Monthly Archives: October 2009

Where the Crack Dealers Meet the Flaming Commuter Bus

BusPhotos3The first rule in commuting is to survive the ride. This sublime truth is revealed to me as we pull into the park and ride lot in Front Royal just off of Route 66 after 12 hours in the city. My body feels like a wad of gum that has been chewed for several days and stuck on a bedpost overnight. Inert in my seat, I let my mind wander, trying to squeeze in a few more seconds of rest.

As the bus rounds the turn into the lot, I happen to look out the window. There’s no way we’re going to clear the enormous metal dumpsters—those sharp corners are heading our way fast, the turning angle all wrong.

Sure enough, we slam right into them. The impact sounds like a giant can opener ripping through an equally enormous tin can just under my window. I jump 10 feet out of my seat then check to make sure all my body parts are still there. I seem to be intact.

I clamber back into my seat and see that, despite the horrific screech of metal against metal, the bus’s outer shell has not torn all the way through. When I get off, I gawk at the eight-foot gash in the metal skin of the bus. Pink insulation sticks out everywhere like artificial guts. The driver gets off and paces up and down with his cell phone smashed into his ear, talking to the owners no doubt. I hear one of the other passengers say that today was the driver’s final test run—it had gone really well until that last turn, poor guy. The next day the owners can him.

I’ve decided that such incidents are to be expected. The bus service is run by a mom and pop operation that took up the route after a larger company abandoned it. Most of the passengers take the never-ending glitches in stride because it beats dealing with D.C. traffic from directly behind the wheel. Personally, I think Buddha is testing us. Once again, I remember his assertion that life is suffering.

So when the front windshield falls in onto the driver one morning, no one blinks an eye. Somehow he pushes it back up into place for long enough to finish the drive. And when the same driver pulls over and goes around to the back of the bus to check on something, then comes back with his head gashed and bleeding, it hardly causes a stir. He finishes his route with no problem.

RainyRoad

Then there’s the morning the bus skids wildly in a pouring rain and the driver almost loses control. We’ve blown tires and had to stop in the dark to change them. We’ve broken down in the middle of city traffic and had to get off so the bus could be towed away. We’ve gotten a jump from a traffic cop in the middle of the summer on a packed route 66. We’ve had no air conditioning on 95 degree days. We’ve joked about scooping water from the Tidal Basin in D.C. to cool the engine off when it overheats.

Oddly, many of these incidents seem to happen on the days when I don’t ride. On the days I do ride, standing with the other passengers at 4:30 a.m. in the park and ride lot, I always start a conversation like this:

“So, what happened yesterday?”

“Oh, yeah,” someone will say, “broke down after Linden,” or “almost hit a bike,” or “bus caught on fire.”

Wait, that last one takes us to a new level.

“Yes,” one of the bus managers tells me, as we wait for the evening bus back from Rosslyn. “One of the new drivers, who obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing, left the break on and it burst into flames. They kept telling him to remember to let out the break but it didn’t make an impression.”

I’m picturing a tiny little fire in the engine when she says, “the bus was barbequed. Lost a bunch of seats. It’s out of commission.”

Okey dokey. “And the passengers?”

“They pulled over and got them off just in time.”

Well, then, no problem. I say a thank you to my higher power right then and there that the drivers on my morning and evening routes seem to be fairly professional. The other two routes are not so lucky.

Then, with an awful sinking feeling, I wonder if the burned up bus is where all of my missing pillows have been hiding. If so, they’re toast now. Goodbye, baby blue satin throw pillow handmade by mom.

It hits me that after two full years riding this bus back and forth to D.C. for 140 miles roundtrip three days a week, I deserve a freakin eagle scout badge or something. Do they make a badge for middle aged moms riding public transportation for three hours a day? If not, then the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Camp Fire Girls need to get their shit together.

The first month I rode, I didn’t have a car and so couldn’t drive myself to the park and ride lot. I had to call a cab every night. Jose could have driven me but I didn’t want him dragging Maggie out of bed at 4 a.m.

YellowCab

Those cab rides motivated me to buy the first car I’ve ever owned on my own. So, in the same year that we got a new house just after my 40th birthday, I also got my first car, a 1998 black Subaru Forester. It’s a sturdy, no-nonsense vehicle—just what I needed. I immediately slapped a bunch of leftie bumper stickers on the back along with a sparkly Tinkerbell decal for Maggie. No point in hiding my political orientation.

My cab rides weren’t so bad really. But something about having to call the cab company every night and then be taken to the park and ride just drove me nuts. I wanted to go under my own power. Since I have never driven much, I practiced the route with Jose a dozen times before I was ready to tackle it on my own.

I was astonished that a 24-hour cab company existed in Front Royal. How could they afford to operate? It seems that there is never a shortage of late night partiers in our little town. Several cabbies told me about drunk passengers throwing up in their cars or being abusive. One guy described how much the town has grown and how quiet it was ten years ago. “There wasn’t nothing here,” he proclaimed. “That’s why I liked it.”

As we glided past downtown churches in the dark at 25 miles an hour, another told me, “You’d be surprised at the bad stuff that goes on here. This ain’t no innocent little town.” That seems true enough. All you have to do is look at the Indictments page of the local newspaper to know that wheeling and dealing just under the surface of this beautiful place are crack peddlers, meth makers, weapons movers, and a slew of sex offenders.

I liked talking with these cabbies. They knew a lot more about my new town than I did. All of them were courteous. And I never got the young one-armed driver who eventually drove into the storefront of a law office on Main because he fell asleep at the wheel.

Often, though, I felt a huge gap between me and the person in the seat in front of me. One woman, who smoked the whole time she was driving, sounded miserably unhappy, resigned to a job that was taking her nowhere. She complained that apartment prices were getting too high.

On the last ride I had, when my car was in the shop, the driver told me he really could write a book about all the crazy people he’s picked up. He preferred the day shift, when folks were nicer, but had agreed to do the graveyard shift that night. I told him I hoped he would write that book because I would definitely buy it.

Now there’s a new smoke-free Yellow Cab company in town. I call them instead of the other company just to avoid the cigarette smoke. It’s a refreshing change. Until my car decides to break down, though, I’ll keep driving myself to meet the “luxury motor coach” that I hope will stay on the road, all in one piece, and away from fires.

Or maybe I should keep a bag of marshmallows, a slab of ribs, and some spicy bourbon-infused BBQ sauce on me just in case.

-Heather Davis

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The Art of Going Nowhere

WinchesterMallHeather and I are in the third floor lounge of the Union Jack Pub in Winchester, Virginia, waiting to meet some new friends of ours and trying not to make eye contact with Bob Orange. He’s standing in the middle of the room, amongst the several tables of people out for Friday night drinks, and looking completely lost and lonely. Something of a local celebrity, he’s scheduled to start playing here in a few moments. We had seen him perform for the first time about a year ago—a lot of Beatles covers, pop tunes from the eighties, that sort of thing. We’d seen some local musicians who really blew us away—like the guy from the barber shop whose voice was one of the most expressive I’ve heard anywhere. And we’d seen some musicians whom we just kind of felt sorry for. Bob Orange was neither of these.

If he were totally horrible, I may have liked him, but he seemed to be one of those people who’d found a way to turn the drive toward mediocrity into an exact science. In other words, if you’re not bad and you’re not good, and you’re not annoying and not pleasant, you’re just boring—and for me that was just about the worst thing in the world an artist of any kind could be. But where the guy from the barber shop and the musicians we felt sorry for both seemed to get polite, half-hearted applause, Bob Orange could get the crowd cheering for him like trained seals.

Mind you, I don’t know Bob Orange at all, and I want to keep it that way. He’s a skinny guy, of average height, whose face seems to be frozen with a teenage boy’s pout. You get the idea that he thinks he’s suffering somehow; and even though he may realize that he’s suffering on a much smaller scale than a lot of other people here, the quantity of his suffering isn’t what matters. It’s the quality of his suffering that makes it so much more significant than that of anyone else here. And in that, I feel a bit of kinship with him. I know that because I’m an artist my suffering, no matter how it pales compared to the travails experienced by a lot of other people in the Shenandoah Valley, is profound.

Yeah, me and Bob are both a couple of assholes—or perhaps the term locals would prefer to use for me is pussy—and the only difference between me and Bob Orange is that I know it.

Heather and I sit at a table and wait for our friends. We had just done a poetry reading at a new age bookstore on the walking mall in Winchester. If you had told me twenty years ago that an event at a new age bookstore would be the highlight of my weekend I would have laughed so hard I’d start spraying you with the half-swallowed bourbon in my mouth. Because that was how I tended to talk to people back then—with a drink in front of me, a cigarette in my hand, and daylight a quaint memory.

It used to be, at this point in the evening, after doing a reading, I’d be completely trashed. And that was a good thing. Those drunken hours were not lost hours, and those drunken years were not lost years—they were productive hours when I became friends with a good number of people I still hold in high esteem, productive years when I learned more than I had before I started drinking. I was not among those who, as they say, drink to forget. But now, after this reading—even though it went really well—I have that sinking feeling that I have no idea what’s going on anymore, and that I’m going nowhere. Or that I may, in fact, already be nowhere.

Bob Orange is still moving about the room, still looking for that friend or just an acquaintance, even. It’s not easy being a local celebrity—but it doesn’t take much to become a local celebrity here: Heather’s already had three newspaper stories done on the various poetry projects she’s started here.. And she takes the publicity for what it is—as something that may help move these projects forward—though she knows that most likely it won’t make much difference one way or another. Or is that just me who thinks that?

WinchesterMall2

Sometimes, Heather thinks I’m too quick to make up my mind about people—that I often don’t give people the chance they deserve, and that I’m too quick to take a negative view of any situation. And she’s right about that. Still, I feel that that’s what’s helped me survive all these years—survive without being more damaged than I already am, survive without being even more cynical than I already am.

Right now all I want to do is avoid Bob Orange. But Bob Orange seems as determined to make some sort of connection as I am determined not to. Because of all the things I’ve been obsessed with over the years, companionship has never been one of them. I enjoy making enemies more than I enjoy making friends (how I, at several points in my life, could number my active friends in the dozens, was beyond me) and right now the risk that Bob Orange will strike up a conversation with us and perhaps, for some strange reason, like us, is yet another crisis for us to face. Or, to be precise, a crisis for me to face, since what I consider a crisis is often something Heather can effortlessly shrug off.

After sitting there for five minutes, Heather starts to think that maybe we’re in the wrong part of the bar—that maybe our friends are, right then, waiting for us downstairs. Somehow, Heather is always the one who gets to go off on a search mission, while my duty is to wait—or “hold down the fort” as the expression goes—so she heads downstairs. I look to the other end of the room, and Bob Orange, his pout turning into the slightest, vomit-inducing grin, seems to be heading my way.

I immediately start to panic.

* * *

It was early spring.

I didn’t want to be there, at that bar in Winchester. But, on the walking mall in Winchester that night, the evening air seemed to have just the right level of crispness to it. It was the sort of chill that, if it were just half a degree cooler, would give you goosebumps. Staying out a little longer seemed like the thing to do.

I’d just been laid off from my job. Or, at any rate, they’d run out of things for me to do, which amounted to the same thing. It used to be that the end of a steady job was something for me to celebrate. But when you have a family, and you’re not the only one who’s going to suffer from your lack of income, it’s not the sort of thing to bring a smile to your face.

Nuyorican2

Back in 1992, when I was living in New York, I got completely trashed on the day I was laid off. It wasn’t a sad, woe-is-me-and-my-sorry-ass kind of drunk, though. It was a celebratory drunk, a toast to my being free of the soul-sucking job—well, maybe it was really too easy of a job to honestly say it was soul-sucking. So let me just say what I had was a ridiculous job, a job keeping track of sales for a direct-mail marketing firm (“Charlie, sales for the Susan Lucci cubic zirconium pendants are way down this month”).

And, back then, in the evening of my last day at my ridiculous job, I had a reading.

This one was at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the poetry club that was half a block away from my apartment on Avenue B and Third St. And, this time, a film crew from Good Morning America was there to do a segment on the poetry scene. So, even though I’d just lost my day job, I felt that my career as a writer was now going somewhere. Because that’s what a city does for me—it gives me hope.

As soon as I got to the Nuyorican, someone from the film crew put a wireless microphone on me. I then went to the bathroom to take a leak as she listened on her headphones to see if it was working properly. By the time I read, I was trashed. So I read a poem about being drunk.

The audience got into it. They laughed at all the right places and, I hoped, also got a sense of the sadness and desperation that lurked beneath the surface. Then I forgot all about it until a week later when, after staying awake all night, I turned on the TV. It was around eight in the morning, the time of day when I’d expect to see the morning weather report or Barney the Dinosaur, when, to my surprise, I saw myself on TV, my hair dangling in my eyes and my voice fueled by alcohol, saying, “Drunk at four in the morning…”

I felt like I’d sold out. But, since I was out of a job, it felt good that I had something to sell. And that’s what I did for the next two years I spent in New York—I wrote. I wrote for NY Press, which was a weekly paper that competed with the Village Voice. I wrote for Wrestling World, a magazine my old friend Stephen Ciacciarelli edited. I also had poems appear in cool lit mags like Bomb, and in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter. I did readings at places like the Public Theater, The Living Theater, CBGBs, and the Knitting Factory. I even did a poetry video that was shown regularly on the local public television station (usually between back to back episodes the British soap opera, EastEnders).

I was, without a doubt, lucky. Because I had made the transition from being a nine to five grunt in the straight world to a…Well, I don’t know what. Because one detail I left out was that I wasn’t making a living. I was making money, but that money wasn’t nearly enough to pay the rent on my apartment, meaning that it was my credit in the straight world that was helping me get by. That and a some temp jobs here and there, including a month long gig at Goldman Sachs and a gig at another investment firm that canned me after I’d worked there for one day—the job was supposed to last for at least one month—when I came in reeking of bourbon and cigarettes. As the guy at temp agency explained when he left a message on my answering machine telling me not to go back to the job, “your body odor was highly inappropriate.”

Again, let me emphasize that these were good times. And although my inappropriateness was a liability in the straight world, in the downtown lit scene I was a part of, my bad behavior was a good thing. And whenever I felt bad about something, like losing that temp job after one day or splitting up with a girlfriend, there was always someone to remind me that this was New York, and that no matter how bad one day may be, the next one could be completely different. And, at least back in those days, it was true.

television2

But the high point of my days as a writer in New York was one afternoon when someone recognized me on the street. It wasn’t someone from a publishing house, or the owner of a bookstore, or some beautiful woman stopping me to say she was impressed with a poem I’d done at a recent reading—though all these things had happened at various times and places while I was in New York. No, the high point was when a homeless person, who was watching TV through the storefront window of an electronics shop on 14th Street, turned away from his free entertainment because he recognized me from the reflection I made in the window.

“Hey, man,” he said, then raised his voice a bit, “You made it! Channel 13, man!”

He was probably around my age, though of course living on the streets can make a person look older than he really is. But the big, guileless smile he gave me showed that, yes, he was genuinely happy for me. To be congratulated by a man who was obviously going through some tough times—times he may very well have been less able to recover from than me—moved me more than any other compliment I’d gotten for my work.

There was nothing else for me to do but say, with probably more sincerity than at any other time I’ve used this frequently mumbled or otherwise carelessly used word, “Thanks.”

But I was in New York then. A city which, even though I left there feeling down and out and defeated, will always feel, to me, like a city of possibilities. And I must say that if Heather, Maggie, and me were to move there tomorrow—even with all the changes, even with my old neighborhood being cleaned up of much of the grime and disorder that made it, for me, such an interesting place to live—I’d feel right at home again.

Here, in the Shenandoah Valley, even after being here for two years, I still feel lost. And I still feel like I’m going nowhere here. But maybe that’s because I need to just give in. Because New York—or even Washington—isn’t going to be happening for us anytime soon.

So I need to get out, here, in the valley, and breath in the air and gaze at the mountains. Yes, the mountains that, decadent city person that I am, still don’t impress me as much as a skyline filled with skyscrapers. I need to learn to like these damn mountains more, so that I look at them not as a place to visit, but as a place to live. I need to wake up one morning, go to the room we use as an office, where I can look out the back window and see the mountains and say, “Christ, these mountains are fucking beautiful. I mean, seriously, they’re beautiful and I’m really feeling it now.” And, the next time I see Bob Orange, I need to go up to him and shake his hand and say, “Hey, I really like your music” or “I really enjoyed your version of ‘Nowhere Man.’”

I need to say it every time I see him. Until I feel I’m making progress here. Until I start to feel at home here.

Until I really mean it.

-Jose Padua

Adventures in Commuting: The Way of the Flask

busfiveI know how I’m going to die—I will say goodbye to the world sometime this winter after being transformed into a human popsicle inside the ice cube tray/commuter bus I take three days a week from my home in Front Royal to my job in Rosslyn. You think I’m exaggerating but it almost happened last season, my tender sophomore year of commuting.

On that particular day, we stood at 4:30 a.m., bundled in coats, hats, and scarves, at our usual spot in front of the port-a-potty, beside the giant recycling bins and fragrant garbage dumpsters. Since I’m “kidney yang deficient,” according to my acupuncturist, and tend to feel cold all the time, I had smothered myself in seven layers of outerwear, not caring how much I resembled a bag lady.

If I were a less neurotic person, I’d just wait until the bus pulled up before getting out of my warm car and into the warm bus. But I am a mildly neurotic and anxious person who needs to get on line early even if the wind chill factor is negative ten degrees. Thank god I discovered silk long-johns and socks last year—they’re expensive but more important to me from November through February than any designer outfit, not that I ever have or ever will buy from a designer—I’m much too cheap for that. But if I were into fashion, I’d insist on buying the long johns first.

So we’re standing there trying to talk through the wool around our faces, hopping a bit to bump up the body heat, praying like Jesus freaks that the bus won’t be late. Our toes are numb, our bones ache like they’ve been cursed, all exposed patches of skin have frosted over. Oddly, the bus manager’s husband wears only a light parka though the temperature must be in the lower teens. Is he nuts? I’d say he’s an alien or android except that his southern drawl is too authentic. He must have a coat phobia like my husband has a fear of carrying an umbrella.

Some of my fellow passengers cradle their bodies around hot cups of coffee from the McDonald’s across route 340 but I wouldn’t dare—that would make me need to pee in the horrifically noxious bathroom on the bus and would keep me from my precious one hour of almost-sleep during the drive to DC. Other passengers always wait in their cars until the very last minute then run up to the bus just as it arrives—smart asses.

After what seems like ages but is probably only 15 minutes, we see her pulling into the lot, our big silver palooka of a bus. Although the logo on her side is lovely, a silk screen image of rolling green hills with the Blue Ridge in the distance, this is not a new vehicle or even a slightly used vehicle. It appears to have been built in the 1970s, which is like a century ago in bus years.

But right now, she looks gorgeous and I love her. No matter how ancient that vehicle is, we want on it like thrill-hungry kids in line for the latest coaster. Everyone stands a little taller, bags in hand, ready to board. So what is this? Why is the driver getting off so stiffly and why does he have that look on his face, the one that says, “You don’t want to hear what I’m about to tell you”?

parkinglot

We look at him. He looks at us stoney-faced and grunts out, “Sorry, no heat on the bus today.” I’m not sure I heard him correctly—my hat and three scarves have distorted the sound. “You’ve got to be kidding,” says the lady who raises alpacas. She strikes me as a tough, no-nonsense type. Her pointy cowskin boots tell me she doesn’t take any bullshit. She does not look happy.

“Can’t get her going,” says the driver. Oh crap.

“Sounds like we’re gonna have to cuddle up,” comments the man in the light parka, grinning as we shuffle up the steps. What does he care? He’s a temperature-impervious superhuman android alien.

Some riders keep blankets onboard. They grab them and wrap up like larvae in cocoons. Others share afghans and quilts with their bus buddies. I score a seat to myself and hunker down in my long wool coat. My scarves are so huge, I take one from around my head and use it as a throw.

But nothing really helps. It’s reptilian cold on this bus, cold as the blood of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Dick Cheney combined, frigid as Michelle Malkin’s so-called heart. We can practically hang our hats on our breath. The next 60 minutes feel like 8 hours. We shiver, we shake. Our bus is a moving tomb. We dream of chemical hand and foot warmers—I swear I’m going to buy every single one in stock at the general store downtown.

I try to do the mind-over-matter thing and imagine the beach, my favorite place, with the hot sun beating down on my skin and the smell of coconut tanning oil wafting through the air. That seems to warm me a bit, which makes me wonder if I have hypothermia and have started to hallucinate. Isn’t that a sign that it’s all over? Is this the end? What a ridiculous way to go—on the way to work—that’s not romantic at all. And I really don’t want to die looking like a bag lady.

It must not be my time though because somehow we make it to Rosslyn alive. One hour and 15 minutes after leaving Front Royal, the bus spits a few of us out like something it couldn’t digest. While the rest of the passengers get dropped off in DC, I scuttle into McDonald’s and grab a hot cup of java.

The next time I ride, it turns out that we have plenty of heat—too much in fact. It’s so hot and dry, I strip off all my outer layers during the ride and then rebundle for the walk to my office. The heat makes me incredibly thirsty and turns my skin into parchment paper. As soon as I reach my desk, I down some filtered water and pull out the Burt’s Bees body lotion. While I slather on emollients of milk and honey, I remind myself that having to moisturize is a small price to pay for safe transport.

In any case, it must be pointed out that we commuter bus riders are a strange tribe. I’ve decided that waking up at 3:30 a.m. causes some kind of genetic mutation. Otherwise, who in their right mind would crawl out of a warm, comfortable bed to face the cruel cold air of winter at that unnatural hour? This spontaneous genetic mutation alters our bodies so that we feel sort of OK getting five or six hours of sleep a night and being away from home for 14 hours a day. It’s a clever trick our bodies play on us—we aren’t aware enough to know how exhausted we really are.

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But there is something I secretly like about this schedule. All those hours in the black of early morning, whether warm or cold, standing beneath the moon as it glows all over the park and ride lot, all over the trees ringing the asphalt, all over the bright red dumpsters, all over the stray cats that scurry under parked cars, all those hours feel exactly like a dream, more than a little surreal and much more than a little drug induced. They lie well outside the mundane realm of daylight.

For a writer, this is a good thing. It means stepping through the looking glass into a place with fewer rules, where you don’t need permission for anything, where no one is looking over your shoulder. Most days, when I get to Rosslyn, I spend a little time writing before starting in on my regular day job. For someone who works full-time and is Momma to a small child, this time is pure gold. I might even kill for it, seriously. This crazy schedule and commute are my deal with the devil and I’m willing to pay the consequences, at least for now.

Of course, I don’t really have a choice since I don’t know how to drive on a highway and wouldn’t want to anyway. I guess I should be grateful that any commuter bus service exists, or I would be out of a job and my family out on the street pretty quickly. We still don’t have the hang of that emergency fund thing, the one where you’re supposed to save at least three months salary in case of a layoff—or is it six now?

So despite all the interesting rides (and there have been many), I’ll say thank you to my commuter bus service. May you continue to prosper and grow. May your vehicles fill to capacity. May everyone’s ride be fantastic. Looks like I’m sticking with you for better or worse. Please just ignore the flask of Maker’s Mark taped to the bottom of my seat—it’s the best seasonal survival kit I could think of. Except for the driver, I might even pass it around. I have a feeling we’re going to need it.

-Heather Davis

Georgia on My Mind

Nixon-2Somehow, I’m feeling slightly nostalgic about Richard Nixon. I realize that nostalgia is one of the great rewriters of history, but what I’m doing isn’t about changing the facts. Nixon was probably one of the meanest and nastiest persons to ever call himself a Quaker. From his work with the House Un-American Activities Committee to his collaboration with that well-regarded war criminal, Henry Kissinger, Nixon was responsible for some real evil. That I feel a sense of nostalgia for Nixon is, perhaps, only because when I got my first real taste of the South, he was still the president.

I emphasize the word “still” not because it was so long ago, but because it was when the Watergate scandal was reaching the point of no return, with Nixon being on the verge of impeachment. Of course, he resigned before that could happen, but during the summer between my Junior and Senior years in high school—which I spent in Athens, Georgia—every day seemed to bring Nixon closer and closer toward his inevitable unceremonious exit from the White House.

It was 1974, and I was in Athens, on a grant from the National Science Foundation, to study chemistry at the University of Georgia. Every morning by eight I’d be at the lab in the Pharmacy school, mixing chemicals, creating compounds and studying their properties—compounds that would be used in cancer research. This was usually after staying up half the night partying with the other kids in the program who were there to study physics, math, biology, and computer science.

It probably wasn’t a good idea to be working with chemicals those mornings when I wasn’t completely awake, but nothing ever blew up in my lab—nothing I worked on, anyway. As for the adult researchers using the lab, they blew things up pretty regularly. But whenever someone’s beaker exploded, or flames shot up in the air, it didn’t mean you had to run madly out the door and evacuate the building. What you did was briefly look over to where the noise or flames came from, then look right back to you own work. And, if you were so inclined, you might say, “hmmm.” But most of the time, the cool thing to do—or perhaps even the proper thing to do—was ignore it.

Yeah, these were good times, some of the best times of my teen years, and I was having these times in the South, in Georgia, which was the farthest south I’d ever been. What stuck me first about the south was how friendly it was. I could be waiting at the bus stop outside Russell Hall, the dorm I lived in while was there, and at least half the people who walked by would nod and say “Hello” or “How’s it goin’”—people who were total strangers. It wasn’t the sort thing I, as a city kid, was used to. Back in DC when a complete stranger made eye contact with you at a bus stop they were usually cult members (the Children of God and Scientologists were the ones I’d often see) trying to recruit you.

One of my fondest memories from that summer was a night I had gone across the street from Russell Hall to Krystal for burgers. When I got to Georgia, Krystal was something new to me. The fast food joints I knew were McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Roy Rogers. While growing up, when we ate out, it was always either fast food, the lunch counter at a store, or a Chinese restaurant. Back then, I’d yet to try Indian, Ethiopian or Thai food, and certainly not sushi. Our family couldn’t afford to be too adventurous with food, so a burger from a different fast food chain was, for me, a culinary adventure.

It sounds pathetic to say so now, but back then I thought the Krystal King burger was the best burger I’d ever had. So, whenever any of the other kids from the program got the urge to head over to Krystal, I was there.

Isley3plus3-2

This time it was Eli, this Jewish kid from New Jersey, who found himself getting hungry at about one in the morning. So we walked across the street, and as soon as we stepped inside Krystal we saw that things were a little different. Instead of the usual varied groups of University of Georgia students, the place was filled with young to middle-aged black men all decked out in the flashiest clothes like the Isley Brothers on the cover of 3 + 3. They were having a good time, talking loudly, laughing, with one of them playing “That Lady” by the Isley Brothers on a portable cassette player (these were the days before even the boom box was widely used).

Eli felt uncomfortable at first, but I went, “Hey, let’s get our burgers.” For him it was a “culture clash,” as he later described it, but for me it was nothing unusual. My neighborhood in DC—after the riots in 1968 and the subsequent “white flight” to the suburbs—changed from a mixed to a predominantly black neighborhood. The guys hanging out at Krystal that night were simply my neighbors having an impromptu party.

Some people, though, were scared by neighborhoods like mine, even though it wasn’t at all the rough, scary place they imagined it to be. I remember one time I had a party at my house for some of my high school friends, most of whom were from the suburbs. One girl, after walking down the porch steps when she was ready to leave, looked to her right and then her left and then panicked. She was ready to scream until she spotted her ride down the block, and then ran for dear life until she got to the car.

Another time, a friend wrote me a letter (back then, kids would actually use this quaint means of communication) and on the back of the envelope she wrote, “I hope this letter doesn’t get RAPED.” I was puzzled as to what this comment was about. Then, the next time I saw her in person, she explained that it was a joke based on my neighborhood’s bad reputation—that my neighborhood was so rough, that even the letter she sent might get assaulted on the way. All this time, I had no idea that people—including some of my friends—considered the neighborhood where I lived some kind of playground for criminals.

So at Krystal that night, I saw nothing alarming. And, in fact, for me it felt like all we’d done was crash a party—a party with some cool music. Because although I listened a bit to the things my friends listened to—like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells—what really moved me were the soul and funk records my brother was buying at the time. Since the early seventies, the music that really seemed to get to the heart of the matter were things like Curtis Mayfield’s first solo record (which included “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”) and “Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

This was, as they say, the soundtrack to my life. It was around this time when, for a number of years, I stopped listening to any pop music, except for the soul and funk I enjoyed. And, what I started to listen to more than anything else was jazz. At first it was just John Coltrane, then I added Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra to the mix. My friends weren’t into any of this, so if there was a jazz performance somewhere in town, I went by myself. And though I was still friends with my high school crowd, I was culturally, on my own. The music I listened to, and the foreign films I saw at the old Circle Theater: I experienced all these things alone. And that was OK with me.

And this is where I was, mentally, when I convinced Eli to stay at Krystal that night. To hang out, relax, and have a meal in the presence of some folks who were, he had to admit, pretty damn interesting. It wasn’t what he was used to, sure, but wasn’t that what was so cool about it? I mean, wasn’t it nice to really be away from home and on your own.

And so it was that summer, when the music I heard (sometimes only in my mind, when the actual sounds weren’t available) seemed to help bring Nixon closer and closer to his political demise. It was also a summer that somehow helped prepare me for my present life in the Shenandoah Valley. That’s not because Athens, Georgia is similar to Front Royal. Hell no, it’s nothing like Front Royal, especially not now, some thirty-five years after the summer I spent there. No, Athens is considered a rather liberal city—or, at any rate, a city with a firmly established liberal community. But, back in the fifties, the atmosphere in Front Royal and Athens was, I imagine, rather similar.

In Front Royal, the atmosphere was polluted by what was called “Massive Resistance”—the policy implemented by Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. for defying the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools. In Front Royal, this meant that Warren County High School closed rather than admit black students. In Georgia, Governor Herman Talmadge declared, “I do not believe in Negroes and whites associating with each other socially or in our school systems, and as long as I am governor, it won’t happen here.”

UnivGeorgia

Not until 1970, just four years before I came to Athens, were the schools there desegregated—while Richard Nixon was president. Maybe it was the Quaker in him, but this was an area where Nixon actually did something good and helped move desegregation forward. Which, I guess, is one the reasons why I’m feeling kind of nostalgic about him.

Back then, at least some of the bad guys seemed to have some complexity about them—smart people with tragic flaws, human beings who, aside from their evil, paranoid deeds, were at least in some weird way, trying. Nowadays, more often than not, the bad guys are just idiots—or else fanatics obsessed by one thing, be it money, religion, guns, or government. But it’s also hard to tell what, if anything, they really believe in.

On the other hand, their aversion to policies that they say are moving us toward socialism feels a lot like the red scare of the fifties—just swap one ism for another and then use it to frighten those hard working families into thinking that the government is out to control every aspect of their lives, that they won’t even be able to take a piss without getting permission.

Above all, the key method to this madness is never let facts get in the way, as when South Carolina’s Joe Wilson shouted out, “You Lie,” when Obama, during his recent speech to Congress, stated that health-care reform wouldn’t provide benefits for undocumented immigrants. The truth is that no legislation being put on the table includes language about providing benefits to “illegal aliens,” as people like Joe Wilson like to call them.

As for Nixon, I can even imagine meeting him back then and having a real, albeit awkward, conversation. That’s not something I can imagine having today with someone like Joe Wilson, George W. Bush, or Dick Cheney, much less the parade of right wing radio hosts who seem to have taken over the Republican Party that Nixon was once part of. And it’s definitely not something I could have with someone who exhibits his disagreement with the government’s tax policies by carrying a sign on which Adolph Hitler’s moustache has been superimposed on Barack Obama’s face or who thinks it’s funny to send an email with a picture of the White House where the front lawn has been turned into a watermelon patch.

Yeah, I’m missing those days when you could reason with the opposition. When talking to them wasn’t, as Barney Frank said, like talking to the dining room table. When it seemed like you had at least some chance of convincing them that the world isn’t flat.

-Jose Padua