What happened to us?

Posted in personal, political with tags , , , , on November 20, 2009 by barryshapiro

The other day I received one of those emails that you get from friends that you are supposed to pass along but never do. At least I never do, unless it’s pornographic which means it came from my friend Chris and I’m passing it along to my friend David. This one had a simple quiz published by the Pew Research Center. It was titled a News IQ Quiz. I thought I take the quiz and see how up I was on my current events. It turned out to be a very simple quiz: 12 questions all multiple choice about topics pulled right from today’s headlines. The first question asked who was the most recent appointment to the Supreme Court. Pretty simple stuff. The second asked if I knew who Glenn Beck was. Again, a no brainer. And there was not one question much harder than those two. I got to the end of the quiz and learned that I had scored a perfect 12 out of 12. Given the simplicity of the questions I would have been shocked if I had not aced it but I left open the possibility that I might have missed one.

What freaked me out was that when my score was calculated they informed me that I was in a group that included only 2% of the public. 2%!!!!!!! What the hell is that all about. The largest group, at 24% got only 3 or 4 answers correct. Only 10% of the population got it half right.

Have we really become a nation of stupid people? Are we so damn ignorant that we cannot answer a few simple questions about the most pressing issues of the day? Or is it that way too many of us are getting our news and information from people like the aforementioned Mr. Beck, who I suspect is either an evil genius or just a loud mouthed horses ass with the IQ of a toad? No that’s really demeaning to toads. I apologize to toads everywhere.

This is really pathetic. It makes me sad and embarrassed. We live in a country where so much is possible and yet it seems that we as a people get dimmer all the time. Can our schools be this awful? Can so many of us just not care?

Take the quiz yourself at http://pewresearch.org/politicalquiz/. If you don’t get at least 10 out of 12 then you should be ashamed and immediately get a subscription to the New York Times. And stop watching Fox News!

Bird of the day!

Posted in art, personal with tags , , on November 19, 2009 by barryshapiro

Plover

Here on Anna Maria Island the Plovers, Terns, Gulls, Sandpipers and Herons walk along the beach with the tourists and the sunbathers. This is a peaceful place – good for reflection and regeneration. I did this drawing after watching this guy chase the waves on the beach for about a half hour. It was amazing just to watch him tear up and down the shoreline.

More and more people I know are suffering with health issues, economic issues, personal issues and career issues and there is really not much left to say. Whether you are flush or not, you are still affected by someone who doesn’t have it as well as you. We all need to go inside and start taking care of our inner selves so that we can be stronger and more focused in the ‘real’ world.

It’s good to pull back a bit, reflect and regroup. A little solitude can go a long way.

A great new blog

Posted in personal with tags , , , on November 11, 2009 by barryshapiro

My friend Lori Drummond, R.D., L.D. is a registered dietician affiliated with Holmes Medical Center in Melbourne, Florida. Dedicated to her patients and seriously concerned about the food we eat as it relates to disease and dysfunction, she has started a blog that addresses issues of diet and nutrition, treating disease and better food solutions. Lori-portrait-smile-jpg1-150x150

Check out http://goodhealthconsulting.com/ and follow her god advice. Her articles provide great information, some that you may be unaware of like the fact that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 3 cups of dried beans per week to reduce your risk of heart disease by up to 16 percent.

16% is significant. Perhaps if we all ate more beans we’d be healthier. We should all start taking more Beano as well, just as a social precaution!

Just tell the truth

Posted in personal, political with tags , , , , on November 9, 2009 by barryshapiro

I hear a lot of people say that they really want to hear the truth – just the truth and nothing but the truth. I’ve heard that said by many women in all the relationships I have ever been in. The truth seems to be a much sought after commodity but I wonder why does it seem to be so scarce? There is even a movie that was recently released, a comedy about telling the truth. I didn’t see it but I am sure that the truth was stretched to make some very funny points.

I think that one big problem is that people do not really want to hear the truth. They’d rather hear something that is comforting or agrees with their point of view. Otherwise it’s an argument in the making and who wants to argue all the time. I also think that most people assume that because they don’t want to hear the truth that means that no one else really wants to hear the truth either. So lying and exaggeration have become just our natural way of communicating with each other. No one tells it like it is, although we often use that phrase (“Come on, man, tell it like it is” or “I’m tellin’ you the way it is…”).

The other day I was watching some news program – news programs hardly ever really tell you the way it really is, they give you the corporate advertiser friendly version when ever possible – and someone was interviewing some bureaucrat from the Obama administration. She was this chubby, pale-faced, blonde haired, windbag who was on one of the President’s economic advisory committees and she was there to answer questions about the banking industryand the economy. The interviewer asked her a very direct question about executive compensation, TARP money and the health of the now robust banking industry in light of the huge unemployment numbers just released. Now I realize that these people have all been trained to NEVER answer a direct question with a direct answer. Nothing scares these people more than an honest, direct question. But this woman was so totally living in the land of bullshit I just had to turn the TV off before she could pollute my airwaves anymore than necessary. Instead of answering a direct question with a direct answer she smiled her perky smile and said something to the effect of “Well, you know that everything we’ve done in this administration and in the previous administration as it pertains to the banks has been with one goal in mind and that is to put America back to work!” Excuse me? Did I just hear that? Unemployment is in double digits, the banks are making record profits and she expects anyone to buy that crap?

And the interviewer didn’t press her on it, not one bit of pushback. He could have simply said “Hey, how about answering the question?” but he wasn’t really interested in a truthful answer, just an answer that wold sound good.

Politicians and those in the media have mastered the art of truth evasion and  one way that they do this is by constantly saying that they are sorry. They apologize for everything and it seems that if they just make a public apology than everything is OK. All if forgiven! Just say I’m sorry.

Got caught soliciting a policeman in the airport bathroom? Just say “I’m sorry” and no one will demand you step down. Used anabolic steroids when you were playing in the World Series? No problemo, just say your sorry. Beat your wife with a broomstick? Oops, I am so sorry about that. Does anyone really believe these people are sorry? They are only sorry that they got caught! No one calls a press conference and says “I made a mistake and broke the law and I got away with it because no one knows it happened but I am sorry so i am turning myself in and paying all fines and penalties and intend to dedicate my life from now on to only honest good works.” No one does that. But when they get caught with their dick in the wife’s girlfriend or their hands in the till or whatever the first thing to do is call a press conference and say “I’m sorry!” Screw that, who really cares? Who really believes them? Nobody. It’s all for show. It’s all a lie.

Yesterday I went to the ATT store cause I was having a problem with my iPhone. When I bought it I was given a business card by the sales person and told I could call anytime during business hours and reach her directly and that I could send her email too. Well, that was bull because the store never answers the phone and it takes at least 24 hours to return messages to the voicemail or else you get connected to the general info line. So after a day of trying to get in touch with this sales person I just went back to the store. And what was the first thing out of the person’s mouth? You got it… “I’m sorry!” It’s become an automatic, knee jerk reaction in corporate America. Nothing works, no one can really communicate but just say your sorry and all is forgiven.

I asked her to stop saying she was sorry because I knew that she really wasn’t. How did I know that? Because I was not the first person to have that experience.  If they were truly sorry they’d do something about it. But they never do. That would take too much effort, maybe cost the company a few pennies and besides why bother when you can just say “Sorry!”

I would have been much happier if she had just said when she gave me the card that she might not get back to me and so I’d be better off just going to the 800 number and getting a tech guy from Bangalore to answer my questions.

I love New York

Posted in personal with tags , , , , , on November 5, 2009 by barryshapiro

Congratulations to the New York Yankees, my hometown team, upon winning their 27th World Series championship! My heart has never left the Bronx, though I physically left the lost borough when I was only 7 years old. The reason is the Yankees. My Yankees were Mantle, Maris (the M&M Boys), Richardson, Ford, Skowron, Berra, Howard and Kubek but I have always been a fan, even in the dark years (before Steinbrenner) and the era of the Bronx Zoo. This team has a lot of class and play the game as it should be played – hard, all out but with a boyish enthusiasm. Jeter is such a pleasure to watch and the “Core Four” (Jeter, Posada, Rivera and Pettite) are a solid bunch of pros. Matsui, Texiera, A-Rod, all of them, played like a great team. So here’s a big pie in the face for all New York to share. WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!

Watching the World Series-Andy Pettite

Andy pitches the big game

Home Again

Posted in personal with tags , on November 3, 2009 by barryshapiro

Just back from a great New York trip. Everything was perfect – even the weather cooperated with us. And the Yankees were great as well. Walking around Fort Greene and Park Slope in Brooklyn brought back many memories. Those neighborhoods are beautiful and full of life but when I lived in Brooklyn in the early 70’s they were terrible slums devastated by the effects of poverty, drug wars and crime. The small carriage house I lived in near the Pratt campus used to sit behind a house of prostitution and was next door to a vacant lot where junkies would shoot up at al hours of the day and night. Now the vacant lot is a new building in a row of beautifully restored homes. The Graham Home for Old Ladies, once literally a home for older women that was converted to a whore house was now apartments.

Perhaps the best part was seeing old friends. We were the guests of Deborah and David Backus and their brilliant daughter Marland. We arrived in time for Marland’s birthday party where the kids who had all grown up together and their parents got together to celebrate. Having not seen many of these children for years it was shocking to see that they had grown into young adults. The Backus’s first daughter Taylor was there as well, now a Vanderbilt student, and I enjoyed speaking to her and all the kids who now were either in college or actively involved in looking for one.

Deborah Marland Backus

Watching her kids grow up

blowing out the candles
Blowing out the candles
new outfits
Marland and Taylor show off the birthday togs
Taylor and Marland
These beautiful sisters
Marland and dad
It was a really great day!

 

 

 

 

 

What a pleasure… great friends, great food and wine, the delight of seeing young adults we had known as babies who are now really cool people!

Tiger Eye – a short story

Posted in personal with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2009 by barryshapiro

Tiger Eye
Darjeeling Hill Station, India
I wake up in the dark. It takes more than a few seconds to orient myself and realize where I am.  As soon as I come to my senses I grope about for a cigarette and the water bottle I keep in my rucksack. I don’t know what time it is. I had given up my watch months ago; bartered it for a few meals and some semi-precious stones in Burma a few weeks back. I light up the remains of a Burmese “Moon” cigarette, another souvenir from my one week excursion to Mandalay, and open the window to get some fresh air.
The cold, crisp mountain breeze slaps me across the face reminding me that I’m in the Himalayas now – not the jungle, not the beach but 6,900 feet above sea level. It’s cold. I look for my favorite flannel shirt and throw it over my shoulders and the 2 other shirts I slept in. After almost seven months on the road I had gotten used to sleeping in my clothes. It was a habit born not so much for comfort or convenience but for security. Some of the places I had slept were in jungle villages or crowded youth hostels where my American made jeans and sneakers would be gone in the morning if placed by my bed. I check my diary – it’s fuckin’ July 7, 1976 – I’ve missed Independence Day! But I reached my goal: I made it all the way to Darjeeling. I’m up in the clouds.
Fifteen minutes later and I’m on the street. It’s not really morning yet. The stalls and shops haven’t opened and the entire hill station is eerily silent. Even the wild dogs that roam the alleys are too tired to take much notice of me. I take a deep breath of chilly mountain air and immediately start to cough up a lung. No matter, I am 25 years old and in the prime of my life and I feel fucking fantastic! From the day I set out from my comfy apartment in New York to see the world “at eye level” I have not slept in the same bed for more than a few days. “Just keep moving” is the mantra. This was my second night at the Timber Hotel in the center of town. The crusty green building looks like it has been on this spot forever… since before the Buddha. I hadn’t slept very well. In fact I sleep very little these days, just a few hours a night. There’s too much stimulation and my brain is running overtime to keep up. Even with all the smoke and drink I rarely sleep past 6 AM. I light up another Moon and head off.
Back in November I was working two dead-end jobs and trying to write a novel.  Nothing to say about that really. After 4 and a half years of college and 2 years trying to find a career, I still had not written anything worth reading, never mind publishing. That’s when the check arrived. My grandfather had died a year earlier. He was a really sweet guy who lived alone in a simple one bedroom in the Bronx.  Died on his way to work at age 80. Truck ran a stop sign and just like that… impermanence! I was shocked when my aunt called to tell me that I had inherited $20,000 and that she would be sending a check. That night I sat in the dark and contemplated what I would do with more money than I had ever seen in one place in my life. My grandfather had always regaled me with stories of the old country and he once told me that I should get out and experience the world. He was right. By morning I had my entire trip plotted out on an old Rand-McNally world atlas. There was nothing to hold me back. The next week I quit those jobs and cleared the apartment. I put the things I wanted to keep in a couple of cardboard boxes and stored them in my aunt’s attic in Queens. But Europe was not my destination. Three weeks later I was in Tokyo. Now here I am in India.
I turn the corner and walk down a cobblestone street toward the sound of revving bus engines. Can’t figure out who is making all that noise at this hour. Up ahead, 3 “bimos,” small trucks with open seating in the back, are taking on passengers; tourists from America, England and Australia for the most part. I look for Tom and Bess. The night before we arrived in Darjeeling we sat together and flipped through a copy of “Asia on a Shoe String” trying to determine which sites we wanted to see. At the top of that list was a incredibly scenic vista known as Tiger Hill. From there, if conditions were right, you could witness a rare natural phenomenon: “Tiger Eye.” And that’s what brought us here this morning. To observe the eye of the tiger one must head up to Tiger Hill, the highest point on the mountain called Ghoom. From there, when the sun rises in the eastern sky, exposing the tops of the Himalayas to the west and the clouds fall away, there is a diamond shaped peak on the side of the Kachenjunga range that reflects the morning light with a blazing orange glow. It lasts only a fleeting moment or two and then it’s gone. But the elements have to be perfect: no cloud cover, bright sky, no snow on the mountain. Everyone says it’s worth getting up for.
Tom and Bess have been on the road together for over a year. He’s a long haired Irish tough and she’s a strong willed New Zealand beauty with a smattering of freckles and an evanescent wry smile. I first ran across them in Thailand. They met one week while beaching at Ko-Samui and have been together ever since. They are slowly making their way to Goa. They’ve decided to live on the beach for a year and Tom has asked me join them in India. It’s tempting but I have other plans. We’ll see how the wind blows. Now here we all are freezing our asses off in the chilly Himalayan fog.
They spot me and call out for me to join them. I pay the driver a couple of rupees and hop on board. The bimo is about full when two girls jump in and, seeing there are no seats left, begin to sprawl out on the floor. They are tall, blonde and beautiful and look almost exactly alike. One, seemingly the older of the two, is slightly taller and has a chiseled look of a French fashion model and an expression that tells me she hasn’t had her morning coffee yet. The other, though she is the spitting image of the first, is somehow softer and more approachable. Even in the darkness I can see her blue eyes and her small mouth. She says excuse me as she steps on my foot and I fall madly in love with the tone of her voice. Australian? Kiwi? They keep close to one another and keep their eyes down, not noticing that I am staring. I can’t help myself.
I haven’t been with a woman for so long I can’t remember what it feels like. For the most part I have forgotten about sex. I haven’t had a steady girlfriend since college and I certainly haven’t met anyone of the opposite sex while on this trip that showed any interest in me or aroused any emotion in me. Except for the one time I saw Bess naked in the shower and another when I paid for a hooker in Bangkok, I haven’t had any sexual contact with a woman at all in over a year. But here in front of me I see this natural beauty and suddenly I can think of nothing else but sex. Before she can get comfortable I am standing and offering her my seat. The two of them can squeeze in and I stand. I tell her that I am from New York and used to standing on the subway car. “No big deal!” She smiles and takes my place on the bench. Big sister, still scowling, crams in beside her without so much as a thank you.
The little truck starts on its way out of town and I am hanging on for dear life to the metal bars that support the roof covering. Tom looks at me like I am an ass for giving up my seat. “We’re going to watch the sun come up. We’re going to see Tiger Hill. I hope you don’t fall off the fuggin’ bimo!”
There are so many mystical sights in the Himalayas, it seems at almost every turn there is a Kodak moment waiting for you. The first few months on the road I was snapping photos like crazy. Must have taken 600 photos before I even left Japan. But after a while things began to slow down. Sometimes I’d look through the lens, about to rip off a shot, when I’d pause and just focus on the object and stare. The pauses got longer and eventually I stopped taking any photos at all. I began to draw pictures of the things I want to remember in my diary, spending more time ‘seeing’ what I was looking at. When I hit Bangkok I bought a sketchbook and, though my drawings are crude and artless, they resonate with me in a way the photos never could. Now I am looking at this girl, trying to memorize her face so I can capture the memory on paper.
We hit a bump in the road and I fall forward and bump my head. Tommy yells at me “hold on thar or you’ll get yer ass killed!” The “young one” looks up and, though saying nothing, she smiles at me and I smile back. It’s a moment.  I am freezing cold, my head is throbbing, I’m hanging on for dear life and yet I feel myself getting an erection. I’m making up a scenario in my head, trying to come up with the right words, the best small talk, to get her interested. I look over at the sister who is not smiling. How on earth am I going to get past her? To my mind, she’s like a Foo Dog, a guardian of the Temple, an obstacle to be overcome. I can tell that the real challenge will be to separate them long enough for me to charm my way into little sister’s heart.
“Where are you from?” Immediately I realize I first should have introduced myself and asked for her name. She hesitates but tells me they are from Auckland. Kiwis! She doesn’t elaborate. “How long have you been travelling?” Not too long, whatever that means. “You like it here, in Asia, I mean?” A smile and a nod. I smile too and bob my head like an idiot.
The truck struggles to make its way over a rough road that seems to be going up. Tiger Hill is miles from town. The caravan consists of only a few vehicles. We hit a few more big bumps but I’m hanging on. Finally we pull over and everyone piles out. I offer my hand to her as she steps over the rail to get off but she ignores the gesture. I don’t offer a hand to big sister, figuring she wouldn’t take it anyway. It’s still pretty dark but we all go stumbling up a dirt path to an area that overlooks a wide valley. It must be a spectacular view but all we can see are clouds. The sky is beginning to lighten up, morning is officially arriving but the mountains are almost completely shrouded in white puffies. Trying to seem as casual as possible, I’m making my way just a step or so behind the sisters.  From behind they are almost identical except for the clothing. I am about to say something when she turns to me. Her name is Catherine, she says, and her sister is Elizabeth but everyone calls her Liz. I am telling her my name but I can’t hear myself speak. I only hear her voice reverberating in my brain. Catherine. Another voice intrudes… it’s Liz. She speaks! They are twins, she informs me. Liz is two and a half minutes older. “That explains it,” I say. She looks at me funny. I tell her that she seems to be the older of the two. Catherine Jumps in and says that people always say that. We walk to the ridge and look out at – nothing.  The tourists are restless. The clouds are not going to break. There will be no jewel in the mountains this morning. I couldn’t care less. I have seen the light.
Everyone stands around. It’s cold and I am shivering. It’s beginning to get light but the clouds sit like layers of cotton over the horizon. We won’t be seeing any mountains today. Everyone is grumbling with disappointment. Tom lights up a cigarette. All he’s wearing is the same Polynesian sarong and tie-dye shirt he’s wore almost ever day since I met him. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
We are heading back down the path. My mouth and brain are seemingly not in sync. Why can’t I just ask her out?  Dinner maybe? I am walking between them now, the twins. Tom and Bess are just behind us. Tom yells out that they going to go hiking and do I want to come? I look to Catherine, she is Catherine to me now, and nod as if to say “do you want to go?” and she tells me they already have some plans for the day. Will you be around tonight? Maybe you’d want to meet me at the Washington Restaurant for a meal? If she’s not busy, then maybe tomorrow I can take her to the zoo. Liz can come too. She smiles that smile. All she says is “perhaps.”
_____________________________________________________________________________________
The sun has finally come out. It’s afternoon and I am walking to nowhere in particular. I’m strolling with my pack slung over my shoulder down a street lined with huge, bright orange marigolds. They are the size of oranges.  This may be the happiest I have been. Catherine. She is all I can think about.  As I walk past the little gingerbread cottages, I see beautiful refugee children playing in the street. Their dark skin, big black eyes and irrepressible smiles are beguiling. I stop to watch. One boy picks a marigold and starts to kick it with his feet and knee like a hacky-sack. They are laughing and playing and I feel this urge to join them. One runs over and starts to beg for money and the rest join in. Usually I would ignore their entreaties but today I feel like I love everybody and everything. I pull out some coin and some candy and each gets a little something. The boy with the marigold kicks it to me and I kick it back. It’s a perfect world.
I have decided to take a long walk out of town and I am now passing the Gurkha camp. The Gurkhas are a fierce fighting outfit and I can see their crossed swords symbol on the fence post. A sentry in a green uniform is on the other side of the fence. The Gurkhas ferocity, resilience and loyalty is legendary from the days of the Raj but for some reason the sight of this soldier doesn’t bother me. I’d seen soldiers and guardsmen in Thailand, Burma and Malaysia and I’d run across rebel soldiers in the Thai jungles near the Laotian boarder. They had always made the hair on my neck stand up straight. Never trust anyone over 30; that’s what Bob Dylan sang. You could add to that never trust a soldier in a 3rd world country. Maybe it’s the day, maybe the altitude, but I see this guy as a friendly. There is no war in my world today. Today I am fearless too. 
I pull out my sketchbook and draw the little guy by the fence. I draw the crossed swords of the Ghurkha logo from a sign that says: No Trespassing. I sketch the whole perimeter so I can remember what it looks like. I write G U R K H A and then G H U R K A and then G U R K A and can’t decide which spelling is correct. I try to recall the kid with the marigold and I sketch his face too.
I’ve been walking for hours. Walking, smoking, drawing, writing and reading. I brought a book to read, The Crying of Lot 49. When I left the States I had brought a couple of books and I was reading Shogun on my flight to Japan, which I thought of as a sort of travel guide.  When I’d finish a book I’d find someone with something interesting to read and swap. The first book I swapped out for was Confessions of a Mask and from there my reading habits began to change. At home I read a lot of spy novels. Here the books are about the journey and mostly Asian authors. Same with music. At home I listened mostly to the Beatles. When I got to Japan the whole country was caught up in a Suzy Quatro craze. Everywhere you’d go it was Suzy and Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter. That got old real fast so I started to hit the jazz clubs. Out here on the road you don’t hear much except for the local music of the streets. But right now I am hearing a tune buzzing around in my head – a Brazilian tune I heard weeks ago. I don’t know the words and that’s fine. I just like the rhythm and the sound of the voice of the woman who sang it. There’s a good tree to sit under and read or daydream so I plop myself down.
Sitting here, my brain is exploding with Catherine. I imagine her smile, her skin, her smell. Can’t read now. Can’t write, can’t draw. I just drift.
It’s been hot all afternoon but I feel a cool breeze and realize it must be getting late. Damn, now I wish I had kept that watch! Is it close to dinner time? Will Catherine come to meet me? I’ve got to get back, clean up and make my way to the restaurant. I’m feeling good, I’m feeling lucky. I’m walking at a good clip now, past the Gurkha base. My little guard is nowhere in sight now.  One thing about walking at this altitude is that you really feel it. I’m a bit winded even though I’m just walking up an incline. I’m taking deep breaths and notice that the air smells “clean”. What does clean air smell like? Clean air smells like Darjeeling, I say to myself.

I look in the mirror. I clean up pretty well. Showered, shaved (for the first time in days), and ready for anything. My hair, which I had cut short in Thailand, is growing back but still too short to tie into a ponytail. At one time my hair was halfway down my back and I thought it looked great but I was warned off long hair in the jungle and so I cut it. Probably a mistake, no one else with long hair seemed to have a problem.
I have always lacked self-confidence when it came to women. There is nothing worse than asking a girl out on a date which is why I hadn’t had many, dates that is. My college girlfriend practically had to hit me over the head with a club to get my attention. I never did actually ask her out, we just started talking and somehow wound up back at my place. She spent the night, and the next and the next and practically all the nights after that, until she graduated and moved back to Rochester. It was probably a year before I asked anyone else out. To me, the mating ritual just feels awkward. But I’m feeling good about tonight and Catherine because I sort of laid the ground work this morning.
The one light in my room is flickering. I’ve been staring at myself in the mirror for the last 20 minutes, calculating what I will say to her, what we’ll talk about, working up in my little pea brain all the things I believe will interest her. I take a deep breath. Enough mirror work, I gotta get going.
I’m just outside the Washington now. I can smell the frybread and the other aromas coming from the kitchen. From where I am standing I can see that a large group has formed at a table and I recognize some of the faces. Bessie is there and so is Tom. I walk in. Greetings all around.  Jeremy, 19 years old from Melbourne and full of energy, has just arrived from Calcutta. We had met before in Bangkok and travelled together to Ayutthaya to see the ruins. He gives me a big bear-hug and picks me up off the floor, crushing the cigarettes in my breast pocket. And now I see her in the back corner of the place at a small table. Catherine, looking splendid in a pink sequined silk blouse with a black silk sarong over her shoulders, smiling slightly and listening intently to a story being told to her. It’s who she is listening to that has me bothered. I now realize that Liz is not in the restaurant, Catherine is alone with Eric, another American. Eric???? How did this happen?
I met Eric on my way from Rangoon to Calcutta. We were the only American’s on the bus that day and fell into easy conversation. He was a little older than me and seemed like a really good guy, one who had been around. He had been a lawyer back in L.A. but something had caused him to leave it all behind and travel the world. We shared a hotel room in Calcutta for a couple of days before heading to Darjeeling. He was tall, much taller than me, and good looking, a fact that was now really pissing me off. He was a great conversationalist and pretty witty, or so I had thought up until this very moment. I must look like a cow with its mouth open, standing there, staring at the two of them because I can hear Bessie now insisting that I sit by her and tell her about my day. Good thing too, my knees are buckling a bit. Goddamn Eric – I am so bummed.
I’m sliding in next to Bess and she pours me some beer from her glass into an empty one on the table. I don’t even think to ask whose glass it is, I just swill the whole thing down.  Bess pours more Kingfisher and I gulp that down too. Now Bess is engaging me in conversation, asking me to tell the group about some damn thing we ate in Burma I don’t really remember. Since we met I have spent more time with Tom and Bess than anyone else on the journey. Though Tom and I get along well, it is Bess who I am closest to. Though I don’t know her age and I assume her to be not much older than me, there is a strong motherly quality about her and she always seems to say the right thing. Tom, headstrong and boisterous, with an Irishman’s temper, is always quiet and subdued when he is around her and now I suspect that she senses my agitation and is determined to have me mellow out. Her voice is soothing and she has her hand on my shoulder and I am now engrossed in the story of the fried birds and orange colored tea. I order more beers, calling out to the waiter, mostly so that I can catch a glance of Catherine and Eric in the corner. My disappointment is getting to me and I decide to get drunk.
Three or four beers later, Liz enters and walks right past our table without so much as a how-do-you-do. She slips in between Eric and Catherine and I realize that this is my chance. I start to rise from the table but am a bit unsteady from all those beers and Bess grabs my hand and steadies me. I look down at her and she gives me a knowing smile and says “Steady Eddie! A girl likes a man who can hold his alcohol!”  Right you are my friend. I smile at her and squeeze her hand as a way of saying thank you.
“Eric, man, you can’t keep all the beautiful women in Darjeeling to yourself.” I say this in as cavalier way as possible and without being asked, grab a stool and join the party. Liz looks at me like I am a total stranger or someone who just made a bad joke. Catherine says nothing but smiles. If ever I felt like a square peg, this is it. Finally, Catherine asks me how my hike was and I tell her that I only took a short walk after all. Eric chimes in about his day. He has been to the monastery at Ghum and has decided to become a Buddhist.  I don’t see this really happening, he is still a lawyer! On and on he goes, dominating the conversation, laughing out loud and telling stories. In general, he is making me ill. He even shares a short story of an experience we shared in Calcutta.
Upon arriving in the capital of West Bengal, after we had checked into our dingy hotel rooms and stashed our valuables, Eric and I went out to the court yard to mingle with the other travelers. Tom, Bess and Jeremy were there as well. Everyone was sitting on white folding chairs a circle and there was a skinny guy at the center who was talking softly while sharing his ball of opiated hashish. A small pipe was passed around and everyone took one hit off the bowl, sucking the smoke in through their fists, never touching their mouths to the pipe itself. After the pipe went around the circle once there was dead silence. I could not believe how stoned I was from one little blast. Minutes passed by with no words spoken. Finally Tom said “How much?” and that broke the spell. Eric bought the entire ball and everyone got another toke. Then Eric suggested that we all head into town and go to the movies. Movies? I couldn’t believe it but everyone wanted to go and so we got ourselves together and went to town. And that was how I wound up watching my first ever Bruce Lee Kung Fu film: Enter The Dragon.
Eric fills in the details and somehow steers the conversation to martial arts and how he was a black belt something or other and before I know it he is now organizing a trip for tomorrow to the Botanical Gardens. Liz agrees immediately. I am waiting to hear Catherine say one word: “perhaps…” but instead she looks at me and I say sure, why not and so it is all arranged. Twenty more minutes of chat fly by and suddenly the girls excuse themselves and leave for their hotel. Eric buys two more beers and we drink in silence. Finally I say goodnight and see you tomorrow. I came in full of expectation and I am leaving deflated. I am no match for this guy’s charming personality, Hollywood good looks and deep pockets.
_____________________________________________________________________________________
Walking home from the restaurant. Home? It’s a room without a view. It isn’t home. Maybe it’s time for me to make my way home to America. I am clearly depressed about this turn of events. What would the Buddha do? The Buddha would be… transcendental. I light up a smoke and talk to myself. People I pass in the street seem to not take notice, or do they think I am nuts? I decide to turn it around, make a better presentation of myself tomorrow. I will let go of my disappointment and be like a Bodhisattva, enlightened! I make a note in my sketchbook and draw a picture of Catherine. It’s a pretty rough sketch and doesn’t really look like her but I see her on the page. Tomorrow will definitely be better.
It’s late. I drank too much last night and my mouth feels like a bag of cotton. The sun is already up and my head hurts a bit. I grab my smokes and open the window. Ohhhhhh…. that light is too much. I shade my eyes and squat along the wall under the window, lighting a stick match with my thumb. Much warmer today than it has been. I take a big stretch and I am thinking about last night. We are going to the Botanical Garden, or was it the Zoo? What time is it? Where’s my book, where’s my bag? Where’s my toothbrush?
The Washington is practically empty now. I’m sitting near the window enjoying the breeze and another cigarette. The waitress comes over and I order Tibetan Tea, which is a sweet concoction that has an almost orange color to it and a frybread. If I stay here much longer I am going to get fat from eating so much fried bread and butter. Looking now at the sketch I did last night of Catherine. It’s not very good, but considering my lack of true talent and my drunken state, I am not displeased. Flipping through pages of notes, drawings, directions, translations and passages of poetry I found along the way, I find a passage by Hesse. “He who travels far will often see things far removed from what he believed was truth. When he talks about it in the fields at home, he is often accused of lying. For the obdurate people will not believe what they do not see and distinctly feel. Inexperience, I believe, will give little credence to my song.”
I wonder now what it will be like when I come to the end of this passage. I will end it, I feel it. There was a time when it was open ended. I felt I could stay on the road forever. And why not? The experiences, the sights, the friendships, all this was so new and exciting. I felt the powerful draw of the road, the search for something outside of myself. But now it’s different and I want, I need, something more intimate – someone I can share this with, someone who means more to me than Tom and Bess. They are wonderful but they are no more than characters in my drama. Now I’m getting a bit morose. Cheer up asshole! Go meet Catherine and make your move, after all, she may be the one. She certainly could be! Why not?
Digging in my bag I pull out what is left of a crumbled Burmese cigar that had been forgotten. Ahhh bliss! These funny little cigars are smoked everywhere in Burma by men and women alike. They are green and mild with a cardboard tip rolled right into the cigar. I light up and inhale deeply, not really what you want to do with one of these funky looking stogies but the smoke feels good. I cough a little bit on the exhale and hear a voice coming up behind me. “What’s the matter, you got frickin’ TB or somethin’?” Not funny I tell Tom as he plants himself across from me, signaling the waitress for more tea. Funny, we’re in Darjeeling where they grow the most wonderful tea in the world but everybody seems to drink this sweet, thick Tibetan stuff. Tom says the other smells to much like perfume. He grabs my book and starts writing in it. He’s writing down the address of his family farm in County Clare and some things to see in Ireland. There’s a “Get Yourself a Wife” festival in September and the Rose of Tralee Festival in August in County Kerry. I doubt now that I will get to Ireland but I am interested in Tom’s enthusiasm for his homeland. I’ve never heard him talk about his home or family before, only to say that he’d been travelling for so long and had no intention of going back. “If you get over that way you should get to the Aran Islands and see it. It’s the most beautiful spot. My pal Billy O’Brien runs the ferry from Galway and he’ll get you fixed up there.” I look over his notes. I want to know about the “Get Yourself a Wife” festival. “I’m not surprised after the way you were sniffin’ around that gal last night. You got a thing for her, do you?” I wouldn’t say a thing but she is really nice. “Nice?” he says half laughing at me, half serious which is his way.
Tom laughs again and says that Catherine is very pretty but I’ll never get past the sister. I casually mention that Eric seemed to be doing OK but Tom snorts and says insists that he won’t get anywhere with her either. “Those two are Yin and Yang and they ain’t gong nowhere without eachother. I bet thar both virgins. Damn Kiwi’s.” I look at him surprised. Bess is a Kiwi I remind him, as if I had to. “Bess is different. Not many women I’ve met like her.” I have to agree with that.  Tom pulls a pack of rolling papers and tobacco from his pack and unfolds a piece of paper that has crumbled up hashish in it. He carefully lays out some of the brown tobacco on the paper and sprinkles a bit of hash on the end and then rolls the whole thing into a stick. I offer him a match and he takes in a big breath of smoke. He offers me a toke while telling me that those damn Burmese Cigars are going to kill me. This from a man who smokes constantly, at least 2 packs of American cigarettes a day. Tom has few belongings and dresses like a pauper but always seems to have an unlimited supply of Marlboros.
I ask him when he thinks he’ll see Ireland again and to my surprise he says soon. Bess has told him that she has changed her mind about Goa and wants to instead head east towards home. She has invited him back to Auckland but he thinks not. I sense some disappointment in his voice but with Tom it’s hard to tell. He says he’ll go on to Goa with or without her but then he’ll go home to see his family, at least for a while and he enthusiastically invites me to come visit him so we can hit all his favorite pubs. We have a good laugh, I sip some tea and munch down some bread. It tastes sweet and delicious. Tom looks out the window. “It’s been a long time since I left out for Asia. It would be nice to see my ma. And the road is hard after a while. If I hadn’t met Bess I dunno if I would have stayed here so long. Being with a woman, well it’s different. Harder in some ways but better in others.” I tell him I wouldn’t know.
I finish my tea and close my book. Time to get going. Tom sits back on two legs of his chair and starts to sing as I head out the door.
She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet ‘twas not her beauty alone that won me.
Oh no, ‘twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.
I know the hotel where Catherine and Liz are staying and I am heading down the street with a sense of purpose in my step. I make the turn up the alley and pick up my pace. If I can catch Catherine before they start to head out perhaps I can convince her to accompany me to the Zoo. In my head I hear myself asking her, telling her that the Zoo has tigers and pandas and it would really be a brilliant afternoon. I have to come up with a great reason for her to leave Liz to Eric behind so they will go off to the Botanical Gardens by themselves and then just hang with me. An afternoon with the pandas might do it! I have to come up with something better than that. Fast, I’m almost there.
The crowded little desk at the Snow Hill hotel is cluttered with papers, calendars, a phone, Hindu deities and an incense burner. The hotel looks nothing like the peaceful picture conjured up by its name. It looks like a bigger version of the Timber. A small man wearing a soiled white shirt and a long black vest is sleeping behind the counter and looks pissed off when I wake him up. No, I don’t want a room, I want to find my friends, two blond sisters staying here, from New Zealand, pretty girls, sisters, what room are they in please? The desk clerk doesn’t seem to want to help me. You don’t want a room? No, I’m looking for two sisters. They are staying here at this hotel. Please tell me how to find them. He looks at me long and hard for what seems like an hour but is actually just a few seconds. “They check out.”
Can’t be, I tell him. They aren’t leaving town yet, must be someone else he’s thinking of. These are two sisters, blond hair from New Zealand. He leans back and says only “they check out.”
I’m on the street now, scratching my head and wondering what the hell that is all about. How will I ever find them? Well, it’s a small place and they have to be somewhere. Maybe I can find Eric and ask if he’s heard from them or maybe if I go to the Botanical Gardens I’ll find them there. They couldn’t have checked out! Or did they? In the distance I hear the screech of the Toy Train meaning that it’s heading into the station or leaving. Something tells me I if I go to the station I will find Catherine there. Now I’m really confused. They never mentioned leaving, we did say we were going to the Zoo or the Gardens or somewhere today. This can’t be happening.
The railway station is bustling. Stalls lined up on the roadside are selling tea and food, prayer wheels, Tibetan tankas, Hindu statuettes of Ganesh and Siva and knit woolen sweaters. The famous Toy Train sits on the tracks with smoke billowing from its smokestack. Walking up and down the platform and up the street again, I don’t see either girl and believe me they’d stand out in a crowd around here. Positive they aren’t here, I find myself slowly meandering back to town. I take a path up the hill without really thinking of where I am going now. Here’s a small cottage-like house, paint fading and chipped with English styled gingerbread filigree decorating the entrance and the railing. A small black sign with gold lettering says in perfect English “Cosmic Ray Laboratory.” Maybe they’ve been abducted by aliens… that’s as plausible as anything else to me right now.
I’m sitting on the porch hoping that the aliens come back and take me away too. I take out my sketchbook and sketch the scene. It’s so beautiful here, I need to focus, smell the roses. In fact there are roses surrounding the cottage. Beautiful English roses in red, pink and white growing wild and looking like they hadn’t been attended to in years. I look out at the sky and the valley below and notice the clouds are still thick and blocking any view of the mountains. I haven’t seen any mountaintops since we arrived. I look back at the roses. They need care, it’s almost as if they are asking for someone to just take a little care of their scrawny stems. I wonder who lives in the Cosmic Ray Laboratory, if in fact anyone lives there at all. Perhaps they are so busy looking at the stars above they don’t see the roses below. Hmmm… I pick a small flower and press it between the pages of my notebook. I’ll make a sketch of that later. Now I need a beer.
Kingfisher, I shout out to the waiter in the little café. I am just across the street from the Timber. I like Indian beer, it’s crisp and bitter. The Japanese and Thai beers are tasty but don’t have the bite that the Indians do. Maybe they use more hops or something. I grew up drinking Budweiser and Miller and I never liked the taste. These beers actually taste like something. I finish with four big swallows and order another. I’m not going to get drunk but I am so thirsty. This beer I sip. And there is Eric walking down Lebong Road plain as day. I shout out his name, throw a couple of rupees on the table and run out to meet him. He looks a bit haggard and I ask him if he wants to get a beer. No, he’s just back from a long walk to the zoo. Where are the girls I ask?
“Well, if you mean Catherine and Liz, I’d imagine they are halfway to Siliguri by now.” What on earth are you talking about? Eric explains that he had gotten up early, went down for breakfast and ran into them with their bags packed, heading for the bus station. During the night Liz was unwell. In fact she hadn’t been feeling well for days and so they decided right then and there to cut things short and head back to Calcutta. Liz would look for a doctor and if she wasn’t feeling better than they would book passage back to Auckland. Wow, I wonder why she didn’t say anything, I remarked. Eric felt that the girls were very private and didn’t want anyone to know that Liz had taken ill. In her condition it would not be wise to go further into the mountains where there was a lot of infectious disease, especially tuberculosis. Damn!
I really felt like a schmuck. I had not seen the sky or the roses. “What about you amigo, what’s your plan?” I told Eric I’d stay another day or two and then head down to Siliguri and onward to Varanasi and try to be in Kathmandu by October. He would fly to Kathmandu tomorrow and start trekking near Pokhara as soon as he could get there. He wanted to visit as many Buddhist temples in Nepal as he could. Maybe we’d meet up in Kathmandu he said. We shake hands and part company. I have a feeling that I’ll never see Eric again.
4 AM and I am wide awake. I know it is 4 AM because yesterday I bought a pocket watch in the market at one of the shops near the station. It’s a cheap windup watch but it’ll do. It’s cold and I pull the blanket up under my chin. I turn on my light and pick up a book from the table, “A Lazy Man’s Guide To Enlightenment.” It was a book that Bess had given to me some weeks ago but I hadn’t gotten to yet. I open to the last page of the book, which is a peculiar habit of mine. Whenever I am interested in a book I turn to the last page and read the last paragraph or last few lines. If I like what I read I start from the beginning. This book seems interesting. I flip through the pages and arbitrarily stick my finger into the middle of the book. “What happens is not as important as how you react to what happens.” I look around the cramped little room. This is heavy stuff. I flip to another page. “The trouble with evil is that it seduces us into trying to eliminate it.” Wow, where are my cigarettes?
At 5:30 I am on my feet and on the street. I have my pack and my sketchbook and a few rupees. I feel good this morning, clear headed and ready. For what? I head down the street and see an empty bimo, the driver dozing on the passenger side. I wake him and ask if he’ll take me to Tiger Hill. He slides over and we negotiate a price. This time I sit in the passenger seat and we take off on the bumpy road toward Ghoom. I offer him a cigarette and ask him his name. He calls himself Dev. I know he is Hindi because he has a brightly colored figurine of Ganesh attached to the dashboard. The deity with a huge elephant head is revered by the Hindis as the “Remover of Obstacles,” the patron god of the arts and a deva of wisdom. He also seems like the most fun of the Hindu gods with his long trunk, cute little tusks and jeweled crown. I rub the figurines head and tell the driver it’s for luck. He smiles at me and says Ganesh is with you. I hope so, I really do.
It’s still dark when we get to Tiger Hill. I pay the driver and ask him if he’ll wait. He says he will but I know that means only if a better offer doesn’t come around. I walk up the hill to the spot where we were the other morning and find a comfortable spot to sit. There are only a few other tourists around and they all are keeping to themselves. A Japanese couple and a few Indians. Some have tea. There’s enough distance between us so that I am alone with my thoughts.  It’s been cloudy for a week and no one has seen the mountains and I don’t expect to this morning either. I just feel like I need to be here this particular morning. It seems like a good place to start the rest of my life.
The sky lightens a bit and I notice for the first time that the clouds are gone. I look around but I don’t see anyone. Standing now I walk over to the precipice and gaze out at the most breathtaking site I have ever seen. The tallest mountains in the world are spread out before me in all their magnificence. As the sun continues to climb the snow covered peaks are revealed and suddenly there is a blinding flash of fire glowing from the diamond shaped face of the middle peak. It absolutely sparkles and I am mesmerized. I cannot move my feet and I am no longer cold. I am staring at the eye of the eye of the tiger and he’s staring back at me.
I stand there until the glow disappears and the mountainside turns a cold black and blue. The Japanese, jabbering away and winding their cameras walk past me and I smile at them. They give me a little bow and I bow back. Everyone is smiling, even the normally taciturn Indians. I make my way down the path. Dev is still there, dozing in the driver’s seat. “OK my friend, where do you want to go now?” I look at him for a moment and say “home.”

Whether I am conscious of it or not,
I am one with the cause of all that exists.
Whether I am conscious of it or not,
I am one with all the love in the universe.
 -Thaddeus Golas
July 31, 2009