The Fifty States: Massachusetts to New Jersey

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Continuing my record of impressions of the fifty states, based on a lifelong journey that ended in early October in South Dakota.

Massachusetts: Several trips to Boston, a week trolling around Cape Cod, various stops around the ring road. People may tell you, “Never drive in New York City.” My vote would be “never drive in Boston.” The hassles of triple parking and narrow streets aside, a car is pretty useless in Boston. Between the T and the city’s walkability, what’s the point? Boston is one of the more unique cities in the United States and definitely worth a visit. The mix of modern and colonial may be jarring to some but I found it curiously refreshing. Newbury Street and Faneuil Hall are great places to hang out and shop; The North End is a great place to eat and drink. Fenway Park is worth whatever price you have to pay to get in, particularly if you can snag tickets to a day game. I remember sitting behind third base at Fenway when the early morning overcast cleared and the combination of the brilliant sunshine illuminated the grass and the more traditional uniforms worn by the Sox threw me back to a time when life was simpler in America and everybody talked baseball. Fenway fans know their shit and are effusive and witty conversationalists. The Cape is also worth exploring, from Yarmouth to P-Town, where great bookstores and the cinnamon scent of the Portuguese Bakery await. My gestalt of the rest of Massachusetts is dark green, as I was there in late summer just before the leaves turned.

Michigan: Several trips to the burbs surrounding Detroit. My favorite memory is sitting in the dark in a hotel room watching heat lightning ripple across the sky. My least favorite memory was a near collision while trying to land at the Detroit airport. I did not visit Detroit or any of the other major cities, so I’ll have to go back some day. The Upper Peninsula does not sound like my cup of tea.

Minnesota:Β Numerous trips (business and pleasure) to Minneapolis; long drives through Western Minnesota. I couldn’t care less about The Mall of America. Minneapolis is an amazing place: amazing because the people seem so happy with their lives despite what has to be the most atrocious weather in the U. S. I’ve been there when it was 4 below and I’ve been there when it was 90 with dripping humidity and everyone still acted like they were in a pretty good mood. Minneapolis has great theatre, is eminently walkable (if you’re dressed for it) and friendly bars. After experiencing severe outrage while watching a baseball game in The Metrodome, I am forever thankful that the Twins have a new ballpark. Western Minnesota is endless farmland and Route U. S. 212 is one of the most boring experiences available to the American traveler.

Mississippi:Β I took a day trip to Oxford and Tupelo in the early 90’s while doing a training program in Memphis. The first thing I remember is the SPLAT of bugs on my windshield as I crossed the border. As I drove further, the bug goo on the windshield mixed with cotton strands that drifted through the air to form a substance impervious to windshield wipers. I popped by the University and Faulkner’s home (even though I don’t think much of Faulkner). My general impression was one of darkness, not of skin color but of the general ambience. I also stopped in Tupelo (I’d already done Graceland) and remember the oddity of seeing only black and white people: no Asians, Hispanics, Mediterraneans. I wonder if that’s changed over the last twenty years.

Missouri:Β A few trips to St. Louis, a vacation in Kansas City, drives through the surrounding areas and Southwestern Missouri. I’ll take KC over St. Louis any time. Great museums, great food, fascinating neighborhoods and history. The pain of white flight seems to have hit St. Louis harder than Kansas City, leaving blocks and blocks of semi-abandoned buildings in the core. KC is trying to make downtown a living destination, and while they’re making some progress, the lack of proper public transportation will make this difficult. Southwestern Missouri is famous for fundamentalism and it shows. The place is a drag, but it’s their life and they can live it any way they want as long as they return the favor.

Montana: Drove over to Missoula and spent the night earlier this year. I’ve heard that the further east you go in Montana, the uglier it gets. I can believe it only because Western Montana is breathtakingly beautiful with its thick forests, lakes and mountains. I found the people in Montana to be some of the friendliest I’ve met (so much for gun owners being grumpy and paranoid). Missoula is a pleasant university town with some surprising street art and a pretty good restaurant scene for a city its size. I’d love to go back, even with its limited urbanity. It felt right to be there.

Nebraska:Β Spent a little time in Omaha and Lincoln while riding on a Greyhound from Chicago to San Francisco. All I remember is cornfields.

Nevada:Β I think I’ve covered this state pretty comprehensively: Elko, Reno, Carson City, Vegas. Great Basque food in Elko. Reno’s too country-western for my tastes, so I spend most of my time in Las Vegas. I think Las Vegas is the funniest place on the planet; I actually giggle a lot when I’m in Vegas. The grandiosity of the camp, the sheer outrageousness expressed by overdoing everything, the freedom to indulge one’s vices without judgment, the fabulous restaurants . . . Vegas makes me laugh. I’m aided in that mirth by the fact that I am a very conservative gambler.

New Hampshire:Β I hate the border with Massachusetts, designed as a tax-free shopping haven for overtaxed Bostonians. The rest of the state definitely lives up to its name as The Granite State: mountainous and rocky. The word “taciturn” was probably invented as the adjective of choice for Northern New Englanders. Portsmouth provides a welcome diversion with its Harbour Trail and some semblance of an artistic community.

New Jersey:Β When they tell me I only have three months to live, I’m going to spend the rest of that time eating in New Jersey diners. I’ve spent time in the urban sections both north and south and needless to say, places like Elizabeth and Camden are godawful. I’ll have to return to see the coastline and Atlantic City, something I won’t mind at all because of the diners!

Photo Credit:Β Β© Bazil8 | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Baseball

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I took this picture in 2006 at Fenway Park. 19...

When people look at pictures of me as a small boy, they’re always surprised at how dark my skin is. In all the school photographs from first grade to seventh grade, when puberty dramatically shifted my trajectory, I had a dark chocolate complexion as if I’d spent my entire life in the Caribbean soaking up the rays.

That’s because from the age of seven to thirteen I spent all my waking hours outdoors in Santa Clara Valley sunshine, playing baseball.

Being indoors wasn’t much fun. My father was a chronically unemployed drunk, my mother worked her tail off to keep us barely above water and our home was full of stained and broken furniture. The shitty surroundings and the random appearances of my unpredictable, forever angry father made it impossible to have friends over due to the terror of embarrassment.

So I immersed myself in baseball. It was a time when every kid played baseball; it didn’t matter if you were any good or not. You could always find someone to play catch, or a couple of kids to play pinky or three flies up, or even enough kids to field a team if you agreed that right field was foul territory. When the kids on the street were inside eating dinner or doing their homework, I’d play by myself, throwing a tennis ball against the garage to create all varieties of grounders that I’d scoop up with an old Rawlings glove that was a bit too big for my genetically small hands. When I had to go inside, I’d scour old baseball magazines and re-read the box scores I’d already scanned that morning. At bedtime, I’d crawl into bed with my mitt and bat, and try to fall asleep on the lumpy, saggy mattress they called my bed.

Fortunately, my parents were both baseball fans, so whenever the Giants were on radio or TV, I could always listen and watch. During those times, we were all on the same wavelength, losing ourselves in baseball to forget about our dreary circumstances.

I played Little League, Pony League and Colt League; I played baseball in school all the way up to my sophomore year in high school. After starting my career as a second baseman, I moved to the outfield, where my speed and so-so arm turned me into a singles-hitting center fielder. My mom always came to my games, no matter how tired she was, and baseball seemed to lift her spirits for a while. My father came when he wasn’t on a bender, sometimes shaming me by badgering my manager in a drunken rant. These moments only affected me when I was sitting in the dugout between innings, for when I was on the ball field, I was completely immersed in the game. It wasn’t the immersion of a great baseball mind, however. Often I didn’t even know the score. It was a Zen-like focus on the particular moment: runners on first and second, the count two-and-one, left-handed batter up . . . better shade him a bit towards right field . . . react to the ball.

I remember one game where I was batting with runners on first and third, one out. I stepped out of the batter’s box to check the signs from the third base coach. He wanted me to bunt, so on the next pitch I faked a swing and eased my bat into the ball, placing it in no-man’s land too far for the third baseman and too awkward for the pitcher to reverse his motion after delivery. I tore down the first base line, made it to first easily and then found myself being mobbed by my teammates. I didn’t realize that I had just driven in the winning run. Rather than feeling like the hometown hero, I felt sad that the game was over and we weren’t going to play any more. It was still light out!

I didn’t want to go home.

I remember my first major league baseball game. Giants and Phillies, night game at Candlestick Park, final score 4-2 Giants. I guess the famous Candlestick wind and fog were creating frostbite symptoms throughout the crowd, but I didn’t notice. I had made it to the big leagues! Afterwards, my dad, in one of his rare nice-father moments, took me to a coffee shop nearby and bought me a maple bar that was probably left over from the morning donut pile but tasted like heaven to me. On the rare moments today when I indulge in a maple bar, I eat it very slowly, savoring every sweet and sticky bite, reveling in a rare, wonderful memory from childhood.

My last wonderful memory of baseball happened sometime in the early 1990’s, before the strike. I’d become a road warrior, and to alleviate the boredom of business trips, I resolved to visit every baseball stadium in the major leagues. I did Yankee Stadium, Wrigley and the abomination that they called The Metrodome.

This particular moment occurred at Fenway Park, before the luxury boxes sapped the ambiance. It was a day game, but began under overcast skies. Then, sometime in the top of the fourth, the sun came out, revealing the intense contrast between brilliant green grass and soft brown dirt. As the pitcher worked through the count, I took in everything: the emerald grass, the infielders in their still-clean home whites bending forward to get into position as the pitcher started his wind up, the light chatter among the fans, the left-field shadow from the Green Monster, the warming, glowing sun. A sense of tradition and history mingled with feelings of absolute enchantment with the beauty of this simple, inconsequential scene. I was entranced.

Baseball today is but a shadow of its glory. The 1994 strike pretty much ruined the game for me, with the ongoing steroid scandal delivering the coup de grace. There are too many teams and too many players in the major leagues, leading to a diluted talent pool and making it impossible to develop an intimate knowledge of player tendencies. Both owners and players are consumed with greed; the game isn’t played as much as it is played out. The World Series is now played at night, darkening the green grass and removing the sense of innocence that is somehow rekindled by the presence of sunshine.

I’ll still watch a game every now and then, searching for something that may be lost in the real world but will always exist in my soul. Baseball will always be connected with the sunshine that made my skin dark every summer and gave me hope that the world was not as dark as it seemed inside.