Friday, October 27, 2017

Cherries on Top

I presented this at the Ilyse Kusnetz Writing Festival: Master Class and Showcase at Valencia College on October 26.

It’s a product of my lifestyle (or maybe it’s a symptom) that I have a couple of beachside bars I regularly visit. One of them is Crackerjacks, a tiki bar perched on the edge of a small island in the shadow of the soaring bridge that crosses the Indian River Lagoon in Titusville.

Chillin' on the dock at Crackerjacks
Late on Sunday afternoons, I’m likely to be sitting on the dock, sipping a Rum Runner, waiting for the sunset. I usually see dolphins playing in the distance, and a slow parade of manatees passing under the pier.

I have come to value the time I spend there. It is like a punctuation mark that ends my week, and reminds me that a new one is to follow. I almost always see people I know, but I also take time to sit alone. It helps to stop every now and then, stop everything, and just feel alive. For some reason, it’s easy to do that on the dock at Crackerjacks. I’ll put my feet up on the old, wooden bench, and stay still long enough to feel my heart beating and my chest rising and falling with each breath.

It isn’t always peaceful bliss. I’ve been incredibly sad on that bench. Feeling sadness is part of being alive. Sometimes I think about the ways life has changed me, because change is part of being alive, too.

I used to believe there was at least some goodness inherent in all human beings. I’m not sure I believe that anymore. I used to believe love really does conquer all. I’m not sure I believe that anymore either. But Crackerjacks is a place I can contemplate these matters, and other less serious ones, as the sun dips below the horizon. It’s a home away from home.

Sometimes I stay long after sunset
Last October, that area became a home of another sort for a local family. When the father was laid off, and the mother’s income wasn’t enough to support them, they were forced to leave their apartment. They parked their van under the bridge, and stayed there. They had no place else to go.

A recent study by the Federal Reserve showed that 46% of American households did not have $400 on hand in the event of an unexpected or emergency expense.  46%. They’d have to borrow money, sell their possessions, or go without. Or worse. People living paycheck to paycheck are often only a week or two away from being homeless.

This particular household included two children. The boy looked to be about eight years old, the girl about ten. Every weekend, when I stopped at Crackerjacks, they’d be there. I can still see the parents as they tried to cope, the expression on their faces.  Confusion. Anxiety. Fear. But mostly… shame. They’d bow their heads, and look away from curious glances.

The kids acted like… kids. Sometimes laughing and playing, sometimes sitting around bored. There is alwayssomething happening on the pier. People are fishing and shrimping at all hours of the day. For the kids, it must have seemed like some crazy adventure.
Shrimpers on the pier under the bridge
But, in retrospect, I think they handled it so well because they knew they were loved. This was not normal, but mom and dad took care of them the best they could. They were the priority. They slept in the van. They washed in the public restroom. Their clothes were always clean.

Because they were local, there were people who knew their situation, and were sympathetic. A friend of mine is a school teacher in Titusville. Each week she would update me on what had happened.

One day, while sitting at a table in the shade of the thatched roof, she pointed and said, “Watch.”

A man she knew went over to the homeless father and held out his hand. Not to shake, but to give him something. The father declined at first, but the man insisted. It’s not hard to lip read when someone says thank you, but the look on the father’s face made that unnecessary.

“People have been helping them,” my friend said. “Ten, twenty, fifty dollars at a time.”

The bridge and pier at night
They would pull the father into shelter, behind a parked car or one of the massive support columns of the bridge, where he would not be embarrassed, and his children could not see.

I suppose I should mention that this is a black family. It shouldn’t matter to the story. But I think it’s relevant because this is a blue collar, white trash town. Confederate flags aren’t hard to find. Amazingly, neither are people willing to lend a hand.

The regulars and the staff at the bar pitched in. Uneaten sections of sandwiches and flatbreads were passed to the kids on paper plates. “Accidental” orders of French fries appeared, and were given to the young boy with a wink. The girl liked Sprite, so fountain drinks were served in a nearly endless supply.

One day, Heather was behind the bar. She was a part-timer who didn’t usually work Sundays.

The homeless girl hovered for a while, looking shy and uncertain, but she finally said, “Can I have a Sprite?”

Her mother was nearby, and, of course, provided a gentle reminder, “What do you say?”

“Pretty please.”

I knew Heather would be an easy target. She has two kids of her own. She scooped ice into a to-go cup, filled it with Sprite from the soda gun, and put it on the bar.

The young girl grabbed it, and started to walk away, saying, “Thank you.”

But Heather said, “Wait a minute!”

Heather took the cup, turned to the row of plastic bins on the bar, grabbed two Maraschino cherries, and dropped them on top of the icy liquid.

As long as I live, I will never forget the look on the girl’s face. Her smile was so wide and bright, it warmed everyone at the bar. After that, she turned and ran in the direction of the pier. No words were necessary.

Spectacular Crackerjacks sunset
The next time I visited Crackerjacks, the van was gone. I heard the father had gotten a new job, and the family had found a place to live, a home. I thought about all the people who had given them food and money. But I think the greatest gift they gave those children was the ability to go on thinking that goodness isinherent in mankind, and that love doesconquer all.

Every time I realize how simple life is for children, I wonder why adults make it so complicated. Life isn’t always easy, but it’s always beautiful. 

Maybe all you need is to know that someone loves you, no matter what. Maybe all you need is a warm hug and a cold drink. I’ll take some of that. Pretty please. With cherries on top.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Beach Art and Novels: Driven to Create

I adapted this from a previous version so that I might present it during the opening of a new exhibition, "Drawing the Unseen," at a Culture Pop event at the Art and History Museums in Maitland.

I'm trying to write a novel. The key word there is "trying." It's much more work than I thought it would be. It's mentally draining. It's frustrating. It's probably pointless. And the interesting thing is... it's not something I ever really wanted to do.

So... one might ask... why are you doing this?

The answer, of course, is because I have to.

Maya Angelou once wrote, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

And so it is with me.

I've been writing on and off for many years. I seem to have a knack for it. People seem to enjoy reading what I write. I've been paid to write. I've done it for free. And I've done it just because I felt like it.

Then came The Idea. This idea for a novel that planted itself in my head, and wouldn't go away.

I had never previously written fiction. Not once. Never even imagined myself as a fiction writer. When I found inspiration for some sort of long form writing, it was usually a historical narrative or maybe a travelogue. I actually like doing research, especially if it involves going somewhere.

But then came... The Idea.

During a vacation in the Virgin Islands, I noticed there were vestiges of facilities that dated back to World War II. And I became curious. So I did a bit of digging and thinking. Somehow, I combined that with thoughts I had from spending time in the Bahamas, injected some of my personal turmoil from the music business and the world of commercial radio, along with other details just to make things interesting, and it became... The Idea.

Phrases, plot details and character descriptions began boiling inside my head. I daydreamed them. I went to sleep with them. I woke up with them. I thought of them in the car, at the beach, in the grocery store, at the hairstylist, at the bar, and, yes, even in the men's room.

The Idea had become the dreaded untold story inside me.

And I knew it had to come out.

I'm trying.

But I now realize that some people are driven to create. It just happens. Whether they want it to or not.

I've often wondered about this when I see beach art.

I'm absolutely fascinated by it, for some reason. Bear in mind, my beach is pretty far off the beaten path. I've seen beach art that was at least a mile walk from the nearest parking space, and well beyond areas that most people frequent.

In some cases, the beach art is simple, and, obviously, relies on items that are already there (usually, trash). But, in other cases, it clearly took time, and thought. We're not talking about your basic sand castles. And there's usually more to it than just a passing desire to throw a few seashells into a pattern.

Some of them are really interesting. Some are even a bit creepy (the skeleton/hanging thing is my favorite).

Is there hidden symbolism involved? Things that are meaningful only to the creator?

The Oxford Dictionary defines art as "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."

The implication is that artists make things so others may enjoy them. I'm not sure that's entirely true. At least, not for every artist.

Obviously, the beach artists know their efforts will be obliterated, sooner or later, by the wind or the sea or the passage of time. And, based on the relatively remote location, they aren't motivated by the hope that others will see and appreciate the results of their efforts.

They just... do it.

What's the internal force that drives them to create?

Is this their untold story?

There is evidence that natural selection favors those with an innovative impulse - that thinking creatively might have been beneficial to pre-historic man when it came to finding ways to overcome the challenges presented by his environment.

But that doesn't really explain why he picked up bits of charcoal and pigments to scratch drawings on rocks, and on the walls of caves he inhabited.

It's a curious thing - this urge to leave a part of ourselves somewhere, in some way, even if only temporarily. Clearly, there is something about the act of creating that is as important, or more important, than the creation itself.

Were the paintings in places like Altamira and Lascaux nothing more than ancient graffiti? The caveman equivalent of "Killroy Was Here?"

Is the creative impulse like an itch? If we don't scratch, it will drive us crazy. But if we do, it will go away for a while...?

When my novel was taking shape in my head, it almost drove me crazy. It's become an itch that has to be scratched. It's an untold story begging to be told, and, while I will certainly be pleased if others like the finished product, I think I'll be happy just to have it done.

Maybe the itch will go away for a while.

At least until the next idea...

All photos by the author, except as indicated. All art by persons unknown.