Friday, August 29, 2008

A Day At The Beach

"We have to go to the ocean," said DK. "We HAVE to." The implicit message was that I was somehow against the ocean and all things oceanic.

He'd been saying this for several days, and now here it was, 1 O'Clock on Friday afternoon before the last long weekend of the summer. The afternoon rush hour commute was probably already blending in with the long-weekend exodus-to-fun, and, north and south, what lies between us and the beach is Boston and its car-clogged environs. I shuddered inwardly.

But since I was already in the early stages of going-back-to-work dread, I figured what the hell.

Plus the world of politics had just taken a plunge from the sublime to the ridiculous. McCain had chosen as his Vice presidential nomination a moose-and-wolf shooting, fur wearing, Bible-toting, blastocyst-loving, gay-scorning, Creationism-spouting Alaskan woman, a self-described "hockey Mom" with five children, including one that had signed up with the army on "9-11," former small-town-mayor and now newbie Governor -- ex-beauty queen, of course -- already embroiled in a tacky scandal involving abuse of power.

I was appalled and depressed. Had I somehow awakened in a surrealist sitcom ? A comic strip ? You couldn't make this stuff up. The radio pundits kept saying "Maverick." I was tired of that word. I was tired of the world.

"OK," I said. "Let's go." I grabbed my D70.

We zipped north through the "Big Dig." I had to admit, the rearranged roadways and tunnels had made certain commutes much easier. I muttered something about 14 billion dollars well spent.

I passive aggressively left the choice of beach to DK. There was not much choice, actually. Heading south with the commuting-home and Cape Cod weekend traffic would have been folly. So north it was. I was in a post-apocalyptic mood. We turned on the news.

Maverick Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, in a move that can only be described as Mavericky, chose Alaskan Governor, young Maverick Sarah Palin, as his running mate today....

I groaned. A maverick was, technically, an unbranded calf, after some Texan dude circa 1840, Samuel Maverick, who was famous for not branding his cattle. There is nothing unbranded about these Republicans. They are as carefully branded and marketed as Nike or Coca Cola. As a verb "to maverick" means to "take possession without legal claim." Now that was pure Republican. I thought back to Al Gore's magnificent, stirring, speech of the night before. I thought of what could have and should have been. I thought about what could but might not be. I was depressed. Hungover from over-indulging in the rhetoric of hope. Detoxing. Retoxing. What better place for it than the blighted byways of Lynn (as in Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin) and Revere, aka Ruh-vee-yah.

I'd heard Ms. Palin's speech. After overplaying the home-town, hockey Mom, God, guns and moose-stew family values card, she alluded to the 18,000,000 cracks in Senator Clinton's ceiling. I had a bout of temporary insanity thinking of Clinton's titanic and back-breaking campaign and how Ms Palin had just had, against all commonsense and logic, the VP position handed to her.

She was not allowed to reference those cracks. Honey, I snarled inwardly, you may have cracked some Alaskan ice ceiling, but leave Hilary's ceiling alone !

I turned to DK. "Does Joe Schlub REALLY want someone just like Joe Schlub to be president, and not someone with, oh, education, wisdom and relevant experience ?"


"No, I don't think so." I wouldn't want ME as president. Ms. Palin has a bachelor's degree in Communications and Journalism, for goodness sake. But she does have 5 kids, a beauty contest crown and a bunch of guns. And, as mayor, she did officiate at the grand opening of a WalMart superstore. So there. There.

The landscape darkened. I closed my eyes. I saw Governor Palin's eyes glowing like coals behind her byzantine designer eyeglasses. I saw her stiff, puffy, feathered bangs. I saw the five children of the apocalypse standing at her side.

Sorry, Lady Julian. All shall NOT be well.

I opened my eyes. Roadside, urban-fringe America was whizzing past. Weedlots, sex clubs, oil tanks, fast food, package stores, billboards -- so I got behind my camera. I thought of the George Romero movie we'd been watching -- Diary of the Dead -- in a bunch of young film students ride around in a Winnebago documenting the fall of America to flesh eating zombies as their drunken professor spouts gnomic existentialist crap in an English accent. There was much pretentious dialogue about the detached and alienated nature of the documentary film-maker. Boy, did I ever want to cash in on that. The image of John McCain gnawing on Sarah Palin's left arm flew through my head. Then of her gnawing on mine. I shuddered.

We were going to the ocean, I reminded myself. The ocean was good. It had nothing to do with the Esquire Club, Sonny's Carwash, Lynnway Liquors

or the Throne Depot.

It had nothing to do with the gleaming Hood's milk tanks, nor the suffering of the cows who'd produced the milk inside them. It was simply good, part of original creation, and it would, despite our abuse and neglect, outlast us all.

And, finally, there it was. We parked the car and got out. It was low tide, a bright cool afternoon. The air smelled salty. And fishy. The beach was strangely deserted.

One woman crossed it slowly, carrying a large trash bag. What was she doing ? What strange pilgrimage was she on ?

One couple sat together, surrounded by bright beach goodies, survivalists on the strand. Did they have guns to protect their provisions ?

After a while we set off to find a better beach. We got hopelessly lost. We crept along winding roads, past the high walls of peri-oceanic mansions, desperate for a sliver of blue.

Finally, discouraged, we headed home. Yes, we'd seen the ocean, a fleeting glimpse of it. That would have to do for now. Most of all, we needed coffee. So we pulled into a Dunkin Donuts. There was no paucity of Dunkin Donuts. It was something, at least. There would probably even be Dunkin Donuts in hell. At least I hoped so.

Out front I noted someone sitting on the curb of the highway, staring across the four lanes of traffic at a field of phragmites and some ugly condos. I'd taken it, at first glance, to be a young woman, maybe waiting for some friends to pick her up, and was shocked when I looked out of the glass vestibule and saw a naked, leathery, emaciated back: I stared at the ridge of the spine and the jutting scapulae, two triangles within a larger, bisected triangle.

Damn. I thought. I left my camera in the car.

Maybe I could discretely slip out and get it. No, no, that would be wrong. Exploitative. My inner debate went on for long minutes as DK scanned the overhead menu. Photographing weeds was easier. There were few moral dilemmas involved. I let the idea of the photograph go and turned to our server. He was eager and ingratiating, almost overly so. It was disconcerting. After we placed our order he stared at the cash register for long minutes. He pushed one key, then resumed his study of the register. The shop was nearly empty. Behind us a solitary diner, a grizzled man, was hunched at a table gnawing on a cruller reading the Herald. Finally, a smile illuminated our server's intent face and he jabbed a second button. DK had wandered off. The price seemed high for two coffees, one iced and one hot, but I didn't want to topple our pleasant server's house of check-out cards so I paid up.

"That's 48 cents change !" He announced cheerfully, applied himself to an intensive study of the cash drawer. After several minutes, he finally plopped a handful of coins into my palm. I stared at two quarters, a few pennies and pile of nickels. DK wandered back.

"I think he overcharged you for your coffee," he whispered, headed toward the men's room.

The math was addling me. I returned to our server.

"Uh, I think you gave me too much change. 48 cents ?" I showed him the pile of coins in my palm. We both stared at my palm, in mutual math hell.

"Oh !" he said. "I gave you an extra quarter !"

That would have to do. I picked out a quarter and handed it back to him.

"Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome," I said. "And thank you."

DK returned from the men's room and we headed toward exit. The man was standing, and his bony back was now covered by a shirt; from his head a shock of thick, gray and black hair rose wildly upright. It looked harrowed. He turned and headed slowly up the highway.

I thought with some shame about my photographic dilemma. What a waste of mental energy. I now knew what I should have done. It had not occurred to me until this moment when the thin man was disappearing down the highway.

I could have said, "Are you OK ? Do you need some money ?"

And I could have given him some money. I could have, and I could have, but I didn't and I didn't even think of it until it was, or was it, too late.

"Let's get out of here," I muttered.

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