An odd sequence of church bells this morning.
They toll three times. It’s the three-quarter hour, I think. It must be 6:45. Then come five more bells. A pause, then five more. If it’s code, I can’t decipher it.
It’s a summer morning in Pesaro. These are the cool hours in the hot season, mid-July, with more hot and much hotter on the way. It’s been in the mid to high 80’s along this part of the Adriatic coast. We’re heading for 90’s this weekend. Headlines say it was 104F in England yesterday. Headlines say a deadly heatwave has descended on Europe. France and Greece are on fire. In a message from home, I read: “We’ve been watching the news. Are you okay over there?”
The reminders come. You only have so long.
This morning I’m online checking in for a flight. Asked for my date of birth I enter 10/29. Then comes the year. I have to select my birth year from a pull-down menu.
When I pull it down, I scroll and scroll, watching the birth years fly by, then scroll some more, and then more again, surprised by just how far down I have to go to get to 1952. For some reason I’m shocked. In the digital age, this menu reminds me that I’m ancient history.
I will be traveling alone, for the first time in years. All week Tizi and I have been saying to each other: Be careful.
I’m going to Italy to sit on the beach with my daughter, her husband and two boys. It will be hot. The July Adriatic will be cool. Mornings we will frolic in the water, then have long lunches, pasta and clams, then more clams, and white pizza with cheese and arugula, and fizzy white wine and fizzy water. Then back to the beach.
To get ready for this trip, I’ve been shopping online for a week or so, looking for short sleeve shirts. It will be sweaty over there. We’ll probably be at the beach 5-6 hours a day. I’ll need a bunch of shirts.
Feeling optimistic about my physique, I decide I am no longer a Medium and order two Small gray and two Small white pocket and plain t-shirts. On the order form, for a few of them, I confidently indicate snug fit.
When the shirts are delivered and I try them on, one after another I pull them on, look in the mirror, and discover, to my surprise, I have assertive nipples, old guy pointy nipples that press against the fabric and make themselves known. This visibility thing seems new, a presentation that was less an issue, or no issue at all, when I wore Medium. And, possibly, when I was young.
One of my grandsons, the four year old, has noticed them. When we’re playing super hero in the basement, he points to my chest and asks me if I can move my boobies. He says his father can move his. Well, I tell him, his father is a talented guy. He wonders: Can I at least try? I tell him I’ll work on it.
Here in Michigan the warm weather has arrived. I see men of a certain age, some of them with a little supplemental weight, who jog on warm days in no shirt, their pectorals bouncing. I don’t know if mine would bounce. Maybe a small, snugger-fitting shirt would minimize, or simply advertise, my bounce. I do know that I do not have my son-in-law’s pectoral dexterity.
Be careful, Tizi tells me.
Don’t lose my wallet.
Don’t leave my credit card somewhere.
Don’t leave anything on the plane.
I tell Tizi don’t walk upstairs at night in the dark. Turn on a light.
In the morning don’t come downstairs in dark.
Watch the gas gauge in the car. Don’t run out of gas.
More and more, we hear breaking stories these days. Not breaking stories on the news. News of our friends, their relatives and their friends, falling, breaking, breaking bad.
This week we’ve swapped email with a friend of ours who fell in the shower. It’s been a few days. In her email, which comes from the airbnb where she’s staying in San Luis Obispo, with the slippery stone floor in the shower, she describes her injury: “Acute superior endplate compression fracture of up to 35% height loss of the L1 vertebral body with trace retropulsion.” I hate the sound of all of that, especially trace retropulsion. (Though surely trace is preferable to gross retropulsion.) She’s in pain. She’s in for weeks of mending .
This week one of my high school classmates died. More than high school. As far back as I can remember public school, I remember Eddie Maurer. The last time I saw him was at his wife’s funeral. That was 5-10 years ago. I saw him, we spoke briefly, in the men’s room, about the fact that there were no towels to dry your hands on. I thought I would get back to him at the luncheon. I didn’t. He was seventy.
The phone rang one afternoon. It was almost the dinner hour.
“Rick?” A female voice I did not recognize.
“Rick, this is Deb. Debbie Davis.”
For a few moments I drew a blank. Debbie Davis.
“What?” I said.
“From Freeland. Debbie Davis from Freeland.”
I babbled something, scrolling the years on the pull-down menu.
“How did you find me?” I said.
“How are you?”
Still flummoxed, I said, “How did you find me?”
“Don’t you want to talk to me?” she said.
“Yes, but…” I babbled something else.
“Okay,” she said. “Then I guess I’d better go.”
I did want to talk to her. I was just surprised, speechless. I looked her up on Facebook. There she was, just as I remembered her, a mass of curly black hair, dark eyes, a tentative look. She was wearing a ball cap. I clicked around looking for information. Did she marry? Did she have children? A lot must have happened in 45 years. Facebook told me nothing, except that she lived in Phoenix.
A few months after that, in a couple sentences, a Facebook friend said she had died of Covid. It was during the worst days of the pandemic, the days when there were refrigerated truck morgues parked outside the hospital.
Why didn’t I call her back?
I try to remember: to be careful. And to be present. Here. Awake. Mindful.
When my parents were roughly the age Tizi and I are now, my dad worked Habitat for Humanity. He was a good man with a hammer in his hand.
One morning he was carrying an armful of shingles up a ladder and passed out.
When my phone rang, he was in the hospital.
“He’s okay,” my mom said. “Tests.”
“But what is it?” I asked.
I went to see him. He looked like himself. She sat on the bed. They talked. Together, they looked worried. You could see what they were thinking: Someday, one of us will be alone.
I was there when the test results came back. He would need a pacemaker. It would be a perfunctory correction. He was okay, but cool it on the shingle carrying.
They rejoiced. There’s no other word for it. For a few seconds, I wasn’t even there as their relief, their happiness, their sense that their time together, whatever it was, remained in tact, washed over them. They were like school kids, laughing, holding hands. The rest of their lives was ahead of them.
When I’m in Italy I’ll think about all this, and more. For Tizi, I’ll be careful. For me I’ll be careful. I’ll pull on a t-shirt, point my nipples in the direction of the beach, and think, This is now. Be here.
The first pair of sunglasses I owned cost $1.50. I bought them at Pat’s Food Center.
Ronnie Fritz and Bob Young showed up at my door one summer day wearing wrap-around sunglasses with black frames. We were in fifth grade. At the time, on a TV show called 77 Sunset Strip a character named Kookie, played by Edd Byrnes, wore glasses like those. Sunset Strip, along with Malibu, was one of the first places I associated with California, which was becoming synonymous with cool. Ronnie and Bob were emanating cool that day. They had turned their blue jeans inside out. Their pantlegs shined. The two of them shimmered when they walked down Church Street. And they wore those cool black Kookie glasses, “hood” sunglasses, as a mutual friend somewhat derisively called them.
Probably that same day I walked across the street, went into Pat’s, and bought those exact glasses with six quarters, paper route money I had earned. Copycat, I know. I didn’t turn my pants inside out. I don’t think I owned a pair of blue jeans yet. And that bit of sartorial daring Ronnie and Bob demonstrated lasted just one day. The next time I saw them they were pants-normal. I wore those sunglasses only a few times. I felt like a phony. In a couple weeks they were lost.
In the Poetics, Aristotle tells us that man is “the most imitative of living creatures.” I first heard this in college. Heard it. That’s when Aristotle, quoted by a classmate named Don Rice, told me it was okay to look around and appropriate what you liked. So I didn’t have to feel bad then about occasionally being a copycat. If Aristotle said it was cool. . .
The further I went in college, into a couple graduate programs, the more I realized how useful it was to be an artful copycat. Success in the classroom and in your program was about performance, and at least in part it was about repeating stuff you had heard (implying you had read it first). You dropped terminology and allusions into your comments. Epistemic was a popular word. Discourse communities were the thing. The open hand and the closed fist. Thomas Kuhn’s reference to paradigm shift in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was de rigueur–everyone talked about paradigm shifts and the social construction of knowledge and referred to that author, Kuhn, and his book. One classmate exuded so much confidence when she did, she actually called him “Tom.” As in “I think Tom Kuhn was onto something…” And she sold it.
Of course you had to know what you were talking about. Otherwise it wasn’t authentic. Otherwise you were just a parrot, a monkey. You had to learn it to sell it.
For the longest time I wanted only sunglasses I could sit on. I wore them in the car. When I wasn’t wearing them I tossed them somewhere and inevitably ended up sitting on them. That meant they had to be cheap, expendable, sit-on-able. If the frames were metal and the plastic lenses weren’t busted after I sat on them, I bent the glasses back into shape. As long as I could, in the interest of thrift, I wore recently mangled sunglasses.
This was before the word “designer” came to be associated with stuff. Before “generic” and “knockoff.” Most consumer products had not yet become proper names.You wore jeans, not Calvin Kleins. You drank water, not Perrier. You wore sunglasses, not Boss, Carrera, Oakley, or Raybans.
A few months after we were married, my wife and I flew to Milan, Italy, then boarded a bus that made the three-hour trip to her hometown in San Marino. We flew charter, along with more than a hundred Detroit-area Italians, many of whom were Sammarinese citizens going home to vote, including my wife and her parents. This was 1978. We flew generic air, not one of the big-name airlines like TWA or Northwest Orient. The flight was packed and hot, with no assigned seats and no food service. If you were lucky you didn’t sit in the smoking section, which was the entire back half of the carrier. (Really, as you can imagine, the whole plane was a smoking section.)
We knew there would be one stop, presumably for fuel, before we got to Milan. We didn’t know where or for how long. And neither did Carlo, the travel agent who sold these trips. His charter flights went twice a week, all summer long. If you asked him where the stop was, he said, “Oh, maybe Shannon, maybe Gatwick, maybe Frankfurt. We’ll see.” How long was the layover? He would shrug. We stopped wherever fuel cost the least, was my thought. I wondered if out over the Atlantic Ocean, Generic Air pilots were checking ahead for prices at gas stations, looking for self-serve to save a few bucks.
This particular flight we stopped in Frankfurt. While we waited, bleary from the all night fight, at some point my father-in-law grabbed me, hooked an arm through mine, and took me shopping with him.
We walked around the terminal arm and arm like that, the way Italian men his age would walk together, until we came to a store selling sunglasses. He tried on only one pair, pointed at the lenses and brand name on the side. “Zeiss,” he said. “This is one of the finest makers of lenses in the world.” The glasses he bought had black metal frames and yellow lenses. Wait, I thought. Yellow? There was no such person in public consciousness yet, but looking back, I think he looked like Bono with those glasses on. He also had a pair of Rayban aviators, also with yellow lenses. Back in Detroit, he was Bono among crane operators.
“You should buy a pair,” he said.
I told him I didn’t think so. They were a lot of money. That was the main issue. But really, they weren’t me. I was still finding out who me was. I knew I wasn’t Zeiss.
My father-in-law died in 1994. Until the end of his life he wore those glasses made by Zeiss indoors and outdoors, whenever the moment called for styling.
That trip we stayed in San Marino seven days. It was late June. We had brilliant sunny days very day. I saw that everyone, everywhere we went was wearing the same sunglasses, Rayban aviators–in Tizi’s hometown, up on the mountain, down by the beach, down the coast where her mother’s family lived. And not just any aviator Rayban. These were called “shooter sunglasses.” They had the signature Rayban bullet hole centered above the lenses, along with the white cursive Rayban signature.
I wasn’t Zeiss. Was I Rayban?
A couple days after we arrived I bought a pair of Raybans up in Cittá. This monkey saw them, with the bullet hole and the signature, reached for them, paid 20,000 lire (about $15), and felt pretty good. Fashion and thrift.
For the next few days, I checked my look in mirrors, in store windows. I hated doing that. It was vain, shallow, and foolish.
“How do I look?” I asked Tizi.
“You look great,” she said.
“The sunglasses, I mean.”
“You look great,” she said. “I like them.”
They hurt the bridge of my nose. The wrap-around stems hurt my ears. They were light spring-loaded needles. These sunglasses were painful. They hurt me both inside and out.
“They shouldn’t hurt,” she said. “Maybe you could have them adjusted.”
Adjusted? You could get sunglasses adjusted? Pat’s did not provide that service.
“They hurt him,” she said to her cousin Pucci, who wore his shooters with ease.
When I told him where I got them, what I paid, he told me they were probably “finti,” knock-offs. I handed them to him. He turned the glasses over in his hands, examining them, smiled, and shook his head. The real ones, he said, cost ten times what I paid.
I took them home with me, back to the US. For a while I kept them in the car. They were a symbol of error. Do not be a slave to fashion. Eventually I sat on them, maybe on purpose. The lesson I should have learned from my father-in-law, was: buy quality.
Early on in our marriage, Tizi pointed out a difference between Italians and Americans. An Italian, she said, given the choice between buying one really nice shirt and five not-as-nice shirts for the same price, will usually do the former. I learned they didn’t mind all looking alike. They wanted to all look alike. Three consecutive summers after that, when family and friends came from Italy to visit us, they all went shoe shopping, and they all bought the exact same Timberland walking shoes. When we went back to Italy in 1981, everyone wore the exact same shoes. And the exact same Raybans. Aviators were out. Wayfarers with the simple black frames were in.
I continued to buy junk glasses. For the price of one pair of Rayban Wayfarers, I could buy ten pair of junk sunglasses. And did.
One year decades after that first trip, when I was taking people to Italy on culinary excursions, at the end of the tour I stayed on in San Marino for six weeks to oversee work being done in our apartment. It was June. It was already hot. It was a twenty-minute drive down to the beach in Rimini. Bagno 86 was where all the San Marino people went. I rented an umbrella there from Maurizio. Mornings I let workers into the apartment, grabbed my bag of accessories, and went to the beach.
To be at the beach in Rimini on weekday mornings in June is to hang out with senior citizens. Everyone else is at work. You apply sunscreen, you lounge on your lettino. All around you, the old ladies in their swimsuits talk about grandchildren and food. Mainly food: where they ate last night, how much it cost, how good it was. Gaggles of men gather at the water, wading and chatting, watching young mothers in bikinis walk by. All morning, all day, peddlers will stop at your umbrella. Do you need sunscreen? A necklace? A hat? A towel or beachbag? A toy for a grandchild? A tablecloth? Closer to the water they open cardboard suitcases they carry that fold out to become displays. What they’re doing is against the law. If they need to, they can fold up their display and disappear in a matter of seconds.
Down by the water, every 20-30 meters a peddler sold sunglasses.
My first week down there I walked the beach noticing what people were wearing, what sunglasses were in style. Wayfarers still. A classic look. Also glasses with brown frames and brown oval lenses. The peddlers sold every brand name imaginable, Dior, Dolce & Gabana, Fendi, Oakley, all knockoffs. The glasses cost 10, 15, 20 euros. By then I had pretty much stopped wearing sunglasses altogether. But facing east, looking out over the Adriatic, I needed a pair.
Second week I walked the beach picking up glasses, trying them on, setting them back down. I’d shake my head no to the peddler. Each time they said, “Vanno bene, signore. Vanno bene.” They look good. I don’t recall seeing any mirrors. You had to take them at their word.
Third week I bought a pair. Maybe they looked good, I thought. I was pretty sure they looked good. I sort of needed them. Maybe I wanted them.
They did the job. They felt good on my face. I was okay with a knockoff.
Around 11:30 that day I packed up my stuff and walked to the car. Typically I stopped at the market on the way home and bought a few things to cook for lunch. As I drove away from the beach I checked myself in the rear view mirror.
Wait a minute.
I parked and shopped, stealing glances at myself in store windows, then again in the car mirror all the way back to San Marino. It became clear to me that I had bought women’s glasses. I couldn’t wear them.
Fourth week I walked the beach looking for that peddler, thinking I would propose a swap. Money back, I knew, would be out of the question. I asked 3-4 of them, Did I buy these glasses from you? No. Weren’t you set up over there by the life raft the other day? No. Have you seen that guy that was over there a few days ago? No. They gestured: Did I see anything I liked? By now the glasses sort of all looked alike. I never found that same peddler.
I went back to my umbrella, sat in the shade, looked out on a now familiar world, feeling like an alien wearing sunglasses I didn’t want and couldn’t sell.
“It’s warm in here.”
Anyone entering our apartment in San Marino makes this observation. They don’t mean warm. They mean warm.
You had to wonder if Fred got anything out of The Great Gatsby. This was 10th grade English at Freeland High School. This was Fred Conway, a kid everyone made fun of, a kid who was brutally picked on and mocked by guys (of course it was guys) for talking slow, for not being very smart. Today boys like Fred, when they’ve had enough abuse, bring a gun to school and go all Colombine. But there was kind of a serenity about Fred. He would look on, nod his head, and smile. In Miss Erdmann’s class he sat in the back of the room, over by the window.
The sign, an improvised advertisement, takes me by surprise. Cash for cats.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in November. The sky is a smudge. I’m driving north on Old South Telegraph Road, past a Home Depot, past a UHaul and a long-term storage facility, past a place where you can get your crashed car fixed. At one time there was a party rental outfit on this stretch of road: tables and chairs, dishes and glasses and flatware, tents and dance floors. Now closed. Not a lot of partying going on these days.
At the stoplight where Old South Telegraph meets New South, I notice the makeshift sign, written in black marker on a white placard, “Cash for Cats.”
I accelerate through the intersection, cross the bridge over Millpond Creek, wondering, Did I really see that? Was there a cat collection center? A booth with a drive-through window where you can pawn your Persian or Calico for cold hard cash, money to help pay for that UHaul or storage space or to get your fender fixed? Has it come to that?
Chimps are funny.
When I was a kid there was a television commercial for Red Rose Tea. Four chimps, dressed in plaid jackets and black slacks, playing swing music at a club called The Savory Ritz. On stage there was piano chimp, trombone chimp, and string bass and drummer chimp. Also, in the foreground, lady and gentleman chimp swing dancing. How could they resist? Man, that chimp band could swing. In the last seconds of the commercial, piano chimp channels Louis Prima, leaning into a bistro microphone and chanting, Red Rose Tea! Red Rose Tea!
It was a great commercial. What made it great was the stressed syllables. Red rose tea (rest). Red rose tea (rest). Red rose tea (rest). Those stressed syllables were hammers. The message was pounded into your brain. What great pounding.
The first summer I worked on the construction crew, my foreman’s name was Fred. He was a big guy, a Ukrainian. “The Ukrainians,” he would say, “are a proud people.” Fred wore bib overalls and a billcap. He kept a pencil in one bib pocket, a pack of Kools in the other. In moments of stress he tweezed a cigarette out of the pack with thumb and forefinger, lit it, and complained about his ulcer. He never ate lunch. He was a Vietnam vet and bragged once in a while about shooting men over there. In another life, one in which there had been no war and no draft, he probably would have gone to college and become an engineer.
“Your first lesson on this job,” he said, “is don’t get killed by the crane.”
This was residential construction. We poured basement walls in future subdivisions, three or four basements a day. It was production work. The crane hooked and swung eight-foot and twelve-foot panels from a trailer bed parked up on the road into a hole where we set the panels along a footing. On the back of the crane was a half-ton counterweight. Some of the tools we used were kept in a deep box on the crane platform. “Tell Joe you’re going in the toolbox for a sledge hammer,” Fred said. “If he doesn’t know you’re there and swings the crane around, that counterweight will rip your head off.”
Rick Bailey has written three collections of essays. Married to an Italian immigrant, in 44 years of marriage he learned the language and food of Italy and led slow-travel excursions to Italy focused on local culture and heroic eating. He and his wife now divide their time between Michigan and the Republic of San Marino.
In Tumbling Up, he returns to his Midwest roots–a one-stoplight farm town in the Michigan cornbelt. It’s the 1960’s. On the radio you hear “The Chapel of Love” and “The Eve of Destruction,” on black and white TV you see The Beverly Hillbillies and the nightly horror of Vietnam. In Tumbling Up, Bailey remembers being lost, then finding his way, coming of age in a time of seductive mayhem.