Saturday, August 2, 2008

My New Blog

I'm jumping ship. Packing boxes. Loading the moving van.

Like Huey Lewis, I want a new blog.

Rest assured, the new Edge of the Road (hosted by Typepad) has the same feel. The same light and refreshing taste you've grown to love. AND, it also has more features approved by a high percentage of dentists.

So click on through to the other side, bookmark it, and let me hear from you.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Overheard: Inflight between Houston and Memphis

“My brother Frank was born with a birth defect, but at age 11, he was hit by an ambulance in a freak accident. Yeah. I know. So, he’s mentally handicapped. I ask him every day, ‘Frank, do you want barbecue or Salisbury steak?’ That’s all he eats.

But I couldn’t ask him at 6:45 in the morning yesterday when I was leaving, because he was still sleeping. So, I finally got home at 6 last night. He’d been sitting there all day in front of the T.V. That’s pretty much all he does. Yeah. Watch T.V.

So, he’s hungry. The home nurse tried to get him to eat, but Frank said no to everything. He does this all the time. He only eats what I prepare. So, I go straight to the freezer for the Salisbury steak.”

—I never got a good look at the woman recounting this anecdote. She was sitting in the row in front of me on a Continental flight from Texas to Tennessee. The man she was talking to nodded his head numerous times, actively listening. She talked to him like they were strangers.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gusty Is the Wind

Speed west of Weatherford, Oklahoma on I-40, and you'll notice the superslab hemmed by a couple of nondescript two-lanes.

On the north side runs famed Route 66, occasionally marked by historic signs. A thumb-thick split, patched with stubborn grass, scores the yellow lines.

On the south side--in the direction of the tiny town of Corn--a frontage road anchors gated pull-offs to grain fields swaying in the ubiquitous breezes. This region cannot elude the wind. The Public Service Company of Oklahoma harnesses power via 71 rotating turbines, like Star Wars Lambda-class shuttles rotating against the wide-open sky.

In the late afternoon light, their arms' shadows race after each other--an endless tail-chase--across the ground.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Overheard: NYC

From my buddy, David Fleenor, who overheard this on the Big City subway:

Woman 1 (in scrubs and Crocs): "Men can only really do two things: barbeque and cook eggs. That's it!"

Woman 2 (also in scrubs and Crocs): "I can't even barbecue. Geez, I'm less than a man."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Seen on the Road: Kerrville, TX

--Captured by photographer Gary Clark

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Overheard, er, Texted: Natchez, MS

12:09 a.m.

"At under the hill. There's a woman singing 'these boots are made 4 walking.' She's barefooted."

Well, considering I've written about a floor-dwelling drummer, a head leprechan, and a suspected vampire in previous posts involving Natchez, this communique should come as no surprise.

I got this text from a good buddy of mine, Doug Hosford, who owns High Cotton down on Main Street.

He's the one who first took me to the Under the Hill Saloon. It's a sacred place.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Gusty. Like the Wind.

Gusty Crunkleton's son, Adam, says his mom's name ain't short for nothing except the wind. He stretches out (giant arms) then claps (giant hands) as he yells a loud 'Ha!'

I choose to forego alerting Adam that his joke doesn't make a damn bit of sense.

My argument addressing how adjectives and abbreviations are different animals seems unneccesary as I watch him fiddle behind the bar at Bon Appetit in Clayton, GA. Wiping down surfaces. Tightening already-tightened tops. Shifting weight foot to foot. Okay, maybe he isn't fiddling. With his crew cut, broad shoulders, and middle linebacker frame, it's more like he's blitzing.

"I carry Stella for one customer. And you're him!" Gusty is faux-berating the regular named Mark who has an affinity for the Belgian beer.

I like the tough love in this place.

If she had been slumped in one of the booths, I would have easily placed her just shy of 70. But her flexibility throws me. She stands stork-style behind the bar with one leg hiked up, knee cap to left ear. She planted the ball of her foot on the bar-length, Bacardi-embossed strip of rubber. The one that keeps the shakers from sliding.

She managed restaurants off and on for years, but Bon Appetit is the first one she has owned. Needed to keep making cash even after she and her husband, John, sold the broom factory.

"You can tell housewives don't design brooms," she says. "They just want plain wooden handles. No colors." When a red broom slides against a white wall, it leaves a red mark.

Adam sweeps in and pops another Fresca for John, who has his own stool at the bar.

I like the family feel of this place.

That's what he mixes with his Canadian Club. I'm betting they carry those blue cans only for him.

So Gusty's not short for anything?

"Nope. Just Gusty." She emigrated from Leipzig, Germany when she was 15. Her aunt was a famous actress over there. Augustina.

"Her nickname was Gusty," she says. "I'm named for her nickname."

Friday, May 30, 2008

Overheard: Terrapin Creek, Piedmont, AL

"You ain't got a hair on your ass if you don't flip it."

-Terrapin's a slow float. You can rent canoes and kayaks from an outfitter, the Terrapin Outdoor Center, whose #1 rule is "If you wanna float it, you gotta tote it!."

But the truth is that all you need is an inner tube and a ride home when you get off the water.

Last sunny Sunday, slap in the middle of Memorial Day Weekend, we shared the creek with lots of other small boaters. Some were proficient with paddles, like the guy who yelled the above overheard. Some weren't, like the guy he was yelling at who was trying futilely to bale water out of his canoe.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Overheard: The PIT, Pawleys Island, SC

“I’ve got your KY in my pocket.”

-If you’ve been to the Pawleys Island Tavern more than once, you know it by its abbreviation, The PIT. It used to have a sign, but according to Mary Margaret Chambliss and Jason Rogoff, my friends who overheard this delightful line, the sign is gone. Taken down because it had been put up on someone else’s property.

Now you know you’re there when you see the mailbox with the letters PIT painted on it. Or you know it by the old wooden floors, dollar bills tacked to the walls, and the patrons dousing themselves with bug spray. “It’s kinda in the swamp,” says Mary Margaret. The bugs might get you when you’re listening to live music on their outdoor stage.

Speaking of abbreviations, I don’t think the above speaker was referring to Kentucky.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Overheard: Liberty Tap Room, Columbia, SC

“If I would have killed her when I met her, I would be getting out about now.”

-Photographer Gary Clark overheard* this uttered by someone in a wedding party in the Liberty Tap Room in Columbia, SC. Interesting. I overheard a gem at the Liberty Tap Room in Myrtle Beach. Connection?

*I sure ain’t the only one overhearing. When you happen to find yourself the indirect recipient of a nugget of brilliance, please tell me about it.

I’ll post it and enter your name into a drawing. I like to do drawrings.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dancing Leaf: Summerton, SC

"You want to see the most beautiful thing I've ever filmed?"

Thus begins the famous scene from American Beauty where the character of Ricky shares his footage of the plastic bag dancing in a swirling wind.

I was reminded of it while walking a trail that skirted the edge of Lake Marion in the Santee National Wildlife Refuge in Summerton, SC.

A leaf was spinning in the air right in the middle of the trail. Dangling from a long, near-transparent strand of a spider's silk.

It was one of those natural moments you pine for when you're traveling. The bird chirps. The shadowplay on the ground.

In the movie, Ricky goes on to explain how the video of the bag helps him remember that, "sometimes there's so much beauty in the world." I won't bow out tritefully and say I had the same thought. But I did think this was pretty cool.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Overheard: Town 220 Bistro, Madison, GA

“Let me finish, because this is how I feel.”

If I’m directing the film starring this couple, a man and woman I'd clock in their 60s, I open with a tight shot of the woman's hands. Especially the right one. Makes a fist; clinch, release. Then she pinches her ring finger; middle; fore.

Repeats the cycle.

The audience only sees hands, but it hears her voice shake as she reaches the summation.

“I can’t focus on your interests for hours. For one hour, maybe, but not for hours.”

I saw them smiling at each other when I first sat down. Two glasses of pinot noir deep, and she starts winding up. As she gets more direct, he delicately lays down his fork. Wipes his mouth. Crooks his right arm and rests his cheek on his knuckles. He is a poised cat. Tail slowly swaying. Patient. When she makes her definitive statement--her plea--and winds down, he raises his head from his knuckles, uncrosses his legs, and leans in.

While he talks--a monotonous mumble--she resumes eating. Darting her eyes from peas to him to steak to him and back to peas.

Repeats the cycle.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Overheard: I Could Overhear Her All Day

"I'm gonna drop him like a sack of potatoes down a hillside. He is like a grandpa. I may not have any money, but I have my pride."

-Disgruntled employee of the half Sam Adams, half Nathan's hotdogs stand near Gate C37 in the Tampa airport. This is a groundbreaking, slightly controversial Overheard in that I'm including a picture of the speaker. To preserve some ethical integrity, I won't reveal which woman I heard. But she has a small audience, and in the span of 7 minutes, she also dropped these gems.

"We know you love food more than your girlfriend, don't you. You can live without a girlfriend, but you can't live without food."

"I eat 24 hours a day, and I am still hungry. I am still this size. I have been this size forever.

"I may work out in other ways, but I don't go to the gym." (She gets a 'That's right' and 'mmm hmm' from the small congregation.) "I still sweat and burn calories--mostly at night--but you won't find me on no treadmill."

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Knights In Sanitary Service

I see a bowl scrubber, a roll of tp, and four pairs of eyes staring at me. The black light in the bathroom at the KISS Coffeehouse gives them an eerie glow. Can't quite make out the black toilet, but I feel around until I know where I'm aiming.

The Myrtle Beach coffeehouse is the latest in a long line of Gene Simmons-thrusted marketing ideas to keep the 70s rock band relevant 30 years after their heyday. (While the KISS Kasket is no longer featured on their website, you can sample a bottle of the KISS cabernet, uncharacteristically spelled with a 'c.')

My photog buddy, Art, shot KISS a few times in full regalia.

The closest I've gotten to them was the Karamel-flavored frozen Rockuccino that set me back almost six bucks.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


"All my friends are hairdressers."

"That's funny."

"No, seriously. All my friends are hairdressers."

-Liberty Taproom, Myrtle Beach

She had long blond hair and a few tattoos. If you're keeping score at home, you might deduce from one of my previous Myrtle Beach Overheards that this town--full of neon and all-u-can-eat seafood buffets--wears its own superficial mask as comfortably as one of the Conquistadors from the late 80s WWF. But I assure you that Myrtle Beach still grasps multiple redemptive qualities, including the ever-present roll of the Atlantic Ocean onto its beaches.

Unintentionally Unisex

I pulled into a Pilot truck stop off I-85 yesterday to use the bathroom. The door was propped open, so I peeked in, and a woman was there cleaning. She said, "Oh, come on in." So, I did. But she never left. I stopped and looked at her for a second, so she motioned back to the stalls with the doors. She said, "You can use those." I really had to go—could no longer suppress the bottle of water from a few hours before—so I went.

She was still in there sweeping when I walked out.

Cleanest bathroom I used all day.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Now He’s Relaxed

“Are you okay?”

The TSA ID-checker in the Philadelphia airport, his long, braided hair cinched by a rubber band, noticed the young woman’s red, watery eyes.

“No. Not really.”

“What’s wrong?” He looked at her boarding pass then glanced over his glasses at her face. “Are you leaving someone you don’t want to leave?” A question he believed he knew the answer to. I’m sure he’s seen plenty of teary girls kiss their boyfriends goodbye.

“My father died.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

I was eavesdropping, and she sensed it, so she looked at me. I gave her what I hoped was a sympathetic smile. Something I thought to be appropriate, because I didn’t know what to say. I hoped to communicate two things with that gesture, though. First that I was sorry about her loss. But I was also sorry to have intruded into her business.

She sniffled and attempted to smile back. The edges of her mouth fought their way up against the rest of her face; her furrowed brow, her quivering lips. She understood. She accepted my sympathy and apology.

But the security line crept with small steps. Short starts and long stops. And I felt compelled to add an audible leg to our silent exchange.

“Had your father been sick?”

“Yes. But now he’s relaxed.”

She had a strong Spanish accent. Relaxed. I’m not sure why she chose that word. Maybe the translation tripped her a bit. Maybe that made sense; “relaxed” was the perfect descriptor for his situation. Maybe I was glimpsing her raw and honest state of shock. Witnessing that period after a loss when one says the real things before one settles into the death march of rote expressions such as “He’s at rest” or “Now he’s at peace” or “He lived a good life.”

“Did he live a good life?” I took my place in the march.

“Yes. He did.”

I nodded and looked away. Knowing that’s really all I could offer.

She looked back over her shoulder and waved slowly at a young man just beyond the security entrance leaning on the wall. The ID-checker was correct. The woman was leaving someone she didn’t want to leave.

After the metal detector, she gathered her bags from the belt, looked up at me and said, “God bless you.”

I said, “You too," although I thought to myself, “He has.”

Overheard #15

“I don’t see how Bob--you know, St. Louis Bob--does it. He’s always out drinking at sports bars until late. Then he’s up and roaring the next day.”

—woman in her 40s donning a navy blue business suit speaking with a man in his 40s in a white button-down and a bolo tie at a gate in the Houston Love Field airport

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Blame Your Parents

Palace Florists, right off the Dupont Circle Metro stop in D.C., has a name game. If your name is Veronica on Veronica Day, then you get a free flower. I walked by there two days in a row, and the sandwich board out front read "Veronica" both days. Now, either some petunia pusher inside is slacking, or the "game" is not really a game, but a pull-you-into-the-shop gimmick based on probability laws. I mean, how many rose-loving Veronicas could there be?

And how successful is this marketing strategy? Florists surely can't thrive on impulse buyers. "My name is Veronica, and I came in to get my free rose! Hmmm. While I'm here, I might as well stock up on vases. And I need a spare oasis."

Their website has a link to their Name Game and as of this post, today is Kristy Day.

Kristy with a "K." Brilliant move, Palace. Brilliant.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Overheard #14

"Dude. You have to get some mustache wax for that thing. They sell it at CVS. It's not hard to find."

--The outdoor tables at On Tap sports bar in the Lakeview District of Birmingham. I agreed with the speaker. The dude in question had an enormously long mustache that lacked a certain style.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Characters of Natchez, MS: Buzz Harper

Antiques magnate and interior designer Buzz Harper works every room like a politician. And decorates every room like he's French nobility. This is his favorite room in the Prentiss Club, a turn-of-the-century gentlemen’s club in downtown Natchez that was in complete disrepair when he bought it. Buzz renovated and decorated the entire building and even lived here for a while before selling it in a deal that was too good to refuse. He calls the Prentiss Club his masterpiece. His zenith.

As a side note, before I met Buzz, I was warned that he was a vampire. He lived in New Orleans for years, and was the neighbor and close friend of Anne Rice. He is almost 80 years old, but he’s in great shape and looks at least 20 years younger. He eats all his beef raw. Not rare. Straight out of the fridge with a little salt and garlic. (I know, but stick with me.)

So, in one of my conversations with Buzz, he told me that he once loved collecting antiques. He realized that they were just things, though. Now he collects people. “I am a vampire,” he said. I have witnesses. Of course, what he meant was that he feeds on the energy of creativity of his friends who surround him. But those words still came out of his mouth.

Characters of Natchez, MS: John David Montgomery

The first thing John David Montgomery ever gave me was a pair of red chopsticks. To be fair, they were the only things he ever gave me. To be even fairer, he tried to give me a Bud Light when I saw him last week, but I politely passed. I still had a ways to go on the bottle in my hand.

Back to the sticks. Some call John David “J.D.” Some call him the mayor of Under the Hill, a commercial section of town that backs up beneath the town’s bluff. If Under the Hill had toes, they would always be sticking in the Mississippi River. Some call him the head bartender at the Under the Hill Saloon, a place about which I’ve previously posted and gushed. A handful of people have determined that John David looks like Mr. Miyagi (not Pat Morita—rest his soul—but Pat’s character from the beloved Karate Kid Trilogy), and those few began calling him such.

Thus the sticks. Yes, yes. Back to the sticks. Remember the scene when Mr. Miyagi, in teaching Daniel focus and patience, catches the fly with chopsticks?

John David has a party trick where he “catches” a cigarette, a Marlboro Red in fact, with chopsticks and smokes it.

With focus and patience.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Overheard #13

“I didn’t graduate, I quit-uated.”

-Biker. Probably in his 60s, with long, white hair sticking out from his do-ragged banadana. Silver goatee. He ran into old classmates--definitely non-bikers--in a Subway sandwich shop in Summerville, GA. He was joking about how he dropped out of school and that his grandchildren all have A.D.D.

Enlightenment and Coexistence Near Aldie, VA

A giant golden Buddha, his legs crossed in a meditative pose, sits peacefully across Highway 50 from the palletized sod pickup entrance for the Virginia Beef Corporation.

I don’t feel sufficiently equipped to deal with these loaded images, so I’ll just describe my experience. I was heading east down 50, away from Middleburg, VA and toward D.C., when a mysterious glint from the south caught my periphery. (Back off. I like sentences full of directional cues.) And, yes, I had appointments in the city, but I strayed from the course and turned around at the next side road.

Pulled into the driveway and started seeing EXIT signs—a sure indication that this was a bigger operation than anticipated. Dirt parking lot with a van and a couple of cars, so I thought I might find life, but all I discovered was the Buddha on a stage about 50 yards from a classic Virginia, rural farmhouse.

It’s still a mystery to me, but on my way out, I passed a clue, a wooden sign staked to a tree with translated characters: “Welcome to Wat-Pa Nanachart”

Apparently, Wat Pah Nanachat is a Buddhist monastery for English-speakers in Northeast Thailand (yes, again with the directions). That’s not near Aldie, VA and probably way off the Virginia Beef Corporation’s radar.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Overheard #12

“It’s not cutting edge, Larry. It’s bleeding edge.”

--I used to ride the coattails of photographers with millions of frequent flyer miles. They could get me in as a guest to Delta’s Crown Room—a VIP suite for the business traveler. Those places are fascinating to me. Mostly men in suits. Sating their appetites with miniature paper cups of snack mix and all the free apple juice and booze they can drink. They pace through conference calls with their hands free headsets blue-light-blinking in their ears. I was slouched in a comfy chair in the B-terminal Crown Room at the ATL airport when I heard this nugget from a graying, pot-bellied gentleman with a wrinkled smiley face sticker on this laptop.

Ay-ray Ewis-lay, Inebacker-Lay for the Altimore-Bay Avens-Ray

“I thought you said this was a travel blog.”

Whoa. Slow down, gentle reader. If you give me a minute, I just need to set up this post...

“But you wrote some trite, esoteric, wannabe-paean to surprise moments from the road (see “What’s All This Mambo Jahambo?” post), where you blabbed exhaustingly about vignettes and silver spurs or some such nonsense. You would have benefitted greatly from an editor clipping your metaphorical dewclaws. ‘This is how I roll.’ Seriously? You’re going with that? Now you patronize me Harriett Beecher-Stowe style (gentle reader; ugh!) and show me this brutish monster of a football player who is sticking his tongue out...”

Shut it, reader.

Here’s the deal: I was in Castleberry Hill, a neighborhood on the western side of downtown Atlanta that is experiencing the brakes and accelerations of gentrification. Artists started buying up and moving into the abandoned warehouses and loftifying these wonderful brick structures along Walker and Peters Streets. Shells of old businesses that once thrived because of a proximity to the railroad tracks.

Now the neighborhood has several art galleries and a handful of really good restaurants.

A photographer and I were walking up Walker peering in windows. The owner of the Emergence Gallery, Pierre Leon, invited us into his place and gave us a quick tour. He’s a multi-medium artist from Haiti who first opened galleries in New York and the Poconos. Paint, pottery, furniture. You name it, and he’s probably used it for self expression.

He was telling us about his life and work and mentioned off-handedly that he just landed a pretty famous client. Then there was a big, coy grin on his face, and he moved on to talking about living in Atlanta and Castleberry Hill. It was such juicy bait. But I let him keep talking. We moved through other subjects, and as the conversation lulled a bit, I looked him in the eye and said, “So, you’re not gonna tell me who your famous client is, are you?”

Of course he told me, and with that he threw up his hands and his face lit up, and he launched himself into giddy excitement explaining how he was about to fill the client’s house with several pieces of his own work. And his deadline was the client’s birthday party, an event attended by other equally famous people with lots of money who would almost certainly have a mutual interest in Pierre’s art.

He shared this with me off the record, so I’m sure you understand my keeping his confidence.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Chicks, Man Pt. 3: Irene Called Back

“Yes. Is Tanney Or there? I need to speak to her.”

That’s the trouble with phone messages. One’s handwriting can potentially prevent a whole conversation. I had left my info with one of the Tabard Inn’s very friendly receptionists.

Sure, I knew about whom Irene was inquiring. But if I were a literalist, I would have to answer her question with a definitive no. Ms. Or is not here. Who are you and how did you get this number?

I began, “So what’s the deal with the chicken and lizard...”

Giggles again. I couldn’t even get out my question.

Apparently the diorama (see Chicks, Man Pt. 1 posting below) was created by Jill Stapleton, an artist who years ago had worked at the Tabard. According to Irene, she made it using pieces of fabric and scraps she found lying around the inn. Jill also did a painting I noticed hanging in the stairwell. It advertises that the Tabard serves breakfast every day. And guess what? It’s another humanized chicken, sitting at a breakfast table with legs crossed and reading a newspaper.

“Her sister worked here too,” said Irene. “But she wasn’t an artist.”

The last Irene heard, Jill was in Boston. No forwarding number could be found, but Irene promised to call back if she located it. I’ll alert Ms. Or to expect the call.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Hai, Hai

This place is like Cheers with rice paper lanterns.

I picked up take-out at Kyoto Restaurant in Alexandria, VA, because it was the closest restaurant to my hotel. When I walked in, there were ten patrons in there and despite the fact they were spread out--sitting two or three to a table--they were all talking to each other. Conspiracy-theorizing on D-Day and Pearl Harbor.

There was one waitress working, buzzing kitchen-to-dining-room. Every time a customer caught her attention she would say “Hai, hai.” (“Yes, yes” in Japanese.)

And this massive guy, who could probably trace his ancestors back to the Pacific Islands, always said “Bye, bye” and laughed. They all laughed.


The Massive Guy: “What’s 04?”
Richard: “What do you mean, ‘What’s 04?’ I thought you came out of 04.”
TMG: “I came out of 06.”
R: “Oh. 04 is Logistics.”

Richard and The Massive Guy did most of the talking, with an occasional comment tossed from the other tables.

“Twenty years ago, I wanted to conquer the world,” said Richard. “Now, I just want to work ten more years, take my money, and go home.” He slumped as he sucked the remnants of his rum and Coke off the ice cubes in his glass. His defeated outlook wasn’t helped much by the fact he had settled for rum. Kyoto ran out of bourbon yesterday.

But he smiled, because as he left he received in unison a “See ya, Richard” from the whole crew.

Chicks, Man Pt. 2: Goodstone Inn, Middleburg, VA

The Goodstone Inn sits a few miles outside of Middleburg, VA, on 265 acres of farmland. Stunningly pastoral landscape. Three horses laze on the farm along with a peep of 50 hens that warm the hay in a small, red house by an old dairy barn.

Brian, the English inn manager, takes me inside the gate to the hen house. Lines of electrified wire ominously wrap the top of the fence because, "Fuxes luv chickens," he garbles in his authentic brogue. As soon as we step inside, the hens go nuts. Well, in a henny kind of way. They are all chanting in harmony, like sacred harp singers from the Wiregrass of South Alabama. Cries of alarm. They believe we are coming to get their eggs. I only stand inside the fence for a few minutes, but several of these hens waddle up repeatedly and peck my feet. (Yes, Clever McCleverson. I am hen-pecked.) They want me the hell away from their unborn babies.

I am a perceived threat--much larger than a fox--and they keep their beady black eyes on me the whole time.

Chicks, Man Pt. 1: Tabard Inn, Washington, D.C.

I’m almost afraid to call the Tabard Inn, because I’m not sure I want to really know about the anthropomorphic chicken and lizard diorama occupying the curio cabinet in the hallway leading to my room.

But I must. The receptionist was wonderfully nice, and she giggled when I described the piece to her. All she knew was that another employee had made it. She said that Irene could tell me all about it.

I’m still waiting to hear from Irene.

Ecuadorian Traces in the Capital

I step down to breakfast at the Tabard Inn, a wonderfully eclectic and insider-feeling stay a few blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington. This is the place people in town hear about but rarely go to, because it’s off the beaten path by D.C. standards.

Chatty patrons, all leaning in to hear each other and articulate their points, fill the crowded tables. Lots of hand gestures. Some laptops flopped open.

I choose a corner table, and my seat faces a beautiful painting on the wall in front of me. It’s a South American village scene beneath a looming and smoking volcano. It’s Ecuadorian; a Tigua painting done by the indigenous artists there.

I bought three small Tiqua paintings at a market across the street from the hotel where we stayed in Quito, and I'm delighted to see something so familiar.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Chance Meeting With a Fishmonger

We followed a group from the mission through the market one day. We were all clad in medical scrubs, a blur of flat greens and blues sidestepping worn tables covered in fresh fruits. Pyramids of apples and mandarin oranges. Giant grapes, like clusters of purple golf balls. And countless, exotic varieties I could not identify.

I passed a mustachioed fishmonger whose smile stopped me. He asked in Spanish if I spoke Spanish. Sorry. No hablo Espanol.

In our short, hand-gesturing, patchwork conversation, I told him I was from the United States. A-la-ba-ma. Because of what I wore, he asked if I was a doctor. Despite the fact that I have no medical training, I decided it would be much easier just to tell him yes.

He nodded his head, and in English said, “Thank you.”

I had the opportunity to share this vignette with the medical team our last night together at a banquet. I told them that almost every one of them had spoken of their amazement at how appreciative their patients and their patients’ families had been. But this man, who did not sit in the hall outside the operating room during the week, who did not pace with his pregnant wife, offered appreciation, not for what they had done for his family, but for his people.

I told them that I didn’t pick up one scalpel this week. Didn’t start one I.V. I didn’t even give away one stuffed animal. But I had watched them and I had listened. My ultimate job was to tell the story of this mission to a great audience, most of whom have only heard of this beautiful country. I was a messenger.

My first message, though, was for the team.

I told them Ecuador said thank you.

Mother and Child

So many from the medical team frequently made comments on how stoic the Ecuadorian people they encountered were. In the face of sickness the mothers and fathers rarely changed their expressions. These were a strong people, toughened by life. I watched this woman bring her son into the pre-op area and followed them through to the recovery room. She only left his side when the surgeons kept her out of the operating room. I witnessed an undying devotion in her and in countless other parents in our time there.

Valentine's Dance

On Valentine’s evening, a local children’s dance troupe entertained the group in the hotel’s banquet room.

Rooftop Laundry

The last full day in Ambato, the photographer and I attempted to get a look at Tungurahua from atop the Municipal Hospital. While clouds shrouded most of the volcano, we found this ethereal scene; locally-made blankets drying on the line with the hospital’s laundry.

La Escuela Rotario de Quindialo

One of the most moving excursions we made was on Valentine’s with a pediatric team up to a school in Quindialo, a little village about a 40 minute van ride up a mountain outside of Ambato. The children were buzzing around us as soon as we stepped onto the dirt courtyard. It was a completely different energy from what we had felt in the hospitals, because these kids (around 25 in all) were mostly healthy and full of vitality. The team offered simple check-ups and distributed bags of sunscreen, kiddie vitamins, and toys.

The headmaster gathered the children, and they sang group songs for us. We responded to each with our own; The Hokey Pokey and If You’re Happy and You Know it, for example. It was cute to see confused looks on their faces as they tried to figure out what we were singing. They anticipated our claps and joined us when they could.

After singing, the headmaster whispered to the kids, and they all ran off and returned holding red flowers. Via a translator, the headmaster thanked us all and told us we were now all friends and that we had shared lots of love on this Valentine’s Day. They gave us their flowers and big hugs.

(See a slide show from the school at top right)

An Empty Chapel

Not surprisingly, Ecuador is a very Catholic country. But every time we walked by the Regional Hospital chapel--on the second floor, outside the maternity ward (maternidad)--the door was locked. No one was praying. No candles were lit. We heard there were only Sunday masses.


It wasn’t all hospital work. Two nights in a row, a large group of us ventured into downtown Ambato with some of the Ecuadorian medical students. We salsa-ed and shook it at Roka, one of the most popular dance clubs in the city.

Overheard #11

“There have been many rites of passage this week…and most of them have been through the vaginal vault.”

-Ambato, Ecuador. Dr. Henry Vasconez, the founding member of Medical Mission Ecuador, began a birthday announcement to the group of docs and nurses with this quip. Doctors. Gotta love their odd sense of humor.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Two Universal Truths

The first universal truth I have learned this week: Everyone understands the language of care. Neither Spanish nor English can articulate as clearly as the touch of a hand or a gentle smile.

The second: Cameras love kids.

We walked outside of the hospital to take a break and made several new friends. Check out the slide show at the right.

Little Alan Penaloza

Before today, little Alan Penaloza’s chances of survival were minimal. He was born about a month ago with such a severe cleft lip and palate that he has been unable to nurse with any success. He weighs less now than at birth, and while the surgeons and anesthesiologists were apprehensive about operating on such a young child, they determined that he probably wouldn’t make the year.

The short slide show at the right follows Alan and his parents, Claudio and Amalia, from the pre-op procedures, through the surgery, to their first few minutes of being reunited in the recovery room.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ambato's Regional Hospital

Ambato's Rotary Club helps sponsor Medical Mission Ecuador and the rotarians and their wives did a great deal of prep work before the doctors and teams arrived. They posted fliers in the region a few weeks ago announcing that the clinics would be open.

Hundreds of parents and their children arrived at Ambato's Regional Hospital before daylight the first day just for a chance to be analyzed by the nurses and surgeons. Much of the work done this week will be repairing cleft lips and palates as well as reconstructing malformed ears.

After a consultation, the doctors decide the priorities of the surgeries. Unfortunately, they do not have the time or resources to see everyone. Even if a child is not chosen initially for surgery, the father or mother will often stay outside the clinic all week in hopes that a slot might open.

Indigenous Peoples

The city of Quito was first founded by the Incas, and the Spanish invaded in 1532. While walking the streets, I’ve seen many women who wear these distinct hats pulled down to their brows. They often walk hunched beneath the weight of giant bags on their backs. I’m told these are Kichwas, direct descendants of the Incas.

The Throat of Fire

It’s about a four hour bus ride from Quito to Ambato. We roll south on the Pan-American Highway, also called the avenue of the volcanoes.

About 45 minutes from our destination, one of the neurosurgeons spots Tungurahua, which means Throat of Fire in Ecuador’s indigenous language. It’s an active volcano that’s been rumbling recently. Villages were evacuated last week, and local experts are predicting that it’ll blow very soon. Even from that distance, it dominates the horizon. A cloud of dark gray ash continually plumes up and out. When the bus windows are opened, we smell the low burn.

Ambato sits about 35 miles due east of the volcano, and if it does erupt, the lava is predicted to flow in the opposite direction. Toward a town called Banos (baths), which is named for its natural hot springs heated by the volcano.

We are going to try to catch a ride up to an overlook later in the week to see it glowing at night.

Bienvenidos a Ecuador

I’m in Ecuador for a week working on a story about a medical mission team comprised of doctors, nurses, medical techies, and volunteers. They return each year to a couple of hospitals in the city of Ambato. The mission was started 16 years ago by an Ecuadorian-born surgeon who had immigrated to the States and decided to give back to the hospitals where he was trained.

A photographer and I are shadowing them. We joined these men and women from Birmingham, Memphis, Lexington, KY, Fargo, ND, Madison, WI, and Los Angeles in a cultural immersion. We were complete turistas upon landing in Quito, haggling in the markets with cameras dangling around our necks.

But once we boarded the bus bound for Ambato, the attitude changed. The focus honed.

The mission had begun.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Overheard #10

Nurse: “My daughter’s husband is not into those weird names, so they named the baby Jimmy. I just love interesting names, though, and I think they should have been more adventurous."

Me: "What did you name your kids?"

Nurse: "Well, (sheepishly) I’ve got a Michael, Jennifer, and Regina. Now, Regina’s a little different I guess. My husband never was into those weird names either. But I did have fun with my dogs."

Me: "Yeah?"

Nurse: "Yeah. We’ve got Shakespeare, Molly, Abbie, and Budreaux."

Me: "Budreux?"

Nurse: "Yeah. Everyone who meets him wants to correct me and call him Boudreaux, but I say ‘No, it’s Budreaux.'"

--Yes. Technically, this isn't an Overheard. I am engaged in the exchange, not eavesdropping. But I'm continually amazed at what people tell me. Especially when they're taking my blood pressure.

On the Floor Under the Hill

There are books that have been, should be, and will be written about the Under the Hill Saloon in Natchez, Mississippi. It attracts me the way few other places have in my travels. It’s like a fine bottle of bourbon: Beautiful when capped. Pleasing to admire. Once opened and poured, it awakens, burns, brings laughter, and, in excess, darkness.

For this post, I’ll simply focus on a detail.

I didn’t ask the drummer his circumstances. Maybe he forgot to pack a stool. Maybe he packed it, but because the band was so crammed into the corner of this late 1700s-built bar, a stool couldn’t fit. Nevertheless, there he was, inches from the floor, camouflaged by his shirt and a Mardi Gras-ed Christmas tree.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Overheard #9**

Woman: "It's a shame you didn't bring your teeth."

Man: "Huh?"


--A couple I guess to be in their 70s. The three of us are the only customers at Desposito's, a little seafood dive on Isle of Armstrong, GA. The joint is known for steamed shrimp. Unfortunately for the man, however, they don't just melt in your mouth.

**my current favorite "Overheard"

Rules are Rules: Shell Mart, Dadeville, AL

I’m not sure what I love most about this sign. Imagining Management click the “Wanted" scroll template on her Print Shop program. Imagining her creative writing process. Did the message come to her while she sorted soft packs of Salems above her head? Did she self-edit while typing--choosing “male gender” to avoid redundancy? Did she believe that phrase lent weight? Authority?

Did she hold down Shift+1 six times--six exclamation points--pause, and decide on one more? For emphasis?

I assume Management is a she.

Why would a dude be that upset about Mens in the Womens room?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Overheard #8

"I don't know, Debbie. All I know is that when they pulled him over, he had a suspended license, and they took him in."

(Then, to a tall bearded man in a black cap)
"Hey, Wolfman, how's it goin'?"

(back into the phone)
"What? At the BP. Yeah, I just saw Wolfman."

--Right off I-16 near Tarversville, GA. I'd say this balding guy was in his mid-to-late 40s. I'd say Wolfman could have everything in my wallet.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Moral Lesson from the Quik-Pak Store

I only intended to photograph the hand-scrawled instructional note taped to the shelves at a convenience store near Afton, Oklahoma. But after looking at the picture, which included the movie Betrayal and the Napeez diapers, I realized I captured a symbolic image from which we can all learn: Infidelity plus the embarrassment of asking for protection leads to big responsibilities.

Overheard by Someone Else

A friend of mine in Virginia shared the following:

"Probably five years ago my son and I were at The Diamond in Richmond for a minor league baseball game. Not that we particularly cared, but the big attraction that night was Ted Giannoulas, the Famous Chicken from San Diego, who has entertained at baseball games for a several decades. Round about the seventh inning The Chicken began signing autographs seated at a table on the concourse and a long line soon formed. We were just sort of standing nearby observing when a family came walking by us. One of their children, a little girl, was crying about something, and her mother snapped.


But then she followed it up with this classic:

'Don't embarrass me in front of The Chicken!"

Poet Laureate of Damascus, VA

“I was farred yesterday.”
“Yeah, farred.”

Dennis needed a cigarette and a sympathetic ear. So when he wandered out to the back deck of the Old Mill Restaurant—a deck with tables overlooking the Laurel River, where dozens of ducks were paddling—he found an ash tray and me.

The details of his sacking were complicated. He had had surgery. His company expected him back, but his doctor hadn’t released him to work. There was a misinformed receptionist at the doctor’s office, and his boss had been out to take his job.

Although he was only drinking sweet tea, Dennis confessed that he was enjoying some nice painkillers. Without segue, he told me he was a poet and that his best poem was inspired by a log church and written for a girl he dated right after his divorce.

“I had thoughts,” he said and winked. “She didn’t have those thoughts. But I had those thoughts.” This poem was meant to soften her heart.

He recited it for me line by line.

I got Dennis to tell me where the church was—the Laurel Valley Community Church on Laurel Valley Road—and I drove out to it the next day. His poem was printed in fancy script and framed inside the vestibule.

“In a mountain meadow lies an old log church
Weathered and cracked with time
And through its doors have passed
Many lovers through the ages of time
Then one day two lovers appeared and walked down its aisle
And one stopped and asked, “Will you
be mine”
While the other whispered, “Till the end
of time.”
As they knelt before the alter
Their souls became as one
For they knew their love would last forever
Beyond the ages of time.”

Existential Musing at the Pittsburgh Airport

When we walk, we are walkers. But standing just happens to us. When we are spoonfed, are we eatees? Do Sunday VH-1 marathons make us watchees?