July 30, 2010

Long Distance Ham

I call my grandmother granny.  I call her in North Carolina once a month.  I listen to her on speakerphone, and my wife likes to eavesdrop.  I moved overseas three years ago.  Granny wants to know if they have collards at my new home in Germany.  When I say no, she switches gears to turnip greens.  Turnip greens.  Sure, I tell her, oh yeah, even though I’m not actually sure.  I’ve never needed to ask “What’s the German word for turnip greens?” 

I’m not the type of guy who needs a turnip green translation. 

Granny lived in the last house on a quiet street in a neighborhood called Little Wood in the town of Little Washington.  She worked for the state, but now she is retired.  Granny sold her home a few years back.  My uncles used to proceeds to move granny into a nursing home.  The proprietors called this place a retirement manor, which commanded a more respectful position in the community.  It was just down the road in Tarboro. 

Our whole family was there to help move her in.  We had lunch at a bar-b-que joint called Hog Heaven.  Just like always.  Grandma usually got the bar-b-que platter, with collards and hush puppies, but since it was a big day we ordered family style.  A whole pig is cooked in an oversized barrel around back.   When the pig is cooked, a man chops the meat with a cleaver and sprinkles it with salt and spicy vinegar.  Hog Heaven.  It’s a family restaurant.  We hugged and waved goodbye to granny before leaving the retirement manor. 

Not long after we left, perhaps a few weeks, granny had some trouble at the home.  I asked my mother, but the details escape me now.  I was in college.  All I can remember from the period is the phrase crying jags. Those words have taken on a whole new meaning to me now.  The thought of seeing granny in a full-blown crying jag leaves me hollow inside.   

The folks at the retirement manor politely asked granny to leave.  The feelings, it seemed, were mutual.  I couldn’t be there to help her move out.  My Uncle Danny and his partner Joe found granny another rest home.  This one was close to the hospital in Little Washington.  It was closer to home.  Heck, it was home. 

The building is one story, spread out in wings with long white hallways.  On my first visit, I saw a nurse smoking in the courtyard, taking a breather.  My granny takes a Percocet every evening at five.  She’s happy at Wooded Grove.  Even the name is safe and padded.  A lot of the residents at Wooded Grove ride a wheelchair around.  When I visit granny, there’s always folks parked in the hallway outside their rooms.  I try to acknowledge each one of them with a smile, even if they aren't quite all there.  As I pass them, it’s kind of hard to not feel like I’m walking in a parade.    

My granny’s skin is shiny like the leaf on a silver dollar tree now.  She keeps a pump bottle of Lubriderm lotion next to her recliner, along with a box of Kleenex and the remote.  Her La-Z-Boy chair can levitate her to her feet at the touch of a button.  It faces a small television that was made in 1997.  She watches all the shows on Channel 7, the local NBC affiliate.  The crew down at WITN is friendly on-air and off.  They don’t say anything risqué on the air, or get arrested for drunk driving.  Their behavior in public supports the station’s tagline which is “News you can trust.”  

I did my internship at WITN during college.  I followed the promotions manager, Shawn, around the station like an information sponge.  People at the station valued his mind.  Basically, his job allowed him a lot of time in a dark room filled with high-tech computers.  Shawn made the 10, 20, or 30 second clips that keep folks jazzed about WITN between commercials.  “Marvin Daugherty,” says a voice, “When weather happens in Eastern Carolina, he’s there.”  During the taping, I held up a large piece of tin foil and marshaled the light into Marvin’s face just right.  He nailed it in one take. 

Shawn and I brought the tape over to the promotions room.  “There’s a formula for making these,” he said.  “The stations are very specific.  A lot of the time it’s the same video, just different words.”  The only thing I noticed was different ties.  He shuffled the effects.  Three large computer screens consumed our field of vision, and when the ON-AIR light came on at five, it was almost like riding a space ship to Ordinary. 

Sometimes I rode my Harley-Davidson motorcycle to the TV station and parked it in the front spot reserved for bikes.  It was not frequently taken, and I imagined the news team inquiring as to whose bike it was.  Then I thought of how I’d get a weather girl on the back of it.  She’d stop me in the hall.  “Hey, are you the guy…”  As fate would have it, I crossed paths with chief meteorologist Marvin Daugherty instead.  His favorite song is “Take the Highway” by the Marshall Tucker Band.  His favorite food is spaghetti, and he likes to sit on his back porch and watch nature.  He’s a household name in Eastern Carolina

During a break one day, Shawn asked me to walk outside with him.  He wanted to sponge some knowledge from me about my motorcycle.  I explained to him how I stretched the gas tank, added a hyper charger, and switched out the stock mufflers for a pair of long shot exhaust pipes.  I handed him my helmet and said, “Take it for a spin,” but he declined.  Shawn told me how a runaway car smacked into him while he was riding a motorcycle one day.  The helmet saved my life he said, and then he leaned over and showed me an old crescent shaped scar on his scalp.  “I’ll never ride a motorcycle again.”  The man is lucky to be alive. 

Years later, I would bring my wife to meet granny in the nursing home.  My wife was my girlfriend at the time though.  Granny’s neighbors lined the hallways with their wheelchairs like always.  I waved like we were in the parade.  When I introduced the two, granny had trouble pronouncing my wife’s name.  She had never heard it before, but she gave it a good try anyway. 

My wife’s name is Takayo. 

I took some pictures of Takayo sitting with granny on the arm of her La-Z-Boy.  I was sitting in a motorized wheelchair, which I joyride through the halls every time I visit.  The speed knob has a range of slow as a turtle through rabbit.  For me, it’s more of a game than a means of conveyance.  The joke is to crash into the wall a few times, and then feign whiplash.  Granny smiles but I only do this in her room.  I am respectful to the other residents.  Granny keeps a walker next to her chair as well.  The tennis balls on the bottom of it glide her across the floor. 

The last time I talked to granny I was in Spain.  She asked me how I like it here, and I told her about all the great ways we were spending our time.  Granny asks me if they drink iced tea over here.  I tell her they don’t, and talk about espresso instead.  She can’t believe they don’t drink iced tea.   She likes to know what I am eating wherever I am in the world.  Meat’s a hot topic.  I told her about the kangaroo, rabbit, and zebra meat I had at a restaurant in Düsseldorf, and walking along the Rhine with a belly full of African game. 

I told her about Spanish Serrano ham and the little café that I occasionally frequent in the morning time.  I had her on speakerphone, but her phone connection has been lousy since last year.  My uncle disconnected granny’s LAN line and gave her a cell phone.  I didn’t hear from granny for a while.  Apparently she treated the phone like a moon rock.  Uncle Danny eventually set up her voice mail, but, being granny, she didn’t know how to access her messages.  I heard this message a lot.  My uncle’s voice comes across resonant, somber, like the after hours recording at a funeral home.  “We can not answer the phone at this time…”  It’s not at all like his normal, engaging self.   

Because granny lives in a nursing home in the woods by the Little Washington hospital, the phone signal is week.  Whenever I call, she tells me to wait a minute, “I have to go over and sit by the window.”  I wait.  “Hold on,” she said.  I gripped the couch.  She sits by the window and asks me what it’s like here.  I tell her how tan the people are, and how we love the sunny weather.  She asked me about food and I talked about ham sandwiches and coffee as I looked outside my balcony. 

“Are there colors over there?”  She asks.  The connection interrupted her mid-sentence.  
            “Colors,” I ask. 
            “Yes,” she says. 

Takayo looks up from the article she’s reading. 

            “Well, there’s…blueand red…”  The question temporarily blew my mind.
            “Do they have collards,” she said clearly.  Oh.  I told her that they did not have collards here in Spain, but again, I’m not altogether sure if this is true. 

            “Do they have turnip greens,” she asked.
            “Sure granny, they’ve got turnip greens.  They’re up to eyeballs in them.” 

July 15, 2010

Over Soup in Budapest

I was fishing through a bowl of soup in a bar in Budapest. The waitress, a solid built brunette, didn’t so much take my order as make it for me. “This,” she said, pointing with her pen. “It’s traditional soup. You like.” It wasn’t bad, but there too, it’s hard to screw up a bean. Takayo and I found the traditional food in Budapest similar to that of Prague. If communism left a mark in Eastern Europe’s culinary world, it took the form of chunky soups.

It was a late lunch, and our table overlooked a residential street. Three men were trying to load window frames into the European version of a Ford Fiesta. The frames, like so many in Budapest, were handsome, six-foot tall formations. The two men in paint-splattered coveralls were being directed by the potbellied guy in the belly shirt. None of them seemed to have a clue as to what the other was doing. It was like watching the Three Stooges at work, minus the sting of an open-handed slap to the face.

We were lucky to have the show. Takayo and I were on our second week of vacation, and for the time being, our conversation had run out of steam. The men tried cramming the heavy frames in, first this way and then that. There was a crunch, and the workers winced. “Don’t worry about it,” I imagined the fat man saying. “I’ve got spray paint at home.” The men set down the frame and formed a semi-circle, discussing possible solutions for this life sized puzzle.

We were on the Buda side of the Danube, which, unlike the larger buildings of Pest, has more of an old-world feel to it. There was a sign on the wall that read: NO SPITTING ON SIDEWALK. $5 FINE. This was a novelty sign from the States, of course, from the days when every man on the street wore a fedora. There were honest deals to cut and butchers to over-tip, or so the old movies would have us believe. Who even had time to spit on the sidewalk? There was the town wino, but he was already locked up. Where were all the manual laborers? You know, the people for whom these no spitting signs were meant for?

When I was growing up, the family business was a three-hundred unit trailer park. I got to meet a lot of their employees, many of whom lived right there in the park. My father was always working alongside deeply tanned men, their skin often the same texture as their boots. It was only a matter or time before work followed my father home.

I remember walking outside one morning to find, what smelled like, a massive shit grave in our yard. The septic tank that lay four feet underground was backed up. Some workers from the park helped him dig the massive hole, but some time after prying the lid open, my father’s keys fell from the breast pocket of his Acapulco shirt into the raw sewage. And they would have sunk to the bottom, had it not been for the alligator case, which was surprisingly buoyant. My dad fished the case out with a shovel and flung it onto the grass like a drowned rat. After the ordeal, the men stood in a semi circle, their eyes fixed on the hole, discussing their next move.

Takayo and I had finished our soup, but the Caesar salad we ordered hadn’t come out yet. There was a gap in the wall behind my seat, which separated the dining room and kitchen. Our salad was waiting at the prep table. There was nobody around. To pass the time, I told Takayo the story about my father’s keys. The men outside were still strategizing, which somehow made the story seem more relevant.

But it was like that. There was always heavy pieces of equipment that needed to be moved, or dug up.

Some of his tenants thought it was clever to flush pork chop bones down the toilet. What they didn’t realize was that pork chop bones are unhealthy for plumbing. The trailer suffered the equivalent of a massive stroke. The tenants fled town shortly after their idea, and toilet, backfired. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen my father use a Ditch Witch.

By the time our salad arrived, the men had the frames off the street and loaded into the hatchback of the car. Ropes were brought out, and naturally every man had his own idea of the right way to tie a knot. When we asked our waitress for the check, the men were shaking hands, congratulating themselves for, I suppose, not crushing the ass-end of the car like an aluminum can.

Before Buddha belly drove off, each man rechecked his knot one last time. This interrupted the “shake hands, depart” sequence, so the men resorted back to standing in a semi-circle, talking -- like anywhere else in the world -- about god only knows what.