed terribly during my visit and the campus seemed unusually stuffy even by preppy, private school standards. Bjork, remembering my love for sports, arranged for a day trip to Cooperstown, the home of major league baseball’s hall of fame, but it was the snow that I will always remember.

I was still regaining my health after the year in Houston and the blizzard of 2003 presented a challenge. I remember roaming across the snow covered Colgate campus in shorts and tee shirt, I suppose to prove a point to myself and display a sign of strength. It was also during this trip to see Bjork that I would reveal more of my inner self to test our friendship… And the professor passed with flying colours.

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Like A Machine

3 01 2011

In the beginning, the campaign was tough. Very tough.

I was a political novice, taking on the establishment. In those early days, I would often remark than I was, ‘going against the machine.’ It was a nice play at words and a poke at Florida’s machine vote-counting method.

Yes, I was opposing the very political machinery running Panama City. A true underdog in every sense. My opponent was a popular incumbent, whose family had a rich tradition in the restaurant business.

He was elected by a 40 percent margin and no one dared throw their hat in when re-election time came. Four years later, with the economy in shambles and having been chewed up and spit out by some of New York’s finest, I figured, quite simply, I had nothing to lose.

“Some of the best politicians are never elected, John,” Jim noted as we motored out of Monroe on a warm Thanksgiving morning.

Like the year before, we stopped at a Holiday Inn in Shreveport for the Turkey Day buffet. It was a blue haired crowd — the average age had to be hovering around 80. Some had canes, others walkers and this made navigating the buffet somewhat challenging.

Jim didn’t care too much for his peers. Most of his associates were younger. He preferred it that way. I was probably the oldest chap to make his vacation cut, for a second time no less.

And I was much wiser this go around. Knowing what to expect helps. Ever the engineer, Jim was resistant to change. We stopped in Dallas again on the second night, at the same high-rise hotel on the westside of Downtown, near Love Field. The Cowboys were playing in Arlington that day and as we checked in, the last shuttle from the hotel was departing with eager fans dressed in their best blue and white gear.

It had been a rough year for the Dallas Cowboys. Mounting losses had led to the head coach’s dismissal at midseason. There would be no playoffs this year for America’s Team. We watched the game in the room and I listened closely to Troy Aikman’s commentary. He was trying to be fair, despite his strong ties to Dallas. I admired that.

The Cowboys played well before eventually bowing to the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints. I’m often asked about my sports writing days and I usually remark about how those were the best days and nights of my life, little did I know it at the time.

I was a young ambitious reporter then. Not content with making 20 grand a year in a small Alabama town. The bright lights and ‘live and let live’ allure of the big city was too distracting. In Texas, it would eventually consume me.

Back in the Lone Star State, eight years later, I was ready to confront those bright lights again. So Jim and I headed down the Cedar Springs highway for a visit to the “Gayborhood.” Naturally, Jim had our evening itinerary already planned out, from the parking to dining and drinking.

Like a machine, that Jim.

And I was just a cog.

 





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.





Tumbling through Amarillo

17 12 2009

The drive to Amarillo was boring, a scenary consisting of flat lands dotted with oil rigs and cattle ranches.

We got to the motel — another Holiday Inn undergoing remodeling — early and Jim recommended going down to the train yard to watch the choo-choos. He drove us right down next to the track and together we marveled at the sheer volume of freight ramblin’ by.

Earlier, during the drive, I had caught my first glimpse of a tumbleweed. It was a vision fitting of Amarillo, a cow town if ever there was one. I got the impression, things tended to tumble through this place a lot — Trains, travelers and livestock.

For the life of me, I couldn’t see anything sticking around here very long. It had an air similar to that of Monroe, minus trees.

We had dinner at a Mexican restaurant which was packed with families still enjoying the holiday weekend. Jim walked right through the crowded lobby and into an even busier bar.

Despite this mass of humanity, Jim managed to catch a young waitresses’ eye and we had our drinks quicker than I would have predicted. Almost as if it were clockwork, two seats at the bar opened up and we promptly plopped down and ordered food.

Behind me some young WASPs were discussing real estate prices and stock options. It was almost nauseating to listen to, but I had no choice considering our close confinements. Jim didn’t have to worry about overhearing young yuppie talk. His hearing was fading and I had to repeat myself a lot.

Several times we would exchange seats so that I was positioned on his right side. This, Jim said, was his good ear.

To my right at the bar was a hungry young fellow with a black eye and a lot of tattoos on his arms. He was friendly, but not overly chatty. I told him Panama City Beach had some of very fine tattoo artists and he wished us luck in Vegas. I didn’t ask about his black eye and Jim never acknowledged his existence.

After dinner, we headed downtown to check out the bar scene. The first stop, a dive called Sassy’s, catered to the lesbian crowd. We had one beer there and walked down the street to another bar where the scene shifted to a more nightclub feel.

With another long drive ahead of us, Jim advised heading back to the hotel after one drink. I agreed. Jim never insisted that I leave any of the bars when he did and he often told tales of how Gabe would venture out on his own late at night, only to turn up at the hotel just before it was time to head out.

“I really wanted to leave his ass a lot of times,” Jim said.

As it has been noted, Gabe knew how to work a pool table. He would meet people there, win drinks and usually a ride home.

I was too old for that act and my finances left little room for error. So when Jim was ready, even as the club in Amarillo was starting to show some signs of life, I followed.

“The trip really starts tomorrow,” Jim said on the ride back to the hotel.

And he was right. My eyes were in store for scenes I had only dreamed of before. Tumbleweeds were just the beginning.

We left before dawn, conjuring up a famous country song…. Amarillo By Morning. Jim punched in the data and our drive to Colorado was underway.

“You haven’t seen nothing yet,” he said.





Thankful for Dillan

15 12 2009

For Texas, Dallas is that shining city on the hill.

A bold tribute to the Lone Star State’s success in many ways. The city’s sky line is a view to behold and it’s diverse population likes to consider itself a “cut above” that of Houston, Atlanta and most certainly New Orleans.

My brother has called Dallas home for quite some time now. When Jim and I pulled into town, I gave him a call.

We had not been on the best of terms of late and I had come to regret this a great deal.

Younger by a good four years, Keith had matured faster into manhood. He was married and the father of a beautiful baby girl. Courtney, his wife, had recently landed a nice paying job as a public school teacher and the family of three lived in a condominium complex in the Dallas suburbs.

Miss Dillan Kate

My niece

On Thanksgiving Day, Keith and Courtney brought the baby by the hotel where Jim and I were bunking for the night. Jim’s schedule did not allow for much family time on the first stop through Dallas. I would have more time to visit on the way back.

Still, I really wanted to see my niece and Keith graciously accommodated this request. She was walking now and eager to explore.

They named her Dillan Kate, a nod to our Scots-Irish heritage. She was more than a handful these days, rambling around the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, pacifier firmly in place, seeking out stairs to climb and rooms to roam.

I introduced Keith and Courtney to Jim and after a few pleasantries, the old engineer retired upstairs to finish watching the Cowboys game. Jim wasn’t too keen on toddlers.

I, however, couldn’t keep my eyes off Dillan. Her eyes…that face, it jogged my memory something fierce. I had seen that tender look before, decades ago in Central Florida. It was hard to believe my little brother was now a daddy.

I was proud for them.

That night, Jim and I visited the Oak Lawn neighborhood in Downtown Dallas where we had dinner and drinks.

Jim explained that this was the more affluent section of town and we would have no problem striking up conversation at the local watering hole, appropriately enough, called “J.R.’s.”

I really wanted to be with Keith, Courtney and Dillan, but that wasn’t part of the deal. I think they understood, at the very least, I hoped they did.

At J.R.’s, a large Hispanic fellow tried to pick me up. Jim offered little support. Fortunately, I was able to politely deflect his advances and eventually the man left.

“Jim!,” I said intently. “You gotta be a better wing-man!!”

“He wasn’t my type,” he replied.

Later, another man approached us. He was a stout guy, in his early 40s I’d say and very clean cut.

The man bought us three rounds of beer and come to find out he was a military contractor just back from Iraq. Having served his time in the Army, Jim was much more engaged in this conversation.

With a long drive to Amarillo ahead of us, we called it a night early, thanked our newfound contractor friend for the drinks and headed back to the Crowne Plaza.

It was a Thanksgiving with no family around a dinner table. No dad carving turkey. No mom making dressing in the kitchen. No relatives bemoaning the ills of the country.

But the Cowboys were still playing football and I had just seen the next generation of McDonalds.

Much to be thankful for.