Goodbye, Tony

anthony rip

I still find it hard to believe that Anthony Bourdain is gone.  On the morning of June 8th—not yet a month ago—I woke up, brewed myself a cup of Joe, looked at my Twitter feed, and saw that he’d used the belt from his bathrobe to hang himself in his hotel room in Kaysersberg, France.

I immediately Googled his name and started reading.  I needed to confirm that such a thing had really happened.  After looking at the internet for a few minutes, I turned on CNN and a variety of journalists—many of them just hearing about this and now teary-eyed—were talking about Bourdain’s life and his death.  Indeed, this horrifying news was true.

Anthony was one of the most decent people I’ve ever known.  I wrote “known” without consciously deciding to do so.  It is perfectly normal that I wrote it, though.  So many of us knew him.  He was our brother, our father, our son, our uncle, our best friend, the guy we could see ourselves hanging out with.  He was a fellow traveler.

It goes without saying that we are all travelers.  We are all on our way.  We are all wandering and looking for the right path.

While I was living abroad for nearly two decades—in Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and then Egypt—I only occasionally got to see Tony because I rarely looked at television in those faraway places.  But when I came home for vacation during the summertime, I watched, as regularly as the beat of a human heart, No Reservations and then Parts Unknown.  In Anthony, I saw myself.  He was the famous me.  Both of us traveled and explored.  His adventures made it to TV while mine didn’t.  This meant he spoke for me.  I turned on the TV to watch him tell my stories.  Thank you, Tony, for telling them even better than I could have.

Tony was an unapologetic internationalist and we will miss him for that too, especially now that so many Americans seem to be proudly proclaiming themselves “America First!” ultra-nationalists.  (Every time I hear America first, I can’t help but think “Deutscheland uber alles!”)

By the way, blessed be the internationalists because they promote a message of peace and mutual respect.

If you ever watched Tony on television, you know he had a really good time when he was out and about, but he also carried an enormous responsibility.  He explained other countries and the peoples who live in them to a nation of individuals many of whom don’t own passports.  This made him a teacher who didn’t lecture or draw up lesson plans.  In other words, he taught without teaching and he preached without preaching.  And we all sat raptly listening and learning and were converted.

So, Tony, I end this by simply saying goodbye.  I will miss you, and this nation and the world will miss you too, especially now.

 

 

 

People Who Drive Station Wagons Are Nerds

subaru 2

I just now looked out my window at work and saw him walking on the sidewalk.  The timing was perfect.  As luck would have it, I began writing something about him—he was front and center in my mind—and then, while I was trying figure out what I wanted to say, here he came, walking on the sidewalk right on the other side of this pane of glass.

I’ll have to keep using male pronouns when I refer to him because I don’t know his name.  I do know a few things about him, though.  I’ve bulleted these factoids:

  • He’s in in 60s
  • He wears a necktie and sweater vest every single day even when it’s very hot
  • He is retired and now does part-time work in one of these offices around here in one of these buildings
  • He drives a 2006 Subaru Forester station wagon

On point number four, I’d like to mention that I also drive an older model Subaru station wagon.  Mine is a 2002 Legacy.  That’s the difference.  Here’s the similarity:  Both are silver in color.

I got to know him because we work together at Palo Alto College, a little school that does yeoman’s work in an economically depressed area of south San Antonio.  We also arrive at work a little earlier than is required on most mornings.  (I’ll leave it to you to determine what this says about us.)  Anyway, because we are such eager beavers, our cars are often the first two to arrive and are thus the only ones around.  Despite having a million choices about where we might situate our rides, we both enjoy parking right next to one another.  (I’m beginning to wonder if this practice isn’t turning out to be something akin an almighty Subaru show of force.)

He arrives slightly earlier than I do on some mornings.  When this happens, I find him sitting behind the wheel—perhaps he is waiting for me to arrive?—and smoking.   I don’t know what brand he prefers.  (He’s probably a Marlboro man if I had to hazard a guess.  He doesn’t wear a ten-gallon hat or chaps or anything like that, nor does he generally go unshaven for a day or so or have that rugged sunburned look, but I’m pretty sure he’s a Marlboro man nonetheless.)  I pull up next to him and look across the little space that separates us and wave.  He fills his lungs with smoke and nicotine and other chemically things and waves back.  This is how we greet each other almost every morning.

Once parked, I’ll gather my things together and open the door to get out.  Often—maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe it isn’t?—we’ll lock up at just about the same time.  This synchronized exiting of vehicles gives us the opportunity to actually exchange a few words.  Because we have old Subaru station wagons in common, we mostly talk about our cars.  “How’s the Subaru running?” he’ll ask.

“Pretty good.  About a month ago, the ‘check engine’ light came on.  Other than that, pretty good.  How about yours?”

“I’ve got a little engine clatter, I’m afraid,” he said earlier this week.

His mentioning of the engine gave us a chance to stand in the parking lot for five minutes and discuss the famed “boxer” motor that older Subarus are so well known for.

As soon as the engine talk was done, we walked silently, side by side, until he veered off to the left and I veered off to the right to enter Nueces Hall.

I still don’t know what his name is or where he works.  Note to self:  Find this out next week.

 

 

 

The Man My Father Was and Is

My wife and I just got back from Georgetown, Texas, the town I grew up in and the place my father and stepmother still call home.  And now, this Sunday morning, I’m looking inward, to see what sort of thoughts bubble up about this recent visit with two people I’m very close to.

I feel that there’s a story I want to tell this morning about the visit.  There are thoughts, some tinged with a sense of melancholy, that need getting down and organizing.

Earlier this week, days before we took off to Georgetown, my father was much in my thoughts.  This preoccupation was triggered when I got into a box of old photos and found two of him that were taken when he was just a boy.  I spent a long time holding those pictures in my hands and looking at them.  They were likely taken in the early to mid-1940s, at a time when a great war raged and the world was a much different sort of place.  Today, in 2018, my father is an octogenarian, but I can still see signs of that boy when I look at those images.

 

Last night, I sat across the dining room table from my father after dinner and while the dishes were being cleared.  As often happens on such visits, I prompted him with questions about what his life had been like decades ago.  He often complains about how bad his memory has gotten, but he somehow always manages to recollect past events, in minute detail, and then share them.

“Did I ever tell you about Billy Dowdy?” my dad asked as he removed his glasses, an act which allowed him, I suppose, to see way back.

“I don’t think so,” I answered.

“So you didn’t know Billy Dowdy?”

Janie, my stepmother, said, “Roy, he couldn’t have known him.”

As it turns out, Billy Dowdy was a man several years younger than my father.  He’d grown up in a little shack of a place that was located in a field behind my father’s boyhood home and not far from the San Gabriel River, a vein of blue-green water that the two youngsters knew well and swam in together.

In 1953, after finishing high school, my father joined the US Air Force and was sent overseas, for four years, to places like Guam and Japan, to learn and send messages in Morse code.  Before being shipped off to those faraway places, he recalls saying goodbyes to everyone he’d ever been close to.  Of course, Billy Dowdy was one of those who’d received such a farewell.

In 1957, when dad had completed his military service, he returned to Georgetown and went to see Billy, to let him know that he was back in town.  Much to my dad’s amazement, Billy, the boy, was now Billy, the alcoholic man.  He’d aged more than four years could account for.  Dad recalls that his boyhood buddy now carried a bottle with him wherever he went and that he would take his first swig immediately upon waking up and wouldn’t take his last until the booze ran dry or he’d pass out.  Where had Billy, the lad full of life and possibility, gone off to?

My father liked to party too, and sometimes he’d pick Billy up in his old roadster and the two would go honky-tonking together.  Dad remembers how his boyhood companion could sing exactly like Hank Williams.  He had a beautiful voice, and my father would drive and listen to Billy sing those sad cowboy songs as the two moved through the dark night with the windows rolled down and the breeze ruffling their combed and oiled hair.

Billy got arrested a lot and died in the Georgetown jail.  That was how Billy’s story ended.  It was also the point my father stopped telling it.  He put his glasses back on and looked down at the table.

When he looked back up again, he asked, “How had Billy gone from what he’d been to what he’d become in four short years?”  Such a transformation was beyond my father’s understanding.

I’m sitting here thinking about the question my father asked and how universal it is.  How have any of us become the people we are now?  How much of all that was by choice and how much was outside our human control?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portals

people-sign-traveling-blur

I miss airports. I know that might sound like crazy talk to those who travel, via air, all around these United States on business trips and therefore find themselves rushing from one terminal to another and one departure gate to another. It might sound like kookiness to other classes of people too. That’s possible, even probable. But to know how I lived for two decades of my life is to understand why I miss airports.

Facts are always important, so I’ll throw a few out there. I have flown over the Atlantic Ocean somewhere around forty times, and I have cruised, at thirty-something thousand feet above sea level, over many smaller bodies of water too. I have lived and worked in five countries—America, Poland, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt—located on four of the seven continents. If my count is correct, my two size-eight feet have tread across the soil of twenty-three nation-states, and planes have taken me to all of them. Ergo, I have been in many airports of the world and have developed a great fondness for such magical buildings.

I don’t use the word “magical” casually.  If you think about it, airports are portals.  A traveler steps into one, boards a flying behemoth, defies the law of gravity by lifting off terra firm, only to be deposited in a new place quite far away from where one started.  At the airport where one departed everyone was speaking English.  And then, when one disembarks, halfway around the world, people are mostly using Turkish or Chinese or Tagalog.  Such dramatic changes are jarring and they have a tendency to wake one up out of the deepest of metaphorical slumbers.  Then there’s the jetway, the most magical of magical places.  The jetway, leading to the plane, is something like an umbilical cord, though the analogy is not perfect.  Once inside the womb of the jumbo jet, one is connected to mother earth.  At liftoff, that connection is broken and one finds himself as disoriented as a newborn.

Though I am in love with airports, I’ve never been that wild about airplanes. It’s not my idea of fun to strap myself into a glorified tin can and hurtle through time and space at hundreds of miles per hour and tens of thousands of feet in the air. Airports, on the other hand, are a different story. Airports are hub spots and make great metaphors. For example, they are hives where planes gather and live. People, like bees, buzz through these great hives too.

Though I had taken short flights from one city in America to another even as a boy, my real experience with airports began in 1994 when, after an incredibly strange series of events, I went around a bend in the road of my life and joined the Peace Corps. The US government, after looking at all my paperwork and interviewing me on the telephone, decided to send me to Poland to do educational consulting work and teacher training.

We soon-to-be Volunteers flew out of JFK International Airport in New York. If NYC is the world, in microcosm, then JFK International is a condensed version of that metropolis. Up until ‘94, I was a rural, small-town guy and a mere amateur when it came to traveling. In JFK, I saw, for the very first time, the peoples of the planet, gathered together in all their infinite variety, and was thrilled to death by the spectacle. It was one of those moments—they come on rare occasions—when the eyes behold something of great wonder and portent.

Many hours after getting airborne, we landed in gloomy Warsaw and disembarked at Okecie Airport.  Poland’s largest portal seemed tiny and poor by comparison to JFK. The Poles we encountered there seemed tired, world weary, very Old World, and fascinated by all the Americans suddenly in their midst. I recall that the locals spoke a language full of soft sounds and unapologetically smoked while we waited for our baggage to come around the carousel.  In airports, travelers get that first jolt of culture shock.  The newness of a new place walks right up to you and gets in your face.

Schiphol International Airport, in Amsterdam, is probably my favorite facility of its type in the world; although, I would give honorable mentions to Barajas Airport in Madrid, O’Hare in Chicago, and the International Airport in Dubai.  I also have a very fond recollection of sitting at a tiny bar that was located near my departure gate in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental.  I recall that I was ordering the most exotic bottles they had and emptying them like a real pro.  I was the bartender’s only customer so he had time to talk.  I can’t really recall where I was flying off to, but it was probably Egypt.  He was very curious about North Africa and Islam and I had time to teach him a bunch.

Back to Schiphol.  I have been in that airport probably ten times and have taken the train—the station is just below the ground floor—into the city six or seven of those times. If you do so, you end up right at the main train station in the heart of the old city.  The train doors slide open and one exits the building only to be confronted by the grandeur and magic of Amsterdam.  Come to think of it, train stations are places of great wonder too, and I have been in many throughout Europe and in parts of Asia.

I have had long layovers in Schiphol. Because of such waits, I have had the opportunity to rent hotel rooms, inside the airport proper, on at least two different occasions. (Most recently, in 2009, I stayed in a postmodern place called Yotel and have vivid recollections of how the hallway leading to my room was lit by purple neon, giving the place a kind of Star Trek feel.)  I know Schiphol so well and find it so inspiring that I would easily choose to live there if I were rich enough and free enough to be able to make that happen.  I know that sounds like the ravings of a lunatic, but I assure you that I’m speaking the truth.  I would actually TAKE UP RESIDENCE inside Schiphol Airport if I were younger and freer and had deeper pockets.

Moving freely around the world and passing through airports is now in my past. My Egyptian wife and I have decided, for a whole bunch of reasons, some of them political, to settle, at least for the time being, in the fascinating city of San Antonio in Texas, USA.  We are doing what some call “putting down roots.”  In my former life, I was in international education and thus had the sort of free time which gave me ample opportunity to travel. Today, on the other hand, I’m working in educational administration and don’t have as many vacation days as I once did. In fact, I haven’t stepped foot inside an airport, as a traveler, since the summer of 2015. That’s a real change in my way of being.

On some day of great import, we’ll pull up these roots and become vagabonds again. When that happens, it won’t take me long to adjust to my old ways. After all, travel is a big part of who I am even if that part of me is now dormant. And the airport, that place that appeals to the dreamer in me, will once again become the closest thing I’ll have to a home.

This Morning’s Commute

commuting

I opened the front door and the cold hit me.  I stepped out into it.  The sun was just coming up in San Antonio, and the outside colors were muted and tending toward the grayscale.  We live a short distance away from Loop 410, the Alamo City’s inner ring road, and I could hear, even as I walked down the sidewalk toward the truck, a roar—the collective voice of a million cars being pushed along by human beings.

It was cold as I slid into the seat, closed the door, inserted the key, and fired up.  I shivered, blew steam from my mouth.  I punched a button that would, in a few minutes, get heat going into the cab.  The truck was ready now, so I released the handbrake, put it in reverse and left.

I know a way to avoid the nearby school zone.  San Antonio is a big city that is filled with people, many of whom have children.  For the commuter, school zones mean slowing down and pausing for buses and children crossing streets.  For the commuter, these delays are maddening.  What we commuters turn into, at 7 a.m., is something single-minded and harried.  We curse those things we would normally tolerate.  We become something other than what we naturally are.

There is a moment, shortly after I turn off Marbach Road, when I can see the on-ramp to Loop 410.  I punch it then and my machine, made by the Nissan Corporation, makes a guttural sound.  I feel like an astronaut in the early moments of liftoff.  The force of acceleration pushes my head back as I rocket toward the great flow of vehicles.

I know this route and routine well.  I am one of a million now, jockeying for position, weaving in and out, and watching for signs of danger.  We are heading south.  Soon, I will make the big eastward turn and the sun, just peeking above the horizon, will cause me to squint.  The sky is becoming more interesting, moment by moment.  I would love to spend more time studying its shapeshifting clouds and nuanced colorations, but I have to remain wary.  Surrounded by these machines, madness, and speed, anything, at any time, could happen.

We pass by all sorts of landmarks, including the factory that puts out plumes of steam or something else.  The place produces God knows what.  It marks the moment we turn toward the east, and I adjust the visor to keep my eyes shaded.  What I am witnessing now, all around me, in this great flow of machines, is the human condition writ large.

I eventually take the Palo Alto College exit and the frenzy dies down.  I have a left turn to make and then two right ones.  A sign tells us we may drive our machines at forty miles per hour but no faster than that.  I make those turns and then pull into a lot where I turn the key in the ignition, putting my machine to rest.  Its engine pings and pops as it begins to cool down.  It will spend the next few hours resting up and preparing to carry me home as the day moves from light to dark.

I envy my machine as I step away from it.  It’s now my time to roar.

Charles Bukowski Currently Teaches English at Starbucks

charles-bukowski
The Real Bukowski in All His Glorious Madness

Last Saturday I met Charles Bukowski at a Starbucks in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Antonio, Texas.  He was arriving just as my wife and I had finished up our coffees and were gathering our belongings to leave.

Because he could see that we were getting ready to take off, he walked right up to us and asked, “Are you finished here?”

“Yes,” I answered as I stared at his acne-scarred face and misshapen nose—the bulbous proboscis of a wino.

“I ask because you’re at my favorite table, and I want to claim it if you are leaving.”

“You can put your stuff here if you’d like while we get ready to head out.  By the way, has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Charles Bukowski?”

“Charles who?” he asked gruffly.

“Never mind.”

In fact, he was a spitting image of the renegade poet-madman-drunkard.

Because we’d bought books and had to put on coats and scarves to gird ourselves against the cold, it took us awhile to get our stuff together.  During this period, a conversation began to blossom.  “So you come here often?” I asked him.

“Every Saturday.  You see, I’m retired, but I give private lessons on the side to people who want to learn English.  Right now, I’m working with three young girls from Djibouti.  I always teach them at this particular table.”  After saying this, he leaned in to me and whispered, “Their English is very weak.”

Azza, my wife who speaks Arabic as her mother tongue, is not really a shy person, but she sometimes has a hard time inserting herself into a conversation between Americans when they are speaking a hundred miles an hour.

“I bet they’ll learn very fast, though,” I told him.  “They will probably be better at learning our language than we would be at learning theirs.”

“Maybe.  But who would want to learn whatever it is that they speak?”

“Ask them to speak their language to you and really listen to what they say.  I bet what you hear will sound beautiful if you open your ears and mind.  It’s my opinion that more Americans should learn a second language.”

He kind of frowned and then said, “So many people from crap countries want to come here.  They are just flooding in.  They have to learn English because it’s the lingua franca.”

I could feel the hair stand up on my neck.  Only days earlier, Donny Trump, the Hairpiece, had called African countries “shitholes.”  I had the feeling this old fart was likely a Trumper, and a part of me wanted to snarl.

“By the way, I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Azza.  She’s from Africa.  Her country and the people who call it home are beautiful in many ways.”

“I’m sure it is and that they are,” he said a touch snarkily.

“I think Americans should be a little more careful about judging others.  Don’t you think this country has its share of problems?” I asked him.

“Compared to other places, America is el paradiso,” he said, suddenly shifting to a foreign language.  “By the way, where, in Africa, is your wife from?”

“Egypt,” she said, finally asserting herself.

The man’s face suddenly changed and he started speaking Arabic to her.  As it turns out, he was born in Egypt and lived there as a child.  He asked her where, in “Misr,” she was from, and she said Cairo.  He, as it turns out, had been born in Alexandria.

From that point forward, I faded into the background because the language shifted to Arabic.  At one point, he asked her what her religion was and she said Islam.  He then called himself a “Yehudi,” which means “Jew,” and explained that this fact had played an important role in why his family left North Africa.  He shared some stories about how they had been victims of religious persecution under President Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Hearing these personal accounts saddened my wife.

We ended up talking until his three students showed up.  They were sweet girls.  Before they arrived, we found plenty to laugh about—the irony of an Egyptian Muslim and Jew meeting at the same table in a Starbucks at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Antonio.  We were reminded how small the world really is and how big it is too.  And how much we have in common despite our superficial differences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Third-Rate President

 

were n egypt
In Wadi Gedid, Egypt

I have a tendency to go on and on when I blog, but I want to be short and to the point on this one.  I am an American man who couldn’t be prouder to be married to an émigré from Egypt, an African country and one of those places the “President”—I don’t find him one bit presidential so I’m required to use quotation marks—recently besmirched by referring to them as “shitholes.”

I am proud because my wife is kind, honest, hardworking, creative, and generous, just to name a few of her positive attributes.  I find it ironic that a day after the “President” belittled those who’ve come here from other places, my wife completed the paperwork needed to start her own sole proprietorship, a home baker business she’s calling “ZooZoo’s Sweet Treats.”  She owned and operated such an enterprise in Egypt and did very well, mostly because she is an artist in the kitchen and a skilled entrepreneur.  I expect that she’ll be a smash here as well.

By the way, has the “President” seen this country in its entirety?  There are places in these United States that could use a little enrichment and beautification.

Why, one wonders, did Trump choose the term shitholes?  He could have referred to locales in Africa and such as “beautiful places,” but he didn’t.  He used such a descriptor because he thinks of large swaths of everywhere else as the “Third World” which equates to “third-rate.”  (Unfortunately, this whole “first-world-versus-third-world way of thinking is widely held in America.)  Those from the Third World are thought to be third-rate because they are poor and backward, which says a lot about what Americans put value on.  Such a way of looking at the world fails to take into account the fact that many in the Third World are actually first-rate when it comes to their spiritual development and the like.