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.
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.
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?”
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.
“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.