The Boston Challenge: Part Two

Harvard GatesFor my second day in Boston I wanted to visit Harvard. I looked up the tour times and caught a train I thought would get me there just in time for the 10AM tour. When I arrived at Harvard Square Station I only had a few minutes to find the Harvard Info Center where the tours were supposed to take place. I took off immediately in one direction, but quickly realized I was going the wrong way. I began to speed-walk the other way and had gone a good four blocks before realizing that I was right the first time. I turned around and picked up the pace. I caught sight of the Info Center and practically ran through the doors and up to the woman at the counter as the clock struck ten.

“Unfortunately all our guides are students and we’re between quarters right now,” she told me. “Our summer tours ended yesterday.”

Rats.

“Do you have a smart phone?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said out of breath and masking my disappointment.

“There’s a free audio tour you can download if you’d like,” she said with a smile. “It will take you all over Harvard Yard.” I thanked her and ducked into the hall to download the guide.

Harvard ChapelI followed my phone as it led me from building to building in the area I had so quickly ran past just a few minutes earlier. I listened as the polite voice explained the history of the structures and their uses. I couldn’t go inside any of the buildings, but the yard itself was littered with chairs for the tired student and/or tourist. As a professional tour group went by I overheard a young women explaining that the chairs were Harvard’s solution to the fact that they don’t really have a student lounge anywhere. My audio guide told me I could go inside the chapel, but there was a funeral going on and the place was surrounded by security guards tasked with keeping out lookie-loos like me. I found a set of steps nearby and took a few minutes to rest in the sunshine.

Big ChessI’m not really sure what I was hoping to get out of a visit to Harvard, but whatever is was I didn’t find it. I suppose it holds some strange Ivy League mystique, as through you will show up and magically look through the past at the hundreds of brilliant people who have passed through its gates. But in the end, it’s just a school. The same old buildings that undoubtably feel too far apart in the winter when it’s cold and you’re rushing to class. The same prospective student tours parading through. The same silence inside buildings when you’re in between academic quarters. And while I’m sure the education one gets at Harvard lives up to the reputation, in the end, the reputation is what it’s all about. That’s why it’s in our consciousness. That’s why you’ve heard of it. But you can’t really visit a reputation. You can’t get off the train and take a look at renown. Harvard is just a collection of buildings, the sort you might find at any old and decently-funded institution. I went to a public school on the West Coast. There was ivy growing on our walls, too.

By recommendation I went to Mr. Bartley’s for lunch. I sat at the counter and, like at lunch the day before, I was served by a man who seemed to own the place. The logo in the window was a clover leaf, and a sign above the cooking areas said “Irish NEED NOT Apply.”

Boston Tea PartyHaving completed my short tour of the Harvard area, I caught the train back into town to visit the site of the Boston Tea Party. Like happens sometimes, there is a highly visible area commemorating the event with a museum, a reconstruction of a ship, and plenty of ways for tourists to spend their money. However the actual spot in which the city has erected a plaque (and the site of the real event), is set off to the side and around the corner. In fact it’s a bit difficult to find the Boston Tea Party Plaque. It’s attached to a seemingly arbitrary building with no other stores or signs around it. But I suppose that’s what happens sometimes with historical locations. Simply because the area was important once doesn’t mean it can or will stay that way. In the case of the Boston Tea Party, the actual shipping dock no longer exists at all, having long since been replaced by more useful docks in other locations.

MassacreIn contrast, the site of the Boston Massacre is in the middle of a still busy and thriving intersection. It makes sense, as people rarely form mobs in out-of-the-way locations. The Boston Massacre is marked by a decorative ring on the ground, and is as easy to miss as the Tea Party sign for the complete opposite reason. A person could miss the Tea Party marker because it’s off to the side. A person could miss the Massacre ring because it’s so central. The intersection is packed and moving at all times, and it’s easy to let your eye move onto one of the impressive nearby buildings or an eclectic passerby.

I crossed the city to Newbury Street to see the shops. Shopping holds little interest for me normally, and no interest for me while traveling. Still, it’s sometimes fun to see the ways different stores appeal to different cities. I never miss an opportunity to slip into a comic book shop, and I saw a sign for one on Newbury. To my surprise, there were almost no comics in the entire store. Most comic book stores these days have large selections of related merchandise, and many make more money selling Superman action figures than Superman comics, but I’d never seen such an extreme example. I managed to find an aisle or two of comics in the back, and the rest of the store was music, movies, and clothing. I wondered what kind of transition such a place had to go through to start out as a comic book store but end up selling everything else. I wondered if they ever thought about changing the name.

Leif EricksonWith some effort I managed to find the statue of Leif Erickson on the nearby Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Per instructions from a priest/judge I know, I stood in front of it and sang “I’m a Little Teapot.” I like to think of it as a sign of respect to the first European to land on North American soil.

It seemed a bit early for dinner, but I was too hungry to care. A friend had mentioned the “Daily Catch” in the north end, and I hopped on the train again. The restaurant was very small – there were only five tables. One such table was extra long and had one couple seated at the far end. I took a seat on the opposite end as it was the only space available. The menu was written on the wall in chalk. The one and only waitress said hello and, upon request, endorsed the black pasta with ground squid. By her tone I could tell she got asked the question a lot, and that she rarely had complaints after patrons followed her standard recommendation.

As she went to hand my order to the one and only cook, a family walked up to the restaurant door. The man asked the waitress how long they would have to wait for a table of four. She turned around to look at her five full tables and told him at least a half an hour. In normal circumstances the wait times given at restaurants seem very abstract. I always imagine a series of equations involving the flow of staff and the time it takes to turn over a table. Of course in reality these calculations that are based on guessing how long it takes people to eat dinner. When this waitress said the wait would be 30 minutes, I knew exactly which table she was thinking would be finished around that time. And the people at the table knew, too, since the restaurant was so small we could all hear the conversations she had at the door. I think most people understand intellectually that restaurants know how we eat better than we do, but there’s something strange about seeing a group of people and knowing you are the only reason they are still waiting.

Line out the DoorThe man’s wife took the kids across the street to pick up some pastries for later. More people got in line behind them. By the time I left the Daily Catch, there were more people in line than inside. I walked down the street to pick up a treat from Modern Pastry. They packaged it up in a box and wrapped it in string with the same quick dexterity I had witnessed the day before at Mike’s Pastry. On the train ride back to the hotel I checked my list. I was proud of all that I had managed to see, and mournful of all the things that had been left unseen. Should I have spent more time on the Freedom Trail? Was one scoop of ice cream at JP Licks really enough? Had the New England Aquarium really been worth the two hours I spent there, or should I have spent some time at M.I.T.?

AquariumThe problem with The Boston Challenge is that it goes on forever. Boston is a packed and beautiful city. There’s long history at The Old North Church and short history at Fenway Park. I think of it like Rome and Seattle. Some cities have too many nooks and crannies to ever get old. And even if they do, it’s so easy to find a new favorite park or restaurant or cafe. There’s always somewhere you want to go back to. And I will go back to Boston.

If nothing else, I still need to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees.

The Boston Challenge: Part One

I approached Boston as a sort of mission. I didn’t know anyone in the city, but I knew plenty of people who had lived there in the recent past. The day before I arrived, I posted a Facebook status asking for suggestions on how to spend two full days exploring Boston by myself. The response was overwhelming. I set out to experience as many of their suggestions as I possibly could.

Green MonsterI check into a nice hotel on the west end of the city, right off the subway line. The building is an old three-story walk up, clearly renovated from a previously wealthy home. The rooms are all named with titles meant to remind you that you are in Boston, such as John F Kennedy, Paul Revere, Boston Common, Constitution, and Old Bay State. Parking is at such a premium in the area that I have to pay extra to get a space in the back, and even then I am double parked and must leave my key at registration in case they need to move it later.

I settle into my room and start combing through the suggestions. I plot them out based on location and proximity to the subway stops. There is a collection of suggestions in the North End, and some more over near Harvard. Still more are in the area around The Common. I open tab after tab on my computer, trying to figure out the best route. An hour later I finally have a plan and I make my way to bed.

Boy at FenwayThe next day begins with a tour of Fenway Park. In an ideal world I would get to watch a Red Socks game in Fenway, preferably against the Yankees. Unfortunately chance hasn’t favored me in this regard, and the next home game won’t be for two more nights, at which point I am supposed to be setting up my tent in Maine. So the tour is the next best thing.

The tour group is huge, and the guide is old. He takes us from place to place, showing us the visitor’s locker room and the old bleachers. We sit in the seats placed on top of the Green Monster and learn how hard they are to acquire. There are, in fact, many seats in Fenway that one can only get via lottery because demand is so high. We hear over and over again how in 1947 Ted Williams hit the longest home run ever hit in Fenway. It’s marked by a special red seat, which is sold like any other ticket in the section.

Loge BoxI am surprised by how small the park is. I didn’t realize that its size is part of its legend and charm. I was expecting something huge and overpowering, but Fenway is about the small things, and the not-too-distant past.

I hop back on the train and make my way to The Commons, a beautiful public park that reminds me of Central Park in New York City. There are people sitting on blankets on every patch of grass, and ice cream carts attracting children on every corner. An old friend and fellow Episcopalian told me to check out St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I near the end of the park I see a prominent church on the corner and assume it must be St Paul’s. I am mistaken, but I wander inside anyway. It’s an old church, though it’s been restored. The design is simple and plain, and everything has been rebuilt over time. It’s hard to find the appeal in sitting somewhere that neither looks nor feels like it belongs to the past. I walk out, disappointed.

St. Paul'sI check my map again, sure I’m in the right place. I look all around but St. Paul’s is nowhere in sight. I begin to walk down the block, pulling out my phone every few feet to see if my tiny dot is going towards or away from the church’s tiny dot on the map. I circle around the entire block before ending up almost directly across from the church I was just in. I look up to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, hidden in plain site. It is massive and wedged right in with the rest of the big city buildings. It feels old and imposing, like the father’s bank in Mary Poppins. I walk inside.

View from the PewThe church is very dark. It looks as though it hasn’t been restored at all. Below each aisle seat the carpet is worn down to the wood, marking years of anxious parishioners taking the first spot available and tapping their feet during a lengthy service. There are cushions for kneeling, but they seem to be made of hard sand, making them only marginally more comfortable than the floor. A small Chinese woman with glasses is at the organ, practicing for Sunday. I find my way towards one of the older pew boxes in the back, the kind that still have doors. I sit and listen. We are the only two people in the cathedral.

After the cathedral I stop by the Copley Public Library, then walk over to The Esplanade for a leisurely stroll along the water. I see a few tourists unsuccessfully trying to windsurf on rented contraptions, and I watch their guide go from one tourist to the next, helping them get back upright. It is the first time my mind has ever considered the extremely difficult mechanics of windsurfing. Until this point it had been an activity strictly reserved for clipart and neon designs from the 1990s.

I’m starting to get hungry. My friends had made it clear that the North End was the place to eat, saying, “You can’t go wrong in the North End.” I get off the train and start walking up the street. I pass by many good-looking restaurants, and eventually step into a place called The Florentine Cafe for no specific reason at all. I take a seat at the bar, and the bartender hands me a menu. I find myself torn between two raviolis: a butternut squash and a lobster. I ask the bartender for his opinion, and he says without a doubt to get the lobster.

“Voted best lobster ravioli in town by Boston Magazine,” he tells me.

My plate comes out and the sauce is made of heaven itself. I have to fight the opposite urges to slowly savor each bite or to shove everything in my mouth at once. When the ravioli is gone I start lapping the sauce up with my bread, cursing myself for having eaten some of it as an appetizer with mere oil and vinegar.

I manage to pull my head up from my feast enough to witness the bartender transform into the owner. Vendor representatives keep coming up to the bar, each time having a small business meeting while the owner wipes down the glasses. A woman from the printing company has him approve the new menu layout, followed by a man who confirms the restaurant’s next order for drink supplies. A third rep comes in on behalf of a business I couldn’t quite catch, but he offers to do for $1200 what the bartender/owner had been paying $1300 for from another company. Sold.

Old North ChurchAfter lunch I stop by the Old North Church where, as usual, The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. There is no entrance fee to see the church, and a laughably small fee if you’d like to get a guided tour. The Old North Church is famous for giving the signal to Paul Revere via lanterns in the window that the British would be arriving by sea rather than by land. While the real history does involve Revere and lanterns and a water attack, the true story is more complicated and less poetic than, well, the poem. Of course the church would be a site worth visiting even if the whole story was a complete fiction, since it would still be the setting for one of the most well-known and frequently quoted poems in America. Imagine if the local zoo had, through some miracle of time and space, acquired the actual raven Edgar Allen Poe had mused on – you’d want to see it.

A Nap in the GrassI take a walk through Fanueli Hall and catch a quick show from some local buskers. It’s been a long day and my feet are complaining. I walk along the Greenway for a short while before finding a welcoming patch of grass. I pull off my shoes and turn my purse into a makeshift pillow. The sun is warm and comfortable. I don’t know how long I sleep. An hour. Maybe two.

When I wake up I’m still not hungry. I have stuffed myself too full of food throughout the day to stomach dinner, but I figure I can probably manage a dessert. I have recommendations for two nearby pastry shops, and quickly find myself at the front of a long but fast-moving line at Mike’s Pastry.

“What’s your best cannoli?” I ask the man behind the counter. I had been told to get a cannoli at Mike’s, but I wasn’t prepared to choose between so many options.

“I’d say the chocolate chip is our most popular,” he replies.

“I’ll take it.”

Ted WilliamsHe constructs a beautifully simple white box around my treat, and pulls at a line of string suspended from the ceiling. He wraps the string twice in every direction, moving with the speed and precision only pride and repetition can create. I carry my little white box on the subway all the way back to my hotel. In the seat across from me, a fashionably dressed woman holds a beautiful white orchid in a pot. There is something fantastically cosmopolitan about the whole scene. I felt like a true city-dweller. I felt like I was living in New York City again.

And that was just the first day.

Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me About Provincetown, Massachusetts

In my entire life, I can recall hearing about Provincetown exactly once. It was three days before I got there, when my friend Marc in Washington D.C. told me I would like it. No other description, no other mention by anyone previously.

Well StrungSituated as it is on the very end of the Cape Cod peninsula, I assumed it would be something of a rich, white, tourist trap. Which in many ways it is. It has the same overpriced parking, the same quaint bed & breakfasts, the same pedestrian main street, the same fudge shops, the same busking musicians and human statues. What Provincetown also has, however, is hundreds and hundreds of vacationing gay couples. As such, it’s got advertisements for gay dating sites on the back of the pedicabs, rainbow flags hung between buildings, leather sex shops next to the fine art boutiques, and drag queens standing outside the theaters passing out flyers for their nightly review shows.

I had spent the day driving up the arm of Cape Cod and being generally unimpressed. I did see a pretty neat old house that dates back to the mid-1600s, but in general most of the local attractions seemed to appeal to people with much more time, disposable income and/or luggage space. Parking in Provincetown was clearly a problem, so I stopped at the first cute-looking inn with signs indicating both vacancy and parking. After setting my stuff down in my room, I walked the main tourist drag of the colloquially called P-Town looking for dinner. It was still on the early side, so I took my time wandering past the shops. It still amazes me how much seeing gay couples makes me happy. Any place that a gay couple can feel comfortable showing their affection for each other must be a place that will welcome me too – or so the thinking goes. It occurs to me that this will eventually go away as acceptance grows. Before you know it, the most bigoted and harsh neighborhoods in the country will have openly gay couples. Perhaps they’ll just have the harsh, bigoted ones? It’s funny to think that in some respects that’s exactly what we’re fighting for: to live in a world where gay people are so accepted that they are free to be intolerant.

ShotglassI was walking along the pedestrian drag when I saw a shot glass in a store window. I have been trying very hard to keep my shot glass collection in check during this trip, knowing that I have to carry whatever I buy around in my car. I don’t buy anything from places my friends and family are likely to visit (since they might pick up a shot glass for me as a souvenir), and I don’t buy anything too simple or ordinary. The shot glass I purchased in P-Town falls into both of these categories. It’s very possible people I know will visit this area, and it’s a very typical shot glass. Standard size, clear glass, with an attractive yet modest design. The reason I bought it was that it was being sold in a Human Rights Campaign store, and it occurred to me that I might live to see the day where such shops are completely unnecessary, at least in the United States. My little shot glass has one small square with an equals sign in it. I’ve got a lot of cool and interesting shot glasses in my collection of over 200, but this may be the first one that has the power to truly date itself. I certainly hope it does. I hope one day I have to explain what the equals sign means to some little child who doesn’t know of a time when who you love was cause for discrimination.

Woman the the SeaFor some reason the tourist atmosphere in Provincetown doesn’t bother me the way it does in some other places. There are still old people that walk too slow and families with kids that yell and scream. It’s still impossible to find a decent parking spot and there are shops full of things I don’t want to buy. But I enjoyed my evening strolling through Provincetown more than most. It’s calm and happy for no reason in particular. At one point I watched an older woman swim straight out into the ocean while wearing a hat. She kept her head above water the whole time. I watched for several minutes, but she showed no signs of turning back.

Katy PerryI bought a ticket to a drag show since it seemed to be the thing to do. The show was called Illusions, and we were encouraged by the emcee to get the dollar bills out of our wallets as the performers love accepting tips. “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” she told us. There were about five performers in all, each doing at least two changes. Occasionally the very entertaining emcee would come out to get the crowd laughing. Her performances were among my favorites, and it didn’t hurt that she did both Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, two of my aesthetic pop favorites. Other performers busted out the likes of Pink, Cher, and the unexpected Gretchen Wilson.

Afterwards I ducked into a fudge shop for a late night snack, and saw a pair of young Russian tourist girls wearing adorable fake mustaches and filling entire baskets with candy.

The next morning I walked downstairs to enjoy the continental breakfast. All of the other guests (as well as the hotel owners) were committed, middle-aged gay men. In my experience men in this category are among the most pleasant of conversationalists. I told them all about my trip, including my stop at the Westboro Baptist Church. They were fascinated and wished me well on my journey. I drove out of town, passing many a beach house on my way.

BoatsI think there is something unmistakably leisurely about Cape Cod in general and Provincetown specifically. Perhaps it’s from my years of hearing characters in books and movies talk about “going to Cape Cod for the weekend.” It conjures up a life of such ease. The kind of life where one can simply go places for the weekend. Where weekends aren’t filled with errands or obligations or catching up on your sleep. Instead, they are a chance to get away from the dullness of a worry-less life, the kind of life filled with weekday lunches and club memberships and Great Gatsbys. Yet the undeniable liberal culture in Provincetown takes the stuffy edge off what might otherwise be a vacation town for the One Percent. I feel certain I will find some excuse to return to Cape Cod, if for no other reason than to show one of my fellow West Coasters what the big deal is. Maybe we’ll rent a beach house, take in a drag show, or buy some name brand leather whips. And we’ll talk about how nice it is to get away from the heat of the city and into the fresh ocean air. We’ll talk about it like it’s something strange and unusual. I suppose we’ll talk like we’re from New York City.

Waffles Amen

I wouldn’t have gone to New York City if it wasn’t for Sarah Ruth.

Excluding family vacations, I have been to New York City more than anywhere else in the world. When I was 15 my sister moved there right out of high school, and I visited her many times. The summer before college I lived on Manhattan for six weeks while attending classes at the School for Film and Television. I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty and St. John the Divine. I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building and caught a show at the Village Vanguard. I’ve done the NYC thing. I had planned to skip it altogether.

But then Sarah Ruth got a summer internship at Saveur Magazine. Sarah Ruth was one of my best friends in college. We met in our improv troupe, and spent several quarters waking up early every Wednesday morning to get waffles at one of the dinning halls on campus. Wednesday Waffles were a good time to share all the things we didn’t want to say to other people, usually because they had to do with our problems with said people. We discussed our various tricky situations and tried to help each other out. Some Wednesdays we’d both be too tired to talk and we’d just stare blankly at our strawberries and whipped cream. I always loved our Waffle Wednesdays.

After graduation we would still get together occasionally for waffles. It was never on campus and it rarely included actual waffles, but the point was the same. We met and gabbed and felt better for it. Eventually Sarah Ruth moved out of state, and waffles could only happen every few months when she came back to town to visit friends and family. So I knew that if I had the chance to see Sarah Ruth while she was in NYC, I needed to take it. There was no telling how long it would be until the next waffle opportunity.

I sat on the New Jersey Turnpike for more than 20 minutes, trying to get to the front of the toll line. I was being aggressive, but I couldn’t change the behavior of the people in front of me who seemed hell bent on letting every cheating taxi cab cut to the front of the line. I was waiting so long and the sun was so hot my car started to overheat. At times I thought I might never get out of New Jersey at all.

Once I emerged from the tunnel onto the streets of Manhattan, it was time for red alert. Having been a pedestrian in NYC many times, I can say with confidence that it feels much more dangerous be a driver. You have less control. There are bikers and walkers and motorcyclists, and not a one of them has to deal with the same physical restrictions. On Manhattan everything is small, and everything is moving. It was like learning to drive again, trying hopelessly to expand my spatial awareness to accommodate the full size of the vehicle. Every passing bicycle felt too close, every moving pedestrian felt too fast. I had lived in my car for more than two months, and suddenly I felt like I had no idea where the thing started and ended.

In my own biased opinion, I did well. I didn’t run into anything or get turned around. I didn’t get honked at or feel the need to honk. And I managed to get to the other side of the island, approximately 12 blocks away, in less than 30 minutes. It went well, and I can safely say I understand what they mean about driving in New York City. I can also safely say that I never need to experience that again.

I paid a toll to get out of New Jersey, and another one to get onto Manhattan. There was a third toll to get off the island and into Queens, and another one to get out of Queens the next day. In total, I spent $30.15 trying to get through the city. I can’t imagine how commuting is even possible.

NeighborhoodSarah Ruth got an apartment through AirBnB that just happened to be blocks away from where my sister used to live. We hung out at her apartment for awhile before heading to a local diner for some long overdue waffles. Like every waffle conversation, we ran the gamut from frivolous problems on the subway to the serious problems of marriage. It was the first time I’d seen her since she broke up with her long-term boyfriend. It was the first time she had seen me since I changed jobs. After dinner we walked back to her place and moved on to another important topic of conversation: church.

I needed somewhere to go for church the following morning, and Sarah Ruth was trying to help me decide. There was a huge, non-denominational church in Times Square that intrigued me. But that would mean a long subway ride first thing in the morning. There were a few churches just down the street from the apartment, and Sarah Ruth offered to join me if I decided to go somewhere nearby. We got out our computers and began looking up the various churches online. That’s when we found Pastor Marnie.

The website for The Rock Church was certainly the most developed of the churches we looked at, and its reviews were the most … passionate. On Yelp it seemed that the church was only getting one star or five star reviews with nothing in between. The five stars praised the congregation for being so close to God. The one stars said it was a money-grubbing cult and a construction eye-sore. The church had an active blog with posts by someone named Marnie, and I pulled up a video of her called “Life with Marnie – Health Tip.”


Sarah Ruth and I were in love. Marnie’s accent was so thick and her talk so rambling. “Like a dog. An angry dog. Some dogs are nice. Most dogs are nice. I love animals.” We were sold. We had to check out the perpetually under construction house that Marnie called home.

ChurchThe Rock Church operates inside of the sort of huge old theater that makes you pine for earlier days. You look around and think, “This place could really be something if they just fixed it up a bit.” We were greeted when we walked in the door and found our way to the center of the folding chairs. The size of the building made the place seem empty, and it felt as though we were the only ones who didn’t have something else to do. Over a dozen people stood near the door, preparing various things and talking with one another. Several others were getting the light and sound booth ready and setting up the cameras. People were on stage, walking back and forth in front of a giant “I heart Jesus” sign. A choir was collecting off to the side. When I think about it, there were probably already 100 people there when we arrived, but the church felt empty since only a handful of us were actually sitting in the chairs. Sarah Ruth and I waited, constantly turning our necks to the back to see if anyone else was going to show up, or if we were to sit in a sea of empty chairs the whole time.

After the token promotional video on the big screen, the service began. The band started playing and the congregation started singing. I didn’t know the tune but I did my best. There was a woman on stage who seemed to be in charge, but it clearly wasn’t Pastor Marnie. Sarah Ruth and I whispered our disappointment.

“Maybe Marnie’s not here every week?” I asked. Sarah Ruth shrugged.

A few songs went by, and another woman came on stage. It was like we had seen the warmup act, and were now moving on to the headliner. But there was still no Marnie. We sang more, we prayed some, we stayed standing the whole time and most everyone had their praise hands up like in those videos advertising Christian Rock compilation CDs on television at 2AM.

Finally, after more than 20 minutes had passed, it was time for the main event: Pastor Marnie took the stage. Her heels were high and her skirt was long. She prayed and talked, back and forth. I had no idea what was coming next or what was typical for the service. We heard Marnie preach. She referenced being “at the point of death four times,” but gave no further information on the subject. She introduced a man who came out to do a sermon of his own. And they passed the collection plate – twice.

But more than anything else, what stood out to me at The Rock Church was their use of the word amen. Most people know amen as the word you use to end a prayer. In more vocal congregations it can be used as a sort of expletive, a way to shout your agreement during a sermon. In common speech you may even hear amen as a strong affirmation of something said, such as using the phrase, “Amen to that.”

At The Rock Church, you use it like a period. It goes at the end of almost every sentence.

Pastor Marnie said amen quite a bit, often posing it as a question to the audience. “…and that’s what you’re really looking for, amen?” We were supposed to say amen back to indicate that we both agreed and were paying attention. To me, this was an acceptable use of the word. I’ve seen the tactic used before. It’s a standard presentation technique.

But then another woman, quite pregnant, took the stage for announcements. Amen became the Valley Girl up-speak that turns every sentence into a rhetorical question.

“…which will start at 7PM on Thursday, amen?”

“…since we had so much fun last year, amen?”

“…we have that going on, amen?”

Over and over again. It started it wear at me. I was reminded of those times in high school when our teachers challenged us to listen for how often our classmates said “like” or “um” in their presentations. Suddenly you can’t hear anything else. Amen, amen, amen. Without end.

On the way out the door both Sarah Ruth and I had to thwart attempts to get our contact information. Luckily we could both honestly say that we wouldn’t be around for much longer, since she was leaving in two weeks and I was leaving in 20 minutes. Our pursuers seemed quite disappointed to hear such a clear explanation for why our info would be useless. I imagine they have arguments ready for most visitor rejections, but “I don’t even live here” is probably less common.

I will say one thing about The Rock Church. It reminded me of the power of following along. At one point during the service, I decided to raise one of my hands up. Just the right one, just a little. Everyone else was doing it, and when visiting churches I take on a very “when in Rome” mentality. And it worked. I enjoyed the songs just a bit more, even though my hand had moved less than six inches. But that six inches says a lot. It says why not. It says let’s go. It says I’m trying.  And I know that if I kept listening to Pastor Marnie, she would start to make more and more sense. I know I would start using amen to punctuate my sentences. I know I would greet people at the door and insist on getting their information.

Most people bring these things up when talking about the dangers of herd mentality. And it can be very dangerous. But it’s not inherently detrimental. Herding animals herd for a reason. Herding lets us rely on others, and helps us to make good decisions even when we can’t have all the information. Sometimes religious believers are mocked for following blindly, but that is a trait we all share. The only difference is what you follow. Some people blindly follow God. Some people blindly follow family. Diets, politics, culture, social convention, it’s all there. It’s just waiting to be followed. And sometimes when you make the choice to raise your hand up a little and be part of the crowd, a strange situation becomes a bit more familiar. We’re social animals, and we will always find a herd.

The Best Laid Plans

Motel ViewYorktown is unabashedly small. I went there with a might-as-well-while-I’m-here attitude after my day at Colonial Williamsburg. I booked a room in a motel overlooking the water, and asked the clerk at the front desk where I could get some dinner. She recommended two places, and I went to the latter of the two. I left my car in the motel lot and started along the road by the water. I wasn’t quite ready for dinner, so I took my time and walked along the boardwalk and out onto the pier to see the boats go by. The music was just starting on the final night of “Shagging on the Riverwalk,” a summer concert series. The sign explained that I could expect local bands playing beach favorites, oldies, and Motown, and that I should bring both my lawn chair and my dancing shoes. The dancing had already begun as I walked by. I watched a selection of baby boomers doing their own slow, shuffling, partner dances. The tune wasn’t anything in particular, which is why one group was doing a West Coast Swing while another seemed to be mid-Foxtrot and a third was giving their own interpretation of what seemed to be a ChaCha.

The General and the AdmiralI walked past the dancers to a statue of General George Washington and Admiral Francois de Grasse greeting each other to make final preparations for the battle at Yorktown. I felt like the statue was deserving of a caption contest, as both men seemed to be on the verge of saying something while simultaneously having something to hide.

I found the restaurant the clerk had recommended and asked the hostess for a table for one. She sat me at a tiny and awkwardly placed table behind the host’s desk and I waited. The hostess hadn’t given me a menu, but I expected to get one from my server when he or she came to fill my water glass. But the server never came. I sat there, first catching up on some reading on my phone, then staring expectedly around in hopes of catching someone’s eye. The two women at the front were busy adjusting things at the host station, and the other servers seemed focused on their own tables. I kept waiting. It was already clear that no one had been alerted to my presence, but that was no big deal. I figured before long the hostess would glimpse over and realize her mistake, or the server who should be taking care of my section would ask if I’d been helped. But nothing happened. I just sat there. No menu. No water. No server.

Sailboat in Yorktown

I looked to the center of the room where tall stools circled the central bar. It’s strange the power that social conventions can have on you. A part of me felt like I couldn’t get up, even though it was clear I had been forgotten. After all, there was a system. The host tells you where to sit, and you follow directions. If I were to just get up and walk away, I would be going outside the system. It’s amazing that such an action still seems wrong even when the system has broken down.

Eventually I had had enough. I walked up to the bartender to confirm that they had full food service at the bar, and I sat down. I didn’t mention the table I had been at or suggest that anyone do anything different, I just asked for a menu. She took my order right away and my food was out in minutes. I left her a generous tip and walked out, having no particular inclination to complain and certain that no one was aware of the mistake.

DancersAs I made my way back to the motel I passed by the dancers, still in full figurative swing. I stayed for awhile to enjoy the scene, until the singer stopped in between songs to make an announcement. He explained that it looked like the weather might turn soon, and that they would have to pack it up if it started to rain. As I walked up the small hill to my motel I turned back to see the clouds had covered up the sun and the scene had turned dark. I walked up to my room. From the balcony I watched as the rain started, and I could hear the announcement that the musicians would have to stop for the night. The summer music series was finished. Over the next hour the sky went completely black and the rain pounded down on Yorktown.

BridgeMy short visit to Yorktown got me thinking a lot about agency. Sometimes during this trip I show up at recommended restaurants only to find them closed. Occasionally I’ll plan to see a national park, only to have the weather turn on me. Sometimes I get lost. Sometimes I make bad estimates. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. And none of it really bothers me, because there is no plan. All of it, in fact, is the plan. When your only travel goal is experience, it becomes almost impossible for things to go truly wrong. And in fact, having things go wrong makes for better storytelling. I haven’t told many people about the times I showed up at a museum and everything was fine, or instances when the food at a restaurant was pretty good. I might mention in passing that the weather was perfect at a particular location, but I’ll go into detail about how I had to pull over on the gulf coast because the rain was so bad.

While conflict is always the key to a good story, I think the reason we don’t normally see the good in such small misfortunes is that we were planning on things to go well. I doubt the people at “Shagging on the Riverwalk” enjoyed getting rained on. I’ve watched many an unhappy vacationer storm off upon seeing a particular attraction is closed. But on this trip I’m not planning nearly as much as I might on a typical vacation. So when the restaurant is closed I think, “Well, I could have looked up the hours before I got here. That was my choice.” And I start to realize that everything is my choice, even when things are without a doubt not my fault. I didn’t want to sit alone and ignored at a rickety table when I went to get dinner. And had I continued to do so I imagine I would have been pretty upset by the time someone noticed me. But because I made the decision to get up and sit at the bar, my evening changed. I wasn’t waiting for someone else to acknowledge me, I was making myself known.

Woman on the Beach

And so it goes. I get worn out from hikes and I eat bad food and sometimes I’m just bored. But I chose all of it. Every minute of my trip feels proactive because I took the initiative to go in the first place. Nothing merely happens to me anymore. I am not regular Katrina going through her everyday life, hoping nothing will go wrong. I am a Katrina full of agency, who sees each misfortune as the wages of chance, paid out in exchange for adventure and a story worth telling.

Scenes from Movies

There is a scene you’ve watched in many movies before. It’s common when your protagonist lives in the real world but his or her character advancement requires a small bit of magic, either real or metaphoric.

If it’s real magic, the scene happens near the beginning of the film, right after we’ve established the protagonist’s day-to-day life and what is wrong with it. The character will accidentally stumble into some dusty old bookshop, or take a wrong turn down an alleyway in the rain. The musical score will change, and the lighting will get darker. A creepy old person will appear, as if from nowhere, and say things to the character that indicate a greater level of personal knowledge than is logical in a stranger. The old person will then do something such as grab tight onto the protagonist’s hand or throw magical dust on her or one of her possessions. She will then leave, confused but seemingly unharmed. The magic charm has been activated, and now the life-changing story begins.

If the magic is metaphorical, the movie is set in the real world and the scene happens near the end of the film. The character has gone through many trials and has reached a low point. She doesn’t know what to do next, or how to solve what seems to be an insurmountable problem. She wanders aimlessly and ends up somewhere common like a park or a bar or small shop of some kind. She meets an ordinary old person who inquires as to what seems to be the problem. The protagonist doesn’t bother with specifics, and sums up her own problem in some short, pithy phrase. The old person takes in this abstract conundrum and offers an equally simple solution whose applicability isn’t entirely clear to the audience, but is a revelation to our hero. The protagonist realizes what she must do and leaves.

I am still trying to figure out which of these scenes happened to me in Asheville.

Athena's ViewI was staying about an hour south of town with some friends of the family and their enthusiastic cat. They have a nice house tucked away in the middle of the woods, the kind where the tap water comes from a well. My first morning in the area I went to visit Biltmore Estate, the grand and beautiful Vanderbilt home. When I visit these big homes I can’t help but imagine what I would do with too much money and a desire to build from scratch. There were so many rooms and so much artwork. I worry sometimes that I would run out of opinions before we reached the second floor. However a giant estate does have certain advantages. During World War II, Vanderbilt offered to store some of the nation’s prized artwork in his home for safekeeping. The art was transported from Washington D.C. in secret in the middle of the night, and few people knew where it was being stored. This includes many of the members of Vanderbilt’s staff. Once a home reaches a certain size, I suppose no one questions why a particular room might be closed off for years at a time.

After Biltmore I drove to downtown Asheville to see what it was like without the spectacle of Bele Chere. I purchased a treat at the local chocolate shop and sat in the park watching a group of school kids run around. Many people in Asheville offered a friendly hello. It was a little strange how many, in fact. I walked past a coffee shop and an attractive young man with Owen Wilson hair was sitting outside, drinking Carrot Apple Celery Lemon Kale Juice and playing a guitar. I leaned against a pole and pretended to play with my phone while surreptitiously trying to write down all the ingredients listed on the drink label.

“What are you doing over there?” he asked me with a smile.

I made up some excuse about writing notes for things I had to do later, and he nodded. “A beautiful day to be outside,” he said, still plucking at the strings of his guitar. I agreed, finished my notes, and bid him farewell. “You have a great day,” he said with absolute sincerity. I smiled back at Asheville.

Staff Picks

I took a peek inside Malaprop’s Bookstore, which is something of an city landmark. When you stand inside and take a deep breath you can almost hear someone whispering into your ear “…support your local bookstore…” Every book on the shelf of “Staff Picks” was by an author I had recently heard interviewed on NPR. Sometimes I wonder if Asheville has actually managed to out-portland Portland, Oregon. It’s like a tiny, liberal, mountain paradise. Like the sign says, “10,000 Lesbians Can’t Be Wrong.”

Pottery StudioI had been told to check out the River Arts District, where artists’ shops are open for the general public to see creation in action. I walked around one of the pottery buildings, looking at the various pieces for sale on the walls and watching a few of the pottery artists at work. No one is there to greet you, and no one is there to stop you. You are free to walk down the halls and through the offices, with only your personal regard for the privacy of others as your guide. It seems that the district is counting on the general honesty of people to ensure nothing is stolen or vandalized, and that seems to be working well for them.

After the pottery shop I went next door to a studio featuring colorful oils on canvas. I did a loop of the gallery area and found a side hall I wasn’t sure I should go down. It led into the room where the art was made. When I walked inside I saw a young woman and an older man, both at work. She was already on her way out by the time I got up the vocal courage to ask if it was okay for me to come inside. He told me of course, and immediately called me over to talk with him.

“How are you?” he asked in a gentle voice.

“How am I?” I responded, a bit stunned by what felt like a rather intimate and caring inquiry.

“How are you. Who are you. Answer either.”

I told him my name and what I was doing in Asheville. He said his name was Jonas and this was his studio.

“And what do you want?” he asked.

“Oh I was just looking around.”

“I mean what do you want. In life. Out of life. What do you want?” He had white hair and a beard, and his face seemed a bit off, a bit lopsided. I considered his question and came up with the best words I could think of.

“I want freedom without losing security.”

He shook his head and took my hand. “There is no such thing,” he said, “Security, it is an illusion.” He told me that the things we chase after that we call security are not needed. “What would you do if it didn’t matter what you did?”

“I would write,” I told him without hesitation.

BrushesHis eyebrows lifted up. “See? You’re already so sure. If you go after that? Security will follow.” He told me that he always wanted to paint, and that’s all he focused on. He has palsy, but he didn’t let that stop him. He didn’t try to build a studio or be very successful, he just tried to paint all the time. “And now look,” he said. He pointed all around the room, to every painting on the wall. They were all his, the entire building was his. The staff was his. I was surrounded by thousands of dollars worth of artwork and it all belonged to this nice old man with a lopsided face who wouldn’t let go of my hand.

“The Universe will provide,” he said. “I call it the Universe, call it whatever you want … God … whatever. If you do what you are supposed to do, the Universe will provide.”

He pulled his hand around and pushed hard into my upper back. “You’re too young for this,” he said, indicating my constant slouch. He told me to stop crossing my arms, as it crosses the heart. We don’t need to block the heart.

“Remember that you don’t have a soul,” Jonas said. “You are a soul, covered in a body.” I smiled at him and he stared at me unflinching. “You have wonderful eyes,” he told me.

“I get that a lot,” I said.

Paint JarsI thanked him for taking the time to talk with me, and asked if I could take a few pictures of his paints. They looked so lovely lined up next to each other and splattered with color. He nodded and began to walk me over to the paints. He held out his hand, indicating that I should give him the camera. He began taking pictures of everything. The paints, the brushes, the walls. Then he looked at me.

“You have beautiful eyes,” he said again. “Eyes are the windows to the soul, you’ve heard that phrase?”

“Yes, I have.”

He put his hands onto my shoulders and began positioning me in front of a canvas. “Here,” he said, “just stand here and look at me.” I looked up with a smile.

“Let go,” he said. I stared at him. He meant it.

“Okay,” I told him, “Just, gimmie a minute.” I took a deep breath. I stared at the camera.

“Alright,” I said.

He took a picture and paused.

“Did you get it?” I asked him.

“I think so,” he said.

Me and JonasJonas asked one of his employees to take a picture of us together, and then he walked with me out to the front of the shop. I told him I had to go, I was late to meet my friends for dinner. He wished me well, and told me to remember what he had said. I wished I could have recorded the entire conversation.

On my way to dinner I tried to figure out which magical movie scene this was. Was my day in Asheville an example of my normal life that, with a bit of magic, is all about to change? Or is this whole trip my journey, and I am now on the way towards a magnificent revelation?

Time has past since that day in Asheville, and I’m no closer to an answer. I suppose because the real world doesn’t operate on movie time. People don’t often have experiences and then wake up the next day completely changed. Even when they’re on grand adventures. Your story doesn’t take place over a few weeks or months like it does in the movies. Your life is your movie, and there’s no way to know if you are at the beginning or nearing the end. There’s no way to know if the magic you experience is real or metaphoric. The best thing you can do is look straight into the camera, and let go.

Let Go

Made In and Outside of Carolina

I’m beginning to forget.

Close followers of this blog and those who are good with math will know that I am no longer on the road. I got back home about a week ago, but there is still a lot of journey left to write about. I write a post for nearly every day of the trip, but I only update three times a week. So with each post, the things I’m writing about drift further and further into the past. Details begin to slip away and the words are harder to muster. I wonder sometimes if I’m writing a memory or an invention. Was her hair brown or red? Was that how he acted or am I confusing him with the guy I met two days later? Did I visit the museum before or after lunch?

ChurchI have notes of course. But while traveling, the notes were just one more thing I had to write. So when time was short and days felt long, I would only jot down what I mistakenly thought would be enough to recall an event. Today I’m trying to write about Charleston, South Carolina. I have a note that reads, “St John the Baptist Church where the organ is playing and it’s just me and the man wiping the windows. Even he stops to listen.” I remember this, but not well enough. I went to visit the church, and I remember it was empty. I took a photo so I also know it was dark. That makes me imagine the air was cool. I don’t remember where the organ was, but I think it must have been up near the front, because I think I remember an old woman turning pages. She was practicing, probably for the Sunday service. I have the date in my notes so I know it was a Friday, and it must have been around 1PM or so because it was after I toured the old urban plantation home. There was a man with a cleaning cart. At least I think he had a cart. I know he had a rag. He was washing the inside of the stained glass windows, and I sat in a pew to listen to the organ. I could tell that I had happened upon something slightly special and unusual, but I can’t tell you what made me think that. It must have been series of details I can’t remember. After I had been listening for awhile, the old man stopped and turned towards the organ, and he listened, too. It was a lovely moment. I know it was. I can remember that much, even if I can only see it through a sort of haze. I don’t remember how it ended. Maybe she got to the end of a song and he turned back to the windows. Maybe she began collecting her papers to leave. I’m not sure, and the more I try to remember the more I realize that the act of remembering is in fact the creation of the memory itself. The more I try to picture the old man turning back around at the end of a song, the more it seems like it must have happened that way. And I can’t see truth from fiction.

I didn’t know anyone in Charleston, and after a few hours I realized that I had exhausted all the items on my TripAdvisor list. I was planning to stay two nights in the city, but I clearly only needed one. I decided I would get a motel room just outside of town and start on the road towards Asheville the next morning. But on my way to the motel there was one more stop – Magnolia Cemetery.

BridgeI really like cemeteries. At this point the only things convincing me to be buried rather than cremated are my love of cemeteries and a slight fear of being accidentally burned alive. It’s odd that the thought of being buried alive doesn’t seem to bother me, but that’s not really what I was focusing on while in Magnolia. It’s a gorgeous cemetery. There are ponds with little bridges over them and so many fantastic monuments. I love seeing old headstones in mid-decay. It reminds me of the ways in which we all can have a lasting effect on the world, and how both the markings of that effect, and the indicators of its source, vanish over time. It’s like a centuries old game of telephone. With each passing day the message gets a little fuzzy and a little lost. But the message is there. And no matter how distorted it is by the end, at least you started something.

Confederate SoldierThe South is, unsurprisingly, big on memorials to confederate soldiers. In Magnolia there was a field of military grave markers, the kind that all look alike and appeal to my orderly aesthetic. There were cannons, flags, and a tall statue of a proud but bedraggled soldier. I was taking pictures when a pair of hispanic men drove up in a car. They each walked over to a flagpole and began to hoist the flags down. It was uncomfortable. I think there is an artificial sense of reverence we get from watching flag ceremonies on TV, and while I don’t mean to say that these men treated the flags poorly, they had a casual demeanor that was off-putting. They were just the groundskeepers, after all. This was just part of their job. One of the men tossed the American flag over his shoulder and moved to the next flagpole. I suddenly felt strange for trying to take well-composed photos of headstones. Maybe I was the one being disrespectful.

Hunley CrewI drove and walked for some time. There were grave markers for babies, which always puts a lump in the throat. My photos tell me I saw the crew of the H.L. Hunley, who died after completing the first successful act of submarine warfare. My memory says that I turned around and saw a beautiful view of the suspension bridge over the Cooper River, but that may not be right. Perhaps it was the gravestones a little ways down the path that could see the bridge. I’d have to go back to Magnolia know for sure, assuming I could find the spot at all.

FountainAnd perhaps that’s the lesson. Memory is imperfect and it will ultimately fail you. Return trips allow for course corrections in those memories, but some experiences will fade away permanently. Occasionally on my trip I felt inspired to write about something the moment after it happened. Those stories will be full of rich and accurate details. Others were lazy days marking off items on a list, and those memories are likely to disappear over time. If I try to write them, I am likely to invent them. I’ve been asking myself a lot lately what kind of writer I should try to be. I could write blogs. I could write plays. I could write short stories or novels. But whatever I write I can’t help but combine my own experiences with the world as I imagine it once was. A little memory mixed with a bit of invention. In the end, I imagine that no matter the form, I can and will always write the same thing:

Historical Fiction.

They Tell Me Savannah is Beautiful

No one is excited to hear you’re going to Kansas City. No one is jealous that you’ll be in Tallahassee. No one cares that you went to Lubbock. But people will tell you that Savannah is beautiful.

Park StatueI originally tried to find a couchsurfing host for my two nights in the city, but none of the hosts I talked to were available, so I opted for a nice campsite in a state park just south of the city. I set up my site and had a reasonably okay dinner followed by a mostly good night’s sleep, which is almost always the case when I camp. The next morning I got up early and drove into the city. Without a real human guide I was left to the recommendations Trip Advisor could give me, and Forsyth Park seemed to be a real crowd pleaser. I walked in the slightly cooler morning air among the walkers and joggers. Nothing makes you feel like less of a tourist than being up early in a city park. It was the end of July, which meant the perfect temperature of the day peaked at around 9:30AM. Anything after that was likely to feel a bit suffocating, as tends to be the case in humid climates.

Opening the ArkTwo blocks north of the park is Monterey Square, where I lucked into a tour of the Congregation Mickve Isreal, a fantastic and very old synagogue. My tour guide was a hunched, balding, old man who at first seemed mainly in charge of asking us where we were all from and turning on the audio recording that explained the building and its history. The tour seemed very concerned about dispelling myths. No, those seats up there were never used for women’s seating, that’s just the choir loft. No, this building didn’t used to be a Catholic church despite it’s shape, that was just the architectural style at the time. After the recording the guide took us up to the main altar space, where he opened the ark to reveal the beautiful silver pieces inside. He told us that upstairs in the museum they have terrific relics, including some very old copies of the Torah. I went upstairs with the others to the museum to look at the artifacts. I was hit by the extent to which the trappings of Judaism are wholly unfamiliar to me. Because the museum is designed for mostly Jewish patronage, many things are labeled with their age and original owner, but not what they are. I kept pointing to the cases and asking our guide what the objects were and how they were used. It’s a nice reminder that all traditions seem strange to an outsider. Consider the Christmas Stocking.

It was getting near lunchtime. One of the few things I had on my list for the state of Georgia was the phrase “Miss Wilkes in Savannah – all you can eat, they seat you with strangers.” I never keep track of who gives me recommendations, only what they recommend, so I have no idea who told me about Miss Wilkes. I do know that when I turned the corner towards the restaurant the line reached to the end of the block. One of the truisms I have developed on this trip is this: If there’s a line out the door, get in it. Unfortunately this was one of the few times when I had plans. One of the couchsurfing hosts I had contacted said he’d love to get together and show me some of the city, and I was supposed to meet him at a nearby coffee shop in just over an hour. I barely had time to eat, and I certainly didn’t have time for a long wait. I went instead to the expensive but adorable Olde Pink House. The restaurant is housed inside an 18th century mansion that is older than the country it resides in. My food was delicious and I found a certain relaxed enjoyment watching the fans spin above the bar. So long as there’s a fan going, the weather in Savannah is fine.

I finished up my lunch and lucked into a three hour parking spot just a block away from the coffee shop where I was supposed to meet CJ, the man from couchsurfing. As I opened the door I saw another man trying to leave the shop. He was dressed in bike clothes and was carrying an appetizing ice cold beverage. I held the door open as he passed and we nodded at each other. I walked inside looking for someone who resembled CJ’s profile picture. I took a look around the shop but couldn’t recognize the telltale expression of expectation I’m used to seeing on the faces of couchsurfers. From behind me I heard a voice.

“Katrina?” said the man in the bike clothes.

CJ and I shook hands and sat down at a table outside the shop. We were joined by Thor, a fellow traveler visiting from Denmark. We chatted for awhile. Thor told us about his plans on the east coast. I talked a bit about where I’d been thus far. CJ told us about the novel he’d recently had published, which had, “good characters, good mystery, and some good porn.” I took his card and he took mine.

CJ drives a pedicab, one of those bicycle-drawn two-seat rickshaws you often see near tourist-friendly downtown areas. He offered to give Thor and I a tour of the city and we hopped in the back. CJ told us about the genius of the Savannah city planners, and how they’d planned for a public square every few blocks. He drove us from one square to the next, pointing out how each one is just a bit different from the last. CJ is in love with the architecture in Savannah. He says there’s no where in the world where you can see so many different styles of architecture in one place, and certainly no where that they would all seem to fit together so well. No single house stands out as strange, even if it was built in a style 200 years older than the house next door. I think it’s the Spanish Moss that does it. It gives a common drape to the whole city, like putting coordinating curtains in every room of an otherwise mismatched house.

The Beat Goes OnCJ asked us if we had ever read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We had not. I told him I’d heard of it, and he pointed to a house just off of the square. “That’s the house the murder takes place in,” he told us. He circled around some more and pointed to a theater. The marquee read “The Beat Goes On,” indicating the 1960s-themed song and dance show currently playing. CJ gave a dispirited sigh. “Used to be a great place. Now this is all they do there.” He turned back to me as he had been doing for most of the ride.

“You did theater, right?”

I nodded.

“You probably can’t believe this, but we don’t have a theater company in the city of Savannah. Not one.” He shakes his head.

Gump ChurchWe turned another corner and he pointed to a church steeple. CJ asked us if we’d seen Forrest Gump. We had. “That’s the steeple in the first shot of the movie,” he said. “The feather started up there, floated around in the sky,” we followed his figure as it traced the feather’s path down towards the square, “and landed right there on the ground. There was no signature bench in the spot, and I asked CJ if there used to be. He shook his head. “Movie magic,” he said. “What’s more, if you remember in the movie the bus came from the right side of the shot, but this is a one way street in the other direction.” He pointed to the traffic signs. “But they had to have the bus entrance be right next to the bench, so they drove the bus down the wrong way.”

He showed us a duplex split down the middle with opposing paint colors and told the story of an old family feud. He pointed to an iron gate and told us to check out the fantastic map shop in the basement. He pointed to his own house and explained that he’s never had an air conditioner. “Ceiling fans and cold showers, that’s all I need.” He does, however, have a fireplace. Thor couldn’t believe you could ever want or need a fireplace in a place this hot. But CJ says he loves it. “In the winter it’s just enough to take the chill off.”

As we drove past a few homes in slight disrepair CJ explained that there are many people in Savannah that over the years have come into possession of old houses and “can’t be bothered” to do anything with them. So they sit vacant or end up with long-term house sitters. He says it’s nice that they don’t tear down the old places, but he thinks it’s a shame to have such beautiful properties sitting around, only getting the most basic level of care.

100_0009CJ dropped Thor and I off in what he described as the touristy section of town, the kind with t-shirts and fudge. We thanked him for the excellent ride and he parked his cab next to the other pedicabs to wait for paying customers. I walked around the block, checking out the shops, and trying to figure out my plans for the day. It would only be a fifteen minute walk back to my car, but my parking was paid until 5PM. I circled around again and found CJ still waiting. He asked how I liked the City Market area and I told him it’s exactly as he explained it – touristy. He laughed and told me that I was very different than he expected. I asked what he meant, and he said that from my profile on couchsurfing.org I seemed much more intense and focused, not so inclined to go with the flow or change my plans on a whim. I asked if there was anything specific that gave him that impression, and when pressed he realized it was mostly the photo. My profile photo on Couchsurfing is me proudly standing on top of Arthur’s Seat in Scotland, a huge hill in Edinburgh where the wind and the landscape make all your photos look like they belong in some middle-earth epic. I thought the misunderstanding was pretty funny, though I could tell that this was probably the reason he was “unavailable” to host me. He thought I would be too determined and exacting.

I told him I was in the mood for some ice cream and CJ said he knew just the place. He told me it didn’t look like much but it was the place to go. I walked into Ice Cream Ectetera and ordered my cone. I figured the whole thing would melt if I stepped outside, so I took a seat at the only open table. As I sat there I saw several firefighters come inside to order, as well as employees of the nearby restaurants. CJ was right, this was the place to be.

I took a leisurely stroll over to the map shop CJ had told me about, and lost an hour rifling through drawer after drawer of 100-year-old maps and pictures. The shop was the converted first floor of an old building. Huge wooden furniture pieces crowd in on you from all sides. It’s the kind of place you want to get lost in. I opened a few drawers to find drawings of exotic birds from the 1890s and maps of the city of Manchester from 1913. I looked at my watch and found that it was already after 5PM. I knew I had to put money in the meter, but I still hadn’t found the perfect map souvenir to take home.

“What time do you close?” I asked the large old man who sat near the front of the shop.

“We’re closed now,” he said. His smile and quiet apologetic tone explained why he hadn’t asked me to leave already.

I thanked him, and he led me out the side door where he began to unlock the iron front gate where he lets all patrons in and out of the shop. It seemed a bit inconvenient that he had to come open the gate for every customer.

“We have dogs,” he explained.

Jones StAs I begin the walk back to my car I feel a few fat drops of rain. The sky is starting to turn and I pick up the pace. By the time I get to the square where I parked, I am running because the rain is just about to turn from annoying to appalling. I slam the door of my car and wipe a few drops from my face. The downpour begins. CJ had mentioned that I should take a look at the gorgeous houses on Jones street, which he claimed were the inspiration for the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses.” This is patently false, but it’s a good story and the houses are gorgeous. I thought perhaps the rain would let up a bit and I might get to walk along Jones Street for a bit, but the reprieve never came. I looked up local coffee shops and found one just south of the park. I parked my car, ran inside, and settled in to some quality writing time with a large chai latte. Right around the time I had switched from writing to editing a man began to move the furniture around in front of me. “Are you staying for the movie?” he asked. I told him I didn’t know there was one, and a second man picked up the nearby ottoman and added, “It’s not really a movie.” The first man seemed a little taken aback by the sudden denial, but had to admit, “It’s just a few Ted Talks, really,” he said, “and then we’ll have a short discussion.”

I told the men it sounded great and asked if I should move. They told me not yet, and began puttering around with a projector. I watched them dart about the room, closing curtains and pushing tables, and eventually I picked up my things and moved to the back. I ordered some dinner and the presentation began. Apparently the theme of the evening was urban gardening. We watched two Ted presentations on ways that others have incorporated urban gardening into their cities, and afterwards everyone began speculating on how such ideas could or could not work in Savannah. I was in the heart of the South yet I felt like I had magically stepped into a scene from Portlandia. I had no idea how popular and widespread urban gardening really was.

I finished up my dinner and ducked out while they were arguing about how the city won’t let citizens collect rainwater. I saw that I had missed a call from CJ, and he’d left a voicemail. He told me he’d hate to have me camping in the rain, and offered his home for the night. I figured I’d have to go pick up my tent either way and drove back down to Skidaway Island State Park. The rain had finally stopped, and I nervously opened my tent. It was clear that the park had been drenched just like the city, and I feared my sleeping bag would be sitting in a puddle. I stuck my hand in – it was completely dry. My little two person tent had passed the test and survived the downpour. It was getting late. I could see that though it was dry on the inside, I would need to do some serious cleaning of the outside of my tent before putting it in my car. I called CJ to thank him for the offer, but that my tent was holding up fine and I’d already paid for the second night anyway. He said to let him know if anything changed, and I began to get ready for bed.

CemeteryThe next morning I washed my whole tent off in the camp utility sink and began heading down the road. In the car I listened to one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. It also happens to be a band my dad plays in. The song is called “Savannah,” and even though the song seems to be about a woman, the sentiment and mood is perfect for anyone leaving the city. I knew I wanted to recommend Savannah to my parents as they are starting their retirement travels. I figured I’d tell them to put on their walking shoes, park the car somewhere near Forsyth, and just waste the day away walking from square to square. Savannah seems like the perfect place to end up at some point in one’s life. Perhaps one day when my relationship falls apart and my job becomes a bore I can get rid of all my things and head back towards Savannah. I could get a longterm housesitting gig in some beautiful old mansion that no one seems to care enough about. I could walk through the park in the mornings before it gets hot. I could learn to draw by sketching the Spanish moss. And I could spend my lazy Sunday afternoons nestled in a basement shop corner, rifling through old maps of the state of Georgia.

Savannah really is beautiful. Even in the rain.

Adventures in the Old City with Kate and Katrina

I met Rob and Kate at their home after a particularly rainy drive from Tallahassee into Jacksonville. They had their laptop computers set up on their large dinning room table, and Rob was trying to finish up some work for the next day. Kate gave me the grand tour, which included a completely screened-in backyard with swimming pool. They have a pet bird they keep in a cage on the back porch, and the screened area allows them to set him free to roam around the yard every once in a while. She explained that while the screen does a great job of keeping bad bugs out, it also makes it hard to attract good bugs to help nurture their large garden and plant collection.

Kate’s adventures with butterflies constitute their own arthropodal soap opera.

At one point she managed to capture a monarch butterfly, which lived happily in their fully enclosed backyard for some time. After many months, the butterfly miraculously gave birth to several small caterpillar babies, mystifying Kate as it was the closest she’d ever come to a virgin conception. She knew the new flock wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves with the backyard plants alone, and took it upon herself to move the young-ins to the front yard where they could eat, grow, and eventually fly to nearby plants and feast as they pleased. The caterpillars were all dead within days, and Kate couldn’t figure out why. She had placed them on her newly purchased milkweed plants, which are normally the monarch caterpillar’s favorite snack. To her horror she found out that the nursery sprayed it’s plants with pesticides, and the milkweed she bought was in fact poisonous to the little creatures. She has since bought new, unsprayed milkweed and hopes to get another shot some day.

JacksonvilleRob was planning to attend an Innovator’s Roundtable the evening I arrived, and he asked if I would like to come along. The three of us went to a local brewery where we were met with drinks, a small selection of hors d’oeuvres, and the encouragement to go outside to the convenient food trucks if we needed something more substantial. “Food trucks are big here,” Kate explained. We all received color-coded name tags and instructions to find our matching table. Once you found your group you would listen to the presenter assigned to your table. After the first round the presenters would stay where they were and the table group would slowly move from one presenter to the next. I learned about Rethreaded, an organization that helps women recovering from human trafficking by way of up-cycled t-shirt products. I talked to the organizer of OneSpark, which crowdsources funding for new projects by way of a weekend festival. Not to mention the restaurant that picks a new location for every event and accepts payment without telling people where they’ll be eating, and the chef who is filtering all of his water, including toilet water, just to see what effect it will have on the internal plumbing of his building. Plus the chips and salsa were pretty good.

The next morning Rob had to leave early for a work event a few hours south. Kate and I had a leisurely breakfast and chatted about our lives and our travels. Rob is Kate’s second husband, with her kids belonging to the first. She told me about the time she got mugged in Edinburgh and her days hitchhiking in her 20s. She said she had the whole day free and offered to tour me around. “There’s not much to see in Jacksonville,” she told me, “but we can go down to St. Augustine and you can try some gator tail.”

Treaty OakKate drove me around Jacksonville first, taking time to get out of the car at the Friendship Fountain and at Treaty Oak. The Oak is a tree straight out of Tolkien, with branches so heavy they sink to the grass and start to grow up again from the floor. I took a lot of pictures but none of them seemed to capture it. It’s called the Treaty Oak because some years back there was a threat to tear it down. An industrious reporter fabricated a tale about the natives and the white settlers signing a treaty under its many branches. There is no reason to believe this actually happened, but the tree was saved and the name stuck.

CoquinaThe drive to St. Augustine took about an hour, and we parked the car at the visitor’s center. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States, founded in 1565 by the Spanish. It served as the region’s capitol for centuries, but is now primarily seen by tourists. We walked down the main pedestrian drag and Kate pointed out the unique construction of the building walls. The oldest structures are built using coquina, a rock formed by compressed seashells. As a rock it is comparatively soft when being quarried, but hardens when it’s left to dry for a year or more. While many of the buildings in St. Augustine now hold jewelry stores and t-shirt shops, they are surrounded by walls dating back hundreds of years.

Kate took me to the Florida Cracker Cafe for some gator tail, which is best described as a plate of chewy chicken nuggets. We wandered into the local Catholic Church and tried to guess which of the statues were supposed to be St. Augustine. As we left the church a few rain drops fell on our skin. Kate looked at the sky and said we needed to duck in somewhere quick. We were at the entrance to the main hall of Flagler College, a building originally intended to be a high-class hotel for the very rich. Apparently they weren’t able to get the sulfur taste out of the water, and the very rich never came. It was turned into a college in 1968, but the Ponce de Leon Hall constructed for the old hotel is still as beautiful as ever. As we were admiring the ceiling work a tour of potential students came through. Kate asked one of the mothers if we could join, and the mother said that she didn’t see why not. We took her acceptance as permission, despite her lack of authority.

Dining HallIn the dining hall, which is normally off-limits to tourists, we learned about the meal plan. Upstairs past the “No Visitors Beyond This Point” sign we got to see a few of the female dorm rooms. Kate asked more questions than any other parent, “Are students allowed to hang things on the walls?” “Do you fire pottery in that art building stove or is it just leftover from the old hotel?” I was worried we’d be found out as frauds, and devised a brilliant story about dropping out of UW three years ago, visiting my Aunt Kate on vacation for a week, and being dragged along to the local college in hopes that I will decide to finish my degree in Florida. Of course, no one ever asked. Our guide took us through some classrooms and into the arts hall before Kate and I snuck away from the Flagler College tour. We saw a beautiful Presbyterian church around the corner and we thought we might be able to look inside.

Presbyterian ChurchAfter determining that the church was both the final resting place of Mr. Flagler himself, and closed after 3PM on weekdays, we headed back to the Visitor’s Center. Kate had us pick up the pace when she spotted some menacing clouds on the way. We had just made it to the gift shop when the downpour began, and it ended just in time for us to walk over to the parking garage. Kate drove us past the very unassuming old French fort, and over the river to the pier. We were speculating about the long term benefits of buying expensive yachts when her daughter Brianna called. Brianna had just gotten off work, and Kate invited her to eat with us at The Conch House down in St. Augustine.

The Conch HouseBrianna was about a half hour away, so Kate and I wandered around the restaurant for a while. The Conch House is something of a spectacle on it’s own. Outside are several tables up on pillars, covered with tiki-style thatched roofs. Inside a spiral staircase takes you to the second dinning level, followed by an observation room were you can look out onto the water. We spotted the Roseate Spoonbill, a bird straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It was rapidly skimming the shoreline looking for it’s evening meal, and the kids in the observation area kept calling it a flamingo. In their defense, that’s what we called it at first, too.

I hadn’t met Brianna yet, but the descriptions and stories I’d heard made me think I’d like her. Mostly because she sounded exactly like me. She did drama in high school, started a large shot glass collection at a young age, and painted and decorated her bedroom in a theme (hers was theater, mine was space & sky). She traveled a lot, left her room as a tiny shrine while she was away in college, and came back at her mother’s request to clear it out. By the time Brianna arrived we had already ordered drinks. As she sat down she looked at the beverage in front of her and asked her mom, “What did you get me?”

“Root beer,” said Kate.

Brianna’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of root beer?” Kate shrugged. Brianna gave it a sip, then nodded her head in reserved approval.

I have found Florida Katrina.

The three of us ate dinner, and Kate told stories of her youth and Brianna’s father. Many years ago Kate and her friends were planning to hitchhike from Austin to California. A few days before they intended to leave they ran into the man who would be Brianna’s father. He was planning to drive to California in his car, and Kate asked if he could take the three of them as well. By the end of the trip the two were an item. This was a story Brianna had heard many times before, but she recently came into a bit of information that she couldn’t believe her mother had left out. This chance encounter with a man who happened to be driving to California took place in Hippie Hollow Park. A nude beach.

“So you were naked,”  Brianna said with a smirk.

“Look, my friend had been talking with him and said he was driving to California,” Kate began to explain.

“…and you were naked…” Brianna added, trying to embarrass her mother.

“…so I walked over to him…”

“…and you were naked…”

“…and I asked if we could tag along.”

“And you were naked.” Brianna concluded once again.

“Look,” Kate began with a sly smile,” All I can say is I met your father, he looked at me, and he knew what he was getting.”

Kate shot me a big smile and Brianna threw her napkin on the table in disgusted embarrassment. “I’m going to the bathroom,” Brianna declared. Once she was out of earshot Kate leaned toward me and said, “I would have said, ‘He looked at me and he knew what he was getting into‘ but I’m not sure she would have been able to handle it!” Kate and I let out a roar of laughter. We did our best to keep it together when Brianna returned from the bathroom.

As we were finishing up dinner, Rob called to let us know that he and his coworker were on their way home. Kate suggested that we could order something for him to-go and he could get dropped off at The Conch House. He agreed, and after a bit too long the waitress came out with his dinner and three travel sodas. We found a small gazebo outside overlooking the adjacent hotel pool and continued chatting in the warm night air. Brianna was tired and anxious to get home, and ended up leaving right after Rob arrived. Rob, Kate, and I stayed a while longer to allow him time to eat a bit of his dinner, but eventually we all opted to head home. The wind was picking up.

Couchsurfing has allowed me to meet many complete strangers. In everyday life when you meet a new person, you can use the reason for your meeting as a way to get to know them. “So how do you know Sandy and Trevor?” or “How long have you been working for the Park Service?” or “Excuse me, I think you dropped this.” All are acceptable ways into conversation with complete strangers. But in Couchsurfing, your interaction tends to speed right past small talk into deep discussion. I think it must be the inherent intimacy of being near someone else while they sleep. For the short time that I spent with Kate, I feel like I got to know a lot about her, her history, and how she lives her life. Even my dinner with Brianna was insightful. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that we all like to talk about ourselves, and lately I’ve been answering the same questions over and over again, so talking about myself has lost some of its appeal. I suppose that has had the unintended side effect of making me a more enthusiastic listener.

Sea Turtle NestIf I were to take one thing away from my time with Kate, it would be that fear does not have to be based in experience. Kate had all of her money, her I.D. and her train pass stolen as a young woman traveling in Scotland. In New Mexico her and her friends nearly found themselves abandoned in the desert with the threat of sexual assault (if not worse) hanging in the air from some truckers they’d encountered. Kate has certainly seen her fair share of danger. But hopping in a car with a stranger is also how she found her first husband, and how she ended up with her wonderful children. And now, at the beginning of her retirement years, she’s still taking in couch surfers and foreign exchange students on a regular basis. I grew up learning about Stranger Danger, but Kate has lived it. And she hasn’t let it change her life. Her home is still open for the young European scholar, the wayward traveler, and the occasional Monarch butterfly.

Several Unrelated Things that Happened in Tallahassee

Two CapitolsMake no mistake, the Florida state capitol building in Tallahassee is hideous. It is a tall, rectangular, austere, Soviet monstrosity. It towers over the city and was built in the late 1970s, a time when a lot of mistakes were made. The historic capitol directly in front of it, however, is quite lovely. It was built in the mid-1800s and has that quintessential Jeffersonian dome in the middle. These days the old capitol is a museum, which I managed to duck into a half hour before closing. Both the senate and house chambers were being repainted, but I could still look inside to see the adorable old rooms. I checked out the various museum exhibits, including a collection of old political cartoons that marked the various debates that have come up in the state’s political history. I wandered through the old governor’s office and watched a video message from the current governor, Rick Scott.

Governor Scott was having a bit of trouble next door, as my visit came about a week after the Martin/Zimmerman verdict. Several police officers were coming out of the back entrance to the current capitol building as I walked past. Inside a group of young people had set up shop in front of the governor’s office, demanding that he hold a special session of the state congress to re-examine the Stand Your Ground law in Florida. The building was closed for the weekend, and the protestors were expected to remain there without air conditioning until it re-opened on Monday morning. Unable to get in until Monday, I took a few pictures of the building’s exterior, trying to find its good side. It doesn’t have one.

It started to rain and I rushed back to my car to meet my host Currie and her mother at a local Mexican restaurant. The three of us were going out for dinner and a movie. We saw The Great Gatsby, and Currie and I agreed that either too much or not enough seemed to happen in the film.

Be JoyfulWe went back to Currie’s house, which is unbelievably adorable. The walls are all brightly painted, the curtains and upholstery covers are handmade patchworks of Currie’s own creation. There is art on every wall and an old stained glass piece in front of every window. Sometimes words and phrases are written directly onto the wall, including my personal favorite in the living room: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

GatorCurrie helped me plan out some of my activities for the next day, and invited me to come with her to church in the morning. After the service, I headed over to St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of seeing an alligator. I was, after all, in Florida. I pulled over several times to scan the water, but always came up short. At one point I parked my car next to a couple of locals out fishing, and on my way back from yet another fruitless search one of them called out, “There’s a little gator over here if you want to take a picture.” Apparently I had been wearing my intentions on my sleeve. I walked over to where the woman was pointing and sure enough, there was a tiny alligator, not much more than a baby. I took a picture and thanked her.

The nearby Riverside Cafe had been recommended to me, and Currie told me to get the smoked mullet if it was available. While pulling a filet of smoked fish directly off the bone is not normally my cup of tea, the fish was pretty good. After lunch I headed up to Wakulla Springs, which is one of the many places in Florida that can lay claim to a “Fountain of Youth” connection. Despite the warm temperature, the spring water is always a bit chilly. That doesn’t stop hundreds of visitors from flocking to it every year.

Jumping into the SpringsSweaty from the heat, I decided to throw on my swimsuit and join in. Wakulla is well-developed, with parking, bath houses, food, and a lodge. There’s a floating dock for swimmers to rest on, and a two-story tower structure for jumping. Local minerals give the water a brown hue, which creates the sensation of swimming in over-steeped tea. I swam out to the dock, and sat there with the other swimmers to warm up again. I imagined conquistadors pushing their way through hot, muggy, swampy forests, only to have the trees open up to reveal a beautiful lake that had sprung up from the ground. A lake that was cold and dark, but always safe to drink. Wakulla Springs didn’t need to be the Fountain of Youth, it would have been fantastic just as it is.

Back home Currie showed me an article in the newspaper advertising a poetry reading that evening. She thought might interest me as a writer. I decided to go, but got a bit wrapped up in writing and suddenly found myself running late and rushing to the coffee shop. When I arrived the place was about half full, and there was no indication of a performance taking place. I went up to the counter to ask, and the barista said, “Yeah, they’re doing that sometime tonight.” He pointed to the next room to indicate where it would be, and I ordered a drink. As I was paying a group of about six or seven people my parents’ age walked in and began rearranging chairs and throwing their coats over them. I asked if they were using all the chairs at the table (since it seemed there were none left), and one of the men said with a smile, “Go ahead and sit wherever, we’ll figure it out.”

As everyone settled in with their drinks, I learned that there was considerable miscommunication about the time of the event, but that the featured poet would be arriving soon. The baby boomers were all friends with each other as well as with the poet herself, and most were part of the local writing and theater scene. I told them about my trip and my writing, and one man handed me a business card saying, “Let me know if you’re ever interested in producing one of your plays in our area.”

The poet arrived and gave her reading. The space was small and cramped, and she had to read with audience members pushing in on all sides, including behind her. While her poetry was good, she was clearly a bit uncomfortable performing it and tended to make jokes about her work and herself as a way to make things seems more casual. She was reading partially out of her published book of poems, and at one point asked the audience to call out page numbers at random to decide what she’d read next. After it was decided that enough time had passed, she gave her bow and we applauded. As I was getting up to leave, one of the men I had been chatting with earlier came over to me.

Candy

“I live just down the street,” he told me. “This group of us, we’re all old friends, and every Sunday we gather at my house to watch Masterpiece Theater. Would you like to join us?”

The cafe is situated right next to a lake, and we walked a few blocks on the shore to the man’s house. It’s a big, beautiful place with dinosaur stained glass in the windows. There were bowls of candy all over the coffee table in front of the TV, and I was given a plate to load up on the food leftover from the evening’s potluck. The poet eventually joined us, and fixed herself a plate as well. I called Currie to let her know I’d be a bit late, and she laughed as she told me she wasn’t surprised I had managed to make some new friends. I found a good spot in front of the TV, and the seven of us watched a delightful evening of intriguing British mystery.

The next day I said goodbye to my wonderful host and headed back towards the center of town. I’d been told that the view from the giant, ugly capitol building is quite nice, and I was intrigued at the prospect of seeing the protestors after they had been held up in the building all weekend. I went inside the new capitol and was greeted by a polite gentleman with a pamphlet map of the facility. He pointed out some of the highlights, and I made note of where the governor’s office was. I assumed I would see some protestors walking around, but I couldn’t pick out any from the handful of people passing by. I did, however, see an awful lot of police officers. I walked over to the section of the building that held the governor’s office. There were several more cops, including a pair standing on either side of the lobby entrance to the office. These two seemed more serious and intimidating than the others. I walked up slowly, pretending to be interested in the photos of past governors that lined the hallway. When I got close to the lobby I hesitated, and one of the officers gave a huge, friendly smile. “You’re welcome to go in,” he told me. I thanked him and went in the lobby. No one was there. I walked back out.  I wandered around for a bit, checked out the observation deck, and even slipped into the interfaith chapel for a moment. Before leaving I made one last pass near the governor’s office, this time seeing five or so young people sitting on the lobby couches. A friendly-looking woman was standing nearby. She looked to be in her early twenties, and was looking at me as I looked at the protestors. She was one of the organizers of the protest for the group Dream Defenders, and we struck up a conversation. She told me about their protest and the interaction they had with the governor the previous Friday.

“We asked for a special session to reconsider Stand Your Ground,” she told me. “He said he wouldn’t do it, but that he’d pray for us.” She shot me a sarcastic smile.

I asked where everyone was, and she said most had gone off to shower and eat breakfast. They planned to return later that day and stay until the governor listened. I wished her luck and was on my way.

Capitol with DolphinsAbout a month later, the Dream Defenders ended their protest. They planned to move their efforts towards individual lawmakers and registering young voters. Before I left Tallahassee I talked to my host Currie about the protest and she shook her head. “The problem is that everyone in the state legislature likes the law. We need to get rid of them first.” Perhaps she’s right, and that seems to be the conclusion the Defenders have come to. When I think back on Tallahassee, one moment comes to mind more than anything else. While I was touring the historic capitol I sat down to watch a short intro video about the history of government in Florida. Near the end, as the film began to cover modern day changes, the narrator proudly claimed, “Florida has won awards for good government.” There was no expanding on the statement, just a single sentence implying that at one time someone, somewhere, felt that the State of Florida was doing something well. I wonder who it could have been.