Comes a time

On my fifth day in Europe the train was rolling into Venice, across the long bridge that connects the Italian mainland to the tiny island city and I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I was arriving in the magnificent city that built a trade empire entirely on water so many centuries ago. Still, I wasn’t feeling like a person should when seeing a place such as this for the first time. The skies were grey and I had been on 3 trains already and it was not even 3:00 yet . The crowded four hour train ride from Ventimiglia to Milan had left me with the feeling you get when riding in a car too long with the windows rolled up and the stale air leaves you slightly nauseated with a headache. Sure, I had ended up sitting next to a recently retired high school English Literature teacher from Naples on the way to see her sister and we connected immediately having one of the deepest conversations I have had in some time but I was feeling cranky and needed to stretch out a bit. That conversation turned from politics to educational systems to literature and for some reason she trusted me enough to tell me of the troubled relationship she had just escaped and it reminded me of the one I had with my ex-wife. As dramatic as it sounds, in some ways that conversation has changed my life and enabled me to grasp and accept things that I have been wrestling with but it was exhausting. The stop in Milan was all too brief and I only had 15 minutes to change trains and as is typical, the train I needed was 28 tracks down the platform and I rushed through one of the most incredible train stations I have seen and was perturbed that I didn’t have any time to spend there. The train from Milan to Venice was much cleaner and roomier than the one from Ventimiglia to Milan but to add to my perturbation there was somebody sitting in my assigned seat just like on the last train so I decided to sit in another and wonder if somebody would come along and find me in their seat and ask for it. One does not get arrested for sitting in the wrong seat so it’s not a huge deal but try as I might to find evidence to the contrary I live under the assumption that people are stupid and if it wasn’t for the idiots in society then civilization would be great. I only know that people are stupid because I am one but I do try to follow the basic rules. I guess I had woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day.

I jumped off the train and the way the station is situated does not give you any views of the city, which is good because I was not ready to see it and paced a bit while stretching my legs and trying to clear my head. Maybe I needed coffee. I also needed to change my dollars to Euros and did so, getting ripped off compared to the other places I had been. Deciding it was time to hit it I walked through the station towards the Grand Canal starting to feel that excitement a landlocked citizen gets when walking to the beach on the first day of vacation awaiting the salty breezes to hit them. Pulling my map out of my back pocket I was finally ready to do this….except  I had pulled my passport out of my pocket with the map and did not know it. A few steps and three people were running towards me from different directions with panicked looks on their faces pointing behind me and confusing the hell out of me. “Passport, passport!” they were all saying to me and as I turned around I did in fact see my blue passport and all the addresses I needed for the trip laying on the ground. A young girl had broken away from her group and was picking them up for me and as I walked back to retrieve them we both shared the look of relief that comes from realizing that a lifeline was almost lost. She was relieved for me and besides the obvious relief that I felt, I was again relieved for humanity, civilization, and people. The universe had once again taught me a lesson in humility that I was happy to accept. As I walked to the light of Venice life outside the station I heard several people telling their companions, “Wow, he dropped his passport and almost lost it”, “Could you imagine?” and the like. I still needed coffee but gratefulness had overtaken crankiness and I was barely ready for the brilliance Venice was about to smack me with outside the station doors. And the sun had just come out from behind the clouds.

Venice is a maze to navigate and if it wasn’t for the GPS in my phone I could have spent days wandering around lost (in a good way) and never find the hostel I had booked. My hostel was in the heart of the city and I had plenty of time to get there so I took it, traversing the streets, stumbling into open courtyards, walking across tiny arched bridges that spanned the canals and taking in Venetian life. It was a particularly festive day as hordes of people were marching the streets chanting a 10 or 11 word phrase over and over that I couldn’t understand. In different parts there were strange rituals taking place. In one corner of a square a person would read out a passage from a hand-made poster, the crowd would laugh, and someone would attack them with food. In another square a young man dressed only in skimpy underwear and a wreath on his head was running through a gauntlet with his head down and they would all smack his back. In another there were two young ladies doing a skit of some sort with a crowd of 12-15 people around them moaning and fake crying, then bursting into creepy laughter. I later found out that it was college graduation day and this is just what Italians do. After several hours of wandering I was getting hungry and needed to find the hostel. I was getting close so was not worried and took the time to stop about every 5 feet for photo ops. I was overwhelmed. Eventually the sun got lower and lower and I knew I had to find my place to stay. I had entered the hostel’s address into my phone before departing the states and could see the red pin of the address on the map and the blue dot of my phone approaching it. It was near a courtyard with several restaurants so I would just go check in, get a bite to eat and figure out what to do next. As I followed the blue dot I came upon the street, which is more like an alley and now that I think of it, there were technically no streets at all because there are no cars allowed in Venice. As the blue dot got closer to the red pin I was pretty satisfied until the blue dot passed the red pin and there was no hostel. There was a door that was locked that looked like someones home but there was no sign and the address did not match what I had entered. I was on the right “street” but the order of the addresses made no sense. Maybe it was down the alley or nearby so I walked further, the blue dot getting farther from the red pin. I checked the email confirmation I had and the hostel’s website to confirm the address and I had entered it correctly. There was a phone number but at that point I didn’t want to waste an international call just yet. I walked back towards the red pin following the blue dot and stopped at the same door where the blue dot was now hovering above the red pin and nothing had changed. No sign, locked door, crazy address. This time I knocked and got no answer. OK, so maybe it was one of those days after all but I was hungry and thirsty for Italian beer so chalked it up to that and walked back to the courtyard to eat, passing a building with an awning that said “HOTEL” and referenced that as backup plan A in my mind. As I leisurely ate the plate of ham and cheese, sipped the beer , and ate the lasagna I began to tell myself that I was not going to try and find the elusive hostel again but would stop in the other hotel I saw and stay there whatever the price. And then I began chuckling, thinking about Carter.

As a back story, I have a buddy named Carter that I went to high school with. I don’t think I actually met him until junior high but when I was in fourth grade my mom started working in the school district I attended as a secretary and had told me stories of this character named Carter. We did not run in the same circles in high school and I believe he moved away for a couple years then came back but I’ve always felt that I’ve known him forever and in some way feel close to him. We are Facebook friends and keep in touch sporadically. He is a Capricorn like me and lives in Arizona and has achieved an extraordinary amount in his life, living in an entirely different tax bracket than the rest of us. He is a truly nice guy and when I had posted on Facebook that I would be backpacking through Europe for a couple of weeks he commented on my post that I was a better man than him because he always has to stay in the nicest hotels when he visits Europe and then called himself a snob. It was a funny comment and yes, I had to admit that I did feel pretty proud of myself for having the guts to do what most college students do right after graduation. As I finished my meal and was walking to my “new” hotel I was still chuckling for realizing that maybe Carter and I aren’t that different after all.

I walked into the hotel and up the steps to the receptionist area and was greeted by a British man. The hotel was in a rustic building and was very charming. I asked the guy if he had any rooms and he said that he did have one but it had a shared bathroom and that it was sixty euros. A bit steeper than my 23 euro hostel I had booked but I wasn’t even sure the other one existed even though they were about to charge my credit card for the room whether I was in it or not. He went to show me the room and I have to admit it was crappy for the price but better than the four bed, dorm style hostel I would have been staying in so I agreed. He then turned to me and thought for a second and put his finger to his cheek and told me that he actually had a room in the bed and breakfast building across the courtyard and in his British accent said slowly, “I could probably do that room for…say…20 euros more and it has it’s own bathroom. It’s really quite lovely. Would you like to have a look see?” I said sure, beginning to feel like I was in the middle of a sales pitch he practiced often, but what the hell? It’s only money and I’ve been a sucker many times before and besides, Venice had already shown me that humanity is decent and I was in the mood for a game anyway. We walked over towards the other building and I began to tell him that I had already booked a room but could not find it. He asked which one and when I told him he exclaimed that he knew that one and that it was right down the road and he could show me. I told him I had already decided during the second beer at dinner that I was not going to stay there, especially if they couldn’t make it easy to find. And besides, twenty years ago it would have been cool to stay in a hostel but I’m already over it. “Yeah, I suppose there comes a time in all our lives when we need the finer things and are entitled to a ‘lil comfort,” was his response. I had to agree with him and he reminded me that I was going to love this room. What I didn’t realize was that it was going to be a palace.He unlocked the door and we began walking up to the third floor as I told him that I was having a great trip and the main thing I was in Europe for was to take photos. He replied that I would absolutely love the rooftop patio that was included with the room. Cool. As we got to the third floor he showed me the breakfast area which was close to my room. He unlocked the door to the room and watched my face go into shock. “Shame they’re going to charge your credit card at the other place.” Perfect timing to say that phrase but I didn’t hear him as I gazed over the magnificent room and walked over to the curtains, drawing them back to find two huge windows that overlooked a courtyard. He said it was time to show me that rooftop and like that we were up two more flights of stairs. On the fourth floor he stopped and opened up a little fridge stocked with champagne and told me that it was complimentary and added that they don’t count the bottles, they just stock the fridge each day. Sweet. I, of course, was already sold but if not, the rooftop would have sealed the deal. As we walked back down the stairs to go check in he told me that it was lucky that I came at this time. As it was not yet high season they were not booked and they rarely get any walk-ins past 4:00. His boss hates for rooms to be unoccupied so he just made up the price since I “looked like a nice mate.” Typically that room is 250 euros and whether or not that was true I knew that it was definitely more than 80 euros.

That night I went through Venice to take some night photos and had a really nice time doing so. I got lost once again, not just in the corridors, but behind the lens and anything that had frustrated me that day was well behind me and a calmness washed over me. I was able to find my way back to the room but was exhausted and my muscles ached. I am a shower guy and have not taken a bath in I don’t know how long but the bathroom in this room was completely modern, completely tiled, and completely luxurious with a huge tub. I drew a bath and sunk into it, poured a glass, and placed the champagne on the floor next to the tub as I sipped and slipped into a state of bliss, chuckling and not even bothered by the fact that I too, am a snob. Here’s to you Carter!

I slept like a rock that night waking up refreshed and hungry. I popped out of the room to check out the breakfast spread and was the first one there. It was hard to believe how much food was available compared to the chain hotel breakfasts I am used to in the states. I spent an hour at my table savoring everything they had to offer, getting up frequently to get something new and sampling the array of jellies and patés, washing it all down with coffee and juice. I was definitely ready to tackle the day and was certain that I had woken up on the right side of the bed on this day. I did stay in a few hostels during the rest of my trip and sleeping in general population isn’t a bad experience but it sure doesn’t come close to what I enjoyed in Venice.

Yes, there comes a time when we’re all entitled to a little comfort.

We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks

I have spent a considerable amount of time in this life living outside of my comfort zone. I like it there and that is where I grow. In fact, I am most comfortable living there because my comfort zone is very small. It is for that reason I suppose I have accomplished the things I have and lost some of the things I have acquired. It has taken me 40 years to become comfortable in my own skin. The other 39 odd years were…well, uncomfortable despite whatever facade I was able to put up and maintain. I am, of course, speaking about mental uncomfortability (I know, not a real word) and am happy to say that I can luckily remember no physical uncomfortabililty (still not a word, I realize) and have been able to meander throughout this world free of pain. There are many things that just don’t occupy very much space in our minds as we go about our busy days. The price of tea in China, will Kim Kardashian ever find true love, and what were the true economic impacts of the Reformation come to mind. Another would be toilets. How often do you wonder where the next toilet in your life is? while at home, at work, driving, flying, or riding on a train the chances are pretty good that facilities are available. On an Italian bus…not so much. And this fact had never occupied any space in my mind and surely didn’t occur to me when I boarded the bus in Salerno for the 4 hour ride to Taranto.

The morning in Salerno was the 9th day of my European trip and up until that time I had been in major cities where many people spoke English or I was fortunate enough to be with friends that spoke English as their 2nd or 3rd language so I had no problems comunicating or understanding. I was, in a word, comfortable in all my travels. Salerno is a town of 139,000 people and although it is a gateway to the famous Amalfi coast, an area that has for years been a resort town for English travelers, Italian is principally spoken and from what I could tell there were not many that spoke or understood very much English at all. The day before I had navigated the bus ticket to Amalfi transaction in broken Italian and  that morning at the bus station had to purchase the bus ticket to Taranto in Italian also. I was in a regional town as opposed to a tourist metropolis and would be traveling deeper into the heart of Italy and for the first time had come to realize that English would not get me very far. I was a minority.

Salerno is a beautiful little city and as a light rain was falling while waiting for the bus outside a nearby cafe with a coffee in my hand, I was looking forward to the day and looking forward to making it to Bari, Italy where I would catch the 15 hour ferry to Patras, Greece, the last stop before meeting my friends again in Athens. The radio sounds of a familiar song were being sung in Italian and just as I realized it was Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 smash hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, I also noticed several people around me singing along. This made me chuckle. The only reason I was taking the bus was that I did not leave enough time to take the train to Naples where I could catch the train to Bari and I was not concerned with this as I wanted to spend as much time in Amalfi as I possibly could that morning. Better planning would have made the trip much easier and the aforementioned Salerno to Naples to Bari route would have been much more comfortable and this is actually what all the tourists do as I found out later. However, I wanted to be among the people and experience the life of the common man like some Steinbeck or Hemingway fantasy I have always had in my mind. As my travels had been easy and relatively stress free to this point I have to admit I was very proud of myself and a little smug that I was taking the road less traveled, an attitude that I generally take. I was outside of my comfort zone again and feeling good about it thinking, as always, what’s the worst that could happen? I boarded the bus, showing the driver my EuRail pass and found an aisle seat near the back, the chorus of “turn around bright eyes” stuck in my head. So far so good. The bus quickly filled up and then it was too full, several passengers standing in the aisle with no seat to sit in. Busses are slightly more cramped than the trains and there was not room for my backpack in the rack above and it was too late to put it below with the other luggage, something I did not want to do anyway so I sat with my pack in my lap and tried not to think about how hot it was becoming with all the passengers who were standing in the aisle . The bus was scheduled to leave at 11:35am, which came and went with no motion. At noon the driver began to speak and from what I could tell was saying that we couldn’t leave until all riders had a seat, something which made some of them upset. Now, I have come to know Latinos as passionate, hot blooded individuals and have become accustomed to dealing with this but Italians are another story altogether and I was not prepared for what was about to happen. A man who was traveling with his son was sitting in the exit stairwell and apparantly had been asked to exit the bus. I can only assume this because he immediately jumped up and began shouting at the woman that had asked him to exit so we could leave. With both hands flicking fingers from the underside of his chin he continued yelling his point that he had a right to get to where he was trying to go, especially since he bought a ticket. A twenty something woman across the aisle next to me began shouting at the man and someone towards the front of the bus began shouting at her. A guy in his twenties a few rows ahead of me stood up and yelled to be excused so he could yell to the driver from his seat which started out calmly but quickly escalated into more shouting and chin finger flicking. The passengers sitting were at war with the people standing and nobody was budging. I noticed the clock said 12:17 and I also noticed that I was starting to experience pressure on my bladder. There was no way I was going to get off at this point and turning around I noticed there was no bathroom on the bus. The driver had given up and was going to let the passengers fight it out and eventually people began to exit. The old man sitting next to me got off the bus but not knowing if he was going to return I didn’t call attention to the empty seat as the shouting resumed and became more passionate. All I kept thinking to myself was not to make direct eye contact with anyone and praying inside “Don’t kick the American off the bus, don’t kick the American off the bus.” Apparantly the station was selling anybody who wanted to buy one a ticket and since I had the Eurail pass I’m sure I wasn’t counted anyway so I felt bad that I was part of the reason the bus was oversold. Eventually a yong man in the aisle turned around and noticed the empty seat next to me and asked if it was free. I did not know if it was free and could not understand a word he or the others around me were saying in my direction. At no time did anybody offer to speak English so I just shrugged my shoulders, pointed to the seat and waved him in.  It wasn’t long before we finally rolled out of the station at 12:28 and I didn’t know if it was just me but the bus was friggin hot. I do know that everybody was stressed out. To make things just a little more interesting, the seat I had selected was broken and would not raise to the upright position which the guy behind me did not like….and expressed. And I now had to pee. Yes, this was the Italian experience I was hoping for and surely a four hour bus ride would stop for bathroom breaks, Right?

Taranto is situated where the heel of the boot meets the sole and is a major port in the Mediterranean. The ride from Salerno to Taranto is a beautiful one, taking a route through the Southern Appenine mountain range with stops in Eboli and Potenza, the two largest towns along the way. It rained lightly for the first hour of the journey and was overcast the rest of the way but the rain and altitude created beautiful fog clouds near the peaks of the mountains. Despite the chaos at the bus station in Salerno that still had me a bit stressed and the guy behind me who kept kicking the back of the seat I was able to marvel at the scenery and dream of taking pictures. This only lasted for an hour as I really had to go and could only begin concentrating on when the next stop would be. Shortly after, the bus stopped in the small town of Postiglione but only long enough to drop off one passenger and we were on the road again. Damn. For the next 45 minutes I counted the kilometers to Potenza and figured that we would get a break. Apparantly the delay had put us off schedule enough that the driver had radioed ahead to the station and the boarding passengers were waiting in a line near the edge of the parking lot and the departing passengers were rushed off the bus and the new passengers got on. The terminal was only across the parking lot but might as well have been a million miles away and it looked like nobody that wasn’t departing for good was getting off and after the situation in Salerno I wasn’t about to get off and then be stranded with no seat when I returned. Besides, other than looking at the driver, pointing to my wrist and then pointing to my crotch I didn’t know how to ask if I had enough time to use the restroom and still get back in time to save my seat. I also didn’t know how to ask anybody to save my seat. I was also at this point convinced I was the only American and wasn’t going to rock the boat. The guy behind me did get off the bus but another guy who liked the idea that my seat was broken even less sat down behind me. Despite my attemopts of showing him I could not raise the seat and his efforts to raise the seat himself he frowned disapprovingly until the guy who had been sitting in front of me the whole time and had witnessed this scene with the other guy finally turned around to tell him it was broken and shrugged his shoulders. That episode distracted my bladder for about 2 minutes and we were off again with 2 more hours to go. I could do this. I have been in boardrooms and back alleys, both places that would scare the pee out of anybody and I had sat in a movie theater through the last hour and a half of Titanic without getting up to go the bathroom for God’s sake. And those scenes all took place in cold water. On a big screen. Yes, it was time to hunker down.

 

At the next stop the guy beside me got off the bus and I slid to the window side and a larger man sat in the now vacant aisle seat, plopping back without even trying to sit up like I had to alleviate the seat problem. Take that, disgruntled guy formerly behind me. This did not last long as the large guy got off at the next stop (the bus still only stopping long enough to let him and another lady off) and I had the whole row to myself. My back teeth were officially floating and we still had an hour and a half as I prepared various backup strategies in my mind. One involved emptying the full bottle of water I had with me and doing what needed to be done. Any ideas of  this ill conceived plan were thwarted when one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen moved to the empty row next to me . I would hate to embarrass both of us and gave up any MacGyverish notions of relieving myself on the bus but even this girl could not distract my bladder and I wasn’t even able to concentrate on her beauty. Oh the humanity.

Further down the road I was able to get a signal as we left the highlands and my phone’s GPS indicated that we were 45 km’s from Taranto. At this point I had crossed my legs, situated myself in a position that took all my concentration not to move from, and was white knuckling the handle of the seat in front of me. 15 minutes down the road and I began to rock back and forth with only one mantra in my head: “Don’t pee your pants, don’t pee your pants, don’t pee your pants.” Hell, I may have even been saying it out loud but the bus was not as full now and I don’t think the girl across the aisle would have understood anyway, not that I had a shot with her. I had noticed, however, that she had taken off her jacket and her cleavage was about to pop out her shirt, but there was no time to comprehend this, or even the ability to look. My brain needed all it’s capacity to concentrate on not thinking about the situation at hand. Just 15 km’s to go and the big ships in the port were coming into view. I love ports, I love ships. I love the hustle and bustle of cranes unloading containers. But I also love not peeing my pants in front of Italian strangers and could not gather the mental energy to imagine taking pictures down by the docks. 10 km’s. 5km’s. Where is that damn bus station? 3 km’s, the sign for the station, the exit, the red light. Ahhhh, I can see the station. A few short turns later and we are starting to pull in but the bus in front of us stops. I can’t take it anymore and summon the strength to lift myself up so I can be the first one off the bus. The bus moves again and so does my bladder but with jedi mind force I am able to stop the onslaught. As the bus stops and doors open, I jump off and quickly waddle into the station, thinking in Spanish but needing Italian. Oh yeah, the words are the same. “Baño!” I exclaim to the first person inside I see with a uniform and they point me outside through the back. I see the light pouring in from the exit but is it right or left? I quickly bolt out the door frantically looking to the left, then the right. Another uniform. “Baño!” I exclaim again and he moves to the side to reveal the blue WC sign that is sticking out of the wall 50 excruciating meters down the platform. As the last of my jedi mind tricks are exhausted I burst into the bathroom to see the sweet sight of porcelain. Was I standing there for an hour? two?  I could have no idea. I was in the zone and I’m pretty sure my life had passed before my eyes and as I calmly and serenely walked back out to the platform I’m almost certain I could hear birds chirping and singing just for me. Relief.

The rest of that afternoon was peaceful and carefree as I strolled to the station cafe for an espresso and a sandwich and waited the hour for the train to Bari. As I ate the sandwich my mind went to the finer things in life….like knowing there would be a bathroom on that train if I needed one. I can honestly say that the bus ride from Salerno to Taranto was the most uncomfortable thing I have experienced in my entire life and just like Jason Bourne always looks for the exits whenever he enters a room, the first thing I now look for is the bathroom. I know it seems a silly way to say it but as Americans, we do live in one of the most comfortable places in the world to never have to really worry about the little things like clean water and a place to put it.

 

a view from above

a river runs through it.....somewhere over gardner, ks

 

Somebody once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Neither is a life without perspective. To gain new perspectives you must change your position from time to time to get a fresh view. On the ground we feel big and important but take to the skies and we realize how small we are and remember how big the world is. I got a chance to fly with Brent, an old high school buddy, and see a slice of Kansas from the air, up above the farms and fields that produce a lot of our food.

Brent has been working on planes since he was in diapers and has been fascinated with machinery ever since he can remember. His father worked for TWA as a mechanic and taught his eager son everything there was to know about engines and fabrication. He was a year ahead of me in school but we never really hung out and I don’t remember seeing him much in high school. Before my junior year I spent almost an entire summer with him in his parent’s garage overhauling nearly every inch of my ’69 Camaro but can’t say that I got to know him at all. His mind is wired and geared to work on wires and gears which leaves little room for socializing as far as I could tell. He would talk about mechanics for hours and I learned an incredible amount from him but hardly a thing about him. His mother was a teacher in the grade school where my mom was a secretary and as both of them had strong spiritual backgrounds they were naturally friends and became very close over the years. Our families lives were further woven together by my family’s bad luck and their family’s ability to fix things and incredible compassion. My parents rarely had 2 nickels to rub together as I was growing up and almost every car they bought was a lemon. The 2 good ones we ended up with were totaled in weird accidents. I can not recall how many times our cars broke down, leaving us stranded but Brent or his dad would help us every time, replacing every part for free or little money and keeping our cars running until the next piece broke down. They saved my parents a lot of headaches and money over the years and were our guardian angels.

brent in one of his single engine bi-planes

 

Our mothers both retired and remained close up to the moment that his mother passed away two years ago. For years Brent has spent all of his time at a small air field in Gardner, KS where he gets a lot of work restoring planes and is in high demand.  He flies as much as he can. My mom is still in touch with him and called him to see if he would mind taking me up. As always his response was “no problem” so we met up and he dutifully walked me around his hangar and showed me the planes he was working on but his eyes really lit up when he asked me, with childlike excitement, if I was ready to go up. The thrill in his voice was just as I remember from when he was teaching me about cars 20 some years ago.

His wife and 2 small children are with him at all times at the airfield. His 4 year old boy has that same passion and aptitude for mechanics that Brent had as a boy and is learning at a rapid pace, another torch being passed down. The plane he flew was small but Brent and I crammed into the front while his son politely climbed into the back although it was clear he was not happy that he couldn’t sit up front. We flew for a little over an hour as I continuously snapped the shutter, mesmerized by the patterns in the fields below and marveling over how big the farms were as Brent gave commentaries that I couldn’t hear.

The farms we flew over are all family owned, most having been passed down for generations and it’s hard to comprehend how much food a small team can produce. Admittedly, I seldom think of this as I eat from day to day but the plane ride was a humbling reminder. And if only for a while it was a different perspective that I greatly needed. The pictures I got will continue to remind me.

the university of kansas in lawrence

bended line patterns in wheat

 

chalk drawings and the fountain of youth

colorful chalk peacock at crown center 6-19-11

Maybe it’s because I am frequenting sidewalks these days instead of the road or maybe because it’s summer but I am seeing more and more chalk drawings. Bright pastel works of “art” that sporadically dot the sidewalks of the neighborhoods I walk through daily and those trippy chalky illusions you see floating through the internet. On the way to Kansas City to see my family I read through the Southwest Airlines magazine you find in your seat back pocket behind the Skymall magazine. In the section that tells of the goings on in the cities that Southwest services I found a chalk drawing festival that was happening in California. It was just passing a thought, but as I turned the page my mind briefly went to California and I thought it would be cool to see what some serious artists could do with chalk. When I got to KC one of the first things I did was go to my sister’s house to see her and the kids. As my niece spotted me walking down the street she ran to me and I noticed her hands and much of her face was covered with blue chalk. When I got to their sidewalk I saw that they had indeed been busy making “pictures” with mostly blue chalk.  They had even drawn on Sarah, the statue of a little girl that guards their front porch. Later that night at my parents house my mom was reading the paper and, knowing nothing of all this chalk phenomena, casually mentioned that I may want to check out the chalk drawing exhibition that would be going on at Crown Center over the weekend. Weird. What is it with all this chalk?

I did go check out the exhibition on Sunday, after it was officially over and the crowds had gone. Many of the artists had left too but their work remained and I was able to walk each terraced level unobstructed and soak it all in. They weren’t the trippy ones you may have seen on the internet but as expected these drawings were amazing. There was a golden late afternoon light basking those Crown Center bricks and it made for a dramatic scene. As I made my way to street level I saw a few remaining artists and talked to them while admiring their work. There is a large fountain on the street level that was filled with children of various ethnicities cooling off and splashing each other. It was a very hot day and a few adults had wandered in and I briefly entertained the notion but this fountain was clearly for the youth.  Not everyone has access to a swimming pool so I was happy to see that so many children were able to cool off. I saw a mother with her two girls sharing some time together and they looked as happy as they could be so I had to snap a shot. It never hurts to be reminded what community is for and see that many people from different backgrounds will come together for fun.

 

 

 

 

 

radical richards and diamond dave

my oldest friend Davy.....I have literally known him my entire life. We got together in June when I was in Kansas City and this was taken on the playground where we had our first race in grade school. The fence in the background is the one we tried to kick the ball over at recess.

 

It’s funny how life seems to work in circles and seemingly little things are born out of necessity and grow to take on a life of their own. Things like the beginning of lifelong friendships like the one I’ve had with Davy or nicknames like “radrich” (maybe not a nickname so much as an alter ego).  Actually my first name is Chris and my last name is Richards. My 6th grade teacher, Mr. Drogt started calling me “Radical Richards” because I was way into BMX. The real reason he started calling me that was because my best friend and arch nemesis, Davy, was also in my class and also way into BMX. Davy’s dad had bought him the latest and greatest Diamond Back and Mr Drogt just started calling him “Diamond Dave” one day. Having recognized the fierce competition that existed between us he came up with “Radical Richards” only after he started calling Davy “Diamond Dave”. Having a nickname for Davy and not for me would manifest itself into fist fights between us on the playground during a bout of kickball, dodge ball or that game boys play where they just run around and knock each other down.  Without a nickname for me, Davy would have thrown “Diamond Dave” around the school and brag that Mr. Drogt had given him a nickname, claiming superiority and I suppose I wouldn’t have tolerated such nonsense. The hierarchy of the 6th grade alpha male is a tricky one to navigate and to be at the top, one had to elbow and claw their way up there and not be afraid to punch or be punched in order to stay there. And Davy and I got into many fist fights trying to stay at the top of that hierarchy. So realizing this, Mr Drogt came up with my moniker. Even once I had my nickname Davy always made a point to say that Mr. Drogt gave him a nickname first and the way he looked me in the eyes and raised his eyebrows always put me in my place. There was nothing I could say and we both  knew it.  I did much more with my nickname than Davy did and at the end of that year and every year after I penned “Radical Richards” in any yearbook that I signed. Eventually it shortened to RadRich and here we are today. Davy is still a friend of mine and that story is just way too crazy, not all details appropriate to list here.

I can remember the first time I saw Davy. We were both in 1st grade and our classrooms were on opposite ends of Turner grade school. The cafeteria where all three 1st grade classes ate together was in the middle of the school and several days after the school year started this red headed kid appeared one day and we ended up in line together the both of us looking each other up and down, each sizing up the other. If we were dogs we would have walked in circles sniffing each other. He told me his name was Davy and I told him I was Chris and that was that but there was something there that let each of us know the other was a force to be reckoned with.  Soon after all three classes met for gym on the playground. Usually all classes had their own gym time but the teachers needed to attend some conference so on that day gym was a way to babysit us. That day we did several types of relay races and the end would be an all out race to see who was fastest. I was generally the fastest when it came to these things but on this day the red headed stranger got the best of me…barely. It was on like Donkey Kong. An immediate rematch was set up for the next recess and we lined up side by side for an all out dash across half the playground from the east wall to where the basketball court ends. I did not let him catch me off guard this time and I got the best of him…barely. This went on several more times over the next few days and weeks, all races ending closely with a different winner each time and the loser calling for a rematch to even the score on the next race. Being the fastest is one thing but on an elementary playground the game of kickball is king and each recess was a chance for bragging rights. It was never fair if Davy and I were on the same team so teachers usually made us both captains to put us on opposite sides and each game was epic, nothing but being on the winning team mattered. There were only 3 kids in my elementary career that kicked the ball over the “big fence” and Davy was one of them. I hit the top of the bar many times but it never went over, something Davy reminds me of to this day. We were evenly matched in all sports and remained extremely competitive throughout the years making us the best of friends….and brothers. That competition spilled into all areas of life and once girls came onto the scene, forget about it. There were many times being so competitive led to fist fights and we each got our share of cuts and bruises from other one but five minutes later we were always best of friends again. But as much as we fought I remember times that we both compromised to let the other take a winning shot or bat last in an important game and share in the glory of victory. We were still happy for the others accomplishments.

Davy was born on Christmas day 1971 and I was born 2 days later so we both share that Capricornian drive for success but it turns out that we were both born in the same hospital. We didn’t realize this until the 6th grade when his mom happened to ask me which hospital I was born in. When she found out she got up and went to her room and came back with a picture from the hospital nursery and it turns out that the boy laying next to Davy wrapped in a blue blanket was me. It also turns out that on the morning of December 27th Davy was the only boy in a nursery of 8 newborn girls. Later that night I joined him and the others and I suppose our quest to be the alpha male began there. It’s interesting how it didn’t fully manifest itself until years later in a random twist of fate. Both our mothers remember that there was only one other boy in that hospital nursery so many years ago but they do not remember meeting at the time. Davy’s parents did not even live near us and it just happened that they moved into the same school district 6 years later and buy a house down the street from ours. Davy and I also just happened to be in the same classroom in 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade.

Junior and senior high were rough on Davy as his parents split and he was torn into new directions. We still hung out frequently as he moved from school to school. He always ended up in the wrong crowd but we still remained close friends. He struggled and I helped him through some rough times. In my college years, unfortunate circumstances led to a falling out and I did not hear from Davy for 17 years, often wondering if he was even alive. Last year I got a random message on Facebook from Davy and I called him immediately. We caught each other up on 17 years and it turns out after many moves with the prominent company he works for he is doing very well and living in Kansas City with his wife of 11 years and their 2 kids. He apologized although I had forgiven him wholeheartedly in my mind years ago and was not carrying any grudges. He is, after all, my oldest friend. He goes by David now but I refuse to call him anything but Davy. We meet up every time I am in Kansas City and go down memory lane and drive through the old neighborhoods we used to terrorize as kids and teenagers.

Yep…it’s funny how life seems to work in circles.