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Making Tracks–for a walk on the wild side

ziegfelds secretsI grew up in a small town (Do I hear a song?) farm community during another era. We had, I believe, 62 students in my graduating class, all straight and Christian. Ostensibly. At least, no one I knew of admitted to being gay or to not being Christian. Well, except Erica. Erica was our Jewish student. We were very progressive for the 60s. We even had a black student. For a week. I have no idea what happened there.

I managed to go through college and the Army being aware of only one person who was openly gay. When I tried man-handing him (I hear it.) out of the third floor window, it was for entirely unrelated reasons. (He was playing “Incense and Peppermints” over and over when I decided to help him explore the possibilities of leaving via the window. Justifiable? I think so. No serving member of the United States Army should be dreaming of a production number to that tune at 4 a.m.) I was unaware of his orientation until he was dishonorably discharged.

I mention all of this to say that I have no gaydar whatsoever and, as a baby boomer, I had very little–virtually no–experience with people who openly identified as gay. And that might go some way toward explaining my reaction when….
Well, let me tell you:

I was thirty-years old and teaching English within the boundaries of the original District of Columbia in Northern Virginia. While serving in the military I had traveled through several foreign countries; later I had lived in New York City and in England; my horizons had expanded once I started wearing shoes. One weekend, a colleague suggested that we go into DC for a bit of bar-hopping.

We were passing a bar on the corner of 9th and H, NW. As I recall, the blacked out windows featured silhouettes of what appeared to be bare-naked ladies (not a band) and advertised dancing girls. My friend looked at me and asked whether I wanted to in.

Not my thing, but I shrugged and said okay.

There was a small–foyer is so much more elegant than it deserves–let’s just say that a guy sat on a stool inside the door, collecting $5 a head. My friend, Let’s call him Buddy, said that he’d get the cover charge and preceded me into the establishment, vibrating with disco music. (It has been some time since I was 30. I still miss Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer, and my heart still pounds at the beat of “Knock on Wood.”) As I cleared the entrance alcove, I saw scantily-clad young men–they looked like teenagers, but had to have been in their 20s, at least according to their IDs– dancing. On the bar.

I noticed that they all wore white socks.

I noticed that they wore only white socks.

That is to say, I noticed that they wore nothing but white socks as they gyrated and bounced to the tunes.

I thought of AC/DC. I understood the song.

Ever the model of discretion and decorum, I fell back against the wall, grabbed my chest and shouted, “Oh, my God!” not an exclamation I often use, but it seemed much better than “I’m coming, Elizabeth!” à la Redd Foxx.

Buddy roared.

He knew.

Not only did he know, but he also knew I don’t know. He was openly amused by my naivete in some areas, this numbering high among them.

I was thirty years and did not know about–had never heard about–gay bars. Well, maybe I had heard about them but vaguely thought they were urban legends. I had never heard of bars in which young men danced naked.

We pushed through the throng of men crushing (probably more than one meaning here) around the bar. It was a long, narrow room with a single row of cocktail (Again, you hear it under certain conditions) on a raised platform facing the bar.

We ordered beers from a handsome and charming young man and sat talking as there were not more than participles dangling before us.

Buddy said that he liked to come here…it was called the Chesapeake House (I’ll tell you why the name is important anon.)… because drinks are much less expensive than most straight bars. I later learned that that was not the only reason, but for now we maintained the illusion.

I expressed my concern that I wouldn’t know how to react when guys started hitting on me. Buddy told me not to worry about it. It took me much too long to realize that he was not flattering me.

No one so much as glanced in my direction as I scanned the room for someone who might recognize me and rush out to tell the world that I had been in a gay bar. Among the lessons I learned that night were two huge ones: I am not honey to gay bees and the world does not revolve around what I do or who I am. It was more deflating than it was a relief.

Besides, Buddy pointed out, how would anyone who was patronizing the establishment explain his presence therein?

Buddy explained that the Chesapeake House was (a massive office building now stands on the site) what might be called a “chicken” bar because it catered to very young men, “chickens” in the parlance of gay culture. I don’t know whether it is still used, but he told me that there were many specialty bars in DC, including a leather bar,( which would be torn down to make way for the old Convention Center) transvestite bars such as the one with regular drag shows across the street from FBI headquarters, (I wish it had been called Hoover’s, but it was called, I think Louie’s) and others.

At the same time, we had a chain of all-you-can eat seafood restaurants called the Chesapeake Bay Seafood House, very popular with our family, especially the teenagers and their friends and teammates.

One morning shortly after my first foray into gay DC, I was having coffee in the English office when a colleague said, “You go to the Chesapeake House, don’t you?”

She seemed surprised that I just stared at her without speaking, my cup halfway to my mouth. People always seem surprised when I am not speaking.

I made a half-nod, a quarter twist of the head and a dem-shrug trying for as non-committal a commitment as I could muster.

“Do they have chicken?” she asked.

“Well, yes. Yes, they have chicken,” I said, not sure whether tears would help or hurt. I hoped that the lip-quivering would be as far as I went.

My colleague looked steadily at me as she said slowly, “I think I’m going to take [her daughter] there. She likes seafood, but I’d rather have chicken.”

And the light broke through and understanding descended.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “I think you’ll like it; My family loves the Seafood House.”

My borderline manic response did not go far toward breaking her steady gaze as she gathered her books to go to class.

I buried my head in my arms when she left. Walking on the wild-side, no matter how tamely, takes a lot out of a guy.

It was not the last time I went to a gay bar. The next time it was my step-son who took me. Well, he wasn’t technically my step-son and he didn’t actually take me. His mother took me.

“Clare,” and I were together for many years. We were “without benefit of clergy,” but I routinely referred to her as “my wife” and to Chad (You know it’s not his real name, but he has made clear that he does not especially like my writing about him.) as my son. In all fairness, I had asked her to marry me and she explained that while I was good enough to live with, she was not interested in marriage. But she was more diplomatic. Nonetheless, I loved them both as much as if we were legal and legitimate, and I was heartbroken but not stunned when she left me to marry someone more “exciting.”

I think I lost the thread.

Oh, I remember! Two weekends in a row, Chad, then 17, came in very late, as in the wee hours. When I asked where he had been so late, he named a club called “Tracks” in the District.

I had heard students talking about Tracks. I said, “Isn’t that a gay bar?”

He said “No” as if I had asked whether he still wore lace panties.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah! I think I’d notice that.

When I asked how he could even get in at his age, he showed me a large black X in indelible ink on the back of his hand. “This means I can’t have alcohol.”

He looked at me.  There are many ways people look at each other. We can look at each other with our eyes filled with love or hate or understanding. Chad looked into my eyes and his steady gaze said: “Now, what you got to say about that?”

“Then, why do you go there?”

Now his look was a mixture of contempt and condescension: “To meet girls.”

Okay, that was his answer to every question, whether or not it was verbalized, and, if we are being honest, even that answer was only partial, because for Chad, meeting a girl was only a rest stop on the road to releasing his excessive hormones. (Yeah, I’m not sure that that makes sense either, but I’ll bet you catch my drift.)

“And we play volleyball. There’s a volleyball court in back and that’s where we usually hang.”

I looked at his mother and said, “As responsible parents, we should go and check it out.”

She agreed and there began our gay adventuring.

In those days, there were two semi-official gay zones in Washington: on and around Dupont Circle and the industrial section of Southeast where Nationals Stadium now stands. Other gay clubs were scattered throughout the city, but these were concentrated areas.

Southeast Washington also was (is?) the violence-saturated drug-dealing center of activity in DC. With the arrogance of the ignorant (and the ignorance of the arrogant) we slapped down the top of my convertible to better showcase our white honky selves while riding through an area into which Wonder Breads do not often wander.

I got lost.

There are those who have suggested that those words should be inscribed on my tombstone. (Surprise! It will have to be written on the side of the little butcher-paper-wrapped ash-filled box.) Night was falling and drug dealers were openly plying their trade on street corners.

And they were looking at us…hard. Chad’s mother, ever the shrinking violet, grabbed me by the shirt front and shouted, “You’re going to get us killed.”

I’m sure that made us less conspicuous.

But we were well and truly lost, driving among what appeared to be vacant factories, when Clare said that her nose urgently needed powdering.

Right.

We heard loud music coming from what appeared to be a warehouse. We followed the music to the entrance (Picture Pepé Le Pew following his nez.) and were dismayed to see a line of–mostly women–lined up to pay a cover charge. Annoying, but at least we knew that a powder room was near.

As we waited, I thought to myself that these women were unusually tall. Looking down, I quietly said to Clare, “These women have big feet. What are the chances that so many women would have big feet?”

She gave me that look and that screamed “idiot.”

I was not unaccustomed to it.

When we entered I thought that the dance floor looked like a skating rink, with a circular path around it to the bar, toward which we bee-lined. (I could have stooped for pee-line, but I have so much class and dignity that it never occurred to me.)

Ever the gentleman, I asked the barmaid to direct me to the women’s room. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward an unmarked open door. I walked Clare to the door and took up sentry duty, but she was back in seconds.

“There are urinals in there,” she said.

I returned to the barmaid. “Sorry,” quoth I, “that seems to be the men’s room. We need the ladies’.”

Her gaze was steady. “Well, we’re pretty unisex here,” she said. “The the one women use is behind the ‘men’s’ room.”

The quotation marks were unspoken but understood.

We investigated again, but found only the one door. Back to the bar. Clare was dancing an awkward little jig with her knees together.

“Do you have to go through the men’s room to get to the women’s?”

She nodded.

“Or you can go around.” She gestured toward the other side of the bar. We decided to take the more modest route and go around.

As we walked into the back room, I noticed that the young man who was dancing on the miniature stage was scantily clad, indeed. The hushed crowd seemed mesmerized. Even Clare slowed her pace, yet we soldiered on.

She ducked into the ladies’ while I guarded the doorless door. When she emerged she grabbed my arm, trying to drag me into the woman’s room.

“Did you see the feet in that stall?” she demanded.  “There was someone peeing,” she said, managing to sound scandalized that people with feet engaged in such behavior in a room designated for the purpose.

Humoring her seemed my wisest course. “Well, people…”

“They were huge!”

“Well….” I was so lost. “Some people have large feet; some people have…”

“And they were facing the porcelain!”

I was silent.

We began to retrace our route through the back room, called “Secrets,” as it turns out. I began to suspect what some of those secrets might be, because the young man on the tiny stage was now wearing only a bikini bottom and his socks as he gyrated to the musical stylings of Madonna.

“Hold on,” Clare said, catching my sleeve. “Let’s wait till he finishes.”

So we sat across from each other at a table with a direct line of sight to the stage.

The Speedo briefs went away and the dancer stepped down to the floor and began to shimmy from table to table.

Unaccustomed as I was to having naked young men gyrating around the tables, I felt myself stiffen. That is to say, I tensed. I felt my face flush and I didn’t know where to look. Clare looked more than a little amused…when she wasn’t looking at him.

When the young dancer was close to her, she said, “My friend is feeling a little tense. Any ideas about what might relax him?”

“Oh, yes I do, honey,” he said. “By day I am a massage therapist.” Whereupon he gyrated around the table behind me and began to massage my neck and shoulders.

Gay, straight, bi, or alternating among the various choices, I do not understand how anyone who is feeling tense about a naked person dancing around him would relax if said person begins massaging him.

He moved closer until I could feel his squishies pressing against my back.

Mixed feelings here. At least they were still squishies…and then, “Wait, What?” Nothing? Am I nothing more than a piece of meat?”

Clare was clearly enjoying my discomfort, and she had the presence of mind to tip him.  I was far more confused and flustered than a grown man should be.

Again.

But Clare never massaged my shoulders. Maybe we were onto something here.

After one or two more dancers, Clare decided that we should make Tracks…or at least try to.

But just at that time, apparently at some signal I missed, all the big women in our room decided to rush back to the main room. Of course, Clare snagged my arm and dragged me along with the crowd.

Her doing so seemed the more appropriate when we saw that our lady-friends had been rushing back for the drag show that was underway in the main room.

If I had been confused before (There really is no “if.” I had bewildered from the moment we got there.) now I was in serious trouble.  The fact is that many of these women were beautiful–perfect.

Now, I had seen La Cage Aux Folles more than once and so I knew that men could be beautiful women. I did have fun “guessing [their] gender.” As I looked at these ladies, some were grotesquely obvious cross-dressers, but I found myself intently checking bulge locations of the others who were just stunning.

Then the music changed and the crowd took to the dance floor. Clare saw her chance, but my head was spinning and she stopped hitting me when I promised that we would go dancing the next week. When my head had cleared.

As we were leaving, a man approached and asked “how far on the wild side” we wanted to walk.

Of course, my immediate response was to flush crimson and choke on a response (as if I had one). Clare just shook her head, laughing, and pulled me away by the arm.

On the way home, we had fun guessing what he meant, but we never did make Tracks. We planned to try again the next week, and I was grateful that one of us was a man of the world.

Next time: What happened at Tracks (and didn’t stay there).

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On the Right Tracks at Last: No More Dancing Chickens

gay clubOur first attempt to find the dance club our son was enjoying was a washout. We didn’t find the club, but we did see my first drag show, experienced our first time with bisexual (pansexual? ambisexual?) non-specific sex bathrooms, and enjoyed a stressful massage.

Two observations about language here: (Uh-oh, a tangent!)

There were no baths or even showers in the “bathrooms.” They were what our British cousins bluntly and accurately call “toilets.” And urinals. But toilets will suffice.

Second, “Gender” has always troubled me when it refers to sex. We are so afraid of calling a spade a pointed shovel that we can’t even use the word “sex” when referring to whether one is male or female (Yet our president-elect can say by what he can grab women with immunity.) I’d prefer womb-challenged or testicle bereft, but with so many surgeries available for so many reasons, I am surprised we can still say female, which comes with a “male” in it. (I’ll wait while you make your filthy remarks. How many levels can you attain?)

All ready? Maybe we should use ‘hes” and “shes;” we gave up elegance when we decided that mankind was a sexist (genderist?) term. (Remember the “personholes” in the streets of Rhode Island?)

Never mind, I just realized that “she” has a “he” in it.

Agan, my train of thought has been derailed.

Wait! Train…derailed…Tracks! We were looking for Tracks. (And may I ADD that I think Moosetracks ice cream is amazing?)

So, to recap: when we learned that one of our underaged teenagers was hanging at a DC club on Friday nights through the wee hours of Saturday, his mum and I decided that responsible parents would check out what kind of a place it is, so we went to a transvestite bar because A) I am perpetually lost (direction, not soul) and B) because his mum had to…um …powder her nose….like a racehorse. So we had a few drinks, hit a unisex loo or two, watched some skinny guys dance naked (well, they did have their socks on) and enjoyed a neck/shoulder massage from a lovely young man…who was also naked….except for his socks. All for the sake of being responsible parents.

Let’s just take a moment to digest that.

Deep breath…and….

We got better directions and decided to try again. Now, this was the early 90s and we were not in the habit of getting directions via GPS or even Mapquest. These were primitive days when maps were paper, folded in exactly the perfect pattern to make grown men weep in trying to reproduce it. Now the AAA had Triptiks, amazing little flip books with turn-by-turn directions, but, after all, our son was routinely going to the place on Friday nights, so this should not require a pith helmet and safari guide. The place was 6-7 miles from our house. What idiot could not find it?

(Hellooo.)

It took some doing, but after getting directions from our other teenager (I began to suspect that Chad’s directions might have been intentionally off the mark) we made our way there. As a guide and fun-loving addition, we invited a friend—a military mortician–to come along to spice up the evening.

Well, guess who turned out to have a little problem with homosexuality? Clare and I had not given any thought to the issue; as aging hippies, like Marines, once in never out. Semper high!

Where was I? (Maybe the short-term memory thing is making more sense?)

Yup, Don was a little homophobic. (Which is like saying a corpse is not the life of the party.) So, why would a homophobic military mortician opt to join us in our quest for the bay we believed to be gay-oriented and our son declared straight as a bee-line?

He likes beer.

Bars have beer.

QED

We found Tracks–another warehouse a short distance–maybe within sight of–Ziegfeld’s. We entered, showed ID, and paid the cover charge. The house was hopping. (Another beer allusion, perhaps? I would have gone with the “joint was jumping,” but I already made one marijuana allusion and who knows whether I will need to update my security clearance?)

When we entered, I could feel Don’s relief at the banner that congratulated the newlyweds. He would be able to swill brew without worrying about keeping his masculine virtue intact.

(When you’re talking ‘rhoids instead of hymen, it kicks the stakes up a notch. Feel the burn, baby.)

We ordered drinks and were debating whether to dance when we noticed a preponderance of men on the dance floor, (Okay, most of them looked and dressed like Freddie Mercury) and they appeared to be having a great time.

No big deal; no proof of anything. Men outnumber women in any number of straight bars. Dancing together is less common, particularly in some of the more rustic bars out west Virginia way, (unless there is banjo music) but, anyway….

The loudspeaker interrupted the music to direct our attention to the doors opening across the dance floor, and it invited us to welcome the happy couple: Darlene and Helen.

I could sense Don’s ‘rhoids clenching. He was as still and erect…that is standing at attention….in a military way. (This is hard. See? Once you start down this path….)

He was tense.

When the applause died down Don got a couple more beers. He wasn’t sharing. Clare took my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor like a cartoon character: now you’re standing here; now you’re somewhere else and there’s nothing left but a feet disappearing off the edge of the frame, with a few lines indicating a rapid exit.

When I caught a look at Don, he was still standing at attention but his eyes had turned into white stationary radar dishes. The only thing moving was his arm, as it mechanically raised to pour beer down his throat.

After a couple of dances, Clare asked Don if he’d like to cut a rug with her. He shook his head rapidly enough that I wasn’t sure whether it was two or three times. It was like a dog shaking off water. In the cartoons it would have made a wacky rattling noise.

But the shaking didn’t last long. Don and I sipped our beers and talked…well, I did most of the talking. Except for the regular motion of his arm as he moved his beer from his side to his mouth, Don was as close to catatonic as I have seen in a club…or museum..or doctor’s office or home for the terminally bewildered. Let us say that he adopted behaviors traditionally modeled by his clients.

Well, I never have seen anyone as motionless as he, even as a young man pressed into him from behind in an effort to squeeze past him. Mirabili dictu, the man levitated! Nothing else moved. He simply seemed to rise into the air, straight up and straight down, arms at his side. Now only his eyes moved, and those bad boys were pinging as if they were in a pinball machine. I might have laughed if I were not so enthralled with the bizarre manifestation of the only case of true homophobia I have seen. Don did not so much manifest animosity toward gays, as fear…terror might be closer to it. And apparently that was limited to the terror that they might engage him.

Even Clare, who rarely allowed my quirks to pass without comment only stared, snarky comments tugging at the corners of her slightly smirking lips.

When he regained some color, Don leaned slightly toward me: “Come to the men’s room with me.”

“What?”

“Come with me to the men’s room.”

“You must be the easiest convert ever!”

“What? Don’t be stupid. I’ve gotta take a leak and I want you to watch my back.” (I think he meant it literally.)

And so it was that I found myself in the men’s room at a gay club protecting a military mortician from sneak attack by sex-starved gay men. It was not my place to mention that he was about a (generously) three in a club full of 8-10s and no one had seemed to so much as glance in his (or my) direction.

But, one thing remained clear: This was not a straight group, and although there was in fact a volleyball court, other questions remained.

We needed to talk with Chad.

The next morning, we were having coffee when Chad joined us, so it must have been closer to noon. We bantered for a while and when he sat next to me, I mentioned that his mother and I had been to Tracks the previous night. I was feeling confused because I knew that his every waking moment seemed to be concentrated on finding girls who find him attractive, which wasn’t hard because in addition to being unusually handsome and charming (Okay, I am a little prejudiced but still….) he is extraordinarily persuasive.

I remember a rare disagreement his mother and I had when she wanted me to buy condoms for him. I was not happy. I was jealous of how easy it was for him to find willing partners….No, that’s not what I meant to say: Not only was I opposed on religious and moral grounds (and maybe a little jealous) but also, I said, buying him condoms was a not-very-subtle message that we condoned–encouraged even–his sexual activity.

But this was the early 90s and AIDS loomed large and scary, His mother asked whether I would rather see him dead or dying.

I went to the drug store.

Chad was baffled at my sudden encouragement of activity of which he knew I disapproved, with that distant of someone denied the same. And that was when I was worried about girls, never mind Haitians. (You have to be a certain age.) But he didn’t hesitate to to take the condoms, with a snarky query about whether I would get him for more the next day.

But now we sat around the table and told him that we had been to Tracks and has no doubt that it was a gay crowd. If nothing else, they were having too much fun to be straight.

He stared at me. Apparently mum was off the hook on this one. His eyes did that thing where they go back and forth from one eye to the other, searching for which showed stupidity and which showed madness.

Never one to heed a warning… or take a hint, I plodded on. “I am comfortable that you know your mother and I love you no matter what,” His face gave away nothing; although he managed to look at me as if I were completely out of my mind, “and if there is anything you want to talk about, we are here and always ready to listen.”

“You’re nuts,” he said. “You’re crazy!”  In case we missed his drift the first time. As he rose from the tale he continued” “Tracks isn’t a gay bar and I am not gay.” (Tacitly understood; Not that there’s anything wrong with that…except that it was an era when that seemed to be a death sentence.)

“Well, if you go there again, just notice who else is there and think about it.”

“And so what if it is…and it isn’t. I’m not gay so it doesn’t matter about the others.”

He left the table shaking his head, looking back once or twice just to have a couple more opportunities to give me “the look” teenagers are so good at giving their parents.

The next week, we repeated the pattern. Chad went to Tracks Friday night, and we returned Saturday night to verify our initial findings (minus Don, who remained traumatized at the thought of the men drooling over him…although they had successfully managed to feign indifference to him all evening.)

Chad reported that he and his pals had met quite a few girls the previous night; we found that that was not a likely scenario when we were there.

Clare didn’t seem to care as much about who was around us as that we were going dancing, which was not high on my list of things to do.

So, after another uncomfortable Sunday morning discussion that left Chad annoyed with us (especially me), while our older boy seemed to find the situation tremendously amusing, I decided to take it to the people.

I had one senior class with quite a few of Chad’s pals in it, so at the beginning of class the next day, I asked whether anyone knew of a club called Tracks.

Peas and carrots, lots of nods.

What kind of place is it?

“It’s a lot of fun,” volunteered his handsome and popular friend from South America. “Some nights it’s gay, Thursdays and Saturdays, I think. The other nights it’s straight…and there’s a volleyball court…it’s a great place to meet girls.”

Smirk.

And so it was that we learned that everything is not always what it seems to be. Chad manifested his continuing contempt with the odd haughty glance from time to time.

And Clare pouted because I wouldn’t be taking her dancing any more.

We’re from the IRS and we’re here to help.

irs_signI have read (Yes, I still read newspapers!) that taxpayers have been much slower in filing their returns this year. I would not speculate on whether that is because they are following the lead of our Tax-Avoider-Sleazy-Business-Man-in-Chief (Sorry, that’s as objective as I can get.) or a response to recent tax reform that gives above-mentioned Tax-Avoider-Sleazy-Business-Man-in-Chief and his cronies tax savings that we on the lower end of the economic scale could never hope for, or because the IRS, which historically has not been celebrated for its customer service, has recently enjoyed staff cuts.

Whatever the reason, as we are in the merry Lenten pre-tax season, I thought that I would share with you a letter I wrote to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration last year, after my granddaughter came to me in some frustration over her efforts to file a return.

I am sure that you will be shocked and dismayed to learn that I did not receive a response.

For the (vinyl) record (I can’t scare together enough for a small CD) here is my letter:

To the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration:

Hating the IRS has long been an American pastime greater than baseball, football, or apple pie. That passionate loathing has traditionally been precipitated by the perception that that organization is less scrupulous than the much maligned organized crime. At least the IRS is less organized, and now it seems to have become more theater of the absurd than nefarious evil-doers.

This year, one of my grandchildren had the great misfortune and greater frustration of attempting to file tax returns for the first time. She received her W-9s in January and immediately filed her federal and state returns. She received her state refund a few weeks later, but from the federal government, she received a letter. In my experience, there are few pieces of mail more ominous or unwelcome than a letter with “Internal Revenue Service” in the return address.

True to form, this letter was not good news. As a first time filer, she had to prove her identity via one of two convenient processes: the Internet and the telephone.

She first chose the Internet option, idverify.irs.gov. Completing the information as required, she received this message:

We are unable to verify your identity online

Please call the Taxpayer Protection Program hotline at 1-800-830-5084 to verify your identity. We can’t process your return until then.

So, she decided, perhaps the telephone route would be preferable…particularly in that the Internet option didn’t seem to be working for her.

So, she called the 800 number, where she was thanked for calling and told that “due to extremely high call volume” her call could not be completed “at this time.” She was referred to the IRS website whence we had come, or invited to call again.

Obviously, the IRS.gov website was not the answer, but we tried just to leave no avenue unexplored. If we had a question, the IRS website offered plenty of generic answers, but as we were not the ones with a question, IRS.gov was not the answer.

Trusting in our government, we both tried the “idverify” website and 1-800 number (We also tried the 1-800-829-1040 for variety.) with the same result, every time, time after time.

After a few days of sporadic efforts to contact our government so that my grandchild could fulfill her obligations to said government, we decided that the result of repeated efforts to make contact by telephone or online would not likely change. And this was only the third week of February, before the great crush on or about April 15. Clearly, a personal visit was in order.

Well, two years ago, we moved from Metropolitan D.C. to a rural community in Page County in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. In Washington we never had trouble finding government employees. Whether they were helpful might be in question, but their presence was undeniable. So, we returned to the Internet to locate our nearest IRS office.

The IRS office locater (Yes, that is a thing. There is an IRS office locater for those of us who actually want to seek them out: https://apps.irs.gov/app/officeLocator/index.jsp.) allowed us to search for an office within 5 miles of our zip code. Alas, alack, and who would’ve guessed, there was none.

Ten miles? No joy.

Twenty? Unh uh.

Thirty? Sorry.

The next choice was 50. Was there an IRS office within 50 miles?

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Not one, but two offices were available in less than 50 miles. None in our county, but we did find offices in Charlottesville, over the mountain in Albemarle County, or one in Staunton in Augusta County.

First, I prudently decided to telephone the local offices in the misguided belief that I might talk to someone. Of course, I was greeted with a recorded message thanking me for calling the office, but no personal assistance is provided at this number…and don’t even bother leaving voicemail, ’cause there is no option to do so.

A personal visit it would be.

Well, cleverly, I dismissed Charlottesville, thinking that the larger city would more likely be overwhelmed with large numbers of walk-ins. Closer inspection revealed that the Charlottesville office is closed for lunch from 12:30-1:30–and from January 15 through March 1–no doubt a feature of the IRS campaign for taxpayers to file early to avoid the April rush.

Appointments are not accepted at either location, although only the Augusta County was an option for about the next month.

We crossed Rockingham County to Augusta County to the IRS office in Staunton, home of the Statler Brothers and birthplace (on the same street) of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, who, for the benefit of Trump supporters, was a president of the United States. Neither is relevant; both are interesting. To me.

The Staunton office, tucked discretely away in an office park on Coulter Street, closes for lunch from 12-1. We arrived at 12:55, noting the sign that says “by appointment.” Without having an appointment, we hesitated, but decided to expect that this was just another error and found the office by following the line of people waiting at the door.

Just after 1:00, the door opened and two women and a male security guard harangued the mob of 10 people to “take a ticket and be seated.” The three of them kept repeating it, reminding me of a police raid, with everyone shouting “Show me your hands. Now! Now! Now!” I flashed back to Army basic training.

By 1:05, one of the women had placed a sign in front of the box from which numbers are drawn, indicating that no more tickets would be issued. Seven people or pairs had drawn lucky numbers. In less than five minutes, they had exhausted their willingness to enjoy face time with their public.

The women hovered while the guard told everyone to turn off or silence their cellphones and informed us that, if we were carrying guns, knives, tear gas, or other weapons we had to take them outside. (Note: if I were carrying a weapon with evil intent, I might not comply.)

The women made a show of going in and out of the door with a combination lock, taking the first two supplicants into the back, which was separated from the waiting area by aforementioned combination-locked door in a partial wall that included several movable partitions., which meant that it took longer to punch in the code than to walk between the partitions. (How did we ever win a war?)

I was especially amused when one of the women was entering the combination to enter the door while a customer walked between the partitions to leave the office for a few minutes before re-entering between the partitions.

While the two IRS employees, whom I thought of as Mabel and Ethel because they appeared more like a couple of church ladies clumsily organizing a coffee than government employees announced that no more tickets would be issued until they determined that they would be able to assist those who already had numbers. She announced this to those of us who already had tickets, and to whom, therefore, the information was irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the security guard peered out the front door and repeatedly adjusted the blinds.

Once or twice, Ethel–or maybe it was Mabel–opened the door to look at the people waiting.

Once she opened the door and made a vague wave before saying, “I was going to say something, but….” before ducking back into the room and closing the door.

Mabel–or maybe it was Ethel–returned to the waiting area with a cardboard box, which she placed over the ticket dispenser, apparently fearing that the sign saying that no tickets would be distributed because they were going to lunch would be ignored. Then she took the sign away, only to return within minutes to prop the sign in front of the box that covered the ticket dispenser.

The guard peered through the blinds on the door, adjusting them every few minutes, apparently signaling–or trying to confuse–the enemy.

Each time someone new entered, the guard approached almost toe to toe and instructed him–or her, or them–to turn off or silence his–or her or their–phone or phones. He also asked whether they were carrying guns, knives, pepper spray or other weapons, and then—after all that, mind you–told them that no more tickets were being issued but they could wait in case there was an opening.

In one case, an elderly man with a serious hearing deficit and a severe limp stood near enough to the guard that they appeared to be cheek to cheek as the guard kept repeating his requests and instructions. Finally the man stepped back and said “yes.” The guard seemed briefly baffled by the affirmative response and the man pulled a knife from his pocket. (Now, you see, this is the point at which it would “be on” if the old fella had decided he was going to take us all hostage at the point of his pocket knife.)

You have to take it outside,” the guard told him, resulting in a brief stare down, until the old sport hobbled back to the door, opened it a crack, and underhanded the knife onto the sidewalk. Shortly afterward, when he understood that he might be there all afternoon without talking to anyone other than Oscar de la Renta-cop, he left.

Some of the new arrivals waited and I was amused to note that, without the numbers, the guard kept rehearsing their waiting order aloud.

Meanwhile, each time someone new entered the office, as the guard recited his routine cautions regarding telephone silent and concealed weapons, a ripple of laughter spread through those who were waiting for assistance, particularly when after the entire skit was re-enacted, the new entrant wanted only to pick up a form. Questions to Oscar about which resulted in, “What you see is pretty much what you get.”

I’ll bet he’s a hoot at parties.

A sign explained that tax preparation assistance is not available at this location, while the television touted that assistance with income tax preparation was available. We could hear Ethel–maybe it was Mable–going over a guest’s returns line by line. Unfortunately, the man spoke quietly and mumbled, making it difficult to listen in on his conversation. We did hear Mable–or maybe it was Ethel–repeatedly telling her captive to slow down; there was no hurry.

The guard continued to signaled with the door blinds.

While we waited our turn the guard did respond to the question of how many people had been helped so far that day. Four, he said, including the two who were currently being held in the back room.

It was almost 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

Several of the people waiting grumbled that they only had a question that would take less than five minutes, but this well-oiled machine did not provide for triage or personal interaction.

The television screen (which I really wanted to touch only because the sign taped to it instructed us: “Do NOT touch the television.”) displayed the tax payers’ bill of rights. Number two is “You have the right to quality service.” Why, I wondered was I the only one who snorted?

So far, IRS service had failed via the Internet, the telephone and a personal visit across three counties.

While we waited, my granddaughter finally got through to someone on the 800 number. Mirabili dictu. The woman kept asking her about her receipt from filing her taxes. My granddaughter told her that she had filed through an online program and only had a confirmation number for the program. Apparently the woman went to the same school as the security guard, because she simply kept repeating the same questions and responding with the same answers until my granddaughter gave up and hung up.

Chalk up another fail for our beloved IRS.

After about an hour, we decided there had to be a better way the same people were still in the back room a couple of people had left the waiting area and nothing was looking promising.

At this juncture we still haven’t figured out why her taxes can’t be accepted, or why her state-issued ID number isn’t sufficient to identify her, but I wonder whether she would have had so much trouble filing if she owed money instead of anticipating a refund.

She finally was able to file her returns after the 2 ½ drive to an IRS office in Northern Virginia.

I heard that Ethel and Mabel took the guard and ran off to join the TSA.

What’s that number for 9-1-1?

BP MonitorI was working in the yard—despite what my neighbors might tell you—when my telephone rang. Now, in my defense, I have a new phone and it takes me a year or two to figure one out. This was no exception. I keep hanging up on people when trying to answer. As it happens, my aversion to talking on the phone is well-known among my friends and family (with whom I have no plan) so I am always suspect when I don’t answer. Sometimes the calls go to voicemail before I can answer. We’ll leave why I prefer texts and emails to another day, although all the other cool kids understand without explanation.

Besides, this neighbor is a person—We’ll call him Edgar—who almost never telephones. He messages me. Not this time.

The long and short of it is that I missed the call, but I saw that it was Edgar so I tried to call back. As I struggled with the dad-burned new-fangled equipment, said neighbor appeared on his front step and shouted to me that he needed my help “for a minute.”

It’s never a minute. That goes without saying—except, apparently in this case. So, that said…I told him that I had to put the dogs in so they wouldn’t follow me across the road. (They mind about as well as my children.)

I herded the dogs into the house and crossed the street to my neighbor’s, where he handed me his house phone and said, “You’ve gotta call 911 for me.”

Let us review:

He telephoned me and then walked out of the house to call to me and then waited while I put the dogs in the house and crossed the road so that I could call 911 for him.

Back to the story.

Remember what I said about figuring out new phones….

Sensing my uselessness, he held out his hand for the phone, typed in 911, and handed it back.

“How do I send?”

He snatched the phone and hit send before handing it back to me.

Someone answered! That was the first thing that had gone right since before I got the first call.

“Good morning,” I said. “We need the Rescue Squad at….”

“Tell them it’s a 69-year-old male with difficulty breathing,” (I also made up the age.)

I repeated what he told me while he called his wife and her sister to tell them what was happening. He explained that his wife was helping her mother who wasn’t feeling well.

The call center said that Rescue was on its way, and Edgar directed me to call another relative I knew. I knew that he would be at work, but I did as he ordered and left a voicemail when he didn’t pickup.

Edgar brandished a boxed pressure monitor at me.

“Do you know how to use this?” he asked.

Of course, I didn’t. I take my own BP every day, a ritual of geezerhood, but my apparatus is a regular cuff attached to a machine. I press a button and the machine does the rest. This looked like a two-inch wrist band with a small monitor attached.

When I tried to wrap it around his upper arm, he snatched it away and said, “It goes here,” attaching it loosely to his wrist.

I began tightening it and he said, “No, it goes this way,” and turned his arm over.

Are you keeping track of how many things I have done right? Because I’m telling you the way Edgar was looking at me said that he was. And he wasn’t impressed.

Another brief recap: He telephoned me and then walked out of the house to call to me and then waited while I put the dogs in the house and crossed the road so that I could call 911 for him. Then he dialed 911, handed me the phone when someone answered, and told me what I was to say. Now I am unable to take his blood pressure, a task I perform on a daily basis, often several times a day.

We pushed the button on the BP cuff and got an error message, so we shifted it, tightened it and pushed the button again. We got an error message. In fact, we got an error message each of the half-dozen times we tried until he ripped it off his wrist and threw it back in the box. I wondered whether the fact that his wrist was about the size of my thigh..when I was heavy…interfered with the device.

His breathing seemed labored, but for a man his size—which was not petite, Edgar probably weighs 325-350—I didn’t think it was particularly disturbing. Of course, I wasn’t the one who was experiencing difficulty breathing.

I should mention that the Rescue Squad is less than a block away, so I kept pacing between Edgar and the window to see what was the what. In the meantime, Edgar seemed to be reaching out and touching everyone on his contact list.

After nearly ten minutes, I saw the Rescue Squad ambulance pass the house…the critical word here is “pass.” And it was going toward the Rescue Squad building.

Edgar called 911 to ask what was going on. The responder said that rescue was en route.

After another five minutes, a Rescue SUV appeared and I stepped onto the stoop to wave. He acknowledged and pulled up in front of the house…well, the next house…the other side of the next house.

When I walked out to meet him as he gathered his equipment, I gave him the basic facts as I knew them and mentioned that I had seen an ambulance pass 5-10 minutes before.

“Yes,” he said. “That was me.”

This was one of those times that so many questions crowded in at once that I found myself saying nothing.

As we walked to the house he explained that the ambulance was out of service, and as he was alone, he brought the SUV because the ambulance would be of no use if he couldn’t transport anyone without someone in back with him.

Okay. I understand.

When his shoulder mic sounded as if it were mixing cement, he said that a unit was coming from Elkton, in the next county, but only about six miles away.

He asked Edgar how he was feeling now, and when Edgar said “A little better,” he asked him to recap what was going on with him.

In addition to what he had told me, Edgar added that he had been to the emergency room two nights before…with difficulty breathing.

The EMT placed an oxygen mask over Edgar’s face, slipped a pulse monitor on his finger and began to slap the cuff on to check his BP, when Edgar pulled off the mask.

“I don’t want that,” he said. “I’m claustrophobic.”

“Okay” the EMT said equably, and I admired his attitude in the face of what I considered rudeness. He pulled breathing cannoli out of his bag and inserted them in Edgar’s nose…wait, I’m being told that they were breathing cannula, not cannoli, which probably makes more sense. Who says that vowels are not important? It also explains why I suddenly feel a bit peckish.

With Edgar’s nose plugged and his mouth free, the EMT asked whether he had an emergency inhaler.

“Yeah,” Edgar said, “but I don’t use it.”

“You don’t use it?” The EMT echoed?

“No, I don’t like it.”

“Is it…?” Well, he said something in Greek or Latin and Edgar said, “I think so.”

Moving on.

“Do you have a list of the medications you’re taking?”

“Yeah, it’s over there,” Edgar said languidly waving one hand in the general direction of the dining room.

The EMT glanced in that direction and apparently decided to move on.

“Oh, I’ll get it,” Edgar said and he pulled the cannoli–whatever—out of his nostrils and began to stand.

“You probably shouldn’t be standing,” the EMT began, as Edgar pulled the sensor off his finger and began to peel the blood pressure cuff from what might be a bicep under all that.

“No that’s all right.”

As he walked, the EMT asked him to tell him more about his ER visit. His lapel mic made that QWERTCH burst again and the EMT, whom I liked more and more as I liked my neighbor less and less, said that he was mistaken: the ambulance was coming from Stanley, about twice as far as Elkton, but it was a mile out.

As Edgar scrabbled through a pile of papers, he explained that he had been told that he had a lot of fluid in his chest and the ER doctor had given his two breathing treatments before releasing him.

He found what he was looking for and, as he lumbered back to the living room, he tossed it on the table and said “There it is,” before regaining his seat on the sofa.

The remarkably, I thought, composed EMT walked back to pick up the list, confirming what was in the emergency inhaler that Edgar doesn’t like to use.

Just an aside: It’s a good thing that I am not an EMT because I felt my blood pressure rising at what I considered consistently rude behavior on my neighbor’s part. I think I might have just unplugged him from everything and said, “You’re on your own, Bud.”

But we were saved from my own rudeness when I saw flashing lights and went out to bring the new EMTs into the house.

As brisk and professional as the first responder, the two newcomers hauled out a gurney and I guided them into the house where EMT-One gave a brisk, professional summary and handed the list of medications to the new arrivals. He handed it to them; he did not throws it on a table and say “There it is.”

I saw the EMTs look at the bulk of Edgar and then at the stretcher, and I didn’t need Jean Dixon to tell me what they were thinking.

“I can walk out,” Edgar volunteered.

“Are you sure,” asked one of the new EMTs, looking hopeful.

“Yeah, I can walk out to the steps.”

And with that they helped him walk to the door and down the steps where they strapped him to the gurney. As they wheeled him to the ambulance, he told them which hospital he wanted to go to, and as they slid him into the back of their rig, I heard him say, “I don’t want that CPAP; I’m claustrophobic.”

And I locked and closed his door, crossed the street to my house, and turned off my phone.

When his relative for whom I left voicemail returned my call, he said that Edgar’s wife would stop at the hospital…when she and her mother were finished with their shopping.

Two households , both alike in dignity– or not

Romeo and Juliet (2016_12_08 14_56_53 UTC)Just Like Romeo and Juliet

While trying to decide what to do when I grew up, I taught high school English, journalism, and drama–for more than 20 years. When my high school became a middle school, I had to learn to shift my focus from masterpieces of literature to “do not stick that pencil in his eye.” Before long, I was transferred to the high school where I learned that the lessons learned are not always what the teacher thought he was teaching.

For example, I learned why I might have better chosen to teach the Scottish play than Romeo and Juliet. At least one of my students seemed to take away a unique lesson from the star-crossed lovers.

When the school was undergoing a dreaded evaluation team visit for Southern States accreditation, the “balcony scene” took on new meaning. Early one morning, a teacher heard noises coming from what should have been a vacant auditorium balcony. Entering, he found two students, one proudly (and manifestly) male, and the other, a female, kneeling in what appeared to be religious adoration of the pillar of flesh that rose before her. Some call it a “compromising” position. What was certain was that the young man enjoyed school, at least for the moment.

Their being at least partially au naturel naturally raised the teacher’s suspicions, even before the male member (and the associated person) bolted, awkwardly pulling up trousers as he—some would say less than gallantly—bolted from the scene, leaving his lady love to face the consequences.

The astute teacher perceived that something was afoot—and something evidently was not—and concluded that the two were not participating in a recognized student activity. Well, he recognized the activity, but it was not formally sanctioned by the drama department, even for team-building.

Calling upon a distaff faculty member to supervise the young lady as she rearrange her clothing—and to guard against her joining the object of her ministrations in rapid retreat, the first teacher gave chase to the gangly youth.

Despite the young man’s entanglements, the teacher, who had not had the same opportunity to warm up, was unsuccessful and the sprinter won what was later termed a one-sided three-legged race.

I heard the story at lunchtime. While various teachers expressed disgust and contempt,  amusement and a soupcon of jealousy lurked beneath their disclaimers. The discussion was among the most animated I ever heard in the faculty room.

Despite the words, jealousy and envy pervaded the conversation, providing a clear subtext.

The incident crossed my mind more than a time or two during the following class. I compared my sexual repression and backwardness throughout junior high and high school—and college and graduate school… and beyond—and was aware that my own annoyance at the lack of self-discipline and judgment was tempered by some degree of amusement and an unhealthy dose of envy. My Catholic condemnation vied with my admiration of their youthful passion and audacity. I was most troubled by the erstwhile Lothario’s abandonment of his lady love, leaving her to face humiliation alone. I could remember no equivalent tale of public display of amorous activity, other than the legendary tale of high school seniors Tommy and Becky in the shallow end of her swimming pool—before the admiring eyes of Becky’s younger brother and his friends from a covert coin d’avantage.

As students worked, I was circulating through the classroom when my attention was drawn to a student who was intently writing what appeared to be a lengthy note. Two factors contributed to his drawing my attention: First, as he was devilishly handsome and charming and not known for applying himself assiduously to his work, the intensity of his writing was out of character. Second, he looked up too frequently with eyes filled with mingled innocence and anxiety. Innocents don’t continually scan the area for observers.

I suspect that he saw my eyes light up. Notes are the single most exciting way for aging and listless teachers to catch up on gossip. They give up the goods without forcing teachers to admit to interest in the more lurid aspects of student life.

Gently sliding the note from the desk of the student, whose now bug- eyes revealed something a few degrees beyond abject terror, I told the young man that I would save the missive to savor at leisure. He released his grip and resignedly slid down in his chair.

During the next period, my planning period, I discovered the forgotten note when I opened my drawer. Making a student squirm for inattentiveness might break up the routine, but the thrill passes quickly, and I usually dispose of them unread. I drew it from the drawer and my hand hovered over the waste basket before curiosity moved me to open it.

The prose appropriately defined purple. In lurid and lascivious detail, Romeo revisited his most delicious memories from the morning’s tryst in the balcony. My non-sleuthing had revealed the identity of the (unsatisfied and fleet-footed) mystery cad. This was more invigorating than breaking up a fight between mean girls. And far safer.

After reading the note a dozen or so times to be sure that it was the evidence I suspected of the, um unlawful entry—and to commit some of the better turns of phrase to memory to substitute for my own relatively drab and dull existence, I cut along to share the wealth with the administrator charged with investigating the balcony caper. (Who says that school is dull?)

He purposefully donned his reading glasses with his wonted air of resignation and bored tolerance. (He always purposefully donned his reading glasses, as if it were a stage direction to self: “”purposefully don reading glasses.”) I saw his eyebrows dance a quick jig and his eyes widened as drops of perspiration formed on his upper lip. His eyes flicked to mine at intervals. I mentally reviewed the procedure for cardiac resuscitation, should the need arise.

I believed that it was right—in fact, my only responsible option—to share the note with administrator, but in my heart, I knew that I was sadly exhilarated at breaking the most scintillating case we had had at school in memory. And the associate principal was the only one with whom I could justify sharing it. Showing it to anyone else would have been unprofessional and inappropriate. I was aware that I felt more excited than was healthy, and visions of Major Burn’s sneering tattling danced a pathetic ballet in the shadows of my mind.

Recall that we were under the scrutiny of a visiting team whose purpose was to find fault with our school. That is the only fun in serving on an accreditation team. Therefore, it is no surprise that faculty had been sternly admonished to keep a tight lid on the scandal while our visitors were on-site.

When the initial excitement wore off, the administrator decided that both students should be removed from school until the scandal died down and they had a chance to collect themselves, so he suspended both of them for ten days.

This must be scanned.

That it might be a mistake was evident from the moment the students were informed and the boy sat up straight and grinned, his dimples prominent. They looked at each other and, although they tried to suppress their glee, the corners of the young lady lips definitely rose in a demure smile. The prospect of having to spend the next ten days alone together did not appear to depress their collective spirit.

They appeared eager to get on with their punishment with all due haste, and I doubt that it was coincidence that, while Juliet left the office with averted eyes, Romeo left the office with his literature book held in front of him.

Their return at the end of two weeks saw them as relaxed and happy as a couple fresh from their honeymoon, and their stature among peers was clearly elevated.

As the subplot of this affair had been keeping the accrediting team ignorant of the embarrassing incident, faculty and staff had been warned not to breathe a word of extracurricular activity in the balcony. (The etymology of “obscene” sprang, unbidden, to mind.) The visiting team was concluding its examination, and we breathed a collective and metaphorical sigh of relief at our success in keeping the secret from the grown-ups…visiting team. Tension among the school staff was almost palpable. The principal was unwontedly stiff and unsmiling.

The faculty gathered in the auditorium for a summary of the team’s findings; the principal’s face seemed rigidly set as we approached the study’s climax. (I heard it.) Before a tense and silent faculty, the chairman solemnly intoned that after considerable deliberation the team had decided not to include a recommendation to  install cots in the balcony.

The stillness of the room was broken with a whoompf of faculty guffaws, and the crimson glow emanated from the vicinity of the principal, spreading from his neck to his hairline.

It probably says more about my own maturity–or lack thereof– that although I did what I thought I had to, I carried a niggling sense of having betrayed a young man of whom I was very fond. We have remained in contact in the 40-plus years since, but never in four decades have we alluded to that incident, although I often wonder whether he thinks about it when we talk.

Certainly, it has not entered my mind since.

Roy Rogers never wore Wellies

AWelliesn aside about press trips and comps before beginning

For those unfamiliar with press trips, let me explain that they are one of the joys of journalism. Although many publications refuse to participate, or even to publish features that result from such trips, I have always found them to be invaluable. Not only do they provide the best of food, accommodations, attractions, and entertainment, but they do so with the expertise that only local tourism professionals can bring to the equation. At no cost to notoriously underpaid journalists.

And therein lies the ethical dilemma: Isn’t free travel and accommodation a bribe? Doesn’t it ensure a favorable article?

Yes, of course, but no.

Perhaps I should explain. If I am whisked away to a location, whether it is a heritage festival in central Mexico or a visit to Niagara Falls or an oyster festival in Norfolk, Virginia, and my whisker (!) puts me up in the best available accommodations, wines me and dines me in the best restaurants and bars, and takes me to the best tourist attractions in the area, then I will write an article describing the experience. If it is an exceptional experience, then, I hope, I will write an article that makes the venue attractive and alluring, resulting in additional tourist activity.

Is that fair?

I think it is fair and appropriate.

The writer enjoys the best of everything, all expenses paid, and in return is expected to publish an account of the experience and readers decide whether it sounds good to them.

Now, I submit that that is the way it should be: describe the best a venue has to offer. The reader wins, the venue wins, the writer wins. Wherein lies the problem?

There is one and it is legitimate. Some publications with which I have worked refused to accept articles written as a result of such junkets because they were literally bought and paid for by the subject. I do not criticize them for that decision. It is, it seems to me, a stand for unquestioned integrity.

However, I love press trips and the resulting stories, both as a writer and editor. My opinion is that readers want to hear about the best experiences a place has to offer. Only when the writer is dishonest, that is, writing glowingly about an experience that was mediocre or worse, or hired to write glowingly in the guise of journalism when it is in fact advertising (Advertorial is the term for this real practice.) do I fault the process. Even when the latter is labled advertorial, I object because so many readers skip over the slug that it is an ad in the guise of a legitimate, objective article.

The word “objective” is both central and misleading. I use it here to mean that the writer is giving his honest subjective opinion of an experience. When the writer is hired to promote rather than critique it becomes fraudulent. So integrity remains the pivotal characteristic.

It isn’t only travel.

One publication for which I wrote theater reviews refused even to accept complimentary (free) tickets, insisting on paying my way. While I respect the paper’s integrity, I know that my review would be the same whether I pay, the publication pays or the theater provides free tickets. In fact, when one theater stopped providing complimentary tickets because they considered some of my reviews harsh, I paid for my own. That is not the way complimentary tickets should work and it is wrong for theater staff to think otherwise. Providing “comps” only to favorable reviewers taints the process and undermines integrity. And perhaps that is the fear that motivates the publications that refuse the comps.

Some publications I wrote for were fine with the complimentary tickets and the venues would be quick to tell you that I did not give the theaters a pass because of it.

So, I have attended and reviewed performances under all three conditions and can firmly state without fear of contradiction that I worked equally hard to produce reviews that were fair and honest and provided information that would help readers decide whether they wanted to attend.

One such theater just outside of Washington, D.C., typically offered original and creative productions that drew raves-even from me. But one production did not measure up and my review reflected my disappointment.

Admittedly, the public relations representative made some wry remarks about it, but she never hinted that I was wrong to write it. I even was amused by the theater employee who saw me entering the theater for another a performance and began to hum Darth Vader’s entrance music.

I looked at her and said, “Really, one bad review and…”

She laughed.

My favorite experience as a reviewer—and delightfully off-topic—was when an actor I had panned in reviewing a musical theater production emailed me to say that I was absolutely correct. He explained that he had been suffering from a cold that adversely affected his range and vocal quality. He invited me to see the production again.

In the ensuing exchange of emails, I accepted his proposal and found his observations literate, perceptive and well-written. Not only did I write a fresh-and favorable-review after seeing him perform healthy, but I also offered him a position as music critic for my newspaper.

I also have written some harsh words about places I visited on press trips. Not the whole trip, but parts that I didn’t enjoy or appreciate.

Isn’t that what travel writers-any critic-should do? Describe the good and the bad?

All that said, economics have reduced such opportunities significantly. What used to be a full (free) experience from leaving home to return is now more likely to be an invitation to visit for a specific attraction event or attraction…if you are in the area. Alas.

But let me tell you about a press trip to Ireland.

 

 

Roy Rogers Never Wore Wellies

A number of years ago, a colleague accosted me in the newsroom at the newspaper where I was then employed. She said that she was unable to participate in a press trip to Ireland and asked whether I would mind filling in for her. As it happens, I didn’t-not a bit-and for that, I thank my lucky charms (and Mary Linda and Tourism Ireland).

I have no qualms about press trips, so I gladly accepted the Irish tourist board’s invitation to join them for a week or so horseback riding in the Emerald Isle. The beginning was inauspicious.

Bad weather-vile weather-delayed and then canceled my flight to Boston. That caused me to miss my connection with Aer Lingus. When I arrived at Logan Airport, long after my flight to Dublin had departed, weather had delayed and disrupted dozens of flights. Re-booking a flight that had been arranged and paid for by an absent third party was itself a nightmare.

As Tourism Ireland was footing the bill, I did not have the option of hopping on another carrier, so I had to wait for the next Aer Lingus flight, which was 24 hours after the one I missed.

As you might guess, travel writers are not unaccustomed to travel, and of all my trips, this was one of the top two horror shows of my experience. Not only did I arrive in Dublin a day late, after much uncertainty and confusion (particularly as the people who had arranged the trip were already accompanying the writers who arrived on time), but also, despite their assurances, the airline people had not conveyed the information about my delay to the tour leaders who had reasonably gone on without me.

I didn’t know that, and I confess that one becomes spoiled by always being met at the airport and whisked away without pedestrian concerns such as transportation and luggage collection. In this case, I arrived and no one was there to meet me…and it was a Sunday morning in Ireland so my calls to the office went unanswered.

After extensive investigation guided by my printed itinerary and an investment in a local SIM card, however, I was able to get a message to the next scheduled stop for the tour group and was told to meet them at an inn outside of Dublin.

A very long and expensive (but reimbursed) taxi ride later (during which I learned a great deal about the accelerated deterioration of Irish culture resulting from open borders within the European Union) I found my group and we continued on our way to enjoy horseback riding in western Ireland.

One of the biggest surprises on the trip was the astonishing variety or excellent food in a country not necessarily celebrated for its cuisine. But exploring this beautiful country on horseback was refreshing for the soul. Maybe with one exception:

I spent a wonderful week horseback riding in north-western Ireland, mostly County Donegal, with several days in the comfortable and hospitable family-owned Arnold Hotel in the village of Dunfanaghy on Sheephaven Bay. In a country not renowned for its cuisine, the Arnold Hotel provided some of the most delicious and visually-appealing dishes I have enjoyed anywhere. The riding stables behind the hotel provided (large) horses, and guides, and the bay, its estuary and the surrounding mountains, cliffs and quaint homes provided the milieu and soul-satisfying landscape.

Don’t bring riding boots,” the tourist board representative said. “We have them.” And the first two stables did. The third had boots, but….

I have calves, you see, thick, muscular calves. Truth be told, my calves are the only muscles in my body that don’t jiggle when I walk, so forgive me if I take inordinate pride in them. I like to walk, and I walk briskly and with great energy. My feet, however, are dainty. I have size eight feet and size 12 calves, so it is difficult to find boots that accommodate my calves without leaving my feet to wander in the roomy wilderness below.

The Irish countryside was lush green hills strectching from ferocious seas in the far northwest at Dunfanaghy, and tall beach grass and the heart-breakingly delicate beauty of Donegal Bay farther south. But it was at Donegal Bay that I met my Waterloo. Well, Wellingtons, actually.

Donegal Equestrian Center is well-equipped and professional. The staff are expert and personable. They had everything except riding boots for robust calves and petite feet. After an extensive search what they found they did have was a pair of duck-foot Wellies that would fit over my manly, yet curvaceous calves.

Wellington boots are not high fashion. Clint Eastwood would have shot himself in both feet before trying to slip his spurs over a pair of Wellies.

If he had spurs big enough. They are the Baby Huey (an allusion for those of a certain age) of boots.

I should be clear. These are not the handsome polished calfskin Wellingtons that the Household Cavalry sports, but gum boots, green boots, rubber boots, bulbous barn boots: knee-high waders. Their singular homeliness was not the issue, nor was the gritty feel of the inner sole as my stockinged-feet skittered about, exploring the great space. It was not even the cold rubber that encircled my now humiliated robust calves.

No, the problem is that the foot of the Wellington gumboot is not significantly smaller on the outside than it is on the inside. There is a reason that one feels as if he is walking in swim fins when gumboots adorn his feet. There is a reason for the gwomp-gwomp of the rubber soles slapping pavement. There is a reason that Cinderella did not wear Wellies to the ball.

If walking in Wellies is clumsy and unattractive, then trying to slip those bad boys into stirrups is a nightmare. Stirrups are no more made for gumboot Wellies than gumboot Wellies are made for stirrups. And they aren’t. These boots are made for walking-and mucking out stalls-not mounting a steed to race across the Irish landscape.

So I was wearing gumboots that were as roomy at the top as they were in the foot. Apparently there is some sense of proportionality about them. In order to have an upper boot that would accommodate my bull-calves, the foot space was sized to accommodate hulk feet.

When I walked, I had difficulty keeping them on, but never mind; I would be sitting handsomely in a saddle, not treading the winding paths.

Not until I tried to mount the horse did I realize the problem. I could not fit the toe of my boot into the stirrup to hoist myself into the saddle.

Not to worry, said the trail boss, or whoever he was. (His crew cut showed about an eighth of an inch of gray bristle, but I called him “Curley.” In my head. Certainly not out load.) The growing crowd of jocular riders around me found my predicament much funnier than I.

With the help of an overturned pail, a team of people more stable than I manhandled me into the saddle and unsuccessfully (I would have said bootless, but even for me….) tried to help me jam my bubble-toes into the stirrups. I was decidedly unamused, and feeling remarkably like a clumsy Humpty Dumpty being hoisted onto a wall-with the promise of similar results.

And cranky.

I worked at being a good sport. If ever there is an opportunity to avoid appearing to be a poor sport, it is while traveling with a group of international travel writers. They carry cameras and they are as quick as I to pounce on a humiliating story to increase circulation. They are the “abstract and brief chronicles of the time,” if I may quote a late Danish prince. And the opportunity of humiliating a colleague is a classic passive-aggressive tactic for those who pretend to not be rivals.

So, with a brave smile frozen in place-unlike my boots-I sat astride my steed, a burly Irish Hunter, sufficiently broad that I as if someone were trying to make a wish with my legs while I was mounted on her.

My toe tips delicately touched the edges of the stirrups like a virgin filled with hope that his status was about to change.

Off we went in single file. I began to relax a bit, as walking did not require great dexterity-or stability, although if I did not tilt my legs at a certain angle, the boots began slipping off. Then we began to climb a narrow trail, bordered closely by a barbed wire fence.

It was the fence that did me in.

I listed slightly to port to keep clear of the barbs. Doing so meant that my starboard boot lost its tenuous purchase on the stirrup, and the boot dangled perilously close to the aforementioned barbed wire. To counter the new, clear and present danger, I leaned farther, and that is when I realized that the boot was slipping off my foot. I curled my toes and tightened the foot muscles in an attempt to fill the boot more fully and raised my leg to keep the boot from yielding to the siren song of gravity, but the barbs of wire began to snatch at it, hurrying its departure. So I leaned a little more….You see the problem.

My body was rigid; sweat poured off me. I wanted to cry-in a manly way, of course, because Curly was squinting at me.

As we neared the top of the hill, Curly finally conceded that I was listing heavily to port, starboard leg extended almost straight out, boot dangling from my cramping foot at the end of my cramping leg. The cramp in my side was invisible.

You all right?” he asked with lightly. Although his face remained fixed, I believe I noted the whisper of a twinkle in his eye and I was not imagining that a smirk was beginning to mature before my widened eyes.

Fine,” I grunted from clenched jaw. (Writers in front of me; writers behind me. There was no other response.) I wished that I were carrying a couple of six-shooters. Or a Gatling gun.

We crested the hill and the fence fell away from us at last. I heaved a sigh of relief that the tension of the ascension was a thing of the past. Before us extended a band of tall, course beach grass, beyond which marvelously blue, marvelously placid water stretched to the horizon. Crisis past, I heaved a great sigh of relief, realigned myself in the saddle and jiggled my boot back onto my foot.

We rode lazily through the tall grass to the sandy expanse along the water’s edge and I began to enjoy the gentle shifting of the muscles of the beast beneath me. We looked off to the horizon, admiring the serenity and the beauty of the water that stretched out before us, lapping gently at the beach, until Curly shifted into a trot along the beach.

Ordinarily, trotting is fun. In this case, trotting was not fun. Trotting requires boots in stirrups, which is where I struggled desperately to keep them, not under the misapprehension that I would be able to actually fit them in, but only to keep them from falling off.

As our pace increased, I realized that the field was not mine. I saw Curly note my discomfort, just before he urged his mount to a gallop. Frustration clenched those muscles that had already been called into service to keep me upright and seated. I recalled Jingles’ (Well, Andy Devine, again age will serve to recognize the allusion.) arms flapping as he galloped behind Bill Hickok (Guy Madison in a cowboy suit) calling his raspy “Hey, Wild Bill, Wait for me!”

I did not want to be Jingles.

Once more I wished that I had six-guns. It was the only manly way to stop the torture.

Other challenges ensued, including fording a brook with which I came awfully close to having a close and wet encounter, when my horse stumbled on its rocky bank. At least we saw a corral at the edge of town and tied up our horses while we headed to a pub, my gum boots flopping along the sidewalk.

After draining a few quick pints, I realized that, although the stirrups might not be especially comfortable with stocking feet, if I removed the boots, my feet would fit.

And that is how I made the return ride, stockinged feet resting easily in the stirrups. It wasn’t without its own challenges, but it made the ride home far more relaxed and enjoyable, so I could concentrate on glaring at Curly and muttering imprecations under my breath.

 

Ned Got Wed

or
Wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine
but not fast enoughdrunken bride

‘Twas many years ago that a good friend asked whether her brother might stay at our house after retiring from the military. He needed a place to stay while he tried to find work in the DC area. So The Little Woman (who would rip my tongue out and beat me with it if she heard me call her that) and I said sure! Why not? We had the room.

So Ned (The name has been changed for my own safety.) moved in with us. He brought cigarettes and beer. Lots of both.

While I detest cigarette smoke in the house, we had no objection to beer, but it never lasted long enough to be an issue. Ned was just a brief delay in its rush from the bottle to the sea…and he was pretty good about smoking with his face out the window, so there’s that.

Beer and cigarettes aside, Ned was an interesting character in his own right. A divorced father, he rarely mentioned his ex-wife but went on and on–and maybe one more on–about a woman he knew in the service. She was, according to his frequent and regular tirades, a floozy and an idiot for the ages, who was fun while they were in the military but now she continued to stay in touch, which he protested routinely and often. Besides, the b**** owed him money.

Patty* (*not “Patty”) usually wrote to him—on paper if you can imagine, this was a long time ago—but occasionally she telephoned long distance (Do you remember, “Better hurry because this is costing you money”?) from overseas where she was still serving.

Her calls usually resulting in Ned practicing two-fisted beer delivery until he “better turn in.”

From time to time his children came to the house, apparently on vacation from visiting guests at The Shining’s Overlook Lodge, but what they lacked in normalcy they made up for with being the spoiled spawn of a father trying to compensate for having been deployed without them for much of their early life.

One small example: He could not understand why I objected to younger child sledding down the carpeted stairs on a flat cardboard, landing against a bookshelf on the landing. So the house shook and a few books toppled over once in a while, loosen up.

Oh, the celebration–quiet and discreet—when they returned to their dam’s lair.

I knew that the situation was temporary, although after the first six or seven months I began to wonder what the real definition of “temporary” housing might be for a career military guy. Then I recalled with something approaching horror that the World War II “temporary” buildings on the Washington Mall had remained in service for decades after, and that I had been housed briefly in the World War II “temporary barracks” at Fort Holabird—in 1970. And I began a-sweating.

One day, Ned bearded me in the kitchen. Ironically enough, I was clean-shaven at the time (See “More than a close shave, it’s a blood sport”)

You mind if I ask you something stupid?” he asked.

Mission accomplished, I thought, but I said, “Of course not,” through the fixed grimace of my effort at a smile.

Is it okay if I get married in your house?”

But you’re not dating anybody!” my mouth said before my brain had a chance to get diplomatic.

Well,” he said with a grin for which we had a specific term in the military, but we will begin with a couple of the same letters and settle for sheepish, “It’s Patty.” (Not “Patty.”)

I immediately said, “!”

Maybe there weren’t any words, but I’m pretty sure I saw him see the way my left eyebrow twitched.

When I had recovered, I added, “I thought she was still deployed.”

She is, but she’s getting out and I told her she could stay here….if that’s okay.”

I said, ”?” This time more emphatically, but as I still was unable to verbalize my bewilderment he couldn’t hear it well.

But I thought she was a deadbeat slag….”

(Diplomacy still on a break.)

I know, I know. But we talked and now I want to get married.”

.”

Uh, sure,” I continued. “I guess.”

What questions should I have asked?

Maybe,

What does that entail?

What are my responsibilities?

How many people will there be?

Where will the reception be?

Maybe even, When will it be?

But what I did ask was….well, I didn’t ask anything. I walked off in silence, trying to make sense of what had just happened. It wasn’t happening. The wedding was, I guess, but the sense of it just wasn’t coming together. When I told TLW (I can refer to her as The Little Woman because she moved on to terrorize another—more exciting–man until death….) her reaction was somewhat better:

Are you crazy?”

Followed by, “Is he crazy?”

And

Are all of you crazy?”

And then,

When will it be?”

Who is taking care of arrangements?”

Where’s the reception?”

And all the other questions I hadn’t asked along with a few that never would have occurred to me.

Well, answering the last question first, they planned for the blessed event to take place in about two weeks, just long enough to invite people and for Patty to return to the States.

Another question answered was that the wedding itself was going to be at a military chapel; the reception was going to be at our house.

I learned both of those answers the day before The Day.

There would be only a handful of guests and Ned was calling to redirect them to the church and to invite them all to the house immediately afterwards.

When I asked questions, Ned told me not to worry about it (Which always worries me) and that it would all be fine.

After the wedding Ned announced that everybody should come back to the house. And they did. He brought a case of beer.

Only a case of beer.

Bette (TLW) and I looked at each other and I said that I couldn’t believe that nothing was laid on. TLW said that it wasn’t our shindig and it wasn’t our problem.

But it was my house and Mamma didn’t raise me that way, so I ran out and bought some spiral baked ham and some cheeses and potato salad and other such goodies as one might expect at an impromptu shotgun wedding, not that anyone was pregnant, but it felt like that let’s-get-‘er-done-before-the water-breaks feel to it. Then TLW and I we went out because I have a very low tolerance for embarrassment.

When we got home. The invited guests had left–probably for greener pastures and a better watering hole—and Ned and Patty were deep in their cups.

Deep.

Oh, so deep.

Patty and I were in the bedroom quietly reviewing the tragicomic events if the day, when a knock on the door was quickly followed by the door opening to reveal one very drunken bride with smeared mascara and one false eyelash. She slurred that she had wondered where we had gotten off to.

More specifically—and pointedly—she wondered where I had gotten off to. Then she sat next to me–on the bed–and began what some of my less urbane friends might call a-rubbin’ on me and getting more than a little handsy. That was when I learned that Patty liked me, or, as she put it, REALLY liked me. That also was when Bette decided that she was immensely amused by the whole scenario: My skittering sideways on the bed with a bride still in her wedding outfit hitting on me hard and heavy and without any self-consciousness.

This also was about the time that the groom came to the door and asked if we had seen …Oh! There she is.

Ned, You have to do something,” I said in a voice that cracked less than I thought it might. Bette leaned against the wall smirking, with her arms crossed in front of her.

Do you mind?” Patty shrilled at her new hubby? “We are trying to have a moment alone.”

Ned raised his hands in surrender and backed off.

Ned!”

Seeing no relief. I apologized to the bride who was mauling me and said that I had go downstairs, and I bolted, leaving Bette and Ned to deal with the weeping bride while I went for a long walk wondering where it all had gone so wrong.

When I returned, the house was quiet except for someone who kept knocking on the wall of the guestroom, right around where the headboard was. I figured it was Ned trying to escape, but Bette just kept smirking.

The morning after, Bette and I were drinking coffee in the sun room and reminiscing about a honeymoon to remember. I was wearing a bathrobe, but no shirt. Bette was still smirking when Patty dragged into the room looking for the coffee pot.

She seemed to perk up when she saw me.

Now,. Let me say that I am not God’s gift to women, more like a little not-so-romantic prank. I am awkward as a dead fish about how to make advances or what to do if someone makes one on me. I have no clue about “sweet talk, and, other than this instance, I am typically oblivious to be hitting on. The perceptive gene seems to have skipped me. In short, I am as romantically gauche as one who is right-handed could possibly be. How I was ever naked (I also am shy about my body) with another entity in the room—unless gang showers in the barracks count—is either a miracle or a modern mystery.

And I blush. I blush at everything.

Even today, well into my dotage, I blush. I am the personification of a rosé, often bordering on a hearty red.

And Bette Is a smirker. I tease about her, but she was one of the strongest, most confident women I have known. This was the first time I had hoped for a glimmer of jealousy.

II wasn’t happening. Given subsequent events, I suspect that she didn’t believe someone was all that into me.

Yeah, that might have been a hint about how we would end up.

Patty started slinking toward me as I tried to disappear into my chair. Unfortunately, my chest looks—looked–like am auburn-colored shag carpet. (Now it looks more like raw sheep’s fleece, but c’est la vieillesse.) and apparently, Patty likes to run her hand through shag carpet, ’cause she were a-comin’ at me, with a steady eye and a firm gait.

She quickly sat on my knee, slipped a hand under my robe, and began rubbing my chest, murmuring things I couldn’t quite hear over blood rushing in my ears. And the whimpering, although I couldn’t see who was the source of that.

In the middle of all this unrequited hanking and panking, guess who decided to join us in the sun room.

Oh, yeah. The recently-married retired military guy, who stopped dead in his tracks when he entered the room to find his new bride in my lap, caressing my naked chest under my robe.

Bette was sipping coffee.

And smirking.

Ned,” I said, hearing the panic in my voice. “”You’ve gotta do something!”

Ned shook his head as he poured himself a cup of coffee. “Nope, when she gets like this there ain’t nuthin’ I can do.”

They knocked on the wall for a few more nights before looking for a new place to live. I found that work was requiring a lot more of my time and attention than usual, but, hey, we all have to sacrifice.

However, the next time someone asks me whether he might do something crazy in my house, I’m pretty sure I will have a different answer ready, or at least quite a few questions.

And somewhere, I know, Bette is sipping coffee and smirking—more wistfully now, I hope—at the way we used to be,

And, by the way, all these years later, Ned and Patty are still together, apparently living happily ever after.