Thursday, December 1, 2011

Friday is a Good Night for a Fight

A great hush fell over the huge assembly. Even the dogs stopped yapping; one might have thought that the monstrous room was empty. The two men had stood up, the small white gloves over their hands. They advanced from their corners and shook hands...Then they fell into position. The crowd gave a long sigh--the intake of a thousand excited breaths."

--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Croxley Master"

Tonight, I ride my bike through the streets of New Orleans, through the recovering neighborhood of Broadmoor, down a pot-holed filled Freret Street, which is strangely just blocks away from the beautiful and stately St. Charles Avenue. On Freret I pass abandoned buildings and vacant storefronts alternating between new cafes and restaurants, some with barely a layer of paint slap-dashed over a recently unused facade. On my right I pass Freret Boxing Gym with its concrete floors and water-stained walls. It is catty-corner to my destination, a parking lot cordoned off with cheap blue tarps. Within the tarps are throngs of people hunched around an elevated boxing ring, food and beer vendors operating out of carts, and a crudely loud p.a. system blasting fuzzy-sounding rap music. It is a brisk 50 degree evening for New Orleans, "cold" by local standards. It is Friday night and everyone is ready for a fight.

I pay my $15 and enter the portal to New Orleans amateur boxing. Hosted once a month by Freret Boxing Gym, typically on the first Friday, it has become a local favorite for would-be and has-been boxers alike, in addition to hipsters, yuppies, professor types of various ages, and all others with a morbid curiosity in the art of pugilism.

With its termite infested interiors, leaking ceiling, quasi-toxic restroom, and primitive changing room, the Freret Boxing Gym looks like a set from a boxing movie from the seventies (and has in fact served as the backdrop to movies and TV shows). Of the dozen or so boxing gyms in the city, Freret is one of the few reflecting a diversity of race and socio-economic background. It is also where I have been training for the past year.

Fight Night is a BYOB alcohol situation, and upon entering the chain link fenced-off parking lot I take a few sips from my bottle of Crown Royal Canadian whiskey to keep warm. I shout a hello to Mike from New York, the gym's owner, a friendly and surly man in his early 40's. I check in with a few of the trainers, all of whom are busy with preparations working the corner of one of the evening's fighters, and all of whom find it virtually impossible to keep training appointments. In the past year of training at Freret, I have learned a decent left jab and right straight punch; I've also learned that the sport does not attract the most reliable of men for trainers. But, despite my inability to secure a consistent trainer, I am drawn back to that nasty little place to jump rope, punch bags, and dodge make-believe punches on my lonesome, like most of the men there. I am drawn back by that same unspeakable something that brings me to watch tonights bouts on this very night.

I have come alone to the fights. The dozen or so friends I lobbied heavily to join me instead opted to attend a theatre festival. I spit on the ground in disgust at the mere thought of it. Just as well. With my hood on my head, wolfing down a hotdog and guzzling some more whiskey, I recognize that my draw to boxing is perhaps a manifestation of one of my more unsightly qualities.

Having seen the fighters sparring and training for this day all week in the gym, I expect the evening's bouts to be worthwhile. My eyes dart around for the tall, young black male, tatooes on his arms, who showed a certain steeliness against his nervy, slightly more bulkier, white opponent. I look for the young Latino who clearly has been training all week with the clear intention that this fight will not be his last. I see my current trainer, barely 30 years old and just out of prison after a 15 year stint, working the corner of the only female fight this evening. He recently won a prestigious amateur fight sponsored by Ringside and is slated to go first to the Olympics.

Despite the brisk temperatures, the crowd is quite thick, mostly male, but with a decent showing of women, and a surprising count of hipsters. In my solitude I am recognized by a three men and a women. The man is the husband of a new friend of mine. He and his three companions are all professors at Loyola, in English, chemistry, philosophy, and Chinese Islam. Not exactly the typical peanut gallery for a fight night but I am happy to have their company.

The lights get brighter and the crowd gets quiet as the boxers take the ring. My heart races. The first pair of fighters are surprisingly agile, but leave some to be desired in form. Unguarded faces leave plenty of time for jabs never thrown. But they are young and fit and moving, which is good enough for tonight. Bets are made, beers are chugged and whiskey is slugged. I shrug as the professors decline my offer of Crown, nursing their cold light beers.

I call the winner two out of three fights, should have been three times but alas the fix was in. The ref is inattentive, almost complacent. In one of the matches, a fighter surrenders in lieu of a drawn out beating.

By the fourth fight, the crowd has thinned out, but has grown louder. It is now almost completely devoid of women and hipsters, and the air is thick with heckling and yelling. The professors and I make our way to the edge of the ring where we join our comrades in hooded sweatshirts, guzzling beer and taking sides. Loudly.

The fights get progressively harder and meaner, and the fighters heavier. Bad calls are made and boos are echoed. From our vantage point, an arm's reach away from the boxers' feet, I can hear them breathing, see them thinking about how to move, when to dip, when to throw. A whiskey-induced buzz finally sets in and I am seeing them move in slow motion, chills running down my spine not from the temperature but from the mood in the air between them. Here before me are two adversaries who challenge one another in simple form, three minutes of each round lasting a lifetime.

Finally comes the bout between two women, one of whom I share a trainer. Their form supercedes all previous fighters thus far, as does their agility. Both are skilled but one is a killer. She bloodies her opponent's mouth. The complacent ref does nothing. The killer looks at the ref as she delivers blow after blow to the face, as if imploring him to call a TKO. Nothing. Mercifully the bell rings. My trainer rushes to his trainee who has lost, as does James, the other trainer.

James is older, in his sixties, teddy-bear like in stature and demeanor, and clearly beyond his days as a fighter. And this is the third female winner I know of who calls him coach. I've seen him in the gym before, when I first started training, and when he used to get along with Mike the gym owner. He now trains his stallions at the Crescent City gym, deep in the heart of Central City, lodged between two notoriously dangerous public housing projects, in one of the more crime-ridden corners in town.

I look at the winner, standing next to James, and I look at the loser, mouth bloodied and face swollen, standing next the man who has flaked on my last two training sessions. I do not, repeat, do not, want to be standing next to a trainer--Olympic bound or not--with my mouth bloodied and face swollen.


Despite its brutish nature, the sport has historically drawn a variety of fans. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, medical doctor and author of the Sherlock Holmes stories was a known supporter, and even wrote a short story about boxing called "The Croxley Master." Doyle himself was an amateur fighter in his med school days. One can't help but think that the story's main character was drawn from his own experience; a med school student training for an amateur boxing match against an older, more brutish and more experienced competitor. I enjoy Doyle's description of the sport and the popular love of it:

"Sometimes brutal, sometimes grotesque, the love the sport is still one of the great agencies which make for the happiness of our people. It lies very deeply in the springs of our nature, and when it has been educated out, a higher more refined nature may be left, but it will not be of that robust British type which as left its mark so deeply on the world. Every one of these ruddled workers, slouching with his dog at his heels to see something of the fight, was a true unit of his race."

Myself, I have my own reasons for boxing, overlapping in part with Doyle's theory. I've already acknowledged my former trial-lawyer-esque crave for adversity and public performance. It is an annoying and possibly unhealthy urge, and being clever can get old; all of these reasons are in large part why I left the legal profession to work for a non-profit affordable housing developer. But I acknowledge that remnants of the thirst for achievement remain in this adrenaline-seeking corpus of mine. I was raised and trained to be a competitive person, and I get a buzz from challenge; so why not get that buzz in a structured and controlled environment? With boxing I am reassured by the fact that at least in this adrenaline-laden arena I gamble with my physical health, and not the liberty of another.

To become a professional fighter is not my desire. But I look forward to the day when I feel fit and prepared enough to step in the ring under the bright lights in the cold night, as I encounter a worthy adversary who has agreed to challenge my training and skills in one of the world's most unadulterated forms of conflict resolution. There is something to it--to abandoning the cleverness of words and argument and cajoling, and instead, speaking through the art of swings, throws, thrusts, dodges.

As I walk to the porta-potty in between bouts, I see James' entourage--a half dozen of fit, toughly scowling women who used to train at Freret and have since moved to Crescent. "James," I call out, waving at him. He gives me a big paternal smile and makes his way through the crowd to me.

Before I can say a thing, he says with a knowing look in his eyes, "So you ready to become a fighter?"

Friday, November 25, 2011

Feeling Racy

A good holiday is one spent among people whose notion of time is vaguer than yours.

--J.B. Priestly

Thirty-four years of life on this planet has given me but one single pearl of wisdom: Do not, if at all possible, spend Thanksgiving weekend flying across the country to spend it with your biological family. If you choose to do so, your flight(s) will in fact be delayed. You will lose luggage. You will be yelled at by at least two strangers. And, before you know it, you will do the same thing all over again on the way back a few days later. In end, you will have spent just as much time in airports, waiting rooms, and taxi lines as you have with your family.

My preferred alternative, I promise you, is not as lonely as it sounds: if in New Orleans, head to the racetrack. Erase from your mind images of lonely down-and-outers, single men in cheap jackets and caps, huddled over a bottle in a paper bag, clutching their gambling tickets in their hands as if waiting for the second coming.

Thanksgiving in New Orleans is opening day for the live horse racing season at the Fairgrounds Races and Slots, a tradition dating back to 1898. The Fairgrounds is the third oldest racetrack in the country and celebrates its 140th season this year. Admission for ground level viewing is free, and despite beer and liquor vendors present, BYOB is an acceptable practice. So, for those of us with no predilection to spend a penny on a pony, it's an afternoon of visual stimulation free of charge. It is less about gambling and more about, well, hats.

I call on the usual suspects of local friends, and donning our best retro-hats, we ride our bikes to the Fairgrounds. We aren't the only ones with a time machine image of horse racing in mind; scanning the crowd, one could easily mistake this to be a movie set for Seabiscuit.

In many cases, the hats are vintage, scoured from second-hand stores and stashed away in closets, waiting for this very occasion.

In other cases, one can glimpse a flavor of multi-generational wealth with an old South flair.

We pass the day running into friends and acquaintances, all of us admiring outfits and costumes, or staring at little men on large horses.

With the fine nuances of gambling and horse-racing culture lost one me, I opt out on actually gambling, but a companion has won $11.00. Myself, I am perfectly content to stay bug-eyed watching people, animals, and things pass me by for the next three hours.

Eventually, we are back at the ranch, deep frying a turkey, heating up merliton and crawfish stuffing, and blending the last stick of butter into the giant pot of mashed potatoes. There are about nine of us Thanksgiving orphans, most of us single and unencumbered with obligatory in-law visits, most of in our thirties, and all of us smart enough to know better than to be stuck in an airport. Together we have spent the day doing the most basic of life's activities; eating, drinking, spending time with friends, roaming amongst strangers and watching odd, pretty things in our sight.

Later in the day I return a phone call from my mother who has finished a 10k Turkey walk with my sister and nieces in California. I am glad to hear her voice and to know that my family is well. I check in with longtime friends in Alaska who went skiing earlier in the day but now are staying indoors from a snowstorm. I am thankful that my family is safe and sound out west where I grew up, and that my friends in Arctic north are warm and toasty.

I am also thankful to have lovely friends old and new in New Orleans where I now live, and with whom I have whiled the hours away on a beautiful sunny Thanksgiving Day at a racetrack and now at a friend's house. I guess home is where you wear your best horse races hat...with friends, and lots and lots of food; and I am thankful to be home be home for the holidays.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Black Pot

If it is possible to fall in love with a place, I have already done so. Physically, Lafayette is not a beautiful city, but I mean it when I say that it is the personality that counts. The capital of Cajun country in Louisiana, it is where you can find traditional Cajun food and music on a regular basis, as if time has not passed since the arrival of French Acadians in the 18th century. It is a place where people still cook with a black pot.

So it only makes sense that there would be a Blackpot Festival, every year, at Acadian Village, a folk life museum situated on 10 acres of farmland just at the edge of Lafayette proper. Created and organized in large part by the Red Stick Ramblers band six years ago, of the half dozen or so Cajun festivals in the area I've attended, I consider Blackpot Festival the premiere. With an outdoor dance pavilion and a small church serving as simultaneous music venues, one can see not only Cajun legends old and new, but also blues, bluegrass, country, and Appalachian music; and that isn't counting the scores of musicians who jam around campfires after hours.

But here Cajun prevails. In this part of the country where conversation in French was banned in schools just a few decades ago in order to induce the assimilation of Acadians into Anglo-American life, on this weekend I watch and listen to twenty-something-year-old Cajuns croon in ancient French, equipped with accordions and fiddles, while dancers take the field. It is as if Britney Spears never happened.

The weekend, however, truly culminates around the cooking contest, where local contestants cook their wares on-site in their own cast iron black pots. Only a handful will earn titles, but it is really the spectators who win during the free tastings. Gumbo, rabbit stew, jambalaya, soups involving frogs...the Cajuns really figured it out when they first threw the nearest swamp animal in a black pot for dinner. It doesn't take much suspension of disbelief to buy that the morsels being served up at the contest are true to the spirit of Cajun swamp life in the early days.

To me Blackpot Festival is the perfect marriage between food and music. And, in this environment, it is impossible not to enjoy the company of friends, some I brought with me from New Orleans, some I reconnected with from my old home of Alaska, and some I've met only a handful of times previously in Lafayette who treat me as they've known me forever. Food, music, and possibly a little booze, the kindness of strangers and sounds simple enough but why is it that you can't find that combination just anywhere? Maybe it takes culture, or in Lafayette's case, a couple hundred years of culture.

There is a Cajun saying, "Lache pas la patate," which means, literally, don't drop the potato. In modern times, the slogan has become an Acadian call to arms to hold on to a culture from a time far past--Don't let go, so to speak, of those things that make one Cajun. In the same way I love New Orleans for its continual blending of cultures throughout its existence and still so today, I fawn over Lafayette for precisely the opposite reason; because the Acadians are and have been determined to preserve and celebrate a culture created long ago in a distinct moment in history, and one that could have become extinct without such stubbornness. Born in the countryside of France, driven through the snows of North America, finally to flourish in the swamps of Louisiana, Cajun culture is at once French in its roots but also truly American in its resourcefulness which shaped it into something utterly unique. In their own way, Cajuns are evidence that America truly is a melting pot, in this case, a black cast iron one with a gumbo in it.

Photos by William Clancy used with permission.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Vermillionaires

It's a mere 98 degrees late in the afternoon when I'm driving westward in my air-conditionless '87 Toyota pick-up truck with the Milo-dog. All the windows are down yet I am sweating like a pig and he's panting like any reasonable dog would. Traffic is a horror with construction adding another hour. As we crawl through the massive expanse of empty fields occasionally dotted with only unsightly strip malls, I ask myself why I am doing this to myself.

Eventually I find the Henderson Levee Road and circle back and forth because, as so frequently happens in Acadiana, street signs are few and far between, and googlemaps is understandably inaccurate in this sparsely populated part of Louisiana with long and winding roads. And, in true Louisiana form, the signage of my destination, "Lavelle's" makes no indication that it is commonly and officially called Whiskey River Landing.

At 5 in the evening, the only shade I can find for my dog is to park my tiny old truck next to one of the dozen brand new Ford F350's. I suck down a cold coke, give the boy some water, feed him, and leave all the windows down. He has stopped panting and at this point in the day, he hasn't the energy for much activity and falls asleep. Frankly, I haven't much energy either and am almost loathe to go in. I second guess my decision to schlepp out this way to Cajun country, about two hours west of New Orleans, deeper and deeper into swamp country and further into the sweltering dampness of the Louisiana summer.

But I am here to see a friend off, Leah, who has decided leave Baton Rouge to move back to her home state of Kentucky to get ready for law school. A tall attractive brunette, lively personality, sharp wit, and a thick Southern twang, she reminds me of an extremely beautiful version of the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, and is one of my favorite new friends I've made through the Americorps volunteer program. For her farewell venue she has chosen Whiskey River Landing, a Cajun dance venue held only on Sunday afternoons to early evenings for locals in the surrounding area including Lafayette, about 20 minutes away and the unofficial capital of Cajun country.

Walking towards the venue I see a gorgeous view of the Atchafalaya Basin. I see a large houseboat, and the venue itself is nothing more than a conglomeration of mobile home structures haphazardly pasted together, dangling dangerously over the banks of the Atchafalaya Basin. The doors of the entrance are covered with Cajun and French pride stickers, most in the French language. The stage itself is barely elevated and prominently perched on it are five black men clad in Western wear and cowboy hats. They are Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie, playing Cajun and zydeco tunes. The dance floor is packed, ages 8 to 80, and the crowd is half black half white, the majority of the patrons wearing a 10 gallon hat and cowboy boots, without a hint of irony. It is hands down the most racially integrated crowd I have seen since moving to Louisiana, or possibly ever.

I am having a hell of a time finding Leah but it doesn't take long for her to find me.

"Hey Girl!" she bellows, in her thick Southern twang. "I saw you the second you stepped in, told my friends to look for an Asian and it didn't take long!" We both chuckle, looking around at the beautiful black and white scenery.
"I'm lovin' this Creole cowboy scene. Music's great," I utter. A couple in their '80's, black male white female in cowboy hats and boots rhythmically and effortlessly sidle past us onto the dance floor.
"Oh yeah. I once had a dream that I'd leave my man for a Creole cowboy, ya know?" she says, matter-of-factly.

We make our way to the dance floor, clearly a handful of eyes on me. But as is frequently the case in this part of the world, it is a curious stare, not intimidating. There is no shortage of dance partners and I two-step a few tunes with a local shrimper, the spitting image of Ernest Hemingway. I sip a few drinks with Leah, listening to the mesmerizing rhythm driving the band to play, and the dancers to dance. It is impossible not to stare just beyond the band, into the beautiful bayou tableau showing through the dirty windows of the venue.

After a couple of hours I bid Leah farewell. We exchange hugs and already, I am sad to see her go, and even sadder to see such a lively spirit throw her life away to go to law school. Milo and I walk around for a bit to enjoy the scenery before I continue on to Lafayette. It is hard to walk away from such a vivid tableau.

And it is even harder to remember that it is this fertile land and swamp life that drove people to modern-day, strip mall-laden Lafayette, which even today is still flanked by this scenery. In Lafayette I meet up with my friend Jefferson, where we enjoy a nice meal in the River Ranch shopping center, and sip a few cocktails.

The next day, we stop for the perfect Cajun meal for the perfect Cajun afternoon; a link of boudin and a small baggie of cracklins, and wash it down with 32 ounces of daiquiri from one of the drive-through shops. He takes me to some property owned by his family. I contemplate a large farmhouse, maybe an acre.

Instead, the three of us stroll for half a mile or so, past an old decrepit structure with a ping pong table, perched over the Vermillion River. Dozens of oak trees with Spanish moss dot the property with barely a neighbor in site. Crawfish fields flank the other side of the property. We walk along the river itself, and Milo goes for a dip. Surprisingly and thankfully the water is not odiferous.

It is easy to imagine why Jefferson's ancestors from France and other French mostly from Canada chose to settle along the banks of the Vermillion for the last 200 years, over the distance of 72 miles, forming towns and farms from the fertile river and bayou. So named for its waters which were once brightly colored with the red mud, the river became the site of Vermillionville, which eventually changed its name to Lafayette. With its proximity to water, Lafayette's economy was mostly agricultural, until the discovery of oil and gas in the 1940's.

The home of a major Louisiana university, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, it manages to retain much of its youth population, and there is a noticeable revival of French Acadian music by local musicians in their 20's, mentored in the arts by their elders. This is only enhanced by the vernacular cuisine which is distinct in spices and and flavor, and ubiquitous in the area.

To the naked eye driving through, Lafayette and its Cajun surroundings look like dozens of normal American towns across the country. Strip malls, highways, large tracts of land with box stores. There is no reason to know, unless you do, that there is a saloon and a couple of dance halls where great Cajun music is played weekly on traditional instruments, in this place where people care about the language their ancestors spoke and the food they grew and ate.

And there is also no reason to know that 15 minutes from downtown you can find a stretch of the Vermillion River, privately owned but uninhabited, except by a broke down truck, and a shack with a ping pong table, and dozens of oak trees and Spanish moss. It is 2011 and I am a stone's throw away from a nice restaurant and some cocktails, yet right at this moment there is nothing in my view to indicate that it isn't 1850 rural America on the bayou.

We walk around for a little while longer as I think about my recent visits to Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami. At the same time, I inhale the air, fragranced with foliage, and continue to absorb the scenery. I feel lucky to be able to live in New Orleans, and only drive a few hours to capture this as well.

"I like living in the South," I tell Jefferson, who also has seen the world, lived in other places, and decided to return to his homeland.
"Yeah, it's classy," he utters, chomping on a cracklin.

I laugh in response, not because I disagree, but because I think of all the people I've known and met in the Northeast and West Coast who would use different words to describe the South. But in fact, I agree with Jefferson. Of course I and the entire world know of the South's historic faults, its tension with its own history with slavery, racism, and entrenched wealth. But since moving here I've observed a certain level of integrity in Southern-based identity that I never encountered before living down here. The easy pride of being Cajun, the music, the cowboy hats, the food and drink and dancing, the hospitality. And of course, the beauty; the willingness to let acres of land stay wild, to let the river run and the bayou be, or at most, grow some rice or crawfish. There is some elegance to that. It is classy.

Walk along a river and a bayou, eat good food, drink good alcohol, dance with friends, and be merry, be it in a saloon in downtown Lafayette or a couple of double-wides on the Atchafalaya Basin with air conditioning conduit tacked to the ceiling. Deep down inside, really, we all want to be Vermillionaires.

Do try this at home...
The place I went to: Whiskey River Landing. Do give them a call for directions if you decide to go; googlemaps just can't do it for you.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Ride of My Life

It has been said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. Since I am not a genius, I could only be considered insane, particularly when I made my decision to ride from Miami to the Florida Keys and back again. But it's not so much insanity that led me to do this as it was a combination of curiosity, fear of boredom, willing ignorance, and overall questionable judgment.

I had planned a week long stay in Miami as part of my ongoing quest to see more of the South and also to visit Rachel, an estranged friend from high school, who lives in a very fashionable section of the South Beach neighborhood. Not being a city slicker and having just come from visiting New York City, I had a small concern that I would exhaust my days in Miami with endless urbanism if I spent the entire week there. So I decided it would be a great opportunity to explore the Florida Keys, which for some odd reason, conjured up absurd, adolescent-like imagery of quasi-deserted islands and pirate ships. Driving there sounded boring without my dog, so naturally, I decided that if the stars aligned, I would cycle there.

My preparation for this task was shamefully inadequate. An avid bike rider, I typically ride ten miles to work and back 5 days a week, and at most 30 miles on the weekend. Due to the summer flash floods in New Orleans for the past two months, I had little opportunity to go on any sort of substantial training rides. And, while I had stuffed a couple of 30 mile rides during a visit in California, these seemed to have little effect when I eventually made it to Miami.

Miami. Oh you beautiful, white-sand beaches dotted with perfectly-tanned, bulbously body-conscious creatures clad in bikinis and speedos, very few of whom break a sweat in your all-white outfits! You pastel-colored thing, you! You shiny-car-filled streets you! You 95 degree F and 71% humidity thing you! You hot, sticky mess!

There are many, oh so many reasons why I see little more than cruiser bikes roaming amongst sparkling Mini Coopers and Mercedes on these Miami streets.

But dear reader, that is not the impression I was lead to believe in my 2 hour internet research. I read of a "bike-friendly" Florida, of an off-street Overseas Heritage Pedestrian/Cycle Trail spanning the length of the Keys, of a Overseas Highway 1 upon which cyclists were permitted and even "common," of a very flat land hosting hundreds of cyclists interested in serious distance riding. And a serious bike shop in South Beach, with serious Canondale road bikes for rent to born-again, neophyte distance cyclists such as myself. I swear to you this was the case. And unlike 90% of my little nature sojourns in my former home-state of Alaska, the entire route the bike trails in Florida run parallel to street traffic; there is no risk of being stranded in the middle of nowhere with no one to help you; For crying out loud, there are ATM's and running water everywhere.

So how bad could it be?

It didn't take long after launching from Rachel's apartment in South Beach for me to start second-guessing myself. I had lost the path laid out for me by the guy at the bike shop, and added at least an hour or two turning around, taking the long way, etc. Because of my meandering, my speed varied from 17 mph to 8 mph. Nothing about the journey could have been considered steady.

I cannot recall precisely when doubt first crept in. Perhaps it was when the bike lock and small travel sack I poorly bungied to my bike rack, fell off, only for the bungie chord to tangle itself around the bike gears, a mere 15 miles from my departure point in South Beach. Or was it the big-rig trucks careening by me at speeds of 50 miles an hour in Coconut Grove on Highway 1, long after I had lost the trail of smaller, safer bike paths. Or maybe it was the 92 degrees, my sweat sticking to me like gel in the Florida humidity. Or maybe just the fact that I've never ridden a serious road bike before, with its fancy bi-directional gear shifters, its super sensitive brakes, its paper thin tires which make sure I feel every crevice of the road with a vibration or jerk to the saddle area.

It was a mere hour into my ride when I found myself adjusting my bike for the third time on the side of the road, stuck in my first Floridian flash flood screaming to myself, "What a dumbass I am!!!!! What is wrong with me?!!!" And silently, Maybe my family is right, maybe I just need to find a nice guy and settle the f*&k down.

But it was too late for that. What was I going to do? Return to Miami and go clubbing every night?

The obvious answer was instead to ride 55 more miles that day, and possibly the next and 70 miles home again the day after. Having lost the route set out for me my by trusty bike guys at the shop, I eventually get back on track and ride for over 20 miles on peaceful Old Cutler Road, which meanders through one of the countless wealthy suburbs of Miami. I am gratefully on a designated bike path at this point, parallel to but separated from the road by a narrow greenbelt. I am not a religious person but then and there, finally on a path separated from big rigs and luxury vehicles whizzing by me at frightful speeds, I thanked the good Lord above.

The scenery itself on Old Cutler Road quickly exhausted itself. Miles after miles of gigantic mansions, I begin to question if local house painters even bother to carry anything other than pale earth tones or pastels. It is a curious uniformity amongst an economic class clearly able financially to distinguish their houses from one another.

Alas, I was wrong to be so ungrateful; from Old Cutler Road my choices were to get back on Highway 1, or find the Florida Turnpike, which the bike guy marked on the map as bike-friendly. "Actually, there is a large shoulder on the Florida Turnpike, and for a long part there is no shoulder on Highway 1." The results of my internet research were consistent with his opinion regarding both the Turnpike and Highway 1.

But I did not initially find Turnpike so Highway 1 it was, with all of its truckers big and small, zooming right by me. I follow the separate bus route for some time, get on and off sidewalks, and feel frustration at the stress level created by traffic typical on an 8 lane highway.

Finally I find the Turnpike, and roll on it for a bit, possibly 45 minutes when it ends, forcing me to re-enter dreaded Highway 1. Then I see an exit for Card Sound Road, another alternative to Highway 1, but an extra 7 miles longer of a route. Screw it. One mile of Highway 1 feels like seven miles on a normal road anyhow, the difference more than breaks even.

Through a large expanse of swamp the two-lane road was surrounded on either side by expanses of tall, swampy greens, slow-moving water, and short trees. I am unprotected from the unwavering Florida sun and stop almost every 15 minutes for an hour to swig down some more Gatorade. The temperature increases upwards from 92 degrees and it feels like I am standing next to a car engine the entire 11 mile ride. It feels like what I imagine the Greeks were describing when they created the concept of Hades.

At 5'6", 145 lbs and size six, I am reasonably fit (most of my weight in my bulging bicepts of course). A former ice climber, current aspiring boxer, bike commuter, I am no stranger to physical activity. But on that leg of the Card Sound Road, after stopping repeatedly to fill the tank with more Gatorade, my body felt so pathetic, so powerless. I can't remember which stop it was when I questioned myself honestly and seriously whether I was really going to make this happen, or whether I was gonna perch next to the canondale and stick my thumb in the air, leaving fate to the kindness of passersby.

Eleven miles later on the Card Sound Road, and by the time I make it to Alabama Jacks, the last bar before entering the final 8 mile stretch to the Keys, I have consumed two liters of Gatorade, yet am still parched. My face must have spoken a thousand words. Either that or the sweat pouring from each pore in my body.

"Can I get you anything miss?" Says the server setting up bar stools and chairs peering at me curiously.
"Um, yeah." I say looking at the two liters of water still attached to my bike. I have the urge for more sugar and I am out of Gatorade. "I'd like a large Coke."
"Sure, I can do that. You wanna sit down? Where'd you ride from?"
"South Beach."
"What?! Did you say South Beach?"
I nod while simultaneously guzzling the first Coke, then another.
"Hey guys, this lady rode from South Beach!!!" A universal turning of lethargic heads ensued.
That seemed like my cue to keep riding.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that my knees were shaking at the sight of Card Sound Bridge into the Keys. Elevating 65 feet over a distance probably less than a quarter mile, it looked like a road to nowhere. But, as one of the two entry points into the Keys, the other being via the dreaded 1, Card Sound Bridge was the unavoidable next leg of my journey.

But riding Card Sound Bridge was also my reward for my journey of over 60 miles thus far. From 65 feet above water, the bridge, and I on my bike, then descend full-speed at 20 mph into the Crocodile Lake Wildlife Refuge. A breeze billows against my overheated mess of a body as I take in the lush greenery. After another 8 miles through foliage on either side of the road, with very little traffic, I am at ease, despite the heat, despite the humidity. It is lovely, and unlike other rides I've been on in my life, I have no fear that bears or moose will be popping out of the wilderness. Rather, I ride around fishermen staring at brackish water, and pullouts where tourists are searching for crocodiles. Stretches of road with nothing more than tall reeds and swampy greenery on either side of me.

And then, after another 8 miles, I see, what appear to me at that moment to be the most beautiful words in the English language. "Welcome to Key Largo." I made it.

Passing through a slew of chain hotels, I stop at the Amoray Dive Resort, which is more like a motel, sitting on the waterfront. I check in, and beeline for the shower. My chest is dotted with dead bugs as must ever car windshield that has driven from Miami. Bike grease from the chain stains my legs and traces remain even after vigorous scrubbing with a soapy towel. I wash my microfiber cycling shorts and tank top in the sink and the sink water immediately turns an opaque, murky greenish brown. I toss on my travel dress and walk to Captain Jack's, a nearby bar, for nourishment. I am not hungry, but as a duty to my body I order a plate of three enchiladas and a large side of rice.

"Where you visiting from?" Asks the bartender. I tell him my story briefly in between huge gulps of Coke. I order a beer. And he is amazed that I have just ridden a bike the distance he drives on a daily basis to work, which takes him over an hour each way. Without prompting, he delivers an extra huge plate of rice, and apologizes that the restaurant has no bananas. He calls a friend to learn that avocados are the next best thing for potatassium, and sends me home with a bag full of avocados. The cooks come out of the kitchen to catch a glimpse of me.

"I'm sorry if I'm looking at you strangely, but you look a lot like my sister," he says.

I smile in response, cheeks full of food. I can tell he is young, half-Asian, and not terrible to look at. I pay him and on my five minute walk back to the hotel, I realize that he has not charged me for the beer, the huge plate of rice, the avocados, or the four tumblers of Coke. Right then I also realize how beautiful it is here in Key Largo on this evening.

In my room, the air-conditioning is blasting, I strip down to a tank top, turn on the cable tv, and lie on the bed airing my poor, abused saddle area. Somewhere outside my room, beyond the tropical-themed pink and green curtains, I can hear the faint sound of Jimmy Buffet playing from a car stereo, when I finally doze off to sleep.

The next day I have every intention of riding another 40-70 miles down the Keys. I finish breakfast only to find my body breaking out into sweats in the air-conditioned diner, and my stomach turning and churning like a hurricane. My head becomes light. The thought of mounting my trusty steed sends me into a panic, so I return to my bed for a nap.

Upon waking up hours later, I come to terms with exactly what I have done to myself, and my body. I opt instead to putz around Key Largo like a normal American tourist.

Originally named Rock Harbor, it was renamed Key Largo following the release of the Hollywood classic starring Humphrey Bogart. Except for some backdrop shots, no part of the movie was filmed on-site, but that doesn't obstruct the natives from marketing this relationship with Bogey. I wander into the Club Caribbean which (probably mis-leadingly) touts itself as a site for the movie on a large billboard facing the highway. There is a life-size statue of Bogey himself. At the Holiday Inn down the road I catch a glimpse of the original boat used in the Bogey movie African Queen, which has no relation to Key Largo except that its former owner had a vacation home on the island at some point in time.

To my surprise, there are no white-sand beaches. Rather, Key Largo, as a remnant of a reef, is rocky, and more nautical than beach-bum in style. The loci of numerous shipwrecks, it is a haven for scuba-divers. Key Largo, like many of the Keys, is dotted by untold numbers of vacation homes and villas, many of which own exclusive access to the waterfront, and I am riding and walking for miles before I can soak in a picture of the beach.

It is only when I grab one of the free kayaks at my hotel that I experience a bit of that famed Key Largo nautical serenity.

The next day I ride as far as the next two keys, to Islamorada, where I take frequent breaks to steal precious peeks of the ocean between luxury villas. I also visit to a Bird Rehabilitation Center where I am surrounded by both caged and uncaged local birds of all sorts in various stages of their recovery. I walk amongst pelicans who look at me with disinterest as they preen on the glassy water.

That night, when I am preparing to ride back to Miami the next day, a storm begins to howl and lightning strikes. I begin to panic. My smartphone tells me the forecast for the next day is no kinder. What shall I do? Shall I book a shuttle back to Miami for a hundred dollars? Do I search for the kind bartender and flirt a ride back to the mainland?

At this point I recall passages from my friend Jill Homer's book Ghost Trails, about her ride through wintery Alaska along a few hundred miles of the virtually deserted Iditatorod Trail. There are points during her ride, hundreds of miles away from humanity that she endures a blizzard, with serious risk of survival.

There I am, reclined on the hotel bed, cable tv on, staring at the pink parrots on the green curtains, experiencing what I imagine her fear was during that blizzard. I am going to be stuck, stranded in this strange faraway place? This purgatory of Jimmy Buffet, forever searching for that lost shaker of salt?

When I wake up the next morning the sun is shining brightly without a cloud in the sky. I haul butt and pack up. I swallow four bananas and two bowls of cereal for breakfast, washing it down with Gatorade.

I book through Card Sound Road, over the bridge of seeming treachery, through the rest of Card Sound Road. It is scorchingly hot and I am fantasizing about jumping into Rachel's pool back in South Beach. I hop onto Florida's Turnpike when it begins to cloud up and rain. On the other side of the turnpike are two fire trucks for no apparent reason, who chastise me on their bullhorn to get off the turnpike. (Upon my return I find out that (1) my original research appears to be accurate that bikes are allowed on the Florida Turnpike (Section 316.091(2) and (4), F.S.), and (2) from a gentleman firefighter friend I also learn that his kind are not in fact allowed to direct traffic. So there.)

I hop back on the 1, and find the route I couldn't quite navigate on my way down, take Old Cutler Road back through the wealthy suburbs, Ingram and Main Highway and have a pleasant ride through the once historic shopping district of Coconut Grove, and it looks like I will be able to shave off 1.5 hours from my previous time.

And that of course, is when the rain really starts to pick up. I am riding a foot deep through water accumulating on the trail and sidewalks. By the time I am in downtown Miami, 5 miles from my friend's white marble floored apartment in South Beach, winds have picked up and palm trees are deeply bowing. I look to the left of me to watch the wind push road blocks to walk towards me like characters from a Star Wars movie. I maneuver quickly before they have a chance to knock me over, only to nearly miss being clipped by a BMW with the same fear.

At that I relent, pulling into the cover of a plaza with tables and chairs outside a sophisticated high-rise. I laugh hilariously, giving in to the bike gods who have toyed with my fate for the past four days. I wait there for over an hour, drenched to the bone and shivering, praying the rain will stop. I call a taxi with no realistic shot at seeing it before I start shivering. Where I once fantasized about a jump in Rachel's pool and a cold shower, I am now having stronger fantasies of a hot shower and a warm meal. On this day my body has been through every temperature and condition imaginable, from sweating to shivering, high energy to barely movable. I am worried about my ability to maneuver a bike in the rain, my muscles overworked, my body trembling, my spirits annoyed and desperate to be in dry clothes indoors.

But the wind and rain stop their teasing, and the taxi continues to stand me up. I remount my horse, and roll slowly through the rest of downtown, over the charming Venetian Causeway, through the half dozen or so man-made islands with charming luxury homes, back into South Beach. I am drenched and the security guards at Rachel's apartment give me a quick judgmental look over. I know what they are going to say and I nip it in the bud.

"I'm sorry, but this is a very nice road bike, and I won't keep it outside with the others. I have just ridden back from Key Largo."

They usher me to the service elevator, and lean it against the wall in Rachel's apartment. I look down at the distance counter and read 188 miles roundtrip. Finally, finally I am able to stop, shower, and collapse.

There is an old Chinese proverb that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I have on frequent numerous occasion done irrational, possibly stupid physical endeavors expecting something different at the end of the road. But I would argue that each of these small time adventures has in fact taught me something new, has lead me to a different place.

For instance, on this little challenge, I learned that I believe in Gatorade. I used to mock would-be athletes who would gulp it down after an hour of exercise. For crying out loud, the thing was developed for an NFL football team based in Florida. But what I was doing was my version of being an NFL football player, and in Florida I was. I couldn't suck that stuff down fast enough in the merciless heat after six-seven straight hours of exercise.

I learned that if one sweats enough, one can drink over 4 liters of fluid and pee only once in a seven hour span.

I learned how hard one can push the human body. Massively ill-prepared, but my general overall conditioning and level of health enabled me to extend my normal level of exercise by a matter of 6 or 7 hours. Other than some saddle soreness, with a concerted campaign of rehydration and food intake, I managed alright.

I also learned about real solitude. An avid fan of traveling alone, with a pack on your back and a hostel or low-budget hotel around every corner, I never really have in fact traveled "alone" per se, meeting all sorts of folk from all walks of life at any given moment during any one of my international sojourns. I was given the impression that this Florida Keys route would be chock full of cyclists such as myself, if not more techie. But in four days I saw only two cyclists with distance road bikes, both of whom gave me a fist of solidarity in passing. To ride a bike 188 miles alone is truly to experience exploration solo. Certainly I am grateful that there were numerous passersby who could help me if any real trouble had befallen me. At the same time, I appreciate the experience of having passed most of those four days seeing miles and miles of a world I had never been to, with only my thoughts and an ipod shuffle for company.

I would argue that these lessons, new to my small world, are reasons enough to distinguish me from the Chinese definition of insanity. Clearly, if I had to do it over, I would have done things a little differently. I would have trained more rigorously beforehand, and would have charted my course more carefully. I would have woken up earlier, eaten better. I would have found a way to Key Largo and then biked to Key West.

But I'll say it here and now, that I don't regret this little folly of mine. It was 188 miles of solitude, and it was the ride of my life.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

New York is a State of Mind

"Welcome home."

Those were the words uttered when I reconnected with over a dozen friends in New York City on a long weekend visit. It was the first time I had returned since I left seven years ago after living there for four years. But for so many reasons, those words could not have been more inaccurate. I can’t place my finger exactly on the reason why it doesn’t feel like home, particularly since the largest concentration of truly good friends in my life reside in New York City.

Maybe it was because the first night, about 20 minutes after I arrived, when I decided to take a walk and grab a bite to eat, I came upon a young woman in her early twenties, most likely a Columbia University co-ed, crumpled into a small pile on the sidewalk, all by herself, traces of vomit plastered down the front of her tank top and slender leopard print skirt and heels. “My boyfriend is having a baby!” she utters in between vomiting. She had been abandoned by a cab driver, and then three police cars who slowed down just long enough to spot the vomit everywhere before driving on by, right in front of me. Eventually an ambulance took her to the hospital, only after a dismissive laugh and a roll of the eyes by the EMT.

But, just as for anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in the City, for me, this place is as easy to love as it is to hate. The next day I did as I used to seven years ago when I was a perennially broke student. Taking heed of the “suggested donation” in fine print below the Admissions sign, I gave my dollar donation to the ticket desk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and wandered through massive halls filled with some the world’s greatest works of art humans have ever created. I visit my old mummy friends in the Egyptian wing, and their gold jewelry and treasuries of ancient times; I admire the curvaceous marbled busts of French sculptors, the gripping and sometimes horrific statues of the Greek, ornate furniture of the wealthy early Americans, and the roofs of ritual meeting halls of Micronesians. It is a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

I then enjoyed another amazing New York phenomenon; I then I met a friend for lunch at a small, charming and unimposing restaurant in Harlem, where we each spent spent over $20.00 on a small bowl of meatless pasta and a bottled beer. My friend, a public school teacher, doesn’t bat an eye.

In the evening, I resorted to another favorite thrill; dancing at a gay men’s club, with Henry, one of my gay friends I’ve known since college. In the brief period of my life in which I enjoyed going to dance clubs, I always found it reassuring to be on the dance floor flanked with gay men, confident that in no way would my dancing to Cher or some other big-haired female vocalist be perceived as a sexual gesture or come-on.

But in the thick of evening, a strapping Brazilian beelines towards me and it becomes quickly apparent that he is not, in fact, gay.

“You’re straight, aren’t you.” I declare with suspicion.

He answers in the affirmative.

“Oh yeah,” Henry explains when I tell him. “That’s the new thing now for straight guys. Go to a gay club and hit on the only girl there.”

Is nothing sacred?

Mercifully, the next night’s amusement is more straightforward. I meet up with friends who have just left the office at 10pm on a Friday. We drink at the Park, a multi-level parking garage converted into a bar in the post-industrial block on the West side. Impressive hanging gardens, inventive lighting, hardwood floors, and an elegant bar graced each floor. It was as if Shangri-la took over a parking garage.

Later in the evening I meet up with a friend formerly living in New Orleans. He took me to the Freedom Party at LPR in the Village. Packed tightly with an impressive array of attractive thirty-somethings, mostly African-Americans, it is clear that most of the patrons were either artists, musicians or yuppies. A DJ is playing awesome soul and R&B, a handful of Asian guys are painting on a canvas on a stage, and footage from old favorites like Good Times is being projected on a movie-theatre-sized screen. Possibly one of the top ten coolest parties I’ve ever been to.

But in New York, my safe haven is in the borough of Queens, designated by the U.S. Census as one of the most ethnically diverse segments of the country. In Flushing Chinatown, a friend and I watch a vendor hand-stretch freshly-made noodles and ladle out a white pepper broth into a bowl sprinkled with fresh cilantro and pieces of roasted lamb. If I could I would tell you the name of the place, or even the nondescript strip mall in which it is tucked, but I do not speak or read Chinese.

We hop over to the Czech section of Astoria and grab a couple of pitchers of Staropronnen beer at the Czech beer garden, a facility which doubles as a community center for the local Slovakian and Czech community.

We also stop by the Egyptian section of Steinway Street, where we idle the time away at my favorite hookah cafe, playing go fish and backgammon, smoking mango-flavored hashish and sipping mint tea.

New York is a place you can fall in love with. And a place where life can disappoint just as hard.

I end the night by meeting up with more friends, and after hours of great conversation, an old friend decides to break my heart by relentlessly making passes at me while his girlfriend of over a decade sleeps peacefully in their shared apartment a few blocks away. I end the night by rushing out of the bar by myself and into cold, torrential rain, taxis being snatched from under me one after another by a few different groups of men. I eventually make it to my bed at 6:00am via subway, cold and shivering.

There’s just not much chivalry in this town.

On my last day, I am content to meet with more friends, two of whom I met on a glacier in Alaska, and one of whom I’ve known since I was a baby in California. We hunker down in a newly-opened, shoebox-sized, cavern-like wine bar at Vin sur Vingt in the Village, sipping French wines served by a French waiter who speaks no English and tucks his silk lavender tie into his shirt. My friends and I chat about everything from traveling, to professions, to my grandma and her incense.

New York is a state of mind. I once called it home, but looking back, it never really was. At any given time in those four years I was either anxious, stimulated, or entertained, but never relaxed. And so still is this the case. My visit was like meeting up with an old boyfriend in the best-case scenario; glad to see you again, but no regrets that it didn’t work out. There were good, solid reasons it didn’t.

As I sit on the plane waiting to return down South, I am sad to leave so many friends from all walks of life, but I am content to know that New York is one of those special places in which I will always be able to see the most amazing and the most horrible things on this planet. Millions of people, yet it so easy to feel lonely, overworked, or confused in this town.

Best of all about New York, like many places, a visit here has reminded me how lucky I am to be able to go home elsewhere.