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.

 





Gordon’s Moon

31 03 2010

A lot has happened since Jim and I returned from that vacation.

I now live in a house with three other people. Still waiting on that check from Uncle Sam.

I talked to Gordon today on the I-phone. Wonderful product that I-phone.

“Who is this?,” he asked.

“Gordon, it’s John,” I said. “John McDonald.”

“Oh, John, thank you for coming over to see the play,” he said.

I had just returned from Jacksonville, where Gordon was directing the Eugene O’Neill classic “A Moon For The Misbegotten.”

'Moon' Set

O’Neill’s work tends to be gut-wrenching and Gordon’s adaptation was proof. Not many director’s are up to this kind of challenge.

“Your show made me come away thinking,” I told Gordon.

“Good,” he replied. “That’s what we want.”

He then proceeded to run down the theater scene in Panama City pretty good and I couldn’t say that I blamed him. It leaves much to be desired. Still clinging to hillbilly musicals and cross-dressing comedies.

These days, if one is to be truly intellectually challenged by the theater, they must hit the road — or take a plane  — and get the hell out of Panama City.

And Gordon was doing just that when I called,  heading back to Jacksonville — by bus.

“How ya like riding that Dirty Dog,” I asked him, remembering my most recent experience taking the bus to Atlanta. Some of those stations can be pretty scary.

“Oh it’s fine,” he said, in a reassuring tone.

I told Gordon that when he returned again from Jacksonville, we must meet for lunch. I had several questions about O’Neill’s play and it had been a while since Gordon and I dined out. I missed him.

Last night, I joined a group of nine at one of Bay County’s best waterfront restaurants. The chef personally made several trips to our table.

The conversation started with sports, shifted to business, inevitably moved into politics, then Hollywood, and ultimately ended with that tired game of “Who’s Gay.”

Don’t get me wrong, it was an entertaining evening, the food delicious, and I got to wear my skinny tie from New York. The one my Japanese friend Keita bought me at the American Apparel store on the lower East Side. I so enjoy dressing up for dinner.

Theater didn’t come up much at the table. I did mention seeing the O’Neill play, but only one other person seemed interested, so I didn’t spout off too much. After all, it was a pretty depressing story.

Intermission Mingling

Still, I marveled how, in Gordon’s “Moon,” words such as “Queer” and “Limey” and “Shanty” were tossed about and no one flinched. The crowd was so obedient that night. The actors clearly had many in the palm of their hands.

Above all, the performance made you think. Think about a lot things — overweight women, poor dirt farmers, alcoholism. And there were times when you wanted to look away.

That, my friends, is powerful theater.

And I don’t see anything wrong with that.





Time to Trust

9 02 2010

I’m still kind of surprised the officer pulled us over. It was really nasty outside. Bitter, bitter wind and freezing temperatures. But we did have a Florida license plate — good Ol’ Bay County for all to see.

The officer was of Hispanic descent and in good shape. Hell, he had to be — just to be standing out in these conditions. My sneezing had not gone away. The officer asked for Jim’s license and proof of insurance. Jim had it ready.

Now, I’ll have to admit, I have a lot of respect for men in uniform — and women too for that matter. I’m not sure if this guy lived in Vaughn, but if he did, I sure felt sorry for him.  It was pretty desolate and all. If the economy was puttin’ a hurtin’ on Vegas then it had damn near killed Vaughn.

Downtown Roswell

The officer returned to his patrol car with Jim’s information and I continued to blow boogers into my supply of Kleenex, which were starting to run low. I’m here to tell ya, I felt like Holy Shit. Flagstaff seemed like last month.

As we waited for the officer to return, Jim didn’t seem too put off by the state of affairs. He’d been pulled over before on this trip, he said, but that was in Texas. I wondered what ol’ Gabe did? I doubt his powers of persuasion and cock sure attitude work too well on law enforcement.

“I’ll just pay the fine,” Jim said.

And that’s what he did. When the officer returned he handed Jim a ticket and explained the speeding infraction. He also explained that if Jim wanted to contest this decision that another trip to Vaughn was in store.

“We’ll pay,” Jim said.

To his credit, Jim tried to politely engage the officer in conversation, asking how many inches of snow had fallen the night before.

“About nine,” the officer said. He didn’t want to make small talk and I don’t blame him. It was damn near frigid outside. The wind was blowing sand and sheets of snow across the highway. This officer was a real trooper indeed.

So, we left Vaughn a little lighter in the pocketbook, but grateful to be close to Roswell and the cozy confines of another Holiday Inn Express. The place was like an oasis by the time we finally arrived and thankfully a drug store was not too far down the road. Once we got checked in, Jim drove down to the drug store and bought me a pack of antihistamine. It was a mighty noble thing for him to do. Those kind of drugs aren’t real cheap. They do, however, work and my sneezing began to subside.

I’m sure that made Jim happy. Nobody likes to be around someone sneezing all the time. I remember when I was in grade school and would have those sneezing fits. Mom always said I didn’t know how to blow my nose.

That night we had dinner at the Applebees next door. As usual, Jim headed straight for the bar and, like clockwork, we got top-notch service. We both ordered the chilli and a few rounds of beer. The bartender was a young skinny fellow with a slick, freshly cut head of hair. He asked me for my ID.

“You got to be kidding me,” I said. “It’s back at the hotel. You’re not going to make me go outside again are ya?”

“What year were you born,” he asked me.

I told him and he left to get my beer. And that, my friends, like the speeding ticket in Vaughn, is what we call … Trust.





Here we come Vegas!

20 01 2010

We left for Las Vegas early the next morning. I did not bore Jim with the details of my Canyon excursion with Stallone. It really wasn’t that enlightening.

We loaded up the car ourselves and paused briefly for coffee in the lobby and I dropped a few postcards in the mail.

The Hoover Dam was our next stop and it would be a special one. Jim, the engineer, marveled at this true testament to American might. We both took a lot of pictures.

Dam Right

“You couldn’t build this today, with all the environmentalists,” he noted as we walked through the inner-workings of the Dam.

The Dam was built during the Great Depression and although it was not in my lifetime, the Great Depression felt very real. To construct this monster wall, the Colorado River was diverted. It was sheer power.

Many men lost their lives during the project. Many others were provided work and in turn were able to provide for their suffering families. It was a government program.

During our visit, Lake Mead was nearing a record low. Water is still a major commodity in the desert and ‘Bling-Bling’ Vegas requires a lot of it.

From the Dam, we made the short drive to Vegas, which would be our turning around point. Jim didn’t care to go any further West, despite the allure of California.

That was fine with me. I had visited the Golden State several times before. On my last trip to Los Angeles, I almost missed my return flight, having skipped out on a journalism convention and gotten bogged down in the  West Hollywood club scene.

Fast forward a few years and I was about to make my first-ever visit to Las Vegas…Sin City. Temptation was everywhere. Gambling, hot girls, muscle studs, booze, drugs, tattoo parlors…the works.

We would stay two nights at The Sahara. It’s an older casino, but still an anchor on The Strip. Jim had been coming here for decades and was on a first-name basis with many of the staff.

Bill, the bellhop, gave Jim a big hug and warm greeting when we arrived. A black man from Mississippi, Bill was close to Jim in age and you could tell they had a special bond. Jim’s arrival seemed to boost Bill’s spirits, although he was quick to bemoan the local economy.

“They’re dealing 50-cent blackjack in some of these casinos now,” Bill said.

Once settled in the room, Jim handed me a twenty dollar bill and told me to have fun gambling. I held my own on the blackjack table for a few hours and disciplined myself to leave with money in my pocket.

Just walking through the casino was entertainment enough. The rodeo was coming to town and the Strip was beginning to take on a decidedly Brokeback scene. Toby “I Should’ve Been a Cowboy” Keith was scheduled to perform that week.

Wanting to make the most of our one full day in Vegas, we retired early that first night. As we bunked down for the night, Jim asked me about a trip to Key West with R.C. and Bob — a trip I had made about four years ago. R.C. and Bob, God rest their souls, are no longer with us.

“I’ve never been to Key West,” Jim revealed.

“It’s nice,” I replied. “A lot different than Miami…you’d like it.”

“I’m sure I would,” Jim said.

On that fateful drive to Key West, I remember R.C., a jolly man who could pound vodkas with the best of them, describing South Florida as “God’s waiting room.”

I got the feeling Jim wasn’t ready to make that trip just yet. No sir. Vegas was on deck.

And we were ready.





The After-Hours Tourist

10 01 2010

John wasn’t about to kiss and tell in the Canyon …. there is a code among Nerds, one that is sometimes solved by Queers.

But Gabe was another story.

“They can’t grow grass up there,” he said, in his thick Jersey Shore accent.

We were back in Panama City, comparing notes on the trip with Jim and Gabe was unveiling his turf research. John, admittedly, was envious of Gabe’s youth with that baby face that would never be kicked into the streets — at least for very long.

In Vegas, Jim had even encouraged Gabe to walk The Strip, but the youngster keenly stayed inside the casino’s cozy atmosphere.

The Canyon was a different climate, entirely. “How can you stay inside a place like that?,” Gabe declared.

The workers in the park rarely mingle socially with visitors. Tourists, despite being their life source, were usually held in contempt at “after hours” get-to-gethers.

And I was about to get my first taste of Canyon “after hours.”

Stallone, the twinky Hawaiian server, invited me back to his apartment after dinner to meet some of his friends and Jim gave me the green light, offering up the keys to the Murano.

It was cold that night and very, very dark. I drove slow and tried to remember the way, knowing the drive back would be a solo affair. Stallone was a friendly fellow and his language skills impressed me… and then he surprised me, “You don’t have a joint on you, do you? Because I would really like to smoke a doobie.”

Wow.

The answer, of course, was no and this seemed to solidify park workers’ biggest complaint.

“You tourists,” Stallone said, shaking his head with a sheepish grin.

We arrived at Stallone’s apartment before the herd. Stallone introduced me to his roommate, a short lesbian who liked football and beer. I don’t recall her name as shortly after introductions the apartment began to fill with Canyon people, all workers in the park and all with vastly different personalities.

Still sporting my blazer and khaki pants from dinner, I was overdressed for this soiree, but still my ‘Southern Good Ol’ Boy’ wit attracted quite a crowd. The girls seemed to like to hear me talk. So did Stallone, who grew more girlish by the hour.

A whiskey bottle was passed around and inside Stallone’s living room people huddled on the floor and lounged on couches, conversing about Canyon life. There was a young Asian girl there who dispensed the trouble with housekeeping and her beef with management.

Her comments made me wonder why Jim always tipped the bellhop but never the maids.

There was no music playing and nobody was dancing. I guess you could say it was a drinkin’ party…and since I was the token tourist in the crowd, an outsider, I wasn’t offered any mind-altering substances.

And that was cool with me. The decade of decadence was coming to an end. Stallone probably would have had more fun with Gabe.

After a few hours of spin the bottle, I said my goodbyes and returned to the El Tovar, driving ever more slowly through the dark park. A steady wind made the cold air slightly bitter.

On the way, I came upon a large elk, casually walking a long side of the road. There was no fear in this magnificent creature’s eyes as I passed by. Back home, that elk would be a welcome addition to many walls. My trophy, however, was seeing this beast roaming free.

Something only a “tourist” could truly appreciate.





The Canyon Dinner

5 01 2010

From Durango, we drove through Monument Valley to get to the Grand Canyon.

Jim had secured dinner reservations with an old friend at the El Tovar, a landmark lodge overlooking the Canyon’s South Rim. It would be a chance for me to dust off the blazer with a night of fine dining in store.

Parked outside the El Tovar

Parked outside the El Tovar

Monument Valley was stunning.

“Can’t you just see John Wayne leading the Calvary,” Jim remarked.

We pulled off the road on several occasions to take pictures of the rock formations and mountain backdrops.

And this leg of the trip was the first time we spotted hitch-hikers. It was a sight I was not accustomed to, certainly not around Panama City.

It made me think about Barry, my Berkeley friend. When we were preparing for our renedezvous in New York, Barry had suggested I skip the bus ride and instead hitch-hike to Atlanta.

This idea, of course, seemed preposterous to me, but to Barry, the 60s radical, it was something he had done many times before in his youth. Turns out, the bus ride, with all those convicts in tow, might have been more dangerous.

Jim wasn’t about to stop and offer any hitch-hiker a ride. I was plenty enough company on this trip. We got to the Canyon before sundown and the bellhop at the El Tovar helped us unload the car and showed us to our room. Before dinner, Jim did some shopping at the gift shop, buying a piece of Native American pottery with a price tag that could be a mortgage payment for most folks.

Meanwhile, I was saving what little cash I had for Vegas and sprucing up, back at the room, for dinner.

We met Jim’s friend Tom in the lobby. Tom knew Jim’s annual routine well as the two had met years ago when Tom was a server at the El Tovar. These days, Tom was pretty much in charge of the place and had recently published a book on Grand Canyon National Park.

The three of us had a delightful dinner and great conversation. Tom was originally from Michigan, a stout fellow with a neatly trimmed beard. His overall appearance, sans the beard, reminded me of Syracuse’s famed basketball coach Jim Boeheim.

My intellect seemed to surprise him at first. Jim’s previous travel companions had probably not been as challenging a conversationalist and Tom appeared to appreciate this change.

Tom also seemed surprised that I had given up my newspaper career.

“But your stories were on the front page?,” Tom asked.

Before I could respond, Jim came to my defense, “But, if you’re not alive to read them, it doesn’t matter.”

As usual, Jim was right on the money. He had seen my career at the newspaper come full circle. He knew how tough it was, for me, at the end.

After dinner, which included a tasty entree of duck, we moved into the lounge where some of the park’s workers had just gotten off their shift. Waiting there, was another surprise. Tom introduced me to a young server named Stallone. He was a thin fellow of Hawaiian descent with feminine mannerisms. After a few drinks, Stallone asked me if I cared to step outside.

He wasn’t looking for a fight and neither of us wanted to smoke a cigarette.

“Do you kiss and tell?,” Stallone asked.





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.





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.





Ready to Ride Again

20 11 2009

Adventure awaits and preparation begins. We leave next week for the American West. There are still a few Ts to cross and Is to dot. Gonna need gloves, jackets, sweathers and such to brave the elements.

The desert, I’m told, gets quite chilly at night.

A cell phone is also on my wish list, thanks to an unfortunate incident with the washing machine.

Today, the Doc gave me the go-ahead. Test results were vastly improved compared to when I returned from New York. There was no doubt, I had pushed myself too hard in the City and it showed — on paper and in person.

Months of rest and rehab along the World’s Most Beautiful Beaches restored my strength and I am ready to ride again.

“Dallas is a great city,” the Doc said. “You’re going to love it.”

The Doc’s office is undergoing some renovations. They are replacing the tile flooring with linoleum.

“It will be easier to clean,” the nurse said as she took my blood pressure.

The Doc has a son in college who wants to be a journalist. And like all young writers, he has dreams of New York.

The Doc is going back to school too, studying business online through the University of Massachusetts.

“Education is the key,” Goede told me during our brunch this week. “You don’t need a job, John, you need a career.”

Goede urged me to take the necessary steps to return to college before leaving on my Westward journey.

“Don’t put this off,” he said.

So I called one of the counselors at the community college and left a message on her voice mail about scheduling an appointment.

The Doc advised computers as a career path.

“Data,” he termed it.

Computers have evolved a lot since those days of playing “Oregon Trail” on the Apple back in high school. Now there are things like “apps” and “widgets” and “html” to learn.

Before leaving the newspaper I was just getting a handle on the I-Mac, specifically video-making. Journalists these days must be well-rounded. You write a story, take pictures and shoot video, or else you don’t get hired.

Yesterday I visited the AT&T store to look at the new I-phones. Very impressive equipment. A device that can pretty much do it all — phone calls, text messaging, photography, video, internet, even Facebook — this I-phone appears to be a revolutionary product.

If I am blessed to carry an I-phone on this trip my education will begin in earnest. Tomorrow night, I will meet Mr. Smith for a few cocktails downtown. We’ll go over the itinerary one final time before departure.

I can’t wait to see little Miss Dillan.