London Calling Part 2: The Sights

Buckingham Palace

My mind was flooded.  Unable maintain all the information Mike Masters was feeding me, I grew wary, then dizzy, my vision blurring trying to navigate his directions on Google Maps.  The data overload fried my circuits, and the harder I tried to concentrate, the faster he talked, my condition worsening with each additional landmark mentioned.

“Ok, so you are here, Trafalgar Square.”  Right.  Trafalgar Square, got it.  “Go North a few blocks, and you’ll be at Piccadilly Circus.  Go there…”  But why would I want to go to the circus?

“Go back the other way, and you’ll be at BBBBBBBB…” …I’m waiting…  “BBBBBuckingham Palace,” he finally said, emphasis on “Bucking” for some reason.  That must be the place with the guards in the goofy hats…

Go across the bridge, and you’ll see the Eye of London.  An eye, like the one in Lord of the Rings?  Wait a minute!

“Across the river is Big Ben.”  …Who’s Uncle Ben, and how do you know I’m going to see him?  “Keep going, though.  You’ll pass a couple bridges.  First, there’s the Millennium Bridge, like the one in Harry Potter.”  Harry Potter?  Who cares about that dingus?  “Then, there’s the Tower Bridge, not to be confused with the London Bridge.”  London Bridge?  I thought that thing fell down years ago???  “Cross it, then go to the Tower of London…”  Hold on, which one do I go to? Tower Bridge or London Tower?

“…You have got to see the Crown Jewels…”  See the family jewels, check… “And while you’re over there, go ahead and check out St. Paul’s cathedral.”  …Saint Turkey—who?  “Oh, then there’s the clubs!”  I hope he’s not talking about that Playboy Club he was going on about earlier…

“Oh, you’re going to London?” said another Mike.  This one was bigger, scarier, and has been known to give me a creepy look or two in the past.  “Go check out Harrods.  Fanciest department store you’ll ever go to, and the Toy section; biggest and best anywhere.”  Now I have to go to a toy store?  “Also, they have the most upscale food court you’ll ever see at a mall…  And make way for the Queensguard!  They don’t mess around.  They can’t even drink alcohol…”  No alcohol???

My legs began to numb.  My head spun.  Each word spoken from a Mike fell into obscurity.  How in the world will I do all of this in one day?

…I wouldn’t.  I would have a night and a day.  There was still a chance, and the moment I checked into my hotel at the grandiose Trafalgar Square, across the street from the massive courtyard standing at the helm of the National Gallery, I’d waste no time.

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Disclaimer, not my actual picture of Trafalgar Square.  Mine got deleted for some reason.  Arg Apple!!!

***

I followed the pink signs off the Knightsbridge underground station.  “Winter Wonderland” they said, with an arrow pointing in the direction of darkness.  Some would call me foolish, putting blind faith in such an arbitrary sign.  Yet, through the eternal dimensions of black space, bright, neon lights could be spotted, if only ever so slightly.  It glittered through each breath that precipitated under the moonlit twilight; lights shrouded in mystery, begging for discovery.  I crossed the street with the light as my guide.  It was where I needed to go.  It must be…

It was a lonely walk along the dirt path, silence being my only companion.  One side sat a long pond that wrapped around a few acres of grassy fields and scattered trees.  The others side was just that, an endless plain of grass and flora, though it was hard to tell exactly what lay beyond the darkness.  I kept my conscience occupied with Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” playing inside my head, resounding the closer I made my way to the source, anticipating a crescendoed climax the moment I reached my destination.  In time, civilization would seem to rejoin me in my quest, for a group of hooligans sharing some naughty British slang snuck up on me.  They looked to be some Ben Woodward lookin’ chaps, greasy, long hair, lanky stature, spider fingers, all smoking their cigs and holding their lovers.  They didn’t bother me, nor did I bother them.  All of us seemed to be looking for the same thing.  So, we journeyed further into the park…

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Yes… I was in Hyde Park.

A large plot of carnival rides stood before me, lighting up the night sky with music, laughter, and excitement.  This is what I had come to see, an electric super show, erected in desolation.  I reveled in its magnificence as it tempted me inside.  As captivating as it was, I could not stay.  Another destination called my name, and time was of the essence.

It wasn’t hard to spot Harrods, the enormous castle of a department store that the Mikes talked so highly of, only a brisk skip away from Hyde Park.  It lit up like a Christmas tree; t’was the season after all.

Harrods

The inside was just as glamorous as the outside.  Layered in elegance, each floor was home to a maze of showcases; scents and perfumes, men’s and women’s clothing, home and décor, appliances, Christmas decorations, and the ever so anticipated toy section, each segment connecting to another with just as much style and curiosity as the one before it.  It reminded me of IKEA in ways, minus the frustration (PS: I HATE IKEA).

Proper, orthodox, and classy, Harrods was everything I’d imagined it to be, as was London.

First stop was the clothing section, drawing me in like a woman from the better side of the West Virginia border.  So profound, profuse—profligate…  Louis Vuitton, Versace, Prada, Gucci and more… all names I had recognized, thanks again to the lyrical selections of Kanye West.  Section after section, I was tempted with a suit or similar garment from one of these merchants, affording me the opportunity to match the genteel fashion sense of London’s natives and set me apart from those back in the motherland.  Only the lack of room in my suitcase prevented such a purchase, and having already been asked for directions on the streets (the charade given away once my American accent was noticed), I could assume my appearance was satisfactory, at least for the weekend.

Then… I saw them.

Gucci Shoes

They were the most stunning pair of shoes I’d ever laid eyes on.  Just the thought of me strutting around Idaho with these beauties gave me chills.  Mike Gibson’s face would boil with rage.  Ben Woodward would follow me around like a sick puppy, clinging to the faux fur lining.  Bill would of course give me his classic scoff, acting disgusted, but only to conceal his pending jealousy.  And Josh Ulrich… why, he couldn’t even muster the words for a proper insult, nor an erudite Instagram post, too frozen awe to speak.

“Excuse me sir, how much for the shoes?” I asked.  The question was unnecessary; there was no doubt they’d be mine.  At this point, I could pretty much feel them clinging onto my feet, a confidence I had not felt since the first time I set eyes on the Yeezy Boosts.  It was only a matter of time—

“That would be six hundred and seventy-five pounds sir.”

“675 pounds?  Well, shucks.  My budget was 500,” I told him.  I thanked him for his time and settled for a stuffed Christmas pooch at the Toy Store for 15 pounds.  It was either that or the ball point pen for 7.

It’s too bad he wasn’t willing to negotiate.  I was serious.  I would’ve bought them for 500, though apparently, according to the credit card company, 500 pounds isn’t the same as 500 dollars (still arguing, but don’t worry, pretty sure I’m going to win this one).

I made my way towards the exit, finding the food court on the ground level.  With a full-service steakhouse, oyster bar, whiskey bar, and an artisan dessert shop in the middle, the Mikes were correct; it was the fanciest food court in town.  Easily ready to spend 25 pounds plus on a fish and chips basket with a fine brew, I took an open seat next to the bar.  Unfortunately, it was too late, as I was quickly shoed along.  9:00 PM was far past this bartender’s bedtime.

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I found refuge near what Masters referred to as “The Piccadilly Circus.”  Though quite an interesting place of commerce and innovation, it didn’t have much to do with the actual circus.  They do know how to do up Christmas however.

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“Shake Shack…” I whispered softly, as if the words naturally echoed out into obscurity, drawn to its neon sign.  “Shake Shack… Shake Shack… Shake Shack…”  I had to give it a try.

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Turns out, British burgers are about as good as the American counterparts.  If not… better.  Proud to make that my first meal in the UK, no anarchy needed.

The night was young, and I’d have loved to stay out longer, but partying wasn’t an option—not on this night.  A big day was ahead of me.  So, I headed back to the hotel lobby and settled for an old fashioned, a fancy one at that (the bartender took 5 minutes to make it!).

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“So where are you from?” asked the Bartender, who was a foreigner from Milan (the “city of fashion”) himself.

“Do you know where Washington State is,” I asked, just so he didn’t confuse it with Washington, DC.

“Oh C’mon!” he snapped back with slight offense.  Apparently, many Brits are familiar with Washington State, for I received the same reaction with the same exact words by others when the same question was asked.  Nothing to get too worked up over.  I actually found it a bit flattering that so many in the UK were familiar with the homeland!

Back in the room, I settled the night with a few scenes from American motion picture classic, “Total Recall” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  “Hmm… they have pretty good taste in cinema too,” I thought to myself before fading into a slumber.

***

Rise and shine.  A run around the bridges and a hearty breakfast with a cup of tea, and I was off to take the Mike Masters tour.

 

Anybody ever watch that movie, “Get Out”???

***

Saw Buckingham Palace.  Looked like a nice place, except those dudes in the goofy hats wouldn’t let me in.  Much feistier than they look in the movies.

 

 

And it turns out, Uncle Ben’s was kind of a bust…

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Here’s where the London Eye’s supposed to be, except all I saw was a stinkin’ Ferris Wheel.

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The Tower Bridge.  Didn’t see any London Bridge, so I think I was right.  It did fall down a long, long time ago.

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The Tower of London, just an old castle.  This is where the Family Jewels are.  It cost me 28 pounds just to see them though, and they wouldn’t even let me take any pictures!

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You could however take pictures of some of their guns and armor and stuff.

 

Speaking of Family Jewels, this guy kept his well protected!  Heheh.

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And finally, St. Turkey’s Cathedral.  Man, did they have a killer organ in there!  I stood in humility as the organist laid down a long string of heavy Castlevania riffs, the eyes of St. Turkey and his friend Paul donning, urging me to confess my sins!  I left an hour later, purified, ready to face the world with a clean slate.  It’s only a matter of time, however before I make my return, the adulterations of the mortal world too much for one soul to handle.  Until then, St. Turkey’s got my back.

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I managed to find a pub or two before the night was over.  Though not much for Cask Pub Beer, their fish and chips were decent enough to keep me satisfied.  Once again, I retreated back to the hotel a little early for my nightly slumber.  After a full day to touring and running, I was pooped, and had a plane to catch tomorrow!

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Though proud of myself for nearly completing the Mike Masters’ challenge in its entirely, there was still more to be seen.  Not just in London, but in England all together.  I want to go back and hang out in the old pubs built in 1200 AD and watch a soccer game or two, maybe hang out in the old villages and farms a little bit.  Something seems so quaint and wholesome with the whole experience.  And what about Scotland?  I am part Scottish after all, and St. Turkey’s got nothing on St. Andrews.  You think having a church is cool?  St. Andrews has an entire golf course!

And with such elegance and prestige, it’s hard to believe they pissed us off so hard back in the 1700’s, not to mention the beef William Wallace had with em’.  But I’m good with the Brits.  They treated me well, and all that war and fighting crap was a long time ago.  Forgive and forget, that’s my motto.

So don’t worry London.  Like our buddy Arnold used to say, “I’ll be back.”

London Calling: The Tube

“Welcome to the UK.  May I have your passport, please?” asked the customs official in a proper accent.  Now you’re talking my language!  No more of this bonjourno or ciao crap!

After a question or two and a stamp of the passport, I had officially become a visitor of the UK.  And man, with less than an hour had been spent, my outlook was already on the up and up!

To be honest though, everybody had talked the place up at work, telling me where to go, what to see, and how to get there!  “Oh, you can take the Tube anywhere,” mentioned my boss.  “It’s easy!  They’re all over the place…”  Wait, the Tube?  What’s a Tube?

***

My topcoat and parted hairline cloaked any traces of my foreign status as I walked down the steps to this supposed “Tube,” though it looked a lot like a subway if you asked me (FYI, they have funny names for a lot of their stuff over there).  The British have a tendency to be much more presentable in their fashion, at least in public.  And the girls like to do themselves up big time, especially on a Friday night!  Like, “holy cow, you must’ve spent hours in front of the mirror putting on make-up,” style of done up!

And get this… one even talked to me!  Schya, I know.  Kind of a big deal, right?!

I’ll never forget the look she gave me, that layer of glittered makeup, the precisely drawn-on eyebrows, her crispy, blond hair caked in product, the hair spray stinging the nostrils.  As I looked at her, there was but one thought that consumed my mind… “Man, I hope nobody lights a cigarette nearby!”

She turned her head, expecting her two friends walking next to her.  Instead, there was me.  Out comes a shrill gasp.  Taken aback, her eyes widen and mouth hangs agape.  “Ohae, Christ!”

Quickly, she scurries past me and finds her girlfriends.  No matter.  I had Tubes to ride, places to be.

Friday nights on the Tube can be a little tight as well.  For better or worse the skinny cabs of the Piccadilly line force you to get cozy with your fellow commuters.

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At least their seats are more like couches.  Before being packed in like a can of sardines, I found an open spot on one and got comfortable.

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A few crackles on the Tube intercom brought the patrons to attention.  I remained calm, having heard these types of official announcements many a time riding the DC Metro.  “Attention green line passengers,” the voice would usually say in a succinct manner.  “The elevators at the Mount Vernon Square Station are currently out of operation.  Maintenance will be conducted on Sunday, from 6 AM to 8 PM.  I braced myself for something similar, more professional and proper, of course, as is the British custom.

“Why ello dere,” mentioned the operator.  Wait a minute, is the operator a 15-year-old boy?  A slight paused commenced before the young lad continued with his official, important, Tube-sponsored announcement.  “Well… you might be wonderin’ why when you try to go north at the Wimbledon station, they keep on makin’ you go south.”

…No, not really, but yes, continue.

“Well, dats because… and actually, you’ll probably hear about this on the news lata…”

Go on…

“…But the power cables… they fell down.  They’re layin’ down on the tracks… all of em’.  Another long pause commenced.

 “The last time this has happened has been… why, since before I can even rememba…”

And that was it.  That was the entire announcement.  I sat back and took a deep breath.  What the hell was that?

So yea, I guess you could say there are some interesting characters on Tube.  I mean, get a load of this guy with his kazoo keyboard, trying to be the next Ed Sheeren or something!

Honestly though, he wasn’t too far off!  His style was enigmatic, a collaborative combination of instruments classified as juvenile, yet captivating.  The patrons couldn’t help but engulf themselves in his interpretation of the classic tune, “Jingle Bells,” especially the lady across from me!  She acted like she was annoyed, as did I, burying her face into her phone and everything.  Her eventual toe tapping gave away the façade.

But his musical endeavors didn’t come without consequence.  Stop after stop, new passengers boarded, greeted by his siren song.  And one by one, they stayed and listened, put under a soporific-like spell the minute they entered the Tube.

The lady across from me… she took it the hardest.  Struck by his soothing voice and her phone forever removed from her face, she lost herself, her eyes fading, unwilling to move from her spot on the couch… not for the end of the world—

“Oh my God!”  Her rising face and deep gasp said it all.  Precious seconds spent in a blissful existence of song and dance were no more—this was her stop!

She shot up and made a break for the exit, minding the gap the furthest thing from her mind.  “She’ll never make it,” I thought to myself as I watched the doors come to a swift close in front of her face.  “They’re moving too fast.  She’s doomed, her entire day—ruined!  How will she ever get off—”

Wham!  The doors slammed, separated only by mere inches.  Without missing a beat, the music man shoved his foot in the middle, right in the nick of time.  “Jingle bells, jingle bells,” he continued… but the doors were relentless—determined to shut, no matter the casualties.  They opened once again, only to shut on his delicate foot with twice the force.  Unfortunately, a Tube entertainer’s salary doesn’t always provide for adequate footwear.

This music man was undeterred, however; his commuters deserved better than this.  In a courageous display of might, he took another step, wedging his body between the doors.  Sacrificing his body, the lady stepped past before either could be crushed.  “Jingle all the way…”

Pop!  The doors slammed into each other.  On one side, the lady walked her way to luxury, never to acknowledge her savior, ever again.  On the other side, the music man stood, stoic and un-phased at the fact that he was nearly decapitated.  “Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh, hey!”  He sends me a wink and a smile, needing no praise for performing his civic duty.  He knows I’ve enjoyed his performance; my stupid grin gives it away.  I reward him abundantly with a pocket full of pounds.

***

It’s getting late, and even in London’s prestigious Trafalgar Square, the underground corridors can become a bit sketchy, let alone tricky to navigate, especially for a foreigner like myself.  At such a late hour, the usual commuters tend to vacate, leaving the unsavory to populate the Tube’s tunnels.

I walk alone, eyeing the end of a corridor that looks to be the exit near my hotel, at least one can only hope.  To my left sit two homeless kids, their belongings spread out across the ground.  A line of a brownish/green substance lays on top of an open piece of cigarette paper.  OPSEC ringing, I surge forward, not willing to stick around and find out what type of herb they were using.

The boy begins to speak.  “It’s Lokke,” I imagine he says.  I can’t quite understand though, nor do I try to.  Just pretend like he wasn’t talking to you.  Works every time.

“It’s Loke!” He says again, louder this time, and more legible.  Still, my mind is races, survival instincts overcoming.  Ignore him.  Keep walking, and whatever you do, don’t stop.  The exit’s only—

“IT’S LOCKED YOU BLOODY BLOKE!”  I freeze, coming to a realization.  Ahh, this exit must be locked!

I turn to address the lad.  “Oh.  I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.  The exit is locked you say?”  I thank him for the friendly suggestion and turn back.

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“You know, I think I’m starting to get the hang of this ‘Tube’ thing,” I thought to myself as I emerged from the depths of the underground a block away from my hotel.  “It’s a shame I only have a day to spend here.  I was really starting to feel at home in the UK.  It’s sort of like I was a natural…”

…A native.

American Airlines is the Worst, But You’re the Best…

It’s been a streak of good weeks over here in the nation’s capital.  In fact, the whole month of July was a relatively pleasant one.  The 4th, my favorite of holidays, was spent next to a babe on the Mall.  Under the protection of Abe’s shrine, we watched as fireworks exploded above the Washington Monument and filled the night sky with a blood red haze.  And for all you nosey people out there, yes, I now have a girlfriend.  Her name is Tiara, and yes, in case you’re wondering, she’s kind of a babe (AND she’s a Republican too)!

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A week later, after a grueling search through four different 7-Eleven’s and a CVS just to find a damn Rockstar Energy Drink (don’t even get me started on that story), plus a 45-minute metro ride and two hour wait at the book signing, I had the pleasure of meeting my favorite nationally syndicated radio host, Mark Levin.  I even snagged an autograph in the process!

“Manny’s!” he exclaimed, reading the name of the beer spread across my shirt as I finally approached his table at the Tyson’s Corner Barnes and Noble, much in the same explosive manner expressed when providing his acute commentary on constitutional matters.

“Oh, you know about Manny’s?”  My reply was filled with ebullience, for he, “The Great One,” actually recognized my favorite beer!  “It’s one of the best beers!  And wow, I didn’t know you were such an avid beer drinker!  This is so awesome Mr. Levin!  A Seattle beer of all places—“

“Oh, I don’t even know!” he shot back, waving my commentary off as if I were being dismissed.

“…Oh.”  It was the only word I could utter, for nothing I’d say could impress the former member of the Reagan Administration.  I gladly accepted the offer of two signed books and meekly left the book store, humbled by such a generous offer.

 

 

 

Tegan and Sara frequent my playlist during my walk to work these days.  Heartthrob pumps me up, gives me the energy to take on the day, even draws a smile in the most severe of DC weather.  And to think I had dismissed the lesbian/sister duo years ago, having no idea what I was missing…  Oh, how foolish I was for giving up on them so quickly!

…And how foolish I was to think my string of good luck would continue with the reliability of the airline companies…

***

Standing amongst the bustle of Regan International on that Friday afternoon, I look up to the departures board as a swath of red-lettered alerts spreads across it like a swarming pandemic.  Chicago O’Hare – Cancelled.  Minneapolis/St. Paul – Cancelled.  New York/LaGuardia – Delayed…  Please tell me Lansing isn’t cancelled.  Please…  Amidst the threat of congested skies and stormy weather, a lone flight stands firm on its commitment.  Lansing – On Time Departure: 4:59.

Hope remains.

“Thank God,” I think to myself, my vacation still in good standing.  Provided Tristan’s demanding med school schedule, it was imperative to leave DC that night to maximize my time with the homey.  The prior week’s events had been planned around it.  Two workout days sacrificed, dinner with the babe cut short, a 5 am check out—no way I’m getting stuck in DC!  I will be getting on a flight, and I will be in Michigan—tonight.  That’s for damn sure—

The departures board flickers, displaying the latest list of flights stricken by the pandemic.  I read through the list, anxiety mounting.  Lansing – Delayed: 5:17 pm…  Crap.

It’s the most notorious of trends in the airline industry, teasing you with a string of piecemealed updates, keeping you around to have you believe that despite delay after delay, your flight will eventually depart.  And like the sucker I am, I bought in, my fate helplessly dependent on the mercy of American Airlines.

“Attention American Airlines passengers on flight 4230, service to Lansing,” said a soothing voice through the terminal loudspeakers.  Gee, I wonder what could possibly warrant such an announcement?  “…We regret to inform you that your flight has once again been delayed.  Your new departure time is 6:24 pm.”  I hung my head and shuffled my way to an empty seat near the gate, already becoming a scarce commodity throughout the entire airport.

It’s nearly an hour before the next announcement.  I update Tristan, take a snooze, and patiently wait, still holding onto that blissful state of ignorance, believing whole-heartedly that I’d eventually make it out of DC.

“Attention American Airlines passengers on Flight 4230, service to Lansing.”  Here we go again.  “We would like to inform you…”  Oh, let me take a WILD guess.  “…That we have a flight crew and that you do have a flight out tonight.  We will begin boarding as soon as our plane gets in from Richmond.”

I celebrate with a smile of relief, despite another delayed departure time of 7:37 pm.  Behind me is a line to the American Airlines Service Desk, already backed up several gates.  My God, look at that!  It’s still growing, twice as long since I first sat down!  Any minute now it’ll be all the way to security!  Too bad they didn’t get in line an hour ago.  Sucks to be them—

“Attention American Airline passengers…” hold up.  What’s this?  “…Awaiting Flight 4230…” Another announcement?  Why?  “…Service to Lansing…” what, in the hell…  “We regret—“ WHAT IS THERE TO REGRET!?  “…To inform you that your flight…” No… NO!  “…has been cancelled.  Please see the American Airlines Service Desk for rebooking.”

My face drops, petrified into dumbfounded countenance.  A text message pops up on my phone.  I cautiously read along.  “Attention American Airlines passenger.  Your flight has been cancelled,” it reads, as if I needed another reminder.  “You have been rebooked for Sunday, July 16th, 2017, leaving DCA at 4:59 pm.  Please call our service desk number for additional rebooking options.”  I sit for a long moment before dialing, my mind unable to process, let alone accept the fate bestowed upon me.

“Thank you for calling the American Airlines Service Desk Hotline,” the automated voice says.  “If you have your confirmation code, please provide it at this time.”

“SBXOQH,” I say.  A long pause ensues.

“We’re sorry, we didn’t catch that,” the concerned voice replies, though coming off as more annoying than anything else.  “Please spell out your confirmation code, and provide a word after each letter.  For example: C as in Charlie.  P as in Plane…”

“S as in Santa.  B as in Bravo.  X as in…  X as in…” Crap!

“I’m sorry, we didn’t get that.  Please spell out your confirm—“

 “S as in Sierra.  B as in Bravo.  X as in Xylophone.  Q as in—“ hold on, SBX, OQH…. “Damnit!”

“I’m sorry, those letters did not match up.”

“S.  AS. IN. SIERRA.  B.  AS. IN.  BRAV—“

“Please wait.  A service representative will be with you in over 2 hours.”  Over 2 hours?  AHHHHHHH!!!

I hang up and stomp my way over to the service line… all the way back to the security checkpoint.  I stand on my tippy toes and peak forward.  It’s hundreds of travelers deep, at least.  This better not take two hours.  I hedge my bets.  No way it’s going to take over two hours…

***

Two hours later I stand at the heart of stagnation, my body failing, yet determined, fueled by a rage constantly building with each passing minute.  The people watching is just as unnerving.

“Excuse me sir,” says one patron as a service manager passed.  “I’m sure your people are stressed, but I just want to let you know that you guys are doing a terrific job of handling this.  Thank you for everything you do.”  Really guy?  REALLY?  A line backed up all the way to security?  One service agent working the desk?  You fool.  You damn fool!

A pathetic show of intense schmoozing takes up another half hour of my time.  Having a front row seat and constrained by the slug-like pace of the service line, I have no choice but to watch as two middle-aged “gentlemen” dressed in colorful suits sip on cocktails at the terminal bar and swoon their way into the pants of a group of older women.  The worst part is, it’s actually working.  So, this is all fun and games to you, huh?  I’m sure everybody’s flight being delayed is just a gay ol’ time for you!  What I would give to deliver a giant knuckle sandwich your way—

I feel a sudden buzz in my pocket.  It’s the service desk number finally calling me back.  I answer.  “Hello.”

“Hello, this is Susan from American Airlines, how may I help you?”

“Yes, I’ve been waiting for over two hours.  I need to rebook my flight.”

“…Sir, will you politely tell me your confirmation number?”  Politely?  POLITELY??  I’ll show you politely!

Susan turns out to just as worthless as she is rude, surprise, surprise.  I hang up, every inch of my body ready to deliver the most stinging—most poignant of complaints once I reach the service desk.  Listen…” I say, practicing in my head.  “I’ve been—“ wait, too soft.  “List—listen here!”  Yea, that’s more like it.  “This—this is unacceptable!  I demand compensation…  Sunday?  You have me booked out on Sunday?  Hell if I have anything to do with it!  You’re going to put me on a plane, tonight!  Do you hear me!  And I want first class, I want travel vouchers, food vouchers, and lodging!  That’s right, I’m leaving tonight, but I still want lodging!  Let me tell ya… the amount of time wasted—I could be home, I could be in Michigan—anywhere but here!  You have no idea who you’re dealing with, you hear me!?…”

One customer remains before the mighty deluge of complaints flows mellifluously from my mouth.  I salivate at the opportunity, the amount of time spent standing creating a sick and ecstatic desire to rip this company to shreds.  She approaches the desk, an Aussie, haggard and unpredictable.  By the looks of it, life had chewed this individual up and spit her back out a couple times over, at least.

“Ma’am,” addresses the service desk representative, still in the process of setting up her workstation.  “If you can step back for a few moments as I log into the system, I will call you up as soon as I’m ready—“

“Excuse me?” she blasts back.  “I ain’t goin’ anywhere, mate.”

“Ma’am, I need you to step back, or I can’t help you.  I will call you when I’m ready—“

“Don’t you tell me to step back!”  Sounds like I wasn’t the only one practicing.

“Ma’am, I need you to lower your voice.”

“LOWER MY VOICE?  AFTER WHAT YOU’VE DONE!?”

“Ma’am, I can’t help you if you keep screaming.  If you bear with me, I can see about getting you a flight out of here tomorrow.”

“TOMORROW?  YOU EXPECT ME TO WAIT UNTIL TOMORROW?  BULL SH—“

“Ma’am, please—“

“NO!  YOU’RE GOING TO PUT ME ON A PLANE BACK TO AUSTRALIA TONIGHT, DO YOU HEAR ME!?”  It’s like she literally read my mind…

The manager rushes over for assistance.  “Mam, we’ll get you a flight, but you need to calm down.”

“I want… a ticket.  And I want it… now.”

“Alright, I can print out an itinerary for you—“

“WHERE’S MY TICKET!?”

“Ma’am, please, If you don’t calm down, I won’t be able to give you a ticket, or allow you to board an American Airlines flight.”

“WHAT?!  YOU GOTTA BE F—ING KIDDING ME!”

“Ma’am—“

“NO!  YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!”

“Ma’am, you’re showing us that you’re emotionally unstable—“

“Emotionally unstable?  Emotionally Unstable??  F— YOU!  HOW DARE YOU CALL ME—I’LL SHOW YOU EMOTIONALLY UNSTABLE YOU MOTHER F—”

“Ok, we’re going to need to call security over here,” says the manager through his walkie-talkie.  “Mam, please step aside.  There’s nothing left we can do for you.”

She shouts a few more screams at the managers face before storming off, continuing her eruption of random obscenities as she stomps around the terminal in a Tourette’s driven fit, determined to go down swinging.  It’s only a matter of time before security drags her out of the airport.

“…Next please,” squeaks the service desk agent, a minor insult away from bursting into tears.  Slowly, I step up to the plate.  This is it.  Don’t go soft now.

“…Hello Ma’am,” I softly reply.  “Listen.  I…” I stall, the Christian inside me trying to drain me of ammunition.  What are you doing?  They screwed you, big time.  Get it together, let’s go!  “List—“ Her delicate body slouched, having already received her fair share of tolerable abuse for one night.  I looked back once more at the line.  God, she still has a long night ahead.  A really long night.  “…Listen.  I’m frustrated, you’re frustrated, everybody’s a little frustrated, but I would be in total gratitude if you could help me rebook my flight out of here…”

My tone softens and my edge fizzles into oblivion.  Damnit.

***

It’s well past 10 pm when I reach Tiara’s apartment with a rebooked flight, leaving the next day from Washington-Dulles, connecting through Dallas-Fort Worth, and then to Grand Rapids, Michigan.  I stand before her a strained specimen at the edge of a 20-hour bender, stressed, sunken, sweaty, sleepy…

Defeated.

Immediately she shoots me a look of pity.  “Oh, hun,” she says, greeting me with a smooch and a hug.  There’s no hesitation to her benevolence.  “Are you ok?”

I speak, unsure of what to say, but hoping for a combination of words that articulates my exact feelings.

“…American Airlines is the worst, but you’re the best.”

***

12 hours and a 45-dollar cab ride later, I arrive Washington-Dulles, still baffled as to why I must travel all the way to Dallas in order to get to Michigan.  Depression sets in.  I’m so close, yet so far away.  What if I never get there?...  I fill the void with eggs, wings, beer, and other forms of empty calories.  It isn’t enough.

Pernicious thoughts fill my head as I travel on the tram at DFW.  Between stops, one man, loud and overtly gregarious, finds it necessary to tell the same story over and over again to every passenger; each retelling just as lame as the previous.  “Howdy Ma’am.  Make sure you hold onto the rails.  One time, I wasn’t holding on, and then the tram stopped.”  Gee, the tram stops, imagine that.  “…I flew forward and hit my head!  I don’t think I got no brain damage, heheh.  But I certainly learned my lesson.  Well, have a nice day…  Oh, hello sir, you might want to hold onto the rails there.  You might just go a flyin’.  Take my word for it, 2015 was a rough year!  Don’t remember too much after that, heheh.  Well, have yourself a nice day…  Hello ladies…”

Dude, your story sucked the first time, and news flash, IT’S NOT GETTING ANY BETTER!  Why does this crap always happen to me?  One day, gone.  Wiped out.  Down the drain.  Dead.  Burnt to a crisp!  Sayonara!  See ya later!  Thank you American Airlines, you’ve officially ruined my vacat—

The illuminated sign, though small, glows bright like a white dwarf in the infinite night sky.  It captivates—no… slays me, like love at first sight.  Whoa.  Dunkin Donuts… that sounds… awesome.

Dunkin Donuts

There was no excuse.  Three days without exercise and 2000 calories already expended, today alone?  Another 600 would break the bank.  I can’t—I won’t.  That’s it Zack, just keep walking, right past the sign, past the counter.  No need for coffee, you’re going to sleep on the plane anyway.  Don’t stare, don’t even look at the colorful assortment of donuts. They’re not worth it.  Overpriced, unfulfilling, and regrettable, every time.  Don’t you do it…  Don’t you—

“Hello sir, welcome to Dunkin Donuts, what can I get you?”

“I’d like a strawberry frosted donut with sprinkles and a large latte please…”

I can literally feel another fat roll form under my belly as I sink my teeth into the strawberry pastry.  Immediately, I regret my decision, yet I don’t stop eating; I don’t stop drinking.  Having paid too much for a single donut and coffee, I finish both, unfulfilled, then board my flight.

 

 

 

It’s midway through the flight before I fully realize the error of my gluttonous ways.  The excessive consumption of salts, sugars, soda and beer throughout the day results in an allergic reaction, a perfect storm of sorts.  My throat develops an itch, which triggers a cough.  My body breaks out in a sweat, anything it can do to remove the harmful chemicals attacking it.  I began to sneeze, uncontrollably.  Upon landing, it becomes a race to the bathroom for a most proper and efficient removal/relief.

I make it… barely.

“Hey, what’s up man?” reads a missed text from Tristan.  “You still going to make it by 8?”  Immobilized in the 2nd stall of the Grand Rapids airport, I respond accordingly.

“Had a little bit of an emergency, still need to get the rental car, going to be late.”  Approximately a half hour passes before I reach the rental car kiosk.  It’s another 70-dollar expense added to the trip.

The drive to East Lansing is over an hour long.  I can only imagine the angst building within Tristan as I’m well passed my original time commitment.  Daylight runs low.  However, the western side of the Eastern time zone buys me a few more minutes—thank God.

The non-stop traveling and its associated torment drives me to weariness; a day’s worth of bodily punishment finally coming home to roost.  I need a boost, some source of excitement, some energy.  I need….

A Rockstar!

I take the next exit and find the nearest gas station on the outskirts of town, accompanied by the erudite musical selections of Wiz Khalifa.  Heads turn as I tear through the parking lot with “We Dem Boyz” pumping through the speakers of my rented Toyota Camry.  Mothers and daughters alike stare with curiosity.  Who is this man, strange, yet cool and confident, walking into our gas station with such purposeful intent?

We Dem Boyz

The quality of this convenient store is above satisfactory.  Clean, friendly, and a more than adequate selection of energy drinks; leaps and bounds beyond the standards of your average DC 7-Eleven.  My hand gravitates towards a Rockstar, my go-to energy drink, but my mind wavers.  Can my body handle such intense doses of caffeine, guarana, taurine—vitamin B12?  I mean, I have gray hairs now!  I’m not a little kid anymore! 

Another wave of depression begins to seep into my head.  I ignore it.  No time to feel sorry for yourself.  You’re so close.  Keep searching.  There’s got to be some—wait, what’s this?  Organic Rockstar?… This is amazing!  An answered prayer!  But… I can’t.  Not after how much I’ve made fun of Robin Comita over the years…  All that shopping at the Co-Op, drinking tea and eating all sorts of natural bull crap…  Boy, I’d rub it in her face too, like an animal, heheh!  But Jesus… at this point, do I have a choice?

With a deep breath and a big step, I swallow my pride and take one of the biggest risks of my adult life.  I purchase an organic product.

Organic Rockstar

It takes a minute before I gain the courage to taste it.  My heart pounds as I pop the top and press the can up to my lips.  Hmm… not bad.  Not great either, but… wow, this is… so natural… so refreshing—whoa, I feel—this… Man, THIS IS GREAT!  I suck the rest down and rip out of the there, Wiz screaming “Holla” several times to innocent bystanders.

My entrance into Tristan’s neighborhood comes at a great disturbance.  Being so close to Michigan State University, such mayhem is to be expected during Fall and Spring semesters.  However, for those residing on the quaint suburban street and looking for refuge, the luxury of a summer respite would desist, at least while I was in town.

I approach the door and knock, my nerves spiking as I wait for an answer.  Gee, it’s almost 9, a little later than I thought… What if he’s mad?  What if he—  Through the window I see silhouettes, shifting and closing in on my position.  Butterflies swirl as I hear a twist of the doorknob.  The door swings open and a tall hunk appears, looking as though he had just finished a shoot for GQ Magazine.  My eyes radiate.  I can’t help but smile.  “Dude… Tristan!”

“What’s up dude?” he says, greeting me with a bro-hug and a big smile of his own.  “Come on in!”

He leads me into his study and begins the tour of his new home, adjacent to the front entrance.  “Oh man, you’re like a doctor now!”

“Yea!  Working at it.”

“Oh man, this is so cool!  Let me guess, this is where all the magic happens.”

“Yep, this is where I study.”  I observe his computer workstation.  Particular lower regions of the human anatomy are plastered across the screen, dissected, ribbed, and fully frontal.  “Don’t know if you can tell, but we’re studying the abdominal regions and other extremities of the human body right now.”

“Alright! I say, my eyes glued to the screen.  “Boy, that must be a picture of the… the uh… scrotus?”

“Yes, haha.  That would be the scrotum,” he responds in a professional manner.

“And those must be the testes—well, don’t know that for sure, but I know for a fact that that’s the wiener!”

“I think the preferred scientific term is ‘penis,’” he calmly responds, trying to conceal his growing smirk.  I imagine he’ll get rid of the giggles by year 3 or so.

“Oh man, I kind of want to be a doctor now, too!”

“You already got a good start on the anatomy.”  It wasn’t Tristan’s voice this time.  I turn. Another smile, reinvigorated and bigger than the first emerges.  It’s Kim Klapchar.  Ladies and gentlemen, we got another doctor in the house!  My mind turns to mush as another wave of excitement burns through me.  I speak without a guarantee of intelligible discourse.

“Klim Klapcha—I mean…” crap.  Try again.  “Kim Klapshell—Sharnheart… I mean, Kimmy Kimmel—Klam… Klipchart… uh… how are ya!?”  She gives me a hug, forgiving the mispronunciation.  “Boy, we got some catching up to do!”

Moments later Maria walks in the house, having just come off work.  This time it’s diarrhea of the mouth.

“Maria, it’s me, Zack!”  Her eyes widened as I go in for a sudden hug.  Being that her hands are full, I do the hugging for the both of us.  “Man, I missed ya!  Did you miss me?”

“…Um, yea, I missed—“

“I knew it!  And holy crap, you just got married, to Tristan of all people!  How was the wedding?”

“It was beautiful—“

“Oh boy, all the way in Tuscany!  I bet there were Italian babes all over the place!  Speaking of babes, I have a girlfriend now!”

“I heard—“

“Total babe, by the way.  You’d like her.  And she’s a Republican!”

“…That’s good—“

“And you know those hardly exist anymore!” I shoot back, winding up and swinging my arm forward as if I’m throwing a fastball.

“I… I don’t disagree—“

“Hey, are you guys hungry?  I’m starved!  I’ve barely eaten anything all day!”

“Yea!  There’s a little place called Reno’s down the street,” suggests Kim Klapchar.

“Reno’s?” replies Maria.

“Reno’s?” adds Tristan.

“Reno’s!!!” I confirm.

“Wait?  Aren’t you going to tell us what happened with your flight?” asks Maria.

“My flight?… what flight—oh, my flight!  Yea, I guess it kind of sucked!  Oh well, I’ll tell you the details later.  Let’s go!”

“But wait, I just got home—“

“Let’s go!!!”

***

Despite Reno’s mediocre service, unfinished décor, lack of siding, and unimpressive spice level of their “lava” wings, dinner was great, the surrounding company wildly exceeding expectations.  “Dude, Tristan, how’s med school so far?”

“I study all the time, but it’s good.  Just got a lot of catching up to do.”

“You’ll be alright.  You’re pretty much one of the smartest hunks I know.  Hard working too!  And thank God you’re studying the greasy regions right now.  It’s nice to know I have someone I can trust, just in case… I don’t know, something bad happens… not just to me, but to any of us!  You know what I’m saying?  Not saying it will, but…”  I go on and on while Tristan chuckles and shakes his head, unsure of how to respond.

“Yea, don’t worry Tristan.  Med school might suck for a while, but it’ll be worth it in the end,” adds Kim Klapchar.

“Yea!  And pretty soon, you guys will be able to talk, doctor to doctor!”  My quip receives a collage of chuckles.

 

“So, tell us.  What the heck happened with your trip?” reminds Maria.

“…Yea, so American Airlines kind of sucks, and straight up cancelled my flight…” I tell of the atrocities committed by American Airlines as best I can, trying to recapture the anger held a day prior.  For some reason however, sitting there amongst good company, thinking about the week ahead of us, most of the animosity had seemed to vanish.

“…You know what, forget American Airlines.  I’d like to propose a toast instead,” I say, raising my glass.  Tristan, Maria, and Kim Klapchar follow my lead.  I forget the exact combination of words used, but the sentiment’s clear.

“To you guys… my friends.  American Airlines is the worst, but you’re the best!”  Our glasses clink, and our smiles flourish.

***

The proceeding events of that week prolonged those smiles.  As Tristan studied the suggestive regions of the human body and attended class during the day, Maria and I caught up on some much overdue gossip on all sorts of hunks and babes, usually over the course of a drink or two.  Sometimes, those bills ended up being a little more than we were anticipating (500 dollars???).

 

 

 

500 Dollars?!?!

When Tristan needed a break from his med school studies, we’d feast at Buffalo Wild Wings, find a silly internet video or two to watch, and sometimes retreat to the tennis court.  He’d cream me, every time, for nobody can stop his monster serve (and I guess my tennis game probably needs a little work as well, heheh)!

And when both of them were held up with work obligations, Kim Klaphcar and I would head to the local Espresso Royale for a little work work work work work work of our own—Rihanna style.

The pinnacle of the week came at an international soccer match, Roma versus Paris Saint-Germain in Detroit.  Two young and undisciplined PSG fans gave us constant heckles throughout the game’s duration.  Given that their parents refused to punish their children (parenting these days… I swear it’s going down the tube), we mercilessly gave it right back at em’.  But as Roma (Roma Roma) came up short on the shootout, the young siblings were beyond relentless, crapping on us all the way towards the exit.  Even at the expense of disappointment, we couldn’t help but appreciate such passion for the game.  We left Tiger’s stadium still smiling that evening, having added another precious memory to the bank.

IMG_2449

***

It’s weird that out of all the major events that occur throughout our lives, it’s the small moments that seem to stick out the most.  On my flight back to DC, I couldn’t help but think about our friendship and the adventures we had just had, how each of us were making that scary, yet exciting transition into the next chapter of our lives.  Then, about our time as roommates in Seattle; the silly songs we’d sing, our nerdy passion for gaming, the constant quoting of Doctor Steve Brule, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe (our favorite)!

Many times, I’d come home from work, stressed, worn, and uneased with the direction of life—common emotional foibles for the average Millennial.  As I’d walk up the stairs and into the living room, there Tristan and Maria would be sitting, captivated with another episode of Chopped on the Food Network.  Unable to resist the build-up between rounds and commercials, I’d join them and commence in what eventually became our daily routine.  I’d crack a lame joke, and either out of pity or sincerity, they’d laugh.  So, I’d crack another one, and another one, and they’d follow up with even more laughs.  And between my arrival and the revelation of that episode’s winner, we could forget about the stresses and pains life was dealing us.  We could smile, and for a moment, enjoy the time spent together, however short that moment would be.

Friendship can be a powerful thing sometimes.  Simply being in the presence of old friends, new friends, a babe of a girlfriend (or hunk of a boyfriend), family, and other loved ones alike can turn any bad day around in a heartbeat.  They make the bad times—the long hours at work, the gray hairs, snarky baristas, Dirty Michelles, unpredictable weather patterns, multi-day airport fiascos, and even the Gretch’s, Gibson’s and Ulrich’s of the world all worth it in the end.

It’s their smiles that keeps us going.  They remind us that even when American Airlines is the worst, they’re still the best.

And you’re worth it.  Every single one of you…

…Even Ben Woodward.

Good God. I Actually Have Grey Hair…

I climbed out the bed of Todd Athey’s truck at the helm of Little Meadows, a hunting club nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, having just received a Master’s Degree in adult studies.  My professor, Dirty Michelle and her West Virginian counterpart Amanda had gone above and beyond in their duties as representatives of Giles County, a place where a billboard promoting the saving grace of Jesus Christ can be seen atop a billboard for the local strip club.  Both were pleased with the amount of knowledge passed along through the mountains, a free and extensive education whose curriculum spanned a breadth of subject matters, including the discrete undertakings of Southwest Virginia, their thoughts on men, relationships, and a unique take on the birds and the bees.

IMG_2323

My mother on the other hand, was not so pleased…

It was the same look I had received as she watched us depart that afternoon for the mountains.  I caught a quick glimpse of her before we pulled onto the highway, sitting next to a cooler of beer in the back of the truck, already guilty of the crime I had yet to commit.  Not even the endless display of forest and flora that smothered the Appalachian Valley, a scene so grand that it became the backdrop to the 80’s classic “Dirty Dancing” could ease her state of mind.  She knew.  The dirty words that were said, the alcohol consumed on our way up the mountain, the suggestive subject matter that could never be erased from memory… between her maternal 6th sense and the cloak of guilt I shamefully wore, she knew… every single bit of it.

IMG_2362

At the edge of Little Meadows Hunting Club

I turned and made my way towards the pond at the edge of Little Meadows, anything I could do to shake that daunting look from my mind.  “I love you Zack,” cried out Dirty Michelle from the patio as I walked away.  “Let me tell you, I love Todd and Neal, but I just love that boy!”  Her insistence on reminding everybody that she loved me didn’t help the situation.

“Hey Zack!” another familiar voice called.  I had only made it a couple steps before I stopped in my tracks, its tone deep, unwelcoming, and not my mother’s.  “I say c’mere boy!”  I turned again, feeling another spike in blood pressure.

There was nothing settling about his smug grin, complimented by the occasional sip of Budweiser Select 55.  Some would say his lanky stature held an intimidating pose, though his beer belly, still in the infant stages of pregnancy, conjured thoughts of “why even bother?”  It was the bold and elegant words on his sleeveless, red shirt however, tucked nicely into his jean shorts that commanded the bulk of my apprehension.

To beer or not to beer… that is a STUPID question.

“What are you doin’, walkin’ round in that ol’ wife beater, gettin’ all fat over there?” Todd Athey berated.  “Just look at them big ol’ titties on ya.”  For some reason or another, Todd Athey had a tendency to refer to a pair of breasts as “titties,” no matter his audience.  Having already come to terms with my abnormally large breast size (see The Mammogram) and the prescient knowledge of Todd’s particular obsession with that area of the body (judging by the amount of time he spent grabbing mine) I could take his insult with a grain of salt.  Besides, rumors have been spreading for years regarding Todd’s sexual orientation!  This was just his way of dealing with the blaring insecurity, and who am I to judge?

IMG_2364

Me, dad, and Uncle Neal.

Unfortunately, he continued.  “Hold on a minute… are those gray hairs on your head?  Damn boy, yo’ ass looks older than me!”

I didn’t fight back; my debilitated state disallowed it.  As much as I wanted to enjoy the four-wheeling, horseshoeing, deep cabin dwelling amenities of Little Meadows, all I could do was slouch, sending the blame towards the previous night’s festivities at Uncle Neal’s cook out.  “What, I just can’t suck down the Coors Lights like I used to,” I’d say when pressured.  It was lie—a petty excuse.  There was something more.

Little was said on the car ride home, forgoing the back of Todd’s rig for a seat next to my mother, much to the heartbreak of Dirty Michelle.  Though my mother was finally at peace with my decision, Todd’s words left me unsettled.  The feeling lingered well into the evening, preventing me from enjoying the beauty that encompasses the Appalachian Mountains.  It can’t be true.  It just can’t be… me, getting old?

***

It was a struggled to rise out of bed the next morning.  With only the boost of a Rockstar Energy Drink could I find the strength to make my way to Hardee’s, the same one on the edge of Pearisburg where my little sister rocked out to Nickelback.  “The Girls come easy and the drugs come cheap…” she sang while rocking her head and squinting her eyes, her heart fully entrenched in the music.  And like always, their cinnamon raisin and pork chop gravy biscuits didn’t disappoint; they just weren’t enough to loosen the grip on my conscience as I began the long drive back to DC…

The signs have been there for quite some time now.  Only on rare occasions (like when I shop at Whole Foods, ughz) do people ask me for my ID to purchase beer.  Apprehensive thoughts fill my head when I’m invited to the bar or some other weekend activity, knowing full well at least a half a day’s work will be sacrificed in order to participate, and stress levels rise when 10:30 rolls around and I realize I’m not in bed.  Hell, at the last wedding reception I went to, I had women flocking my direction just to dance with me, lining up to grab me and swing me around the dance floor like a ragdoll—without permission I might add!

…The only problem was, each one of those babes was at least 60 years old…

***

5-hours later, I stood in front of the mirror back at my hotel.  I stared at a distance, waiting for the angst to build passed its breaking point.  For too long has this ignorance controlled me… well, not anymore.  I took a deep breath and stepped up to face my fears.

Let’s see here, top of the head, nothing of concern so far.  The bangs look alright—nothing gray here.  What am I even freaking out over, some words that Todd Athey said?  Todd Athey’s a giant butthole who doesn’t know what he’s talking about!  There’s absolutely nothing to worry… wait—wait a minute… what the hell is this?  Maybe the light’s weird.  Yea, it has to be!  Let me flick the other… that can’t be right.  I mean, I got a lot of sun this weekend!  Of course my hair’s a little light… but it’s… it’s everywhere!  Oh my God—you got to be kidding me…

 

I actually have gray hairs on my head…

I retreated in horror, wondering how in the world it had come to this.  I’ve literally reached the point of no return.  For heaven’s sakes, it’s not like hair turns back to brown!  Just take a look at Obama’s old ass!

Maybe the intensity of DC’s just too much for a guy like me.  Trying to juggle a career while keeping up with the hippest coffee shop lingo, dealing with the unpredictable weather, retaining the wealth of knowledge given to me by the women of West Virginia—what did I expect was going to happen?

And think of all the people I’ve had to put up with over the years?  Just the fact that I know people like Josh Ulrich and Mike Gibson has already taken 5 years off my life—at least.  And that’s not even taking into account all the crap I’ve had to deal with from those two!  Then there’s Ben Woodward.  Good Lord, just the mention of his name adds another gray hair on my head.  I can actually feel my skin wrinkle as I type.

And then there’s Gretch… Oh God.  GRETCH!!!

Indiana Jones getting Old

No wonder my hair’s turning gray at just a year over the tender age of 30.  All these responsibilities forced upon me, the decisions and sacrifices I have to make… I’m not sure if I can keep up anymore!  Sure, I do it for the good of the country, but this can’t go on forever.

Danny Glover, after all these years, I can honestly say I feel your pain.  I’m getting too old for this shit!

I thought I moved away from this crap?!

I finished the last sip of my 12-ounce latte and packed up my laptop, garnishing a smile that revered accomplishment.  Already, I had begun Memorial Day weekend running from site to site, paying my respects to my friends Abe, George, Tom, Frank, and Martin on a beautiful morning on the Mall, and now I was on the eve of another successful writing session at the Slipstream Coffee Shop.  After what seemed like a grueling month struggling with writer’s block, chapter 7 of my latest work, “How to Clean Your Conscience,” was finally coming along.  “Hey, maybe I can actually roll with the best of them, these cool coffee kids,” I thought to myself as I exited the café and hung a right onto 14th street.  Despite my desire to continue writing, a growing appetite fueled my departure.  Good ol’ southern food was on my mind, and it had been much too long since my last visit to “Oohh’s and Aahh’s Soul Food,” made famous by Guy Fieri himself!

A small hole in the wall on U street across from the African-American Civil War Memorial and right off the green line metro, the restaurant became a weekly staple upon its discovery during my first DC outing.  The mounds of collard greens, award-winning mac and cheese, and other assortments of southern cuisines packed into your meal are nothing short of abundant.  And their wings… ah, my favorite.  Just the right amount sweet, spice and mix of zest, and the only thing between me and comfort food bliss was a 20-minute walk through the hippest neighborhood in DC.  For the first time since my arrival, I felt the confidence that I was cool enough to make the journey.

Several restaurants catch my eye.  The Pig—fancy BBQ perhaps?  I’ll have to try it one of these days.  Shake Shack—that place is awesome!  Been there 4 times already.  El Diplomate—some French-ass restaurant.  Heard they’re a little slow with the damn croissants.  Busboys and Poets—Masters told me about this place.  Sounds lame.  Probably is.  Who cares?  The variety, from causal to fancy, to everything in between was impressive, no doubt.  All seemed like good prospects, but it was Oohh’s and Aahh’s that I had a hankering for, and nothing could veer me from it.

A few blocks down the street I see a Pacer’s Running Store.  I hesitate for a moment, contemplating whether to check it out.  Gee, I’m really hungry, but I mean, since I’m here, might as well drop in and take a look.  Maybe there’s a running group or two to join.  I enter the store.

15 minutes and $147 dollars later I turn to the exit, a complete antipodal revealed before me.  Solid sheets of rain crash down on the streets.  Streaks of people can be seen running past the store as heavy beads drop at a fast and violent pace, their arms over their heads holding newspapers, jackets—anything they can do to mollify the wrath.  This city wasn’t prepared for this type of assault.  Equipped with only a t-shirt as my top layer, neither was I.

I develop a plan.  Run to U street.  The metro station can’t be that far from there.  Go in and exit on the other side.  Ooh’s and Ahh’s will be right across the street.  It would work—it would have to.  I take a deep breath and brace myself for the ensuing chaos.

I make it a block in a pseudo walk/jog.  The speckles of rain first absorbed into my shirt spread rapidly.  Few dry spots remain, and Mother Nature is obstinate in its pursuit to complete the jigsaw puzzle.  My God, I’ll never make it.  Mission abort!

My head whips from side to side, desperate for answers as I am continuously pummeled with goblets of water.  Any longer and I’ll be completely drenched—a top candidate for hypothermia.  Look, across the street—Trader Joes.  Risky, but at least it’s not Whole Foods.  With an illegal and dangerous J-walking maneuver, I make a break for it.

I wander inside the store for 10 minutes, waiting for the storm to clear.  It doesn’t let up.  I grow anxious, hungry—impatient.  All these ethnic cuisines, these yuppie-hippie infusions… so much organic, non-GMO material—I can’t take it anymore!  Desperate for any form of sustenance, I grab the first thing that makes an impression, a box of baked ziti and check out.  The disappointment of a proper meal will soon begin its diffusion into my soul.

IMG_2279

I call for an Uber.  Judging by the volume of people crowded under the cover of the store’s entrance with their faces buried in their phones, I’m not the only one with the idea.  The sheer number of requests drives up the demand, and for the first time, I opt for the communal, Uber-Share service.  My God, I’m becoming one of them!

Unlike most of the cool and urbane Uber driver’s I’ve encountered thus far in the city, this one’s a mad man, especially considering the conditions we’re in.  With limited vision, he screams through the streets, weaving in and out of traffic, crashing through puddles, and often traversing through narrow alley ways to reach his destinations.  Often, he comments on his erratic driving behaviors, as if nearly averting a major accident is all part of a fun game.  All I can do is react with a nervous chuckle and pray for my safety.

By miracle, we make it back to the Homewood Suites with zero casualties.  I worry for the girl left behind as he drives away, the rain far from ending its relentless punishment on the city.

***

It’s an all too common scene these days, waking to a spotless sky, only to be surprised by a freak rain storm a few moments later.  One minute, you’re suffering from a sweltering sun compounded by an unbearable humidity, a dismal combination that leaves you in a pool of sweat by the end of your morning commute.  Then, if the heat doesn’t make you uncomfortable, the instantaneous downpour will.  At least once already, it’s tricked me into walking into work ill-prepared, resulting in a soaked outfit by the time I enter the office.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned with these unpredictable weather patterns, it’s that wife beaters are life savers.  Oh, and wear white at your own risk.  It leaves little to the imagination.

Ok, time out.  Look, literally, as I write, another rainstorm has just swept in.  Surprise surprise!

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So far, I’ve missed two baseball games, all because of weather delays and cancellations.  The Mariners came into town last week too, and I couldn’t even watch them actually win a game for once, as potential heavy rainfall moved the game forward into working hours!  Even my third attempt to attend a game was hindered by the rain, causing adverse effects on the fans and players, on Star Wars day of all days!  At least I was still able to get my Chewbacca Koozie out of the ordeal.

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I don’t know how much more I can take.  I’ve already suffered through the wettest Spring in the Pacific Northwest in recent history, with a grand total of two sunny days in the month of March.  Two whole sunny days, and now this?  I thought I moved away from this crap!?

Not sure why I do it sometimes—endure the hardships, move to DC, walk in the rain, argue with Gibson over politics and football, subject myself to the ilk of Josh Ulrich and Ben Woodward…  My duty to God, the military, my country?  Maybe for the great patriots that have served before us, making the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us don’t have to.  Yea, maybe for them, for people like Tom Brady.  That sounds pretty good.

Go America.

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That’s Such a Starbucks Thing to Say

It’s been a week since I made the move to DC.  Gradually, I acclimate to the hustle of the city—the rapid pace each professional walks with, their superior sense of dress code, and the efficiency of which they work at.  It’s as if their presence at the next destination is of severe importance, every time.  Day by day, I take one step closer to becoming one of them.

But my writing lags.  At night, I sit in my room at the Homewood Suites, suffering.  I try to find ways to retell the adventures of Bill and I in Boise, and fail routinely.  I struggle to describe the ruthless nature of Gretch.  Worst of all, I can’t even convey the blaring foibles of Josh Ulrich, a rudimentary task for even the most novice of writers.

By God, I can’t even make fun of Ben Woodward!

…Each night, I sit in a constant state of agony, unable to put words to paper.

For over a year, I had frequented the local coffee shop closest to my home.  It was a place of efficiency, where my presence was welcome, where I could write freely, unabated from the stress of the world.  A place where each barista would greet me with alacrity and fondly accept my entry into their place of business.  And as always, the feeling was mutual.  At the Starbucks on Bucklin Hill Road in Silverdale, WA, I was a mean, green, writing machine, and I loved every minute of it.

I needed my mojo back, a catalyst to spark my creativity.  Something to bring me back to my A-game; my motivation.

I needed to find my Bucklin Hill Starbucks.

A quick search on Yelp reveals a myriad of choices near my area, none of which are Starbucks.  Apparently, Starbucks is too corporate for Yelp.  The reasons could vary, and are probably plentiful, but it’s a lost cost, for I have yet to pass a one that remains open past 9:00 PM in the city.  In fact, very few coffee shops are open past 5:00 PM, and I only drink coffee at night.

Yet, hope remains.  One specific shop catches my eye.  It’s located a mere 2 blocks from my hotel.  Slipstream Coffeehouse, open until 11:30 PM.  Bingo.

I investigate further to verify this particular establishment meets my standards.  The website suggests a local, high-end institution—many close-ups of elegant coffee drinks and natural ingredients all over the website.  There are even exotic locales on display to show where their coffee grounds come from, places like Africa.

It also shows alcohol.  It’ll do.

30 minutes later I enter the shop, a modern atmosphere cloaked with a rustic façade—a hipster’s paradise.  Lucky for me, I’ve achieved an enlightened tolerance level for the hipster scene through years of enduring the social climate in Seattle.  I can handle that of which most cannot.  I continue forward and approach the bar.

Across from me is a wall of liquors, elegantly lighted and stacked along a recessed cabinet.  Indeed, the owners are honest in their advertising, a respectable sign of good business.  Why not give it a chance?

The barista and I make eye-contact.  Assertive, no nonsense, black button down—this isn’t her first rodeo.  We wait a moment.  “Hello,” she says.  No turning back now.  An awkward feeling escalates.  Do I bark out my order?  I run the risk of being impolite.  I say nothing.  A few more seconds pass.  “Do you know what you’d like?” she asks.

I look at the menu.  Too many extravagant drinks to choose from.  It’s becomes a blur.  Another customer gets in line.  No time to think.  Don’t be that guy.  The stakes rise.  One wrong word and I look like an idiot in front of the barista and everybody else around—something you never want to do.  Ok, keep it cool—keep it simple.  You know exactly what you want.  I speak, clear, concise, and with confidence.  “I’ll take a Grande Latte.”

She tilts her head and stares, one hand on her hip, unable to control the sardonic smile creeping up on her face.  The stagnation is even more unbearable than before.  Was it something I said?

Grande Latte?” she finally replies.  Anxiety fills within me as I wait for her next words.  “That’s such a Starbucks thing to say…”

Her words are crushing and commanding, gathering the attention of the entire wait staff.  It includes the other baristas, cooks, bar tenders and all.  Half the restaurant is aware of the cardinal blunder.  Besides a sorry explanation of my prior inhabitance in Seattle, I’m at a loss for words.  Grande Latte, at the cool coffee shop?  How can I be so stupid???

“How about I make you a 12-ounce latte?” she suggests.

“12-ounce latte.  I’ll take it.”  I keep my composure and accept the drink.  We talk afterwards.  Turns out, she’s from Washington too.

I survive… for now.

***

Most people would’ve left a situation like that in shame.  To some, there’s nothing worse than being humiliated in such dramatic fashion.  And honestly, most probably wouldn’t have the courage to step foot in a like-establishment ever again!  I can’t imagine what the case would be if it were a Ben Woodward or Josh Ulrich type.

Not me though.  I know my roots, where it all began.  No shame, whatsoever.  You can make fun of me and my provincial Starbucks lingo all you want.  I can take it.  I have much writing to do after all, and I can’t afford any lost time, no matter how much of a dingus I look like.

…The sacrifices I’m willing to make for the world.

I guess I’ll be back to the Slipstream, even though it’s not exactly a Starbucks.  That’s a lie—I’ve been back.  Twice already (I mean, they do have beer after all).  Besides, there’s still a lot to learn about this town.  Maybe this barista can help.  I think we’re tight now.  Hell, maybe there’s a couple things I can teach them!

Perhaps I’ve found my Bucklin Hill Starbucks after all…

Chapter 26 and the Epilogue: Wish You Were Here…

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. 

 …all those moments will be lost in time… like tears in the rain.

 -Blade Runner

 

At the edge of my parent’s porch I sat, watching the last remnants of a purified sky, once bright with light and unscathed from impurities now fading into darkness on the last night of my trip. Pink Floyd played through my headphones, the set of soft lyrics and mild chords leaving me with a myriad of thoughts circling around in my head, as was its intention. Thoughts of the past, thoughts of the present, and thoughts of the future…

 

***

 

It was in July of 2013 when the tradition began. The city of Spokane, Washington along with its neighboring towns had strangely become overrun by a massive yellow jacket infestation, Kanye West had just released his latest album, the highly acclaimed yet controversial “Yeezus,” and the one and only Bill O’Reilly was in town, quite possibly the biggest celebrity ever to step foot in Eastern Washington since Sarah Palin’s speaking engagement with Republic High School. And the best part, my mother had somehow managed to commandeer a few tickets for my dad and I to see him at the Spokane Arena! Thus, I made the venture home for the weekend, for there was no way I was passing this up, not with such high-demand items in our possession, especially when O’Reilly’s in town!

Apart from the weekend’s political punditry, all other affairs had been pushed aside for the time at the expense of a screenplay. Over the course of a year and a half, countless nights had been spent crafting my masterpiece, a well-entrenched story with twists and turns about an eclectic pair of police detectives on a quest to put an end to a cat burglar’s reign of terror—going from house to house around Brown County, Illinois and stealing his victims most treasured possessions… and then using their bathroom… and not flushing (I know what you’re thinking, how in the world did I ever conceive of such an idea?). Like many nights before it, “Turd Burglars” had once again sucked away the majority of my focus, deeming all other matters as insignificant.

My fingers typed ferociously across the keyboard, determined to meet my next self-imposed deadline, foolishly set to be the first of many postponements, a habit I fear I’ll never break as a writer. My mind ran on overdrive, fueled by the Pink Floyd kick I had developed a few months prior as my go-to choice for running music (there’s something about having the ability to explore the city and explore your mind all at the same time that creates stimulating effects…). Every part of me, heart, body and soul was set on it—this one goal, working overtime amidst an immanent bee assault, driven by the waning synthesizer rifts of “Have a Cigar,” and pushed by the answering guitar solos, a proclamation of war between me and my screenplay, that I shall continue to press forward into the late hours of the evening, that I would not stop until one of us was utterly and physically defeated.

It was a climactic and abrupt stop followed by a soft fade into nonsensical chatter. The song ended and my head shot forward, much like a diver would to catch his breath before sending himself back into the murky depths of treasure and discovery. In front of me was a bulge of orange light, the sun’s final stand against the overwhelming forces of night. “Hmm, that’s pretty,” I said with a shrug, ready to delve back into another writing surge.

I took a sip of beer and placed my fingertips back onto the keyboard—something was different this time. Goosebumps suddenly formed all over my body; my forearm hair stood straight like a thousand tiny needles pointed outward. I attempted to strike the keyboard, to input a series of legible keystrokes that would translate into prose; it was impossible. I was completely frozen, struck by the subtle and graceful guitar introduction to “Wish You Were Here,” and gazing into that same bulge of light I had tried to ignore a moment before, lowering itself against the scattered trees of the Dischmann-Mica valley. I sat back on the deck and succumbed to the power of the moment, any more attempts at writing would be useless from this point on.

There was no other sound but the soft melody of the song, no other soul around to break the concord, and no other movement but the slow fade of the red summer sun fighting against a pure sheet of darkness until its very last breath. I watched in peace and silence, and I remembered…

So… so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell
Blue skies from pain,
Can you tell a green field,
From a cold steel rail
A smile from a veil
Do you think you can tell…

 

***

 

Cambray and Lauren watched from a stumped log as I waded knee deep in the water, the sun’s reflection sending an ever-changing fuchsia glaze over the lake’s surface. Soft ripples broke its plane, the last account of a flash rainstorm that had left Lauren’s side of the tent drenched and the raging winds that made paddling through Sawbill Lake nearly impossible, a small sample in a number of mishaps that nearly defined our rookie Boundary Waters trip, including a failed attempt to hang our Duluth Bags out of the reach from bears. But now, nearing the end of our journey, looking out across the lake of which I stood, saturated with an array of purple haze over a stilled marriage of wood and water, we were given a new definition.

Me in the boundary waters

The constant sound of breaking water drew louder with each push, a warm presence closing in on my position—Cambray and Lauren had joined me. Bantered words were exchanged amongst us after a few splashes and missteps had caused a squirm that wetted the tips of my cut-off shorts. I assessed the damage, scanning the areas of clothing I had failed to keep dry after so much care was given, then to the source of my failure. There was something different in the water, an evident aberration—a sudden diversion to my attention. Something had overcome; something had turned.

The water gave off a blood orange tint, a counter image of the sky. A heavy build of clouds moved across it, covering the girth of the setting sun. Not to be outdone, the sun sent out beams of light, pultruding beyond edges and piercing through at any point possible. We watched as the rays widened, bursting through the cloud cover and pushing them aside, revealing a message:

BW night shot

“Welcome to the End of the World.”

In an instant, blood orange turned blood red, and the clouds regrouped, darker, denser, and ready to charge, to eradicate all of the hate, evil, and destructive forces plaguing the world for so long—further proof that God was good on his word. We stood that evening in the middle of the Boundary Waters, amongst a most beautiful sunset placed at the edge of our world…

…And we welcomed it.

Me in Boundary Waters Canoe

***

 

“I wish they were here to see this,” I thought to myself as the song’s chorus progressed. It had been two years since that evening in the Boundary Waters, and it was certainly a travesty that they, or anybody else for that matter weren’t able to see the potential on display, possibly the reason why it was so personal. Fortunately, it would only be a matter of weeks until our next reunion, where we would once again be surrounded by the unspoiled beauty that had been so captivating two years prior. I smiled a simple smile, for we were on the eve of another Boundary Waters trip.

Nearly a year later I found myself in the same position, gazing out at a similar sunset. Nate, one of my best friends from my childhood had just gotten married, following a weekend that consisted of bibulous behavior during a bachelor party (at least on my behalf) and a wedding scenario of which I got suckered into becoming a Star Wars Jedi Knight. With “Wish You Were Here” playing through my headphones, thoughts of the past swirled through my head—our many sleepovers staying up to conquer games from the many iterations of Nintendo consoles, building and destroying our creations in SimCity 2000, devising plans to cheat our way into a win at Monopoly, feasting on Pizza Hut pizza and drowning ourselves in Mountain Dew while drawn to a perfect TGIF lineup, and what kind of sleepover would it be without sneaking in a quick viewing session of the nudey scene from Titanic?

I thought about the present, how much fun it was to reunite with old friends, and wondering how in the world I got snookered into the whole Jedi Knight routine. And then there were thoughts of the future, where I was, where I was headed, and how I was going to get there. “How is my story going to play out?” I sat and wondered, watching the sun dim like a candle on its last cord of wax while listening to the simple, yet elegant progression of chords fade out, attempting to piece together another part of my life. I sat and watched, smiling a simple smile.

And now, here I was, another year passed, sitting in the same place with the same tune in my head after a long journey, with much to ponder…

 

***

 

Upon my arrival to my parent’s house two days prior, I learned that a memorial service was being held for an old friend I had met in college. It had been a while since I had seen Jon; moving away occasionally causes that sort of thing happen. However, you could always expect a hug and a smile from the man, no matter the amount of time spent apart, and as an accomplished, raspy-voiced blues guitarist with a skill set that always left you in awe (and with a hint of jealousy I must admit from time to time), there was a good chance that I, as well as many others would be graced with an original song or two whenever there was a get-together of sorts. Knowing the kind-natured spirit that Jon was, coupled with the fact that I was in the area, attendance to his memorial was mandatory if there was any shred of honor left in me after such a notorious trip.

A man with a heart of gold trapped in the body of a brute, there were very few people in the world that could say they didn’t like Jon at first sight, and those who did (if any) were most likely of the bro-type, envious of his striking resemblance to a Nordic Viking. Much was the case with our first meeting.

In a small apartment in Moscow, Idaho, where an eclectic group of skateboarders and University of Idaho students were gathered, in walked Jon to the spectacle of a strange boy singing the Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Can’t Stop.” For some reason or another, choosing to heed to the song’s advice instead of affording our newly arrived guest the proper etiquette he deserved, I continued with my obnoxious singing (something that never happens. I mean, c’mon!). Any normal person would’ve countered walking in on such odd behavior with a look of disturbed perplexity, but not Jon. With a stroke of brevity, he immediately stepped up next to me and began beatboxing the bass rhythm of the song. From there and for the next couple of minutes, we performed a near perfect, and well-received number for everyone in attendance, neither one of us skipping a beat, as if we had spent years in preparation for this moment. Within a matter of minutes, we had become friends.

At the young age of 28, Jon had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one that despite a fierce battle and multiple efforts to fight on, ultimately took his life a few months later. So on that Saturday in mid-July, I traveled to Princeton, Idaho and joined an already large gathering in honor of our late friend.

While some expressed excitement upon my somewhat surprise arrival at the Teeter Manor located on the outskirts of the small Idaho town, Mike Gibson brandished a look of disappointment as I drove passed and motioned his foot as if he were about to perform a curb stomp on my car’s frame with the intention of causing permanent deformation. The violent gesture put a smile on my face like no other person was capable of doing.

Arthur, an old skateboarding friend (and quite possibly the closest living reincarnation to David Bowie) started the memorial alongside Jon’s father with a procession of songs. About a hundred of us, friends and family listened as they played their guitars and sang with passion, songs about life, friends, and memories that emphasized Jon’s influence. The crowd favorite was a song about how you can “drink the beers to make it all go away,” an original written by Jon himself.

After the songs were over, a group of his closest friends, Jaired, Henry, and Destry joined Arthur to share a couple stories and their thoughts about the type of man Jon was—somebody who would never betray your trust; a man who took a promise to heart, who understood the sacred conviction of “your word.” He was quick to forgive, yet not to forget, as to ensure you were held accountable for your actions, for the better of your soul. And most of all, as elegantly reaffirmed by his mother, he was a man who always put others before himself, who would make your wellbeing his number one priority, even as he neared death.

As the evening came to an end, we made our way to the edge of the manor that overlooked the west, home to hundreds of acres of forest, rolling hills, and colorful farmland spread across an area of the Washington/Idaho border called “The Palouse.” Jon’s father led us in one last song, “Que Sera Sera,” a song that Jon would end each set with whenever he performed a show as we watched the sun set over the Palouse, bringing an even more vibrant string of colors to the already unique plot of country.

“To a life… lived without compromise!” They were the last words spoken during the sun’s final descent, a mighty and powerful toast given by Jon’s brother Mike, of which everybody accepted and drank to.

It was a celebration of life, and celebrate we did, well into the wee hours of the morning. As it had become widely known over the years in the Moscow area, there was a certain set of individuals who had developed a somewhat “infamous” reputation for partying during their tenure at the University of Idaho. Although some would view that behavior as nefarious, I contend that it simply amounted to a group of friends who enjoyed each other’s company, and expressed their sincere adulation for each other with an elevated sense of generosity whenever they were in the presence of alcohol. Many of those people happened to be in attendance, and being that Jon was a calm and collected individual, he wasn’t exactly one to participate in such outlandish behavior after a couple drinks. However, he was a friend to all and could tolerate the antics with love, no matter how unorthodox the night’s festivities would get. So the tradition continued on Jon’s behalf. As instructed by the words of his most popular song, “we drank the beers to make it all go away…”

But perhaps the thing that stood out to me that evening after all the haziness had settled were a few thoughts Jaired had shared about his late friend.

“…Jon was such an amazing person; somebody who wasn’t content with just settling. He was somebody who wasn’t afraid to follow his dreams… There were many nights that we spent out here at the manor. Jon would come sit outside for hours with his guitar, and he’d… he’d create some of the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. Music about life… his friends… and about living. We’d sit out with him, and we would just listen…”

 

***

Those words went through my mind as I sat on the edge of the porch that next evening after the memorial. To Create… It’s an integral part of living, almost a duty for being human. The very essence of nature demands that we create in order to survive, the most basic of these being sustenance, shelter, and tools to progress our lives.

But beyond that is a drive; an ambition to go beyond, to do things the world has never seen or even dreamed of, to prove the impossible as possible. It’s a drive that inspires revolution and ideas, ideas that turn into invention and art, the fundamental parts of us that make us human—that separates us from the rest of the animals. It’s a drive that allows us to create life… and a drive that above all, creates memories.

I couldn’t help but look back on the time I had just spent on the road, even if it were in some God forsaken place such as a Motel 6 in Rock Springs, Wyoming. What I would give to be sitting next to Shaun with a 40 in my hand, no matter how disgusting the beer was, or to be taking Saki Bombs with Eric in a new-age sushi bar in Denver. How awesome would it be to sing just one more song at the 1029, or completely drench another dress shirt in sweat by means of dance. It was barely two weeks ago that I had left for my trip, and I was already missing the very moment we had said goodbye to Megan Mills in Boise.

I missed it all; the sharp, snow-capped tips of the Gran Tetons, the comforting feeling of contentment nestled in the cornfields of Kansas, the slew of hotel antics intentionally and unintentionally pulled, the beautiful sights, the glowing stars on the crystal clear nights, and all of the magical places of which we made a solemn vow to someday make our return. Even more so, I missed the people that made those times even more special; Beth, Blake, all of the gatherings of friends and family in America’s dairy land, Cambray and Lauren, aka the Boundary Babes and everything they embody (Oh how I miss the Boundary Babes!), and especially Bill, my partner in crime through the whole thing. I wished they all were here, sitting next to me and sharing the same complication of thoughts rummaging through my head.

But I guess in a funny way, they were. And they always would be…

And only because it wouldn’t have been the same without her, and not to make a big deal out of it or anything but I, uh, I… Oh God, I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this… I kind of, sort of… miss Gretch… I mean, not like a lot or anything, don’t get me wrong! She dragged us through hell and back, almost killed us a few times, said naughty things—look, all I’m saying is that there was a lot we went through, and maybe we grew a little because of the experience. Besides, I don’t think you necessarily have to like somebody to miss them—in fact, you can probably hate em’ and still miss em’ at the same time! I’m sure it happens with people all of the time! And it doesn’t have to mean a lot either, just a thought that you keep in the back of your head every now and then to keep you on your feet, so I wouldn’t say that I exactly miss Gretch, but it’s just—

Ah, who am I kiddin’? I really miss Gretch… big time.

And while we’re at it, I might as well go out and say it. I even miss Ben Wood—

Screw that. Nobody misses that kid.

 

***

 

I think it’s natural to feel a little sad and emotional at the end of a trip, to look back at all you’ve done and created along the way. But it’s memories that remind us why life is worth living, especially through the dark times. Though they can never be recreated, they hold potential, they encourage us to move forward when the opportunity presents itself. Within weeks, I was to return to Wisconsin with the rest of my extended family to celebrate my grandpa living 90 years on the Earth, and a few months later, I would be back again, this time to Green Bay with my mother to watch the Packers finally beat the Shi—I mean, Seahawks (I swear, one of these days I’ll get it right) after years of unjust torment!

Mom and I before and after the game.

There was even another wedding on the books in Bend Oregon, another chance/excuse to drink, dance, hang out with babes, reunite with old friends, and meet new ones, all in the name of celebrating the love between our friends AJ and Lauren, and the years of memories in the making because of it.

“Wish You Were Here” had faded, and the sky was black now, with only the glittering of stars shining through as light, millions of them a million miles away, fragments of a large puzzle that would take an entire lifetime and beyond to solve. I sat and watched, smiling a simple smile, feeling as though I had just solved another piece.

 

***

 

Epilogue:

 

A number of text messages were waiting for me the moment I entered the lodge at Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Northern Idaho, each one setting a more frantic tone than the one before it. I had only a few minutes to check them and make a failed attempt at a call before my phone died, the cold weather preventing the battery from staying charged properly. In walked my friend Brian, having made the unanimous decision to end our day of snowboarding with a mix of beer and college football, giving me time to recharge my phone and wonder what it was that was so important. An hour passed before I was able to make the call.

“Hey Cambray, what’s going on?” I asked.

“Where are you?”

“At a ski resort, what’s wrong?”

“…Call me when you get home. It’s better if you hear this when you’re alone…”

“…I understand. I’ll call as soon as I can…” I didn’t understand, and my imagination further intensified the severity of the situation, a fleeting thought that ran through my head during the 2-hour drive back to Spokane. I kept my composure, playing the urgency off as if everything was all right, hoping for the best, yet furtively planning for the worst.

The thought went through my head as a worst-case scenario—multiple times in fact. However, such a thing just didn’t seem plausible, and surely it wouldn’t be as bad as my mind had built it up to be.

My heart pounded a little faster than normal the moment I shut the door to my room and dialed Cambray’s number, the ongoing dial tone feeding my anticipation. Then, she spoke and my heart stopped. I took the news in shock, barely able to express any emotion whatsoever; nothing could’ve prepared me for what I had just heard. Like millions of others across the world, I too would find myself spending New Year’s Eve in an over-indulgence of alcohol, but not in celebration…

That evening, I learned that Lauren had suffered from a cardiac aneurysm. She had passed away that morning.

 

***

 

It wasn’t until the next day when the reality of her passing fully sunk in. My mind had run itself into an inextricable knot, unable to interpret—even process what had just happened. None of it seemed real—It wasn’t real… So I did the only thing I knew how to do. With Pink Floyd playing in my iPod, I ran, escaped into the forest, away from everybody and everything, looking for answers.

My feet sank with each step through the deep layers of snow, the heavy exertion of force used to trudge through quickly alleviating the chilled effects of a 14-degree New Year’s Day. The eerie introductory tone of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” converted the convolution of thoughts and frustration into propulsion, pushing me deeper and deeper into the forest. I worked on pure, animal instinct, up and over fallen trees and debris, slipping up and down slopes, breathing, sweating, moving my arms and legs back and forth, furiously and repeatedly; not thinking—just acting… moving, farther and farther away from reality, farther away from sanity.

The music progressed, as did my body, now a robotic being, its purpose pre-programmed, working with mechanical movements that could outlast any and all elements. I ran, inching closer to some unknown destination without an operator to stop the machine, running and waiting for a major breakdown or an expended fuel source, the only two logical events that could stop the madness.

The final hill was a grueling affair, one ignored by the limitations of my legs. Somehow, they kept pushing, finding ways to move passed each obstacle and gather traction through the dense and snow-packed areas of forest. I moved, faster and harder, until I reached the top where a clear opening was exposed.

I stopped and looked out across an immense valley as though the changing of songs on the album had simultaneously flicked my body’s “off” switch. Above me was a bright, cloudless sky of pure blue. In front the air sparkled, thousands of water vapor molecules frozen by the stagnant chill of a winter day, and beyond it laid a fresh blanket of snow covering the Dischmann-Mica valley of Spokane. I let the cold penetrate my skin, bringing about a strange sense of comfort as I gazed out in amazement at a sight filled with pines, firs, spruces and junipers, all buried under the white powder and lining the edges of a valley that spanned for miles, all of it untainted by any human existence except for a set of tracks I had made behind me… and I imagined she was there.

I could imagine her standing right next to me, looking out at a sight of natural beauty that no eyes had ever seen, able to realize the extraordinary view in front of us that so few had that ability to appreciate, just like we did those many years ago when we set foot in the Boundary Waters for the first time. I imagined her beside me with a radiant smile spread across her face, a reflection of a perfect sky shining over an untouched indent of the Earth. I imagined she was there, seeing exactly what I was seeing…

The well-recognized guitar introduction from “Wish You Were Here” started to play through my headphones. Suddenly, I was swallowed by reality…

…I would never have the chance to show her this.

Tears filled my eyes as my neck and face tightened. I let out a whimpered burst, followed by a string of choppy breaths that battled against my body’s natural reaction to weep. The shallow tears accumulated, turning into a steady stream that fell down onto my rosy cheeks, and I cried. Deep in the forest, miles away from the nearest form of civilization, I cried out a series of embarrassing cries—cries of desperation, cries of hopelessness… cries out to God in an attempt to find any sort of reasoning, that maybe I could find him, somewhere in the depths of the valley. “How can a world so beautiful be so unjust?” It was the first of many unanswered questions. “Why?” I simply put. “God, what must her family be thinking?” I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

“…What do I do now God…?” I asked, feeling as though my life had lost all purpose, that every piece of the puzzle had been blown apart, unsure of where to start again… unsure if I wanted to start again. “What do I do now…?”

I stayed out in that open area of the forest for several minutes, staring out at the sunny, snow-covered valley, and letting the music repeat itself, waiting patiently for an answer. I remained outside, waiting until the combination of sweat and tears had formed frozen chunks onto my head and beard; my sweat-drenched shirt was only a few minutes behind. I returned home that day, having received no answers; unsure if I ever would…

 

***

 

The night of her passing I stepped out onto the porch as I had done many times before with an old fashioned in hand. It was the third one I’d had that night, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. I stood out in the cold, alone, staring out into a black, lifeless night, letting the crystallized air molecules pierce my lungs like a thousand tiny needles, attacking my body with each breath—jeopardizing my survival in the bleak and frozen world. Every now and then, it takes the threat of mortality to remind us we’re alive.

There was no other sound except the occasional rattle of ice from my alcoholic beverage, no movement anywhere within the spread of the forest but for the precipitation of breath, and absolutely no soul to disturb me in my silent remonstration of justice, the still air doing nothing to untangle the web of thoughts muddling about in my head. In acquiescence to the freezing temperature, my hands dropped into my coat pockets where they clasped around a thin, metal frame. It was my iPod, a possible catalyst for clarity; at that moment, I was desperate for anything.

I pressed the home button and swiped the screen with a potential album in mind, but a song was already playing. I’ll never know quite for sure why that particular song happened to be playing at that time, whether it was by miracle or a malfunction caused by a pair of sports headphones that had been the root of frustration during my most recent runs. I contend that it was a little bit of both.

I placed the headphones in my ear and heard the soft stroke of guitar chords playing behind a familiar, raspy voice, each plucked string from the guitar cutting into my heart unlike it had ever done before. For a brief moment, I was brought back to a simpler time, a time of warmth and love; two friends singing their hearts out, an ode for a fallen friend unto an audience filled with fans, strangers, lovers, and most importantly, Boundary Babes; a complete antipodal from which I stood… a time where two friends unknowingly embraced the true meaning of life and what it meant to live…

…Two friends, simply living in the moment without fear, without apprehension… without compromise. For a brief moment, I stood and stared into the cold night. I listened, and I remembered…

Ain’t it funny how the night moves,
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose.
Strange how the night moves…

 With autumn closin’ in…

For a brief moment, I stood and stared into the cold night. I listened, and I remembered…

How lucky we are to be alive. How blessed are we to know the people we know in the places we’ve been…?

…What an opportunity we have…