In the London Underground a recording of a woman’s gentle voice with a clipped British accent, chides passengers to “Mind the gap” whenever they are stepping between the train and the platform. Gift shops sell a variety of souvenir clothing items including boxer shorts with the logo and the phrase “Mind The Gap” emblazoned across the backside. I recalled that this morning while driving to the Gabriola Ferry as an anxious young lady hurtled past me on the right and then squeezed through the decreasing gap between me and the massive truck lumbering along in her lane. I was already driving well above the speed limit but, apparently, not fast enough. This person’s superior agenda was calling on her to risk her life to gain a few seconds of the day. She was risking mine too but that was certainly not a consideration I’m sure. It happens every day no matter where one drives. I used to drive like a maniac myself until I realized that for all the dangerous franticism, I never arrived more than a few minutes less late for all those ubiquitous meetings. It was exhausting, hard on the vehicle, burned lots of extra fuel and the only favourable argument was that all the adrenaline kept me awake while on the road. Yeah right! I also used to consume several packs of cigarettes daily.
So many folks through the years have remarked on the dangerous things I like to do at sea and at one time as a pilot. I’ve often pointed out the odds stacked against us all on the roads, where our fate is determined by the twitch of someone else’s wrist, are incalculable. It is a miracle that hundreds don’t die on the roads daily. Of course there are also those who wander, and drive, about in traffic while intent on their texting, or movies, or GPS. The police rocket about with a cell phone stuffed in their ear, at least one police radio and at least one laptop computer glaring into their face. One of their duties is to provide tickets to motorists for distracted driving! Modern gadgets have managed to displace even our most primal instinct, fear.
In Mexico, it seems that dying on the road is an honourable way to die, and at each fatal crash site crosses are planted unabashedly. The crosses line Mexican roadsides by the tens of thousands. It is clear at some places, there are numerous repeated accidents in the same spot. Next please! Driving there, or anywhere in Latin America I’m told, is certainly not for the slow-witted or the faint of heart. The experiences deserves at least a blog all on its own.
Next week I’m driving to Astoria Oregon for my annual Fisher Poet’s Gathering. It is an event which draws folks who make their living at sea from all over the planet. Predominantly, the writers and musicians there fish in Alaska but some of us outsiders are invited to help flavour the stew. It is an orgy of blue-collar eloquence, a celebration of the working water person. Some of the work and the music is amazing. So are the products of the several local micro-breweries. Astoria is the gateway to Coastal Oregon and a truly breathtaking drive south to California on Highway 101. This route begins in Lund BC and eventually ends at the Mexican border in Tijuana. It ought to be as famous as Route 66 and is a wonderful, beautiful, trek that meanders southward along the Pacific Coast.
I won’t tempt the fates with any cracks about surviving the drive. See ya in the movies! Included is a preview of one of the pieces I’ll be reading in Astoria.
“Behind every succesful man is a woman rolling her eyes.”
Breakfast By Desdemona’s
Pouring rain; Astoria, late winter, late morning. I’m hung-under. Ragged black pot-bellied clouds low over the river looking as rough as I feel. Fisher Poet’s time of year, somehow I see it as a hint of spring, an annual ritual for me, an affirmation of proliteriate elocution and blue-collar sensibility, birds of a feather flocking together. I’m from out of town, up the coast, and don’t really know my way around here but I like this place. It’s full of real people, ones who work for a living and say what they mean and mean what they say. We can relate.
My old truck sloshes down the street and across from Firehall Number Two I see a hand-made sign that reads “Breakfast Burrito.” Something about its rustic flare reminds me of real Mexico so far away this morning. I turn in. A wet power steering belt squeals as I park.
Slapping wipers grunt to a stop. I survey the immediate neighbourhood. Next door, ‘The Desdemona Club’ has settled firmly into the ground. It intrigues me. Instead of windows it has a row of bronze portlights along the front. That’s very salty. Another sign a few doors away announces ‘Annies’.There are no clear windows I notice, bars on a solid heavy door with a sign forbidding minors. The faded Neon sign sports a reclining blond and beneath is the weary lettering, ‘Dancers.’ I’m not confused, there’s little diversity, sometimes that’s the way it is. It doesn’t matter, some of the comfort provided is in their universal sameness; a sense of home. I’ve been to biker bars, and every town has at least one ‘Hard Luck Bar and Grill’. Astoria, I’ve noticed, has a few. Annies, and Desdemona’s, I can tell, are places where you’ll find fishing crews hard aground. I wonder how many Alaskan summers have been blown away here in a few nights, or maybe even one. A whole tuna season perhaps gone in a game of poker in one of these places. I’ll bet there’s a fistful of broken teeth out back among the splintered glass,used condoms and cigarette butts. I’m not inclined to visit either place. Two doors up, a sign announces a health food store calling itself ‘The Center Of Balance.’
I’ve seen these sort of places too many times and I’m not keen for more. Sometimes I’ve been persuaded to reluctantly join a friend or a crew, “Ah c’mon let’s just go in; check it out”. They are never a place to go into straight-up sober and you should always make sure to take a seat that puts your back to the wall. I can imagine the purple terry-cloth table covers, held in place wtih elastic under the round edges. Those covers are often beer-wet soggy yet have cigarette burns in them. Chances are the chairs and stools have purple naugahyde coverings tacked in place with heavy metal brads. The walls around the joint will be covered with ancient ball team photos and soon you notice that some of the old fart regulars leaning on the bar were once those same young men in those pictures. There’s a ressemblance, much-faded, but it’s there. You wonder about their lives and what stories they have to tell.
The heavy beer pitchers and glasses are pitted and chipped. You know they’ve been thrown and dropped more than once. Some sorry young woman may be gyrating on a small stage to an incongruous tune. She’ll look weary and bored and plain as she undresses. You can see what she’ll look like when she’s old, in another ten years or so. There might be needle-marks on her arms. You can’t tell if that far away look of disappointment in her eyes is because no-one is watching her, or perhaps because a few are. I wonder what stories she can tell. There’s always an air of menace in these places, especially if you’re not local.
A hand-lettered sign tacked to the back wall, beneath the one that reads ‘Gents’ , reads “No Touching The Ladies.’ There’s a thick patina of nicotine tar on the ceiling and the grey pickled eggs in the jar on the bar look like they’ve had a few anniversaries. There’s a rancid taste to the place in every breath. ‘Seen one, seen e’m all’ I muse, bending myself away from my gloomy vicarious preview. I remember a waitress dealing with a gang of rowdies in a dive somewhere far up the mid-coast. A table of drunks was growing out of hand. One final affrontery lit her temper but this big Haida girl calmly said, “Look you guys, you know I’ve been out there on my dad’s boat for years. You’re not impressing me. You’re all the same. You’re always talking when you should be listening. You catch all your fish in the bar and chase all your women whenever you’re out on the boats.”
When I was wrenching on the packers a fellow engineer, (Shrek, we called him) , closed the bar in Zeballos, talking as usual when he should have been listening. A big old logger tuned him up magnificently. At dawn’s early light Shrek was out on the street where he met his assailant of a few hours earlier. “Y’any smarter today?” Shrek’s face looked like a bowel of plumbs all battered and purple. He leered his classic broken-toothed grin. ‘Hah, ya didn’t get one by me didja.”
A local fisherman in Astoria told me about the good old days. Desdemona’s was known as the “Dirty D”. There was a seiner’s bar and a trollers bar and a draggers bar and so on. I think I’ve been to a few dragger bars in my time.
In the restaurant the coffee is fresh and rich and black. The air is thick with aromas of culinary bliss. I order a shrimp burrito with heuvos rancheros. A belly-full of good food may help stave off the effects of too much rum. Or was it simply some bad ice ?
The waiter comes back apologizing. “Nada fresh shrimp this senor”; perhaps I’d like some ‘Langostino’ instead.
‘Si senor, por favor. Muy buen. Gracias.’ He smiles bravely at my mutilated Spanish and scurries off. Soon a plate is delivered that’s the size of a hatch cover. It’s heaped with steaming goodness and I eat till I’m full. Then I clean the plate. In happy agony I step outside where the sun now ladders down through the gloom. Out on the river, sea lions bellow and an old seine boat bucks up the river against the beginning of the ebb. I watch until it finally dissappears behind a desserted cannnery. Two pickup trucks are parked on the street beneath the faded blond. One has a load of crab pots, the other, a heap of roughly stowed gill net. Fishermen, at one of the bars. It’s hardly turned eleven o’clock. The rain begins again. I turn the key in the ignition. The starter only clicks. Dead battery! I realize I’ve left the headlights on. My front tire is in a pot hole. No hope of a rolling start. Four-lettered expletives!
Water cascades again down the windshield as I consider my options. That doesn’t take long, I don’t have any. First stop Desdemona’s . It’s closest.
I was wrong. It is clean and bright and friendly inside. The freshly varnished tables have no covers. There are no fishermen. I head for Annie’s.