Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Friend Sisyphus

Sisyphus has been living in my shower stall for about a week. He (or she but I will call him 'he' for the sake of convenience and to show my respect for females in general) ) is a Pentatomidae, which means five (pente) sections (tomos) beetle, known less generously as a stink bug. My understanding is that if I disturb Sisyphus, he may emit a pungent liquid related to cyanide, hence his name. Not that I plan to disturb him--he is hibernating and has caused me no harm so I see no reason for him not to share my home. If he last through the winter,which is doubtful, he will return to the great outdoors and begin doing what he is designed to do: suck plant juices and prey on other beetles.
Sisyphus is the official bug of no state, save perhaps depression. He is terminally unattractive, a drab grayish-brown. He does not converse well and, for all I know, is probably as near-sighted as Mr. Magoo. Nevertheless, I admire his pluck.
Sisyphus got his name when I first noticed him swirling around the shower drain. He was too big to fit through the drain holes, and his attempts to make it to safety reminded me of the original name-bearer of Greek legend, condemned in Tartarus to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill then watching it roll back down again.
Sisyphus was founder and king of Corinth, known as the most cunning knave on earth. His greatest triumph came at the end of his life when Hades came to claim him personally for the kingdom of the dead. Hades had brought along a pair of handcuffs and Sisyphus expressed such an interest that Hades was persuaded to demonstrate their use--on himself.

And so it was that the high lord of the Underworld was kept locked up in a closet at Sisyphus's house for many a day, a circumstance which meant nobody could die. A soldier might be chopped to bits in battle and still show up at camp for dinner. Finally Hades was released and Sisyphus was ordered summarily to report to the Underworld for his eternal assignment. But the he had another trick up his sleeve.

He told his wife not to bury him and then complained to Persephone, Queen of the Dead, that he had not been accorded the proper funeral honors. What's more, as an unburied corpse he had no business on the far side of the river Styx at all--his wife hadn't placed a coin under his tongue to secure passage with Charon the ferryman. Surely her highness could see that Sisyphus must be given leave to journey back topside and put things right.

Persephone, kind but not very smart, assented. Sisyphus made his way back to the sunshine, where he promptly forgot all about his funeral and lived on in dissipation for another few decades. But even this paramount trickster could only postpone the inevitable. Eventually he was hauled down to Hades, where his indiscretions caught up with him. For his crime against the gods he was condemned to an eternity of hard and frustrating labor rolling a great boulder to the top of a hill. Unfortunately, every time Sisyphus, by the greatest of exertion and toil, attained the summit, the thing rolled back down again.
There's a moral there, but I haven't found it yet. Until I do, Sisyphus, old buddy, mi casa es tu casa.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Haunted Houses and Streets

All houses are haunted. As a matter of fact, I'd go so far as to say that all dwellings, streets and alleys are haunted--anything that has been or is inhabited has a palpable past, one that lingers in the walls and floorboards, in the closets and cellars we like to call our own. The pavements and cobblestones have seen loves and consummations, tragedies and miracles, illnesses, deaths, wounded spirits and heroic battles, all live within the same walls and spaces we occupy and walk. The past never really goes away, it simply shifts slightly and waits patiently just out of sight. History, a blink removed.

This, I think, is why we're fascinated with old homes, antique furniture, books from yesterday or the day before. This is why we travel to cities with a past; we sense the lives led there, they touch us somehow; they serve to remind us that our time is limited, perhaps not as special as we like to think it is.

I began thinking of this recently when driving through the upper Northwest section of Washington DC. The city, like Rome, has seven hills, and nowhere are these as distinctly marked as along Connecticut Avenue, a straight shot from the rich Maryland suburbs in the north to the White House in the south. The avenue, for a couple of decades, was mine. I knew every store, every restaurant, every crack in the sidewalks on both sides; I knew all the animals at the National Zoo, the movie schedules at the Uptown and the menu at the Roma where Frank Abbo, a noted hunter, decorated his restaurant with the stuffed trophies from his safaris. I had my first illegal beer at the Roma when it was the only restaurant open after a snowstorm and the waitresses were too harried to check a kid's ID.

I knew Dupont Circle before the gays took over the neighborhood, back when Sophocles Pappas had a guitar store on the second floor above a cheesy nightclub. It was the only store that sold Fender electrics, Strats and Teles, and even if I couldn't afford one, I was there three days a week inspecting the merchandise and playing as much as allowed.

I was downtown when the riots broke out in 1968 after Martin Luther King's assassination, and downtown again a scant 18 months after that for the Peace Moratorium that brought 250,000 anti-war protesters into the streets. I helped cover some of the demonstrations for the Washington Post and was almost killed by a DC cop who shoved his revolver into my mouth. Two years later, still working for that paper, I had the good fortune to see Watergate unfold and befriend some of the reporters who made the story happen and changed America--at least for a little while.

When I had a job with insane hours, 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., I rode my motorcycle in the dead of winter nights on a deserted Rock Creek Parkway, once was handcuffed and briefly jailed for operating the very same motorcycle without a license. I've owned homes in the city, leased apartments and basements, slept on floors and on one or two occasions, outside. Every block has ghosts with names. There's something vaguely disconcerting and ultimately pleasing about this. On the eve of Halloween, I can say that the hauntings are good.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Afternoon in the City

Twice this week I've gone to Washington, DC. I don't live far from there--not even ten miles--but suburbia has a way of sucking you in and I can go months at a time without visiting.
I've lived in and around Washington most of my life. I love the city, its colors and rhythms and neighborhoods. Most of the years I lived there---in Georgetown twice, Capitol Hill, Cleveland Park, Adams Morgan, and Chevy Chase--I did not own a car. I had motorcycles, bicycles, in-line skates. I rod the Metro and buses; the public transportation system if used only within the city, was not that intolerable. Mostly, I walked.

Today, Washington was gorgeous, a splendid capital full of autumn reds, yellows, browns and tans, hues that made me nostalgic for a time when I had both far less and far more.

The first place I lived in was half a floor of a Victorian townhouse on N Street. I rented from an elderly lady I called Mrs. Fuzzybee who was known to don a full mariner's yellow slicker when she hosed down her front stoop. I remember coming home from work one day to see Mrs. Fuzzybee frantically pacing the sidewalk. Her car was gone, she was sure it had been stolen! Would I mind riding my bike around the neighborhood looking for it? Of course I did, looking for a green 1957 Chevy. As I widened my search, it struck me as odd that in Georgetown, even then home of Mercedes and BMWs, someone would choose to rip off an old Chevy, but stranger things have happened, and the car was not to be found. I pedaled back to the house, knocked on the front door, told Mrs. Fuzzybee her car was indeed gone and it was time to call the police. She gave me an odd, unfocused look. "Car?" She said. "What car? I sold my car in 1962!" Then she slammed the door in my face.

Georgetown was where I had my first brush with crime. A beautiful watch given to me by a girlfriend was stolen when someone broke into my place. The cops came, took one look at my hippy-length hair and suggested I not bother them again.

I cooked on a hibachi set in the fireplace, smoked a lot of bad dope, played guitar incessantly and listened to the Moody Blues. It was a good life, lived on a salary of $87.50 a week.

From there I went to Capitol Hill, a large house where a commune of sorts had been set up. On a daily basis, seven to 15 people lived there--an airline stewardess, a gorgeous black woman trying to break into modeling, two pot-smoking brothers who were never straight, a strange little man called Narji who wanted to be a cowboy, dressed in denim and boots and smelled of liniment, a young Jewish couple trying and failing to have an open marriage. Gallo wine was consumed by the gallon on a daily basis and I learned to fashion lamps from the large round bottles. I bought my first sportscar while living on the Hill, a grey Datsun 1200 that one day burst into flames as I was driving it on First Street NE. I rolled out of the car as fire licked the dashboard and there was a solid "whumpff" as the almost empty gas tank exploded. I lost my entire collection of 8-track tapes that day... But there again, innocent times and happy days.

A couple of years ago when I thought I might move back onto town, a friend drove me around her neighborhood near 16th Street. Handsome row houses, some gentrified, others not. She pointed to a pockmarked wall--a drive-by had killed two drug dealers a week earlier. She'd heard the automatic fire, knew what it was, hardly paused. Her car had been broken into twice that year, and the rats in the backyard were as big as alley cats and a lot more aggressive. The potholes were cavernous, the streets a mess of double-parked cars and delivery trucks. I decided I would stay in suburbia.
The house I bought for $28,000 in Adams Morgan in '71 and gave away after my first marriage failed recently sold for $2.5 million dollars. There are Zipcars now, and espresso carts, and chichi boutiques have replaced the bodegas. But the feel is the same, the city's soul hasn't changed. It's a different place, but I still miss it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Acceptance--Don't Leave Home Without It

The title of this blog isn't mine; I picked it up this morning at an Al Anon meeting. For those of you who don't know about Al Anon, it's a 12-step program for the family and friends of alcoholics, practicing or not. And since almost everyone I know is an alcoholic or addict--mostly sober, mind you--I go to Al Anon to get my thinking straight.

So here was the epiphanette of the day: acceptance , regardless of whether I have it or not, is not going to change what is or has occurred. Pretty simple, really, but it took years for that to make any sort of sense to me. More often than not, my acceptance is at best grudging and foul-tempered. I don't like things that don't go my way; I pout; I make faces; I argue; I do a remarkably accurate king-baby impersonation and finally, when it becomes painfully obvious that my attitude will not effect a change on the here-and-now, when I've been dragged kicking and screaming to a place of recognition, then, finally, I accept.

But here's the thing: acceptance, I have learned, does not imply approval. It's not necessary for me to like what's going on. I'm perfectly and totally entitled to give an event the finger if I want; I just need to remember that whether the event is accepted with grace or bad will is completely beside the fact: the quality of my acceptance is not going to affect things either.

So it's a good news/bad news thing; it translates to this: I may be powerless over pretty much everything, but I am not hopeless. I can try to guide my response to reach some sort of healthy reaction, i.e., one that will not harm me anymore than the outcome of the event that I resent already has. I can make the best of a bad situation, lemonade from lemons, yadda yadda.

It bothers me when I get slapped across the face by the obvious.

Here's another small revelation: acceptance does not mean becoming a victim, an all-too-easy path to take when the universe is down on me. In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, shit happens. How I handle it, and how dirty I want my hands to get, is entirely up to me. The more I stir it up, the more it's likely to stink.

That, at least, is an easy thing to remember.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


For the past several years I've been getting my hair cut every six weeks or so by a very nice Ethiopian woman. The challenge is to somehow dissimulate my growing bald spot without making it too obvious, and she does this well. I seldom have to wait, and the shampoo, haircut and conversation run me twenty dollars, which in these days of $400 jeans and $90 tank tops is a pretty good bargain. For a few days I can forget that the top of my head is essentially naked, shiny, and prey to the elements.
In the time that I've known her, Beylanesh has dated, married and become the mother or a gorgeous baby boy. She is charming and petite, has a wonderful smile and likes to talk. Today, I realized for the first time that I never have had a good grasp of what she's talking about, and vice versa. Part of it is accents, part of it is culture, but a major reason for our lack of tangible process with the spoken word is that we have agreed to miscommunicate. It's easier that way.
During our first few encounters, we spent the better part of the twenty or so minutes she works on me saying, "What?", "Excuse me?" or, "Sorry, I didn't get that." It took three sessions for me to understand that Ethiopian women often have names ending in 'nesh,' which means 'you are.' I love knowledge like that. Beylanesh, for her part, learned that I sell used cars. How she got to that knowledge is beyond my understanding, but I've grown comfortable with it. She asks how business is and I say it's not doing well. She nods and between snips comments, "It's the weather, the economy. Afghans are not buying camels in the summer months. Ronald Reagan." Or at least that's what I think she said. Today, she also told me that her mother barbecued the couch.
Our misunderstandings are safe. Beylanesh probably goes home to her husband and tells him I tried to sell her a camel. Nothing will come of this, and it will affect neither of our lives. But what is it about communicating that has become so complicated and error prone?
Just recently, a friend and I exchanged a phone call after a long silence, and both of us realized we had misinterpreted an earlier conversation, and that the misunderstanding had caused consternation and sadness. We made amends and we made peace, but some of the harm lingers. Did my friend really say that? And what, exactly, was meant by that choice of words?
Something like 80 percent of communications is non-verbal, which explains all the misunderstandings originating with emails and phone calls. We really on body language, eye cast, the furrow of a brow or the set of a jaw to understand what is really being said to us, and while the friends whom I love deeply will know what is going on in my world without a need for words, most communications remain haphazard, as likely to fail as not. It's the nature of the beast. Words--unlike numbers that are set and definitive--at best convey only a semblance of what we are trying to put forth; they're often more enemy than friend, and I very much doubt any two people in the world speak exactly the same language. On occasion, I find a word in French will come closest to what I want to say, but if I'm talking to an English-speaker, this won't help much. It works the other way if I am in Europe.
So what are we to do... Silence is an option I exercise on occasion; I travel from home and make it a point not to talk for several days. Not communicating on purpose has its advantages: you can't be misinterpreted if you have nothing to say. Or perhaps you can. As always, there are contradicting thoughts. Confucius called silence the true friend that never betrays. A few hundred years later, Francis Bacon said silence was the virtue of fools. Personally, I like Mark Twain best: It's better to keep my mouth closed and let people think I am a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Family Season

Halloween marks the official beginning (for me) of the Silly Season, which lasts until March 2, the day after my birthday. Other people know it as 'family time,' and others still simply call it hell. These are the months--and the occasions--when families gather to celebrate various holidays that include, but are not limited to, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Tet, Valentine's Day, MLK Day, President's day, Groundhog Day, the vernal equinox, and any number of private events including birthdays, anniversaries, and Superbowl Sunday.

I'm not sure when I started harboring such a deep dislike and resentment for holidays. I remember in my 20s being the sole person left at Christmas in the house a mob of us rented on Capitol Hill, and getting desperately drunk at the Hawk and Dove. I also remember one Christmas when I was in my late teens getting a shoe-shine kit from my mom and dad, and to this day I wonder if this was an unsubtle hint of their expectations that I would end up on a street corner with a couple of cans of Kiwi brown and black and a brush.

Last year, I holed up in my house with a couple of pounds of sushi and a Giant Food breast of turkey. I learned how to make yam French fries. I was persuaded to have lunch on Christmas day with an old friend at a Chinese restaurant, the only place we found open. The food was tragically bad and MSG-laden, and I ended up with a killer headache that lasted until the 27th. On New Year's I watched all three-or is it four--Alien movies. It somehow seemed apt.

The first feature article I ever wrote and had published by the Washington Post was one on the rise of suicides during the Christmas holidays. Actually, it turned out to be an urban myth. Statistics failed to reveal what I hoped was a spike in such deaths and I found out people rarely did themselves in with their Christmas ties or the new kitchen knives from grandma. That, frankly, was a disappointment.

I'm not sure what I'll do this year for those wretched four months. I'm taking suggestions.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

And Now, Some Advice from Bill Gates

I'm not necessarily a huge fan of Bill Gates, and my respect for him plummeted when Microsoft created Windows Vista and had the bad taste of imposing it upon others.

This being said, there's no doubt in my mind that Gates is a genius who single-handedly revolutionized almost every aspect of American life, and he must know something the average twit like myself does not. Maybe it's these eleven rules that he outlined during a recent speech he gave a speech at a High School. He described how feel-good, politically correct teachings has created a generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept has set them up for failure in the real world.

So copy this blog and paste it on your children's door...

Rule 1: Life is not fair - get used to it!

Rule 2: The world doesn't care about your

self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

Hmmm. I might even become a Friend of Bill.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I've never considered myself particularly smart. I have a head full of largely useless information (what's a reluctant flyer ? Know about the divine proportion? Who is Исаак Озимов?) but I've never had the conventional smarts that make money, produce investments that work, or purchase properties that accrue in value. In fact, as I've stated in earlier blogs, my motto is "Buy high, sell low." I'm often good at starting projects but find it difficult to finish them. In fact, most of my initiatives have a pretty high burn-out rate. My ambitions have been relatively limited: I want to write, get read, and achieve a small measure of fame. So I don't think I'm dumb, far from it. What it is, I guess, is that there seems to be a curiosity there that is often unfocused, and happily so.

What I find interesting seldom is to most people. The speed at which we process remembered information and segue from one thought to another, for example, has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. For what it's worth, according to Johns Hopkins University, the speed of thought is around 300 milliseconds, which is how long it took a volunteer to begin to understand a pictured object. Add to that another 250 to 450 milliseconds to fully comprehend what it was. Total speed of thought: between 550 and 750 milliseconds.

More interesting, even, is how our minds (or at least mine) begin by pondering the recipe for Grandma's pineapple upside down cake and, in mere flashes of time, go through a series of steps and thoughts without our volition to end up contemplating whether the Beatles' Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds lyrics were drafted when John was stoned or indeed did have something to do with Julian Lennon's favorite schoolmate.

How do we do this, and why? What possible reason can be found for this aimless leapfrogging of notions, one after the either, with no apparent rhyme or logic? Practitioners of kundalini yoga would tell you that thoughts freed of intellect represent the first step towards a liberation of the being. Buddhists might echo this in their own way with the concept of of 'mindfulness' which, if I understand it correctly (no guarantees there) is a very brief state of awareness that exists just before conceptualization. In other words, we enter this state before we focus our mnind on an issue or thing, before we objectify it and segregate it from the rest of existence.

This, I think, is good. It does not necessarily lead to productive inspirations, useful notions or wisdom of any type. In fact, it may do the exact opposite by creating a small, formless universe where our brain gets a chance to rest, to have fun, to flex its muscles. Or perhaps it's just a sign that I am suffering from a pleasant form of Attention Deficit Disorder.

There's a story told, possibly apocryphal, of Einstein and a physicist talking at a cocktail party. In the middle of their conversation, the physicist whips out a small notebook and scribbles a few words, then turns to the already famous scientists and says, "You really should carry a notebook as I do, Professor. I use it to note down good ideas I may have during the day." Einstein looks at his colleague sadly, shakes his head. "It wouldn't work for me," he replies, "in my entire life I've only had one or two good ideas ." So that's it. I'm like Einstein.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Autotrain--The Return

On the way back from Florida, there are only 151 passengers and 92 cars. One entire coach wagon is empty, and a lot of people opted for the sleepers which cost anywhere from $150 to $300 over the basic fare.I did that once, many years ago, and it was the only time I became genuinely seasick.

Across the aisle from me is a Vin Diesel look-alike who instantly falls asleep, and three seats in front are two old codgers in full leathers. They're transporting their bikes back from a week-long reunion of old-codgers-on-bikes and I immediately have unkind thoughts. How do they have a good time, these Harley-riding seniors? Do they get high on Serutan? Destroy the Depend section at Wynn-Dixie? One, it turns out, is a retired Air Force mechanic, the other is a plumber. They built their own bikes from the ground up. Respect grows.

The deal went through. My apartment is no longer mine. It was bought by a nice man, a father of four boys who came with his own father to the closing. Up until the moment of signing, Gramps pointed out my place's shortcomings and things that really should have been repaired. I am fortunate, my own real estate agent is there and, perhaps sensing the potential failure of this sale (he knows I have very mixed feelings) intercedes quietly. As documents are passed back and forth, the agents and the lawyer talk fishing, sharks, restaurants good and bad, the weather. When all is done, the agent pockets his check, shakes my hand, pats my back, and climbs into his Cadillac Escalade. Gramps tells me he will start tearing out the bathroom tomorrow, and has already called a truck to take the furniture to the dump. I have tears in my eyes and bite my tongue.

I drove back to the place to get my luggage and the detritus of 20 years' vacationing. This is a turn-key sale, which means almost everything in the apartment--the pots and pans, silverware, towels, throw pillows, TVs and DVD players--everything stays. I had to negotiate to take the espresso machine. Now I wish I could leave some sort of Floridian booby trap under the bed, something that might explode and cover Gramps with aloe gel. Or better still, something alive and with claws.

The three-hour drive to the Amtrak station in Sanford is uneventful, except that I have sprayed Hawaiian Gold SP4 in my left eye so I am tearing throughout the trip. Also, my Avanti's aged A/C is not up to the task of dealing with the noonday heat. I arrive soaked in sweat and with my left eye swollen shut. I resort to sticking my entire head under a faucet in the men's room, but in the interest of conservation, water comes out in two-second spurts. I am trying to wash my eye out when a voice says, "Wouldn't drink that, if I were you." There are no paper towels, and I will not suffer the shame of putting my hwead under the whooshing air dryer.

At dinner, left eye almost back to normal, I am seated with three guys who at first talk baseball and then segue to Florida's ills. One of them is moving back to New York. There was an alligator in his front yard, a little thing really, not even four feet long, but it freaked out his girl friend and she gave an ultimatum: New York or no more pussy. His words, not mine. He'd miss his bungalow in Sarasota but was looking forward to being in a place with real seasons. "The sweating Santas got to me. And the Christmas lights on the palm trees, that ain't natural."

I remember spending a Christmas in Florida once, and the man is right: the holiday is plain weird when celebrated in 70 degree weather. But still, still... I'm back in Virginia and last night it was in the upper 40s. There are things to look forward to. I do believe most events have a reason for occurring, and it is not within my ability to discern why. The only thing I know with certainty is that somehow I'll get back to Siesta. There's too much of me still there.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Siesta Key --Part 2

There is, I swear to God, a bona fide reason why I am sitting in the soon-to-no-longer-be-my apartment at the beach eating a 7-11 Big Bite and potato salad from Publix, to be followed by a Rexall Drugs cherry pie.

Originally, I had thought of driving to St. Armand on the next key to eat at El Colombiano, one of the oldest restaurants in Florida. They serve a steak to die for, and it seemed like a fitting place to say good-by. But the more I thought of it, the less appealing it became. Paying $70 to sit by myself didn't do it for me this time. I decided I did not need real silverware and linen napkins, preferred, actually, the belly-busters from the good people who brought us Big Bites, Big Gulps and Slurpees.

Here's the thing: I am hoping the deal will not go through. I feel as if I am being wrenched from the womb. Maybe the buyer will change his mind, or his wife will run off with all his money and the community pool lifeguard. Maybe, at the very last minute, he will develop an allergy to fine, white sand or become unable to bathe in the high-salinity Gulf waters. Maybe he'll die.

Maybe I'll skip the Rexall Drugs cherry pies. They sat in the back of the car in the sun for several hours as I took a long, slow drive around the islands. But then again the chemical and preservative content of these treats is probably so high they'll last well into the next millennium.

When I first started coming to Florida, it was a different place. There were still snake and alligator farms. Dinosaurland on Interstate 75 was a lot tackier and more fun. Sarasota, now gentrified but once the wintering ground for circus folks, was woolly and lower class. Bradenton, just up the road a bit, is still that way. In fact, it's a favorite place for reality cop shows to film. There are bikers and burn-outs, trailer parks where they repossess the double-wides if you're one payment late, too many bars and strip joints and roadside motels and penny-ante drug deals gone bad.

None of that stuff on Siesta. There's not a single fast-food place; the Siesta Village main drag is 80 yards long with three bars and live entertainment that ends at 11 p.m. because people need their sleep. The favorite meeting place for rambunctious teens is Big Olaf's Creamery. There's not a pinball machine or video game console to be found on the entire island. There is, however, one head shop that still sells paraphernalia from the '70s. It's not on the main drag and I have a feeling it may be on the payroll of the local police station. After all, if you keep the pyromaniac at the fire station, you'll always know where he is.

Not much changes on the island from year to year. According to the Siesta Key Association, homesteaders began settling on “Sarasota Key” in the 1880's, but few remained long enough to establish claims. An exception was Capt. Louis Roberts and his wife, Ocean Hansen Roberts, for whom Ocean Boulevard, Roberts Road and Hansen Bayou are named. In 1906, Capt. Roberts enlarged his house and began calling it the Roberts Hotel. The following year he, along with Harry Higel and E.M. Arbogast, formed the Siesta Land Company. By 1946, the Key was still labeled “Sarasota Key” on government maps, but was called Siesta Key by the County.

In late 1910, E.M. Arbogast began construction of the Bay Island Hotel on the north shore of the Key. Meanwhile, Harry Higel's dredge was busy not only digging the canals and filling low land, but also excavating shell deposits that could be used to surface the roads as they were built.

Harry Higel was mayor of Sarasota in 1916 and saw the building of the first Siesta Key Bridge in 1917. The second bridge on Stickney Point Road was built by the County in 1926.

As of the census of 2000, there were 7,150 people, 3,783 households, and 2,273 families residing there. The population density was 3,120.1 people per square mile. The racial makeup is shockingly white: 98.63% European American, and less than 1% African American, Native American, and Asian.

The lack of change is actually one of the things that kept me coming there. I have my restaurants, swimming holes, snorkeling points. If I want greater variety, I drive five minutes to one of the great, ugly stretches of Americana--Tamiami Trail, Rte. 41. Every conceivable fast-food mutation is there, along with a couple of strip malls dating from the 50s. I want class, I go to St. Armand. I want crass, Bradenton.

I think I've persuaded myself that I need to find another place there...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Siesta Key--Part 1

I’ve been coming to Siesta Key for more than 25 years, and tonight will be the last one I spend as owner of a small and pretty apartment overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Like many people, the economy got me. I had to sell this place at contre-coeur, as the French would say. Much against my heart. Actually, this is not true. What I did wrong was not take care of business myself; instead I entrusted a battalion of brokers, bankers and lawyers to look after my investments and best interests. This was not wise. One broker, in particular, bled me dry over a couple of years and by the time I came to my senses, it was too late.

Siesta Key, despite its hokey name, is lovely. Only a few hundred yards wide, it rests southeast of Sarasota between the Gulf and the Intercoastal Waterway. There are pelicans and egrets, wild parrots, willets, sandpipers and laughing gulls, mergansers, ospreys and sanderlings that run along the shoreline like panicked accountants. Black-necked stilts and double-crested cormorants fish here, and I once saw an anhinga. Small lizards are everywhere and manatees too, giant sea cows that swim around the mangroves; sharks, sting rays, dolphins and barracudas abound. One time, many years ago, I was neck deep in the water when something large bumped me twice, like a rude subway rider trying to beat me to the turnstile. I spoke to a local guy at an AA meeting about it and he said it was probably a nurse shark.

In the early morning, I can see porpoise from my living from window. There have been less pleasant sights. In 1999 a large woman was taken by the riptide. She was so covered with suntan lotion that rescuers could not grab her. When she was finally wrestled to shore, the EMTs parked their ambulance beneath my window and tried to resuscitate her. They hit her with the electric paddles a dozen times before they gave up, and each time her body shook and quivered, but she was gone. It made the evening news.

I’ve been through two hurricanes here, the first time drunk, the second sober. The latter was a lot more frightening. I was evacuated once, with the rest of the island. The winds reached 100 miles per hour and the rain was horizontal. The hardcore—people too stupid or inebriated to leave—weathered the storm inside Captain Jack’s restaurant and drank the bar dry. One guy who went to his car to get cigarettes was never seen again.

Siesta is not a babe-magnet island. The men are mostly overweight and over sixty. The women are roughly the same. Only once did I see someone wearing a thong at the beach and, putting it as kindly as I can, she really should not have. Neither are there 350-pound German grandfathers wearing Speedos, a common and unfortunate occurrence on the beaches of the south of France. The young people of Siesta serve tables and wait on the old people. They work at the Daiquiri Deck, the fake-British pub, the pizzeria down the street, or they clerk at the local tourist stores. Last time I counted, Siesta had two cops, both on bicycles.

The island appears to have gone through the financial crisis without too much damage. Both video rental stores are gone, as is the sole Japanese restaurant. On the mainland, thing are worse; every tenth store on Rte. 41, the Tamiami Trail, is shuttered. Restaurants, fast-food emporiums, mom-and-pop rental places, specialty stores, all have suffered greatly. The people still making money cater to the old and he dying. There are two cancer clinics, more chiropractors than a human has bones, innumerable vision and hearing aid dealerships, and, my personal favorite, a White Tower hamburger place that now advertises oxygen and wheelchairs. The National Cremation Society is on Rte. 41. And so, incidentally, is the porn movie house where a decade ago poor Pee Wee Herman was arrested for practicing self-abuse while seated in a dirty crushed velvet chair in the darkened theater.

I love this place.

Friday, October 2, 2009

ది Autotrain

On the Autotrain to Florida, the passengers emptied the complimentary snacks and fruit bins in the club car even before the steel wheels started rolling. At the beginning of the 16-hour trip from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford in Central Florida, elderly ladies broke out their cell phones and all said the same thing. “We’re on the train! Here! Talk to daddy.” Daddy confirmed they were indeed on the train, and the train was going to leave the station soon, and the car had been driven onto the carrier wagon and Mom had left her purse under the drivers’ seat and no amount of pleading with the conductor could get the purse back, so Mom did not have her Metamucil or Valium. It would be a long trip.

I love the Autotrain, have ridden it at least a dozen times, but this trip is at best bittersweet. I’ve had to sell the apartment I’ve owned on Siesta Key and this will probably be the last time I ride the train.

This evening, a foursome in the observation car is into its second bottle of wine, and the stories are getting louder—tales of trips to Mexico, to Montana, to the Bahamas on a cruise ship. These folks have skipped supper to entertain each other with anecdotes of monkeys, alligators, ganja-smoking Black servers in Montego Bay and guides in Yucatan who spoke a language unknown to man. They’re a happy group, the children are grown and settled and now, with responsibilities discharged, the four are off to do a little gambling in the Seminole-owned casinos off Alligator Alley.

The movie tonight is Mall Cop, not a high favorite among the passengers. There’s a small TV screen at the far end of the wagon and speakers every three-or-so feet, so even if you don’t want to see the movie, you’ll get to hear it. Next to the TV is a sealed cubicles where four dour smokers aggressively practice their art.

Dinner is fish or steak. I sit with a delightful Hungarian couple in their eighties who ask if I have any friends who are camp survivors. It takes me a moment to spot the blurry tattoo on the man’s arm. Oh. Those camps. I say no, I don’t, though both my parents were in the war. The man says, “So, you are not Jewish?”

Once this is established the conversation wanders. They’ve never gone back to Hungary; they live in Palm Beach, have a cabin in the Poconos. Their children are grown and none of them speak Hungarian. But imagine this: two homes, eight months in the sun, four in the woods! Old people like themselves? Is this a great country or what? We agree, three immigrants, two generations. Yes, it sure is.

The only serious drawback to taking the Autotrain is that I can never sleep there. The noise, the rocking wagon, the stentorian whistling snore of the man two seats down, the hissing and slamming of connecting doors, the never-silent train whistle… All conspire to keep me dozing fitfully so that at 2 a.m. I remain awake; my legs cramp, my feet are swollen and my shoes don’t fit. I join the other insomniacs in the observation lounge, and since it is still pitch black outside, there is nothing to observe but each other, which we do surreptitiously.

But the passengers who do manage to sleep show how adaptive humans are to their environments. Large men pack themselves into tight spaces, feet and legs going every which way! Women become tiny mummies wrapped in blue Autotrain blankets. The repeat passengers are smart—they’ve brought their own bed things, leaving to the rest of us the marshmallow-size pillows supplied by Amtrak. These flatten like crepes upon contact with one’s head, and I have witnessed elderly passengers going from wagon to wagon collecting them. Eight marshmallows carefully arranged provide a modicum of comfort.

By morning the wagons are beginning to smell a little farty. Maybe it was the fish. We left the loblolly pines of Virginia and when dawn breaks, it is over palm trees and yuccas. The 452 riders stir, find the dining cars and a rumor spreads—they’ve run out of bagels! No, they haven’t but the corn muffins are running low. I sit across from a very large young woman who folds a half a bagel into her mouth so that little streams of grape jelly escape from the corners of her lips. She smiles at mde, I smile back. We are now two hours from Sanford, where we will debark and wait for our cars to be unloaded. This is a crapshoot. One time, I was the second car off the train. On another trip, it took more than two hours to get on the road.

The Hungarian couple looks remarkably fresh and rested. They have changed clothes, scrubbed their faces brushed their teeth. They smell like Colgate dentifrice. When their car—an older Lincoln Continental in mint condition—is driven to the waiting area by an attendant, the husband shakes my hand and the wife gives me a hug.

My car appears moments later. It’s an older Avanti convertible that never fails to elicit questions. I answer a few (yes, Studebaker made them originally; they were designed by Raymond Loewy, it’s a Chevy 305 engine…) and drive off. It’s warm, muggy. I stop and put the top down. I’m going to miss the train the adventure, even the one night of sleeplessness. I really like it down here.