Work by day. Ride by evening. Write by night.
Posts from Matt:
There was a short bridge, a perfect arch over an inlet, a cement rainbow delivering us onto the island. The day before, a Royal Navy nuclear sub had beached itself on some rocks at low tide. The giant black pill, harboring enough TNT to engulf a medium sized city, left helpless after navigation gone wrong.
We happened to catch a newspaper article: on the front page, three seaman in dark navy fatigues, standing atop the sub’s tower. Their demeanor, patient. They must have been freezing in the cold, waiting for the tide to flow.
We circumnavigated the island. From South to North, following the East coast. We travelled back, due West curving along two lane roads meandered through craggy moon-scape. A light sprinkle dowsed our windshield as I carefully drove on the opposite side of the pavement’s white line.
Bundled in three layers. Each of us. Protection from the elements as I tended to stop every couple miles, to exit out and absorb the pristine scenery. The odd desolation.
We paused at grey waterfalls pissing rain and runoff.
Pulled aside a handful of cliffs cropped steep against the ocean, a low fencing separating those overzealous, wandering too close to the edge. On occasion, gusts were known to send people to their death.
Curving around an inlet, a valley opened to our left. Between rocks and stunted grass sat a Lorrie’s muffler, rusted. A monument to failed logistics lying dormant on the side of a tiny mountain.
Passing through the capital city, schooner’s dusted the port. Despite the sky, blackened with impending storms, the water remained calm.
Each boat, anchored in place.
It was lunch time, this side of the world had stopped.
So we pressed on.
The farther we drove, the more barren the landscape. Here, the precipitation maintained a steady pace, falling downward, nourishing boulders abandoned from the Iceage.
By late afternoon we had made it to the other side of the island. The storm, slowly creeping, slowly keeping its distance, allowing us to visit what was left of the Clan Donald Castle–A shell, burnt out from a fire a century ago.
Walking through its grounds we saw no one. A lush green contrasting against the lichened, black stone: a last stand against monuments of brutal weather.
Walking past the ruins we stooped down into a grotto along the water. Taking seat on a wooden bench, we stared out into the sea, its placid water cloaking a violent past.
Of Viking plunder.
Immigration across channels, stirring the indigenous.
The stirring of family names, of opposing clans.
The beginning of a slow end to a Gaelic tongue.
We sat side by side on the bench, listening to the silence. All encompassing.
Except for the wind. Blowing in the bitter cold.
The storm had finally reached us.
‘It is worth the while to see your native village thus…as if you were a traveler passing through it.’
-Henry David Thoreau
Ybor, a small sub city, more like a district within Tampa, has seen dozens of revivals over the past century.
The initial renaissance, starting in 1902, gave it tenure as the cigar manufacturing capital of the world.
Though, trumping its unique industry, were the immigrants who made up the community. A melting pot of Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Afro-Cubans and Germans. Ybor City, a mile by mile square, a grid of about a dozen streets, became the only integrated city in the US at the time. Not only was it integrated through race, women prospered within its equality. Some of its women, becoming, in cases, much more skilled in cigar making than men while making comparable incomes.
The community thrived, so much so that, according to Gary Mormino, cigar workers could make pay equivalent to that of a skilled carpenter in Chicago.
Ybor was also home to Mutual Aid Societies. These ‘Social Clubs’ served as early socialized health care. A small tax (about 5% of income) was taken out of every worker’s salary. The tax provided not only health care, but after hours recreation within the clubs.
Spread throughout Ybor, one massive club provided care to each major immigrant population. All of them, still standing today as monuments to Ybor’s golden age.
As Florida Crackers built their wood frame, tin roofed, single story homes on the outskirts of Tampa, Ybor moved upwards. Within the heart of Seventh Avenue, masons built rows of two story, red brick architecture influenced by their mother lands. Walking into Ybor was (and for the most part still is) like walking onto the streets of Havana: delicate arch ways, wrought iron-worked facades, maze-like alleyways (something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Tampa), and rows of outer lying shotgun houses (narrow and long, tight quartered homes inhabited by the cigar workers).
Hundreds of cigar shops existed throughout the city. Some of them, massive, four story buildings extending between blocks. And underneath the city, a now sealed up mysterious underground: tunnels running from building to building, masking the illegal running of spirits during prohibition.
This is what we see, once a week, pedalling down Seventh Avenue to our curb spot. The curb is nothing special: a flat, low, winding sidewalk sandwiched between a bank and an old cigar shop turned water hole. We chose this spot not because of its uniqueness, but to have an excuse to be surrounded by Ybor’s looming buildings: its history. And with it, its unique aesthetic, somehow continuously inspiring our simple sessions, smack in the middle of Tampa’s urban, culturally neutered sprawl.
We chose it too, because of the chickens.
In the 1890’s, when Ybor was first plowed for development, fowl were a residential mainstay. Now, hundreds of generations later, the ancestors of the first immigrant’s birds strut like gangs through the city. They lurk within Ybor’s limits, travelling in groups sometimes numbering up to twenty: a posse of hens, their diminutive chicks following. Brindled within, as if sentries to the flock, giant, radiant roosters with feathers in bright red, white, and gold.
The birds make a consistent and terrible racket. Sometimes you can hear their call on the outskirts of town.
They peck freely in residents yards, build nests on the many historic structures, and are not afraid to hold up traffic as they casually walk, in masse, across Ybor’s streets.
And other than the potential terrorizing by neighborhood cats and dogs, the chickens, for the most part, are protected.
Ybor’s status as a historic landmark comes with a caveat: It’s also a bird sanctuary.
Diagonally across the state of Florida is a small town called Fort Pierce. There, in the late 50’s, a group of African American artists taught themselves how to paint landscapes.
Those landscapes would become famous representations of a part of Florida unique only to its southern, coastal geography well below the city I grew up in.
By the 90’s, the creators were praised together as a historic art movement.
They were coined The Florida Highwaymen.
Using inexpensive frames, their finished pieces of wildly technicolor art were often sold on the side of US-1 where tourists indulged, buying selections as a bargain souvenir.
The pieces, estimated at some 200,000 total, created a life-like reminder of Florida:
of our bright green, jungle-like foliage,
those afternoon thunderstorms transcending every hue in the color spectrum,
and the Royal Poinciana (Aka ‘The Flamboyant tree’), a heavily reoccuring Highwaymen motif, often cited as having one of the most beautiful blooms.
A couple weeks ago, while driving over a bridge spanning the Hillsborough River (just a couple blocks from my house), I noticed a pop of orange.
A Royal Poinciana I wondered?
I pedaled to the river. From a distance, I saw the tree reaching into the sky, vibrant. But on getting closer, I couldn’t find a clearing on the shore to snap a picture. Cutting through a large park, I stumbled on a homeless camp. Four men sat near the river, drinking 40’s, tending to a grill tucked near the bushes. Smoke rose heavily from a pile of broken palm branches: fodder, as the men roasted a makeshift lunch. Together, they spied me as I crept up with my camera. Breaking their comfort zone, I must have caught them off guard when I asked, simply, their permission at a better vantage point to the tree.
With heads nodding in tandem, I was given access.
Over the past decade, we’ve been experiencing more oppressive heat, more brutal storms, shorter winters, and a much earlier Spring. Regardless of the argument–the laundry list of global warming precipitates–this odd Poinciana bloom (by a tree that should not be flourishing in my neighborhood) gives us something to admire within a potentially tragic shift of climatic extremes.read more
In November of 2011, I took a short trip up to DC. Over the course of those three days, I caught up with an old friend who A. I never get to see quite enough, and B. has no clue how much he has positively affected me over the years.
Throughout the late 90’s, our bands toured together each summer.
By then, he’d already travelled the world, experiencing some of the most unbelievable situations in the Middle East, Central Europe, and South America.
And from his epiphanies (usually told at the end of each night on tour), I’d always turn in feeling the urge to pen down some stories of my own.
Leaving DC on that afternoon in November, thirteen years after we’d met, I finally decided to start.
(See ‘What the desert Brings.‘ A story inspired by one of the last conversations we had on that drizzling Thursday in DC).
A year and a half later, after finishing forty personal tales, I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to write. The process of bleeding out pages upon pages of words. Then taking dozens of painful hours to add and subtract, to cut and paste, to finalize something tangible, reiterating a meaningful personal experience.
It was absolutely consuming.
I’ll admit, I lost quite a bit of sleep, always anxious, thinking non-stop about that next narrative kernel, the heart of the next story.
For getting me through this narrative project, I want to give thanks to the inspiring words of Paul Theroux and Don Morrill. Of Czeslaw Milosz and Wallace Stevens. When I wanted to give up, I picked up an excerpt of their work and felt a sense of ‘umph’ to keep going.
Thanks to my wife, Ariel Gunn, for letting me squint at my computer for countless hours. Brainstorming, cutting, editing, finalizing. Her patience and support were necessary to get me through this.
Thanks to Jason Morris and Steve Crandall for hosting the BD through Leastmost.com
Thanks to Jason especially for his quick email responses after each post. When I felt like shit, drained from staring at my computer for five hours, his little notes of encouragement helped get my pen back onto paper.
Thanks to my family for their support, and especially my youngest brother who, unbeknownst to him, gave me the inspiration back in December of 2012 (while visiting him in NYC) to continue the BD. I thought it best to dedicate this last piece to him. To a point in our lives when we decided to put things aside and become friends. (See ‘Philos.’)
Lastly, thanks to everyone who tuned in, took the time to read, and shared their experiences with me in turn.
Empathy is a beautiful thing.
The Boredom Diaries will continue on in some fashion. Maybe photos, some quick narrative, pieces of poetry, who knows…stay tuned in a couple weeks and we shall see.
Hopefully I won’t let you down.
I plan on self publishing these forty stories by the end of the year. If you’re interested in a copy, please contact me here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading.
Good Night.read more
I hoped only for submission.
The most viable move: to pin him down with my knees. To swing with both fists, using the ball of my palm, beating him against his arms and chest, but careful never to hit his face.
When we fought, even within my own preemptive strike, I always maintained a code of ethics.
No broken bones. No choking out.
He, however, was like an adolescent cage fighter. Five years younger, half my size, never yielding less than the strength of a baby rhino.
He would never hit or kick. Those weren’t options to take me down.
Instead, my baby brother used weapons, and swung to kill.
I was terrified of him.
One of my earliest memories was of him, sitting in my Dad’s lap as we watched TV. Reaching over my father’s forearm, he picked up a clay lamp, just light enough for both his chubby little hands to grip.
As I looked on to Saturday morning cartoons, he dropped it like a hammer, smashing it square over my head.
As I watched him carried away for punishment, I picked up the shattered pieces scattered on the floor. My head throbbed as a giant knot swelled up on the crown of my skull.
In adolescence, he would lurk in the front yard. The sports he’d gotten into involved tools that could second for weapons.
He’d swing golf clubs, choosing them by weight, out of my mom’s grey leather golf bag.
My mom’s were easiest to handle.
Irons worked best, light, with dense mallets. They were perfect for swinging into my shins.
After batting practice one afternoon, he ‘accidentally’ smacked me in the chest with an aluminum baseball bat.
The most potentially violent episode was his charge with a steak knife.
Running into my room, locking the door behind me, I bought time to plan an escape route. Pounding the door, he ran the jagged culinary tool, back and forth, underneath the frame. Screaming obscenities through the cracks, I felt like a terrorized prisoner.
Each time he hammered, the room shook. He was intent on breaking it down to get at me.
Lining the opposing wall, I hand cranked the louvered windows outward and hoisted myself between the small, parallel spaces. I squeezed through, safely escaping into the neighborhood.
When I returned, hours later, I found him sitting next to my mom on the couch.
Quiet, collected, angelic. He was seasoned in putting up a front.
Each year he became better at suppressing his insanity around the people that mattered.
Covertly though, towards me, he was always ready to harvest bloody angst come next fisticuffs.
Within my sleep cycle, I’d often have violent dreams. Of war scenes. Of getting shot at. Of being hunted.
I suffered anxiety stemming from my brother’s hatred of me. Even in sleep I had to keep guard.
Although the traumatic dreams were lucid, I’d often wake up.
So was the case one weekend when my bed shook: the aftershock of a guttural ‘boom’ outside.
In the near distance I could hear birds screeching, a rarity at night.
What I had heard was real.
For a second I lay in bed. My heart racing. The hairs on my arms standing on end. Maybe lightning had struck–those cracks of sound common in the summer months in Florida?
Sliding out of my sheets I headed out into the hall to my brother’s room next door.
Pushing his door open, I could see that his bed was made.
I crept into the living room. There, the TV was still on. Our large couch, empty.
My mom was still at work, this was her late shift.
I continued, hesitantly, out into the yard.
Through the side gate, my brother walked onto our driveway. With a contrived concern, he asked if I had heard the explosion.
His use of the word, defining the specific sound, gave himself away.
That, and an unusual sense of fear I could discern from his voice. His elaborate description. His ranting. I knew, in some fashion, he was guilty.
From across the street, my grandmother came over, frantic. Her naivety playing into the deep, multilayered yarn my brother began to spin. How he thought the sound came from next door. Maybe a suicide?
Spread throughout the streets, our concerned neighbors sprinkled within the shadows.
They kept their distance as my brother was known to lash out. He wasn’t just our problem, he was the neighborhood terror.
My brother led us next door. We knocked. Looking through the windows, their kitchen light was on, but there was no movement. We knocked again, several times, but there was no answer.
Two police cars rolled into the neighborhood. On the scene, my brother dove in to explain the situation, the variables in the equation accurately accounted for. His elaborate descriptions, the tools to dig himself out of a mire of potential shit.
He retold the tale of a loud explosion, the house shaking. He explained to the cops our visit to the neighbors. The knocking with no answer.
Icing on his tall tale.
Together, we pressed the fact that we rarely saw the neighbors. When we did, they never made conversation. They seemed secretive.
My brother pressed the possibility of foul play.
To this absurd conjecture, I kept my mouth shut.
Maybe out of fear for the repercussions of reporting him? Maybe out of respect for his yarn?
Digesting his fabricated information, the police took over the investigation, heading next door to find what they could.
In our driveway, we sat consoling our grandmother, hysterical in what the neighborhood had turned into.
She blamed it on everything, on everyone, except her youngest grandchild.
The cops returned, coming back over to inform us that the neighbor had actually been in the shower.
‘Please let us know if you hear anything else?’
As they regrouped in their cars, filing paperwork, the droves of neighbors slowly moved back into their houses. By midnight, the cops had left. By a quarter after, in the stark silence of our neighborhood, our mother rolled home from work to find us in bed.
‘Could you both come out here please.’
My brother and I walked out of our rooms as our Mom led us into the backyard.
There, the next morning, near the neighbor’s fence, was a large hole the size and shape of an outdoor grill. Expanding from the epicenter in all directions was torched grass. Grass my mother took great pains to maintain.
Splintered across the blackened sod were shredded remnants of a plastic jug. Dispersed in between, tiny sparkles: the sun reflecting off of hundreds of bits of tin foil.
‘What is this?,’ she asked.
And together, for the first time in our lives, we colluded. To our mother, we regurgitated half cocked theories: a meteor explosion, of lightning striking the ground.
I confirmed my brother’s lies. He confirmed mine.
As we walked back inside, I was amazed by what he had done. At twelve, he had successfully collected materials, mixing them together correctly to create a chemical reaction. Something often talked about amongst us neighborhood kids. Something talked about but never seen.
A pool acid bomb.
In a couple weeks, at the end of that summer, I was going away to school. This unexpected situation, the defense of my baby brother, partially out of amazement of what he concocted, partially out of fear for the powers he harnessed, somehow served as an antiseptic to his pent up animosity towards me.
My defense of him became a symbolic handshake.
A familial olive branch.
It was a mutual peace offering.
Inside our house, we walked past the kitchen, past our living room and into the hallway where our bedrooms sat adjacent.
We opened the doors to our rooms. He escaped into his, me into mine.
Our doors shut behind us in tandem.
–Other than the pain inflicted by my brother on me (and vise versa), no one was hurt within these events (circa 1988 through 1995).
–Pool acid bombs are a really dumb idea. Do not ever try them.
–In spite of his youthful predilection for mayhem, my youngest brother has become quite successful, and is actually a damn fun person to hang out with these days. I’m proud of him.
Thanks to him for giving me permission to tell this story.
I crept into the small opening in the rear of the fortress.
Like a cloaca, this aluminum porthole, injecting, ejecting the kids who thought the end times were upon them.
It seemed people grew up a lot faster in those days. Displaced into a surreal world where survival wasn’t a convenience.
Marrying at eighteen, off to war at nineteen, dying at twenty.
So those stories went, growing up with Grandpa Joe.
Math was his strong suit. Jazz was second. He played the stand up bass in a bar band.
His timing: the ‘thump, thump’ beat of his thumb plucking four, thick strings.
His quick wit and discipline, what seemed standard in any adult from that era, made him a prime candidate for the Army-Air Force.
To get there, he lied about his age. Desperate to escape the West Virginia hollers. Away from the train his father conducted: the industry of shipping and dumping coal, blown from the seams, from the entrails of the Appalachian Mountains.
Away from a callous life in middle America. To become heroic in a demonic life abroad.
At seventeen, my Grandpa Joe climbed through this same porthole.
Inside the belly, they positioned him as bombardier.
It was an expensive ride. Something I saved for, for over a year. My ticket used mostly to subsidize the six thousand dollars in fuel. For a half hour flight. To circle the bay. A hundred mile round trip.
The remaining revenue, split up within the maintenance of the Flying Fortress. To repair and rebuild eighty year old, ancient electronics. To keep the mosaic of aluminum paneling, the jigsaw of its carapace, in working condition.
It was a miraculous resurrection.
A macabre celebration of death from above.
Inside, a hollow cigar of aluminum, with wires, stretched out in the open, extending from steering column across the ceiling, following the planes spine and ending in its bowels.
Each cable connected to a flap. Each flap a balancing mechanism to sustain the plane in flight.
Losing your balance as a passenger, reaching out, accidentally grappling a wire, could send the machine dipping back down to earth.
There was a dozen passengers. Two crew members. I sat down on one of many red cushions, laying lengthwise down its belly. Each person, sitting thigh to thigh, a thin seat belt pulled over, securing our waists. We stared forward, facing each other, in uncomfortable quarters.
Across from where I sat, flanked by two men, was a diminutive, elderly man.
His frame merely skin on bone.
Beside him, his two grandsons. They made conversation with other guests. Small talk on where they were from, on what they did for a living. Their grandfather, remaining quietly next to them, a veteran airman of the Second World War.
Here, in the bowels of the aircraft, were no windows. Just outside those thin aluminum walls, each Wright Cyclone engine was started manually. A slow chop at first, soon transitioning into a hellish grind, of twelve hundred horse power conjured within each engine.
Down the wing, each spun separately, one at a time. The second, the third.
And finally the fourth.
Combined, it was the sound of a freight train, of earth quaking.
The bellow of angry gods.
We began to taxi.
Gusts of air pushed through openings, a handful of windowless portholes going from front, trailing down its ribs to back. The influx of wind: a massive hair dryer pushing against our bodies, deafening our ears, as the plane lifted from the ground.
At the height of a couple thousand feet, we hit cruising altitude. Given permission to stand up, we walked single file through the hollow tube.
Past the waist gunner stations. One on each side. Facing East and West.
In the sunlight of those open windows, massive .50 calibre machine guns laid dormant.
Underneath us, the ball turret. That solid glass orb hanging from the fortress’ belly. I recalled the horror stories from Grandpa Joe: of the exit door getting jammed, of airmen getting stuck, dangling and helpless.
Of the ball turret getting shot off the plane. Shattered, those pieces of glass entangled with the airman himself, plummeting thirty thousand feet.
We passed the bomb compartment. A narrow aluminum bridge levitating over what was once thousands of pounds of bombs. A space now devoid of detonation, a vacuous compartment, separated us from sky by a set of flimsy aluminum doors.
Beyond, the plane opened up into the flight room. A split level, where above, the pilots steered us above our city.
I sunk below: a compartment stepped down underneath those control panels.
At the end, an egg of solid glass: the nose cone, extending out from the front of the aircraft.
Here was where my grandfather sat, waiting, propelled forward over Central Europe.
In the nose cone, I sat down in the bombardier’s seat. Between my knees lay the Norden Bombsight, an archaic instrument dictating geography. Dictating intended targets.
Many more of my grandfather’s stories stemmed here. Outside that glass, over Germany, the pop of flack. That exploding shrapnel yearning to puncture the plane. To puncture the airmen.
Of the Luftwaffe. Swarming like wasps, shelling whole planes in half.
And of friendly fire. Of allied bombers, knocked out of the sky by poor decisions, by bad reflexes.
In the nose cone, Grandpa Joe gave the signal to drop thousands upon thousands of bombs on factories. On train yards. On human beings.
With the device between my knees, I watched through the sight piece as my city below was obstructed by cloud cover. An eerie relief, it felt good being blinded.
The plane circled, we headed back and prepared to land.
Sitting back down on the cushions, we latched our seat belts. The elderly, retired airman was escorted in last by his grandsons. Calm, he sat down, a slight smile on his face as we heard the wheels distend from the aircraft.
Thinking of my grandfather, I watched the tiny hunched man exit the plane. His family easing him backwards down the escape ladder.
This was his final flight. His final mission. A coming to terms.
At the bottom of the ladder, the pilots greeted us.
I watched as the retired airman reached out to shake the pilot’s hand.
‘Thank you,’ he said, his lips moving slightly, his voice almost inaudible.
I too was thankful.
Thankful to have the opportunity to fly, in peace, in memoriam of my grandfather.
Thankful to exorcise his horrific memories, floating vulnerable, thousands of feet above a world, raging violently at war.
Fuck off! I screamed.
My voice penetrating the ‘boos’ that rained down upon me.
A ticker tape parade of trash, half eaten hot dogs, tin foil, burger patties.
Hoarse I was, from belching obscenities all afternoon, across the field at the opposing team’s parents.
We’d just got our asses kicked. Last hit, extra innings, a tie broken.
And their kids deserved it, not them.
‘Fuck you, you loser,’ a drunk dad cursed.
Drunk off cheap beer, the brown drink snuck in to be poured into those wax paper cups common at little league baseball tournaments throughout the state.
Surrounding him were other mothers and fathers, screaming, flailing like wild animals.
But they were all drowned out by this guy.
He was my focus. His glasses, his baseball cap, his finger pointing and moon-pie face.
Like the rest of this aggro hoard, he was living vicariously through his kid, tied to his offspring by the umbilical cord of parental arrogance.
And I had a message for him.
My mom said I ran like a gazelle. My legs were long, and with my white polyester baseball pants pulled high up to my belly button, it made an illusion as if I was hauling ass.
Really, I was just average.
But she felt she had to reiterate praise for the one physical attribute that was worth notice.
At fourteen, the act of playing baseball was all I had going. It was an excuse to do something. To be a part of the social fabric of my age group.
And I dove in head first.
I started collecting baseball cards.
Started to attend those professional spring training games where each city in Florida hosts its own team. The Yankees in Tampa, the Phillies in St. Pete.
Each of us kids, choosing a different city to defend to the death.
I chose the Cardinals.
They practiced in Jupiter. A city four hours south of Tampa.
I thought the locale sounded exotic. An odd planet orbiting within the flat state.
I pictured the team being made up of foreigners, strangers in a strange land.
To me, they were the odd men out, and for that, I coveted them.
This was my first instance of ownership, to connect to something bigger.
Baseball, like faith: forfeiting myself to the chosen team as a religious experience.
A convert to the clay.
I was a zealot to one of the most unexciting and uneventful avatars of team sports.
The physical act of baseball, however, remained a nightmare.
The leather bound, rock hard ball often left welts on my skin:
On missing it once in awhile on an attempt to catch a fly,
On getting walloped by an eighty mile per hour ball thrown off course by some of the more powerful pitchers.
The coaches were always made up of the best player’s parents.
With that in mind, each coach was extra critical of those sheepish devotees like myself.
I was serious about the art of baseball.
But my physical build left me inept: small, skinny, all bone and no muscle.
For that, I was an imposter.
Doing my best to ignore the variety of coach condescension, I got dealt a lot of support from fellow players.
Those kids at my local field became close friends, taking me under their wing and doing more through their instruction than any adult.
Friendship much more than competition became synonymous with the sport.
With their positive reinforcement, our last season morphed me out of mediocrity and into a string of physical luck.
I started hitting the ball.
I’d swing, sometimes blindly.
And it was never a direct connection. I’d hit it either too early or too late, consequently lobbing the ball, down either base line, just out of reach of the fielder’s glove.
My ERA suddenly spiked, and within a few games I was positioned in the middle of the batting line up.
Up to bat, I’d somehow send every kid on third base home.
Base hits had become my specialty.
Against my own will, I evolved into a decent ball player.
By the end of that last season, our team became the local champs.
We had the two best pitchers, a quick and long-armed short stop, and a sawed off lump of muscle for a catcher. He had the uncanny ability to pick any bag stealer off the clay.
It was something to have a little pride in.
Something to take down the road as a memento to youth.
And I took it, shamelessly, and was ready to run.
Until all-stars were picked.
Half of our team was carded, and I, somehow, was chosen as an alternate:
as a kid brother to the good kids, a cheerleader to the team and those friendships I had made.
I was the back up, for back up, to those on the field with the most talent.
Within a couple weeks of practicing together, I watched them stomp district.
Onto Regionals where they handled each game with ease.
And within that chain of tournaments, I sat on the sidelines mostly.
But it was ok, it felt good to watch my friends get what they deserved.
To have the honor of simply being on the periphery was good enough for me.
By the end of the post season, our picture ended up in the local newspaper.
We were celebrated as hometown heroes, a little ego boost as we prepared for State.
It had been a grueling week.
An initial loss put us in the loser’s bracket, and in that bracket, the most inopportune schedule: two games, each afternoon, for four days.
We couldn’t lose again.
And we didn’t.
By narrow margins, we kept coming out ahead.
Eight games in a row which dumped us here, hanging on, just barely, against a truly exceptional group of kids from South Florida.
Through two extra innings we kept them at bay.
But by the ninth, a single run hit home had ended things.
It was over.
I watched as my friends, with heads down, walked back to our side of the field. They cut through the parental banter, the vocal abuse, exacerbated by the adult’s inebriation.
A man in the crowd, his chubby face setting himself apart, was most vocal.
Watching him, I stepped out of the dugout.
I walked over the bright orange clay of third base.
As I walked, a wad of spit welled up in my mouth.
I swished it from cheek to cheek.
As I climbed over the pitcher’s mound, over the white line leading to first base, I finally found myself standing against the retaining wall, just below them. That hoard of parents.
Standing, specifically, below him.
‘Fuck you, you loser,’ he screamed down.
His moon pie face excessively round, his skin, burnt from cooking in the afternoon sun.
Heaving my chest, I pulled air through my nose.
Pursing my lips, pushing outward with every muscle in my core, I spat.
It spun slowly, turning end over end through the thick humidity of that afternoon.
In the bleachers above, the man’s drunken, bloodshot eyes dilated,
and I watched as that sugary, gelatinous mess found itself a home.
It never felt so good to lose.
Under the unkept canopy of oaks and the winding maze of scrub palm, my grandmother would step up to pay the couple dollars for zoo entry.
We’d walk by the cement pens inlaid into the Florida sugar sand, where lizards bask in the dirt, where alligators were separated from the rare Florida crocodile, and the exotic birds stood idle on rows of wooden perches.
Stuffed together, in close quarters, with their stimulation absorbed from outside, they picked up cuss words from the droves of tourists that walked past.
It was a frenzy of avian vocalizations, piercing to the ears.
A dozen blue and gold macaws screaming ‘shit! ‘ass!’ followed by an almost instant lull.
In that silence, a lone bird would screech ‘I’m a pretty bird.’
As if a palette cleanser, a coy apology for inappropriate behavior.
Worse off than the birds were the mixed batch of monkeys, their little harry hands outstretched, begging for a handout: peanuts, shiny bubble gum wrappers, and cigarettes.
After the tourists let their cigs burn down to the quick, they’d get tossed into the pen.
The monkeys would snatch them up to feed their mimicked, human supported addiction.
Or, so the rumors went.
My grandmother didn’t care to cover our ears from the filthy mouthed birds, nor protect our eyes from the debaucherous gang of monkeys.
She was too preoccupied with getting to the games: the ring toss, shooting gallery, but most of all, skee ball.
I’d watch the wrinkled, loose skin hang from her tricep as she underhanded the clay ball down the wooden lane. It’d hit the ramp and consistently end up in the highest prized hole. She’d rack up rolls of tickets, and even though she’d pounce me in points, I always got to choose the prize.
Usually, the most unwieldy stuffed animal. The life size black bears, the giant, hunched dolphins.
We’d take them back to the house where my younger brother would teethe on their fur. The smell of his dried saliva would eventually make them un-play-with-able.
Come Monday, their odd, furry shapes would end up crammed into the garbage.
And as the games would change on each visit, manned by a different carny, standing in front of a different prize, the animals remained the same.
Always idle in the unfavorable florida heat, resting in their pens tucked amongst the thick, unruly scrub palm.
That scrub palm, ubiquitous and impenetrable ground cover.
A vegetable plague enveloping every inch of undeveloped old world Florida.
This simple, often overlooked, indigenous and natural aesthetic was what I loved.
About six years ago, I got a hankering to visit The Sunken Gardens.
Lured in by their massive neon sign, it stood as a beacon: one of the last hurrah’s of the historic, Florida roadside tourist attraction. Taken up by the city of St. Pete in the new Millenium, the Gardens were resurrected into a tableau of the exotic, incorporating cuban royal palms, Polynesian screw pines, and a single, massive queen sago.
How the founder got a hold of that sago’s Madagascan seed remains a mystery.
Once inside the Gardens, you’re enveloped by tropical foliage. Here, amidst downtown, the city visuals, the sounds, and gridlock become mute.
I’d find myself visiting at off peak times when the gardens remained practically empty. Walking off the paved path, I’d creep into the canopy to smell the all spice, to pay my respects to the crotons, so old they transformed from hip high brush into fifteen foot trees.
Tucked into a corner, angel’s trumpet grew so thick they created a natural grotto.
A fibrous cave.
Or an addict’s dream: prepared as tea, it becomes a hallucinogen.
The Gardens were still partially a zoo. Their pits held onto that old guard of bizarre animals as cash cows. And of the dozens of decommissioned displays, two were still occupied. One by an alligator snapping turtle as big as a truck tire. The other, by a stand of flamingos, always basking in the sun, their bright pink plumes contrasting against brackish water.
I found myself going once a week, to sit and meditate amongst the canopy.
I’d try to explain the experience to friends, but the Gardens had a stigma.
A haunt for the blue haired retirees.
Always packed, loud with overzealous snowbirds.
But above all, most found it simply boring.
To the Florida natives, it was a subtle punishment to us as kids: to be dragged along on weekends by our parents wanting to escape the city’s chaos.
I’d get made fun of for my animated narrative. My subconscious selling of the Garden’s paradisiacal allure.
It was as if I were peddling snake oil.
The local’s aversion made it even more important to me, as if I were the embassador to its greatness.
And as an absurd justification, I began to research its history.
Delving into microfiche, I picked out old newspaper articles from the tens, the teens, up into the forties when the Second World War pumped car loads of wintry escapees into the state.
My grandparents included.
Their exodus, over time, legitimized living on this peninsula of sand and heat.
And I began to write.
For hours at a time.
Over the course of a couple weeks.
And on finishing, flipping through the twenty typed, transcribed pages, I calculated my time in putting pen to paper.
‘Fifty two hours,’ I inked into the margin.
Of time spent recording, reminiscing, and reflecting on why I was so enamored with the Gardens.
Deeper even, why I have felt such a bizarre love for those contrived representations of an unreal Florida.
In rereading the unnecessarily detailed tome, I realized that I had simply solidified what I already knew: my affinity for the grey area between what Florida actually is, and what we, as Floridians, wish it to be.
To this odd and oft times miserable state, I love you.read more
I sit here in St. Petersburg.
Two miles from the beach.
Two miles from what some deem paradise.
I sit at a desk, behind warehouse walls, in a factory manufacturing bike parts.
Behind our building, a couple meters from my desk, sits a marina. One that specializes in the capturing of blue crabs.
Cages stack over the fence line, hundreds of them where, during summer, the attached barnacles simmer in the sun.
At season’s peak, our industrial block often emanates a salty, metallic stench where, on gusty afternoons, the wind blows the overwhelming smell through every crack in our building.
This is a constant reminder of the Gulf, a stone’s throw away.
When young, riding bikes was my ‘˜rescue’ from family life.
That is how, in a very round about way, I ended up here, in this warehouse, writing this specific entry on my lunch break.
But I don’t want to fool you, being ‘˜rescued’ was what I thought of my situation as an angst ridden child.
In reality, my adolescence wasn’t bad by any means.
It was actually quite good.
But we’re American, so if its too much of a pain in the ass to deal with family, you wander off into the neighborhood and plan your own damn life.
And that was what I did, eventually.
But until that point, I was subjected to parental dictates.
And as a middle class, suburban, and spoiled kid, this was the worst thing that could happen to me.
Or so I thought.
My step dad was hip to the decade. He had a Hobie-Cat sailboat.
He loved stadium rock and would often blast REO Speedwagon in our early 80’s luxury van.
He had a Journey shirt, from the Escape Tour.
Once my younger brother was born, my step-dad retired the Hobie Cat for a family friendly fishing boat. In it, a couple times a month, we’d cruise out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Through the course of the summer, we’d cruise out even more frequently, when the sun was unbearable, when the humidity was so incredibly thick that dehydration (and in turn, heat exhaustion) was the most tangible, life threatening situation to prepare against.
And I never thought to drink water: there was plenty of it in the sea.
They say that living by the ocean makes for a more content, much happier life.
It makes sense with all the retirees tucked away down here.
The sea breeze, the limitless blue, the sound of the ocean slapping the white sand beaches that cover the coasts of Florida.
To retire into a muted, slow moving existence in the sub-tropics?
Sounds like heaven.
If you’re a landlubber that is.
And I was.
As a child I would rather have stayed at the marina, people watching, doing my best to avoid the white-booters prepping the daily catch.
Those tons of fish, dumped out onto the docks, thrown on ice and shipped around the world, next day air, to end up on some rich guy’s plate in Milwaukee.
I was afraid of them. The white-booters were like a biker gang, but from the ocean. Smelling of a fishy death. Leathery from the relentless sun. They refracted an absolute anger.**
And I didn’t blame them.
The ocean, their modus operandi, terrifying and uncompromising underneath a relentless sun.
I hated to fish. I hated to catch them, I hated having to handle them, and more so, hated smelling their innards frying on a pan, a smoke cloud of edible rot filling every room in our house.
I’d leave during those late afternoons and head over to a shallow pond tucked away in the corner of our neighborhood. It was our refuge away from family. Away from the cranky retirees that enveloped our streets, ready to report anything remotely indecent.
What we didn’t realize was that our pond was filled with runoff.
The oil from lawn mowers, the phosphate from car washing soaps, the gas dripping from every car, two to each household.
On really warm days, we’d take a dip in the water, sometimes fully clothed. You could touch the bottom, and if you wanted, wade from end to end.
The pond stunk of rotten eggs, but the haggard combination of all of this, to me, was a much better alternative to being bored at home.
There were fish hidden in the murk. Stunted ones. About as big as your hand.
The kids from my street would catch one once in awhile. The ones floating at the top, the ones dazed, on the verge of entering an aquatic death bed.
And with a match and a can of hairspray, the kids would blow torch them to a golden brown.
On those dreaded weekend outings, I’d huddle in the most stable bench seat on the boat, preparing for the long cruise out into the Gulf.
Past John’s Pass: an old pirate enclave.
Past the chain of bridges that connect the western coast of Florida’s barrier islands, under which, rumors often spread of shark attacks.
Of bulls, whitetips, and tigers. But, most threatening, the ‘˜Hitler’ Hammerhead. A supposed, 20 foot long, mallet headed fish, lurking near the pylons, ready to consume whole boats.
Out in open water the turbulence from heavy seas caused our boat to skip against giant waves. I’d brace up, both my arms outstretched in front of me, yet somehow I’d suffer the inevitable hitting of my head on the fiberglass hull.
The sea sickness. The motion sickness. The sickness from simply not wanting to be there, out of boredom, out of fear, as land, like water spiraling down a drain, disappeared in the distance.
We’d post up, way out, twenty miles from shore.
My parents’ fishing poles, slung over the deck in four different quadrants. My brother, still a toddler, bumping along inside the boat, a whirlwind too small to climb up and out into open water, wearing himself into a stupor.
Huddled in a corner, I’d lay underneath a wet towel, eventually falling asleep.
Inside that darkness, I’d feel the sweet utopia.
Away from the sun.
Away from my family.
The white booters.
The ocean, ominous, ebbing and flowing just underneath the shell of our boat,
harboring stinging jellyfish, squid, Manta rays, and bull sharks: the bullshit I was scared of, in a life lived too easy.
Knocked out, my brother and I were of no consequence to our parents.
We had unknowingly awarded them a break from their monotonous lives.
From their jobs. A house too big to maintain. From the pressures of being providers.
And from the two kids who, unaware to us, were an utter pain in their asses.
This, these dreaded weekends spent in open water, in quiet desolation, was really what we all needed.
**In 2002, near Madeira Beach within miles of where I work, two commercial fisherman got into a bar room brawl where one stabbed the other in the chest with a swordfish. The victim lived.read more
‘There’s Loch Lochy.
There’s Loch Oich…like a pig.
There’s Linnhy. The biggest, due southwest.
And then this, here, Loch Ness.’
‘Loch,’ I would learn from our bus driver, was Scottish Gaelic for lake.
For years I thought the name connoted the magical. That mysterious void dropping to a depth of seven hundred and fifty five feet in some parts. When Pangea split apart, and pressed Scotland into England. The tectonic pressure creating a rift, an inverted mountain, plunging deep, cradling brackish waters so jet black that when I stepped up to the Loch’s edge to place my hand underneath the surface, it disappeared.
From our bus driver, his blond, almost afro-like hair serving well his lighthearted personality, we were handed off to our guide.
He: A Ness resident for over twenty five years.
By trade, an amatuer scientist. Grizzled by the sun. Grizzled by lost time. Humorless, his life dedicated to proving the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.
We boarded his research vessel. A trawler, converted to take those curious, up and down the length of the lake’s twenty three miles.
We discovered that the tours were a means of subsequent income to support their scientific scouring.
To record the goings-on, as they floated above the frigid waters, cruising each inch of the Loch for an inkling of tangible evidence of the unknown.
On that day, the Loch hung under a blue sky, steep hills firing up each side, where, up there, in the mix of primeval forest, Aleister Crowley’s home lay somewhat hidden.
Crowley, ‘the wickedest man in the world’ who birthed witchcraft into the mainstream.
He was most suited here, where, not far below, Loch Ness served as a perfect atmosphere for Crowley and those, like myself, who suffer a visceral subjectivism, unable to differentiate the occult from the mundane.
The captain steered us out along the Loch. Heading North-East at eight knots, we were hammered by an odd, chilling summer breeze.
Around the stern, the scientist corralled us, not unlike a camp fire ritual, as he dove into the myth of Ness’ ecosystem.
Of what he knew to be a family. Not one, but many creatures.
Evolving, reproducing, evolving again.
Taking up residence in the Loch, since time immemorial.
They could exit, he said, migrating in and out of subterranean passages that dump into deep water currents well underneath the North Sea.
He thought the prehistoric pod was not like the typical image of the Plesiosaur. Not like the plastic tchotchke’s sold at the foot of Urquhart castle, or the Loch Ness visitor’s center where a giant cement dinosaur sits basking in a pool of fresh lake water.
He thought the creature more whale like: short flippers, a wider mouth, fat.
As the sun set, he pointed out the factual biodiversity of these chain of lakes. Trout, Salmon, but mainly Artic Char, the titans of the known food chain thriving deep down in extremely cold waters. Their populations were mysteriously regulated.
“Something keeps this fish at bay,” he mentioned, “and its not me or you.”
“Here, tell me what you think?”
The scientist pointed at his sonar.
Current. A live reading.
Speckled on the black map were what looked like tiny stars in an underwater galaxy. On each electronic re-boot, each passing of the radar’s ghostly arm, those specs representing fish wiggled across the void, positioning themselves in a new spot.
This was normal he said.
“Now, look at this.”
The scientist pulled up photos he had taken of past sonar readings.
Off set, in the bottom right corner, a blob, like a giant amoeba, positioned itself in a quarter of the image. Below it, a smaller oval, a mirror image to its partner above.
“This, I believe, to be a mother and its offspring.”
He shuffled through a selection of stills, each more convincing than the next.
Blobs layered on blobs. Giant creatures, hiding within the melanoid depths, avoiding, what seemed, any potential communion with the terrestrial.
“I wish I could prove that they’re out there,” he expressed in a straightforward tone.
His evidence, what seemed on the cusp of revelation.
Hard proof was what he begged for so that the creatures could be protected as an endangered species.
It was almost sad to listen to him.
Beyond that, psychologically, his plight was tragic. His situation was more about proving himself to not be a hoax. His methods to convince us practiced well on for decades. And I believed him.
As we cruised towards the trawler’s landing, the sun began to set behind a line of dark green alders. Our day was another fruitless hunt for Melville’s White Whale. The scientist, like Ahab, a morose and tragic character in a narrative destined for his reputational doom.
Below us, Nessy and her fellow monsters, circled the depths, circled through the human conscious where our curiosity, but much more so our fear of the unknown, maintain the tourist economy of Lake Ness.read more
Some of the kids we met spoke six languages. Mainly while criss crossing Scandinavia, where education is lauded above most other things. English was on their communicatory laundry list. English, for the most part, the universal default.
And for that, we were lucky.
Until we dove deep into central Europe. Our white van enveloped by fields of raps, a bright yellow flower, like a blanket, covering rolling vastness. Its radiance, hiding the inevitable gnarled cultivation, ground up, a dirty death to produce diesel fuel.
We drove past the nuclear power plants, those giant caldrons, steaming an atomic witch’s brew of energy.
Past hundreds of miles of windmills, travelling in lines, scarecrows marching the contours of the landscape, spinning because thats all they know to do.
Beside them, far below, lifeless in the dirt, avian carcasses, chopped into pieces: collateral damage for a green revolution.
We were on the hunt for the small town of Kutna Hora. The town, part of old Bohemia. Tucked away from the Medieval city of Prague. Mashed among the hidden old world of a new Czech Republic.
Somewhere inside Kutna Hora, among a scattered selection of religious institutions, was the Sedlec Ossuary. A tiny cathedral. An offering to God. Decorated completely in human bones.
Yielding to a farmer, the man, much like a peasant, spoke a slavic dialect. We pointed at our arms, legs, and head: sign language symbolizing skeletal make up.
Like neanderthals we reached out, availing nothing but complete disconnect.
So we drove on, heading towards the religious town. Church spires popping through the foliage, those thick birch trees, peppering the hillside, white, thin and black.
In Kutna Hora, we hopped from one church to the next.
The first, too grand. Its stain glass windows resembling nothing of what we saw in the photos of the infamous Ossuary.
The second, much too exposed, left to the elements.
Worshippers crowded the facade. Death tends to skirt attention, I thought.
This was not what we were hunting.
Rambling down the lanes, the single dirt strips, roads similar to those in the deep, ominous, South.
We passed tattered people, laymen to the land, traversing by foot.
Until we gave up.
Turning onto a side road, we headed diagonally out of town.
Out of Kutna Hora, we skirted a single unimposing Roman Catholic Church. Tiny in comparison to the others, much less a grand archive for the remembrance of things past.
An impossible tomb for the bones we sought.
Up the narrow walk way we entered, through a diminutive wooden door, and into an ancient house of worship.
Inside, bone piles, like a mason’s shelving of limestone upon a castle’s walls. Jagged, uneven, a jaw-boned outcrop. From a distance, their teeth resembling mortar, a glue that would have held them together had gravity not been the sole element in their balancing act.
There were four chambers total. Each stacked, centrally, but only with calvaria. Above, intricate chandeliers connecting femur to ulna to rib to radius.
Looping down just above our heads, vertebrae like streamers connected mounts for candles. Wax dripping, oozing over craniums. The wax, like drool, dangling from the mouth of skulls.
In the Ossuary, every bone was used. No momento wasted.
Each piece; a spur on a ball joint, a collection of broken tarsals, ominous eye sockets once harboring gelatinous goo.
Those eyeballs, telling its own narrative, of ‘life translated into a new language.’
I wondered why we evolved to bury our dead.
Far removed from the early rites of, say, Zoroastrians. Those ancients, laying out their deceased, to have buzzards pick flesh, to consume sinews.
In the end, those bones left out, evidence of human transcendence, to each of us a different place, a hopeless celebration of resurrected life in death.
We were alone. Whispering awe amongst ourselves. Paying respects to the dead.
Until the cathedral door cracked open.
From outside in, a group of young students came through the doors of that house of worship. What looked like an elementary class: I noticed that the lot were all adolescent girls.
Bubbly, the girls excited, giggled at the bones.
Their beautiful, slavic tongue, telling a different sensory experience.
Of a different culture.
I envied their indifference to death.
There were seven of us.
Seven whiney ass Americans travelling across Central Europe.
Whiney we were, compared to the punk kids, from lower income families spread across Slovenia, Czech Republic, Italy, and here, now, in Spain.
Most of the kids we played to lived in squats, dumpster diving to feed themselves.
Diving to conjure up the giant meals, sometimes three courses, contracted as part of our tour rider.
We travelled through the evening, always late to where we were going.
Oddly enough, our only real responsibility was to get ‘there’ on time, wherever there might be.
That night we were behind, having blown the afternoon outside of Bilbao Spain, swimming off the coast in freezing waters, climbing the natural monoliths that float like giant heads within wading distance of the shore.
We climbed those rock faces, careful not to slip on the white streaks of sea-bird shit, to peer at the topless girls lining the beach.
We, the culture shocked young Americans, just breaking from our teens.
We, four weeks in, on a six week tour.
The sun cooked us inside the van, our skin beet red, none of us having entertained the idea of sun block.
The brisk, ubiquitous sea-breeze offered some sort of recourse as we barreled, windows down, along the highway. Old Spanish castles passed on our left, once sacked by Moors, their facade’s illuminated by street lights.
The scene: a juxtaposed grandiosity against the barrenness of surrounding cropland.
We drove on, packaged tight, five hours to Valencia.
Pulling into the sandy parking lot of the venue, we found it to be a shell of an old Spanish style home.
The home, bare bones in its heyday, the sandblasted brick walls struggling to support a terra cotta roof.
Inside, candles were lit next to a wooden platform serving as a stage.
Here, was where we would perform.
Greeted by a group of bright eyed squatters, in broken English they thanked us for making the trek.
In separate courses, on separate trays, they brought out our dinner.
Sitting on a circle of burnt stumps, we ate, using a pair of Marshall guitar cabinets as tables.
Midnight was the unofficial time to set up: the universal witching hour for obnoxious, discordant punk rock.
By candlelight we wheeled our equipment into the dusty carapace and lifted each piece carefully onto the foot high, makeshift stage.
Plugging our amps into a single power strip, we simultaneously flipped the switches on to nothing.
But it was to be expected. Power often rigged, illegally from an outside source.
Laying down our instruments, we followed the cord out of the shanty. Meandering across the sandy parking lot, it dipped underneath the dirt in several spots, until, at the end, it laid in front of an adjacent house.
Coiled up, the cord, our conduit to power, propped like a snake ready to strike.
Less than ten feet in front of it, on the house’s porch, was an elderly woman in her nightgown. As if it were mid day, she ceaselessly swept the facade.
Busying herself, her activities were a not so subtle gesture guarding her outdoor light socket.
Looking around the squat, those punks, embarrassingly inconspicuous, waited patiently for the woman to go to bed.
But she never did.
The humidity, blown in by sea, rolled in thick.
Sand sticking to us, our skin like fly paper.
The squatter punks huddled around us, ‘lo siento’ they said repeatedly, ‘lo siento.’
Having cut a plastic jug in half, they handed it over. At the bottom, collected in a small pile was seventy pesetas, enough cash to get us up the east coast of Spain.
Defeated, we slumped back into the space, loaded our equipment, and readied ourselves to drive cross country.
Thanking our hosts, saying goodbye, we sauntered towards the elderly neighbor.
Still sweeping diligently, she lifted her head: a last look at those guilty of causing her insomnia.
A last look at all seven of us as we surrendered.
We travelled late through the night, to converge on the next city of opportunity.