Casa Del Maya B&B

Monday, October 26, 2015

What A Drag

                Both my brothers loved car racing when they were in their teens and early twenties.  Our grandfather owned a professional race car and I guess that’s why so many in our family love the sport.  But my brothers Bill and Terry not only were early spectators, they eventually got into the game.  And God help anyone or anything that tried to come in between their beloved auto racing.
  Drag racing is a sport for those without millions of dollars to pour into stock car racing.  Our grandfather’s stock car racing hobby cost him a few dimes, but you can be a part of drag racing for almost nothing.  All you need is a car and the willingness to see it crash into a million pieces.  Bill and Terry had no money, so drag racing was where they started their hobby.

                I don’t remember when drag racing “season” was when I was growing up, but I do know it was warm weather, so it must have been spring and summer.  Almost every Sunday my brothers drove their piece of crap Pontiac to one of the tracks in and around Louisville, and about once a month they would drive an hour and a half, all the way to Lexington.  The cars were better, there, and the winnings were higher. 

After the Pontiac blew an engine, they pooled their money and bought another hot rod.  I don’t remember what that car was, but it didn’t last too long, either.  I think the transmission fell out of the car onto the race track.  They went through several cars this way, until Bill set his sights on his dream car: a ’65 Ford Fairlane.  Ahh, what a car.  At nine years old I knew almost nothing about cars (and wasn’t really interested, truth be known), but I could tell the way Bill treated that car that it was something special…especially to Bill. 

                That car was in mint condition.  It was cherry red, with white sidewall tires, which were all the rage, then.  Bill parked it in our back yard, neatly tucked up against the back of our house, covered with a tarp.  That car was not for the street.  Oh, no.  The ’65 cherry red Ford Fairlane had a 289 bored over 30, 4-speed on the floor, and a chrome gear-shift knob.  Even 9-year-old little brothers knew it was exceptional (well, at least the gear-shift knob).

                Bill owned this car outright.  Terry would still go with him to race it, and with this car they more often than not drove to the racetrack near Lexington.  I loved it when I was able to tag along with my brothers on Sundays because Mom always gave us the money to stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken to get a bucket of chicken to take to the track.  It was her little bribe to Bill and Terry to take me along, and it was her little bribe to me to agree to go along. 

                Little kids were very popular at the drag races.  Young guys who had their own pesky little brothers at home suddenly matured by about 10 years when they were at the track and treated us like we were cool.

                “Hey, man (“man” was “dude”, then), you gonna’ race today?”  Then they’d laugh at their own joke.

                I was pretty backwards, socially, and only stared at them, chomping on a fried chicken leg.

                The first five times Bill raced the cherry red Fairlane, it won.  The car could do no wrong, no matter who drove.  At first Bill was so nervous with the car that he let Terry race.  When he won three times in a row, Bill got behind the wheel and continued the streak.  My unathletic, short, stout brother Bill, who had always suffered from asthma and was a very bookish kid, seemed in his element with that car.  Everyone envied him that car, and he was elevated from being Terry’s brother (my brother Terry was a local football hero), to being pretty cool in his own right.  For a time he even dated an Italian bombshell who lived down our street.  And he owed it all to that car, so he treated it better than I’ve seen him treat anything since.

                The problem with having something everyone envies is that someone else is going to want it, too.  Bill knew this.  Even though we lived in an upper-middle-class, safe neighborhood, he was very cautious with the car.  That’s why he always parked it in the back yard against the house covered with a tarp.

Except one night.

                Returning home Sunday evening after another successful day at the races, Bill decided to park the car in front of our house…on the street.  Now who could have guessed that that same night one of those people who envied Bill his car would try to make it his own?

                At about 6:00 AM the next morning all hell broke loose in our house.  Mom was running to the back of the house to Bill and Terry’s room, screaming, “They’re stealing your car, they’re stealing your car!!!”

                Terry, already in his pajamas, was out the back door in a heartbeat, down the steps, and running towards the car to stop the theft .  Brother Bill was a little slower.

                Clad only in white boxer shorts, Bill jumped out of bed and reached under his bed for the nightstick he kept at the ready for just this occasion.  He then ran for the bedroom door just as Terry was out the door and throwing it closed behind him.  Bill hit the door with his face, fell back, then quickly shook it off.  Someone was stealing his dream car and he was not about to let anything stop him from making sure they weren’t successful.

                Bill ran through the house toward our front door.  Mom was standing there with the door open.  Bill leaped across the threshold, turned right for the stairs, dove down the stairs, landed about halfway down, lost his footing, and tumbled down the rest of the way, smacking his head and breaking his right ankle.  Not realizing he was hurt and still focused on his car, he jumped up, and with his first step knew something was amiss due to the bolt of pain that shot down his leg and foot.  He began hopping on one foot, in his white boxers, nose swelling and red, a trickle of blood running down his face, and with the night stick raised high in the air ready to smash down on the thief.

                By the time he reached the car, which had only moved a few feet, Terry had grabbed the guy out of the car and had him pinned over the left front fender.  Bill managed to get in a couple of hits with the nightstick before Terry said, “I got him.”

                When the police arrived to take the guy away, Bill was still standing in his underwear next to his cherry red Fairlane.  He looked like he could have been the inspiration for “The Walking Dead”.  We didn’t have smartphones with cameras back then, and that’s a real pity because all we have left of this incident is family lore.

                But maybe that’s even better.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Humpty Dumpty

A Facebook post on a page about the city in which I grew up brought back a memory that fairly illustrates growing up with my father in the 60’s and 70’s.  Not a deep thinker nor calming influence, he.

                Throughout the 60’s the Big Boy franchises were very popular.  As soon as teenage boys got hold of their licenses they headed to our local Frisch’s Big Boy.  The glass-front building was trimmed in red.  In the rear was the drive-in area.  You parked your car in the best spot you could, one that would make sure you were seen and also that you could see everything going on.  The best spots were pretty much “owned” by one or two guys; whenever they arrived on the scene, whoever was in “their” spot vacated immediately to make room for the man in charge.  My brother, Terry, was one of those men.  He was athletic, tall, and was given the best genes in the family.  He was a naturally gifted football player and the local public high school competed against the local private Catholic school for his attendance at their schools so he could play on their team.  Whenever Terry and his friends arrived at Frisch’s, they were guaranteed a spot in the drive-in.

Through Terry my father learned about Frisch’s Big Boy being the local teen hangout.  This is important because my father thought he was way more clever than he really was, and thought he understood teenagers more than he really did (if at all).  So when one night we endured an onslaught of eggs from a carful of local kids, he was certain he was going to catch them and make them pay.

My mother worked 35 years for A&P.  She began in the meat department shortly before the store, just 10 blocks from our house, opened, and retired as head cashier when it closed.  Most of the time Mom walked to work and home again.  But once in a while my father took a night off getting drunk on beer to pick Mom up.  He spent a lot of time at the little grocery store behind the Sears store where he worked, drinking with other Sears employees and L&N railroad employees from the next block.  We got to know the grocery store owners very well.  I used to call, anonymously, and ask them really clever, funny questions, such as:

“Do you have pickled pigs’ feet?”

“Yeah, we got ‘em.”

“Well, put some shoes on and no one will notice!”  Then I’d hang up the phone and roar with laughter.

Another good one: “Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in a can?”

“Yes, we got it.”

“Well, you better let him out before he suffocates!”  Again, roars of laughter pealed through our house.  Really, I should have been a writer for ‘Saturday Night Live’…I’d be a Billionaire!!!  (Actually, I have the “Hee-Haw” television show companion magazine to thank for these zingers.)

I did this, not because I disliked the store’s owners (actually liked them very much), but because it was one way of dealing with my anger at my father’s drinking.

Anyway, on these nights my father wasn’t holding up the little store’s meat and cheese display case, he, my sister, and I would pile into the car to go pick up Mom after she got off work.  My father always parked on the street, out front of the store.

One very hot summer evening we were all getting into the car.  Dad jumped into the driver’s side, I slid into the middle, and my sister spread out in the back seat.  Mom had some groceries and was putting them into the car when another car, full of teen boys, pulled up alongside ours and lobbed three fresh eggs through Dad’s open window.  The eggs smacked open on top and on front of the dashboard, slowly dripping down into the heater vents, onto the floorboard, and, of course, all over us.

My Dad’s first reaction, as usual, was to blame Mom. 

“If you weren’t so goddamn slow we’d have been gone before they drove by.”

Mom just took it, as usual.

Mom’s first reaction was to clean things up.  She wanted to go back into the store to get some rags to clean up the car, and us.  But Dad would have none of that.

“Get in the goddamn car; I’ve gotta’ go find these little sons of bitches.”

“Oh, Glenn, how are you going to find them?”

“I know where they hang out.  They’ll be at Frisch’s in a few minutes, probably bragging to Terry about what they just done.  I’ll bet they’re friends of his.  Hell, he prob’ly put them up to it!”

Terry and my other brother, Bill, are children from my Mom’s first marriage, so of course they never could do much right, as far as my father was concerned.  My Mom was forever trying to take up for them; my father was forever blaming them.

Dad drove us home, practically shoved us out of the car, and took off for Frisch’s to catch these local snot-nosed thugs who pelted our nice Ford station wagon with chicken embryos.  Mom wanted to clean the car, first, but Dad said no.

“I’m going to make those little bastards pay.  They’re going to clean every inch of this goddamn car and make it look brand new.”  We stood on our front-porch steps, watching Dad frantically throw the car into reverse, practically taking out the utility pole that stood in front of our house, jammed the gear shift down to D, and took off towards Frisch’s.  Wow. 

I pictured a carload of bloody teens, returning home and trying to explain how some man had beat the living shit out of them.  Because if my father had found those kids, that’s exactly what he would have done.  He had an irrational temper, and many times in my life did I witness it come to its tempestuous fruition, not the least being the time he was playing football with my brothers and fell and cracked a rib.  He broke a coke bottle against the house and threatened to slice both my brothers open at the necks.

“They did that on purpose!” he said, finishing off another beer.

The car sped up Grandview Avenue, barely slowing down at the busy intersection with Breckinridge Lane. 

Two hours later Dad returned home, dejected and exhausted from all the anger.  He couldn’t find the kids that perpetrated that heinous crime, but he had threatened about a dozen kids to call him and tell him if they learned who had “destroyed” his car.  Yeah, he understood teenagers really well.

He came into the house and went right to bed. 

The next day was a Saturday, so everyone was off work or out of school, except Mom.  That’s when Dad decided the car should be cleaned.  But by then the eggs had dried solid, almost melding into the plastic of the beige dashboard.  We scrapped and scrubbed, scratching the dashboard in places, until we had removed as much as possible.  It wasn’t until the following winter, when Dad first turned on the car’s heater, that he realized we hadn’t completely removed the eggs from the car.

“Goddamn kids!”

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Merrily We Roll Along

                If you want to get to know a place, its people, learn the customs, etiquette, mores, then take the bus.  A bus may not be the quickest method of transportation to your destination, nor the most direct, but there is no quicker way to immerse yourself in the local community and learn about its people.  From the drivers, the routes, even the buses themselves, to the bus riders, taking a bus may be the single best way to know a place.  And it’s ALWAYS an adventure.

                Whenever I get on a bus I try to have my seven pesos in the palm of my hand.  The bus drivers are so experienced at the payment transaction that they have the bus ticket in their hand before I reach them, so I press the peso coins into their hands as they hand me the ticket while simultaneously entering the flow of traffic and shifting gears.  If I have coins smaller than pesos (which I often do in order to get rid of them), then I am prepared for the less than thrilled look I get from the glaring bus driver.  Money is money, right?  But when you see the wobbly, open coin box in which the drivers must organize the coins, you will understand their dislike of these tiny centavo coins. 

The coin box is a simple square box with dividers running up and down.  The various coins fit in the various columns made by the dividers.  This box sits on a metal stand attached to the bus floor.  Many the time I have seen coins go flying after the driver took a tope with too much speed.  So then he steers the bus with his left hand, keeps the pedal to the metal, and bends over to collect the silvery specks from the bus’s floor.  I have more than once seen my life flash before my eyes during one of these occurrences, certain we would end up splattered across the back of the bus directly in front, becoming a gruesome addition to the Julio Iglesias concert ad, or being thrown through the window of the corner OXXO.

When we first arrived in Merida and began taking buses to the mall, the movies, or Costco, there we many times when my lunch did not remain firmly seated in my stomach – nor my own body, for that matter.  Some of the drivers are downright loco!  I’m never surprised when I see a bus accident.  Combine a large, metal bus with a powerful engine, the narrow streets of Merida, and a driver doing his best to get us all into heaven a little early (okay, I’ll probably go to Hell, but you get the idea), and you have a situation fraught with fright. 

There are basically two types of bus drivers:  The first is methodical and slow.  He stops at stop signs (a rarity for many Yucatecan drivers), keeps both hands on the wheel except when shifting, and makes gentle arrivals at his stops.  He is Ward Cleaver from “Leave It To Beaver”: Confident, kind, smiling, and all-knowing. 

“Do you pass Walmart?”

“I’ll stop right in front for you.”

Just the kind of driver you want running things.

The other is Jack Black on acid.  This guy must be paid by the fare, because it is his sworn duty to get around as many other buses as humanly possible, swerving the bus in and out of traffic as if he were driving a Maserati in his attempt to be the first to reach the next bus stop and its waiting riders.  He has a CD player belting out Techno-Pop from a very loud speaker on the dashboard.  He’s got a gallon of tea sitting between his seat and his side window, a bag of pork rind skins between his legs, and he’s steering the bus between all available lanes while stuffing skins in his mouth and taking a swig of tea as he grind-shifts gears and talks to his buddy sitting on the dashboard.  And when he stops to pick up or let off passengers (and he HATES to stop to let someone off the bus – such a waste of time!), he hits the brakes 10 feet from the stop;  the bus’s metal brakes screech like the best horror-movie scream queen and the bus hits its mark like it hit a brick wall.  God help anyone standing and not strapped to one of the hold bars.  I’ve seen women experience instant facelifts as their bodies were propelled forward and their skin left at the back of the bus. 

For the most part I seem to be oh-so-fortunate enough to always board a bus with a Mr. Black driving.  And I know that when those exit doors open I better hurl myself onto the sidewalk or the doors will quickly close and I’ll be stuck, half in and half out of the bus as the driver slams the gas pedal to the floor and I’m left hanging there, my head slapping every street sign as the bus speeds down the street.

These buses are something in and of themselves.  They are basically metal boxes sitting on a metal frame.  Whether these boxes are actually bolted to the frames I cannot say for certain.  One time we had to swerve around a bus in the road whose rear axle lay about 50 meters behind the rest of the bus.  I was not in the least surprised.  Some of these buses look and feel as if they have been on the road for 20 years.  The seats are graffiti-laden plastic sitting on metal frames that are usually bolted to the floor.  I say usually because I have actually sat in a seat that rocked back and forth as if I was on a roller coaster.  The entire two-seat assembly should have given up the ghost long ago, but, no, it kept rocking back and forth as the bus again and again jack-rabbit accelerated and brick-wall stopped.  One time there were no seats in a space where clearly there should have been.  I sat in the following row and when I looked down I was looking through the floor of the bus to the street. 

Windshields are often…no, usually broken.  (Don't let the photos fool you.)  Some have a crack or two while others are downright shattered.  Between the broken glass and the bus’s stops painted on the glass, I cannot see how the drivers can see through them.  And when it rains the drivers must be going on memory. 

The passenger windows are also often broken, and sometimes pieces of cardboard have replaced the missing glass.  And air conditioning?  Forgedaboudit.  If you are fortunate enough to board a bus with a/c, it will either be dripping water down onto the seats below it at the back of the bus, blowing hot air, and/or making so much noise that you’d rather be sitting in a classroom in the open desert as someone pulls their fingernails down a chalkboard. 

Recently a new bus company put 82 brand spankin’ new buses on the streets of Merida.  The first morning, one of them was totaled.  That afternoon I think I rode that bus to Costco.

I often wonder about the economics of city transportation in Merida.  I mean, who can make any money on just seven pesos (about 40 cents) per rider?  I suppose the city subsidizes the bus companies, who are all private, and I am very grateful.  We go to the movies for 40 cents each.  We go to the mall for 40 cents each.  We can even go all the way to a little pueblo, Dzitya, for 40 cents each.  So it is a service we appreciate.

The best part of riding Merida’s buses are the people.  They are wonderful.  High school students ride the buses home after school.  They are never impolite, loud, or rude.  When an elderly woman boards the bus they will rise and offer her their seat.  We also see a lot of young mothers with their babies.  The babies are never, ever crying or unhappy.  I can’t figure it out, but it is the truth.  Not like when we get on a plane and see a baby come on board and we have that “oh, no” dread.  The babies on the buses in Merida are content, happy, and full of wonder.  They look around to take in their surroundings and will smile at you if they make eye contact.  I wonder why they are different.

And no one stinks!  How can that be, you ask?  Well, I don’t know.  All I know is that I have been on many a bus that was crammed with people.  Every seat was filled, and the aisles were shoulder to shoulder.  The drivers will cram as many riders onto his or her bus as humanly possible, and often as inhumanely as possible.  But I have never had a bad experience with my nose.  I might have a case in court for frottage, but at least they smell good.  Everyone is very clean – perhaps more so than me – and almost everyone wears perfume or cologne.  Now I know a lot of people do not like perfumes or colognes on people in public places, but I very much appreciate it.  Makes for a very pleasant experience.

One characteristic I find very endearing and enlightening about people in the Yucatan is their generosity.  About twice per month we happen onto a bus where a street performer will be performing on the bus for coins.  We have seen singer/guitarists, magicians, and clowns, and I am always astonished as to the number of riders who pull out their coins and drop a few into the performers’ hands.  And that is true everywhere in Merida; Meridians who don’t have much themselves are very generous with what they do have.

We have learned several bus routes in our years in Merida.  We tend to use the same routes as we tend to need to go to the same places.  Our next goal is to expand our knowledge a bit and discover what other parts of Merida we can travel to on a bus.  We just have to make certain we bring our cups and hard hats.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

About A Boy's Room

About A Boy’s Room

                A boy should have a room.  A boy should have some privacy.  A boy should have a place where he can keep his important things:  GI Joe, books, loose change, a piggy bank, posters of Batman and Robin and Superman, Karen Carpenter standing in front of their band’s van with Richard standing aside her like he’d just come off a coke high, Cass Elliot surrounded by lush gardens - my Matchbox cars – a VW bus with working doors, hood, and sliding moon roof, a Ford Mustang with mag wheels, an ambulance with a working rear door, and about 75 others, all gifts, mostly from my Aunt Maxine.   And a million found things that are too precious to toss into the trash.  I was 17 years old before I had a real bedroom with a proper dresser, a closet, and shelving to display all these terribly important adolescent rarities.  I shared the room with one of my brothers after the older one finally moved out of our house.  But before that I found a place that was all my own…that I made all my own.

                The house I grew up in is the same house my mother grew up in.  When built it had one bedroom.  One.  My mother had three sisters and a brother, and a crazy, divorced mother.  They all lived in that house with the one bedroom.  My grandmother was in the bedroom, and so my mother and aunts shared a bed stuffed into a tiny room off the living room.  And when I say tiny, I mean the door would not even open all the way without hitting the bed.  The door had panes of glass, so forget privacy.  Before my grandparents divorced, my grandfather built a tiny closet in the corner of that tiny room.  We called it the library.  Never mind that it never held any books and was always used as a bedroom; it was meant to be a library, so we called it a library.  That is where my mother grew up – in the library.  My uncle Donnie slept on the couch in the living room.

                When my parents married, which was just after my grandmother died, they bought the house from my grandmother’s estate and Mom didn’t even have to move her things…except to the one, real bedroom.  At first my two older brothers shared that tiny room off the living room, continuing what was by then a family tradition in which I, too, would participate.  When I was born my father built two rooms onto the back of our house: a den, or what for some reason we called the “back room” (seems our family just could not come up with proper names for rooms – although the bathroom really was the bathroom, thank God), and a bedroom for my brothers.  Those two rooms were, and are, the cheapest, draftiest, coldest rooms I have ever experienced, and I have lived in a non-heated farmhouse in Italy, so that’s saying something.  My father hired Uncle Donnie to put a gas heater in the bedroom, and it helped, but not much.  My brothers, and eventually I, slept in that room, and in the winter sometimes wearing a coat and gloves.  My mother was forever berating my father for hiring “some guys off the street” to build the addition.  And that’s exactly what he did.  He drove to the railroad yard in downtown Louisville and asked around for a couple of guys to build the addition. 

“Can you build a couple of rooms onto the back of my house?”


“Okay, get in the car.”

For the first three years of my life I was at first in a crib in my parents’ room, of course, then I am told I was put in the tiny room off the living room – the library.  That is, until my sister arrived.  Then she moved in with me and that’s how it was until I was 12 years old.  And let me tell you, girls get more attention than boys – at least in the living arrangements.  It was understood that boys didn’t need their own space, or bed, or dresser, or place to hang all their frilly clothes.  But girls do.  We shared a bed.  It was white, with gold trim, with a lovely pink canopy.  The matching dresser couldn’t fit in the room, so it was placed in my parents’ room until I was 12 and when it was deemed that my sister needed a larger room and society deemed we should not be sharing a bed any longer.  So my parents moved into the library, my sister took the bedroom, and I had a single bed placed in the corner of the den, or back room. 

The back room was full of windows, without curtains, and so all the neighbors could see inside.  I would take my night clothes to the bathroom at the other end of the house, change into them, then return to the back room for bed.  The back door of the house was in that room, so everyone was always coming and going.  A TV was in that room, so my father often sat in the back room watching TV while my Mother was watching in the living room.  How is it that my father had his own room, but I didn’t even have a quiet place to sleep?  “Because I work and pay the bills around here, that’s why.”

I was usually the second one up each morning, after my mother, because as soon as she came into the kitchen, which was adjacent to the back room, I was forced awake.  And I was the last to go to sleep.  I mean, who can go to sleep with everybody trudging through the room, out the back door, or into my brothers’ bedroom or in and out of the kitchen looking for a snack?  By the time I was 15 I had had it.

The one good thing about the house addition, at least to me, was that it was built right on the ground on concrete blocks.  So underneath the new bedroom and back room was a crawl space that my parents used for storage.  We kept the yard tools and lawn mower in there.  It was always damp and dank smelling, and a strong odor of gasoline permeated the space, which sometimes wafted up through the floorboards into the back room.  There was a small door to the crawl space, about three feet high, that gave access to the space and allowed for locking.  When I was looking for a space in our house to call my own, I turned to that crawl space.

In our basement I found a couple of plywood sheets that I used to divide off the crawl space into two separate little “rooms”.  Now why I wanted two rooms I cannot remember, but that’s what I did.  One was my “bedroom”, and the other was my “den”.  My father sold carpeting for Sears, so I was able to get hold of a lot of old carpet samples he kept in the trunk of the car and place them on top of the dirt floor and voilĂ , I had my own, private room that no one else could, would, or even want to invade. 

I spent hours and hours in that space.  It looked like something a homeless person might live in.  The walls were concrete block and the plywood.   I loved it.  I would do my homework there.  I drilled a small hole in the floor above so I could shove an extension cord down to light up the space, the whole time my mother warning me, “don’t you burn this house down”.  In time I even put a small TV down there and although the signal to the antenna wasn’t the best, I watched the old Saturday night lineup down there:  All in the Family, M*A*S*H*, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.  When I was in that space, I was for all intents and purposes outside, so I spent a lot of time in that space in my winter clothing, including a winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves.  In summer I would sometimes sleep there. 

I used the space for about two years, when, as I said, my oldest brother moved out and I inherited his bed in the room he had shared with my other brother for 17 years.  They each have some great stories to tell of that tumultuous relationship.

                When I was about 23 I was helping clear out the crawl space.  Everything had to go because I was about to build a deck off the back room for my parents, which would effectively shut off access to the crawl space.  My mother wanted the lawn mower and gasoline out of there, anyway.  “You can smell that gasoline in the back room; it’s gonna’ blow up the house someday.”  She got worried about it after 30 years of storing it there. 

I crawled into the space and found my old rooms and it all came flooding back to me.  The hours spent doing homework (what homework I actually did), watching TV, or lying there and thinking about nothing.  I missed those rooms. 

The memories of my time spent in that crawl space have stayed with me my entire life.  Even today they are more vivid than the time I spent in the real bedroom.  It was great, but somehow not as sweet as that little crawl space under the house.  Perhaps because I had made it on my own, I don’t really know.  I only know a boy should have a room.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

Now I'm Being There

        With the addition of the new property adjacent to Casa Del Maya I was able to put in a small fruit garden and soon a vegetable garden.  At the age of 58 10/12 I have discovered that I like to garden.  It was a long time coming.

When I was 14 I had a garden in our back yard in Louisville.  I grew tomatoes, of course, mainly because everyone said you couldn’t screw them up…and they were right.  I put in Broccoli, about half of which grew large enough to pick.  I had zucchini, which I quickly learned would grow overnight from finger size to watermelon-size.  I carried these colossal pieces of green that looked like something out of “Lost In Space” around our neighborhood begging for folks to take one, or four.  After a while my mother wouldn’t even let me in the house with them.  She pushed her way past the mountains of giant green zucchini strewn about the den to bar my way in the back door.  I thought they were great!  I mean, I wanted to send them to the starving children in Biafra – I was certain I could end world hunger with my huge squashes.

I remember having a great time with that garden, but it did take a lot of time away from running around with my friends and being a smart ass, so I only did that one year.  Actually, I think by August I was getting pretty tired of the whole idea of gardening, just as things were really starting to come to harvest.  But riding our bikes to the local convenience store, named “Convenient” (Wow, I bet a lot of people got paid big money to come up with that name), turned out to be a more pressing activity than cutting off a head of broccoli for dinner.  So a lot of stuff just withered on the vine.  Story of my life, really.

The next time I attempted a garden was when we lived in Italy.  That was 2010 – 2011.  We had this incredible plot of land that sat on the edge of a plateau and afforded 180 degree view of the many small towns and villages dotting the landscape until it reached the Adriatic Sea.  Out our front door was an area I thought would be perfect for a garden.  I could access it quickly and easily, and I could also keep an eye on it and shoo away any wild boar that happened by – and they happened by quite often.  One night I heard them digging in the yard and so I grabbed my flashlight to run out and scare them away.  I was in the middle of the garden when I turned on the flashlight and discovered to my everlasting chagrin that I was surrounded by about five wild boar.  Two were obviously the parents of the three smaller ones.  I almost put down a natural garden fertilizer, if you know what I mean.  If you don’t know what I mean, count yourself lucky.

We ate out of that garden all summer.  There were potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini (If at first you don’t succeed…), onions, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and I think I’m forgetting one or two more.  Everything came in great.  It was such a pleasure to pull a carrot out of the ground and see its bright, orange color.  I would push a shovel down into the earth and up would come several potatoes about the size of a, aw hell, the size of a potato!  We had so many tomatoes that I started canning them.  I think we had about 25 jars of tomatoes that we continued to eat well into Fall.

In addition to the garden, our property already had a lot of fruit varieties.  Of course there were grapes, but the vines had been buried in 20 years of overgrowth, so they didn’t do very well that year.  But the fig trees – we had three – produced the most luscious little gems.  I made fig jam and we ate that stuff like it was manna from heaven – and I guess it was, really.  We also had three very mature cherry trees.  My Sister-in-Law, Ruth, and her husband Kurt, came to visit us and Kurt could not stop pulling cherries off the tree and popping them in his mouth.
“They’re like candy.”

       But, again, it would be several more years before I attempted another garden.  And that brings me to our current home at Casa Del Maya.

       When we opened our B&B we had a small garden area.  The only lounging area was next to our pool.  It sufficed, but wasn’t really what we wanted for our guests.  So last March we purchased the property next door.  It has a 3-room house in the front, and the rest was reclaimed jungle.  We had it cleared, except for the larger trees, put in two palapas for our guests, a couple of hammocks, and lots and lots of local plantings.  We have palms, bamboo, cacti, different types of flowers, and much more.  But because we did not add rooms to the B&B, we ended up with much more garden area than we anticipated.  I mean, we knew the dimensions and we designed the garden, but it all turned out to be so much larger than we felt it would be.

       One day we went to the vivero, or garden center, and purchased a truckload of plants for the new garden.  We passed the fruits area, and decided to throw in a couple of banana trees and a papaya tree. When we got home it was almost immediately apparent where to plant them.  In the rear of the new garden we built a half-bath for guests and guests of guests.  Just in front is a large area we didn’t really know what to do with.  So on the left side of the new, winding gravel walkway we planted the banana and papaya trees.  I then threw in some watermelon seeds, and we planted some of the tops of pineapples.  They are all going great guns.  The bananas look strong and are growing tall, and the papaya looks very healthy.  The watermelon vines have begun and the pineapples seem to be digging their space.

       On the right side of the walkway is the perfect area for vegetables.  We are waiting for a load of dirt to be delivered, and then I can begin my third vegetable garden.  Here’s hoping.
But the real surprise is how much I am enjoying taking care of the entire garden, not just the fruits and vegetables.  Every day I walk the garden, pulling a few weeds, trimming palms and other plantings (it is amazing how quickly things grow in the Yucatan).  I get a lot of satisfaction from taking care of my garden, and get really teed off when those leaf-clearing ants, properly known as leafcutters, get into my garden and strip things bare.  I have gone out to our lovely, green vines with yellow flowers that cover our pasillo wall to find half of the leaves gone – in just one night.  So now I try to keep up with spreading the little poison that takes care of them; and I feel no guilt about it at all.

       When I’m kneeling down in front of a few plants, weeding or gently trimming the overgrowth, I get lost in the moment.  For a few moments at a time I am immersed in deciding if this little plant is, indeed, a weed and should be plucked out, or if it is some off-shoot of a nearby relative.  I forget about money problems, family issues, the heat of summer, even my advancing age.  I’ve become Chauncy the Gardener and I love it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


               What must it be like to be 90?

                My Mom recently turned 90.  We threw her a party at her assisted living facility.  It was like a family reunion, and then some.  A few old friends happened by.  Our next door neighbor from the house I grew up in, and in which Mom lived some 80 years, showed up.  He, too, is 90.  He came in with a huge smile on his face, and walked right up to Mom to say hello.  He told me he makes Christmas lawn ornaments for friends and family.  You know, big nutcrackers, elves, even Santa and his sleigh.  At 90. 
Mom with some of her nieces.

                I wonder what I’ll be like should I be lucky enough to make it to 90.  I wonder what it is like for Mom.  I wonder what goes through her head.  Does she still worry about money?  Does she worry about her health?  Losing weight?  Or is there some point where you just say, “Screw it all, I’m 90 and I’m going to enjoy it”.  My old neighbor, Tom, certainly seems to be that way.  But I’m not so certain about Mom.

                Like me, Mom has always been an introvert.  I know what it is like not to want to be around people, to just hole up in your room and watch TV or read.  I love going to the movies because theatres are dark and you feel that no one really knows you are there.  So now, at 90, does Mom still feel that way?  I think she does because she does not go anywhere.  When my siblings and I researched assisted living facilities for Mom, high on our list was to find a place that had a lot of activities.  We were certain Mom was going to want to stay busy (or at least, we hoped).  And the place we found has about a dozen activities each day.  They take trips to Bernheim Forest for picnics, to the grocery store, the mall, they have jewelry classes, play bingo, bridge, poker, Uno, they have movie night in the on-site theatre, weekly chorus practice and performances, and of course there are mealtimes, where everyone gathers to talk about families, their health woes, or where to buy the best wigs.  They all seem to enjoy living there.  Except Mom.

                In the year Mom has been at Atria Assisted Living, she has left the building once – and that was because the administrative staff said she had to go for a TB test or she would have to move out.  She has left her room twice, including that little TB outing.  She takes all her meals in her room.  There are people on staff who say they have never even met Mom.  I think they placed bets on whether or not she would leave her room and go to the party room for her birthday.  I spoke to one young woman who was very surprised when she did.

                What is it that makes one 90 year old want to get out as much as they can, while others lock themselves in their rooms, working puzzles and watching games shows?  I cannot figure it out.

                My Uncle George never stopped.  I’ve written before about how Uncle George always did things the hard way, on purpose.  By stepping off his back porch at the highest step-down point rather than the lowest, he kept his mind sharp and challenged his body.  I want to be like Uncle George.

                I watch so many older celebrities keep working into their 80’s and 90’s.  Angela Lansbury 
is 90 this year; she’s touring Australia in a production of “Driving Miss Daisy”.  Betty White, at 93, just came off another 7-year run of a sitcom.  And Dick Van Dyke, also 90 this year, is still dancing, singing with his new band, and making records, videos and guest appearances.

                The one person who I most wish to see doing all this won’t leave her room.  And it is frustrating.  It’s difficult not to say something to Mom about it. 

                “Do you know how lucky you are to be 90 and in such good condition?  You’re just pissing it all away!”

                But, of course, I don’t say that to her.  I gently prod, try to suggest things she might be interested in doing.  I offered to drive her to Florida to see her great grandchildren.  “No.”  I offered to go get her and accompany her to Mexico to stay with me for a few months each winter.  “No.” 

                She won’t budge – literally or figuratively. 

                So I’ve given up.  We all have.  If we try to push her on being more active, she just digs in her heels.  We’re the ones feeling frustrated.  We’re the ones stressed out about it.  We’re the ones getting into long discussions about what to do about Mom.  Mom seems perfectly content to sit in her Lazy Boy chair, continue working those word-seek puzzles, read her books, and keep the TV on for company. 

                I have made a promise to myself.  Barring any major health problems, if I make it to 90 I’m going to be hiking the Alps, or rafting down the Colorado River, or at least still enjoying the beaches of Florida or Mexico.  Will I make it?  What will that be like?  I’ll let you know.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Sounds of Merida

The Sounds of Merida

The knife man came today.  I don’t know what he is really called – guess I should ask Gaspar or Berta – but I call him the knife man because he comes around and sharpens our knives, scissors, and garden tools.  This is just one of the things we love about living in Mexico: people can still hang out their shingle and make a living performing many of the tasks of day-to-day existence.  And it also comprises some of the unique sounds of Merida. 
                I had all our knives and garden tools piled in the corner of the kitchen for several days.  We have been listening for the sound of the knife man: a toot up the scale of his pan flute.  So when we finally heard it echoing down the street, out the door we rushed to make certain he did not pass us by.  He sharpened about 20 items, oiled the garden tools, sanded them when required, and off he went again on his bike, his portable grinder perched on the back.  Tooooooot!   Tooooooot!

                When we first moved to Merida we would wonder what all the different sounds were about.  We heard a ding-ding-ding, a clang-clang, a whistle, a bike horn, even voices shouting (shouting what, we didn’t know).  We quickly learned that we had better learn the different sounds if we wanted fresh fruit, bread, cold drinks, ice cream, a delivery bike service, or our knives sharpened. 

The first sound we learned was for the bread man.  He, and every other bread man in Merida, rings a bike horn just like we used to have on our bikes when we were kids.  Honka-honka!  When you hear that horn you have about 20 seconds to get to the door and yell, “Pan!”, or he’ll be down the street and gone; he moves fast.  But the bread we get off the street vendors is some of the best in the city.  They usually have French loaves, baguettes, sweet breads of camote (sweet potato), dulce de leche (caramel), or potato, and even donuts.  On lazy nights we catch the bread man and make a meal out of 2 or 3 different varieties.  Like Pavlov’s dog, whenever I hear a bike horn I start salivating.  And for some reason I’ve noticed that the little neighbor kid riding his bike down the street while ringing his bell always crosses to the other side if I’m standing out front of the house.  Go figure.
Now we have grown accustomed to hearing the various sounds and have learned the meaning of most of them.  The ice cream man makes a clang-clang-clang by hitting an old car’s wheel drum with a hammer.  If you are too close to him it is deafening; I wonder if the poor man has any hearing left.  The most interesting is a, presumably, husband-and-wife team.  The husband pedals their three-wheel bike down the street, chock full of mameys, those football-shaped fruits, the pulp of which has the consistency of and tastes like a sweeter sweet potato.  The wife walks along the sidewalk, under an umbrella to shield her from the harsh sun, yelling, “Mameeeeeeeey!  Mameeeeeeeey!”
                A couple of our regular vendor visitors have no sound at all; they simply knock on our door.  And I guess it kind of makes sense that the flower man doesn’t blast his plants with a harsh ding-ding or horn. 
The most interesting may be the dirt cart.  A mule-drawn cart comes down our street about twice a month, full of sacks of dirt for sale for $40 pesos per sack.  “Tierrrrrrra!  Tierrrrrrra!”  But when we hear that sound, we hide.  If you open the door when they ring your bell they will not leave until you purchase a sack or two.  In Spanish, they insist we need dirt:  “You have a garden?  You need dirt!  Yes, two bags.  You need dirt.  Never enough dirt.  You buy my dirt!”  They simply will not take “no” for an answer.  So we end up ducking in the corner of the kitchen, out of sight of the window lest they peek through, like criminals avoiding the fuzz.  Just like my mother used to make us do whenever the Fuller Brush Man came around.  (Those of you under 50, look it up.)

                We love living in Merida, but Gawd, it’s noisy!  From the neighbors’ blaring stereo speakers, to the ancient busses clanking down the street, to the guard dog at the feed store on the next street over, to the constant celebratory fireworks, there’s a lot going on.  But we wouldn’t have it any other way.  People in Merida do not seem to be parked in front of the TV day and night; the kids are not bug-eyed in front of Xbox.  The locals get outside and enjoy their wonderful city.  These are sounds of lives being lived, of families enjoying themselves, of children screeching in pleasure at the sight of bottle rockets soaring into the sky.  And your only recourse is to get out there and join in the fun.  We said we wanted to live in a different country to experience a different way of living, and so here we are.  We would be foolish not to take advantage of these experiences – and to get our knives sharpened.