Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Odd Man Out

The man felt odd even as he parked his truck and walked in the cool evening rain toward the Spanish-style town hall. The place was beautiful, slickly designed and finished. Ambience built-in. He wondered if the opulence was making him queasy.

Older people, richer ones, better ones, walked ahead of him. They sipped wine from long stem glasses. They giggled, or at least the women did, and they chatted. Even as he thought it, he knew he was being unfair, and he realized how strange he was feeling and that it was affecting his mood.

Some 40 or 50 of them gathered in the hall to listen to the authors who had led a writers conference in Rosemary Beach this week. The man gathered with them, feeling odd, the odd one out, the outsider. Not for any reason obvious or because of anything said or done by the others. In fact, he had friends here, or at least acquaintances. People he knew were present.

Malayne, from the town’s promotions office, lit up with genuine happiness when he introduced himself. She was slim with short-cropped dark hair and positive energy radiating. They shook hands, and she held the grip loosely for a moment longer, welcoming him. And John, the featured author at the conference, the university professor and novelist and flash fiction writer with Einstein’s hair and a ready grin, welcomed him in a similar fashion, if a firmer grip.

“Where’s your daughter?” John asked, recalling the man’s youngest child, who had accompanied him to a similar evening reading in Seaside many years before.

“Actually, she had a date,” the man said, happily surprised that John had recalled his daughter. John put the fingers of one hand to his mouth as if shocked. “She’s 19,” the man added, and John laughed and said he would have done the same.

The man stood with his friend Michael, a novelist specializing in regional suspense, who was a presenter at the conference and was reading this evening after John and a memoirist named Lynne. Michael was with his lady friend, Linda. They talked to the man and were gracious, and the man sat there wondering why he still felt so odd, old, and alone.

They asked if he wanted to grab a bite with them after the reading; he mentioned that John had asked the same thing — though, John actually had said “Maybe we can have a glass of wine and catch up?” during a telephone conversation earlier in the week. John apologized then and said he had agreed to meet someone else, and the man said it was no problem, he understood.

In fact, he wondered if he understood at all.

“I have a present for you,” the man said, and he handed John a copy of his short story collection. John asked him to sign it and handed the man a pen. He signed it, “To John — You’re an inspiration,” and he said it would be good bathroom reading because the portions were small.

Everyone took their places except the man, who took a chair but still wondered where his place was.

The woman who introduced the authors received a note from Malayne in the middle of her intro and thanked the man for attending. He tipped his hat and smiled at the audience, glad to be there for a moment and aware of the emotion. She asked if the man would write about the event, and he admitted “Most likely.” The man looked across the crowd, saw John sitting beside his wife on the front row; John was looking at him with a smile in his eyes.

During the readings, the man took a couple of photos and a few notes. He wrote down when John said “I write about love and death. That’s what all stories are about.” He wrote it down because he agreed with it. It was true. It’s even what this story is about.

The giggling women sat behind him, and the man wondered what their stories were. What they loved and what was killing them.

After the readings, the man introduced himself to Lynne and told her he had really enjoyed her reading, if that was the right word. Her story had related a time when she was young and a man had tried to force himself on her. “Enjoyed” was probably not the right word, though he had been caught up in her story and relieved by its resolution.

She was gracious and asked if he had been the one who wrote the advance story in the local newspaper about the conference, and he said he had. An awkward moment followed as neither knew what else there was to say, and perhaps there wasn’t anything, but then a woman from the audience came up to hug Lynne and talk to her, and the man stepped away.

John was helping Malayne to gather the folding chairs. He put down the one he held, leaned it against one leg, and shook the man’s hand again. The man told John how much he enjoyed hearing John read. John said there would be another conference here in September, and would the man want to participate, maybe present or read something?

The man almost groaned, seeing an opportunity present itself from a genuine and interested source. “Oh, John. Thank you, but no, I really couldn’t. I’m not up to this, I’m not — I’m not in this class.”

John grinned, shrugged, having none of that. He said how he hoped the man would come back.

The man slipped through the lingerers then, and stood on the stoop of the hall and felt the cool rain on his face. He remembered that Michael and Linda had asked if he wanted to join them for a bite after the event. He did, but he didn’t want to impose, and besides, he was feeling odd tonight. Out of place. Queasy. An older woman asked if he needed an umbrella; he looked at the broken and bent mint-green one she held over her head and smiled. “No, thank you. I have a hat.”

And he walked into the lightning and soft rain, across the gravel parking lot, between small oak trees surrounded by a carpet of pine straw. He climbed into his truck, circled through the signal and around the other side of the central square to the book store, which was now closed. He parked anyway, got out and walked along, looking in the windows of closed shops.

He called his daughter and left a message. He drove 30A to U.S. 98 and turned toward home. Almost immediately off to the right, he saw the looming shapes of forgotten houses, multistory beachside properties some company had begun to construct before the bubble burst, left now to the weather and time. He turned onto their lonely lanes.

Torn skins of Tyvek and tar paper flapped in the wind. Windows were dark against the roiling gray. Buildings became black obelisks backed by the lightning. Around the houses empty lots and brick driveways indicated where other houses were supposed to have grown up. Almost there, he thought. They almost made it. Not finished and slick like the nearby buildings of Rosemary, these were the almost-homes, the gaping holes shaped like houses where no lives would be lived. The missed potential.

He could live here. He fit. He wasn’t odd. This was a place for him.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Free Comics

The best things in life are free, and Saturday stores across the country will be giving away some of the best things in life.
That's right. FREE COMICS.
(Hit the link for details. You can see which comics will be offered and find a comic shop near you.)
If at all possible, I will be visiting Arena Comics and/or Comic Emporium in Panama City with my kids.
Dig this video John McDonald made at the News Herald a couple of years back:

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Remember when it was ‘mall or nothing’? Not any more …

PANAMA CITY — Not that long ago, I would have been incensed by the idea of the Panama City Mall declaring itself off-limits to teenagers on the weekend nights. Not so much any more.
And not because my attitude toward mall rats has changed over time.

In 1996, I wrote an article titled “Mall or Nothing” that appeared in our teen section.

The kids I interviewed talked about how they had nowhere else to hang out that was safe. They ate at the food court, played games in the arcade, watched movies at the discount theater, and looked for friends and fished for significant others.

They told me they were there to walk around, get numbers, play games, buy food, buy clothes and spend money. But they would prefer to go somewhere else. Just about anywhere else — but not bowling, one specified.

“All we’ve got is parking lots or the clay pits. There’s nowhere to go,” one girl said.

Yes, lots of them merely loitered. Yes, some of them sat outside and smoked. And regularly, some of them got into trouble for acting up, driving recklessly in the parking lot, shoplifting or other things.

That was fifteen years ago, admittedly, and most of the kids I talked to at the time are about to turn 30. But there still aren’t that many places for teens to go in this county. In fact, one of the big teen hangouts of the day — Miracle Strip Amusement Park — is no longer around.

Now, you can scratch the mall too — at least so far as teenagers are concerned.

As reported by Chris Segal on April 15, and covered by Meridith Kaufman on Friday, Panama City Mall has now instituted a new “escort” policy for teens that requires a parent or guardian over 21 to accompany anyone younger than 18 at all times on Fridays and Saturdays after 6 p.m.

Young people should be ready to show their ID to security guards, mall officials said. They added that the policy was enacted after feedback from parents, shoppers, retailers and “community leaders” about large groups of unaccompanied minors not adhering to the rules.

I’ve been to the mall recently. I haven’t noticed large groups of any kind. And what older folk I’ve seen there had their walking shoes on. (They weren’t shopping either.)

So watch out, Pier Park. If they aren’t there already (and we know many of them they are), they’re coming your way soon.

Peace .

This is my Sunday Undercurrents column.