Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Summer of '88

Yesterday's high temperature was in the 90s. The humidity level was around 70%. Heat plus humidity equals the usual DC summer. I've grown accustomed to the DC summer; in fact I've pretty much grown up with it.

Yes, air conditioning eases the pain, but I haven't forgotten what it was like to live without the comfort of cool, compressed air.

I spent one summer during graduate school as a messenger. I didn't have the guts and coordination to be a bike messenger so I settled for a job behind the wheel of my 1985 red Ford Escort. It was my first car. That means it was cheap ($8,000) and had absolutely no bells or whistles. Okay, it had a tape player. It didn't have A/C, rear window defrost, or automatic transmission. It had windows that were rolled down by hand, two doors without automatic locks and a roomy hatchback trunk.

I drove from office to office throughout the summer picking up packages and dropping them off. Driving in the city didn't offer much chance go faster than 25 mph, meaning it was tough to get a breeze going with my windows cranked open. It was a hot, sweaty summer.

It was the same summer that my grandmother was in the hospital undergoing surgery for cancer. She was in Baltimore, about 40 miles away from my home in Arlington. I made the drive up 295 to see her when I could-sweating my way through the heat that came with rush hour traffic. At one point I was at my wits end. It was close to 100 degrees and I couldn't face the thought of another trip in the red, hot car. Fortunately, my housemate came through and offered up her A/C-equipped Subaru.

What a difference cool air makes. I made my way up to Baltimore smiling at the jammed up traffic. Yes, I was living life on the other side, but I didn't forget where I'd come from. Whenever other cars would try to inch their way in front of me to keep moving I always let the ones without A/C get right in. I knew how much they needed the air circulation.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Way Life Used to Be

To Whom It May Concern:

Charlie has been absent because he has company and had to stay home and help entertain them.



I found this small note in a country store that is easily one of the most fascinating places I’ve stumbled across recently.

My sister has told me about the many afternoons she and her housemate spent at a store called Ann and Tony’s. It was a gas station, a small market, a tackle shop, and a gathering place for the local folk. The owners, Ann and Tony, never cared if you grabbed a beer from the cooler and sat to chat for a while. Jeen reported that it was not uncommon for her and her housemate, Meg, to leave their car parked at the gas pump for close to three hours.

I’ve been in my fair share of small, country stores. There was one up the road from my grandmother’s house. When I was too young to make the trip on my own Granny would take my hand and lead me up the dirt lane and across the road to Palmer’s. The wooden porch out front was home to a huge plug-in cooler with a bright Coca-Cola insignia on the front. The screen door had a tin insert that proclaimed we should all be eating Sunbeam Bread.

My grandmother’s heels would click along the wide plank floors, stirring up the dust and dirt that had found its way through the front door. Mr. Palmer stood tall behind the counter that was lined with an assortment of items- everything from 3-in-1-ONE Oil and fly swatters to Red Hots and my favorite, Good and Plenty.

When I got older I was allowed to walk there on my own, often at the request of my grandmother who was in need of a little cream or a loaf of that soft Sunbeam bread.

Like my grandmother, the store is just a memory now. The last time I drove by that way there was nothing but a grassy piece of land where the store used to be. The memories of Palmer’s had slipped away into the recesses of my long-term memory…until a trip to Buzzy’s Country Store in Scotland, MD stirred them up.

It was Moe’s idea to stop in. She had been given an artist’s rendition of the small wooden shop by her in-laws and wanted to check it out; besides the sign out front advertised “tackle, liquor, beer and souvenirs” and we needed beer.

I smiled as I noticed the large Coca-Cola cooler on the front porch. By the time I heard the second little tap of the wooden screen door closing behind me I could feel my heartbeat speed up with excitement. All those memories of Palmer’s and shopping there with my grandmother came back to me. I stopped inside the front door and took it all in.

There was a small counter with a few bar stools sitting in front of the beer coolers.

“Looks like we need to have a beer here,” Julie remarked.

“Can we?” I asked.

An older gentleman behind the counter spoke right up. “Sure you can. Sit for a spell, grab a beer.”

It took a few minutes to wander the store. The souvenir section was small, but included a few Buzzy’s Country Store t-shirts and hats. The tackle section was a little larger with hooks, line and sinkers. There was some camping equipment and a variety of nets used for fishing and crabbing. Just like Palmer’s there was a long counter with an assortment of penny candy. Behind the counter was a small collection of wines and liquor.

We settled in at the Formica counter and watched the comings and goings of Buzzy’s. The event of the day was the Rockfish tournament going on. An older guy walked in and grabbed a piece of gum from the jar on the counter. He was there to set up for the post-tournament barbecue. Next in came a couple, Linda and Mike. They chatted a bit, asking about the barbecue and the karaoke that was due to start at 4:00. For a small store in a real small town there was a lot going on.

Over the course of an hour we drank our beer and learned a few things. The wide plank floors of the store came from the Confederate prison that was down the road. The building has been on the lot since the late 1800s. The current owner is J. Scott Ridgell; he bought the store from his father, Buzzy himself.

And then there was the note. According to the owner, Charlie is one of a group of regular guys that shows up every day around 4:00 to share some stories, laughs and drinks. After Charlie had missed a few days he presented the note that addressed his whereabouts. I’m sure there were a few more laughs about that.

The tagline at the bottom of the t-shirts sold at Buzzy’s reads, “The way things used to be.” Yeah it is.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Working Together

I spent a good part of the weekend watching the comings and goings of a pair of Osprey. Their nest, complete with a small and unobservable family, was a mere 500 yards from the bay front home I was staying in.

For the most part the pair stayed put. Mother Osprey sat on the nest while Father Osprey kept watch from an adjoining pier pylon. Both raptors seemed content to sit and watch over their young.

I found it most interesting when the mother decided she needed to leave the nest. She would stand up, spread open her wings and take off. As soon as she was in the air the father would move from his perch and jump down into the nest. I couldn't see how they communicated to one another, but was impressed with their ability to work together as a family.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


A student of mine was carrying around Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay a few weeks ago. I had just read it over Spring Break so I jokingly asked him if he wanted me to tell him how it ends.

A second student, who was standing nearby, piped in immediately.

"Oh, he's read that series like three times. He just keeps reading it over and over again."

What a gift it is to find a book that you want to read over and over again. I've certainly found myself so immersed in a story that I didn't want it to end. I felt that way about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I was enchanted with the characters from the start and even though I rushed through the first half of the book I started slowing down as I got closer to the end. I was so taken with the people and their story that I didn't want to say goodbye. I haven't reread it but have a feeling I will before long.

East of Eden is the one book I reread every five years or so. In fact, a friend was just telling me that she had not read it before so we decided we would both read it and meet up again to talk about when we are through. She had recently read The Good Earth at my suggestion and loved it.

The ring of my cell phone at 7:00 am this morning surprised me. What didn't surprise me was the way my friend was gushing about the book.

"Oh my god! Thank you, for East of Eden! I've only read a few pages and already I'm taken with the writing."

"Yeah," I replied. "That Steinbeck is quite a writer, isn't he?"

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


It’s been somewhere around twenty years since I’ve mowed a lawn. On Saturday I realized how much I missed that simple action. I had offered to mow a friend’s back yard so she could tend to her vegetables that were just beginning to grow. The peas were proving to be most troublesome. It seems the pea trellis that had been constructed needed shoring up. Otherwise there was a risk that the trellis would be unable to hold the weight of the climbing peas that are expected in the coming months.

I was happy to be able to cut the lawn. My friend was surprised by and perhaps even suspicious of my enthusiasm. It’s true…I love mowing the lawn.

The first pull of the starter cord made me smile, the mower started without a hitch and I was on my way. The rumble of the motor surrounded me, sealing me off from the rest of the world. I walked back and forth, creating adjoining paths of cut grass—creating signs of progress—instant progress.

It’s not easy to see such clear success in the classroom.