I drove from Baltimore to Plains, GA, to meet Jimmy Carter and wound up eating fried chicken with Abraham Lincoln.
Such are the adventures of a wandering writer who only wanted to escape the February cold.
I left Crabtown on the evening of Feb. 8, what would have been my namesake grandfather’s 107th birthday. I deliberately delayed departure to 10:30 p.m.—as verified by my southbound receipt from the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel—to get on the far side of D.C. without wanting to blow my brains out.
Mom gave me a case of water, and I brought a couple of apples and a huge jar of peanut butter.
Across my shoulders: a deadline like an anvil.
Some years ago, I’d learned from Tom Nugent—perhaps the most fearless and unsung writer in the United States—of the work habits of the Belgian Georges Simenon. Nugent said that when Simenon (1903-1989) conceived a new novel, he would take leave of home and family, check into a hotel with his typewriter, ample supplies of pipe tobacco and Coca-Cola, and remain ensconced until the work was complete.
In this way, Simenon produced nearly 200 books.
“I’m an artisan. I need to work with my hands,” Simenon told the Paris Review in 1955. “I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood.”
Tobacco is of no use to me and I prefer water to soda pop, but the idea of placing myself at a considerable distance from the distractions of Baltimore—family, dishes in the sink, Ikaros restaurant two blocks from my front door—became more attractive as the zero hour of Valentine’s Day neared.
I had a week to finish a rewrite of a pilot script before shipping it off to the suits at the Independent Film Channel, who would then squeeze it like a tomato before being judged worthy of production.
Using every waking moment to write, I didn’t make it very far from Macon Street the first week on the road. Aside from living within the story (a waterfront cop drama set in a Portuguese enclave in Jersey), the most dramatic event was a dream I had during a layover in Dunn, NC, population 9,200.
In it, I encountered the musician PJ Harvey, whose new album—Let England Shake—I’d just downloaded after catching her interview with Terry Gross.
The dream opened with Polly Jean dressed like an acrobat, walking across a Baltimore parking lot that looked like a circus scene from Wenders’ Wings of Desire. She was surrounded by pinheads, people once seen in sideshows.
I got Harvey’s attention and asked, “What do you think of Johnny Winter?”
As the pinheads chanted “Johnny Winter, Johnny Winter!”—in the same cadence of those singing “One of us, one of us!” in the 1932 Tod Browning movie Freaks—Harvey replied:
“Johnny Winter is one of the greatest guitarists the world has ever known …”
Polly took her leave of me and I took my leave of the dream. The next day took me to Florence, SC. It was Feb. 15 and I had wheedled an extra day to parse the script one last time. I’d made it no farther than the Palmetto State town of Manning, some 600 miles from home.
In that first week, with daytime temperatures below freezing and colder at night, I stayed not in pensiones but a succession of Holiday Inn Express hotels that dot the interstates. At McDonald’s, I stoked the furnace with dollar cheeseburgers, good, cheap coffee and free WI-FI.
Alexis de Tocqueville would find a highly agitated 21st century America—across all demographic strata—at any McDonald’s in the land. Fox News hangs on the walls (We inculcate, you parrot) and fuels the conversations of older white men who meet beneath the Golden Arches in the early mornings to grumble.
Somewhere in the Carolinas, I overheard a middle-aged man tell his mother over a Big Mac dinner: “Before you know it, we’ll all be speaking Spanish and reading the Koran” and I wondered how hard it would be to find a Spanish translation of the Koran in Vidalia.
On the other side of Manning, where I actually found a man reading the Koran at McDonald’s and gave him a ride home—an aging African-American from Boston named Louis Roberts, a combative man with Native-American heritage and a satchel of heroic resentments—I was free: script turned in, a few bucks in my pocket and temperatures warming with each mile south.
In my sights: Miami and a massage for my aching back; Hemingway’s imprisoned typewriter in Key West, and Vlad Guerrero’s goatee at Orioles spring training in Sarasota.
Between the southernmost town in the lower 48 and my eventual return to the Mason-Dixon Line, there were places I lingered because something caught my eye, or my eyes were too tired to go another mile.
Over the course of 23 days, I found my way to a chili dog at the still weird-as-weird-can-be South of the Border (you never sausage a weiner!); a white anchovy tart—boquerones—in St. Augustine; and fresh grouper at Rusty Bellies in Tarpon Springs, eating it dockside as a dog tried to catch pelicans that calmly evaded him with a single flap of their wings.
By Savannah, my first visit to the colonial jewel of Georgia, time became my own. With points earned through fidelity to the Holiday Inn, I enjoyed a free room with a view of ships and tugs pushing through the waters of the early 18th century port city.
There, I toured Mikve Israel, a gothic synagogue whose congregation can be traced to 1733; circled a monument honoring Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski (the one in Patterson Park, dedicated in 1951, is far more compelling, almost a moving picture); and savored a wide saucer of “low country bouillabaisse,” a regional favorite of fish, shrimp and scallops in a saffron broth ($26) at the Boar’s Head Grill along the cobblestones of River Street.
From Savannah it was a short hop to the Sunshine State. I was now far enough south to sleep at night in the back of the Toyota pick-up, a white, 2006 Tacoma with a camper cap and some 113,000 miles on the odometer when I left home.
(On previous trips—usually from Baltimore to L.A. and back by way of Memphis—I used to pile up comforters on a feather bed and snooze atop the shifting pile in a sleeping bag.
This time around, I bought a thin, “low-profile” mattress from Mattress Giant near the Motor Vehicle Administration on Ritchie Highway.
There, the “how-did-it-come-to-this” salesman—a guy named Danny, who drove a beat-up Cadillac DeVille, cherry red and littered with coffee cups and other detritus of the salesman’s life—allowed that the last year or so had been pretty rough.)
I continued on through Jacksonville and Daytona along Route A1A, the tight two-laner that hugs the coastline of the 27th state from Callahan down to Key West. On Feb. 19, I hit Miami and found the grave of “The Great One”—Jackie Gleason.
Gleason is buried at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery beneath an eight-pillared marble monument worthy of the man it entombs.
Atop four steps lay a pair of graceful, side-by-side markers. One is engraved: Jackie Gleason, 1916-1987. The other remains blank, apparently waiting for a tenant.
To the side of the monument, flush with the sod, are a few bronze markers. One is for June Taylor, choreographer of Gleason’s fabled “June Taylor Dancers,” and her husband. Taylor reportedly met Jackie in a Baltimore nightclub in 1946. Wish I knew which one.
Gleason’s third wife, the dancer Marilyn Horwich Taylor (June’s sister, who left show biz in 1956), is apparently still alive. Perhaps the empty crypt waits for her.
In my pocket, I happened to have a small bottle of holy water from my only visit to the gurgling grotto in Lourdes, the last of a half-pint I gave my Polish grandmother after a 1990 holiday in France and Spain. When she died a few years later, I took the water back.
I’d brought it with me in a plastic Blessed Mother squirt bottle, thinking I might use it to make the sign of the cross when I said the rosary (which calms me down) on long stretches of open road.
And wouldn’t that make for an especially ridiculous police report? Knuckleheaded victim has fatal crash not while texting but praying rosary beads with one hand while crossing himself with holy water with the other.
Could such a motorist be judged too much of an idiot to get the green light from St. Peter?
In any case, I had the water when I located Gleason’s grave. Knowing he was born Irish-Catholic into a grinding and brutal poverty of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, I sprinkled some over his grave and said a Hail Mary.
Chiseled into the top step of the Gleason monument: “And away we go …”
Roosters, Six-Toed cats and a Guy named Joe Buggy
From Miami to Key West, I began listening to a CD of Jimmy Carter reading An Hour Before Daylight, his 2001 memoir of growing up on a south Georgia farm during the Great Depression.
I’d bought the audio book a day or so earlier for $10 at a used book shop in Melbourne. I was looking for Pessoa, but the poetry was paltry and un-alphabetized while the science fiction ample and manicured.
If you ever wondered where a straight-arrow Boy Scout like Jimmy acquired his self-confessed appetite for lust, read the section where he talks about going with his father—whom he “almost worshipped” as a boy—to get a “white” turkey one Thanksgiving from a comely widow.
Along Route 1, which connects more than 30 of Florida’s “keys,” are about as many places offering conch stew as you might find crab houses on North Point Road.
The bowl I sampled at a handful of places (no native-born local to direct me as I might send a pilgrim in search of a crab cake to Koco’s on Harford Road) was unremarkable. The broth wasn’t bad—as hit or miss as roadside crab soup in Maryland—but the minced conch had no discernable flavor, even less than minced clams from a can.
Arriving in Key West early on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 20, I treated myself to a room—$219 before tax at the Best Western on Roosevelt Boulevard—and headed off to Mass at St. Mary Star of the Sea on Windsor Lane.
It was one of those Caribbean-styled churches where the walls are a series of doorways that generally remain open because the weather is splendid, as it was the morning I arrived, the seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Roosters crowing on the grounds reminded me of a similar Mass in St. Croix during the summer of 2002, when I worked as a deckhand on the Atlantic Guardian, a British cable ship whose home berth was Locust Point.
From the roosters on Windsor Lane, I made my way to the gaggle of six-toed cats at the Hemingway House on Whitehead Street. It was $12 to take the tour and glimpse Ernest’s writing studio, still pristine and protected behind a wrought iron gate.
The guide for my group—Joe Buggy, real name—rattled off heroic lore from room to room: that the master bedroom headboard was carved in Spain some 300 years ago, and the goat in a painting above the bed was named Alice, and that large parts of For Whom The Bell Tolls was written on Whitehead Street.
The dedication of the 1940 novel about the Spanish Civil War reads: “This book is for Martha Gellhorn.”
Gellhorn, a magnificent war correspondent, was a combat reporter for six decades, from the tragedy of the Second Spanish Republic through Vietnam, the Central American revolutions of the 1980s and the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.
She was one of the first reporters to file from the liberated death camp in Dachau, of whose victims she wrote: “They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky.”
Burnishing the well-burnished, Buggy told our group that Gellhorn—who celebrated Christmas 1937 with Ernest in Barcelona while Pauline Pfeiffer (the soon to be second ex-Mrs. Hemingway) greeted the Yule in the States—showed up at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West one day with the expressed intent of marrying the famous author.
Buggy noted that Martha succeeded but failed to mention Gellhorn divorced Hemingway five years later, ultimately dismissing him as a blowhard to whom she resented being a footnote.
Which I guess is akin to a docent on Emory Street saying Babe Ruth liked hotdogs.
(Young reporters wanting to bask in the echo of Gellhorn’s sniper fire had to agree to the strict ground rule that Hemingway would not be mentioned in the ensuing article.)
The paving stones around the house are stamped Baltimore Block. On a garden bench, I sat down with a Hemingway short story from a collection bought in the gift shop—The Butterfly and the Tank, fiction with the same sensibility that presaged Led Zeppelin.
While reading the story—about a foreign correspondent and a barroom prank that turns deadly during the very war Hemingway covered while doing the hanky-panky with Martha—I gave away poetry by the late Baltimore legend David “Footlong” Franks (1943-2010) to other tourists.
“I don’t have a clear memory of David having much to say on Hemingway,” noted Joe Wall, Franks’ biographer. “But he did seem receptive when I suggested a road trip to Key West to kidnap a Hemingway cat.”
Bucket List Letdown
After Key West, it was “around the Horn,” as my old man likes to say.
But even the great Bolano—whose massive, labyrinth of a novel 2666 I read during breaks from writing and driving—would be hard-pressed to compare the legends of Tierra del Fuego for Hialeah, where I picked up Highway 41 for the turn-around and drove west to Naples.
On the Gulf Coast, I napped along a stretch of public beach on Sanibel Island (and later ate more fresh grouper, this time deep fried on a Kaiser roll at The Timbers) and then up to Sarasota to do something I’d never done, one of the expressed reasons for the trip: see the Baltimore Orioles in spring training.
I arrived at Ed Smith Stadium on Feb. 23, too early for the start of Grapefruit League games. It was hot and—except for the senior citizens splashing in the Fountain of Youth (the one old Ponce never found) by asking men one-fourth their age for autographs—a little boring.
For a few minutes I watched new Orioles bench coach and former Yankee second baseman Willie Randolph, now 56, teach rookie hopefuls how to take safe but aggressive leads off of second base.
(Willie will be No. 13 in your program this year, just like another former Met who once wore the native black and orange and will not be named because of gross ineptitude.)
It’s funny how I couldn’t wait to get to spring training, which had lingered on my bucket list long before I knew what a bucket list was.
But once I got there, without the tension of competition—the transcendent state that falls as you watch a guy foul off eight pitches in a row, as Albert Pujols did in 2003— I was disappointed.
So I drained a bottle of water, admired Vladimir Guerrero’s swing during batting practice and shoved off.
Next up: Day 17 and the sponge diving capital of North America, the aforementioned Tarpon Springs with a population of 22,500 and more Greek restaurants—including “Mister Souvlaki”—than Highlandtown.
Where Greeks came to Baltimore for many of the same reasons other ethnic groups once migrated here—good factory jobs, affordable housing, relatives who’d settled before them—Hellenic emigres from the Dodecanese Islands began landing in Tarpon Springs in the late 19th century to work a fledgling sponge industry.
Though the sponge docks are largely a tourist attraction—like a small section of Ocean City’s Boardwalk with Greek flags and a deep sea diving motif—Tarpon Springs maintains a higher percentage of Greek-American residents than any city in the United States.
Despite a modest comeback in the sponge harvest—nothing near the million-dollar bounties of the 1930s, a lost era captured in the 1953 Cinemascope spectacular Beneath The 12 Mile Reef—most of the sponges for sale are imported.
It was in Tarpon Springs that I decided to cut my on-again, off-again goatee.
Where slugger Vlad’s is coal black and becomes scraggly as the season wears on, like a tangled nest of lethal baby snakes, mine is almost all white, as though waiting for an errant dollop of Thanksgiving gravy from the Helping Up Mission.
I happened upon “John the Barber,” on East Tarpon Avenue. John—no last name listed on his business card or other searches—is a Chicago transplant, an Italian-American who apprenticed with an old school Italian barber.
(Along with masonry and making especially uptight Supreme Court justices, Italians are legendary for their barbering skills. Frank Zappa’s father—Francis Vincent Zappa—put himself through the University of North Carolina during the Roaring ’20s by cutting hair on the side.)
Forty bucks later, $36 for the shave and the haircut and a $4 tip collected at the door by Mrs. John the Barber (so much for two bits), I was Georgia bound.
This article first appeared in NorthBaltimorePatch.