Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Banshee

My grandfather was not only a superstitious man, but he worried almost constantly -- worst case scenarios were his specialty. He was a Boston Irish Catholic who went to Harvard when Irish Need Not Apply signs still hung in Boston storefronts. Pop was a day student at Harvard and his classmates would not speak to him because he was Irish. He graduated with the class of ‘28 and went on to work on Wall Street -- his first day on the job? October 29, 1929 -- Black Tuesday. He witnessed men jumping out of windows after losing their fortunes. So no wonder he worried.

A hat left on a bed would haunt him for weeks. A black cat crossing his path would send him to that cabinet over the refrigerator where Johnnie Walker would console him. “Never change a horse’s name.” Pop would say and I never did. “Never walk in one shoe.” or "Never walk with a crutch unless you truly need it." Once, when I was very small, I was playing with an umbrella in the house -- I opened it and walked about like the girl on the Morton's Salt box. Pop raised his voice to me, something he almost never did, “Don’t do that! Close it up, that’s bad luck!” A horse shoe was always to be hung with the opening upright so that the luck wouldn’t fall out. Getting out of bed on Friday the Thirteenth was practically impossible for him. He saw risk and omens everywhere he went and I grew up thinking this was a normal way to carry on.

I developed an intense fear of the dark when I went to live with my grandparents at the age of three. My mother had divorced my father and she had to earn a living working with horses on the race tracks of New York. She walked into a world where women were rare and not welcomed. Bringing me along was just not possible. So she left me in the hands of my quirky grandparents on a little farm in Connecticut, with horses and dogs and the Long Island Sound nearby. There wasn’t anything to be afraid of. I was given my own room and my pony was in the barn. But the change in my surroundings and the sudden absence of my mother instilled in me a desperate need to sleep with a light on. The closet light worked most nights, but there were nights when I needed not only the closet to be illuminated, but the bathroom light had to be on too...this would fill the hallway with a comforting glow that nothing evil could emerge from. My grandparents slept in separate bedrooms and Pop’s room would be filled by the light from the bathroom too, unless he closed his door. But I had a thing about my grandparents closing their bedroom doors at night too -- I needed them to be completely accessible. So poor Pop would spend the night showered in the light that I required. But he and my grandmother never made me feel that this problem I had with the dark was odd or wrong. I am sure they figured I would outgrow it, but it wasn’t until I went to college and had a roommate that I was finally forced to sleep in the dark -- I was too embarrassed to tell her that I needed a light on and so I would lie there sweating myself to sleep.

Pop told me about The Banshee one Halloween -- he wasn’t one to conjure up scary stories, although he was one of the best story tellers I ever knew. He was famous among his friends for his tales of horses and polo games. He had a mind like a vault for details and his memory never failed him in his 97 years -- if only his heart had remained as strong as his mind, he never would have left us. The Banshee, he explained, was a horrible screaming woman who’s visitation told of imminent death -- he described her as a hag with long dirty hair. She went running about in a long diaphanous gown and put the willies into the hearts of even the most courageous of Irishmen. He told me of hearing a knocking noise in the house the night his father died -- he was sure it was The Banshee trying to get in. His father was in Boston and my grandfather was miles and miles away in in southern Connecticut. But Pop said the knocking woke him in the middle of the night. In the morning he received a call that his father, who was a terrible drunk, had fallen down the cellar stairs and had died of a fractured skull.

My grandmother told him to stop frightening me with tales of The Banshee...but he wanted me to know about this harbinger of death, it was a tale his mother had told him and I am certain that he believed that The Banshee existed and that she might come for him one night. Of course I had to sleep with the closet light and the bathroom light on that night -- certainly the power of the light would keep this horrible bitch from coming into our house.

There was a rash of tack thefts around Connecticut in the mid-seventies. People were breaking into horse barns late at night and stealing saddles, bridles, any leather goods they could get their hands on. They were stealing horses too -- and selling them to slaughter houses. Our barn was close to the road on our 5-acre property, which made it an easy target -- far enough away from the house that someone could sneak in at night unnoticed. My grandfather decided to have an alarm system installed in the barn. We had a good friend named Clint who was a polo player and an electrician -- I nicknamed him String Bean cause he was so tall and skinny. So String Bean came over and put sensors on all the stall doors, the main door to the barn and the door to the tack room. He hung this enormous bell just outside the loft door under the eaves of the barn roof. When the bell was activated it sounded like an air raid -- it sounded like a prison break at San Quentin -- it sounded like a heist at Fort Knox. Nobody was going to sleep through that. And the horses were terrified of it -- their eyes bulged, they snorted, and spun in their stalls as String Bean tested each sensor to make certain it would trip the alarm.

Pop was very satisfied with his new burglar alarm. My grandmother was appalled and embarrassed by it. She apologized in advance to all the nearby neighbors and said that if Pop wasn’t such a Worry Wart, it wouldn’t be necessary. The neighbors just laughed.

It was summer time when Pop and String Bean put the alarm in the barn and back then, nobody in Connecticut had air conditioning. We all slept with our windows wide open -- the night air and the symphony of cicadas would set us all to dreaming....even if the closet light was on.

On the night of a full moon, exactly two weeks after String Bean had wired our barn against intruders, the alarm went off in the middle of the night. Its great bell revved and blasted like a wave up the hill from the barn and into the windows of our house. It silenced every cicada within 20 miles, I am certain of it. It woke my grandfather. It woke my grandmother. It woke me. I balled up under my sheets and squeezed my eyes shut and plugged my ears....all I could imagine was the story of Black Beauty. In my mind I saw a dirty little Cockney man with bad teeth wearing a torn tweed coat stealing my pony with the intention of taking him to work in the coal mines. I heard Pop get up out of bed -- “Goddammit! Goddammit!”

Now my grandfather was not one for hurrying -- I could hear him banging around in his room for his clothes and his boots. His boots were lace up paddock boots -- they took some time to put on and at 3 am, they were going to take that much more effort. My grandmother knew this. She had lived with the man for close to 40 years at this point. And she was furious about the alarm -- in her mind, all the neighbors were awake now and swearing a blue streak about the Glynn’s nuisance noise maker. So without a word, she slipped out of her bedroom in her bare feet and night gown. She busted out the kitchen screen door and ran to the barn to turn off the alarm as I trembled in my bed, certain that my pony was already half way to the coal mines of Wales. Then, the bell, as suddenly as it had started ringing, went silent.

I heard the screen door slam and I peered out my window to see my grandfather trundling in the moonlight toward the barn. I had no idea that my grandmother had left the house. The bell was so loud, I didn’t hear the kitchen door slam the first time -- when my grandmother went racing out bravely into the dark. And Pop had no idea that she had run out there either.

Pop made his way down the hill toward the barn. I am sure he was full of adrenaline and ready to catch some fiend carrying a pile of polo saddles. Pop was a big man and strong -- he was not averse to physical violence if need be, hell, he was Boston Irish, he was an old polo player, he knew how to take a man down. But as Pop made his way toward the barn, a vision appeared. She was aglow with the summer moon and her diaphanous gown fluttered in the night air -- her hair seemed to stand on end and she was moving quickly toward him. He stopped. He shuddered. He called out to the apparition, “WHO WHO WHOOOOOOOOOOOOO THE HELLLLLLLLL ARRRRRRRRR YOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUU?!” His knees went weak, he had expelled all the air in his lungs to address The Banshee who stood just a few feet away from him.

“OH TOM GLYNN! For GOD’s sakes, its me! Its Mabel! Jesus Christ! I had to turn that thing off before the whole Westport Police Department arrived! One of the horses must have kicked at a door and set it off...”

To the day he died, my grandfather denied this ever happened and if my grandmother would tell the story in his presence he would turn scarlet red in the face and say she was a Damn Liar.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 24, 2009


I fell out of my grandmother’s Dodge Dart when I was five years old onto the Post Road in Westport, Connecticut. The Post Road was a busy four lane thoroughfare. We were returning home from my grandmother’s morning errands...the post office and then Calise’s grocery for the New York Times and the Daily News.

I remember the interior of the Dart was red, not leather, probably some sort of naugahyde, but it was red, and I used to sit in the front seat, with my back to the passenger side door and my little legs stretched to my grandmother as she drove...punctuated by my red leather mary janes on my feet. I loved those shoes, they had a button strap and my grandparents brought them to me from a trip to Ireland. It was the only trip they ever took abroad together...they brought me those shoes and a beautiful heavyweight knitted cardigan sweater. The Dart was grey on the exterior and it had a push button grandmother pushed the wrong button frequently and the rear of our garage had the evidence to show it.

I remember the door falling away behind me and the slow motion backwards somersault that I did out on to the pavement -- I remember my grandmother’s arm reaching for me but disappearing and then I rolled and rolled and there were cars and sky and cars and sky. It was a grey day and the sky cast this white cloudy glare on the pavement and me. I remember the bright red brake lights of the Dart as my grandmother came to an hysterical sliding stop, somewhere in front of the Clam Box...this big ugly seafood restaurant that made you wear paper bibs decorated with lobsters. My grandmother came running back up the Post Road and the cars were all around blowing their horns and screeching and doors were flying open. I was in a ball on the cold wet pavement...nobody hit me, but I knocked one of my teeth out, so my mouth was full of blood...the taste of salt sometimes reminds me of falling out of the car.

Mom scooped me up and put me back in the Dart -- there was no discussion with the onlookers, just a hasty and embarrassed retreat. I kept asking her to go back and get my tooth, for the tooth fairy, but she said the tooth fairy would pay up anyway, that the fairy would understand that my tooth had been lost in extenuating circumstances.

Pantry Girl -- Afterword

A few months ago I dug into an old box of stories and poems that I wrote almost a century ago -- I save them for some reason, maybe to see how far I have come. But I found a poem I wrote about growing up, becoming a woman...and what I thought was a woman when I was 18 years old is a far cry from what I think a woman is now. But the poem recalled a memory of a rainy summer afternoon on the lunch shift at Allen’s Clam House.

I was sitting on that ice cream freezer in the corner and there was only one diner in the dining room. I watched her through the round window of the swinging kitchen door as Fred waited on her. The wind was blowing across the mill pond and there were little white caps rolling in to shore...the sea was up enough that I could hear it slapping the floor boards of the dining room. The grey light poured in the big picture windows and lit this beautiful woman up as she ate lunch alone at a small table. Her white blonde hair was pulled back tightly from her face in a bun and she wore a grey turtleneck despite it being summer. As I watched her, she seemed as though she were aboard a ship, the dining room was meant to feel that way, but the way she looked out on the water made the dream of a voyage true.

Fred brought her a glass of white wine and took her order. She smiled and with aplomb, she handed him the menu. She was the most confident woman I had ever seen in my 18 short years. The kitchen door swung open and Fred quietly ordered a house salad, as if using his normal voice would disturb this woman’s solitude. I hopped down and made the salad for her and tried to make it better than usual. I wanted her to be happy with the salad that Fred would present to her. I put the salad up and without a word he floated it out to her -- I craned my neck to watch him serve her. She began to eat, all the while gazing out at the mill pond. As she ate, one of the swans that frequented the pond floated by, his neck curled in a sheltering way. He was tossed up and down on the waves, but he held his wings close to his body and remained like the woman, meditative, and brightly lit by the grey day.

Fred hung close as I watched the woman eat her salad...he was waiting for Mike to finish making her broiled scallops. The restaurant seemed to rock with the gusts of wind and I could see the swan drifting further away from shore. I wondered why the swan didn’t just take shelter in the marsh, he seemed so stubborn to be out there on the waves, pelted by the summer rain. The scallops were up and Fred delivered them to our lovely woman diner. The bones of her face looked strong, her shoulders were square, she seemed as though the wind could blow the whole place down and she would remain perfectly in her seat, solid against the elements...just like the swan.

I thought about her the rest of the day, long after she left the restaurant, her presence was with me. I carried her countenance home in my head and wrote about her -- I wrote that I wanted to be something like her someday. I suppose I still do.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pantry Girl - Final Installment - The Power of Whip Cream

Allen’s Clam House was demolished a few years ago -- like much of old Westport it was pushed over by a bulldozer and loaded into trucks that drove off with its bones. I read something about Paul Newman and Harvey Weinstein making a fuss over the fate of the land where Allen’s used to stand -- they used their big celebrity voices and money to ensure that the spot was reclaimed as a park, a small natural area that now juts out into the marsh and the mill pond with distant views of the Long Island Sound preserved. Of course, I don’t think there would have been such a push for this preservation had the mill pond not been in the direct line of sight of Weinstein’s palatial home -- his environmental concerns were fully engaged by his view shed being threatened. But that’s Westport, Connecticut, a place that no longer resembles the place I grew up in.

With Brody gone, I was able to enjoy my job at Allen’s again. I could go into the walk in freezer or out to the barn or walk to my car in the dark free of fear -- I was liberated, you might say. The Pantry Girls liked to dance in the pantry. Wayne let us play the radio on slow nights and on lunch shifts - terrible disco would alternate with music worth listening to like Blondie and The Clash and David Bowie. It was the early 80s, MTV was barely up and running and the music industry was grappling with some sort of personality disorder. When the bad disco came on we liked to dance in unison, us Pantry Girls -- there wasn’t alot of room back there, so mostly we stood in line and waved our arms and shifted our feet...something along the lines of the Platters or the Jackson Five. We were passing the time between orders in the most ridiculous way possible.

When I wasn’t dancing like an idiot, making salads or scooping ice cream onto glistening slices of apple pie or making coffee, you could find me reading the Daily Racing Form with Tony the waiter. My mother trained race horses in New York, she was one of the first women to be licensed by the New York Racing Association and I loved to keep up with racing because of her. My father worked for the Daily Racing Form as a photographer and it was always fun to see his name in the credits of the paper. My parents had been long divorced and maintained a frosty silence, yet they both worked at the track...I suppose they became well-practiced at avoiding one another. And me, I was back in Connecticut living with my grandparents, but ever the child expert on race horses. Tony would pour over the race cards with me and ask for picks...he’s circle them with a pencil and then run off to call his bookie. I think I earned a fair amount of good money for Tony -- and he liked to talk about the horses in his broken English. Tony was a long time Fixture and I hate to say this, but he was everyone’s idea of an Italian waiter -- he was short and very stout, with palm aid in his hair and gold rings on his fingers -- he was Joe Pesci before there was a Joe Pesci. He was hot headed and tense but at least he was kind to me when we talked race horses.

But then one night Tony crossed the line, like everyone was apt to do in that kitchen...we’d get bored or tired or overexcited when the evening rush came and we’d blurt out something totally inappropriate or make a bad move. We were always forgiven sometime later for it, but we payed for our indiscretions in the most immediate of ways...scorn and retaliation were expected and then you would be cleansed days later as though you had diligently said your Hail Marys in just the right way as to please the Gods.

It was a crazy night, one of those summer nights when the car parking boys could barely fit the cars in the lot...the tourists were in town, the Long Island Sound was sparkling under the summer stars and making everyone want Lobster and Steamers! Tony rushed into the kitchen and told me he needed 4 hot fudge sundaes, chop chop! He had a way of making you drop everyone else’s orders, as though his order was never to be put in the cue, he was the Senior Fixture and everything, everything he wanted now. So I got out the sundae dishes still slightly warm from the dishwasher and I opened the little stand up freezer that was crammed into the corner of the pantry. The ice cream sat down low in that freezer and you had to bend over and put your head and shoulders down in there to get the ice cream...this was always refreshing on a hot night in the kitchen, to be upside down in the cold with the sweet smell of ice cream all around you. But Tony goosed me -- this was no ordinary pinching of one’s hind end, no this was an all out rude goosing of the Pantry Girl at her most vulnerable...ass in the air and head in the freezer. I swung up and hit my head on the inside of the freezer and dropped the two sundae dishes and the scoop down inside the freezer. I hung there for a minute and then I surfaced to find Tony standing there, before I could punch him he just leaned into my face and gruffly ordered “Hurry up!” I was incensed - my head hurt and this rude old man wanted me to Hurry Up? I scanned the kitchen -- there were some onlookers but they were too busy to get involved at the moment and Wayne’s all seeing eye was looking at the orders so numerous that he probably thought there weren’t enough lobsters in the sea to feed the diners that night.

“Tony, I’ll make your sundaes. Just go check on your tables and when you get back, they’ll be ready.” Tony spun around and went out the swinging doors. I collected myself and started over making the sundaes, asking Pantry Girl Number One, Kathleen, to cover my ass as I dove back into the freezer. As I built the lovely and perfect little sundaes an idea came to me. Fred slid in behind me and Kathleen to pour coffee for his tables and he poked me, “You’re not going to let Tony get away with that are you?”

“Nope!” as I topped off my perfectly made sundaes with a generous helping of whip cream and the shockingly red maraschino cherries. Nuts? yes, lets add nuts to this I thought as Fred continued to pour coffee. “What are you gonna do to him kiddo?”

“Not telling. You just watch. Its gonna be good.” Fred smiled and whisked out the doors into the dining room -- briefly I could see Tony standing at one of his tables, making some sort of clever joke to his diners, working for that tip, the one that he would want to bet on a horse the next day. The door swung closed again. Kathleen looked at me, “What are you going to do?” We were best friends, but I didn’t tell her everything. I told her to wait and see, that I would strike later on, when Tony was least expecting it. I knew my plan was risky, but I felt capable of carrying it out. It was a simple plan and it had to be done -- I had a new sense of self after Brody’s abuse. I wasn’t going to be goosed or pinched or caught up in a dark barn again without some kind of fight. I placed the four elegant little sundaes on a round tray for Tony -- he busted back into the kitchen expecting to have to push me around some more, but I met him with a smile and the sundaes balanced up on the tray for him. He took the tray and patted me on the cheek like I was his good little girl. I was all ready for him.

The night wore on and the tourists kept eating and eating and drinking and eating. Tony kept shouting orders at me and Fred had put everyone on notice that there was going to be a killing...they were all depending on me to come through. Of course the news stopped somewhere over the soup station and so Wayne had no idea that a plan was afoot.

I went back to the walk in freezer and pulled a box of Reddi-Whip cans off the shelf and headed back to the Pantry. I carefully took the colorful cans out of the box and arranged them on a shelf in the Pantry refrigerator -- all of the cans, except for one which I place on a shelf next to the ice cream freezer. And then I leaned back on the little freezer and waited for Tony. Fred and Ray could see I was in position. For what they didn’t know, but they hung by the pantry and faked having something important to discuss. Tony pushed his way into the kitchen, he went into the kitchen bathroom and stood on his toes to look at himself in the mirror. He smoothed his hair and straightened his little black bow tie. And then he came straight to me. He turned his back and started prepping coffee cups and saucers on to a tray. I had him right where I wanted him. With my left hand I grabbed the back of his collar and pulled as hard as I could and with my right hand I swiftly grabbed the Reddi-Whip can, popped off the top with my thumb and then sank that thing down into his shirt where I proceeded to deposit the entire contents down his hairy back. I was at least as tall as Tony and I was strong...I kept one knee pressed into his ass to steady myself as I held onto his throat. He shook violently as I emptied the can of whip cream -- his arms were swinging backwards like a father trying to hit a kid in the backseat of a car while driving...but he was powerless. He screamed at me, “You FUCKINA FUCKINA FUCKINA BITCH!” The whole kitchen was roaring, coffee cups flew to the floor. Tony turned around and suddenly the possibility that he might just hit me or have a cardiac arrest dawned on me. But the whole kitchen was all around us. Tony was literally foaming at the mouth -- busboys came running in from the dining room to see what the ruckus was. I just stood there, silently holding my empty weapon. Wayne pushed through the crowd, “What the hell is going on?!”

Tony sputtered, “This Fuckina bitch! Look what she did. Fire her!”

Wayne looked at me, he knew I wouldn’t do Tony like that unless I had a reason. “Kiddo, what’s going on here?”

“Tony goosed her when she was in the freezer. He had it coming.” Fred chimed in.

“Jesus Tony! You’re done for the night. Go upstairs and clean yourself up. Fred, Ray, finish up Tony’s tables. Take his tips. And you Kiddo, good job.”

Tony was like a cartoon gorilla - his chest was heaving up and down and you could see the whip cream billowing up and out of his shirt collar. He deflated though when Wayne sent him upstairs and we all went back to our stations - we still had a restaurant full of customers, the night was still young.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pantry Girl -- Part Three - The Dastardly Case of the Predator Chef Boy

Pantry Girl, Pantry Girl
Gets her panties in twirl
Pantry Girl, Pantry Girl
makes the waiters wanna hurl
Look out! Its Pantry Girl!

(to be sung to the tune of the Spider Man Theme)

Did I mention Allen’s was incestuous? Our daily proximity led to noble alliances, camaraderie, crushes, and secret trysts. The Pantry Girls tended to stick together and because we were for the most part 16 and 17 years old, the men in the kitchen had fun with us, but they knew their boundaries...most of the time. Innuendo flew around the kitchen constantly and some of it was lost on us girls, but much of it sank in. The head chef who worked side by side with Wayne was Mike -- Mike was every Pantry Girl’s Dream Boy and he knew it. He toyed with us with no intention of ever getting tangled up with us. He was 27, maybe 28 years old and he had a beautiful girlfriend who would visit the kitchen occasionally...her showing up was always a dose of reality for us Pantry Girls. Mike’s girlfriend was a Woman, we were skinny blond kids. But he took every chance to play on our affection for him. He’d come over to our side of the kitchen on slow nights and eat ice cream out of the freezer with us and brush up against us. When he caught one of us staring at him from across the kitchen, he’d wink....this of course, would make your face flush and you would quickly find that more coffee needed to be made or that the counters needed to be wiped down, anything to make it look like you had no interest in the guy. But it was all in good fun.

It was a similar story with the waiters. While I was enamored of Mike’s good looks, I was somewhat tortured by a crush on Fred. His resemblance to John Cleese was part of the attraction, as I was mad for Monty Python. And his lanky tall being had a pull on me too -- he was strangely handsome with a boney face and a Pink Panther way of going. And he was in a tuxedo every night...what girl could pass that up? But mostly, he was nice to me -- he made jokes throughout the busy nights and always kept me entertained. And he never lost his patience with me if I messed up an order -- he just waited for me to get it right. But he was years and years older than me and so I felt that I had been born at the wrong time...I would lament that I wasn’t a contemporary to Fred the Waiter. Of course I was blind to some of his faults - there was the fact that he only rode a bicycle and had no driver’s license, probably due to the law taking it away from him years before. And he was really a neerdowell -- he worked summers at Allen’s and spent his winters in Florida with Ray betting on race horses. Fred knew I had a crush on him and he handled me very kindly -- it all came crashing down at a staff pool party at Ray’s house. There was quite a bit of debaucherie going on and I took the opportunity to follow Fred into the pool. I was 17 and thought for sure Fred would give in and kiss me...nope! Fred swam away and said “Sorry kiddo...may I call you kiddo?” and that was the end. I recovered quickly though and ran off into the bushes with one of the bus boys, who was a was hardly Fred, but I could finally claim that I had partaken in the kitchen incest games.

But things turned serious for me my second summer at Allen’s and without Wayne’s all-seeing eye, I could have gotten hurt. Wayne hired a young chef named Brody -- he had just graduated from CIA, that’s the Culinary Institute. He was probably 22 or 23 years old. Everything about him was a bad mood -- he was taut and built like a steeplechase jockey...sinewy and quick. He had an ugly face, it was gaunt and scarred from acne. There wasn’t a thing about him that I liked. I seem to recall that the kitchen staff was wary of him -- Mike was all business with him, things were a bit more serious with this guy around, he wasn’t funny. About a week or so into his employment, he started asking me out after work. He would catch me in the walk in freezer or on my way out the door and ask me if I wanted to go have a drink with him. I always told him “no, you’re too old for me” of course, I never would have said that to Fred who was even older than Brody, but it was the answer I always gave Brody. He kept at me. He asked me out every night and every night I said no. I told no one in the kitchen that he was bothering me, not even my best friend Kathleen. There was something about his pursuit that embarrassed me, made me feel ashamed. And I thought if I kept saying no, that he would just leave me alone.

But he didn’t leave me alone. He followed me out to the old red barn where we kept various supplies -- I managed to collect the boxes of things Wayne had asked for and thwart Brody’s advance on me. Wayne was a hunter -- he sometimes hung freshly killed deer out in the barn. He knew this was always a bit of a shock to the Pantry Girls and he would send us out there in the dark for fun to give us a little scare. You’d go into the dark barn and while feeling your way around for the lights you would bump into a carcass -- it was awful, but again, it was all in sick fun. But there was a night I went out to my car to find someone had tied a deer heart to the door handle, a la The Godfather. I yanked the bloody thing off my Volkswagon bug and drove home. I knew of only one person who could have done that to me and it was Brody.

One night I was walking out to my car -- it was close to 1 A.M. and the parking lot was desolate. Brody followed me out there and caught me before I opened my car door. He pressed up against me, I could feel the door handle digging into my back. “How about tonight? You gotta say yes some day. You can’t just keep running away, you know.” I was really afraid, I felt powerless. But out of nowhere came Fred. Maybe he was back in the marsh smoking pot, who knows, but he appeared and Brody released his hold on me and I took the opportunity to open my car door and get in. Fred towered over Brody, “Did I interrupt something?” Brody backed away and I replied to Fred while rolling my window down, “No, not at all, I’m tired and going home. Bye guys.” I peeled out of the dark parking lot and left Fred to deal with Brody. I remember going home that night and getting out of my fish-laden clothes. I stood in my underwear by the washer machine in my grandmother’s was the middle of the night and I was crying. I didn’t want to go back to work.

But I went back to work the next night. Pantry Girls had various jobs. One of them was to wash hot saute pans in the big metal sink that sat at the end of the kitchen. Wayne or one of the chefs would holler “Pans!” at us and you would run over and hand wash the steaming pans. You had to do this several times on busy nights or the chefs would run out of pans. Occasionally a chef would come up behind you with a pan to add to the water -- he would say “Hot Pan” and you would step aside as he put it in the soapy water. The pan would make this horrendous searing sound as it hit the water and you would wait a few seconds for it to cool before you resumed washing. It was an unpleasant and hot job. This night was especially busy, it was an early June Saturday night and the place was packed. There was no time for me to worry about Brody, everyone was doing their best to keep up with the orders. You could barely hear yourself think with all the chaos. Mike hollered “Pans!” and I dropped what I was doing and went to my station at the sink. I was scrubbing away, sweating into the soapy hot water when all of the sudden a red hot pan slid down my forearm. My arm practically caught on fire -- I could smell my skin burning. I turned to see Brody grinning at me...he never warned me, just branded me with the pan, I was terrified and furious all at the same time. He leaned into me and said, “Maybe next time you’ll say yes...” My skin crawled. I turned on the cold water and ran it over my arm. I thought nobody had seen what had happened. But Wayne did. He saw the whole thing. He waited and came over with another hot pan, “Watch out kiddo, I got a hot pan here.” I backed away and he slid the pan into the water. The steam exploded all around us, “You okay? That’s gotta hurt!” I nodded and bit my lip. I didn’t want to cry in front of everyone. Wayne handed me a fresh towel, “Listen kiddo, you go upstairs. There’s a first aid kit up there, put something on that. I’ll finish these pans.”

Later that night, I was mopping the pantry floor and Wayne came over. Almost everyone had left for the night. The kitchen was finally quiet, except for the murmurings of people out at the bar drifting through the kitchen doors. “How’s the arm kiddo?”

“Its better Wayne, thanks. I’ll be alright.”

“You got a horse show tomorrow don’t you?” I did have a horse show the next day. Wayne knew I rode horses and he always asked how my horses were and congratulated me when I won a ribbon or two.


“Well, before I let you outta here early, so you can rest up for your horse show tomorrow, I want to ask you a question.”

“Okay...” I figured he was going to ask me to work more hours over the next week, switch my schedule around somehow.

“Is Brody giving you a hard time? Some of the staff said he might be giving you a hard time...”

“Um, Brody? no, not really. Nothing I can’t handle, I guess. ” I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to bother Wayne with my troubles. But he could see I was shaken. I could barely keep from crying.

“Listen kiddo. Here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna take a few days off and then I want you to come back and Brody will still be here. I want to you to be brave and just work like nothing happened. We’ll watch out for you -- don’t walk to your car alone or go out to the barn alone. And then in a couple of weeks, I’m gonna fire him. But I don’t want him to think I’m firing him cause of you. Can you handle that?”

“Yes Wayne. I can handle that.” And two weeks later, Brody was gone. All very quietly like nothing had ever happened. Life Lesson Number 543B -- the badly behaved can be taken care of quietly and painlessly.

Next? The Power of Whip Cream!!!!!!

Pantry Girl -- Part Two

I can’t help but think of Allen’s whenever I watch an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Ramsay wouldn’t have stood a chance with us -- he would have marched into that kitchen and we would have made short work of him and then, then we would have deposited him into the Mill Pond with no life preserver. Yes, it was that tough of a kitchen.

Blessed are the diners, but they were damned to a nasty doggie-bag surprise if they mistreated or pissed off any of the waiters. We had this nice young Asian waiter named Lee -- he was quiet and unassuming, nothing like the Fixtures. Lee had a talent for origami -- and when diners requested a doggie bag, Lee was usually the one to make the package. We didn’t issue those tacky paper bags or styrofoam boxes...gosh, did they have styrofoam back then? Anyway, Allen’s sent diners home with their leftovers wrapped in foil. Lee would fashion his foil packages into these magnificent little silver swans, which astonished and impressed not only the diners, but the kitchen staff. Quickly, waiters decided that Lee would be in charge of all doggie bag requests -- it brought in bigger tips and the WOW factor was always audible from the dining room. But sometimes our clientele misbehaved -- not surprising in Westport, Connecticut, which was rife with the filthy rich who saw no harm in abusing waiters and busboys -- and the Fixtures developed an ingenious way to punish these ruffians, while keeping a smile on their face.

The retaliation was subtle and was meted off the premises of the restaurant, ensuring the diner would be given complete notice not to return to our doorstep and no scenes could be made in the dining room. Offending diners were presented a gift at the end of the meal -- sometimes they requested their leftovers to be packaged up, but in the case of no leftovers, the waiter would surprise them with a beautiful origami swan made of foil, and if they were especially bad, he might send them home with more than one swan, “Compliments of the House!”. The diners would practically swoon over this gesture and the waiter would smile widely as he helped the ladies with their coats and said goodnight to the nasty husbands. It was easy to be nice to those who had wronged him because he knew what they would find inside their sparkling Trojan water fowl when they returned home.

And what, you ask, was contained in the gift that was as lovely as a Christmas Cracker? A very simple thing really, but powerfully offensive. We offered two kinds of dinner rolls at Allen’s, the standard white rolls with sesame seeds on top or dark and hearty pumpernickel. Funny thing is that when you take the crust off of a pumpernickel roll and dunk it in water, you can shape the wonderful dark bread into something that resembles a dog turd -- only the trained eye of say a waiter or a pantry girl can discern the difference. But a badly behaved restaurant patron, who excitedly unwraps their magical little tin foil gift in hopes of a little leftover bliss cannot distinguish the thing sitting in front of them as being anything but a turd. Ain’t revenge grand?

At the time, being the naive teenage thing that I was, the goings on in the kitchen were a trial by fire for me -- an education that one should expect from a first job. I’m not speaking of the lessons of responsibility, the getting to work on time, the virtues of hard work, no, I am talking about real life lessons that prepare one to go out in the world and take care of one’s self. And Allen’s provided those lessons in a fairly sharp way, but the consequences were not deadly, you were not an indian brave alone in the desert trying to survive the cold and killing a jack rabbit with your bare hands, no your fuck-ups could be reconciled. I found out quickly that while I was not under the protective supervision of my grandparents, I was, in fact constantly being observed by the all-seeing eye of the kitchen, Wayne. He was a father before he was a chef and this quality saved my skinny ass on more than one occasion. Nothing got by him in that kitchen.

Which brings me to the dastardly case of the the Predator Chef Boy...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bethune Pottery, Route 1, South Carolina

Where has she been? She's been rambling around South Carolina! and she finally made a stop at the Bethune Pottery -- she's been driving by it for a year now, swearing she was gonna stop and wander around the armies of was raining and kinda cold when she got there last Wednesday and was a perfect day to worship King Kong and Lady Liberty!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pantry Girl, Part One

Current events caused my 72 year old mother and I to talk on the phone the other night more frankly than we usually do. We are both David Letterman fans and the thought that he might be sued for sexual harassment made my mother and I look way back in time, to a time when there were no such legal protections for women or men, for that matter, in the workplace. She and I shared a few war stories and had a good laugh.

My mother was one of the first few girls to work on the New York race tracks back in the late sixties. Thoroughbred racing was a man’s world back then, still is in many respects today, but in 1969, a girl was really on her own on the backstretch. My mother had come from a family of horsemen and women and she had made a good name for herself as a professional show horse rider. So when she showed up looking for work on the race track, she carried with her an impressive resume. She was there out of desperation -- her divorce from my father had left her in dire financial straits and the race track was her best hope for making a career and a future for herself.

But my mother’s talent and knowledge didn’t seem to count for much when she got to the track -- sure, it opened some doors, but then those doors were closed when she found herself in the unfortunate position of having to fend off powerful men who wanted her not just for her ability with horses -- as she said the other night, “They would say ‘its this way, baby, or you can go work in someone else’s barn.’ ” And so she would go work in another barn. The dirty old man factor in the horse show world was mild compared to what she found at the track. The backstretch society was home to all walks of life, from the classiest and richest horsemen to drunks and drug addicts and low-lifes who were desperate for work and my then 32 year old slight-figured pretty blonde mother didn’t exactly fade into the background. Any girl who worked on the track back then ran a daily gauntlet of cat calls and serious advances...a girl had to expect to be cornered in a stall or a dark tack room once in a while -- it came with the territory. But she fought it off somehow.

When my mother landed her first really good gig as an exercise girl for a Hall of Fame trainer, she faced another problem. The trainer became a true friend to her and my family and was always the consummate professional when it came to working with my mother, but the 57 black and Hispanic men who worked for him considered my mother to be on the bottom of their totem pole. They ignored her for the first three or four weeks that she was on the job -- they wouldn’t speak to her or even acknowledge her presence. They complained to the boss if my mother was assigned to ride one of their charges, they wanted exercise boys to ride their champ, not some little girl. She had to show up seven mornings a week and endure the silence and the idea that she might never be accepted by these guys. And the ironic thing was that she admired them -- these men, these horse grooms, were poor and flawed in a myriad of ways, but there was one thing they excelled at and that was taking care of their race horses. They knew their horses' moods, their ailments, they iced their legs and rubbed down their muscles with secret liniments. The horses made them better men, by giving them a job and by giving them dignity and status in an America that robbed them of those things. Their ways with horses were magical.

Eventually the gang of 57 would accept my mother -- they saw she wasn’t leaving and they gave in to her because of her tenacity. She earned their respect by just showing up every day. They became some of her best friends and greatest teachers -- she laments that they are all gone now, that people like them don’t exist on the track anymore. The tough details of my mother’s life on the backstretch were a mystery to me until I was grown -- her war stories were clearly too hard for her to share until she felt ready.

And me? I learned in my own way how to protect myself at work and in life, albeit not in the same solitary and dire manner as my mother. My life lessons began when I got a job as a Pantry Girl in a seafood restaurant in the mid-eighties. I was a painfully naive teenager and joining the kitchen staff of Allen’s Clam House was not unlike joining the crew of a pirate ship. Allen’s was a fish shack of a higher order -- it was situated on a mill pond that stretched into the Long Island Sound and the old clapboard building hung its dining room out over the water, which thrilled diners, but irked health inspectors -- you could actually hear the water slapping up against the floor boards and it was not an unusual sight to see a muskrat scurry across the kitchen floor late in the evening hours when we were closing the place for the night.

Allen’s was held in high esteem though, being a seasonal beach dive for wealthy New Yorkers, stuffy old Westporters and the occasional celebrity like John Travolta and his parents or Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward -- the old place was open from May 1st until Labor Day and it was probably one of the best places to eat Steamers -- a thing I consider closest to the food of the gods (whoever they might be). Steamers with Butter...enough butter to clog your arteries before morning. The Lobster wasn’t anything to be avoided either -- and then there was the Scampi, served on the little metal dish it was cooked in that was still glowing like a blacksmith’s iron tongs when it was handily placed on a pure white platter straight from the broiler. A waiter would take careful possession of the Scampi, spin it onto a tray and whisk it out the swinging kitchen doors. As the little dish passed us all in the kitchen, it audibly announced how good it was going to taste by this sparkling sizzle.

Good food is noisy...sure, good food can entice you with its aroma, but to me, the sound of food being cooked makes me the hungriest. The kitchen in Allen’s taught me that -- it was a cacophony of knives splitting live lobsters open, the slap of a fat red snapper on a cutting board, the boiling of oil, the traffic of pots and pans ringing in your ears, the ladling of chowder into a cup, the metallic rip of the shucking knife splitting oysters and the clang of their shells dropping into the stainless steel sink. The slam of the oven doors, the opening of the walk-in freezer...the cold escaping in a noisy fog, and then there were the more subtle noises that occurred in the early afternoons before the restaurant opened -- the shuffle of one’s fingers breading frog’s legs in a pile of flour, the tender peeling of shrimp and the quietest of all, the removal of a soft shell crab’s lungs while his ink blue eyes addressed you as his executioner.

Allen’s was managed by two Italian brothers -- Wayne ran the kitchen and his brother Ronnie ran the dining room. Wayne was barrel-chested with a ram rod posture and his eyes sparkled in this lovely dark way. His white chef’s jacket was always clean. He never lost control of his kitchen -- even on the busiest of nights, such as Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July, when we were all like mad men and women, Wayne seemed to never sweat. The steam coming off of a hot lobster fresh out of the oven never touched him. That man was always dry. The Uccellini Boys ran their restaurant in a very traditional way -- men were waiters and busboys, the hostess was always a pretty girl from my high school complete with big tits and round hips, Ronnie’s wife was the barkeep, the chefs were young men who had attended CIA and the Pantry, which made salads and deserts, was run by Pantry Girls.

Everyone who was hired always started as a dishwasher, everyone, no exceptions. Well, there was one exception, for my friend Kathleen, who by the graces of her good looks and the fact that she babysat Wayne’s two daughters, managed to skip dish washing duty! But I am pretty sure she was the only one. So when I got my coveted position as a Pantry Girl, I began my illustrious career as a dishwasher. This had to be the filthiest job in the world and I was terrible at keeping dry. By the end of the night I was soaked in food and wine and soap suds. The Haitian boy that I worked with, who spoke maybe three words of English, would work silently and he remained clean like an angel...he would scowl at me at the end of every night. I was really an embarrassment to the profession of dish washing. And what was worse was that he knew that I was only paying my dues for a few weeks. He would continue to wash dishes and I would be moving to the other side of the kitchen to a better paying position and a cleaner activity, that of chopping lettuce and putting whip cream on top of sundaes!

Finally, after what seemed like a length prison term, I was relieved of my dish washing assignment and I think the Haitian boy and the bus boys were glad to see me go -- I was the worst they had ever seen and I was an unsightly smelly mess at the end of every night, and this just made everyone feel bad. Even the waiters, who were above even speaking to dish washers, noticed my ability to embarrass myself. Fortune smiled on me though and it turned out that I was much more suited to the work of a Pantry Girl. I could handle lettuce and tomatoes and mix salad dressing, even on the worst of days. I learned to make a proper house salad, and was loyal to Wayne’s rule, cutting the lettuce up into bite sized pieces so that diners didn’t have to cut their salad. Its bad etiquette to use a knife in your salad and Wayne was adamant that we did not put anyone in the position of compromising their table manners. To this day I cut up lettuce for salads and consider anyone who takes a knife to their salad plate at the table to be uncouth.

Wayne fed us all a proper supper every evening before the dinner shift started. This came of course after spending the afternoon doing prep work -- we would all be in the kitchen cleaning shrimp, shucking clams and oysters, breading frogs legs, taking inventory of the walk-in freezer, and my favorite? Mixing a large vat of chocolate mousse and then ladling the mousse into individual desert glasses to be chilled in the freezer...inevitably mousse got on your fingers and well, of course, ended up in your mouth! While we were all prepping for the busy night ahead, Wayne would cook us a good hot meal to be served in the dining area behind the bar. We would all belly up to the table -- the waiters, the busboys, all the kitchen staff including the Haitian dish washing boy, and even the Hostess who looked too beautiful to be sitting at the table with all of us misfits. We were like a large dysfunctional family. There was lots of ridiculous conversation and jostling. It was the early eighties after all - drugs and sex abounded in our pirate ship -- it was an incestuous group in which all secrets were badly kept.

There was a bathroom in the kitchen...really it was a broom closet with a toilet and a sink - it was directly across from the Pantry area. For weeks, my friends Kathleen and Katina and I would watch the waiters go in and out of the bathroom with the frequency of men suffering from enlarged prostates. Finally, one night we asked one of the busboys, “Why are the waiters spending so much time in the bathroom?” and he gave us one word, “Cocaine!” You see, we were always learning something.

The waiters came in two kinds - there were the Fixtures, as in the guys who had been there for more than a decade. The Fixtures were Fred, Ray and Tony. Fred looked like John Cleese and rode a bicycle to work - he did not drive, and had in fact been stopped for drunken driving on his bicycle on numerous occasions. I adored Fred - he was at least 15 years my senior and I thought he hung the moon. Ray was a redheaded operator -- he was always, I mean always up to something. Tony was the Italian waiter from hell - he spoke with a terrible accent and I was forever messing up his orders...but he was patient with me because I read the Daily Racing Form with him and helped him pick winners! Tony loved to bet on the horses and when he found out that I had a connection to the track he was in my pocket every day, “Kid, you gotta horse for me?” Then there were the younger waiters who were just passing through, some were older school mates making money for college and you knew they weren’t going to become Fixtures.

So there we would all be and Wayne would be at the head of the table like our big totally-together Italian father and we would eat and eat and eat. Our dinners usually consisted of day old fish that wasn’t fresh enough for the restaurant patrons and rice almondine and a salad. Sometimes a baked potato or a hard pumpernickel roll would be offered up. But once in a great while Wayne would treat us to a big pot of steamers and we would partake in an orgy of butter and steaming shellfish. Wayne would sit back and enjoy our bliss. He liked to keep us all happy, if the family was happy, then the kitchen and the dining room would remain in harmony. But harmony was not always the case with our merry band...

Friday, October 9, 2009

My Old Friends...

Here they are! They have more technology now and more help! Its a brilliant thing they are doing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Turtling, Part Two - Into the Deep

Take me to the river and drop me in the water...
Al Green

The waters of Bermuda were beautiful -- on any day -- they were as moody as a woman. There were the days that the sun beat down and held the southern wind at bay and the waters were this inexplicable transparent turquoise that revealed everything below like a see-through negligee -- you could look through the water and see the coral and the fishes and the Turtles! There were days when the water reflected the grey sky and it was like looking into a glass of skim milk. Green seas were my favorite -- they told of coming storms and they roiled with white curling waves. The colors that the waters of Bermuda could take on were infinite -- every day was different really -- you could never tire of going to the beach or driving along the South Shore Road and looking out at the water, because you were always given a gift from the sea.

Like Bermuda's waters, Turtling was never the same experience twice -- each time we went out, we anchored in a different location and we dealt with different and wind and waves. Because of that, I could never be sure what to expect when I hopped on to the Government Fisheries vessel and checked in with Jenn and Captain. I could scan the horizon and see the morning clouds burning away and only hope that they would stay away until our day was finished, but I couldn’t shy away from the voyage on the slight possibility that we might get caught in a storm!

There is something about being dropped in the water far from shore that can only be described as sheer wonderful freedom. Of course, when I, in perfect sequence with the other Turtlers, like an extra in a Esther Williams movie, would do my backwards somersault off the side of the Scout Boat, I knew I was not alone, but you felt exposed all the same. At this point, you were in the deep, and you could not see Bermuda. You could see the Fisheries vessel, but she was a distant specter of safety. All you had was the Scout Boat and your fellow Turtlers -- all bobbing up and down, treading water, finding their partners and their place to begin swimming The Net. Its amazing how far you can swim with the right equipment -- its about being buoyant! A proper fitting dry suit and a rad pair of flippers can enable a girl to tread water and swim like an otter. When I first began Turtling, I hadn’t been swimming for years, I mean years. I grew up on the Long Island Sound. I learned to swim in the Sound, if you can believe it at a summer camp they called Beach School. My husband burst out laughing at me once when I told him I went to Beach School as a child, he joked, “And what did you learn at Beach School? How to apply suntan lotion and keep sand out of your bikini?” No, I learned how to swim in the barnacle ridden shallows and I made less than interesting decoupage pieces out of cement and things I found on the beach, like shells, rocks and parts of horseshoe crabs. As a teenager, I would bicycle to the beach every day and swim out to the buoys and back again like there was nothing to it. It was just something you could do in my old hometown -- swim and swim and swim. But, when I moved to central North Carolina to stay after college, my swimming days were over -- there was the occasional night swim in a pond or the once a year trip to the Outer Banks. That was it.

So when Jenn and her cohorts suited me up and told me to swim The Net, I wasn’t sure if I could do it without drowning. But I found the waters to be delightful most days, and my muscle memory for swimming was still intact. And I amazed myself at my ability to swim The Net. I mentioned earlier that The Net was approximately 2000 feet long, a wee bit under a half mile, and us Turtlers would swim the full length of The Net several times while searching for Turtles. We swam that net until all the Turtles within its circumference were caught. So in a day of Turtling, in which we would do a morning “set” and an afternoon “set” we were required to swim several miles. This is why you had to bring an excellent lunch, you needed the calories! So we would all settle into a lovely rhythm -- teams of Turtlers would span out along The Net and swim slowly with our masked faces down in the water scanning for Turtles entangled in the almost invisible lattice. You would paddle, paddle, breathe, paddle, paddle breathe, with your arms held back at your rarely needed your arms to swim, because your big rad flippers would do all the work for you. There was one Turtler, the body-nazi diver that I paired with once, who had these webbed neoprene gloves and he would swing his arms in addition to his legs and so he swam like Aqua Man...I coveted those gloves, but at the same time, I saw no need to swim that fast, I was there to look for Turtles! As we swam, I would intermittently pick up my head and scan the surface of the water....all I could see were the tops of snorkels moving around The Net in a steady organized fashion, like horses on a carousel. Paddle, paddle, breathe, paddle, paddle, breathe - and then you would spot one, a good sized little Turtle, maybe 20 feet below you. The little fellow would be all tangled up in The Net and that’s when you or your partner would take that big huff of air into your snorkel and you would dive down and get the Turtle. Now Vanessa and I were about the same size and strength, so we would alternate as the one to dive down and get the Turtle, but if one of the partners were bigger and stronger, they were always the designated diver and Turtle retriever. The retriever would go down and as quickly as possible untangle the Turtle -- once he was untangled, you would hold him by his Turtle shoulders and swim to the surface. If your Turtle was big enough, he could actually carry you to the surface. He was pretty motivated too, because he needed to breathe, just like you! Being pulled up up up by Turtle power is about as good as life gets Mate!

While you are down there wrestling with The Net and the Turtle, who was usually quite appreciative and passive about the whole mess, your partner up at the surface would be treading water, and waving one arm in the air, while occasionally poking her mask in the water to make sure you were okay. Her one arm signal would call over the Scout boat and it would motor over to collect the Turtle. Once your Turtle was safely in the boat, you resumed swimming and scanning the net. Every once in a while, we had swimmers, such as the body-nazi, who could catch Turtles within The Net area, freestyle. This was a pretty cool move and I didn’t see it happen very often. No matter how fast you were, the Turtles were much faster.

Paddle, paddle, breathe, paddle, paddle, breathe -- sometimes we found other wonderful things caught in the net or swimming inside the net. In true Jacques Cousteau TV special style one day, a brilliant yellow sucker fish, also known as a Remora, took to following me and Vanessa. Remoras can be seen traveling with sharks, manta rays, whales and even Turtles -- they attach to their host’s belly and hitch a ride and sometimes get the added benefit of dropped morsels of food. Our yellow remora was a spectacle! He seemed to come from nowhere and it was a warm summer day, so Vanessa and I were without wet suits that day, just in our bathing suits and he kept swimming underneath us and trying to attach to our stomachs! He would try Vanessa and then he would try me! It was the most bizarre sensation to have this guy swimming underneath us! We would gently push him away but he kept swimming with us and following us. Soon the other Turtlers spotted him and the Aquarium staff, who were with us that day were amazed. He never left Vanessa and me for the other Turtlers, he had some sort of attraction to us -- at one point, one of the staff members declared that they wanted to “collect” him for display back at the Aquarium, especially since nobody had ever seen a yellow Remora, but Vanessa and I protested! We said no way to putting him in a tank! They finally saw things our way and our beautiful sun yellow Remora was left to live in the sea. He swam with us for most of the morning and finally, as suddenly as he arrived, he left to find a better host.

Once we had a motorboat full of Turtles and The Net was empty of new Turtles, we would quit for the morning. This meant that The Net was taken up bit by bit and piled into a dingy that was towed by the Scout boat and then the Turtles were transported back to the Fisheries vessel. So the Turtles got the ride and we swam! Paddle, paddle, breathe, paddle, paddle, breathe out in the open water now with the Fisheries vessel and lunch as your only goal in life. You were exhausted and the swim back to the big boat seemed to take forever, but we would all be together, a school of tired and hungry Turtlers. Back on the Fisheries vessel, we would survey our catch. Poor fellows, Green Sea Turtles, with a few Hawksbills maybe mixed in, all on their backs, glistening in the sun, slapping their flippers. This was the moment when I always felt terrible -- I used to cringe and think, “what is going through their little Turtle heads? I know, I know, they are thinking ‘this is it, I am SOUP!’” But one by one, we would weigh them, and take their measurements, and Ian or Patrick would take their blood and deposit it in a vial, which one of us would be assigned to labeling and putting away in a cooler. Then we would tag them, if they weren’t tagged already -- it was amazing how many re-captures we would get. Sometimes we would find injuries -- part of a flipper missing, a cracked carapace -- injuries sustained by a near miss with a shark or the most common mishap for Turtles, a run-in with a boat propeller. If the injury was serious enough, the Turtle would be brought back to the Aquarium for rehab. . .in addition to research and education, the Aquarium also served as a wild life rehab facility on the island -- Turtles, sea birds, even the occasional fish was brought in to hopefully recover from one of a myriad of awful things that could happen to them. Fisherman and islanders knew to bring injured wildlife to the Aquarium and I was always impressed with their willingness to do so. Unfortunately many Turtles that came in did not survive though -- many were the victims of swallowing too much plastic knew right away when they arrived from their potbellied appearance. There was no saving those guys. And those who lost flippers were usually healed up and kept in a display tank for all the visitors to see -- that tank was one of my favorite tanks to walk by every day, the misfit amputee Turtles, oh the stories they could probably tell!

Then, the “alien abduction” routine was over -- the Turtles had all been thoroughly violated in every way, what with the tagging, and the drawing of bodily fluids and the measuring and the weighing and the comments from us “look at this FAT one!” and “This one BITES!” But the best part of the day was yet to come, no, not lunch! The release of the Turtles! A few of the privileged would get to go to the stern of the vessel, descend the ladder and sit on the narrow metal grate at the base of the hull with their legs dangling in the water. The Turtles would be carefully handed down to them one by one and they would gently lower the Turtle back into the sea, and whoooosh, no sooner than that Turtle was in the water, then she would be gone, gone, gone.

Now we could eat lunch!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hold On

Before I go any further into my story about Turtling, I just have to say this. . . I am certain that the same woman answered all the business and government phones in Bermuda - she was like the Bermudian Lily Tomlin operator. She would answer "Bermoooda Aquarium aaaand Zooooo" and just as you were taking a breath to ask for someone, she would cut you off and say "Houuuuwwwld Oooooon. . ." and then you would wait and wait and wait. And perhaps she would come back and help you or perhaps not, because she was on island time and she had aaaaaalllll those phones to answer.

Turtling, Part One

It was of the utmost importance that you packed a good lunch for a day of Turtling. I found this out on my very first Turtling trip, which was a grey rainy February day. Only the hardiest of Turtlers went out in the winter months, the hardiest and the foolish. I was foolish - a new volunteer, eager to please Jenn and earn my Red Watch Cap and Calypso badge as it were. I would learn later, that the smart Turtlers went out on sunny days in Bermuda’s high season, May through September. Bermudians called anyone who swam outside the high season Canadian...if a Bermudian drives by the beach on a winter’s day and spots swimmers, he’ll shout out, “Look at that Mate, look at those Canadians!” I am proud to call myself a Canadian to this day as I swam year round in Bermuda.

On that first trip, I brought a pitiful lunch with me. A cold peanut butter sandwich, perhaps some soggy chips, and water. This was not nearly enough food for one who was going to swim like she was training to cross the English Channel. And it turned out Turtlers were extremely competitive -- they liked to show off what their lunch satchel contained and they really liked to eat each other’s food! It was obvious that I was a first timer -- I was issued an ill-fitting dry suit that turned out to be full of holes, so it quickly became a wet suit, I had a lousy dive mask, and my lunch was an embarrassment. They took pity on me though -- I think they even chided Jenn for hoodwinking me into Turtling on such a nasty cold February day. But I hung tough, despite my blue lips and chattering teeth -- I never let on that I was completely miserable. I was at least not as bad off as my swimming partner that day -- Turtlers travel in pairs -- and I was assigned to a barrel-chested Scottish expat policeman named Angus. He had some sort of terrible respiratory ailment which caused him to cough and wheeze into his snorkel. Occasionally as we swam, searching for turtles, he would pull up short, spit out his snorkel and expel some horrible stuff out into the sea. I was certain we would be bringing back a dead man that day.

That day, it seemed as though we swam miles and miles and only came up with a handful of turtles. The day was made even weirder by the fact that we dropped anchor in a cove overlooked by a few houses. One of the homeowners mistook us for poachers and came running out on to the rocks and into the shallow cold water. She shouted angrily at us, “I’m going to call de police if you don’t put dose turtles back in de water! Don’t you know turtling’s illega?!! Put dose turtles back!” My Scottish policeman shouted back at her, “I am the police!” and Jenn shouted “We’re researchers!” But the woman would have nothing of it. In the old days of Bermuda, Turtling was the term for turtle hunting and many a Bermudian fisherman brought home many a sea turtle to make soup with. But those days are over, despite the occasional poacher. Every once in a while I would shock someone in Bermuda by telling them that I went Turtling -- they took it to mean that I had been out killing turtles, but I would quickly smooth their roughed up feathers and tell them about the Bermuda Turtle Project. The old girl went back to her house to make the call and we all swam back to the Fisheries boat, which was anchored outside of the cove. We told Captain to radio in to the police that they were going to get a call about us. We took data on the turtles as fast as we could, tagged them, and released them. We were all cold and miserable anyway, its just nobody wanted to admit it.

Its either a testament to my foolishness or my tenacity that I went out Turtling again, but I did, I did go out again, and the second trip was the charm. It was a Bermudiful day and my dry suit stayed dry and my lunch was fabulous.

So, what is Turtling you ask? How does it all work? How does a rag tag group of researchers and volunteers go out on the waters surrounding Bermuda and find a bevy of turtles? And what in the world is the purpose? The Bermuda Turtle Project tracks the populations and movements of all turtles in Bermuda waters. The most common turtle in Bermuda is the Green Sea Turtle, and so these lovely fellows accounted for something like 90 percent of the turtles we would catch in a day of Turtling. But there were Hawksbill Turtles too, which sometimes looked exactly like the Green Turtles, until he bit your finger and then you knew he was a Hawksbill. The Greens bit too, but not like the Hawksbills!

The turtles that frequent Bermuda waters can be described as “teenage” turtles -- they were hatched on the beaches of the American coast and for some wonderful reason they all work their way out to the Gulf Stream where they grow and mature and congregate in the shallows of the Bermuda seamount. They spend their days eating sea grass and generally doing what teenage turtles do, have a really good time! At some point their biological clocks urge them to leave Bermuda and that is the mystery that the Bermuda Turtle Project is slowly solving. The turtles leave Bermuda to go into breeding waters -- some go only as far as the beaches of Georgia and North Carolina and South Carolina, but some go as far as Honduras and Costa Rica! How do we know? Because researchers in those places have found Bermuda tags on turtles in those waters. These turtles can cover some serious miles!

The Bermuda Turtle Project has become a well respected and funded international research organization in recent years, but it wasn’t always that way. When I arrived in Bermuda in late 1996, Jenn’s turtle project was struggling for funding and respect. Jenn was incredibly dedicated and determined to make a place for the project in the bigger world scene -- but some things were holding her back, one was funding, two was her lack of a data base, three was the fact that she was a Bermudian woman without a scientific PhD. Jenn knew more about the turtles in Bermuda than anybody, yet the world scientific community and even the local environmentalists didn’t take her seriously. But she was a tenacious pioneer and eventually she would win over those who couldn’t see past her lack of a degree. Jenn will always be one of my environmental heros.

A typical Turtling day began at Ferry Reach, where all the volunteers and staff would meet up with Captain, who piloted the government fisheries boat for us. We would all climb aboard with our gear and our much anticipated lunches and off we would go. For the life of me I cannot tell you what Captain and his worn-out old fisheries vessel did when we weren’t Turtling. I used to imagine that Captain just lived on the less than sea worthy old boat, which resembled the African Queen, and wait for the days that we would come and ask him to take us out to sea.

It occurred to me more than once that we were in danger on that old boat -- there were days that the seas came up rough and Captain would beat it back to the shelter of Ferry Reach, with just a little more hustle than you might find in a confident old salty dog like him. Yet we only had two mishaps in the two years I rode with him and the Turtling crew. One was the day that a blow came up quite suddenly and somehow the fisheries vessel got turned by the currents and we damn near capsized...Captain roared the engines and managed to spin the bow back into the waves and we were saved. The other mishap involved Jenn. We were again, running back toward Ferry Reach to beat some bad weather and Jenn was tying up nets at the back of the boat. We hit some rough waters and Jenn just sailed overboard! We all ran sternward to see Jenn bobbing in the cold grey waters waving her arms. Then we all ran forward to the cabin and hollered to Captain - he was bearing down hard on the engines to get us out of harms way -- we told him “Go Back! Go Back! Jenn’s overboard!” Well he spun us faster than we ever thought possible and we were back to pick cold and near drowning Jenn out of the water, just like a turtle! It was days like that that made you wonder when it would be your turn! And I wasn’t nearly as seaworthy as Jenn.

But on most days, everything went very smoothly -- and there was little or no sense of danger. Our turtling destinations were determined by scouts who went out in the Aquarium motorboat the previous day. They would run around the reefs and beaches and coves and look for heavy turtle activity - which is not too difficult, because sea turtles have to come up for air, so you can spot their little heads popping up between the waves. The Aquarium motor boat would usually meet us at our destination. Captain would anchor a good distance from the turtling area, for a few reasons - one being he didn’t want to scare the turtles off with his engines and two he was kinda big to be close to our nets and all of us swimming. When he anchored, we would suit up and pair off - my favorite Turtling partner was Vanessa. Vanessa was an Italian expat -- she had long auburn hair and was covered in freckles! She wore coke bottle glasses when she wasn’t swimming. She was almost the same age as me, I was 31 and she and I swam at about the same rate. It was important to partner with someone who swam similarly to you -- and someone who had the same fitness level too. I once paired up with this really fast body-nazi diver -- I could barely keep up with him! But Vanessa and I were well matched and we had terrific fun with each other -- we could tread water for long periods and tell jokes and laugh about our weird circumstances.

Vanessa lived on a sailboat that had sunk exactly three times. Her beautiful boyfriend, who reminded me of Francois Truffaut, bought the dilapidated boat in hopes of restoring it and sailing the whole Caribbean with Vanessa by his side. But something was always going wrong for them and they seemed eternally docked up at the the old Dockyards. Vanessa managed to stay on the island by the good graces of the government because she lived on the boat with her boyfriend...and it seemed as though his work permit had run aground, so they basically lived like squatters on the island. I adored them both and envied them -- they were living out a wonderful dream, even though they were doing it with an ill-fated boat.

So while we got suited up, Jenn watched through her binoculars for turtle heads. She would radio our scouts in the motorboat who would start to drop our net. The Net was about 2000 feet long - that’s a little under half a mile. The net would be dropped in a big circle, with the hopes that as many turtles as possible were inside the net. Once the net was dropped, the motorboat would come out to the Fisheries boat and pick us all up. We would all awkwardly climb down from the big boat, with our wet suits and our masks and snorkels and flippers an off we would go to the netted area.

It was then that we would do the coolest thing - it was the kind of thing that you saw on all those Cousteau tv specials -- we would all sit on the sides of the motorboat and then, vooop! One by one, we would flip over backwards into the water - we had to enter the water this way, or else we would capsize the motorboat. It took me a few tries to get this backwards somersault off the side of the boat right, I think I cut my lip on the side of the boat the first time I did it, but once I got the hang of it, I was unstoppable. I mean, learning that alone, earned me the Red Watch Cap!

Next...catching us some Turtles!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

On The Delicate Subject of Selling One's Soul

Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste

I've been around for a long, long year

Stole many a man's soul and faith

And I was 'round when Jesus Christ

Had his moment of doubt and pain

Made damn sure that Pilate

Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what's puzzling you

Is the nature of my game

Sympathy for the Devil,
The Rolling Stones

The reference librarian helped us find Gold Finger. She found a 1994 Wall Street Journal article about him and we wrestled with the microfilm reader for a little while and then she showed us how we could print out a copy of the article. It was all very complicated and to think in just a few short years that would all be unnecessary, microfilm, that is, it would become antiquated! Nonetheless, we had in our hands our first glimpse of the man Py would be working for. It turned out he was not just a banker looking for better ways to make trades on the Futures Market -- he was a billionaire oil trader. He had begun his career as a Dutch car salesman and with the help of a couple of traders, he singlehandedly cornered the European oil market in the early eighties. We then read that he violated the embargo on Apartheid in the late eighties by smuggling oil to South Africa. The African National Congress declared him a criminal in 1985 and Gold Finger was nearly assassinated in a firebombing of his horse stable in Holland -- some say it was ANC operatives who carried out the well-planned firebombing. Gold Finger escaped with his life, but would wear the horrendous scars of his third degree burns forever. He owned an estate in Cape Town, an estate in Bermuda, a horse farm in Bermuda, a ski lodge in Wyoming, and at least three more horse farms in Connecticut, South Carolina, and Wellington, Florida. He also owned a magnificent 3 masted schooner which spent most of the year docked in Bermuda, but was registered in Curaçao. He was on the board of a large bank in Bermuda and a large bank in Curaçao. And strangely enough, considering his dealings with South Africa, he was the biggest supporter of the opposition party, a mostly black party, in Bermuda. Perhaps this was atonement for his sins of the past?

Py and I sat there in the hushed and murmuring library -- we still had a pile of books to peruse about Bermuda, travel books mostly, with beautiful and enticing glossy color pictures of the island. But our hands were burning with the handling of this article about Gold Finger. He was the antithesis of everything we believed in and the idea of joining his merry band of thieves was tantamount to selling our souls. And to top it off, we admitted that the idea of Py working for Gold Finger was not only an ethical dilemma, but a goddamn scary prospect. We wondered who else was out to kill this man? And would they want to kill people who worked for him? To tell you the truth, it made our blood run a bit cold.

But we calmed ourselves down, we assured ourselves that surely the firebombing of a decade before was the only assassination attempt, and the rest of the Wall Street Journal article worked as a bromide by telling us that Gold Finger was now working with a large American oil company to negotiate a Russian pipeline. Surely, a large American oil company would not work with a diabolical character? Of course not...he was legit now. Yup, no problem there! That’s what we told ourselves and we put the article aside and dug down deep into the travel books. We may have even been slightly excited by the idea of working for someone so internationally notorious...that if you were going to sell your soul, well then, well, why not sell your soul to the big devil himself, not just some amateur. We convinced ourselves too of the idea that Py would be such a small cog in the wheel of Gold Finger’s operations that any feeling of responsibility for what the organization did as a whole would certainly be diminished. This was supported by the fact that Py would be working for a subsidiary of Gold Finger Oil, widening the degree of separation. Of course, this was in direct opposition to the feeling that I had held for years while working for the large international non-profit environmental organization! On a daily basis I felt that any task I accomplished, no matter how small, was helping to save the planet. But in the face of all that tropical beauty, it was hard for one not to fall deeply into denial.

As we poured over the pages of the colorful travel books, we were hypnotized by the pictures of the pink sand beaches, the hibiscus, the turquoise waters. We learned of the typical Bermuda houses with the white roofs that collected rain water. Really? Really -- every house in Bermuda is responsible for its own water collection. Bermuda is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, there is no potable water to be had, except for rain water and so every roof is a catchment. The roofs are white washed annually with lime to maintain the cleanliness of the rain water that goes from the catchment into the water tank that sits below the house. Bermudian houses have enormous underground water tanks, holding as much as 21,000 gallons, some larger homes have even larger tanks. These vast tanks provide each home with its water for all household uses including cooking, bathing and washing. To this day, I think its the most ingenious thing about the whole island.

The information about life on the island coupled with the photographs was rising up and coiling about our heads like some sort of intoxicating perfume -- like the sweet smell of a delicate frangipani flower...its soft pink petals tickling our noses. The Wall Street Journal article fell to the floor and a tropical breeze blew it across the library, down some lonely aisle where we would forget about it. We were going to live on a sub-tropical island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean -- it was going to be a great adventure!

And You May Ask Yourself, How Did I Get Here?

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the moneys gone

Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.
Same as it ever was...same as it ever was...same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...same as it ever was...same as it ever was...

Same as it ever was...same as it ever was...

Once in a Lifetime -- Talking Heads/David Byrne

Py and I were curled up on the sofa with our dog Jack watching the 5th or 6th game of the 1995 World Series - Py was a Braves fan back then and so we were in a celebratory mood, cause they were beating the Indians. The phone rang, somewhere towards the end the of the game and I said, “I’ll get it.” but Py got up, “no I’ll get it, I need a beer anyway.” So he ran back to the kitchen and picked up the phone. I heard him say, “Oh no, its not too late, we’re up.” I heard the refrigerator door open and close and Py walked down the hall to our bedroom. I continued to watch the game and wondered who he was talking to? Mainly I heard the sounds of him listening, “uh huh, yeah, hmm, I don’t know.” After 45 minutes, my curiosity got the best of me and the game was about over. I walked down the hall and our bedroom door was partially closed and I heard Py say, “You know I live with someone, don’t you?” This made my face go slightly hot -- Py worked at a nearby university and suddenly I thought, “great, he’s in there talking to a woman! Some brilliant grad student with the body of a pin up girl.” I walked back up the hall and watched the end of the game as best I could. I was unable to concentrate though. Py and I had lived together for close to ten years at that point -- we had never married as we both came from divorced families and our motto was, “If you get married, you get divorced.”

I heard the bedroom door swing open and Py came up the hall, he sat down next to me. The game was over, “Man, I missed it. Who won?”

“The Braves.”

“Oh good!” He moved closer to me on the sofa. Jack the dog’s head was in my lap.

“So, who was that on the phone?” I tried to be all cool.

“I got one question for you...” he said, and I thought oh boy, here it comes, “How would you like to live in Bermuda?”

“What?” This was not the question I was expecting. Was this a joke?

“For real, how would you like to go live in Bermuda?”

“Um, I don’t know...why would I go live in Bermuda?”

“Because I might take a job there and I wouldn’t go without you.”

“oh, okay....where exactly is Bermuda? I mean I know, but I don’t know.” Py jumped up and got our over sized National Geographic Atlas off the bookshelf. It was 1995, there was no Google Earth, hell there was no Google. The internet was something that only the most esoteric of geeks used at that time. Books were still the first choice for finding information.

We opened the atlas and there in front of us was tiny Bermuda -- a spec in the Atlantic Ocean -- exactly 600 miles due east of Cape Hatteras -- balancing on an ancient volcanic mount. The island stunned us with its size -- shaped like a fish hook, the atlas told us Bermuda was approximately 22 square miles, with its widest point being a mile across. It seemed impossible that a population of 70,000 people could all fit!

Our Columbia Encyclopedia further informed us that Bermuda was one of the few remaining British colonies -- its entry was more than intriguing to us -- it told us the colony’s "mainstays were international financial services, especially insurance and tourism." It spoke of “fine beaches, an excellent climate, and picturesque sites.” We discovered the island was sub-tropical, that “60% of Bermuda’s inhabitants are of African ancestry, descended from slaves brought to the islands during the 18th century; there is also a sizable population of British descent. English is spoken.”

My only personal history with the island was knowing people who had honeymooned there and my grandmother had a good friend who sailed the Newport to Bermuda race several years in a row. Bermuda was associated with wealthy East Coasters who needed a getaway. Sometimes you hear the word Bermuda sprinkled into an old movie “Oh well, they went to Bermuda, you know.” and that would lend an air of wealth.

That was it, that was all we could learn that night...we conjured up this tropical rock in the middle of the ocean in our minds. It was getting late and I still didn’t know who Py had spoken to on the phone...who was this mystery caller that asked him to come work in Bermuda?

“That was A. -- he’s a graduate student and he and a couple of engineering students won some international programming contest recently -- they engineered a stock trading system that predicts markets...its supposed to remove the human element from trading, as in Traders, those guys who yell and scream and fight the markets all day. Their system got the attention of this guy, Gold Finger, out in Bermuda. He has hired them and they are headed out there to further develop this system. And they need a Systems Engineer...that’s me.”

I couldn’t believe it. This was a completely unexpected turn of events. We were two working stiffs basically -- he worked at the university and I worked at a big non-profit international environmental organization. We lived in a funky old rented house in Durham, NC with our big dog Jack and our two cats, Bill and Marley. We were hoping someday we might have enough money to buy a house. Suddenly we were faced with a Once In A Lifetime choice.

I had a million questions and none of them could be answered that night. We were going to have to go to the library the next day and do research! We hemmed and hawed -- one moment we said, “Of course we are going to do this!” and the next “This might be too risky for us -- so far away from home.” But that night before we went to bed, we decided we were going to go for it -- that if we didn’t do it, we would regret it for the rest of our lives. We would always ask ourselves what would life have been like if we had gone to Bermuda?

But other questions raced through my head all that night. I could barely sleep. Where would we live on the island? Could I work too? Could we take our animals? I would not go if I could not take my dog and my cats! What did the island look like? Was it safe there? What side of the road did they drive on? Who was this Gold Finger guy anyway? Who was going to pay for all this? Moving? What would we take with us? What would we leave behind? If something happened, how would we get home? So many questions, so many...and finally I think I drifted off to sleep.

Friday, October 2, 2009

E.B. White says...

From E.B. White's Writings from the New Yorker 1927 -1976:

Moon Landing

The Moon, it turns out, is a great place for men. One-sixth gravity must be a lot of fun, and when Armstrong and Aldrin** went into their bouncy little dance, like two happy children, it was a moment not only of triumph but of gaiety. The moon, on the other hand, is a poor place for flags. Ours looked stiff and awkward, trying to float on the breeze that does not blow. (There must be a lesson here somewhere.) It is traditional, of course, for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us , as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly. Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to none and belongs to all. It still holds the key to madness, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards the lovers who kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps a symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affects us all, unites us all.

**During the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin took the first steps on the moon July 20, 1969 ("One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.")