Saturday, March 27, 2010

A voice says, ‘Go to the light’

Part of our spring ritual is thinking about summer vacation. Thinking about it, mind you. The planning itself, including making reservations? That’s for summer—perhaps a week or two before the trip itself. Counting on rooms available at such late dates, in fact, is the closest we come to a gambling habit.

If past years are any indication, though, wherever we end up going will satisfy a pastime of mine: visiting and photographing lighthouses. While Elena does the heavy lifting of looking through guide books, making lists of interesting towns, museums and other sights, I’m doing my own vital research. I’m staking out every lighthouse within the vicinity, not only on the way to where we’ll stay but also en route to places on Elena’s list. (See, I do read it!) We won’t necessarily get to every one on my list; I’ve already been to some of them, after all—just with my old camera. But the 100-plus we’ve seen over the years tells me I’ve a pretty good track record.

The easiest for the family are those you can drive practically right up to from a major road; Maryland’s Concord Point Light, about a mile off I-95, is one such example. And then there are some along the coast of Maine, which would measure 3,500 miles long if you could pick it up and straighten out the myriad coves. The upshot, for us, is that a lighthouse “down the road a few miles” from Route 1—yes, I’m quoting myself—is actually 15 miles or more to the ocean, where ships needed lighthouses. Pemaquid Point, the one on the Maine state quarter, is like that. Fortunately for me, a gift shop and luncheonette await nearby.

It’s one thing for me to drag the family along on these escapades. Putting the coordinates into the GPS has helped, especially after the years I used printed website directions that always seemed to screw up one little detail. (GPS improves the search by screwing up one big detail.) No, the big question for Elena and the kids is rather when pastime crosses the line into obsession. More plainly, when Daddy becomes a lunatic.

I haven’t yet stolen anyone’s boat to get a better shot at a lighthouse; I have some scruples, after all. But on land itself, rights to property tend to be, um, subject to negotiation. Single-party negotiation. You see, a century or more ago, these structures I find so beautiful and inspiring came into being through public funds. For many of those years, the Coast Guard (my former outfit) ran them, before LORAN and now GPS made most of them obsolete, and the government began to unload them. Sometimes it was to towns or foundations intending to keep them available to visitors. Other times, the property fell into private hands. So on two counts, taxpayer and Coast Guard veteran, Possessed Ed feels entitled.

Got a “Keep Out” or “Private Property” sign in your driveway? I might not see it, not even through the camera’s viewfinder, if a few steps up the driveway gets me a better angle of "your" lighthouse. And if you come out and holler at me—like that Connecticut gentleman who lived next door to a lighthouse with a good watchdog—I’ll apologize and leave. Yes, really. Because by the time you got your behind out of the lounge chair, Bub, I was taking the last shot I needed.

Only one neighbor really made trouble for me. At Provincetown, I let my family visit the neighborhood while I began the 1.7-mile trek to the Race Point Light. The day was blazingly hot, and hiking was slow in the sand. But what made it worse were the terns, which nested in the nearby beach grass. Signs I’d seen had warned that terns could get aggressive if you walked too close to the grass. Alas, there was no sign for the terns saying that if a human were walking close to the surf as possible, he had no interest in their blasted hatchlings. So besides the sun, the heat, my tiring feet and more than a little dehydration, I was getting strafed by birds—flying close to my head, one at a time, with an occasional rap on my head. Ultimately, I would turn around without reaching the lighthouse.

I like birds. Birds are cute. I feed them every day and talk to ones I see or hear in the yard.

That day I wished for a tennis racket.

The irony of all this lighthouse hunting is twofold. First, since no points of interest (other than Elena) are visible from my property alone, I can’t fathom the notion of one of the kids coming over and saying, “Daddy, there’s a creepy man in the driveway taking pictures.” Second, where was all this interest while I was in the service and, while on Guam, climbing up to the very top of two lighthouses that had no public access?

Eventually I suppose this pastime will run its course. I’ll have all the pictures I want, and I might even get a little bored with lighthouses. Vacations will get carefree—and stay that way.

But you know, bridges also look awfully picturesque.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

So this is the underwater housing market

Here’s something you never learned in your mythology class: When Neptune shows up at your door with his pillow, his toothbrush and a big smile on his face, you’re not sending him off to the local Holiday Inn.

As a house guest, he makes your worst-behaved relatives look like Miss Manners. He lets himself in, heads right downstairs to the basement and proceeds to sprawl right out across the floor—soaking everything within reach. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess he thinks he’s god of the sea or something.

Oh, we thought we were ready for him after his last visit, three years ago during another nor’easter. It was then we learned something about this house guest; let’s just say he needs a little oversight. We went to bed, exhausted, with a few puddles downstairs and woke up to about eight inches. To be fair, I won’t say he had the outright rudeness of stopping up the drain in the basement floor. If only he had blocked all water whatsoever from passing through. The basement, you see, wasn’t draining to the outside; the outside was draining in.

This time called for more desperate measures if we were to avoid a recurrence of the hundreds of dollars of damage we’d incurred in ‘07. Sleep? For losers. Eating? Fuhgeddaboudit. And that’s only half the story. Elena looked as dreamy as ever—and lost three pounds, to boot. But me? By the end of this past Monday, I looked like the Geico caveman without the metrosexual flair.

An editor client of Elena’s emailed to check on her. “Are you still rowboating around your basement?” she asked. But thanks to our diligence and a secret weapon, we at least kept our house guest from doing real damage while we awaited the one good contractor that wasn’t totally…immersed in projects.

The secret weapon few house guests can tolerate, after all, is none other than a baby. As luck would have it, we were one short of the usual screaming, vomiting kind. Instead we learned what an incredibly finicky child a sump pump can be.

An electric sump pump sits in water, draws it up through itself and expels it through an outtake hose. Deny it the one simple pleasure it demands, and the baby really starts to hint that, well, maybe it likes the pleasure of ol’ Neptune’s company. To account for the pump’s standing on rather than in the water, we swept a water at it over and over for hours, actually days, while the drain resupplied all we pumped.

When it gurgled, we knew it was happy, slurping up water like an infant sucks milk. Occasionally it would merely sit there, humming softly to itself—or maybe to Neptune—till we realized it wasn’t pumping. And hadn’t been for several minutes. Nyahh nyahh. Don’t think it’s like a baby? Then tell me, someone tell me, why it sometimes needed me to burp it before it would start pumping again. Never mind how I did this. The bigger question is how, on practically no sleep, I figured it out.

Neptune finally took a powder, but he didn’t go gently. Last I heard, he was out around Little Falls, New Jersey, doing significantly more damage than he’s ever done while under our hospitality . Can you keep a secret? We hope he never comes back. If he does, we might have to take the advice of Elena’s oldest friend: “Have you considered leaving the water and adding some Koi?”

Friday, March 12, 2010

'I know that face!'

“Eddie! Eddie!” my Mom would shout from the direction of the living room. “Eddie!”

From my bedroom, at the other end of what seemed a looong hallway at age eight or so, I’d rush to save my mother, who obviously had some emergency. There was a ninety-degree right turn into the living room, and somehow I’d make it without banging my skull against the plaster walls—a feat that, I’m told, I did far less skillfully as a toddler.

She’d be sitting comfortably on the couch; I’d be panting. Before I could croak out the word “What…,” my mother would be pointing at the TV screen. “Who’s this actress?”

I learned at a very early age that yes, indeed, it’s possible to be angry at someone you love for not needing emergency care.

These were the days, mind you, before IMDB and even those Leonard Maltin books. The TV Guide we’d have around featured the top names in a cast and even a couple more during the '60s. But as for those obscure character actors? We were on our own.

Over time, I stopped running so quickly—good thing there wasn’t a real emergency. But the damage was done. I began remembering these names and faces myself. I didn’t stop at movies and TV shows, though. All the world’s a stage! And though I surely don’t remember everyone’s face or name I encounter every day, just a tiny minority, I remember enough to get into trouble. Names of husbands. Wives. Old friends. Friends of wives’ old friends’ husbands. Okay, maybe not. But to my family, it must often seem so.

When spotting more than a few people who work locally, I’d remember everywhere I’d seen them in the past. It was one thing to remember such things. Maybe lots of people do. But I would have to open my big, flapping mouth. “You used to work in the bagel store, and before that….” It wasn’t always a good idea, I learned after mentioning to one blonde that I recalled she’d worked at the library. “You do…?” she replied with a single raised eyebrow. I beat a hasty retreat.

The day my in-laws moved to a condo development, I saw a man and approached him. “Hello, Joe, how are you?” Later, I told Elena and her parents that Joe had been one of the repairmen, something like a superintendent, at the projects where I grew up, and I liked to talk to him when he came to fix something. When had I last seen him? Oh, about 35 years before. He remembered my family, even me, and was touched that I remembered him so fondly.

But once at Bar Harbor, we went to a great improv comedy show that, for one skit, brought up a nervous tween named Scott from the audience. The next day, I recognized the boy and his family at a buffet restaurant. While filling a plate, I turned to the lad—yep, I wouldn’t want someone doing this to my kid, either—and exclaimed, “Hiya, Scott!”

The strangest incident, I recall, was at a party Elena and I once went to. I met a man named Harold and, right away, told him I used to see him every weekday morning on the 7:50 to Grand Central. He and I rode the same car, and Harold always sat with the same man and chatted. I described the companion. Harold quickly excused himself. Was it my breath?

I think I’ve learned to keep mum unless I’m sure that whatever I say will be taken as a compliment. What I don’t say then, I later tell Elena—like what dessert a woman whose name I wasn’t supposed to remember brought to a party fifteen years ago. Her frequent reply: “Good thing you didn’t say that!”

At home, I try to avoid frantically crying out to the kids to run over, only to ask them where else an actor or actress has appeared. It’s because they, like myself by about age 12, knew better. But I’ll still call poor Elena, who comes eventually. To find me sitting in front of the TV with the laptop, having double-checked online what I thought was true. How times change.

“Where have we seen this guy?”

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The road not taken

Here in America, we take certain driving conventions for granted—you know, that old stuff like keeping to the right of the road. It’s not a set of rules that cries out for individuality. Yet those of us who live in Westchester have been reading lots about that very thing, with several drivers over the past year going the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway.

I’m hardly one for driving the wrong way in traffic. (Okay, there was that rainy night in Brooklyn.) But in thinking about the stupid things those local drivers have been up to, a few of my own experiences are coming to mind.

Neither of my parents drove. So, like a true city kid, I got my first driving lessons from watching traffic from our tenth-floor window. Cars would come down Roosevelt Avenue from the direction of Shea Stadium. And because the 7-Line trains came out of the tunnel there, splitting Roosevelt’s two directions of traffic and blocking everybody’s view, drivers of those cars wouldn’t see others making lefts across their path from the other direction. We’d hear the screech and run to the window to see, typically, bumpers and glass lying in the street. It was our entertainment, and it came in better than the snowy, pre-cable TV signal.

At 15, I got my first chance behind the wheel. My sister Patty and I were completing a visit to our sister Regina’s house in Uncasville, Connecticut, and Regina’s husband, Rich, was about to take us to the train. But first he wanted to put their other car, which was almost out of gas, into the garage without starting it. He would push the car, he decided, and I would steer it into the driveway and down the slope into the garage. Great idea—except that my foot wasn’t quite on the brake. Poor Rich’s car went through the back of the garage, its nose sticking out into the air behind, several feet off the ground. Then we, oh, left for the station.

Fortified with this wealth of experience after years of empirical study, I was more than ready once I got my learner’s permit. My best friend Jack’s family had a car, and his dad kindly included me in driving lessons to Nassau County, just outside of the city, where the streets had less traffic on weekends. Up Shelter Rock Road, down Searingtown Road, then back the other way, Jack and I took turns along these long, straight stretches with few lights. We got lots of practice. I’ll always be grateful. But there was that one question Mr. Cotter asked: “Eddie, do you know what the sign ‘Speed Zone Ahead’ means?” That’s an easy one, I remember thinking. “It means you can go as fast as you want.”

Somehow, I passed my road test on the first try. The fools. And having my license would be a great help over the coming years in the Coast Guard, during which I got to drive cars, forklifts, and various trucks. Oh, and that motorcycle. It belonged to a friend, another Eddie, and he thought he was doing me a favor by insisting I try out his bike one sunny day on Guam. I kept shaking my head, recalling one experience—at my aunt and uncle’s house in Maryland—when I tried out a minibike because someone insisted. No sooner had I taken off than a rosebush jumped right in my way. But against my better judgment, I climbed on Eddie’s bike, and he gave me a quick lesson. Very quick.

Within seconds I was headed toward Apra Harbor. Doing a wheelie all the way down the street.

I told myself the water ahead wasn’t deep. But sometimes, just sometimes, we need to step back to see the point of reference. The harbor wasn’t deep only by comparison with the water miles off the other side of Guam: the Mariana Trench, which is deeper than Mount Everest is high. The water on this side? Hell, it was just deep enough for submarines.

A block from the water, I finally realized that since both wheels had been on the ground two blocks back when I started, the trouble probably stemmed from something I was doing with my hands. That, if undone, could perhaps help the situation. My right hand was gripping the throttle tightly—hmmm. I eased up. A few yards from the water, I slowed down the bike enough to turn it around.

I’ve been driving for decades now and like to believe such antics are behind me. But my daughter Katie has her license and likes to drive whenever she’s home from college. Andrew, in high school, wants his license the instant he turns 17.

And people ask why I don’t sleep.