Wedding Caterer

August 29, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

“Bob! Calm down. Take a deep breath. We are here doing the best we can to help you. It’s going to be fine.”

She was right. I needed to chill the fuck out. This was not the disaster I was imagining.  I needed to escape the confines of my perfectionist expectations and let my gracious volunteer helpers do their jobs. I began to breath normally as I allowed the relief of letting go wash over me.

“You’re right, Connie,” I replied after a moment. “I’m sorry for losing my cool. I really appreciate you and the others helping me with this. You’re right, it’s going just fine.”

Here I was, on the third day of my four-day holiday weekend, getting ready to feed about 150 people who were just outside in the large multi-purpose room of a Knights of Columbus hall. Up to this point, they had been snacking from common dishes of pretzels and peanuts that were set in the middle of each round table that sat eight people each. The newly-minted bride and groom were due to arrive at any moment, say some bashful words, then sit down to be fed along with the attendees.

I was not a caterer. I was not a chef. I was not even that much of a home cook at the time, to be honest. What the hell was I doing in charge of a wedding reception for this many people?

Being the Good Guy

About six weeks prior, my wife had been visiting the home of a family friend, whom she had known for years as she was growing up.  The family were members of the same close-knit church that we were also part of. The woman’s daughter, Amanda, had been a baby-sitter for our own children on numerous occasions over the past few years after we moved back to the mid-sized city of Anderson, in central Indiana. In the living room of the double-wide trailer home surrounded by someone else’s corn fields, Amanda had been close to tears as she spoke to my wife about her upcoming nuptials to a young man from Baltimore.

Amanda’s mother and father had been involved in a messy divorce a few years before, leaving her and her brother with their mom, the dogs, and little money. She didn’t let this situation keep her bubbly personality from shining through, however. Amanda was an angel. Great with our kids, and wonderful with everyone else, too. But bubbly personality didn’t go a long way in paying for things.

When my wife came home that evening, she spoke to me about Amanda’s plight. Her mom was busy working to pay the normal bills, and had little time to help with the wedding plans.  “She’s really worried about the reception,” my wife told me. “She doesn’t know what to do about the food.”

My own personality tends toward looking for ways to be helpful. I notice when strangers on the street look lost. Often, I will slow down and try to decide whether or not to assist another motorist who is experiencing a flat tire.  I feel a twinge of guilt if my decision is to keep walking or driving without stopping to give directions or help with the car jack. Sometimes I wonder about my motivations for this. Is it a messiah complex sans religious ardor? Or just plain nosiness in some cases?

I looked at my wife for a long minute without saying anything. Her eyes were looking back at me, expectantly. My head churned with the possibilities and logistics of offering to assist. “She’s getting married on Thanksgiving weekend, isn’t she?” I asked.

“Yes, she is,” came the reply. “Just like us. It’s the week of our anniversary.”

I remembered back to almost nine years before, when I had traveled from northern Virginia to this same town, relatives and a few friends in tow, to attend my own wedding. In somewhat the same situation monetarily. My bride-to-be had been completely in charge of planning our marriage soiree. She had worked hard to get a beautiful rental hall at a discount, and then persuaded a family friend, an industrial chef for the local school system,  to provide a lovely, plated dinner for over 200 guests at cost. Not that Helen needed persuading. This woman was a saint, if there ever was one.

“Tell Amanda not to worry about the reception dinner,” I found myself saying. “I’ll do it.”

Intelligence Gathering

Some of the thoughts that proceeded my gallant offer to help were: the Thanksgiving holiday would give me two full days off work to prepare for this undertaking; I knew other people who I could ask to help me (mutual friends of Amanda’s family as well); and… Amanda was special to our family, and I’d do whatever I could to assist.

Six weeks is not a lot of time to prepare, but I’m a professional procrastinator. It took me a full week to get myself over to Amanda’s home to sit down with her and her mom, Lorraine, and find out what type of plans and budget that they had. I had a few questions for them.

“How many people are you expecting?” was the obvious first question I had to have answered.

“Well,” Lorraine replied. “We invited 400.”

I closed my eyes and ordered myself not to react. “I see,” I responded. “Now, Amanda,” I continued, as I looked directly at the young bride-to-be. “You know that I love you, and everyone who knows you loves you as well. But getting 400 people to come to your wedding is probably a stretch. Most weddings I’ve been to at our congregation (local church) have had no more than 200 people, mine included. I’m honestly guessing you’ll have about 150 people who are actually able to make it.”

Amanda nodded with acceptance at this sage advice from a man of a whole twenty-nine years. Lorraine, however, objected to my judgement of the attendance situation. “Well, I don’t want anyone going hungry. We do have people coming from Maryland, too, you know.”

We spoke back and forth for a couple of minutes, discussing logistics of travel and whatnot, before compromising on a number of 300 people to feed.  Now time for my next question.

“What is your budget for food and drink?” I inquired.

Lorraine fielded this one as well. “Well, you don’t have to worry about the cake,” she said. “We have that covered already. We can also handle the punch bowl. And we aren’t serving any booze.”

That last part didn’t surprise me. The religion we were members of had strict views on the use of alcohol. While not completely prohibited, we were instructed often about the evils of intoxication, and it was HIGHLY recommended that we seriously consider whether or not to serve alcoholic beverages at gatherings (we didn’t have “parties”), especially wedding receptions. The leadership made it crystal clear that culpability for a guest overindulging would fall on the groom, as HE was head of his new family and also responsible for whatever happened at his event.

“Okay. So no cake, and no beverages. I’ll just be handling the food.” I agreed. “So how much do I have to work with?”

“We have $500,” came the guileless reply.

Somehow I managed to not spit out the iced tea I was drinking. I forced myself to remain still and not break eye contact. I breathed in slowly and simply said, “Okay.”

Oh!  Fuck ME!

How the hell was I supposed to prepare wedding reception food for $1.66/person? I asked my wife this not-quite-the-same question when I returned home that evening. She just looked at me with her eyes widened, shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, my god! What have I gotten myself into?” I moaned.

“You’ll figure something out,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”

I went to sleep that night thinking about it. I spent the next day at work thinking about it. I spent the following evening thinking about it. My dreams were of peanut butter sandwiches and boiled eggs. This wasn’t going to be a plated dinner. There wasn’t enough in the budget to make anything close to the baked chicken, roasted potatoes, green beans, and dinner rolls that were served at our reception.

Look What I Found!

I commiserated to a co-worker about what I had undertaken. She suggested that I go to the Gordon Food Service (GFS) store in town. They had wholesale food and prices. The city didn’t have a Costco or Sam’s Club, so this was the place to buy in bulk. So on the weekend, I headed over to Scatterfield Road on the west side of town to this white cinderblock-and-glass building with the big red awnings.

Inside, I was at first overwhelmed by the sizes of the food packages. One gallon plastic tubs of salad dressing sat beside five-gallon buckets of cooking oil and pickles. Looking back, I needn’t have been surprised, but I had just never seen food in containers of this size before. As I walked around the first corner, my eyes spotted a tin can of Starkist tuna that held 66 oz. of fish. This was over thirteen times the size I was used to buying at the Safeway store. Suddenly, the vision of the peanut butter sandwich dream popped into my head. An idea began to take shape.

I have always loved tuna fish salad sandwiches. My dad used to make them a lot for us when we were kids. Canned tuna was relatively inexpensive, and combined with chopped onions, celery, mayonnaise (my father hated Miracle Whip) and a bit of pickle relish, spread between two pieces of bread, he could feed three hungry boys for less than the cost of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Tuna sandwiches are usually by no means fancy. But if the crusts were removed, and the bread cut just so, tuna FINGER sandwiches could be considered almost elegant. I began to do some quick math in my head. (Three hundred people multiplied by 1.5 ounces of tuna per sandwich…) I might be able to make this work! But I knew that a wedding guests does not live on fish-stuffed bread alone. It would take more than pulling a Jesus Christ trick to keep Lorraine (and me, admittedly) from being mortified at the dinner.

By carefully looking at each product GFS offered -rejecting some outright, contemplating others-, and keeping the cost tally in my head and on a scrap of paper (why didn’t I bring a calculator?) I found a way to possibly do the impossible. I didn’t make any purchases that day, but went home to mull it over and come up with a concrete menu plan.

A Strategy Takes Shape

In the end, I chose to buy ten bags of frozen meatballs, ten cans of sauce (five each sweet-and-sour and BBQ), five large cans of tuna fish, a half-gallon of pickle relish, a gallon of mayonnaise, ten dozen eggs, and two gallon-sized tubs of ranch dressing. I had decided that buying fresh vegetables for the tuna salad and egg salad sandwiches (some people may not like tuna?) was probably best done at the regular supermarket. I had also elected to make a large cut-vegetable tray and serve it with ranch dressing. The bread would also not be purchased until the day before the wedding.

Also procured at the wholesale store were several disposable aluminum chafing dishes, along with the attendant stands and cans of Sterno jellied alcohol cooking fuel. A few large round serving trays, made either of aluminum or plastic on which to place the finished sandwiches and cut vegetables. I ended up buying these with my own money, as I intended to keep them after the wedding was over. Somehow I thought they would be very useful should I decide to host a Super Bowl party in the future.

Countdown: Thursday

Because I needed the food to be as fresh as possible when served, it made no sense to start any cooking or mixing until absolutely necessary. My refrigerator had been rearranged to store as much as possible, and I borrowed freezer space from my neighbor across the street. Most of the stores would be closed early for the Thanksgiving holiday, so it was pointless to try to buy anything anyway.  I also knew ahead of time that there was no way I could do all of the cooking and preparation myself, so I had asked a few volunteers from the church to help out. I had five women who were willing to assist. Our church forbade the celebration of Thanksgiving (or pretty much any other holiday), so Connie, Renee, Marilynn, and Sarah were all available . Most of them were older than me, wives and mothers, and had experience with cooking for their own families.

I said that there were five, even though I only mentioned four names so far. Thursday morning, I got a call from Helen, the same lady who had very graciously catered our wedding reception so many years before. She had heard what I was doing, and softly chided me for not asking her for help. She told me that her industrial kitchen she used for cooking and delivering meals to all of the schools with a Head-Start (preschool) program was available for me to use on Saturday morning, if I wanted.

Up until this point, I had worried about how I was going to heat ten aluminum pans of meatballs, cook and peel over sixty eggs, and mix huge bowls of tuna salad in a home kitchen. I had planned on divvying up the ingredients to the aforementioned ladies and asking them to each bake two meatball containers in their own kitchens. Logistics was going to be a nightmare, as they all lived scattered around the county.

With the generous offer of the commercial kitchen, my problems in this area were solved. I breathed a huge “thank you!” to the deity that I still believed in at the time. And I spoke an even bigger “THANK YOU!” to Helen over the phone. Afterwards, it was a matter of calling Connie, Renee, Marilynn and Sarah to ask them to meet me at Helen’s “office” Saturday morning.

No other work was done on Thursday. It was our own anniversary, so being relieved of the huge burden of where to cook, I spent the afternoon planning where to go to dinner with the missus. Then I remembered that it was Thanksgiving Day. Nothing was open. We ate at home and watched “The Lion King” on VHS with the kids.

Countdown: Friday

Up early Friday morning to check my shopping list and head to the grocery store. Fortunately, because it was Black Friday, anyone out spending money would be at the mall, sporting goods stores, or fashion outlets. Nobody wanted to think about food, having stuffed themselves to an uncomfortable state the day previous. I practically had the place to myself.

Because of the freshness issue, I still couldn’t really begin to do much with the food at this point. I would bring everything to Helen’s kitchen early the next morning, and then ask the ladies to cut, chop, pour, mix, etc. as we pulled together this culinary feat. I would have to satisfy myself with imagining the trays filled with carrot slices, celery sticks, broccoli and cauliflower florets, pickle spears, black and green olives, all adorned with a few radish roses that hopefully someone knew how to cut.

At the store, I bought several loaves of white bread, all of the previously listed vegetables, plus some onions for the tuna salad, and a bottle of yellow mustard. One improvement that I had personally made on my father’s tuna recipe was the addition of mustard to the mix. Because he hated the sweet tanginess of the bastard salad dressing cousin of mayonnaise, his tuna salad lacked a bit of zip. The mixture was already sweetened by the pickle relish. I added mustard to give it a tiny bit of zest.

Ever the worrywart, I made phone calls to the volunteers to make sure that they would still be on time the next morning. They politely hid their exasperation with me and assured me that they would arrive as scheduled.

Recalibrating Plans

With nothing to do, I just fretted and agonized over what would go wrong. What if, what if, what if ran through my head over and over. I was driving myself crazy. I decided that I needed to see the space where the reception was being held. I tried calling Lorraine, but no one was at home. Thinking that this might be a good sign, I headed over to the KofC hall. Sure enough, there was Lorraine and her sister putting up decorations.

The banquet hall was divided into two large rooms. One had a stage, and this was where the dining furniture was being set up. Large round tables surrounded by eight chairs each. I imagined them full of people, eating BBQ meatballs and finger sandwiches, perhaps a bit of vegetables and ranch dip on the side. Then, I imagined them sitting there with nothing, waiting, impatient. A chill ran through me.

I remembered other weddings I had attended. Sitting at the reception, hungry, bored, and irritable while the guests were waiting what seemed an eternity for the bridal party to take myriads of pictures back at the wedding ceremony venue. One thoughtful couple had broken tradition- the groom  not seeing the bride until her walk down the aisle- so that they could take most of the pictures before the wedding guests arrived. We didn’t have to wait to eat that afternoon. I knew that this was not to be the case tomorrow, however. Tomorrow’s guests were going to be hungry, bored, and irritable.

Making a quick decision, I added to my list of items to accomplish today. Another trip to GFS for some cheap plastic bowls and large bags of peanuts, pretzels, and potato chips which with to fill them. I might not be able to ward off the boredom, but at least I might temper the hunger and irritability a bit.

Before I left the hall, I spoke with Lorraine about my plan to set up the buffet in the second room. There were some long, rectangular tables that fit this purpose nicely, and even some white tablecloths to cover them. I noticed another room off to the side, and inquired as to its purpose. It turned out to be a food prep area, with a sink and a working refrigerator. I almost leapt with joy, because it was now possible to divide forces tomorrow morning.

My new plan included sending two of the volunteers to the banquet hall with the vegetables and other items that didn’t need to be cooked. They could set up the tables with the snacks, put together the chafing dish holders and prep the veggie trays. This was going to be much better. A wave of happiness washed over me as I imagined things going exactly to plan.

Ignition

Early Saturday morning I woke with a start. In my dream, I had been surrounded by what seemed like a galaxy of angry people dressed in tribal outfits and carrying rudimentary weapons. The were hungry, and looking right at me to take care of the issue. Behind me, there was a large cauldron of boiling water filled with cut vegetables, but no meat. The realization that if I did not quickly provide some, it would be provided in the form of ME.

Shaking off the dream, I quickly dressed, then began packing the trunk of my car  with the food. I first headed over to Helen’s kitchen to have her show me what I was able to use. Sarah and Marilynn were going to meet me there in an hour, while Connie and Renee would go to the banquet hall around two in the afternoon. The wedding was scheduled to begin at three, and it would most likely be 4:30 before the first guests would arrive at the KofC, ten miles away from the church. So with the amount of work they needed to do, there was no reason to send them too early.

Helen greeted me warmly at the entrance to her kitchen. She was a big woman with a bigger heart. To those who didn’t know her, she could seem a little gruff. Think Mabel “Madea” Simmons, from the Tyler Perry movies, just not as tall. She began to show me the large ovens where we would be heating the meatballs and sauce. A huge gas range was in the center of one wall. Next to it, beneath a stainless-steel prep table, were stacked some of the largest cooking pots I had ever encountered. Boiling five dozen eggs was going to be a lot less work than I had previously thought.

When the two volunteer ladies arrived, I had already got the ovens pre-heated and the water for the eggs was boiling. We cut open bags of meatballs and poured them into the aluminum trays. An industrial, table-mounted can opener made removing the lids from the sauce tins a breeze. Sticky sweet-and-sour sauce with visible chunks of bell pepper and pineapple soon covered half of the small orbs of processed beef, chicken, and pork. The other half were drenched in a thick, tangy, reddish-brown BBQ-flavored liquid. Aluminum lids were attached, and into the ovens they went.

Meanwhile, the eggs were just finishing their super-heated bath, and now needed to be drained and cooled so that we could begin the arduous process of peeling the shells. Helen had kindly stayed behind and had instructed me to pour some vinegar into the boiling water. This would help ease the shell removal operation when it became time.

As the eggs were being chilled, Sarah was tasked with mincing the onions and Marilyn tackled the celery. We kept making jokes about Sarah tears. I took the job of opening the five large cans of Star-Kist and draining off the liquid into the sink. The smell of onions and fish filled the air in the workspace. Mixed with the sulfur bouquet from the eggs, the whole place was redolent of a particularly bad fart.

It’s Always Something

Somewhere between mixing the tuna together with the mayonnaise, pickle relish, and chopped vegetables, and checking the temperature of the previously frozen meatballs, it struck me that Connie and Renee were not going to be able to unlock the door to the KofC without a key. I tried reaching Lorraine, but again, no answer at home. I knew that the mother of the bride was not going to be available to let the two ladies in at 2pm.  Besides, I needed to drop off the veggies and snacks so they could begin their work. How had I forgotten about this important aspect of the plan?

The big problem was that I didn’t have the key either. I was going to have to track Lorraine down to get it. I started to feel a knot growing in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t leave just yet, because I needed to finish making the egg salad and put the finishing touches on the tuna. For some reason, I felt that it had to be me to do this, not trusting the (probably more experienced) volunteers to take care of it.

Pressure did not have a good effect on me back then. My poise began to leave me, and I think I started to become a little more bossy than usual. When Helen looked strangely at me and asked me what in the world was I doing to the tuna as I squeezed almost an entire bottle of French’s mustard into the five-gallon bucket where I was making the salad, I was a bit snappy in my reply. “I know what I’m doing, Helen. This is MY recipe!” Not cowed in the least, but most likely recognizing that this was not my usual disposition, she backed off and sat back down and began to read. Marilyn and Sarah exchanged looks, but stayed silent.

I should have apologized right then and there, because I realized I had been wrong to speak that way. These women were taking time away from their own families or free time to help, because I had asked them to. Sure, they were doing it because they, too, knew and liked Amanda and Lorraine. But it was really to help me with this daunting task that I had undertaken. However, I let the stress of the situation control me.

Explaining that I was going to have to go to find the key and let Connie and Renee into the banquet hall, I asked if they would be able to finish on their own. Helen had allowed us to use some margarine tubs from her own stock to butter the bread before adding the salads. This would keep the moist tuna and egg salads from soaking through before the guests could eat them. We also ditched the crust removal. There was just not enough time, so fancy be damned. The ladies assured me that they could indeed handle the remainder of the work without me. Helen told me that she could transport all of the finished food to the venue in her van. I gratefully accepted her offer.

Bob Loses His Shit

Luckily, I was able to connect with Lorraine at the church, where she handed me the keys. She asked me how things were going, but was too distracted to listen to my reply. So I drove off to meet the other two enlistees.

Since I was now relieved of the burden of transport, I was able to help (hinder?) Connie and Renee with the veggie trays and set-up. I had also brought with me about half of the tuna salad and some bread to begin making some extra sandwiches. Which was a good thing, because I realized that I had not eaten anything all day myself. I made myself a tuna on white, poured some potato chips onto a plate, and washed all of it down with a Coke from the vending machine in the back.

With about 30 minutes before the first guests were expected to arrive, I put out the bowls of snacks on the tables. The chafing tray stands were already out, with the fuel cans ready to be lit. The bottom trays were partially filled with water that would be heated by the Sterno flames, and they would provide an even heat to the food trays once they were placed inside. Connie and Renee had done a beautiful job filling two large trays with cut vegetables, and we had placed covers over them to keep any errant flies from coming into contact with the food.

People began appearing sooner than I had expected. Not trickling in, either. It was like a wave. For some reason, I felt it was my responsibility to greet them and direct them to where they could hang their coats before pointing the way to the dining hall. The pretzels, potato chips, and peanuts did not last long. These people were hungry. While I was happy with my decision to have snacks at the tables beforehand, I started to think that I should have brought more.

At 5:00, the dining area was full, but no sign of Helen, Sarah, or Marilyn. More importantly, there was no sign of the food. The unease I was feeling increased with each passing minute. Where was she? Where were the meatballs and sandwiches? Would they arrive before the wedding party? Before Lorraine?

Not having any way to contact Helen to ask and therefore calm my agitation, I began to pace nervously in and out of the food prep area. At some point, I slammed my hand onto one of the kitchen tables and whisper-screamed, “Where IS she? She was supposed to be here by now! The wedding party is going to be here any min-”

Suddenly, my shoulders were grasped firmly by two foreign hands. I quickly looked up from my ground-gaze and saw myself facing with Connie. Not a big woman, but tall, she stood nearly eye-to-eye with me. “Bob!” she exclaimed. “Calm down! Take a breath. We are all here doing the best we can to help you. It’s going to be fine.”

I just looked at her. I was embarrassed. I had come unglued. Behind her, Renee met my eyes, then looked away. Taking a deep breath as instructed, I started to steady myself. “You’re right, Connie. I’m sorry for losing my cool. I really appreciate you all so much for helping me. It will be fine.”

Two minutes after my mini-meltdown, Helen came walking through the door, now dressed in more formal attire. “Your food is all out in the van. You are going to have to get it in here. I’m tired, and I’m going to go sit down.”

It had not occurred to me that Helen would want to clean up and change into nicer clothing to attend the wedding reception as a guest. I had been selfishly thinking only of what I needed to get done. “Yes, please, Helen. You’ve done more than enough, more than I could have ever asked. Thank you. And…I’m really sorry for earlier.”

She looked at me balefully for just a moment, then broke out into a beatific smile. “Honey, it’s okay. You know I love you.” She gave me a big hug. “Now, get out there and get that food!”

I quickly grabbed a couple of young men from the dining hall to assist me in bringing in the food. There were four chafing stations, so two BBQ and two sweet-and-sour meatball trays went onto the buffet table while the remaining six went into the food prep area, kept hot by being in insulated containers that Helen had produced from her kitchen. Renee and Connie quickly helped to tray up the sandwiches, which had been cut into triangles for the guests. Not quite as fancy as my original idea, but more elegant than whole squares.

Dinner is Served

Just as we put out the serving utensils for the buffet tables, Amanda and her new husband swept in with the rest of the party in tow. She looked lovely in her white gown. Lorraine walked through the door attired in a green dress. The mother of the bride walked over to me and inspected the cuisine. “Looks good,” she said. “I hope there’s enough.”

I assured her that we had plenty in reserve. The fact was, we suspended making sandwiches at one point, because we didn’t have enough room on the trays to stack any more. There was plenty of bread, margarine and tuna/egg salad left if we ran out.

Once a prayer was offered, the guest streamed in from the dining room. Each grabbed an eight-inch Chinette (fancy paper plate) from the stack and began filling it with the available comestibles. I stood behind the buffet table, trying not to look too proud. I bid Connie and Renee to go and sit with their families. I wasn’t going to be able to sit with mine. My wife and kids were fine- she had her mom, sister, and assorted nephews and nieces to help her.

It wasn’t long before the vegetable trays were picked clean, with only the cauliflower and broccoli remaining. I think that everyone got a little bit. I put out more meatballs as the first ones were emptied. The sandwiches seemed to be a hit as well, with guests coming back for seconds and complimenting me on the taste. However, they didn’t all disappear. There were still two layers left on the trays by the time people turned their attention to the cake.

But What About Your Doggy?

I never made it into the dining hall during the reception. Didn’t dance. Didn’t hear the groom give a thank you speech. In fact, I didn’t even eat. Instead, I found myself looking at all of the leftover food. I had put out more trays of meatballs, but they had barely been touched, and there were still more in the back. There were still plenty of sandwiches left, plus about a gallon-and-a-half each of non-breaded tuna and egg salad.

I began begging people to take food with them. But very few people were in the mood to do so. I didn’t have any to-go containers to facilitate them to bring leftovers home. I was able to send a couple of full trays of meatballs home with Lorraine and her son, and another two with some different locals. But I ended up having to toss away the sandwiches into the dumpster behind the building. It hurt me to do that. I wished that there was a homeless shelter that I could have donated to.

Personally, after it was over, I ended up taking home two containers of meatballs, the tuna and egg salads, and the remaining loaves of bread. Good news: don’t have to cook this week. Bad news: guess what’s for lunch and dinner every day for the rest of this week. But I do love me some tuna salad sandwiches, so it was okay, I guess.

Lessons Learned

This experience was both traumatic and triumphant for me. Without knowing exactly what I was getting into, I took on a titanic feat and prevailed in the end. This gave me the confidence to begin to invite other families over to our house for a home-cooked meal instead of ordering pizza delivery. This, in turn, forced me to improve my culinary skills. I began to really enjoy cooking, and also entertaining. Later, when we had larger spaces, I wouldn’t hesitate to invite as many as 25-30 people over for a gathering. But I’m pretty sure that doing another wedding reception is not in my future.

I also took away from this adventure a much better understanding of how to handle stress, and to trust other people to do what they’ve been asked to do. My employers over the years have generally fallen into two categories: micromanagers who drove me crazy by telling me every single step of my job and being critical when I didn’t do it their way; and those who told me what they wanted, gave me the tools I asked for, then got the hell out of my way and let me work. I want to be that kind of manager of people. And I want to never find myself getting so anxious over things beyond my control that I start to treat friends and helpers with unkindness.

And lastly, I have learned to trust my instincts and stick to my guns. After the bride and groom had gone off on their honeymoon, after I had cleaned up all of the trays and put everything in my car to take home, and when it was time to turn off the lights and lock the door, I ran into Lorraine, who was still there. “Quite the reception, from what I hear,” I told her.

“Yes, it turned out really nicely. But I’m glad this week is over,” she sighed.

“You and me both,” I quipped. “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, yes. Thank you so much for taking care of the food,” she responded. “Amanda and I really appreciate it. And all of the guests told me how good it was.”

“Thank you for saying that,” I said. “But I couldn’t have done it without help.” I went on to explain briefly how the five ladies had been indispensable in the effort. “By the way,” I continued. “How many people were there?”

“Oh, we did a count during the reception. We had one-hundred-and-fifty-three people. Big crowd.”

Epilogue

Sometime on a  winter evening in 2001, I was sitting by the living room window in our new home in Michigan, where we moved two years prior. It was snowing, and I was watching as it piled up softly on the bushes outside. The phone rang, and I answered it.

“Is this Bobby?” a young woman’s voice inquired.

“Yes, it is,” I replied. “Who is this?”

“This is Amanda. Used to be Amanda Essep. From Indiana?”

“Of course! How are you? Still in Baltimore?”

The conversation continued for a moment as we caught up on family and geographic particulars.

“Anyway,” she went on, “the reason I was calling is because some of my husbands relatives keep asking me about your tuna salad. They loved it at the reception and want to know your recipe.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hydrophobia

January 14, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

They looked innocuous enough. Simple handles that swung one way or another to allow the water to enter the machine. All I had to do was reach over and turn them 90 degrees counterclockwise. But terror gripped me. How was I going to get this done?

Easy Money?

At the time, I was  19 years old, broke, and living in the basement of the home of a family friend. I could have had a full-time job and been better off financially, but the religion which raised me encouraged us to live simple, work only part-time, and spend the majority of our time in spiritual pursuits. So, I worked roughly 100 hours a month as a construction laborer, and spent a bit more time than that engaged in knocking on doors preaching their brand of gospel, or preparing and attending services three times a week.

In northern Michigan, the winters can be brutal and the conditions make outdoor construction work difficult at best. Many contractors tend to slow down during those months, so I didn’t always have the same amount of work available. Even though my expenses were pretty low, I still needed to earn money to pay for my rent, gas, insurance, etc. So when a friend of a friend offered me a chance to make some extra money, I was not going to say no.

The friend of friend’s name was Arty. He had a cleaning business of sorts, and during the winters, some of his contracts included doing housekeeping for rental homes and cabins that were adjacent to the ski resorts. Tourists from the more southern regions of the upper Midwest (e.g., Detroit or Chicago) would come up for the weekends to hit the slopes of Nub’s Nob, Boyne Highlands, or Boyne Mountain. They tended to stay in rental homes (think AirBnB before AirBnB existed) that were close to the ski lodges. And someone needed to clean up in between guests.

The house that Arty took me to see was about 45 minutes away from where I was living. It was in the woods, had beautiful views of snow-covered forest, and an open floor plan which begged to be used for small parties. I remember it having only one bedroom, a tiny galley kitchen, and a single bathroom with tub, toilet and sink. There was also a small laundry/storage area with a washing machine and dryer.

My instructions were to start by stripping the bed, putting the used sheets and towels in the washing machine, then cleaning the countertops, emptying the dishwasher, and vacuuming the 1970’s-era wall-to-wall shag carpeting while the laundry was going. I would then have time to place the clean sheets and towels in the dryer while I finished windows and other needed chores. It should have taken about 90 minutes to complete everything. I don’t remember how much money I was paid for this weekly routine. I know that it was probably not much, but I was desperate, so I took the job.

When Arty was explaining quickly about how to use the washing machine, I neglected to tell him that I had ZERO experience using one. My mother had always done our laundry when I was growing up. And the friend of the family who I was staying with did not trust me to use hers, so she would just wash my clothes for me. I guess that was a perk, but it didn’t really help me in life. So, because Arty mistakenly thought that I knew what I was doing, he simply told me that I had to turn on the water valves before running the machine, then turn them off again when I was finished. And therein lay the problem.

The Closet Monster

When I was about five years old, I suffered a very traumatic (to me) experience. My aunt and uncle lived in a basement apartment, and once when we visited them, I went to use the toilet. Because the bathroom was situated in the basement, thus lower than the plumbing that ran to the septic tank, there was an ejector pump installed in the closet next to the sink that would turn on and force the wastewater up into the main drainage pipe. So when I flushed the toilet, the pump started up with a loud, unexpected THUD! and a WHOOSHing sound. It scared the living shit out of me. Had I not just finished emptying my bowels already, I think I would have crapped my pants.  I ran out into the living room, terrified. The adults thought it was pretty funny, and didn’t really take the time to explain to me what the noise was, show me how it worked, and tell me that there was nothing to fear.

I was a sensitive child, and I let my fears rule me. From that day forward, I refused to use the toilet in a strange place without someone going with me. When we went to a restaurant as a family, I would always make one of my younger brothers accompany me to the restroom. This continued probably until I was 11 or 12 years old, and then it just became too embarrassing. But the fear did not leave me. Even though I never once had that same experience again, I was still very uneasy about moving water. Pipes scared me. I didn’t like taking stairwells in tall buildings alone because I had to walk past the red-painted, 6″ fire mains that ran vertically and had big, scary valves attached. I didn’t like turning on and off the pump to the swimming pool that we had installed in our back yard. The infrequent times that mom’s washing machine became unbalanced and shuddered this way and that would freak me out.

Added Anxieties

I once read a story about a disaster in Louisiana that happened when I was 12 years old. Lake Peigneur, once a sportsman’s fishing paradise, was completely drained in a matter of hours because of a drilling accident. The water was sucked down into an existing mine underneath the lake, and the swirling vortex swallowed barges and boats down into the earth. The thought of that stayed with me, and I also became nervous about large bodies of water, even the swimming pool, especially at night if I was alone.

This dread stayed with me well into my adulthood. When I was in my 30’s I started a new job working at a paper mill. My first assignment was working in the basement of the building that housed the big papermaking machine. Down there was hot, noisy, and smelly. There were also scores of pumps and hundreds of pipes and valves- small ones, larger ones, and huge ones. My first thought was “No fucking way!” But I desperately needed the good money that the job offered, and I forced myself to remain calm and try to do the job. The longer I stayed and concentrated on my work, the fear eventually began to fade.

I cannot place all of the blame on my relatives for not handling the situation better back when I was five. As an adult, I probably would not have reacted much differently, I guess. No one realized how traumatic it was for me at the time. But I do believe that what we experience as children, without having the knowledge and perhaps the adult intervention to deal with events that affect us, has long-lasting effects, and can even be crippling. I wish that my parents had recognized that something was not right about their growing son having such an irrational fear of water and plumbing, and had tried to address the issue.

Unexpected Triggers

Last year, I went for a ride a bit north of my village to a reservoir/dam near Doi Saket in Thailand. It was dry season, so the reservoir was not brimming at the moment. I rode past the giant, sloping, concrete spillway without giving much thought to the potential power of all that water pent up behind it. I turned to the right down a road that I hoped would get me to the top banks of the reservoir. There was a canal to my left as I rode, and I noticed that the farther I went, the more turbulent the water in the sluice became. As I rounded a corner, I saw water gushing out at high pressure from the small gateway at the base of the hill. All of a sudden, the old fear came roaring back. My hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt a dreadful tingling in my spine and in my guts. I quickly turned my motorcycle around and rode back in the other direction, trying to calm my nerves. The fear is still there, just buried and mostly under control in my daily life.

Staring into the Abyss

So there I stood, at nineteen years of age, pondering the simple valves that controlled the flow of hot and cold water from the spigots to the washing machine hoses. I was afraid to touch them. I didn’t know what I should do. I needed the money. But not badly enough to face my fears.

So, for the next eight weeks of ski season, I went to the rental house. I vacuumed the carpet. I put away the dishes. I cleaned the mirrors, toilet, sink, and tub. I threw out the trash. And I simply brushed the hairs off of the pillows, sheets, and blankets onto the floor. I shook the towels and re-folded them before putting them away. For eight solid weeks, probably eight different sets of people slept on soiled sheets and used dirty towels. I hope Arty never found out.

Laos- Part 2 (Hell Ride)

January 8, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

(This is the second post in my series about my Laos trip which happened back in May of 2017)

All Aboard!

After my nice experience with Pan and the generous offer of a ride back to the bus station, I was feeling pretty good about my trip so far. But then, it kind of turned sour. I had booked a sleeping bus, as it was to take ten hours from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. I don’t recall the amount that I spent for the sleeping berth, but it wasn’t a big expense.

On the bus, I discovered the reason for the modest price. After checking my large backpack, I boarded the bus holding a small bag of personal items. We entered the bus in the middle, and then squeezed our way either to the front or the back of the bus, depending on our berth number. Mine was to the front, and on the left. There was possibly 18″ of space between the bunks on either side of the vehicle, so it was a tight walk with my bag held in front of me.

When I arrived at my numbered bed, this one up top, I discovered that it was already occupied by another man. I quickly checked my ticket against the berth number, and to my horror, I saw that there were TWO numbers assigned to the mattress. Since the other people were waiting behind me to get to their own beds, I shrugged it off and climbed up the small ladder, trying not to bump my head on the ceiling above. I greeted my new “friend” with a smile and said “sabaiddee” (standard Lao greeting). He politely returned the smile and the greeting, then promptly turned his head and body to the window.

I Wish I Was a Little Bit Smaller (I Wish I Was a Baller..)

The view of the inside of the bus behind me. Yes, those are two-person bunks.

I then laid myself down on my side of the narrow mattress with my bag between my ankles. Now, I’m not exactly short, but neither am I considered tall by western standards. I stand five feet, ten inches, or 178 centimeters. But I found my feet were flat up against the divider between our bed and the one in front, while the top of my head was firmly pressed against the wall behind me. Lying flat on my back was my only realistic option, however, because attempting to lie on my side with my knees bent would have forced me to spoon with the dude on my left. Turning the other way would push my face into the metal safety rail and my ass into the aforementioned stranger. This was going to be a long, long, ride.

The first part of the drive seemed okay, if not completely comfortable. I did my best to try to sleep, as there were no reading lights, and I didn’t have data to play with my phone. Within an arm’s reach across the aisle, were two French women travelers who were talking to each other. I could make out some of the words, so it was a bit of a distraction from my rigid (non)sleeping position. But after the first hour, we found ourselves being thrown from side to side as the bus began its ascent into the mountains on the twisty roads. More than once, I found myself gripping the metal rail to keep from rolling over it and falling to the floor. I was also bracing trying not to slide to the left into my sleeping partner.

I tried to imagine worse conditions, and the only thing I could come up with was the pictures of the layout of the slave ships bringing unwilling human cargo from Africa to North America 400 years ago. I comforted myself with the following facts: 1) I chose to be here, 2) it was only going to be ten hours, 3) there were no rats, and 4) death by impact of the bus blowing through a guardrail and plunging to the chasms below seemed preferable to death by drowning or sharks if the boat suddenly found itself with a hole in the side.

Break, Brakes, and Breakdowns

About 5 hours into the ride, we stopped in some small, roadside village for a toilet break and some food. Even at 1:00am, the wood and tin shacks were open and lit up to cater to the weary travelers. But what was available was a large selection of dried fish, squid, and other formerly happy sea creatures, now spread out on tables under the light. The smell was overpowering. Fortunately, this was not the only option. The ticket price included a meal at sit-down picnic tables. Here, the choice was green curry over noodles: chicken or pork. It was actually pretty tasty, but I felt bad for one of the French ladies, as she was vegetarian. I think she bought a bag of potato chips for her meal.

Friendly doggo!

We stayed at the rest stop for perhaps 30 minutes, in which time I was able to use the toilet, fill my belly, and stretch my legs. There was a cute little dog wandering around the tables begging for scraps. The two girls and I played with him a bit until it was time to get back on the rolling sardine can.

I’d like to say that the rest of the journey was uneventful, but fate had other ideas. Less than an hour outside of the rest stop, the bus suddenly pulled to the side of the road and halted. The driver and other attendants climbed out to examine some problem in the dark. Other passengers, men and women both, exited to take the opportunity to stretch their legs or relieve themselves along the roadside. Southeast Asian culture seems a bit different than Western culture when it comes to bodily functions in public. Being a bit more conservative, I walked in the inky darkness up the road a piece and around the curve before taking care of my own business.

This was the status of the left rear wheel when we arrived at Luang Prabang

This turned out to be only the first of perhaps five stops along the mountain road in the dark because of mechanical difficulties. There was a strange grinding noise coming from the rear whenever we slowed down for yet another curve, and the staff continued to investigate the cause, each time deciding to continue. (I don’t believe there was much of an alternative.) The ten-hour trip turned into thirteen before we finally limped into the bus station at Luang Prabang. I hadn’t slept at all the entire trip, though my bunkmate seemed fresh as a daisy when we disembarked from the bus. So, I learned a couple of lessons: 1) think carefully before deciding to book another sleeping bus, and 2) if I do, make sure to buy the whole damn berth.

The adventure will continue in another post.

The Return

January 6, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

 

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. They just get broken in the first week, and then I end up feeling like a failure and am not motivated to start over. But I do recognize the power that a specific date can have when making goals. And I have made a list of things that I want to accomplish this year. I haven’t set any concrete deadlines, simply that I will have achieved certain things in the coming year. One item on my list is to have written 100 new posts in my blog. Being that I published exactly four last year, and those all in three days in March, this may seem like a tall order. But it’s fewer than one every three days. I don’t have a set length for the posts, just have to write something. There really has been no issue with the number of words I can punch out on the keyboard. But the quality of my stories has to meet certain standards of my own making, so I spend lots of time editing or thinking of better ways to express myself.

So, very quickly, before the coffee shop closes down for the evening, a fast bit about the events of the last ten months:

In April, I began a second job teaching at a language school. When I returned to my first job in May, this made for a seven-day a week schedule which lasted way too long. I finally quit the government school right before Christmas. The money was nice, but I was killing myself and not doing what I came here for in the first place, namely exploring and learning about the culture.

I continued my relationship with a Chinese woman from Hong Kong who I refer to as “Mystery Woman” in my Facebook posts. I’ll write about her at length later on.

I was able to take one mini-vacation in southern Thailand in July, and a proper two-week holiday in Vietnam in October.

One of my best friends visited me in March, then moved out here in July. She’s doing great.

I wasted a ton of time on Facebook and Netflix.

The drowning pool has been empty and down for repairs since the end of September.

The ladies at the coffee shop are now politely eyeing me and encouraging me to make my exit. Catch you next post!

Laos- Part One (Vientiane)

March 21, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

(I’m taking time now to post stories about my experiences from my first year in Thailand. They won’t necessarily be in chronological order, but rather what I’m motivated to write about on any given day. This is my first post concerning my 11-day trip to Laos last year.)

Moving Day

On the first day of May last year, I used Uber to move my meager belongings from the place where I was house-sitting to my new apartment outside of Chiang Mai. I had accepted a position to teach at the local primary school in the town, and found a decent-sized studio apartment in a building not far from where I would be working. Not only was it conveniently located, but because of the way my unit was situated in the three-story concrete building, I did not have to deal with direct sunlight heating up my home.

My new studio apartment. I guess I did make up the bed for the picture.

The furnished apartment came with air conditioning, a refrigerator, and a more western style bathroom, with a separated shower (as in not having to stand next to the toilet and get water all over the floor). The property also included a nice swimming pool, beautiful landscaping, and laundry facilities.

Instead of unpacking my belongings and setting up my new place to my liking, I simply threw everything on the bed and the couch, grabbed my backpack and filled it with some clothes, documents, and a book. After taking a quick shower, I mounted my rented motorcycle and headed back into the city.  I had booked an early morning flight to Udon Thani, near the border of Laos, and I planned to stay overnight with a friend who lived much nearer the airport than I now did.

Heading Out

It was raining gently the next morning as we walked out on the tarmac to the waiting propeller-driven airplane. Nok Airlines nicely provided the passengers bright, yellow umbrellas to help keep us dry as we waited to walk up the staircase into the fuselage. The flight itself lasted a little less than an hour, and bright, sunny skies were over Udon Thani. I walked into the terminal, looking for the ground transportation that would shuttle me to the border, about an hour north of UT. I found the kiosk for the minivan shuttle, only to discover that I didn’t have enough cash (or at least Thai money) on me, and the currency exchanges weren’t open yet.

On the tarmac at Udon Thani. Nok airplanes are so cute!

A quick moment of panic later, I found an ATM and used my U.S. debit card to take out a couple thousand Thai baht, transaction fees be damned. Then I walked back and purchased the only remaining seat in the minivan.

Fun with Bureaucracy

At the Laos border, I stood in line to exit Thai Immigration, stood in line to submit my application to Laos immigration, where they gladly accepted U.S. dollars for the fee, then stood in line to retrieve my passport with the Laos entry stamp. While in one of those lines, I happened to meet up with two other American guys. One of them had done this several times. “This” being a visa run. My entire reason for coming to Laos was because my Thai tourist visa was expiring, and I had to leave the country to apply for another at the consulate in Vientiane. Since this guy had experience, the other man and I politely asked if we could tag along with him, splitting a fare to the consulate. He agreed, and we were able to bargain with a van driver to take the three of us there for only 100 baht each.

During the ensuing ride, I discovered that neither of these men were the type with whom I would choose to hang out. Both were slightly racist and completely misogynist in their conversation. I decided not to engage them, rather just stared out the window as we drove into the city.

Upon reaching the consulate, we each grabbed visa application forms and started filling them out while shuffling back and forth through the seating that doubled as dividers for the snaking line of people. On the form, I discovered that the consulate required two passport photos with white backgrounds. I had brought my passport photos from the Chiang Mai immigration office with me, because I was prepared.

Could have been worse. 666?

However, Chiang Mai immigration office requires BLUE backgrounds, so all of my preparation was pointless. I got to the front of the line, ready to plead my case, but was told that I had to get new photos. Fortunately for me, there was a kiosk to take my picture inside the building adjacent the covered, outdoor visa application area. Of course, I had to pay for the new photos, but it wasn’t really much money. Way less than the more expensive scammers set up outside of the gate. I returned to the line and put my application in just a few minutes before the deadline. I was handed a receipt with the number 600 prominently displayed. This was my queue number for the next afternoon when I would return to pick up my passport with my new visa.

No Particular Place to Go

With no plans, no reservations, no clue for the next 30 hours until I picked up my papers, I began walking away from the consulate, looking for two things: lodging and food. I decided to not purchase a SIM card for my phone while in Laos, instead depending on finding free WiFi to aid in my communication. It was hot, of course, and I really didn’t know anything about Vientiane. I checked out a couple of hotels near the consulate, but they were relatively expensive for the quality of the accommodation. Meaning that although they were pretty cheap, they were also pretty unclean and gross.

Instead, I entered a coffee shop with air-conditioning, free WiFi, and an outlet to charge my phone as I looked online and found several hostels were available near the river. I booked one that had decent reviews, finished drinking my iced coffee and charging my phone, and headed out, using my maps program offline. It was a 45-minute walk in the heat, but I was able to get a glimpse of city life in Laos while I was trudging along with my backpack.

After checking into my hostel, I tossed my bag on my lower-berth bed in the sixteen-bunk dormitory. Took a nice, cool shower, washing the sweat out of my t-shirt and underwear while doing so. (Backpackers must learn how to survive cheaply!) After hanging them outside on the deck to dry, I put on some fresh clothes and walked to find myself something to eat and explore. I found a nice night market set up alongside the river, and discovered to my delight that I was in clear line of sight to the cellular towers on the Thailand side, and thus was able to use the data plan on my phone.

New Connections

After grabbing some noodles, I found a local bar that was on the third floor of a building facing the river. The large room was open on one side to the outdoors, with large fans moving air around. I was able to eventually grab a seat at a small cocktail table next to the balcony. The market below, with its colorful umbrellas and stalls for food an merchandise made for nice scenery, along with the inky black Mekong river reflecting the lights from Thailand. Perfect for enjoying a cold Beer Lao Dark, which I discovered was pretty damned good.

View of the Mekong River from the bar.

I noticed quite a few other foreigners were in the bar. Probably most of them were in Vientiane for the same reason as I was. I also saw a lot of locals enjoying themselves. One of them in particular caught my eye. She was a pretty woman sitting alone at the bar nursing a bottle of beer, and after several minutes of debating with myself, I asked the waitress to “serve that girl at the bar another of what she’s been sipping on for the last half-hour.” Instead of asking for another beer, she ordered some type of cocktail instead. And then raised her glass in my direction. I tipped my bottle back at her, and wondered if I had just committed an error. But in a few minutes, she walked over and joined me at my table. We talked for a few more drinks, with me coaching her English a bit. She told me that she was trying to teach herself the language while working full-time in a clothing shop and raising two kids. I was impressed that she spoke as well as she did without formal lessons.

When it was time for the bar to close, she asked me where I was staying. I told her it was close, and that I had walked to the bar pretty easily. But she offered me a ride on the back of her motorcycle, so I accepted. I don’t think she understood what I meant when I said I was staying in a hostel, and she looked a little surprised when I had her stop in front of the guesthouse. As I was leaving the next day for Luang Prabang in the north of Laos, there wasn’t going to be time to see her again, but I had her contact information and told her that I would message her when I returned the next week.

I went inside and sat down in the lobby so I could charge my phone again and use the Wifi there, because the signal was better. While I was there, another woman walked in from her night out, and we ended up having a really nice conversation about teaching in southeast Asia. Lydia was from Uganda, and spoke perfect English. She was on holiday from her job teaching in central Vietnam. After about an hour, we both walked up to the dormitory and went to sleep in our respective beds.

Lowering My Expectations

The next morning, I slept in a bit, as the consulate wasn’t going to begin handing out our passports until after 1pm. I noticed with a bit of horror that the cleaning lady was simply changing the pillowcase and refolding the blanket on the next bed over, which had been vacated earlier. Instead of replacing the sheet, she simply brushed it off and went to the next bunk. I decided to not give the place a good review on Hostelworld.com. (Keep this in mind for when you read my later post: “Hydrophobia”. )After collecting my laundry from outside, I showered and packed my bag. I decided to walk back to the consulate, taking a different route from the day before.

Upon encountering a fairly large shopping “mall”, I went inside to enjoy the cool air-conditioning. One of the ladies at a kiosk offered to sell me a belt, which I actually needed. I haggled with her over the price a bit, turning to walk away until she agreed to the reasonable price (about $15 US) that I was holding out for. She punched a couple of new holes in it, so it would still work for me after I lost weight from sweating my ass off in the heat. I then sat down and enjoyed a lovely coffee before heading back out into the sweltering noontime sun.

It turned out that I didn’t need to show up at 1:30 to collect my passport. Being that I was number 600, I ended up waiting for two hours before I was called to go to the window. I found a seat inside the building where the photo booth was, because there was air-conditioning inside. I was able to pass the time by engaging in conversations with other westerners who also had a high queue number. One of these was an Israeli man who lived in the Chonburi province, south of Bangkok. He offered to split his private cab with me back to his hotel, which was in the direction of the bus station I needed to get to, and he told the driver to give me a good price to take me there. I don’t know if it was a good price or not, but it was helpful that I didn’t have to haggle and try to give directions.

Friends in New Places

After purchasing my ticket for the overnight bus, I found that I still had about four hours to kill. The bus station was way outside of town, and there wasn’t anything of interest in sight. The food stalls didn’t really look appetizing, and they didn’t serve beer, so I decided to walk up the road a bit, thinking perhaps I’d find something. After walking about 3 kilometers (I’m stubborn), I came upon a dusty intersection with a few commercial buildings. I spied a bar/cafe across the street. Inside, I was able to get WiFi connection, plug in my phone, and enjoy a cold beer along with some hot food. A small group of locals came in and sat down at a nearby table.

When it was time for me to head back to the bus station, I decided that I better hit the toilet before leaving. While washing my hands at the sink, one of the local guys from the other table came in. He began to ask me the normal questions to which I’ve become accustomed: “Where are you from?” “Where do you go?” “How long you stay?” I answered politely, and mentioned that I needed to get going because it was a long walk back to the bus.

Just then, a very loud noise interrupted our conversation. It was the sound of heavy raindrops reverberating on the metal roof. Not just a few, but a downpour. Shit. I had not planned for this to happen. Now I was looking at a miserable walk in the rain, which was going to soak not only me, but my belongings as well. I walked around the corner of the outdoor restroom to see a monsoon, with sheets of water being pushed by the wind. The voice in my head was whining and cursing. And then the voice behind me said, “You come sit and drink beer with me and my family. This rain stop soon, then I take you to bus.”

Enjoying hospitality with Pan and his family

For all of the stories you may hear of scam artists and rip-offs in southeast Asian countries, I guarantee you that there are a dozen more of the kindness that these people show to strangers. Pan, his wife, and his brother-and-sister-in-law moved their chairs around to accommodate me and made me feel welcome. Three of them didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop them from offering me food and sharing their beer with me. Pan acted as interpreter while I answered questions about America and myself, and asked my own questions about Laos. It was a humbling experience. Pan asked me if I was on Facebook, and if he could add me as a friend. Yes, and yes. I may never cross paths with Pan again in person, but I’m able to share his joy over a newborn baby and other moments in life. I’ll always be grateful to him for that simple act of humanity by inviting me to wait out the rain with him and then taking me to the bus station on the back of his motorcycle.

The bus adventure and Luang Prabang will wait for another post.

All Creatures Weird and Creepy

March 20, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

One of the fascinating parts about living here is discovering the different variety of fauna that surrounds me, as opposed to what I was used to seeing back in the States.  I was introduced almost immediately to some of the indigenous wildlife after arriving last year on New Year’s Day in Bangkok. My friend arranged to take me to a temple complex outside the city where we dined with the crowd and then walked around. There was a large pond formed by a stream that had been dammed up, and I was gazing down into it, watching the large carp who were feeding on pellets being tossed at them. Just to my left I spotted a good-sized snapping turtle floating lazily with his beak just breaking the water’s surface. None of this was really new to me. I’d seen snapping turtles while growing up in Florida. I’d seen big fish in ponds, though never this amount at once. It looked as if you could walk across the water by stepping on the backs of the carp, they were so thick.

Monitor lizard. Not the one I saw.

What I didn’t expect to see was a seven-foot monitor lizard to clamber out of the water and up the bank to the walkway.

This was cool. They walk quite the same as the alligators that I had seen as a boy. It seems a little cumbersome for them, and I do believe that they are much more graceful in the water. The monitor lizard pushed himself up off the ground, keeping his legs bent at an odd angle to do so. For some reason I was reminded of the plastic legs that we used to attach to the segmented bodies of Cootie toys.

Cootie

I watched as he lumbered towards one of the temple buildings, only to freeze in place, then slowly retreat back to the water as a group of three worshippers appeared around the corner of the structure. Evidently most monitors are a bit shy.

Later, when I had settled into my digs at my training course up in Chiang Mai, I began to see (and hear) other unfamiliar creatures.  Birds that I didn’t recognize. Birds that I DID recognize, but were different than the ones I’d seen before. Like chickens. Usually, when we see chickens in the States, they tend to be more squat and plump, probably based on the breeding and the diet. Here, the chickens stand a bit taller, and are scrawny. You can tell the difference when you order some fried (or roasted) chicken at the food stalls. The pieces (drumstick, wing, etc.) are pretty small in comparison to the ones you’ll find at Popeye’s or Church’s. But the taste of the chicken here is so much better.

But before I digress into a story about food…let’s get back to lizards. This place is overrun with small gecko-like lizards.

Your basic, friendly house gecko

Some nights, the outside walls seem to be moving because of the amount of these little buggers running around. And they’re fast. Their movement is almost worm or snake-like.They wriggle when they run. I sometimes find them in my room, which is cool with me, because they are voracious eaters of bugs. I just wish they’d do a better job of getting rid of the pesky ants.

Some species of these creepy-crawlies grow larger. There’s a type of lizard called a “To-Kay” by the Thai people, based on the sound that they make.

Maybe not as friendly?

It’s a very distinctive call. Starts out with a loud “tik! tik! tik! tik!”, then a pregnant pause, followed by a much louder “Toh-Kay! Toh-Kay! “Toh-Kay!” The interpretation of the sound is subjective, of course. The first time I heard it, at about 3am, I thought for sure that it was some kind of bird yelling “Fuck-You! Fuck-You! Fuck-You!” I couldn’t figure out why a bird would be awake to curse loudly at 3am, but every night, that damn thing would be waking me up. It was a few weeks before I asked someone about the bird, and was informed that it was, in fact, NOT a bird, but a lizard. The 3am began to make a bit more sense.

I swear he was bigger in real life.

To-Kays can reach lengths of 8″ or more, and from what I’m told, are quite valuable if you find one big enough. I’ve also been told that they will bite if provoked. I had one invite himself into the vent window in my shower last year. Startled me a bit.

I’ve also been startled (at first) by large, muddy water buffalo standing across the street from me as I got ready to leave for work. Now they seem commonplace.

Howdy, neighbor!

A local farmer will lead them into the neighborhood to graze on empty lots. Sometimes he’ll tie them up alongside the street, and I’ve almost run into them on my motorcycle at night, because those suckers are nearly impossible to see in the dark. Almost always visible, though, are the large piles of bovine shit they leave behind in the middle of the road.

During rainy season, I’ll regularly see large bullfrogs peeking out of the watery rice fields, and smaller frogs leaping great heights and distances trying to make it across the road. It’s always a pity when they jump right in front of a passing vehicle.  Last year, I actually saw a fish “swimming” on the street surface trying desperately to make it to the ditch where there was water.

My students know the words “rabbit” and “squirrel”, but I have yet to see a (wild) rabbit or a proper squirrel here. (But then, my kids also know the word “snowman”.) Mainly the rodents I see here are rats. Rats are everywhere. In the cities, I’ve witnessed black, plastic garbage bags moving as if possessed by demons. But it’s always a rat or three scurrying around inside. Cockroaches are ubiquitous as well. If you’re a squeamish person, it’s probably best not to walk around at night.

NOPE!!!

Some of the spiders here are frightening as hell. One species, the huntsman spider, can grow to the size of your hand. I’ve been told that they are harmless to humans, but I believe that is bullshit. I’ve had to kill a few of them in my room, and even though they were much smaller than the advertised “large” size, they still nearly gave me a heart attack.

During my school break back in October, I visited southern Thailand for a couple of weeks. One of the places I visited was Hua Hin, about two hours south of Bangkok, on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. While there, I decided to hike up to a popular viewpoint overlooking the city and the water. As soon as I got out of the main commercial/residential area of the town, I was startled to see troops (also called missions, tribes, or cartloads?)  of monkeys sitting along a long concrete wall.

Monkeys in Hua Hin

This was my first experience ever seeing monkeys in the wild. Most of them were about the size of a small dog or a large house cat, though a few of the males were noticeably bigger. Not knowing their nature, I was a bit wary, having heard stories of monkeys throwing their shit at people. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. They are, however, perverts. I witnessed some behavior that would be better suited to a hard-core porn website. Later, after I had finished taking pictures from the various viewpoints, I saw a large male sitting on the steps that I needed to take to get back to the entrance. I didn’t know what he wanted, and I had no desire to tangle with him. So I simply waited, and made sure that my phone was securely in my hand, since monkeys are notorious thieves.

After the mugging

And sure enough, larceny was on his mind. After about thirty seconds of me watching him, he turned his back to me and loped up towards a small group of Chinese tourists who were on their way to the photo op spots. One of the ladies was clutching an iced-coffee she had just purchased at the stand near the entrance. Two seconds later, she was clutching only the plastic holder, as the klepto-monkey had jumped up and snatched away the cup of icy espresso. Guess everyone needs their caffeine fix.

I haven’t had any experience yet with the larger wildlife, namely elephants. My friend from Chicago is visiting later this week, and we have booked a visit to a cruelty-free elephant sanctuary where we will get to bathe and play with the majestic creatures. Many people come to Thailand or other Asian countries and pay for the experience of riding the elephants or watching them perform tricks like painting and such. What these people (hopefully) don’t realize is that behind the curtain of fun activity for humans is the horrible treatment of the animals, as they are beaten, chained, and gouged with bullhooks in order to train them to perform. Fortunately, the information is becoming more widespread, and a few elephant camps are changing to cruelty-free, no-riding sanctuaries as the demand for these grows and tourists are voting with their wallets. I’ll be sure to share stories and pictures of our visit later.

I had intended to use this post to talk about the dogs and cats here, but my word count is already past 1,600, and I’ll have lots more to say about that in a separate post.

 

The Drowning Pool

March 19, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

When I was a child growing up in the panhandle of Florida, one benefit of being the kid of a medical professional was that my parents could afford to build a swimming pool in our back yard. Twice. Both of the homes we lived in during the years between 1975 and 1987 (when I moved away back to Michigan) had large enough plots for us to have an in-ground, outdoor natatorium, complete with diving board, and in the first instance, a slide.

Example only. Not my childhood swimming pool.

This was a very nice perk, as the tropical heat in Florida is pretty oppressive. My brothers and I were constantly in the water, swimming laps, having diving competitions, and playing Marco Polo with friends whom we would invite over. If we weren’t in our own man-made swimming hole, we were out at the state park swimming in the springs, lakes, or rivers (along with the occasional water moccasin and alligator).

The Blue Hole swimming area at Florida Caverns State Park.

My brothers and I learned how to swim at a very early age. So early, in fact, that I do not remember taking any lessons or my parents teaching us. It seemed as normal as walking or climbing. It never occurred to me that other kids might not have the same experience. As far as I knew, all of my friends were able to swim. None of us were Mark Spitz (yesterday’s Michael Phelps), but at bare minimum we could do a basic doggy paddle and keep our heads above water. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I became aware that there was a large company of people who were unable to swim. Much of this non-amphibious population was made up of minorities who, because of segregation laws and practices of the recent past, never had the opportunity to learn, as they were not allowed to so much as dip their feet into a public swimming pool.

Thailand is also a land of tropical heat. It regularly exceeds 38 degrees Celsius (100F), many times rising into the 40s. That kind of swelter can make life miserable. So I’m lucky enough to have found a nice apartment with air conditioning and a good-size private swimming pool to help escape the heat.

I get to ride the pink unicorn in the pool at my apartment.

There are public pools as well, but I am admittedly a snob when it comes to these, having grown up with pools where we controlled who peed (or rather, hopefully not) in the water.

An informal poll of the kids whom I teach reveals that many of the 7-8 year-olds have not yet mastered the ability to swim. So, it seemed a good thing back in August of last year when workers with jack hammers and backhoes showed up at the school and began breaking up part of the grounds and building forms for pouring concrete to build a pool. Our children would be introduced to proper training for this vital life-skill.

However, as a group of foreign teachers, we were less than gratified to see the construction begin. The reason wasn’t because we are anti-swimming. It’s because the school administration has constantly been claiming how little money they have. “No, sorry, there is no money for the supplies and basic equipment you are requesting.” “An English lab sounds like a wonderful idea, but we just don’t have the money to give you an (already) vacant room to set it up.” “We don’t have money to give you a meaningful raise.” The reason for the swimming pool is nothing but cosmetics. There are larger schools in the area which have cinemas and swimming pools, and our director feels that his school should have the same. It’s not about the education of the kids. It’s about bragging rights. Lipstick on a pig, is what we call it in the West. But, as I have discovered in the past year of living here, much of Thai bureaucracy is more interested in form than substance.

At any rate, we were able to witness the slow progress of the pool construction every day. This pool is above ground, made of concrete, using different construction methods than I am used to seeing. What I did notice, as they were pouring the walls and floor, was that the depth remained the same throughout the entire basin. There is no gradual incline as you would expect to see in a pool of that size. The height of the walls, from bottom floor to the top, where the walkway surface was set, measures about 130cm (50+ inches) by my estimation. Which is taller than many of the students that I teach.  As in over their heads. Yet, construction continued. A steel roof and ventilated enclosure was erected over the pool. The walkway was tiled. Steps leading from the school grounds to the top of the pool surface were built, complete with crooked guardrail. Shower and changing rooms were constructed. A filtration pump was installed, with only one (I counted) circulation port, which was positioned almost right next to the intake. The interior of the pool was painted blue. Yet, no one seemed to notice that there was a problem with the design. During one of our foreign teachers meetings I brought up the matter again in a rather dark way as I suggested that we place bets as to when the first kid would drown.

Sometime in December, the pool was finally filled with water.  The circulation pump ran for a few hours, the jet pushing water out, and the intake sucking it back in almost immediately. The water at the far end of the pool remained still. After a few days, a greenish cast could be seen on the water, which also seemed to contain particulate matter. Chemicals were introduced, and portable auxiliary pump was brought in to help move the water around. During the four-day New Year’s holiday weekend, one of the assistant directors (whom I call Aqualung- we’ll get to that later..) reportedly visited the pool with some guests and had a small private party. Perhaps that’s when the issue was discovered. In early January, I witnessed Aqualung standing up on the pool deck with the school director. They were looking down into the pool and not saying much. I saw the director move his hand in a horizontal fashion, making  imaginary perpendicular lines. I knew immediately what he was conjuring.

The next day, the pool was drained. Workers returned and began drilling holes into the interior walls, near the top. They returned a couple of days later and installed chrome railings around three sides of the basin, leaving the fourth side bare, as that entire wall is for the spill-over filtration intake. So now, the kids who are unable to stand up anywhere in the pool without inhaling water will be able to grasp the rail and make their way around to the single metal ladder which is the solitary means of ingress and egress to the tank. Did I mention that there are no graduated steps to enter/exit? Did I mention that there IS NO SHALLOW END to this fucking pool!!!????

Perhaps you can make out the ladder at the far end. The railing is visible on the left.

A few weeks ago, the regular morning ceremony was extended by 90 minutes for the pool dedication/blessing. The students were sitting on the concrete walkways and driveways, plastic chairs were set up for VIPs in front of mountains of flower arrangements, and a group of orange-clad monks were on hand to perform ritual chants in between grandiose speeches from the big-wigs. I didn’t stick around to witness this. I went home instead, and returned in time to teach my first class at 9:50am.  The pool continues to not be used. It has since been drained and refilled twice. The other day, a new swimming coach was introduced to the gathered students and faculty at morning ceremony. A young woman, fresh out of university. She, among all of the other prospects got the job, not because she was the most qualified, but because every other experienced applicant took one look at the pool and walked away. I’ve been told that the pool is going to be open only on the weekends, and to those who wish to pay for the privilege of using the unique facility. I will have to wait to see if this is true or not. But, as a betting man, I’m wagering that the pool will last less than a year before it is closed again. Hopefully before someone dies.

I can’t wait to see their plans for a cinema.

Whisper to a Scream

March 19, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

The school was practically a ghost town when I arrived this morning a little past 8am to punch the time clock. There were only three other motorcycles parked in the small lot behind the cafeteria, where usually there would be dozens. As I walked around the corner to the main building which houses the administration offices, I noticed that all of the doors to the Anuban (Kindergarten) classes were shuttered and locked. Normally at this time there would be myriads of children running around and playing, but there were none to be found. I saw exactly four other people during the time I parked my bike, walked to the time clock, and then returned to the parking lot to leave. Two of them were assistant teachers. whom I recognized. The others, a man and a woman, were unknown to me. They were up on the deck of the drowning pool, looking at the green-tinged water and taking note of something. I returned to my bike in silence, pausing only to watch as two of the school cats were locked in a stare-down with each other. The black one with the short, twisted Thai tail had his back arched as he glowered at the calico miracle momma cat who looked ready to rip his throat out. Over to my right, the white bitch lay in the sun, chewing at her scabby tail again. After about thirty seconds, one of the assistant teachers walked up behind me to her own motorcycle, her presence snapping the spell, and the two cats unlocked from their cold war and moved on. The mangy white bitch continued her self-grooming routine, unbothered.

Today is the first official day of the school break. Classes will not begin for the new term until May 7. But because the Thai government decrees that the schools must be open for 200 days out of the year, my school requires that the teachers continue to clock in every day until the end of March, even though there are no classes. The pointlessness of this demand is just one of the things that I have had to get used to as I deal with the bureaucracy here in my new, adopted home. I gave myself the concession of not wearing my teacher clothes to perform this ritual, instead donning a pair of blue jeans and a polo.

In a way, this may be a good thing for me. It forces me to get out of bed instead of sleeping the morning away. I’ve become quite lazy in the past few months. My last post was from the end of October, five months ago. So I have decided to take the time that I would normally be teaching classes to be productive. I’m outside by the swimming pool listening to The Icicle Works while sitting in a lounge chair with my computer and coffee, shaded by the bamboo umbrellas as the air around me rapidly warms with the still-rising sun. Five small children have just invaded my serenity and are busy splashing in the pool, unsupervised. Well, four of them, anyway. One boy is just sitting on the chair next to me, watching the others having fun in the water. Maybe he can’t swim. I have many stories to tell about my first year of teaching here in northern Thailand. It’s about time that I started writing them. Hopefully without getting water splashed on me.

 

There goes my goddamn peace and quiet

 

 

 

 

Raging Bull

 

October 31, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

I have never been a violent person. At least not as a rule. Sure, when I was a kid, I used to get into angry fights with my brothers, and some punches and kicks were thrown, but mainly I was in defensive mode, waiting for them to foolishly try a karate-style kick to my face. That’s when I’d grab the swinging foot and dump the kicker unceremoniously on his ass. I didn’t follow up by punching them when they were down. There was the time when I was four (and I really don’t have a recollection of this story) that I evidently got so pissed at my babysitter that I threw a “D”-cell battery at her and knocked out a tooth.

Otherwise, I was afraid to get into fights. My parents strongly encouraged us to “turn the other cheek” and walk away when threatened or bullied by others. My fear was not so much of getting beat up as it was of getting in trouble at school and then subsequently at home. The two times that I recall fighting back ended with the other party complaining about a busted jaw or broken nose. Either way, blood was spilled with my single punch to the face. I was horrified by it. In my dreams, when I get into a physical altercation, my instinct is to fight to the death. In my dream-state, I am filled with so much rage and fear that I continue to pummel the other person until they are pretty much raw meat. I wake up in a sweat, with my heart pounding. Fighting is not something that I enjoy.

Violence in movies does not necessarily turn me off. I am not in love with it, but I’d prefer to see realistic portrayals of what happens when someone is shot, punched, hit by a train, etc., as long as it fits the storyline and is not gratuitous. But I have never enjoyed watching boxing matches, or the currently popular UFC-style fighting. The ancient Romans were entertained by such blood sport, and I had mistakenly thought that we had evolved past that. The sight of two men (or women) beating the shit out of each other for others’ amusement is not my choice of entertainment.

So, you would think that the sight of the Muay Thai ring commanding the center of the Reggae Bar in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand would hold zero interest for me. But the opposite was true. I was drawn to it. There was a large sign inside the bar stating that anyone volunteering to fight another patron for three, one-minute bouts would receive a free bucket of whiskey and mixer after the fight. The whiskey didn’t tempt me. But the thought of testing my fighting ability against another man somehow did. I can’t explain it. I wanted to get in that ring. I watched other contestants sparring, and it looked to me that they weren’t really taking it too seriously, just having a bit of fun clowning around. Even the Thais who got in to fight without the protective gloves and pads were hamming it up for the crowd of drinkers. I decided that I was going to sign up for this before I left the island.

The fighting ring at Reggae Bar on Koh Phi Phi

The next day, I got up early and went on a planned scuba diving adventure. It was a lovely day and the dives went beautifully. Unfortunately, I got seasick (for the first time in my life) both times I returned to the boat, and ended up feeding the fish for a while. I rested for the better part of the late afternoon, even taking a nap that evening until about 9:30. Then I got up and headed over to the Reggae Bar to fulfill my promise to myself. I told one of the staff that I was interested in getting in the ring. So they had me crawl between the ropes and stand there while they asked who wanted to challenge me. A guy from Argentina, Luciano, about half my age and in good shape, stood up and volunteered. Great.

Luciano and me, before the bout

They gave us both a pair of boxing shorts (smelly, sweaty from other use), his red, mine blue. We stood around waiting for a bit for the other bouts to finish. As I drank the single beer that I had ordered, I chatted with him and we both reassured each other that we were only into it for the fun, that we weren’t REALLY going to be fighting hard. At least that was my impression. I had time to ask another patron to take pictures with my phone, and then it was time.

The referee explained the rules to us. No elbows, no knees. We could hit with our thick, boxing gloves and kick with our padded shins and feet. No hitting from behind, no kicks to the groin. That settled, we touched gloves, and the bell rang. The agreement that I had come to with Luciano didn’t seem to be understood exactly the same by both sides. He came at me and landed a heavy right cross to the left side of my face. My head snapped back a bit to the right, and my thought was, “what the hell??” He got one more good punch in before I realized that HIS idea of fun was different than mine.

 I got my gloves up and blocked his next few attempts. I saw that he was leaving his face exposed, and I took advantage of the opportunity to poke him right in the nose with a left jab. I was still pulling my punches however, because I somehow still believed that we were supposed to be fooling around. And that’s when he started kicking. His right leg shot out and around and connected with the side of my left thigh. It hurt like hell. This dude obviously had gone through a bit of training for this. Unfortunately for me, I kept letting him do it. Had I used my head a bit, I would have pivoted the other way, not exposing that side to his devastating kicks. But my (stupid) reaction was to drop my gloves and ask him, “didn’t we agree…?”… and immediately put them back up to block an oncoming blow.

Mercifully, the bell rang, and we both retired to our corners. I took a small sip of water supplied by one of the attendants, and tried to stand straight with my left leg on fire. I looked around the crowd, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. I told myself that I could make it through another minute, then rest again. The bell rang again, and we were back at it. I ducked quite a few punches, and got in a couple of good ones myself. At one point, Luciano reeled backward and stumbled, but didn’t fall. I should have pressed my attack, but didn’t. He got in two more crushing kicks, then came at me. I ducked under a roundhouse right, popped him once. He then connected while I was heading away, and the punch took me off balance. I was headed to the mat. I got up right away, and looked for my opponent, but the ref was quickly in my face and removing my headgear. I asked him what was going on, and he said, “Stop fight. Over.”

“What? Why”, I bellowed. I was ok. My leg hurt like hell, but I wasn’t dazed. There wasn’t a count while I was down, it was less than a second.

“Safety”, came the reply. I was about to argue the point, and then I realized that my leg was done for. I couldn’t keep taking that punishment.

Both winners?

“Fine,” I acquiesced. I let them remove my gloves and footpads, then went over to the Argentinian and gave him a sweaty, congratulatory hug. The ref took us both by the hand, and raised Luciano’s high in the air. The crowd cheered, we both got medals and buckets of liquor. I limped over and removed the fighting shorts and put back on my own clothing. There were high fives and hugs and mentions of “great fight”, “that was awesome”, and “you’re brave” for both the winner and the loser.

My reward

My real reward

Yeah, so I didn’t win. But I didn’t feel like a loser, either. It was a cool experience, and probably something I would try again. But next time….fuck Mr. Nice Guy.

8-Ball

September 5, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

I stared at the small mirror on which the little glassine bag and his casino rewards card rested. “Come on”, he said. “You know what to do.” And I suppose I did know what to do, but I was definitely not ready for this.

It was mid-September, 2016, and I was hosting a guy from Texas. Gaco had requested a stay on short notice as he was coming to Chicago. I was still recovering from a trip to New England for Labor Day weekend, had just finished hosting some people and events during the Chicago Couch Crash*, and also just got a new roommate.  I could have easily said “no”, because of everything else going on, but something about Gaco’s profile information and his nice request told me that it would be worth hosting him. I made arrangements to pick him up at a train station outside of the downtown area, and afterwards we met up with some new Filipina friends at the grand opening of a huge Filipino superstore that everyone had been going on about. The ladies had ordered food from inside, and we all sat out on the sidewalk eating interesting dishes and having a really fun conversation. Gaco didn’t know anybody there, and I only knew one of them briefly, but he made himself at home with the group.

The Filipinas were all tired from fighting the crowds at the store, and so they decided that they were going to check out early and go home instead of staying out to go dancing or karaoke. So Gaco and I headed back toward my place on the south side of Chicago. Before we got all the way to my home, however, I decided that we really owed it to ourselves to have a couple more beers. Reggie’s Music Joint and Rock Club on the corner of State and E. 21st had always been one of my favorite places to hang out and bring my couchsurfing guests. It was within walking distance to my apartment, which was convenient if heavy drinking was planned. Reggie’s boasted a very cool downstairs bar with live music, another soundstage for ticketed events, an amazing record store on the second level, and one of the coolest rooftop bars in the city. This place catered to everyone’s taste. Some nights there would be folks all dressed up in leather and chains for a heavy metal concert, other times it was hip/hop. The music joint bar bands ranged from country to 80’s, jazz to current pop. Everyone felt welcome at Reggie’s. It was probably the most integrated bar I ever saw in Chicago.

It can be difficult to find parking near Reggie’s on a summer weekend. I felt lucky to grab a spot on 21st across from the Chase Bank branch. It was just after 10pm, so I didn’t have to pay the meter, which was nice. After showing our ID’s at the door, we walked up to the rooftop bar and ordered a couple of beers. It was pretty crowded, and seating was scarce. I noticed a couple of vacant spots at one of the octagonal picnic-style tables that was otherwise occupied by a group of women and one guy. I sauntered over and asked if we might grab a seat, and they graciously welcomed us to join them. They turned out to be a group from a couple of local radio stations, including a couple of on-air dj’s who had been at the RiotFest concerts earlier in the day. Some of them were more drunk than the others, including the guy dj, who was making a total ass of himself. I trolled him for a bit until it got boring. Gaco headed back to the bar counter to get us a couple more beers, and I saw him over there talking to some old guy sitting on the barstool.

Since the radio personalities were pretty much finished with their night, they got up to go, leaving me there by myself. Gaco was still engaged in conversation with the dude, so I wandered over. This guy was tanked. His name was Jeff, and he was spouting some weird shit over and over, and the only reason it was funny to me was because he looked like what Jason Statham will be when he gets old and goes to pot. There was a girl sitting on the barstool next to us, and she was laughing at Jeff’s stupidity. As long as we were drinking, I didn’t care. It was a good time. The young lady’s name was Char – short for Charlene, and at some point she started to tell me about some personal stuff that was bothering her. I could see that she just needed to talk, so I guided her over to one of the covered picnic tables, as it had begun to sprinkle rain. She vented for a bit while Jeff continued to hold court at the bar. A few minutes later, Gaco walked over to us, looked at me and asked, “Do you want to go hang out on a boat?”

Now, you would think that someone with a bit of maturity and savvy would maybe ask a couple of questions at this point. Like perhaps, “Whose boat?”, or “Isn’t it a bit late (midnight) to be going out on a boat?”

The mature and savvy me had taken the night off, evidently, so my immediate response was more like, “HELL YEAH!”

It turned out to be old, fat, loud Jason Statham’s boat. I looked at Char and asked her if she was willing to join us. She hesitated a bit, perhaps due to maturity and savvy, and said that she lived in Humboldt Park, and would need to make sure she got home safely. Gallant that I am, I told her that I would keep her safe and promised to make sure she made it back.  So we were four.

Gaco, Char, Me, and Jeff at Reggie’s. (Come on..he kind of looks like a grumpy, old Jason Statham, right?)

The first order of business was to make sure that we continued to be well-lubricated. Reggie’s didn’t do carry-out beer, so we jumped into a cab that Jeff had hailed without our knowing, and headed off. Up State Street and around a corner was an establishment that would cater to our needs. I was volunteered to go in and pick up the beer. As I was waiting for the guy at the register to acknowledge my presence, I saw and smelled the food being prepared, and I just had to order some deep-fried onions, which made the rest of the cab ride to the marina very smelly. Jeff alluded to having party favors, which I understood to mean that he was in possession of some weed.

Jeff’s boat turned out to be a 45-foot sailcraft instead of the powerboat that I had imagined. The moon was very close to full, and because the sailboat was taking up the slip at the far end of the pier, we got to see an unobstructed view of the beautiful reflection on the calm waters of Lake Michigan. It was a soundless night, unsullied until all four of us decided that we needed to take a piss. The boat didn’t have a proper head, just a bucket, so the three boys stood at the end of the stern and whizzed into the lake, while Char squatted down on the edge of the pier next to the bow. Not a creature was stirring in any of the surrounding watercraft.

Down in the cabin, it was a bit cramped quarters. There wasn’t a lot of headroom, but as we sat down on the sleeping berths, it didn’t really seem to matter. The beer continued to flow, Jeff continued to be loud and boisterous, and Gaco continued to laugh at his antics. Old, fat Statham decided that I reminded him of Jeff Lynne from Electric Light Orchestra, and kept badgering me to sing, except he was asking for songs by other bands instead. I did my best to make him happy, but he’d usually interrupt me before I even got to the chorus lines.

About the time that I started wondering how my night ended up like this, Jeff half-stood up and said that it was time to get the party started. I was confused. Weren’t we already…? He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small envelope, then began bellowing for his mirror. I had no idea what he was talking about, until he grabbed a very small mirror – about four inches square -, plopped a little baggie and what looked like a credit card on top of the looking glass, and shoved it at me. “Here,” he brayed, “you cut it.” I just sat there and stared. “Come on,” he said. “You know what to do.”

Yeah, I’ve seen enough movies and television that I knew what was supposed to be done. But as most of you are already aware, I grew up rather sheltered. I didn’t have close friends in my childhood who used drugs of any kind. If asked, I couldn’t have told you which of my classmates sold or even used marijuana. I heard the terms “dime bag” and “roach” bandied about when I was in high school, but didn’t have a clue what they really were. That sheltered life continued into adulthood, as my family’s religion kept us separated from most other people on a social level. So I never was exposed to drugs or paraphernalia. I was 40 years old before I was even approached on the street with an offer to buy weed. It was only earlier in the summer of 2016 that I actually tried marijuana for the first time (I found that smoking it has little and less effect on me…edibles are a completely different story).

I continued to stare at the mirror, plastic card, and bag of cocaine for another couple of seconds, then just said, “I’d rather not.” Flabby, elderly Transporter-with-a-beard had this incredulous look on his face until all of a sudden, Gaco piped up. “I’ll do it!” he said. I watched as the mirror was passed to my right, and my couchsurfing guest began to empty the white powder onto the glass. He held the mirror with his left hand as he began to use the credit card (which turned out to be a rewards card from Horseshoe Casino in nearby Hammond, Indiana) to divide the pile of coke into four caterpillar-shaped lines  I didn’t even have to do the math. Four people, four servings.  Oh, shit.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “None for me tonight.” Gaco looked up at me in a mixture of balefulness and amusement. Now he had to start over. Which was probably not a bad idea, because his squiggly lines didn’t look like the expertly cut ones I’d seen Denzel snort up in “Flight.” Old man Statham shook his head. Char didn’t say a word. She just stared greedily at the little piles of powder. ‘Who ARE these people?’ I wondered, ‘and how did I end up on some strange guy’s sailboat at 1am watching a scene from “Blow”?’

As Gaco finished putting the final touches on the three more generous lines of nose candy, Jeff pulled out a for-real $100 bill, just like in the movies. He rolled it up tight, grabbed the mirror, and snorted up the first little seam of chalky-looking powder. He handed it over to Char, who with no hesitation, sucked the second line up into her right nostril. She wiped her nose with one hand, and gave the mirror to Gaco with the other. I watched in detached fascination as this guy I agreed to let sleep in my home hunched himself over the mirror, with the cylindrical Benjamin Franklin shoved up his sniffer. Holding the reflecting glass in his right hand, he guided the money straw with his left over the last line of cocaine as it disappeared.

Now what? It occurred to me that Jeff had probably been a combination of drunk and high the entire evening. But what effect was the narcotic going to have on Char and Gaco? I had promised the Texan that he could sleep on my couch for a couple of nights while he was in town. I had also guaranteed Char that I would make sure she got home safely. Was I the only responsible party here?

The party continued, with more clinking of beer cans, and Jeff’s boisterous antics, with Gaco egging him on. Char got a little more quiet. She had been asking if the group could go back up topside for some air. The sailboat captain had no intention of leaving his cabin, so I gently guided the girl up the steps to the stern deck. The stars were brilliant in the sky, and the lake serene. We sat there as she talked about her family and the business she worked for. She wanted to join a walk for suicide prevention, as it had struck close to home in the past. I wanted to know how she was so expert at snorting coke. She gave me a wan smile and said that she had been doing drugs since she was 13. I didn’t know what to say to that. She continued about some of the problems that she had experienced and I began to see a woman who was fighting a lot of demons. She moved closer to me, then eventually into my lap. There was a spider on the stern rail, right next to where her finger rested. I pointed it out, lest she be startled by it. Rather than pull her hand away, she pushed it closer to the spider, and allowed it to walk up her finger. I told her that I could never do that, as I suffer from arachnophobia, and she told me also feared spiders. The only reason she felt like she could do it was because she was high from the coke, and felt a bit euphoric. Meanwhile, Gaco and Jeff’s conversation had muted, and we discovered that they had passed out and gone to sleep. Jeff had crawled up into the forward compartment, and Gaco was on one of the sleeping berths on the starboard side aft.

Char and I talked and sat for a while longer, then dawn began to break. I knew that I should get some sleep, and she said that she was exhausted as well. We made our way down into the cabin, and took up sleeping positions on opposite sides of the sailboat. I set my alarm for 7, because I remembered that I had left my car in a paid parking zone that would start up at 8am. Chicago is notorious for handing out expensive parking tickets, and I had no desire to get hit with another. I was able to get a good hour of rest before my phone began to chime. I woke Gaco up and told him we had to go. I gently shook Char until she opened her eyes. I reminded her of my promise to get her home, but she just looked at me and said that she was going to stay. I asked if she was sure. None of us really knew anything about Jeff except what he had told us about having been a stockbroker whose wife had divorced him and blamed him for the death of their daughter. He had bought the boat with what remained of his share of the sale of their house during the divorce. Char nodded and said she’d be fine. Well, she was an adult, so I told her goodbye and left with Gaco in tow.

He and I walked back towards Grant Park in the downtown area so it would be easier to catch a cab back to Reggie’s and my car. He was in good spirits, and we were both hungry. I told him there was a very good soul food restaurant in my neighborhood, and we decided breakfast would be an excellent idea. As we drove down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive towards Peach’s cafe, I admitted to him that I had never been in the presence of people using cocaine before.  He said it was his first time too. I looked at him in disbelief. “Dude!” I said. “You snorted down that line like you were a pro!”

“No, I actually didn’t,” he replied.

“But I saw you! You moved the rolled-up bill over the coke and it was gone!”

“That’s what you saw,” Gaco said as he smiled. “I actually tilted the mirror a bit and pushed the cocaine onto the floor of the cabin as I went over it. It was dark in the cabin, and nobody noticed.”

“If you didn’t want to do the coke, why didn’t you just say so? I did.”

“Well, Jeff seemed so intent on sharing with us, and I didn’t want to be a dick and disappoint him,” he said with a wink.

As I thought about the expensive little pile of powder hitting the grubby floor of Jeff’s sailboat, and how crazy the night had been, I started laughing out loud. Gaco joined in, and we were soon both in tears.  I parked the car on 47th and King Drive. “Let’s go get some shrimp and grits!”

 

*Couch Crash:  Within the global couchsurfing community, there are members who set up special events in their respective cities and towns. Usually occurring over a weekend, these events are open by invitation to couchsurfing members across the globe. It’s a nice way to showcase your city and bring a bunch of cool people from around the world together for some food, drink, activities, and fellowship.