Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In the Land of Liquor Barns and Waffle Houses - Part 1

Quote of the Blog:

Upon landing in Kentucky Brook posts on FB: "And so the Southern adventure begins! Ps. Louisville smells like popcorn."

Will’s comment: "That’s not popcorn, that’s hydrogenated fats."


October 23-November 14, 2012
23 Days, 7 States, 24 Schools, 1600 miles+

Louisville (5 days) and Lexington (1 day), KY to
Nashville (3 days) and Knoxville (1 day), TN to
Athens (1 day), GA to
Lexington (2 days), SC to
Atlanta (4 days), GA to
Auburn (5 hours), AL to
New Orleans (5 days), LA

I recently returned from a three-week work trip where I drove over 1600 miles through seven states visiting schools to talk about our company’s summer programs. With so much drive time I used voice-to-text to send texts while driving. But despite my best efforts to speak clearly and annunciate, the texts weren’t always transcribed correctly. It was more difficult than navigating the road or even the Southern accent. While I stayed in New Orleans I wanted to text Jason about a moment we shared on a trip there two years ago. We had eaten brunch at a restaurant named Little Dizzy’s which was memorable not only for the food but also because we (almost guiltily) cheered on exhausted Iron Man athletes as we ate an array of delicious southern foods from plates piled high.

I found the memory amusing and figured Jason would too. Since I was driving I used Siri– the iPhone voice-activated digital assistant– and dictated the text: 'Hi Jason, I just passed Little Dizzy's in New Orleans and remembered when we had that decadent brunch.'

When I asked Siri to read back the text before sending she said in her matter-of-fact voice, “Hi Jason, I just passed am a little bit busy.” I tried again, “Hi Jason, I Justin passed a little bit dizzy.' Eek. The third time Siri read it back correctly. Phew! But when I actually looked at what was sent I started laughing, 'Jason, I just passed Little Disease...'

I wondered if Michael from the 80’s TV show Knight Rider ever had that problem with an early prototype of KITT, his artificially intelligent car. I can imagine it now: Usually, Michael would say, “I need ya buddy!” And KITT would respond: “Right Away Michael.” But maybe in KITT version 1.0 the exchange would have looked like this:

Michael: I need ya buddy!
KITT: You need anybody?


Michael: Keep your scanners peeled
KITT:  Teachers candor spilled?

This thought made me chuckle and I sent a follow up text to Jason. “Sorry, using voice-to-text. I wonder if Knight Rider ever had these problems with KITT.” Siri read it back, “… I wonder if night writer ever had these problems...” I sighed.

The Southern ethos is so different from New York’s. First of all, people are NICE. Genuinely nice- like in your face with a big smile nice. Another big difference is that everything is slower. The speech, the movements, the walk – I made an effort to slow things down and keep my quick New York “phrases of three” to a minimum – “Yeah, yeah, yeah” and “Right, right, right.”

But even if they were slower to ring up a customer, answer a question, or check me in at the hotel, they were quick to kindness. And there was customer service! Oh, customer service how I have missed you! When I landed in Louisville, KY and picked up my rental car I was greeted by a man that was as wide as a yardstick wearing a tie as short as a ruler. As he looked at my driver’s license he exclaimed in the light southern lilt of Kentucky, “New York! Well, I don’t know if I could go to New York seeing as I’m such a quiet man!” He let out a belly laugh and gave me a knowing wink. He even waved goodbye as I walked to the parking lot.

As I stepped outside, I stopped. Kentucky smelled like popcorn. I soon discovered a South where the smell of cooking hangs in the air and wafts with the wind in wonderful ways.

My second night in Louisville I debated between going to a traditional southern restaurant or going to a South American restaurant called The Mayan, which had thousands of outstanding reviews on Yelp.  And the food really was mouth-watering delicious.  While there I told the waitress I was glad I had chosen to come to the Mayan instead of getting a traditional “Kentucky” meal. She cocked her head to the side and smiled and said, “What? Like a beer and a cigarette?”

N.B. Speaking of cigarettes, my friend Khay works in a hospital in Kentucky and told me that Kentucky has the highest concentration of smokers per capita in the U.S. He also told me that patients often refer to diabetes as “sugar” as in “She’s got the sugar.” How sweet.

I tried to blend in the South and didn’t think that I stood out that much (besides my different accent) but when I visited the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, KY I was greeted by a grizzly older man, who gave me a once-over and said, "Something tells me you're not here with the FFA Convention group." I had to laugh. “No, no I’m not.” I went on the museum tour and saw how bats are made and was able to hold and swing Mickey Mantle’s bat (only with glov-ed hands). It was a slam dunk, er, grand-slam of a time. And at the end of the tour they give you your very own billy club! Well, they call it a “mini-souvenir bat", but I think airport security would call it a mini-souvenir bat(on). 

That's Mickey Mantle's bat in my hands and
the mini bat(on) under my arm. Our guide
warned our group against carrying
them on the plane.
Initially, I wasn’t sure if I would like life on the road but I actually found it largely enjoyable. And there are certainly perks to staying in a hotel room. I admit that I had a moment, after returning to New York when I came home and thought, “What? No one made my bed or scrubbed the shower while I was away?”

I did have one embarrassing moment in a Nashville hotel though. I had been in the hotel four nights and had NEVER seen a soul on my floor; no matter what time I came or went. One evening I wanted ice but was already ready for bed. And I was sporting a pair of my most comfortable PJ’s – the acquisition of which is a story for another time. They are purple fleece pajamas with little white French kittens all over them. I debated. The ice machine was just two doors down from my room. I decided to risk the 45- second trip. I saw no less than FOUR separate people in the hall during that dash. I received, in payment for my embarrassment, two suppressed smiles and two outright chuckles.  An upside to the occurrence is that when I told my sister the story I got some street-cred with my six-year-old niece who is currently all about kittens.

One of my few regrets from the trip is that I didn’t start counting Waffle Houses when I landed in Kentucky. They are everywhere in the south. EVERYWHERE.  I passed two or three on my drive from the Louisville airport to my hotel. As I pulled into the hotel parking lot I passed a Liquor Barn and thought, “I am in the land of Liquor Barns and Waffle Houses.”

I didn’t start counting until the last week on my drive from Lexington, SC and I counted 19 separate Waffle Houses in two days.  A few days later, on my 7-hour drive from Atlanta to New Orleans I counted another 22 for a grand total of 41 Waffle Houses in a week! There was a Waffle House at almost every exit! They are the Starbucks of the South!

My first taste of the Waffle House was in SC with my friend Liesel who had moved to Lexington, SC with her husband a little over a year ago.  When we walked in I was surprised at 1. How busy it was and 2. How clean it was (compared to my expectations). The inside reminded me of a blend between a diner and a McDonalds. There were men at the counter in barstools and we sat in plastic booths with padded seats and backing. Our waitress was, naturally, very friendly and smiley and was quick to refill our cups, although it was from another drinking glass which Liesel and I both found amusing.

 I don’t think it was coincidence that as the waitress delivered our pumkin pecan waffles that Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” started playing over the speakers. But man, those pecan waffles were taste-ee!

After breakfast I got a text from my friend Will asking “how the South and trans-fats were.” I assured him that all the trans-fatties I had met were very nice!

Fall in the South was stunning. I took this picture on
my drive through the Smoky Mountains

The accents got deeper the further South I drove and New Orleans was by far the strongest. I was called, “sugar, hun, honey, baby, baby-girl, and sweetie” more times than there were Waffle Houses. I caught myself using them in texts to friends. And I noticed my inflections were taking on a Southern lilt. I think that was an indicator it was time to go back to New York. I sponge up accents and part of me was worried I might not be able to shake this new acquisition. I had also visited the Margaret Mitchell home in Atlanta and that certainly didn’t help. Suddenly I found myself with the desire to start sentences with “Why, I do declare…” and had a “hankering for a cool glass of lemonade” and just wanted to sit on the “verandah.” All I needed to complete the scene was a parasol, some male suitors, and an antebellum mansion. “Why Ashley!” Hmmm, but perhaps a male with a different name.

Somehow things sound a bit sweeter with a Southern accent. And there is a charm about some Southern ways. Like when the students in Georgia called me Ma’am and the boys opened the doors for me. Or even when a counselor walked me to my car with an umbrella when it started raining and said gallantly, “Southern gentlemen are still a thing.” I wasn’t going to complain. And while it only took me a day in New York to get back to walking and speaking quickly and my collection of “phrases of three” inevitably continues to expand, I hope I brought a bit of that sweetness back with me, sugar (and I don’t mean diabetes)…

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Pigeon Halfway House

Quote of the blog:

R---- loves the doves that roost on his window every year. He is very proud of them. He feeds them rice and takes pictures and gives us updates on how they are doing. When the eggs hatched he sent a group of us pictures of “his beautiful babies” which at that time were featherless and eyeless. C---’s response to the email was: “Those babies aren’t cute! They are really ugly!” R – was incensed and his protective retort was: “Well, your babies might be ugly one day!”


This morning three pigeons tried to nest on one of my windowsills next to my AC unit (which offer tempting nesting spaces for New York birds). Turns out three IS company. I could hear them out there arranging things, 'Ooh, we’ll put the nest here.' And ‘Oh yes, some bits of colored plastic bags and zip ties will compliment the exposed brick quite nicely.' I furiously tapped the window and they flew to the fire escape just across the way. I watched them watching me with their wee beady eyes, wings held conspicuously over beaks as they cooed conspiratorially in a group huddle. I tried to look menacing but as soon as I turned my backside (which is apparently less intimidating than I thought) they flew right back. I rushed to the window and off they went. It's not the first time we've had pigeons squat on our property. Our location: across from a tree-filled park on one side and courtyard on the other, plus windowed-ledges on three sides make our apartment prime bird-estate.

Except for one thing.

Last summer Ty's window was the spring hotspot. One morning he woke up to the well-known coo (coup?) of el pigeon. He opened his curtains and looked to the side of his AC unit and sure enough, a pigeon was nestled in the corner. The AC unit’s window fittings provided her privacy from Ty’s room and the unit itself created a “third wall” that protected her from wind. Suddenly, the pigeon who had been leisurely watching the world go by caught site of Ty’s looming figure above her in the window. She startled and hunched down but didn’t fly off. She turned one globed-eye on him and watched him watching her. If it was a staring contest she would have won. Ty tapped the accordion part if the AC unit, right behind the pigeon. She flew off but not far. To Ty's dismay he saw two eggs in the nest. BREAKFAST! Just kidding! Who would eat Pigeon-city eggs? Could you imagine? “Do you mind passing the salt, dear? These pigeon eggs smack of refuse.” Although I will admit that we joked about doing a photo shoot that involved a frying pan and breakfast. Oh, com’n. You didn’t really think we would cook the eggs in one of our pans did you? No, no. We would have gotten an old one to throw out right after the shoot.

What a dilemma. What were we to do? No one wants baby pigeons roosting outside your window- cooing at all hours. But it seemed cruel to give any bird’s eggs- even a pigeon’s- a finger-flick to plummet five stories to the courtyard below (thank you Atticus). Ty decided he would think about how to handle the situation during work and left. If the pigeon had any inkling of what was contemplated Ty might have come home to find the eggs wrapped in bubble wrap and taped with makeshift parachutes for the potential egg-drop.

During work Ty had decided that the eggs simply couldn’t stay. He came home and pulled back the curtain, but to his surprise the pigeon and eggs were gone! We couldn't figure it out. On one hand there was, I think, some relief that he didn’t have to deal with the eggs, but on the other hand – what had happened to them and the pigeon? We kicked around a few ideas: Rats? That was the first guess. Ty wasn't convinced they could scale five-stories. I tend to think rats can get almost anywhere. I also think of pigeons as rats with wings. Perhaps a Ground-Rat dropped on its cousin the Sky-Rat for brunch. What is that line from Silence Of the Lambs? 'I'm having an old friend for dinner.' we tossed around a few different ideas. It would be another week before we found out which of our guesses was correct!

A few days later he heard a familiar coo. He opened his curtain and another pigeon had moved in – or it might have been the same one. If it was the same pigeon it was more skittish than the first time around. This bird flew off as soon as Ty looked through the window and sure enough. There were new eggs in the nest. She didn’t fly off though. She kept circling and trying to land. Three times she would do fly-by swoops to come back to the nest, and perhaps because of the unfortunately small eyes of the pigeon she seemed surprised each time she approached that Ty was still there. Each time she’d come in for a touch down she would see Ty, startle, and pull up to circle again. The ledge was turning into a JFK–like landing.

This was the second single-parent pigeon. Pigeons having pigeons. Tsk. Tsk. Er, cluck cluck.
All signs pointed to unplanned pigeon parenthood.That's when the ledge was nick-named: The Pigeon Halfway House. Ty was back in the same dilemma. Should he flick? Again, he decided to take action when he came home from work and once again, returned only to Find another empty nester! The eggs were gone. All that remained was one full-grown pigeon feather.

Just two days later Ty had new tenants. He could hear the pigeon out there on the ledge behind his curtains (do they make sound proof curtains?). She was rearranging the place, settling in- when all of a sudden there was a ruckus of squawking and wings flapping and a noise on the AC Unit. Ty ran to the window and pulled back the curtain to see a Red-Tailed Hawk poised on top of the AC unit - wings outstretched and ready to strike the protective pigeon below. The unexpected presence- and closeness- of the tall winged-raptor surprised Ty; and the movement of the curtain and Ty's presence surprised the bird. They both squawked. Ty took a step back and the hawk swooped off.

I've seen a few Red-Tailed hawks in the park but they're perched high on a branch eyeing rodent-size dogs. They’re quite majestic. Maybe allowing Three is Company to roost on my windowsill isn’t the worst idea. I would like to see one of those wild hawks up-close and a little Park Bait might just do the trick.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Heavyweight Champion: Valentine's Day

Quote of the blog:

Mario looking at his travel calendar: This is like my love life. Nonexistent and doesn’t make sense.


When I was six or seven my sister called out, “Head’s up!” I turned around just as she tossed me a fun-sized Snickers. I watched the bar as it flew through the air towards me. Maybe you’ve experienced, or heard about, those rare moments when time slows down and you take in everything with a slow-motion clarity. That’s what happened and I remember it distinctly. I watched that Snickers float through the air, slowly rotating, as it spun my way. I watched, mesmerized, as that fun-sized candy bar grew in size and filled my vision as it flew closer and closer until WHAM! It smacked me in the forehead.

Ding! Ding! Round one goes to Snickers with a K.O.

It vaguely reminds me of what happens with me and Valentine’s Day each year. I forget what’s coming and then Bam! I get that first email with a subject like “Romantic Valentine’s Day Deals!” and then brace myself for the onslaught of Valentine’s ads, emails, and commercials that follow.

Don’t get me wrong; I hold no sour feelings in regard to this holiday – even when I’m single. Although sometimes when vendors ask me if I want to take advantage of a “Valentine’s couple’s discount” or “Valentine’s Day Special” I like to imagine that instead of saying, “No, thanks though.” I look at them with forlorn puppy dog eyes and say something “Gee, that really does sound great, if only I had someone to share it with.” [Cue: downcast eyes and dejected shuffling away.] Or I imagine grabbing a passing male and announcing, “We’ll take it!” Either thought makes me giggle.

One Sunday, last year at Valentine’s a group of us shared heart-shaped Dove chocolates at church. The inside of the wrappers had little inspirational sayings like “Happiness is celebrating the little things.” Or “Smile, today is going to be an amazing day” or “Chocolate is a gift of love” etc. Each time someone opened a chocolate we read the inside wrapper.

Eagerly, I unwrapped my dark chocolate goodie and smoothed out the tinfoil. It read:

Ding! Ding! Round two: Sunday Punch by Dove chocolate! Dove wins with a T.K.O!

Really Dove? "Be Your Own Valentine"? I’m just glad it wasn’t especially chosen and hand-delivered by a boy.

I do actually love this wrapper. It makes me laugh every time I see it - which is often, as I carry it in the back pocket of my mini-journal. Now that I’ve been amply reminded that Valentine’s is near, in a way I’m excited – hopefully I won’t be so hypnotized by what it brings that I can at least block any emotionally charged projectiles headed for the old glass jaw. Although, at Valentine’s maybe I wouldn’t mind catching one in the kisser.