Archives for posts with tag: meeting old friends

THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

We went retro on a recent southern sojourn. We took an old-fashioned driving trip, without a detailed plan, waking up in a different roadside motel almost every day, and seeing “the country.” It’s my understanding people used to do this sort of thing on a regular basis back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. But my family never took such a trip when I was young and when my wife and I had children of our own, nothing could have sounded worse than piling into the car and driving for hours each day.
Now, unencumbered by jobs or small children, spurred by cheap gas and relatively cold temperatures, and chastened by the hassle of air travel, my wife, Katie and I opted to allot ten-twelve days to see the south. Of course, we didn’t leave everything to chance. Our first stop was Charleston, always a dependable spot for great food and sights. And our final destination was Savannah, also a guaranteed source of interesting and delicious things to enjoy. In between, however, we traveled the back roads of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. And we got together with friends I hadn’t seen in over thirty years. As Robert Frost concluded, “And that made all the difference.”
*****
Several improvements have been made to car travel since the heyday of “the road trip.” First of all, our car is not a station wagon or van, but a BMW with heated seats and cruise control. Second, there’s no struggle to find something to listen to in out-of-the-way places; we have Sirius satellite radio, books on tape and CD’s. Finally, there’s no dealing with maps or asking for directions from strangers. Rather, our smart phone and a GPS combined to save us time and anxiety.
*****
Our first destination after Charleston was Aiken, South Carolina. A college friend, Scott, settled there thirty years ago and invites everyone on our mutual e-mail list to visit when they are in the vicinity. Given that Aiken is the definition of “off the beaten track” in the southwestern quarter of the state, I believe we were the first in decades to take him up on the offer.
Aiken, I learned, is the home of “The Bomb Factory.” It’s where the United States produced much of its nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Now, the same facility is the repository of millions of gallons of radioactive waste from that effort and Scott, a nuclear chemist, is in charge of devising methods for its safe disposal. While he indicates he is making progress, at the present rate, his employment is assured for several centuries.
Scott cooked a fabulous crock of chicken tortilla soup for lunch; it would have suited Charleston’s finest establishments. He introduced his wife, Deb and his son, Mark, who is a recreational food-eating contestant. I’m not sure if I could describe Mark as “accomplished” or “aspiring” in this particular avocation, but his You-tube account shows numerous triumphs in such disciplines as pizza and hot dog inhalation.
A third college friend drove down from Atlanta to join us for the day. Scott and I felt honored since Dan’s been visible only via Facebook and e-mail for the past three decades. Sure to stump any “What’s my Line” competition, Dan is an itinerant pediatrician, traveling the country on short-term assignments. He offers an amusing and insightful perspective on our healthcare system, parenting, and the difficulty of landing a fulltime position for a person determined to speak the truth.
Neither Scott nor Dan is defined by their careers or by having graduated from Dickinson College in the late 1970’s. Scott is a leading expert on the Three Stooges. He is published on the subject and owns a collection of memorabilia, correspondence and memories that would be the envy of any nine-year-old boy in the country. Women, not so much. In addition, Scott has the unique talent to make his shoulder blades speak and several less couth skills, if you can imagine.
Dan is renowned for having memorized the home address of every person in our entering class as of 1974. “Why?” one might ask. Some questions defy answers. The three of us had a great afternoon reminiscing while Katie and Deb endured. We communicated as easily as if we were back at our table in the rear of the cafeteria during the Carter administration. How could so many years have passed?
The visit stretched into dinner at a restaurant where I thought Mark might order twenty servings, given his eating skills, but he refrained. The next morning, Scott made blueberry pancakes, and we covered more meaningless but enjoyable trivia. As one might imagine of someone who can recite 400 home addresses after so long, Dr. Dan was particularly good at making one shake one’s head and say: “Oh, yeah, I had completely forgotten that.”
*****
After breakfast, Katie and I resumed our trip with Valdosta, GA as the day’s destination. Picked randomly as a place five hours due south, it sits just above the border with Florida. I can conclude the following about western South Carolina and central and southern Georgia: there’s not much there. Still, the ride was traffic free and the scenery pretty. To see it one time was interesting; if I had to take that drive on a regular basis, oy vey.
The weather was unseasonably warm, in the mid-70’s, and it seemed a shame to spend the entire afternoon in the car. Accordingly, in the town of Tifton, one hour north of Valdosta, we stopped at what a billboard proclaimed “The Third-Best Golf Course in Georgia.” The opportunity to knock off one of Katie’s least significant bucket list items was at hand. While I flailed my way around the course, which may not have even been the third best in Tifton, she drove the golf cart. She did a fine job driving and following the location of my shots. Her only serious breach of etiquette occurred in front of a large lake. As I stood over the ball, she said: “Don’t think about the water.” Do I need to complete this paragraph?
Also in Tifton, anchoring Main Street is “The Big Store,” owned by the family of a friend. It was Sunday, so the store was closed, but the exterior reminded me of my father’s store in Philadelphia. If he’d somehow settled in southern Georgia or the like, how different my life would have been.
*****
Following a planned two-day visit to Katie’s step-mom in Sarasota, we resumed our unplanned road-trip. Encouraged by the visit with Scott and Dan I e-mailed another college friend, Dave, whom I knew lives in Jacksonville, FL. Dave is like the three-toed sloth of our group of friends. We know he exists but is hard to see. Rare to weigh in on our email communications, I doubted Dave would be accessible for an impromptu visit.
An email elicited no response, and neither did an initial phone message left at his work number. But two hours into our drive, Katie texted Dave and he responded immediately. He agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant. My mind filled with recollections. Not only had Dave attended college with me, he had also attended the same high school and had shared my Washington apartment during my first year of law school. Yet, we’d hardly communicated in the interim.
The temperature fell from 79 in Sarasota to 54 when we arrived in Jacksonville during a fierce rainstorm. The billboard-dominated ride northeast featured orange groves and small towns dominated by trailer parks. We stopped to buy oranges and grapefruits but didn’t see other attractions unless one is a passionate about seeing baby alligators in cages. We aren’t.
Dave waited in the foyer when we arrived at PF Chang’s. An associate athletic director at Jacksonville University for eighteen years, he looked the same as I remembered except greyer. The same could be said of me. We enjoyed reviewing our shared history for several hours and vowed not to let thirty-five years intervene again. As to his lack of communication, Dave didn’t explain. Offering many memories but fewer insights, I accept that Dave is simply on the more private end of the human spectrum.
Jacksonville was a revelation to me. For no particular reason, I’d always assumed Jacksonville to be a sleepy backwater, surrounded by swamps and filled with trailers. Instead, it’s a vibrant city with over a million people. When the weather cleared the next day, we saw an impressive skyline, a river walk, beaches and museums.
*****
When we finally arrived home after two days in Savannah, Katie and I agreed it had been a good trip, different and interesting. Would we do it again? I doubt it’ll be anytime soon. Driving hours each day is tedious. But if we can catch up with old friends in new places again, you never know.

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GENNARO

Strolling along the oceanfront path in Playa del Coco, my wife, Katie, and I were anticipating a typically dazzling sunset to top off another day on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  We were enjoying a ten-day visit to the Central American country where we once owned a second home.  Our vacation was almost over, so we were looking for a nice spot for one last seafood dinner.

“Hey, check us out,” said a friendly-looking, fortyish waiter indicating a chalk-board in front of one of the beachfront restaurants.  “We’ve got especiales tonight.”

“Thanks,” we said.  “Mas tarde (a little later).”   Something about the man struck me as familiar but I could not place him.  After we reached the end of the walkway and turned around, we decided to try his restaurant.  He emerged with a broad smile upon our approach.

“You know me,” he said.

“I think I do,” I said, “but how?”

“Catching fish?” he said.

I searched my memory bank to withdraw all my previous fishing-related experiences.  There were only two:  the time I caught pneumonia at the Jersey Shore and the time my son and I thought we were going sight-seeing in Costa Rica.

“Gennaro?” I said.

“Si, senor!” he said, joining me in an enthusiastic embrace.

When I first met Gennaro, ten years earlier, he was known as an “operator” around Playa Hermosa, the neighboring town.  He helped to manage two local hotels, a taxi service, and affairs with at least two local women.  He was always dressed in a ragged tee-shirt, bathing suit and flip-flops.  His head was covered with black curly hair that cascaded to his shoulders; sunglasses dangled from a string around his neck.  His English was nearly fluent spliced with occasional Spanglish.

When Gennaro encountered an American, Canadian or European around town, he did not discriminate.  “Hey, Gringo,” he would say, “can I get something for you?  A room?  A ride?  A senorita?”  He would wink.

Gennaro usually resided at the Cabinas Motel with Maria, a tica, as Costa Rican women are known.  She cleaned the motel’s rooms and was also available to clean private homes between renters.  According to Gennaro, Maria was insanely jealous of other women.  “That makes my life exciting,” he would proclaim, pointing proudly to several scratches on his cheek.  Maria was a beautiful girl, with deep brown eyes amidst a coffee complexion.  A thick, braided ponytail reached down her back.  Though thin, Maria was physically well-endowed.  “I can hold the national monuments of Costa Rica in my very hands,” Gennaro declared more than once, lasciviously.

Gennaro also assisted at La Hotel Montreal, an establishment owned by Louise, a middle-aged French-Canadian.  Louise controlled numerous investment properties around town.  She did not care whom Gennaro slept with when he was not favoring her with an impromptu visit, so long as her guests were picked up or dropped off at the airport when scheduled, and the air conditioners functioned more often than not.

One morning, when I was visiting Playa Hermosa with Sam, who was then twelve, I encountered Gennaro on the street after breakfast.  He knew by then that I was not a candidate for his usual product line, so he just gave a casual wave, but I stopped to ask if he’d recommend someone to take us out on a boat.

“I can take you,” he said.

“I didn’t know you had a boat,” I said.

“Absolutamente,” he said.  “I have a boat and fishing equipment, and I know where all the fish are.”

I had not even thought about fishing.  I just wanted Sam to experience the water and for us both to see the coastline and the mountains.  “Qaunta questa?” I asked (How much will it cost?).

“Twenty dollars,” he said.

“Per hour?” I asked.

“No, for the whole morning, if necessary, as long as it takes to find tuna,” he answered.

I was reminded why I liked Costa Rica so much.  But then, thinking how I’d once become queasy on the Circle Line tourist ride around Manhattan, it occurred to me to ask:  “How big a boat is it?”

“Big enough,” said Gennaro.  “Meet me on the beach as soon as you are ready.”

Thirty minutes later, with Sam in tow and Dramamine in stomach, I arrived to see Gennaro wrestling a motor onto the back of a small skiff bobbing in the surf.  Maria was assisting him in the role of first mate.  He smiled at us and brandished several flimsy, wooden sticks with straightened metal hangers attached to the ends.

“Are those supposed to be fishing rods?” whispered Sam to me.

“I think so,” I said, skeptical.

“Come aboard,” said Gennaro, holding steady as possible the fifteen foot boat, a battered aluminum tub with peeling blue paint.  Maria, who did not speak English, smiled shyly.

“Can we really catch fish with those?” I asked, indicating the sticks.

“You will be surprised,” he said.

Once underway, we headed across the bay that extends from Hermosa Beach towards the then newly completed Four Season’s Resort on the Papagayo Peninsula.  The sun shone and the surf was calm.  Brilliant blue sky extended to the open ocean and reflected off the glistening water.  We could see mountain ranges to the north extending, Gennaro said, as far as Nicaragua.  To the south, the coast also appeared mountainous and luminously green.

Gennaro pointed out birds to Sam and explained that he had a son almost the same age.  “He lives in San Jose,” he said, matter-of-factly, “with his mother’s family.  I saw him a couple years ago.”  I thought I detected a flash of sadness in his always-sunny expression.  I could not imagine having such a distant relationship with one of my children.  My reverie was broken when a school of dolphins leapt out of the water in the distance and we all reveled in the breathtaking beauty.

Pleased that my stomach was holding up, I was still relieved when Gennaro declared:  “This is the spot.”

It looked like every other spot to me, but he immediately busied himself with attaching hooks to the end of the hanger wires and placing bait fish on the hooks.  “Do you want to try?” he asked us.

“I’ll let Sam do it,” I said, not desiring one iota to touch the bait, and still skeptical that a stick with a hook could catch a fish in the ocean.

Sam eagerly held a “rod” out over the side of the boat, as did Maria.  I sat back and listened to Gennaro tell tales.  The first described when he played for the national soccer team; next, he told about the cargo ship he had captained; finally, he told about the coffee plantation he had once owned.  I had the sense he had told all of these stories many times before.  My “full of baloney” alarm was screaming, but appreciation for his boat ride prevented me from asking questions; I just nodded and smiled when I thought it was appropriate and hoped he would eventually subside so we could enjoy the splendid scenery in silence.

Suddenly, Sam shouted:  “I’ve got one!”

He strained to hold on to his stick.  Gennaro leapt to his side and, together, they wrestled the struggling catch into the boat.

“It’s a tuna, a black fin!” shouted Gennaro.  To me, it just looked like twenty thick inches of shiny muscle.  While Sam and I watched, he disengaged the fish from the hook and subdued it.  I cannot describe exactly how, since I deemed it wise to look away by then, but after another moment, the fish was packed in a cooler with ice and Maria was sloshing water on the floor of the boat to clean up the resulting blood.

Sam was proud and amazed.  “I caught a fish! I caught it!.”

“Way to go,” I said.

Gennaro patted him on the back and motioned “thumbs up” to me.  He baited Sam’s “fishing rod” again.  Sam caught four more tuna in the next hour and was glowing with excitement when we headed back to the beach.  Once there, I insisted, over his determined refusals, that Gennaro and Maria take all but one of the fish.

“We’re only here for two more days,” I said.  “We can’t eat that much.”

Finally, he relented, on the condition Maria would prepare our fish for us.  Served with rice and beans she also prepared at their motel’s kitchen, it turned out to be an amazing meal.  Even Sam, not a seafood eater at that age, loved it.  When we said “adios” to Gennaro, we did not think we would encounter him again.  But we fondly recalled the improbably successful fishing expedition many times in the ensuing decade.

I regarded the now-short-haired man standing before me, wearing a white shirt, pants, and shoes.   His face was tanned but creased with wrinkles.  Grey surrounded his temples:  “How have you been?  How’s Maria?” I asked.

“Maria, Maria” he said, with a wistful expression.  “Oh, she got sick.  She lives in Puntarenas with her mother now.  It’s a four-hour bus ride,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It happens,” he said.  Brightening, he added, “My son’s got a job.  He works as a security guard in San Jose.  I hear from him once in a while.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“How’s your son?  Was it Sam?” he asked.

“You have a great memory,” I said.  “He’s fine.  He’s still in school,” I said, not wanting to boast that he is working towards a PhD.

“Louise went back to Canada a couple years ago.  The economy….” Gennaro tailed off.  “I had to give up my boat,” he added.  “Now I work at this restaurant.  But, hey, pura vida,” he concluded, using the Costa Rican expression used to express every aspect of life: its joy, its beauty, its pain.

I felt sad to see Gennaro in his diminished circumstances, no longer the “operator” in Playa Hermosa, but a humble server.  The restaurant was not busy that evening and Gennaro circled back to our table several times.  A soccer game was playing on the television behind the bar and Gennaro noticed me glance at it.

“Did I ever tell you about when I was on the national team?” Gennaro asked.

Katie looked at him with interest, and he launched into a detailed story about a match he allegedly played against Argentina, full of fanciful details.  I did not listen to every word, but let his voice wash over me as I contemplated the passage of time and how much kinder it is to some people than to others.   Hearing the enthusiasm in his voice, it occurred to me, thanks to its repetition over a period of decades, Gennaro experienced his imaginary past as a soccer star, a ship’s captain and a coffee tycoon, as truthful.

Upon reflection, taking into account all the circumstances, I question how important it is for someone like Gennaro to be exactly truthful.   If it were necessary for him to rationalize, he probably would point out something like the following:  he played soccer in his youth; he worked on a fishing boat one summer; and, he once applied for a job at a coffee processing plant.  The rest is just a matter of degree.