Thursday, August 28, 2014

Of Rapture and Vanishing Species

One of my favorite places in the Washington, DC, area is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which stretches almost 185 miles along the north Bank of the Potomac River. It’s the country’s longest and skinniest National Park, beginning in DC’s affluent Georgetown neighborhood, and ending in Cumberland, Maryland. There’s a tow path that runs along the canal, dating from the days when barges were towed by mules, and for several decades now I’ve hiked this path, alone and with friends.
I’ve had a couple of strange experiences there.  Once, very early on a still and damp fall morning when the fog was still shrouding the path, the poignant sound of a bag pipe playing the Fallen Soldier Tribute filled the air. My hair stood on end. Out of the fog came a single Highlander in full regalia. He strode past me without a glance, and vanished back into the haze. I recognized the tune because the night before I’d been listening to a collection of Scottish military music and the tribute had been featured prominently.
Last year, as my pal Raoul and I were on the tow path, we noticed hundreds of Koreans walking silently and gathering in a hollow between the canal and the river. Hiking is a Korean pastime, and there’s never a day on the canal that I don’t see dozens of them, jauntily attired in pastel shorts and wide-brimmed tennis hats, lugging cameras, tripods, and coolers. This gathering, eerily quiet, was different.
They trudged past us empty-handed and eyes downcast.  We stood at the edge of the clearing and watched the crowd grow.  And then I remembered--a nationally known apocalyptic preacher had predicted the Rapture for this date. There were tales of believers giving away cars and homes, and some of the faithful had gathered by the waters for their ascension to heaven. We left them to their blissful journey. A few hours later, walking back to the car, we encountered the Koreans again, this time heading back in the direction they’d originally come from. Some were in tears, others seemed vastly relieved. That night, the news was that the preacher’s doomsday prophecy had been postponed. He apologized for any problems his miscalculation might have caused and enjoined his flock to gather a month hence.  I don’t know how the flock responded.
One of the parks delight has always been its wildlife. Years ago, the C & O was rife with black and water snakes, the occasional copperhead, turtles of all kinds, beaver, heron, deer and an astonishing collection of reptiles and insects.  Carps swam lazily in the canal, alongside endless sunfish, spots and crappies. Strange little shrimplike beings hid beneath rocks. Skinks clambered across boulders. Cormorants plied the waters, as did a multitude of green and great blue herons; butterflies and dragonflies hovered and flittered. There were paw-paw tree heavy with fruit and blackberry bushed lined the path.
Yesterday, as Raoul and I walked the path, we saw a grand total of two large birds, one tiny toad, one butterfly and one damselfly. A snapping turtle swam along the bottom of the canal. Everything else was gone. No blacksnake, no yellow and black box turtle. The largest fish visible were one-inch minnows. No paw-paws, no berries.
Blacksnakes, also called rat snakes, are vanishing all over the East Coast. Two decades ago, walking along the canal or the Potomac, you would see hundreds sunning themselves on the rocks and in the crevices of the ancient stone walls that once supported the Washington aqueduct. Their disappearance is blamed on the weather, pollution, insecticides, destroyed habitat and --I will get in trouble for saying this--a growing immigration population that prize snakes for their meat.
I’m not sure what all this portends, but it ain’t good. Could there have been an animal rapture?

Friday, August 22, 2014


I shaved my beard and mustache a couple of days ago.   It was, as Mick Jagger sings, time for a change (is it as déclassé to quote the Stones as it is to quote Shakespeare or Molière? I don’t know.) I shaved with a certain degree of trepidation; what I feared was being subjected to a hundred questions from friends and acquaintances. “Why?” they would ask, before telling me going whiskerless helped me shed years, why, “You look like a young man again!” they would swear. I’ve been bearded for the last six-or-so years, maybe more, and it’s been my experience that people comment when one makes major changes in one’s appearances.
What happened was that nobody noticed my new and improved look, except one guy in my writing group who looked at me quizzically and asked, “Did you shave?,” and the man who’s at the desk at my gym every morning, who exclaimed, “Hey! Look at you! Clean shaven!”
The young woman next to whom, for three months, I have been diligently expanding calories on the elliptical machine didn’t notice. Neither did the Panera guy from whom I order forbidden bread products five times a week, nor my neighbor of 20 years. The glances of a few writing friends I’ve known quite a while merely swept over me with no appreciable hint of interest.
I am left with two inescapable possibilities and one observation.
One, my friends are by-and-large a bunch of unobservant nincompoops.
Two, I am nowhere near as important as I should be, or think I am.
Three, I am reaching the age where no one pays attention to how I look.
I’ve known for years that women always note new shoes, new lipstick shades, and weight loss measured in fractions of ounces. My musician friends might say, “Hey, you switched to Martin Ultra Light strings!  Good move!” Other writers will note style changes, new formats (“Whoa! You’re doing 12 point Times New Roman! Radical!”) 
Others’ lack of appreciation for my physical appearance is sort of disappointing. When I first started growing my beard, a friend’s wife snorted, “We’ll, it certainly makes you look ancient.” I put that down to jealousy. Her husband has tried for years to grow a beard and the most he has achieved is a sort of homeless look, the kind of appearance where people want to give him their spare change. My beard, though greying, was thick and proud, an intellectual’s beard. Think Freud, Ulysses S. Grant or Hemingway, or maybe even Jesus. I didn’t apply to the National Beard Registry, but I could have.
Oh well. It’s gone and I assume I look generally the same. Maybe if I shave my head…

Friday, August 15, 2014


A good friend of mine died recently, and though we had neither spoken nor seen each other for decades, his death is impacting me deeply. I suppose this has a lot to do with reaching the age where one loses the people who matter, and each loss chips away at one’s past. The news of his passing came via an email from his wife, an attractive British woman he’d married in 2004 after eight years together.
Bruno Colonge was a classmate at the French Lycée in Washington, DC. He was a big, handsome guy, the first person I’d ever met who frequently worked out at the Vic Tany gym and it showed. He had broad shoulders, massive biceps and legs like oaks. At the time, this type of physique was almost unknown among adolescents. We were all skinny, pale, and barely able to lift a lunch bag. Bruno did sit-ups and push-ups whenever he had a spare minute and was known for sneaking out of his house at night, jumping directly from the roof to the ground, a good 12-feet drop onto the home’s bricked patio, a leap  performed soundlessly and with great élan.
Bruno and I got together because we both played guitar and wanted to be rock stars. We formed a trio with Patrick, a 16-year-old drummer whose only gift was that he had a snare and a single cymbal. Patrick was incapable of holding any beat outside of those found in military matching bands, and this gave our renditions of Peter Gunn, Wipe Out, Telstar and anything by Link Wray a weird syncopation people found challenging to dance to. No matter. We played parties for free, had a repertoire of about twelve songs which we repeated three or four times a night, avoiding the more intricate parts. We were the champions of the three-chord compositions. Our best tune was a heavily accented and incomprehensible version of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say. We made up the words since we couldn’t figure them out, occasionally throwing in a “Yahoo!”, an expression I’d heard on a country station and immediately made my own.
Bruno sang. He loved the French rocker Johnny Halliday, could do a plaintive interpretation of slow songs by Francoise Hardy, and, when we played a Beatle tune, went “Ya ya ya” instead of “yeh yeh yeh,” giving any song by the Fab Four a distinctly Teutonic je ne sais quoi. He was famous for a French version of Sealed with a Kiss that brought tears to his mother’s eyes.
Ah yes, Bruno’s mother… A dragon from the northern climes, Sweden or Norway, I forget which; a Gorgon, a frightening piece of work who dominated the small family with her stentorian voice. She often made Bruno’s life miserable, even as she watched him smoke and develop at too young an age an unhealthy taste for Johnny Walker. His father was a small and subjugated man, a military attaché with the French Embassy, and he and Bruno colluded to escape Madame Colonge whenever it was possible. Whenever she traveled back to her home country, Bruno and his father piled into the family’s Mercedes and did what fathers and sons were meant to do.
Bruno and I would often sneak into the downtown music clubs. We saw and tried to imitate the harmonies of the Mugwumps, who would one day become the Mamas and Papas. We marveled at Doc Watson’s incredible finger-picking guitar work. We saw the Shadows perform and listened to the Ventures. We hung out at Georgetown’s Whiskey a Go Go. We often pretended to be French musicians who spoke no English and that got us a free drink or two. We once went on a beach weekend with a total of $12 between us and a single bottle of banana liqueur.
When his family returned to France after their stint in the US, Bruno and I exchanged letters full of blatant lies about our musical paths. He told me he was slated to play at an important venue in Paris, but his mother wouldn’t let him. I responded by saying I was with a new band booked at the Cellar Door. I visited him once in France and stayed at his house under the narrowed and watchful eye of his mother who, I would learn later, considered me a bad influence.  In time, we lost touch, and it would be almost a half-century before we reconnected. He was married, divorced and remarried, living in Spain. He had two daughters and managed a couple of apartment buildings. His hair was thinner, and it seemed as if he’d lost a lot of weight. We traded a few emails.
He told me he didn’t play guitar anymore…

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Southland Comforts

It is time for my annual rant against convenience stores.
In the early 80s when I was unemployed and developing a strong taste for bad vodka, my sole daily meal often was two 7-Eleven hotdogs slathered with free condiment. The condiments were filler and persuaded me that I was getting my daily intake of veggies--cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and whatever else might be thrown into the mix. I had no illusions that this was a satisfactory meal. I’d once researched a story on the “all beef hotdogs” and been astonished at their contents. The buns were no better, containing a little wheat and a lot of chemicals to give them a decade-long shelf life.
Once or twice, when I was foolish enough to run out of drink late at night, I would gather my change and hit the same 7-Eleven to buy a bottle of bad wine. I’d get the runs the next day, and the high sugar content would give me a terrifying headache, but those were not major concerns at the time.
After I stopped all this stupid behavior, I went back to school to become a counselor so I could use my accumulated and wide-ranging wisdom to save all the addicts; in fact, I worked in the very same place where I’d been a client a decade earlier.  I failed dismally in my quest to save the world, but was privileged to work with an assortment of drinkers and crackheads, meth and heroin folks, cokers, pot-smokers, Robitussin office boys, vanilla extract housewives, youngsters addled by Xanax and pain-killers, the occasional Listerine lady who drank a quart of mouthwash a day, and one gentleman who, having destroyed the linings of his throat, stomach and liver with booze, fortuitously discovered that he could get blackout-drunk by doing alcohol enemas. I stayed away from that particular client and foisted him off on the intern.
While working at the various rehabs, I developed a lecture on the evils of neighborhood convenience stores that cater to every bad habit known to man. Of course they sell alcohol, snuff and cigarettes, sugar-based products, rolling papers, marijuana-like ‘incense,’ caffeine, and fast food of negative nutritive value. They also have ATMs for quick money to spend on, say, lottery tickets to satisfy your gambling jones. Or legal antihistamines. Or a disposable phone to contact your dealer, for that matter. Since ATMs often accept credit cards, you get to increase your debt with minimal effort and in small, easily overlooked increments. The convenience stores sell porn in the form of magazines and at times DVDs. They’re open 24/7, are costlier across the board than other shops, offer little or no fresh fares (the one near me now has bananas and an occasional apple), and encourage bad planning. In short, what may be “convenience” for one is relapse territory for another.
Part of getting your act together after many wasted years, I used to tell my addicts, is, well, getting your act together: Planning ahead, buying groceries, budgeting, and ridding one’s self of as many small bad habits as possible. A diet devoid of quarter-pound hot dogs is also a good idea, as is avoiding those slippery places that cater to your wrong instincts. Bars, liquor stores, the wine and beer aisle of your local supermarket and yes,   the local convenience store, really all should be shunned.
I’m not sure how well my lectures went over.  One young man told me he bought everything at his 7-Eleven, and it wasn’t uncommon for a recently dried-out drinker to make such a store his first stop on the way home after leaving the rehab.
Me, I still go there from time to time, but it’s been years since I went there for more than a cup of marginal coffee.
Who would have thought the little business created by an employee of the Southland Ice Company of Dallas, Texas, would have such an influence on my life...