Category Archives: Essay

A Suite, a Swim, a Fish

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Nobody told me there would be a Gulf of Mexico.

It was October 2005. What little I knew about Galveston, Texas, I owed entirely to Glen Campbell. His song of that title, written by Jimmy Webb, was released in February 1969. I was sixteen. I had a girlfriend. The song played on the AM radio in my red VW bug when we bombed around town or drove down to the drive-in theater in Saginaw.  Good song, crappy radio. I never bothered to listen carefully to the lyrics. I hummed along indiscriminately and waited for the sad and yearning turn in GC’s voice when he sang, “Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying…,” missing the references to the sea that came earlier in the song: “I still hear your seawinds blowing,” for example, and “I still hear your seawaves crashing,” for example, and “I still see her standing by the water.”

So when the cab pulled up to the hotel that day, and I found myself at the edge of a wide beach, looking out to sea, I thought, No one told me there would be a Gulf of Mexico. I was not prepared.

My colleague and I were in town for an English teacher conference. We checked into the hotel where registration and the meetings and luncheons would be held, right across the street from the Gulf.  Good location. Crappy rooms. We were on the ground floor. There were bars on the windows and the doors. My room smelled of old mold and a chemical floral deodorizer-disinfectant. Under foot, I was sure the scuzzy carpet would feel damp if I took off my shoes. I didn’t.

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Five hotels up the road was a Hilton. My colleague and I had just published a textbook together and were working on a second book, hoping for years of royalty checks. The week before, we had gone to a conference in Santa Monica, next to another fabled body of water, where we had experienced Hilton comfort.

I called her and told her don’t unpack. Meet me up front.

When we met back in the lobby I said, “Let’s go.”

“It’s not that bad,” she said.

“Yes, it is that bad,” I said. And it seemed clear, the longer we were there, the badder it would get.

We walked up the road. Yes, there were rooms available at the Hilton, also on the ground floor. Yes, they were more money. I thought about those bars, about the bad smell. We made the move.

That was the first of three good decisions I made that weekend.

I was raised with an it’s-not-that-bad ethos. I learned not to make a fuss, not to draw attention, not to be demanding. Maybe it was Midwest. Or maybe Methodist. Or just my parents’ dubious gift to me.  On your birthday, presented with actual gift that you didn’t really like that much, you smiled, nodded your head, and said you liked it. It wasn’t that bad.

In time I learned there was another point of view.

Exposure-therapy

A year or so after we were married, I remember my wife’s reaction to a gift my mother gave her. It was our first Christmas. She opened the package and frowned. She looked at my mother and said, “Do you still have the sales slip?”

On my mother’s face, a quizzical look. I felt an uncomfortable blip in my blood pressure.

“Can I take this back?” my wife said.

Aghast, I asked her later, “How could you do that?”

She shrugged and gave me a quizzical look. “Why would I keep something I don’t like?” she said. “Isn’t that a waste? Wouldn’t that make your mother unhappy?”

“Yes, but…”

But she had made a fuss. But she had made the gift-giver feel bad.

Down in Galveston, at the Bars-on-the-Windows Regency, I said we had decided to make a change and could we cancel? And they said yes. I didn’t want to make them feel bad. Neither did I want to take my shoes off in that terrible room.

The next day in Galveston, in full sun on a glorious afternoon, I was body-surfing waves in the Gulf of Mexico, looking up at my hotel room. That’s right, up. The ground floor rooms we checked into the day before had noisy AC wall units that ran continuously, barely keeping the rooms cool. The sound was deafening. And somehow, I had the idea that Legionnaires Disease and air conditioning units were correlated. I didn’t open my carry-on. Could I do it, twice in one day?

At the front desk I asked if there might not be another room. I didn’t want to appear difficult and demanding, but why should I be unhappy?

“Last week,” I explained, “I stayed in the Santa Monica Hilton, one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever been in.” This one, I added in the most apologetic way I could, was kind of a disappointment.

Evan smiled at me over his glasses. He said he understood.  “Let’s take a look, Mr. Bailey,” he said.

He moved me to the twelfth floor, a suite with a Gulf view.  The AC was silent and sufficient.  I don’t know what the bed sheets’ thread count was. Approaching four digits, I think. Heavenly pillows. What comfort. There was no additional charge.

“You did what?” my colleague said later.

“You just have to ask,” I said.

That was the second good decision I made that weekend.

My default position in most situations is still “it’s not that bad.” A few weeks ago my wife and I were out to dinner with a couple friends. A crowded place. Reservations made a few weeks in advance. We went through the menu, noticing, as we did so, a man sitting at a table outside on the veranda. He was with three women. His shirt was unbuttoned to his waist. Ample belly. Lots of chest hair. Lots of gold.

When our server returned with drinks I asked about the mackerel. On the menu the fish was described as brined, not cooked, with a cucumber relish.

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“It’s in season right now,” the server said. “Light, like ceviche.”

I asked: “Served cold?”

“Warm,” he said. He took orders around the table, heritage tomato salad, carpaccio, eggplant Parmigiana, scallops. When he came back to me, I was still dithering. He said he really liked the mackerel. He was recommending it to everyone.

When our food came, we gestured in the direction of veranda guy with the exposed hairy belly. The server nodded and smiled, said he had noticed him too.

“Would you?” one of our friends said, holding out his phone to the server.  “Take a group photo?”

The server took a few shots of us. In one of them he positioned himself so that the exhibitionist outdoors was in full view. It was a good joke.

The mackerel was nothing like ceviche.  It was an inch and a half thick slab, with a layer of skin on the bottom side of the chunk. Tough as a piece of overdone steak. I poked it, I sawed at it. With a little effort, I found I could tear at it and shred it. But the problem remained.

“So?” my wife said.

“Can you make leather from fish?”

“If you don’t like it, you should send it back. The chef would want to know.”

“It’s not that bad.” I swear I said it. I didn’t send it back.

After a night in the Hilton and a morning of conference meetings down at that other place, my colleague and I had a forgettable conference lunch. Outside it was sunny and warm.  Up in Michigan, I told everyone I saw, the colors were changing. People were going to the cider mill, which seemed charming. It was charming. But I was in Galveston. Outside was the sun, the Gulf.

And I had come unprepared. No swimsuit.

The third decision.

Mid afternoon, after the conference coffee break, I decided to skip the next session. I walked back to the Hilton, went upstairs, and changed into a pair of jeans and t-shirt. Outside I walked across the street to the beach. Lake Michigan size waves were rolling in. I pulled off my shirt and stripped to my skivvies, feeling slightly exhibitionist. I just couldn’t worry about other people.  I waded in for a swim.

That night, when I called my wife and she asked how things were going, I told her, in that weird lingo we use without thinking, that it wasn’t too bad. “Not too bad” is a small step up from “not that bad” and significantly better than just plain bad.

Not too bad? In point of fact, it was actually damn good.

IT'S NOT THAT BAD

Ecumenical Meatloaf

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What got my attention was a BuzzFeed post I saw a few days ago.  I would put it in the snarky-remarks-Europeans-make-about-Americans category.

Lots of snark. So much you need subcategories.  What irritates Europeans about Americans who travel abroad, for example: Americans talk too loud, Americans tell what state they come from (people from Michigan, raise your hand!). Americans are polite, they smile all the time, they engage total strangers, like cashiers, in conversation. They are fastidious about finding trash cans.  They require lots of ice. Continue reading

The Phantom Buzz

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“Table for five,” I say to the greeter. “I think there’s a reservation.”

She looks for the name I give her, then glances up at me. “Is the rest of your party here?”

“Almost,” I hear myself say, when, really, it’s anyone’s guess. It’s an end-of-semester lunch with colleagues. They’re giving and grading exams, having last-minute conferences with students.  Not me. I’m retired.

She looks around. The restaurant, a popular joint in Detroit, is mostly empty at the moment. Within the next half hour it will be packed. Continue reading

Hit Me with Your Best Shot

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“Don’t tamp it this time,” my son says. 

“What?”  

“With my Gaggia,” he says, “I’ve stopped tamping.  I get better crema. Try it.”

The coffee, he means, in the filter basket.  

It’s a Saturday morning.  I’m making him an espresso in my Delonghi Dedica Deluxe Pump Stainless Steel Espresso Machine. When you make espresso with a machine, tamping is a thing. It’s part of the process, the ritual. I’ve always tamped. The pros in coffee bars tamp. Every machine I’ve owned came with a tamping tool. When I tell him with this machine I only gently tamp, just leveling the coffee off, he says I might get better crema leaving it loose.   Continue reading

Pass the Oil, Please

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The truth of the matter is, much of what I’m eating today is an excuse to consume olive oil.  Salads with spiral-cut zucchini and arugula and tuna–it’s a dish that wants a generous anointing with extra virgin olive oil.  Fava beans with chopped tomato–oh, yes, let there be oil. On a steak or a slab of fish, oil provides a definite enhancement. Last night, snacking lightly, I ate a chunk of bread leftover from lunch, giving it a drizzle of olive oil to soak into those dried dimples and crevices, topped with a few slices of mozzarella and leftover scraps of zucchini spirals. Continue reading

Third Eye Seeing

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She announced, out of nowhere, that she could see auras.

I was sitting with this girl at the Orange Julius in Ann Arbor late one afternoon in 1973. It was a sunny day in early April, the end of winter semester. Outside the last of the blackened snow was melting.

“Around some people,” she said, “I see this shimmering.” Continue reading

Yoga, Space, and Bragadin’s Skin

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“I like the albumin,” I say to my wife.

We’re having a light breakfast before going to yoga. I’m one egg, sunny side up; she’s two, poached. I tried yoga with her a year ago, half a dozen sessions, and decided it was too much work. Plus, it’s a full hour of listening and following directions, which is probably good discipline, but still, it’s discipline. I’m trending post-discipline these days. But she’s persuaded me to give it another try.  The mind-body connection appeals to me, or the idea of it does. Today will be my fourth session. Continue reading

Ferguson: A Reflection

“Hang on a second, pal.”

When I heard those words, I knew I was in trouble. I was waltzing past the checkout counter in Pat’s Food Center, probably with my body turned conspicuously away from Jack Reins, a checker I knew; the way I also knew Clem, the checker at the next counter, whom my mother would chat up when she passed through the line with a cart full of groceries. I grew up in a small town. My house was just across the two-lane road in front of this store. Behind my house, the Tittabawasee River was in low flow, lazy, brown, and smelly. My buddies and I were teaching ourselves to smoke that summer down on the river flats.

Minutes before I had been standing in front of the store’s cigar display, within eyeshot of the registers. On another day, a week or so before that, a pal had cobbed a five-pack of King Edward cigars, which we lit up down by the river and puffed on, exhaling the rich blue smoke into the air like riverboat gamblers. This time I lifted a pack of Swisher Sweets. I liked the sound of those words together.

I also liked the idea of a cigar tasting sweet, because, in truth, the King Edwards were nothing if not foul. This pack fit almost perfectly in the right front pocket of the shorts I was wearing. I hooked a thumb in my belt loop and lapped my hand over the angular edges of the box pressing against the fabric.

“Hey.”

I turned my head in Jack’s direction. “What?”

He stepped out from behind the register, pointed and led me over to the magazine rack in front of the store. Looking back, I have to think he wasn’t much more than twenty years old himself. But to me he was an adult, an authority figure with doom at his disposal.

No, I thought. No no no no.

“You got something in your pocket there?”

“Huh?” No no no no no.

“Lemme see.” He flicked an index finger and pointed at my hand.

I pulled the cigars out of my pocket and handed them over. My hand shook, my face felt hot and red and wet. My eyes dropped to the floor, then lifted to his face. He was staring at me, boring into me with a look that was both accusing and regretful.

He held that look for five or ten seconds, letting my guilt and his judgment sink in. It was terrible.

“You were going to steal these,” he said.

I didn’t trust myself to say anything. I thought I might start crying. I shook my head, nodding first yes, then no, neither of which seemed like the right answer.

We stood there another short while, as he deliberated.

“Don’t you do this again,” he said finally. “If you do, I’m going to have to tell your parents.” He held me there a few more seconds. He was letting it all sink in–there was a lesson to learn, I was lucky that day, he was letting me go.

He was letting me go.

More than a few times in the past few weeks, I’ve thought of those cigars and my shoplifting escapade. I thought of it when I saw the black and white footage of Michael Brown in the Ferguson convenience store. I thought of it again when, a few days after Michael Brown’s death, I watched the Youtube video of a mentally unbalanced man being shot and killed in the street.

How grateful I am, not to have been killed back then.

My hunch is there are countless stories like mine, stories of transgression we would look back on now and characterize as “escapades,” stories we are not proud to tell, stories that do not end in violent death. As a young parent I taught my children that stealing is wrong, just as I was taught. Perhaps, like me, they too went through a phase. Perhaps they stole and I did not know. Every so often we heard stories of their friends and classmates, basically good kids whose sticky fingers got them in trouble. It was an aberration. They would learn their lesson.

They were not killed.

I knew nothing of deadly force when I was a kid. Today my students are experts. Many of them can tell stories of violent death, of classmates, friends, family members. It is an ordinary and haunting fact of life.

I do not know the truth about Michael Brown, the full extent of his transgression. There are so many conflicting truths to sort out in this situation. I know this: I will meet young men like him next week in my classes, and I will meet older female students with sons, women who fear for their children’s safety, who try to teach their sons that it is wrong to steal, and who must also teach their sons that, because they are black, they walk in mortal danger every day of their lives.

This is a fact of life my parents did not have to impress upon me: that if I messed up, I could be killed.