Thursday, December 27, 2007

Overheard #7

“Write out a check for $73 to Janice. She paid Carole. I don’t know. Because Carole needed her money, apparently. I don’t know either. It drives me nuts. I told her, ‘Don’t ever do this again. That’s Johnny’s responsibility to pay it.’ I said, ‘What did he buy for $73?’ A shirt, apparently. ‘A shirt?’ I said. ‘What kind of shirt do you buy for 73 freakin’ dollars?’ So that’s the scoop.”

-a woman, probably in her 50s, sitting at a picnic table, waiting on the rest of her family to walk the pedestrian-only Chain of Rocks bridge in St. Louis, MO

Captain Jack Will Get You High

Captain Jack Ponticelli flies hot air balloons above the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina. I meet him on his farm in the agrarian region west of Winston-Salem that for decades yielded tobacco. When everybody stopped smoking, farmers had to find other crops. Today, the region is best known for its vineyards and wineries. But Jack doesn’t grow grapes.

We are supposed to fly, but the winds aren’t cooperating. “Trust me,” he says. “You’d much rather be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.” Since I’ve come all this way, he asks if I would like to see his truffle farm. No, Jack doesn’t grow bite-size, fancy chocolates either.

Truffles are fungi, akin to mushrooms, that grow on the underground roots of trees. It generally takes four to five years for a crop to mature. They are most famously farmed in France and pigs are trained to sniff them out with their sensitive snouts. They are culinary delicacies--you’ve probably seen menus with appetizers and entrees drizzled with truffle oil. Chefs pay top dollar for truffles, and Jack knows this.

After doing lots of research, Jack found that this part of North Carolina is a perfect climate for truffle farming. So, he and his wife moved from New Jersey, bought several acres of land in Forsyth County, and sank $75,000 into an orchard of sapling hazelnut trees that were inoculated with the fungus spores. That was about four years ago, and Jack has yet to see his first truffle.

We hop on his four-wheeler and ride out to the fields behind his house. Cold winds swirl and neither of us has dressed warmly enough. We walk among the young trees, and he squats down and begins digging with his rough, cracked farmers’ fingers to show me where the truffles would be growing. He happens to uncover what looks like the cap of a mushroom.

“That’s the first one I’ve found,” he says quietly. His understated tone dampens the significance of his statement, so I muster an indifferent, juvenile response.

“Well, that’s cool.”

I fail to comprehend that that tiny black thing in the ground is the initial inklings of payoff on Jack’s gigantic investment. What must it have taken to convince his wife to supplant her normal life of friends, family, and routines with a high-end mushroom farm thousands of miles away? What kind of risk does it take to cultivate hundreds of trees he can only hope are full of spores?

I’ve never waited five years for anything.

Hike in the Wichitas

I went hiking in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma this last summer. Trails through the hills around Lost Dog Lake. I eventually worked my way back down to a running stream cutting through a small canyon. I sat at the edge, the continuous rush nearly drowning out distant booms from artillery training at Fort Sill, an army base on the other side of this wildlife refuge.

I pulled out a pouch of chewing tobacco and sprinkled a pinch on the ground. It was an offering to the Creator, like my Delaware Indian friend Mike Watkins showed me. I then put a three-fingered plug in my mouth and settled back on the flat, seat-shaped rock where I perched. The season’s record amounts of rain kept runoff endlessly trickling down through the striations in the canyon’s wall. When I focused on certain protruding rocks, I saw faces. Strong noses with slits above resembling squinting eyes. Slits below looked like puckered mouths.

Change is slow. Anything of worth occurs over millions of years. Our 70-something years of water over these stones would barely graze them.

Before returning to the trail, I tossed my juicy wad of tobacco to the edge of the water. It betrayed a wholeness, but it was merely several shreds loosely held together by minutes in my warm cheek. The current lapped against the wad regularly every few seconds, and the whole separated into pieces easily ushered downstream. Soon there was nothing, and I lost sight of the shreds amid all the other dark brown specks in the silty streambed. But I couldn’t shake the thought that each one held part of me. Part of my DNA.

A piece of the whole became a piece of the whole.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Overheard #6

“The rings dug into my fingers. Yeah. Because I had to carry my guitar all the way from the other gate. Yeah. They’re swollen. I know. Four escalators. Yeah.”

—Atlanta airport. Blonde girl on the phone. Late teens. She’s wearing a thin, quilted blanket like a scarf.

a "Penn Station to Union Station" haiku

Who vacuums the small
pieces of paper clipped from
train cards? Con-suck-tors?

Be Thankful for Renegade Luggage Tags

I’m moving a big, gold-sequined bag in the overhead compartment and the luggage tag flops down. “Dee Dee D. Thibodeaux.” Of course this is what Dee Dee would carry on planes.

Be Thankful for Late Afternoon Flights

The sun sets twice as fast from 30,000 feet. As it drops below the clouds, it squashes like a rubber ball hit by a racket and then leaves behind dusty pink traces of itself. Those on the ground just see an overcast sky.

Band Names I'd Propose

Balmy Ishmael
Optimus Prime Rib
Cole’s Porters
The Wife Beatles

Near Meers, OK

Apparently, tarantulas move very quickly and then stop to stay still as stones for long periods of time. Kind of like they’re playing possum.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Overheard #5

“I was addicted to eyeliner. It was either eyeliner or nothing.”

--baggage claim, Myrtle Beach airport, mid-20s; I think she's ready for the beach

Overheard #4

“Vincent became my mother, John. He was there for me and took care of me when I left New Mexico. But I didn’t need a mother then, John. It took me five years to realize that. What I’m talking about is you calling and leaving me a message last night asking what cruise I was going on, so that you could go on a different one. I never said you were insane, John. I said this is insane. This. What you are doing is insane. I’m sure you’ll always know I love you. I’m not used to getting phone calls like this, John. I’m used to people kissing my ass. I’m used to the people who love me kissing my ass. And I kiss their assess.”

--a man in his 40s in a gray suit pacing in the makeshift business center in the Asheville, NC airport.

I Knew They Weren't Turkeys

Strolled down Church Street in the historic district of Old Salem, NC. No witches in sight. Four birds waddled out of nowhere, crossed the street, and bee-lined to a pile of corn kernels scattered in a front yard. A local later told me he’s heard of a gaggle of vagrant guinea hens in the neighborhood. He thought it was an urban legend.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Who Says Airlines Suck?

I was making a connection. Maybe in Atlanta. Some details are fuzzy. I just remember that at the gate the Delta guy took my boarding pass, chuckled softly, and said, “Mr. Latham. Work it out, man.” Very Isaac from Love Boat.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Overheard #3

"The original drummer from my band was Eric Lindros’s bodyguard, and the only thing he ever wanted to do was drink beer and fish."

-ATL airport. Early 40s guy with slick hair and gray suit. He's talking to a girl who's probably in her 20s. Apparently, she's dating a professional hockey player. He pulls up one of his band's songs on his iPod and makes her listen to it. She tells him he's playing it too loud.

Demanding Little Punks

I never really listened to the lyrics of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” until the other night at a BBQ joint in Hickory, NC. A children's holiday album was playing over the speakers. Fun carol, right?

“Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; 
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; 
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer

We won't go until we get some; 
We won't go until we get some; 
We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here.”

Until the kids singing--with their delicate, angelic voices--get to the verses where they’re requiring pudding and alcoholic beverages. And they’ve dug in their heels. Restraining orders probably weren’t that prevalent when this was written.

Overheard #2

“Shelley, he died about 45 minutes ago, and I’m on my way to New York right now, so I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I…I know. Shelley, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to get together a deli tray. Finest stuff we’ve got. First class. And I want you to go ahead and send it out to the house. Call the florist. I want lots of fresh cut flowers and send them out to the house. With the deli tray.”

-Birmingham, AL airport. Mid 60s, lavender colored, short-sleeved button down shirt. Penny loafers that are easy for security. Khaki pants. His belly is more like a big square box. I swear, it has sides and angles.

Sunrise Over the Rappahannock

I woke up early on a still, dark, cold, November morning, to catch a noon flight. I planned to drive back roads from Solomons Island, on the eastern shore of Maryland, down to Norfolk, Virginia, and I had no idea how long it would take to get there or if we would move like sloths through security. My timing proved perfect, as I ended up crossing the Rappahannock River right at sunrise. I rolled down my window, and with the brisk wind in my face, caught a pic of the bridge, river, and some lucky soul heading the other way to work.

Overheard #1

I wouldn’t necessarily call it eavesdropping. Four or five years ago, I discovered that just by listening in a public place, I became privy to some fascinating pieces of dialogue. I’m sure you’ve probably defaulted to the line, “Oh, I just love to people watch.” But how often do you find yourself people listening? It’s become my favorite hobby on the road. In airports. Restaurants. I originally recorded these snippets of conversations, because I thought I might use them sometime in pieces of fiction. They were just so real or outrageous or odd, that I knew I could never make them up. I don't hover near conversations I haven’t been invited to join. They come to me. Rather than "Eavesdroppings" I settled on calling the collection "Overheard."

“I don’t know if y’all know this song or not, but the band was playing ‘Push It’ by Salt And Peppers.”

-Yes, this early-30s, Sportscenter anchor Linda Cohn-lookalike—with long, straight, brown hair and those giant eyes—not only shucked the rap group’s abbreviations but pluralized them. She was addressing a group of students who were probably at Wake Forest U, because I was in Winston-Salem, NC. Spinderella would be proud.

My idea is far from original. A friend of mine shared a couple of sites designed to showcase gems like these. I'm just glad I'm not alone.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What's All This Mambo Jahambo?

I travel, so I can pay my mortgage. The irony is not lost here. As a travel writer, I frequently tempt the god of the gas gauge light in search of incredible destinations. But only a fraction of my experiences ever make it to the printed page.

For example, I recently met a waitress named Brie at a Cracker Barrel outside of Clemmons, NC. She tried to sell me on the macaroni and cheese. And while driving through Joplin, MO, on Route 66, I found myself pondering our rocky economy's affect on the price of mud.

Trips are full of surprises. And they are usually found at the edge of the road. This is a forum for moments such as these. Captured vignettes. Conversations overheard. I assure you, though, that this trail will have spurs. Midnight thoughts. Quick questions.

At the end of the day, it’s always about the story. This is how I roll.

This is Where We Begin

The waiting is not the hardest part.

It's the starting.

This blogging concept is daunting.

I feel like I'm one of the last guys on the plane. You know, the one who is huffing, because he ran the length of Concourse B in his slick-bottomed leather loafers--shoes he had meant to sandpaper for a smidge of traction--to catch his flight out of Cincinnati, an airport geographically and curiously located in Kentucky. He's clutching a coffee; its lid splattered with brown drip stains. He's got the wild eyes. His boarding pass is pursed in his lips so his mouth looks like it's about to utter "mummy" or "mountain music." Everyone else is settled. With books flipped open to dogeared pages. Yarn working through knitting fingers. Cursors scrolling spreadsheets on laptop screens.

Yeah, as far as blogs go, I'm that guy. The Blog World (Blogosphere? Blogiverse? Blog Pens 40?) now peers over its bifocals, exhales through its nose, and slips into the aisle, so I can slide into my middle seat.