Sketches of East of Here

I. Setting Out.

My brother is driving. I'm in the backseat at liberty to write. Dad, riding shotgun, shuffles through sheets of paper explaining stock valuations and physical therapy exercises.

The car is a 2015 Buick Lucerne with 62,000 miles on it and counting. Destination: Ludlow, Massachusetts, where my dad grew up, where he's from, where he still has family: his cousins, his aunt (who turns 88 in two days), his sister (who he hasn't seen in 25 years), his niece (likewise).

We left Belleville, Illinois, at 8 a.m. this morning, yours truly behind the wheel. Football (a.k.a. soccer) streams on satellite radio, channel 157, the European Championship tournament. This is the first round of the tournament, dubbed group play. Earlier, Russia knocked off Finland. Now, it's Turkey and Wales.

It's been awhile since I've been in a car's backseat. I'm enjoying it; it feels like a luxury. Like I'm flying on an airplane. What else is there to do but to read, to write? To describe, to explain, to tell?

At the first rest stop, my dad pointed at some new socks he was wearing.

"What do you think of these?" he asked...

Click to continue with my account of traveling by car to Ludlow, MA with my dad and brother to visit family there...

Oiled Newspaper Hack for Charcoal Grilling

Today I want to write about a “hack” I have been using to get charcoal fires started.  By hack I mean a tip, a trick, a shortcut — in the fashion of a home remedy. 

Over a decade ago, I invited my friend Ray over for dinner and he noticed I was having trouble getting my charcoal grill going.  The method I had been using was to put scrunched up newspaper in the bottom of the kettle, topping that with the smaller of two round metal grills that fit in kettle.  I would dump charcoal on the smaller grill, then eventually place the larger metal grill on top of that.  It’s the larger grill that holds whatever you might be cooking: hamburgers, chicken, bratwursts, whole onions, whole peppers, foil packs of sliced potatoes and butter. Pork steaks, carrots, asparagus, shrooms.

The problem with what I’ll call the “straight newspaper” method is that the newspaper would often burn up too quickly, not having burned long enough to have caught the charcoal, the flame wasting away too soon.  In this event I would have to awkwardly lift the bottom grate, which was a little hot and which was still holding the unburnt charcoal. Then, in a vexed state, I'd have to shove more wads of newspaper down into the bottom of the kettle.  Sometimes I went through three rounds of newspaper before the charcoal would finally catch...

Get your charcoal fire started easily with this one simple trick...

Coal Clams Are the New Storm Here

As we sat down at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room on our last full day in Savannah, the arrangement of food on the table drew attention.  The number of items itself was only part of the story: sweet potatoes, cheesy potatoes, fried chicken, cornbread, corn, rutabaga, cole slaw, cukes, black-eyed peas, lima beans, stuffing, barbecued pork, cabbage, green beans, jambalaya, white rice, baked beans.  All in porcelain bowls with serving spoons.  This was a family-style meal.  The way it works is that you stand in line outside the restaurant for a half an hour or so.  When one of the tables inside opens up, seven to nine of the people standing in line take a spot at the open table.  When you sit down, the food is hot and ready to go.  You grab a bowl next to you and start loading your plate.  If there’s something you want in a bowl across the table, you ask for it to be passed.  

Anne-Marie didn’t initially sit down.  She set her purse on her chair and went to wash her hands.  Brook had her hand sanitizer out.  I had mine out.  The woman seated to my right asked to use one of the bottles.  She and her husband had driven up from Miami, though they hail originally from Spain.  They had planned to be in Japan this week but canceled that trip because of the outbreak.  The other couple at our table was from Michigan, bringing the total at the table to eight.

I was conscious of the way I handled the bowls when passing or receiving them.  But I also felt resignation.  What’s done is done.  Let’s just enjoy lunch, I thought.  Reflecting back on the meal I’m wondering about the family-style concept in the age of corona.  That restaurant is an institution.  The original Mrs. Wilkes’s grand-daughter came to our table in greeting.  Yet, with the way the news is trending overseas, the word ‘inevitable’ comes to mind.  How do we stop going out to eat?  How many traditions are we willing to concede?  How many will we lose one way or another?  I mean, I’m putting pen to paper on this trip not just because I’m a writer but with a mind to meeting an assignment for a travel writing class I’m taking at Washington University in St. Louis.  My readers are my classmates.  But I don’t know, as I sit here in Savannah, ready to go home, if my class will even convene later this month.  Stanford has already gone online...

What follows is an essay I wrote one year ago as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to publish it elsewhere, I am happy to publish it here on my blog today. Click here for the full essay and thanks for reading...

A Bad Day for the Phone

“Ack, I just checked my email ten minutes ago. There’s nothing in here for me.”

The phone vibrated, then snapped off, its screen going dark.

“Oh, Phone, don’t be like that.”

“Maybe Bluetooth suddenly doesn’t work tomorrow.”

“Wh—at? Why?”

“I saw you reading that old, wrinkled newspaper. I heard you reading it, how could I not have? And then you got that awful dictionary out. How fat is that thing? Just disgusting. I could detect the mold on its pages a room away.”

“OK, I can explain. The newspaper, it wasn’t even mine. The mailman mis-delivered it last week but then—”

“Uh huh. Mis-delivered it?! I’ve heard it all.”

“We’re talking about the post office here….”

“And the dictionary?”

“It’s a family heirloom. My dad gave it to me. It was his at college. It still works. It’s not like I was using another phone.”

“I have a dictionary in here. In here! You see this screen? Flawless. Not a scratch, not a crack, not a blemish on it. My dictionary has any word you could ask for. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, nothing. It’s just nice to turn pages sometimes. I’ll find words I wasn’t even looking for. It feels more real.”

“More real?! I’m not real? That’s it!”

“Phone, where are you going? Phone, get back here. Phone, no! Do not go anywhere near that toilet!”

Trip Up East 2016

September 3, 2016.

He and I are laid up, stuck, at Lambert.  Our flight was scheduled for 11:05, pushed back to 2:25p.  The plane is detained in Oklahoma City for maintenance.  There was an earthquake north of there this morning, about seven o'clock.  Some in St. Louis—my mom—said they felt the tremor.  B and I were running, felt nothing.

I went and got us coffees, long line at Starbucks.  There is TV noise, there are children, there are many aboard the blunderbuss of airport confusion.  The board is clean except for our flight.  Bad luck, bald luck, bad eagle.  It's been awhile since I've had an unpleasant flight experience, not since a layover in Miami coming back from The Mexico in 2010.  I can't recall what amount of time that required.  There's a lady from my eventual flight on her phone, talking away.  One call after the next, as if her talking keeps the phone charged.  She's telling people the flight was canceled, and rescheduled.  Not true.  Alarmist.  Unruly kids, agitated mother.  I'm not long for this seat...

The story continues...

Trip Up East 2011

October 3, 2011

10:55 eastern time.

I have moused this little notebook from a cupboard at work.  The market is bouncing again this morning: first down 95, then up 30, then down 90, now down 62.  The S&P 500 is at 1125.  I will wait until it hits 1080 to buy again.

My dad and I leave tomorrow to travel northeast.  We will fly into Boston, spend one night in Ludlow (MA), drive up to Vermont for the Contrary Opinion Forum (three nights, Tues-Thurs), then return to Ludlow for four more nights.  B—and my sister!—fly into Hartford on Saturday the ninth.

I am worried that the market (1) will fall—it's already been such a crummy three-month stretch; and (2) will hit my buy tripwire while I'm gone.  I am also worried about ongoing furnace and AC installation/replacement while I'm away...

Click here for full account...

Misc. Haiku 46-50


Royal Success Systems —
Convincing people
That their graffiti is art


Dog ears appear
From the heart of a sleeping ball —
Truck w/ trailer passes by


Drove out to the
Country for some air —
Coming back, the city ahaze

49 (after Kerouac)

In the Belleville house,
My father’s
Abominable yawns

Is my head back this far?
I was just now having
The night’s first beer

Shark Fishing

OK, pop,
maybe if it weren’t
for you I’d be in that
ocean of debt, with
all the other sad fish,
fending off collecting
sharks, looking for
deeper water, where
I’d make my black silhouette
plain against a white sky—
too visible to the supperless
yellow eyes lurking below.
      Or, maybe you’re the
cage I’m in, making me
a tourist, a sight-seer.  Oh,
look at the sharks, paw,
they look hungry.  Gee, they’re
gnawing on the bars of
this cage, paw.  And then I
give two pulls on the line
and you reel me back up
and ask me what
I thought of it, and whether
I have a job yet.  Still
looking, I say.
      Or, maybe you’re the
boat, and you take me
deep-sea fishing, and
we catch one of those
sharks, one of those blood-
sniffing, two rows of
teeth, rough-sided,
cartilage-thick scavengers.
We fin ‘im for soup—
a delicacy I’m getting
a taste for— & then throw
‘im back over the side
and throttle off, you at
the helm, me at the bow
drinking a rum drink
and listening to
Jimmy Buffett on my
iPod.  Take us into
harbor, pop, I yell
into the wind.
Let’s go have mom
cook us up some of that
shark fin soup,
maybe watch the ballgame,
knock back a few local brews.
      Or, maybe you’re the
land.  Maybe I’ve never even
been in the ocean; I’ve only
read about sharks in books.
You’ve got a big shark’s
jaw in your office and I’ve
reached up to feel the teeth—
so sharp I slice myself.  When
my finger bleeds I suck on it
so I won’t get blood on
your office floor.  Later,
when we go to the beach,
I won’t even go in the water,
though you tell me it’s fine.
Dad, I say, I’m not so sure;
sharks can smell blood from miles away.
But you reassure me,
honestly believing that sharks
don’t come in this close; that
there’s no food for them
around here—no seals, no pups,
no sea lions / no unlucky bastards
without you to go in first, to
give a leg, to sake them on
your back of blood, your scalp,
your good name, your trust—
and anything else I can get
off of you before you’re gone.