Monday, November 23, 2009

The Strays of Hotel Pine St. Part 3

Alverez2

The rug is filthy, but it's the last thing I'm thinking about as I try to will the walls of the living room to stop spinning.

Birch wood smoke has always been a favorite odor of mine. It's particularly one of my favorites as I speed passed the smoke with the windows rolled down.

Even though I spent the entire day in Washington Square Park, I find that I can't remove myself from the stone steps of the Synagogue on the corner to write the last verse of a song that I just hobbled together.

~***~


I focus on the silence, on the traffic passing outside, the breeze dancing with the window in the living room. I like these little moments of calm, it makes me appreciate the days of madness that much more.

"I am bulletproof," I mutter to myself as I downshift to the bend in the road. I'm grinning like an idiot on a road that I traveled many times before, knowing in my heart of hearts that I may never do so again.

I knew it was her birthday. She knew that I knew it was her birthday. I could have done something normal like dinner or a movie. But no, I had to take the "homemade" approach and write her a song.

~***~

I'm twenty-two. It's late summer, I have a day off from work and yet I find myself back at work. Not to work, but to donate blood. I thought it might be a good gesture to make an appearance and do my good deed for the day. I haven't donated in a long time and it felt good knowing that I might have saved a couple of lives that day. I also wondered if the people I saved would appreciate the free ride I gave them because I indulged in my usual excessive behavior at a party a few nights ago. By the time they give you your "I Just Donated Blood!" sticker and offered you a second helping of chocolate chip cookies, they have already told you at least thrice to take it easy for at least 2 hours afterwards, do not smoke or drink alcohol for at least 6, and do not operate any machinery immediately after donating.

These apocryphal harbingers of doom are promptly ignored as I get behind the wheel and light up a Camel for the ride home. It was my day off. Although I was doing the nice guy thing, it did not mean that I wanted to spend the rest of the day recuperating at the place I work at. Besides, it was not, nor would it be the last time I drove home feeling....ohhh...let's say, a little light headed as it were.

Cookies and juice are nice, but they do little to stave off the altered state of perception a little bloodletting can provide. What I really need is calm. Calm and silence. Food will come later, after all, I have all day. "Just let me feel the breeze," I thought, "The breeze and the afternoon sun, and I'll have my head on straight in a few minutes."

Then, I heard the front door open.

~***~

I'm eighteen. It's late summer, and I'm driving to no particular destination on a winding, hilly stretch of road on Mt. Desert Island. My car is a piece of shit 1986 Ford Escort GT that I spent the previous summer babying. It was my Millennium Falcon; it may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts. It was my second car, and as a privilege of youth, it was my duty to get into as much trouble as I could with it. At least, that's what I'd like to think at the time. I had a romantic vision of myself being a reckless speed demon, but in reality, the thing was a four cylinder, 5 speed, no options, and had a top speed of 50 mph, and even then it took gentle negotiation to get that needle to hoover around that number. Not much badassery going on there. Still, it was a blast to drive.

But regardless, high school career over, my summer with a troupe of struggling artists was winding to a close, and in a few weeks, I'll be heading out to college. From every angle in the driver's seat, all I can see is green. From where I sit, I have the world in my lap and nothing will get in my way.

Then I do the math.

~***~

I'm twenty-five. It's late summer, and I'm going to enjoy this one single solitary day not being at work, or attached at my girlfriend's hip. It was a postcard perfect day...in the park...where everyday's the Fourth of July.

I needed room. Just enough. The walls of the crummy basement apartment were getting to me and the air was just a little too still. I wanted to catch New York on a good day, so I packed up my guitar, and headed to Manhattan to find the closest park I could walk to that was near the 3 Line. All around me is green. All around me is fresh grass, the bluest sky and a dancing laundry line of color playing all around me. I wasn't sober, but I was more sober than I had been. I'm trying to put words on paper to a song that I had in my head. The words aren't coming, and the melody is holding out for a better paying gig; a mutual disagreement for everyone involved. Negotiations broke down quickly and picket lines were bolstered in my mind. All around me is a wonderful distraction. The words in front of me are a pathetic few. I pack up. I walk. I search for some other inspiration.

Then I lose track of time.

~***~

Draw the shade and put my clothes on the shelf.
It's hard to concentrate on anything else.
It's been a while since I felt like myself.
My attention is turning west,
I need to get this off my chest,
You've made my life more complete,
When I call back to the days of Hotel Pine St.

Footsteps walk on creaking floorboards. No need to get up and see who it was, whoever it was would find me eventually. Besides, it could have only been one in a handful of people, and sure enough it was. Small, tentative, cautious mouse-like steps could only mean one person, and it was a slightly peculiar trait coming from such a big guy. [Author's Note: I will not give his name, because I didn't ask to use it. However, those who were around at the time, will know who I'm talking about almost immediately. For those that don't, I'll just use the term "my friend" when I need to refer to him.]

A familiar head poked around the corner and spied a familiar person sprawled out on a cheap, yard sale rug taking in the fresh air and what was left of a late afternoon sunset. My Friend smiles his goofy smile and waves, I smile and wave back. He turns around and without a word, inspects the rest of the apartment for other inhabitants; a gentle recon mission that reminds me of a child looking for Santa Claus on Christmas Morning. He's restless. Bored. When he gets like this, which is on occasion, no good could ever come from it. That is to say, when he gets like this, me and perhaps everyone who might be in the room with me is at risk for going on a little ride with him. Not that we don't encourage him. Not that we don't avoid him when we see a change come. First and foremost, he is our friend. Second of all, it was the Nature of the Beast to do what thou wilt. Like we needed encouraging.

"Hey, man." He finished his sweep of the apartment and has put his attention to the only biped left around.
"Hey," I replied. "How's it goin'?" Our dialogue being the very height and breadth of wit.
"Pretty good." His attention is drawing him to other places, his fingers searching for something. His voice was the tenor of a man in his golden years on the front porch swing. He's only half paying attention. "Why are you on the floor?"
"Well, I just got back from donating blood," I say trying to not sound like I'm woozy, "and I'm just lying herrrrre relaxing."
"That's nice," he said, half interested. What I needed was calm. Calm and silence. Food would come later, but with him in the picture, with that goofy look on his face, any personal pursuit of relaxation would have to be put on hold. "Hey," he finally blurted out as the light bulb he was so eager to light in his head finally clicked. Here it comes, I thought. Here comes the whirlwind. Just stick to your guns and tell him you're not in the mood right now. Time to take it easy. Whatever he has up his sleeve can just wait. "I was wondering," he continued with that look, "would you like to smoke some hash and ride on the back of a motorcycle?"

~***~

Things just seemed clearer driving 15 miles over the speed limit. Savoring a mixture of sea spray and birch wood smoke while speeding through it at 15 miles over the speed limit helped me put things in perspective. This was my home turf, after all. This was my country that I would soon expatriate. As I write this, every zip code that I've ever lived in comes to mind, and I've yet to see anyplace that compares to the Coast of Maine in summertime.

I've been stuck in the bottleneck of the Miracle Mile in Ellsworth and now I'm making a bee line to Bar Harbor on the as-of-yet undeveloped area of Route 3. The act of sitting still in summer time traffic winds me up like a Mickey Mouse wristwatch and I'm driving faster than I should be. The wood smoke I smell is the byproduct of the lobster shantys that dot the side of the road; Little mom-and-pop shacks that boil the day's catch outside in these huge metal pots built inside these ancient brick woodstoves. White smoke from wet birch logs billows for hours. It collects thick near the stove and then dissipates, painting the wind, and gives the tourists and townies alike a subtle reminder that summer is in full swing, and you won't be leaving these parts without having at least one basket of steamers under your belt.

It's not yet Labor Day, and you could already feel the hint of the sea change in the air. Morning dew is collecting thick on leaves, telling them to make arrangements on changing their decor. Out of State plates have become fewer as the herd of traffic from Bangor to the Sea Coast becomes thinner and thinner. You might see a straggler in from Iowa or Illinois, a minivan from New York bravely hanging around for Foliage Season, Cadillacs from Canada their trunks full of Outlet schwag on their way back across the border. For the most part, these last few days are ours. These days were saved for us to do with as we saw fit. For some it meant getting a jump start on gathering winter fuel, for the rest of us, it meant doing what comes naturally when the sun asks you to dance. Warm weather came at a premium price, and some of us indulged to the fullest extent so that we may survive the winter blues. These days were saved for me, and I was doing what came naturally.

Our last show was wrapping this weekend. I have already begun my mental rough draft of a good bye note that I will have to recite to my fellow artists, gypsies and vagabond friends in a few days. Summer Stock theater might be the last stop on the way down for some, but for people on the way up, it was nothing but good times, good connections and a highlight on a very meager resume. I knew most of these people, I've worked with them previously. In a few weeks I was to enter College as a theater major; a fact that to this day, I try and downplay. So this summer was work, play, get experience, maybe make connections, and most importantly, spend some quality time with my best girl. Ah yes, my last high school romance. She was the very essence of "naughty and nice"; a sweet veneer coating surrounding a soft, nougaty core of damaged goods served up on a plate of Catholic Guilt. She was a summertime daydream, still in high school, a lovely sight, and ohhh...who am I kidding......?

Seriously?

Things just seemed clearer driving 15 miles over the speed limit. It helped me put things into perspective. 15 miles over the speed limit isn't reckless. Not yet, anyway. It's just fast enough to let the world spin by on the hum of mosquito wings. It's just fast enough to get some alone time with you and your conscience. The air rushing threw the open windows, the Van Halen mix tape you have sputtering through your pathetic set of Radio Shack speakers, the smell of smoke wafting through, crystal clear blue skies and the sun on your face all help in aiding your denial, but sooner or later.....
"Dude?"
Oh, not now. Not now, not now...I'm having a good day.
"I know, I am too, so I'll make this brief. You do realize you are going into a field that has a low success rate for employment, your car's a piece of shit, and there is absolutely no way in hell that your girlfriend is going to wait around for you when you come back for summer break, you do realize that, right?" I don't answer. I rewind the tape back to the beginning. "C'mon, I know you can hear me."
I don't want to talk about this now.
"Good, at least you've thought about it. Tell you what, just admit that this paradise you've concocted is going to disappear the moment this summer ends, and I'll leave you alone for the rest of the week. Deal? Good. Now, just say 'yes' and we can get back to admiring the view."

The view, by the way, is spectacular. From the drivers' seat, all I can see is green. It rushes up one side of a mountain, and slides down to the ocean. It's the green that makes jealousy even greener. "Yes," I say out loud to no one in particular. "Good," comes the reply from no one in particular. The tape deck clicks to the beginning of tape.

~***~

"Shit, it's getting dark." In my search for words and a decent place to write said words, I have come up with a head full of caffeine, a few miles put on to cheap shoe leather, a head full of wonderful images that might come in handy later, and half a song. Not even a good half at that. I'm using a melody that I tinker with when I run out of things to play; a warm up piece. Something I strum to keep my mind tethered so that it won't wonder too far. It was unfinished then, it remains unfinished to this day. The words I'm using are gently and lovingly placed in such a manner that if you listen carefully, it sounds like brain surgery performed by Silverback Gorillas with an ice cream scoop, a length of fire-hose, and an old, scratched up copy of Air Supply's "Lost in Love" on vinyl done to the tune of a couple of frat boys taking turns vomiting up keg beer in an alley outside of your bedroom at 4 in the morning. Did I mention that I'm not much of a poet? This song was not supposed to happen, but I'm trying to make it work.

A few years ago, I stole her and ran blind and mad to New York. I was nowhere near thinking clearly back then, but I had to try. I needed to make my own mistakes. I needed to fuck up royally. I needed to do something foolish. Anything to keep from drowning in complacency. If I was to start my acting carrer, I needed to be where the action is. I needed to know. I needed to experience. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was trying to avoid the inevitable intersection of ambition and reality where starving artists meets in a head on collision with full time, dead-end job. Now its present day, and my vision of a better future wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The brochure lied again. But, I'm trying to make it work.

Nightfall came on so suddenly. It's a good indication of how long I spent on a subway. She is home now after working all day in Staten Island. I'm almost home after a day of wandering around Manhattan. I pause on the stone steps of a Synagogue on the corner to write the last hackneyed line for some half baked song. A birthday present for my girlfriend.

But, I'm trying to make it work.

~***~

When I had the cash, nothing came close to a veggie sub that came from the pizza shop across the street. It was run by this little Italian guy and his wife. They where in there from open to close, 7 days a week. How long can one man and his wife keep up such an operation, you might ask? Approximately 8 months, when he sold his shop and everything in it to some old guy with a failing liver and two slacker sons. Still though, my sandwich is satisfying, healthy and cheap and as of this moment, it's the first thing that comes to mind. The second thing that goes through my mind is that my hair is definitely the most frightening feature about me. Even more so as it gets the blow back of it's life while I speed through affluent suburbia on the back of a motorcycle, slightly toasted on a decent little nub of hash. The third thing was....well, it's anybody's guess at this stage. Cognitive and logical thought left a long time ago, and it's all I can do to hang on to my ass as the landscape shifts around me. Still though, I like these moments of madness. They make me appreciate those moments of calm that much more. As we whiz pass another old Victorian on a vintage 500 cc Honda motorcycle, and letting the slow burn of a sticky brown substance become our co-pilot, I could not help but think...

The view is stunning, and all at once, this overwhelming feeling of being alive flows over me like the smokey ocean wind that's blowing through my windows. Go ahead, laugh like madman, crank up Little Guitars on your stereo as loud as your little speakers can hold it, take a deep breath, and most importantly, remember this feeling for the rest of your life. You may never come back here. Not to this moment, not to this feeling, ever again. Enjoy it while it lasts, it'll all be over soon. As you gaze at the chaotic perfection of mountain ranges that have carved their initials on this island, remember this one thing....

"It'll have to do," I say to myself as I clench the crumpled up wad of paper in my mouth, stick the pencil behind my ear and pack up my guitar for that 36 step walk back home. I can't shake this feeling of dread, and I couldn't quite explain it. I couldn't explain it because I couldn't see it for what it was: I was too busy being the good boyfriend to notice that I was being disingenuous in my gesture to someone who could not abide by disingenuous people. Still though, it's the thought that counts, especially when I didn't have two nickles to rub together. Just go inside and get it over with. Get it over with and try not to think about...

...I don't want to leave.

...I can never really leave.

...I have to leave. And, I can't help thinking that I've been here before.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Strays of Hotel Pine St. Part 2

November.

Another November has come calling to our Hotel. In an ideal world, it would be as quaint as a Grandma Moses painting this time of year; everyone all snug and cozy in their idyllic, New England scenery and stiff linen shirts while somewhere a hearth was burning bright against the impending gloom that was lumbering in from the top left corner of the canvas. But for our little building in our little neighborhood, we had to make do with what was offered.

Being an old building, every corner and joint, everywhere where wood met wood, there was air escaping through it. Fortunately, air conditioning is a foreign concept for many of the historical buildings in Maine. A cool breeze was a good friend to have in July, but by November, he has worn out his welcome. Drafty. But, as time went on, you eventually got used to the klunk-klunk-klunk of the window in the living room that was dangling by sheer will itself every time a breeze wanted to let itself out. You eventually didn't notice the rain seep through horsehair plaster in the walls every time a strong nor'easter started its trick-or-treating a little late. You eventually learned to wear thick socks or shoes to protect your feet from uneven floorboards and the random heads of nails that sprout up like wild blueberry shrubs from them. It was cozy. It was befitting for a gaggle of Bohemian Twentysomethings; heat and hot water included, proximity to the University, two very good pizza shops and a 7-11. Proximity to downtown was obligatory and not important to get into because honestly, when you live in the West End of Portland, everywhere is walking distance, and somehow rather obliquely, that made the town itself cozier by default.

All of this conceived shock of living in squalor was short lived because if anything, this building had character, and our apartment, the Suite of the Hotel, had gone through many incantations before coming up with the right balance of comfort, apathy, angst, expression, joy and ambivalence. It was cozy, for all of its obvious flaws. Of course, electric heat included in the rent didn't hurt either. The colder it got, the more that heater would blast. By January, the entire Northeast is encased in a wet, freezing tomb while our little corner of the universe stayed unnaturally warm and dry.

Another November has come calling to our Hotel, and change comes quietly if it was to come at all. Our landlord started one of what was to be many renovations that would take years to accomplish a couple of weeks ago. Prior to that time, our place was a burglar's paradise; the front door was old, and the frame that was holding it could no longer do it's job. The frame was swollen and mailable which worked in concert with the front door lock. The lock itself worked fine; you could only open it from the inside, while on the outside, you needed a key. Which is all well and good, but on the off night where you forgot said key, you could just as easily use a little English on the doorknob by lifting up the door itself by the knob and pushing the door open. If we were rich and were in constant fear of someone actually coming inside and taking all of our possessions, we would have been upset about it. But we didn't have much by way of family heirlooms or pricey electronics, and the people that were bold enough to barge in were people that we knew anyway. That all stopped when the landlord purchased and installed a brand new front door; Heavy, metallic, industrial. Able to thwart the cattiest of burglars with the stickiest of fingers.

If anything, our new door kept more of the chill outside where it belonged. It was nice not having to deal with a creeping snowdrift that found its way inside every year. The biggest hassle from that moment on was that we had to eventually learn to take our key every time we left.

November. Darkness comes early and Winter is picking out wall coverings. My roommate, St. Ken, had just come home from being at school all day. No sooner had he reached for his fresh set of front door keys and unlocked the big gray behemoth, when he heard a small bleat over his shoulder. He almost didn't hear it over the wind ripping his ears off, but he heard it again, and this time it had feet and it came rushing up to him in a hurry.

Most of the stories I remember during my tenure there, had nothing to do with me, which is refreshing. These are the stories that are painted in a particular shade of "hadtobethere". These are stories that are deserving of a little embellishment, they are worthy enough to indulge in an extra coat of paint, because they may not mean anything standing on their own. But as you take steps back, and take steps back, and take steps back, you'll have a better look at the bigger picture; a more detailed tapestry.

Before he could focus on what came flying past him, the noise was already heard again on the other side of the new door. It was a cat. A young male Abyssinian or American Short Hair; Golden eyed, fur the color of chimney soot. Even though it was maddeningly cold outside, this creature bore no ill will. It was as if he almost had a voice of his own, "Hold the door, hold the dOOOR!! Thanks! Wheew! *heh* How 'bout that weather, huh? It's enough to freeze your pee right to your fur!...I MEAN...not...that you have a...problem...anyway. Food! You wouldn't happen to have any food lying around would ya? No? Well it's okay, it's not like you were expecting me right? *heh* Of course not. But anyway...." By this time, he had infiltrated our apartment, and started making himself at home. Almost as if he knew his way around. No fear, an outgoing personality, never a wont for anything. He came in, found the warmest spot on the warmest section of the couch, shook the chill from the tips of his whiskers, curled up in a ball and went to sleep. We got food the next day.

A week later, he hadn't left yet. Going by the current rules at the time, he had become a permanent roomie. And yet, he still went unnamed. We told this story to Di, St. Ken's girlfriend at the time. As I recall, she didn't have to dwell on the subject too long. As I recall, we didn't have to finish the story. She named him after a wandering prophet.

His name was Elijah.

There was the thief, the cleric and the Prodigal Son,
The Prince who painted is demons for fun,
My poet lover who spent her life on the run,
And a cast of hundreds strong.
We all sang a different song,
And the tune still sounds bittersweet.
The song still plays at Hotel Pine St.

~***~

"So, I know that this isn't the best time to bring this up, buuuut I've found a place down the street, and I'm moving in a few weeks, soooo...." There wasn't much I could say. He was and always will be my friend. Go ahead. Go ahead and move down the way and move in with your other friends. I'll just try and figure out a way to pay rent I can't afford by myself. It's all good.

Seriously, still good friends. As with most good friendships, it will have it's ups and downs. This was one of the downs. We had given up the dormitory lifestyle a year before, and felt the need to finally snap that umbilical chord and live in a place where we weren't under a scrupulous eye. He made it out first, I followed in the summer. The following summer, old mates came calling and they all found a place together. Not that I blame him. He has a longer history with people he grew up with, and I've only known him a relatively short amount of time. They had dibs. I was a smoker, he wasn't. I was loud and obnoxious, he wasn't. I didn't blame him in the least. It wasn't like he was moving to Europe or anything. A wise man once told me that you have to do what you have to do. But still. Still, it didn't help matters any that this place was going to be more vacant in a manner of weeks.

(Overheard sitting at an outside table at a coffee shop on Congress St.) "My God!! Portland is so....HUGE!" My friend and I laughed over our double espressos upon hearing this from a Young Impressionable passing by. "Obviously from the sticks," one of us said. It was a laugh of a common recognition, of getting the humor of any situation at the same time when there is no apparent humor to be seen. I'm sure we both thought the same thing, once upon a time. Although Portland is the largest city in Maine, it is by no means the largest in the world, and time compounded with wisdom and experience had made us slightly jaded about that fact. We thirsted and hungered to have our feet touch different soil, while at the same time being more than content to stay right where we are and have time pass right on by. I suppose that's what home should feel like.

My once upon a time with The Forest City began when I was a boy. Once a year, my family and I would head south for the weekend. My father was a high school guidance counselor and my mother had a flexible schedule with the public library, and so every year in February, we would pack up the car, drive 2 and a half hours south, and shack up at a Ramada Inn in Portland for a few days. In those few days, we would stroll the Old Port, go to a Mall that was far better than the one in our town, and generally get away for a while. It was our Southern getaway. I was10 at the time. Now its 10 years later, and I'm still acting like I need permission to go outside.

It wasn't too long before I discovered the Hive of the Boho. I say wasn't too long because you could hardly miss it at the time. If you didn't pass by it in the center of town, you would see its detritus strewn all over town. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters was cool before coffee was cool. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters was serving the counter-culture before there was a counter to the culture. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters pwnd Starbucks. Which isn't saying much, because Starbucks slowly became the Wal-Mart of cafes, and either assimilated or drove everyone else out of business. It became so big as a matter of fact, that it stood next to the Mountain in Portland, and chopped it down with an edge of its hand. Green Mountain, has since been confined to the world of online shipping, and does all of its business out of one location. It was back before it met its demise, that I found myself inside its pseudo-industrial walls, huffing the dust of the second biggest Columbian export, shaking the rain from my head, trying to make sense of the menu, and coming to grips of how I was going to go about paying rent to a two bedroom place with what I was getting from a part time job.

When you get caught up in your own inertia, you don't really focus on the world at large, except for maybe the cup of strong Venezuelan blend in your hand. You see the rain outside, and the bright contrasting colors of random umbrellas splattered against the canvas of dull gray, but it doesn't register. You take a sip from your cup, but you barely feel the burn as it coats your stomach. You know it's Paul Simon, but the piped in music is barely audible. You recognize his face, but the two months or more of growth from his face obscure the mental photograph you've taken a year or so ago. You notice that he is trying to get your attention, but you can't get out of your head long enough to hear him say,
"Hey,"
"Oh hey! How've you been? Haven't seen you in a while," I say as desperately try to clean the mental photograph.
"Pretty good," he replies. There's a calm-after-the-storm behind his eyes. There's proof that there is an end to the Earth in his voice. His current outward appearance reflected his inherent inward nature; A refined unkemptness, a willingness to get his hands dirty while at the same time, a taste for the finer things. "I just got back into town."
"Oh really? Where'd you get back from?" The picture cleaning almost complete. I think I remember him from a class last year, which is to say I recognize him in passing.
"I spent some time hiking the Appalachian Trail," he says as if he just came back from the grocery store, "and I just got back into town." His clothes weren't dirty, they were beat up. Like they were cleaned with rocks in a stream. Small talk is a welcome diversion, especially when you need to clear your head, but you know it will end soon and you'll be right back to what was weighing you down a few minutes ago. "By the way," he continued, "I was wondering if you knew anyone who was looking for a roommate?"

It was at this moment that I came to know St. Ken.

~***~

We hung our lives on a nail in the wall.
Carved our philosophies into frames in the hall.
Never missed a chance to answer the call
To go howling at the moon,
And end up at a greasy spoon.
We'd laugh until we found our feet,
And stumbled home through a maze to Hotel Pine St.












Photo Credit:
Russian Blue