Down The Ocean

July 3, 2009

Insulting Remarks from a First-Time Visitor

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“Ocean City, Maryland, is one of the three ugliest places on the face of the earth. The other two are that strip mall-strewn stretch of Ritchie Highway between Baltimore and Glen Burnie — and Glen Burnie itself.”

Those words were uttered, I’m ashamed to say, by an old buddy of mine one recent Sunday afternoon as we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way back to Baltimore. We were returning home after spending what I had thought were three delightful days over the Fourth of July weekend at my favorite beach resort. The weather during our stay in Ocean City had been ideal: sunshiny days with a haze-free and cloudless deep blue sky; warm ocean water, alive with gentle breakers, perfect for swimming; and cool, sea-breeze nights which induced deep and restful sleep.

It was the end of Mort’s first visit there and I had innocently asked him to sum up the experience. I figured that with his fresh eyes he could offer some special insight into the appeal of the place — besides the obvious attraction of sand and sea, of course. I’m too close to the subject to be objective because, along with thousands of other Marylanders who have spent their summers there for generations, I feel an irrational and uncritical love for that city by the Atlantic. And I assumed that Mort, too, would respond to it in a positive way. I hoped that his comments would explain, or at least justify, the emotions I felt.

“The buildings in Ocean City are a string of discarded matchboxes,” Mort continued, “tied together with telephone wires and power lines. Have you ever in your life seen so many telephone poles? And all those gross cables running off in every direction? The jumble and smell of the place bring to mind old clothes on a wash line, middle of the night television advertising slogans, rancid tuna fish salad, loud next door neighbors arguing endlessly through humid city nights. Ocean City is so ugly that a sort of negative beauty slithers into it — anything that honky-tonk becomes interesting by the very depth of its bland bad taste.”

I should explain that Mort has led a sheltered life. Until that trip to the ocean he had never traveled outside the Baltimore city limits — so, naturally, his points of reference are rather limited. But those very limits lend an innocence and purity to his remarks. He has an uncanny knack for describing familiar things in new and often surprising ways. His slightly bent perspective allows light to strike areas that would otherwise — perhaps should — remain in darkness. “You’re missing the point,” Mort, I said. “The ocean is the thing. The rest is just icing.”

“The town is ultimately more interesting than the sea,” he replied, “because of what it tells you about human nature. The ocean is just a beautiful sideshow. After a while it’s boring to look at something so endlessly perfect. When that happens it’s fun to turn from God’s handiwork and contemplate what the paws of humans have wrought. And when you look at Ocean City — I mean really see it — it quickly becomes clear that 99 percent of what has been created there is truly tacky.”

“It’s a family resort, Mort — not the Taj Mahal. It was designed as a place to vacation in, not to stand back from and admire.”

“The fact is, Ocean City was ‘designed’ and built by businessmen with one motive only: pure profit. That explains the shoddy matchstick construction, the dime store aesthetics, the unplanned sprawl. The whole town is a great example of what greed can create when it’s given total control of local zoning laws.”

“Well, it may not be perfect in your opinion, Mort, but millions of people love Ocean City just the way it is.”

“In the first place, even calling it a ‘city’ is incorrect. Real cities have storm drains.”

“What?”

“Didn’t notice, huh? Whenever it rains the streets fill up with water and stay that way for hours after the storm has passed. Driving the Coastal Highway then is like fording a stream — lengthwise.”

“You’re right, Mort,” I said. It pains me to confess this, but, by the time I pulled up in front of Mort’s row house in East Baltimore I had been swayed — to some degree at least — by his argument. For the first time in my life I was seeing Ocean City with a less than loving eye. It was depressing.

We said our good-byes and Mort, as usual, had to have the last word. As he left my car he looked back over his shoulder. “There was one thing I did love about O. C., though.” Mort paused, but when I refused to bite he continued. “I thought all those beautiful, nearly naked young girls were fantastic! They alone would have been worth the trip — that is, if they’d had had anything on their little sun-fried minds besides the perfect tan.”

As is turned out, my Mort-induced funk was short-lived. Once he removed his gear from my car and mounted the white marble steps to his front door, my indiscriminate love for Ocean City began to revive and surge within me. By the time I had driven to the end of the block and turned onto Eastern Avenue, I was planning my next trip down to the ocean for the next weekend—without Mort.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The original version of this small fiction, slightly longer and with a few word changes, was published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on August 2, 1979. It was one of a series of pieces I wrote at the time featuring the acerbic character “Mort,” my imaginary East Baltimore friend. In those days I was in an H. L. Mencken phase, strongly influenced by (stealing from) the Master. I discovered that the character served me well when I wanted to be critical and/or acidly humorous about any subject that popped into to my mind. And the best part was that I could shift resulting recrimination to my fictional alter ego. Mort the character was a handy writing tool indeed.


Lunch In Lyon

March 11, 2009

By Shirley Lupton

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My son, Robert, and I were having an argument on the train platform in Avignon. He wanted to stop in Lyon to have a look around and have lunch and I wanted to go straight back to Paris where we had rented an apartment for a few weeks. Robert is a travel writer and I do not see him much except the rare times we can travel together. “Mom,” he said, Lyon is the food capital of France. I guarantee that after two hours in Lyon you will not want to leave.” “You win,” I told him but I held in my head the impression that Lyon would be a city of damp unadorned buildings with menus that featured Lyonnaise potatoes.

So, after the warm October sun and the infinite yellows of southern France we stepped into a chilly plaza coated with light rain. As we walked along its streets even he agreed that Lyon’s buildings were stolid and Germanic. It will be better by the river, Robert said, and so it was. The River Saone flowed with a grand sweep under stone arched bridges and a seducing sun came out as we walked along. img_0284_3He was eying a white cathedral high on a hill on the opposite bank. I could imagine the thousand steps up to it and suggested it was time for lunch. Because part of Robert’s job is eating he has acquired a sixth sense about restaurants. He needs only to walk by the entrance, and sniff the air. “This is it, Mom.” His choice, Le Bistrot de Lyon, was no different from dozens of others along the cobblestones of Rue Merciere, which, with its beat and bustle, seemed to be the food heart of Lyon. It felt right to me too.

Le Bistrot opened itself to us. The maitre de was brisk but welcoming in that nuanced way the French have to be OK with Americans. We were seated at a small table with a white tablecloth and a pot of fresh flowers in the non-smoking section where smoking was still done without guilt or irony. Nearby a table of businessmen, six or eight of them in dark suits, were finishing up a platter of pork roast and sausages. A waiter poured from several bottles of wine set about and discussed their desserts. Good humor flowed between the waiter and the men in their rumble of conversation.

The décor was all polished brass and Persian carpets of faded reds, oranges and blues, The sconces on the walls were converted gaslights. In the mirror behind the men I could see our heads; Robert’s curling black hair, and mine, graying, had developed that “certain age” sway. Had I worn a cloche it could have been 1944. The waiter turned from the men and at once became our waiter as he placed a basket of bread on the table. When Robert spoke to him in fluent French his surprise showed in two dots of red on his cheeks. He wore a white shirt and a bold cerise tie and an apron with a casual hitch up the front. We ordered the specials and a half carafe of local red wine. The bread had deep crust and yielded dough that was thick and nutty, the color of caramel. Two small salads arrived –arugula with herbs and a garlic mustard dressing. The wine, hearty and fruity, tasted of grapes laced with primroses or cherries. And then the entrée, mine a slice of medium rare beef lightly covered with a sauce of orange cognac and butter and potatoes cut with edges crisped by caramelized onions. Another waiter joined up with ours, a dark skinned younger man, an apprentice perhaps. He observed our pleasure in the food and gave us two desserts instead of the one with the special. A small cheese plate, and an apple crisp that was so good I wanted to stand and scream. It crunched with the light, buttery shell and sugar and the freshness of the apples.

The check was modest and correct for such a simple lunch. But the confluence of care in the cooking, the colors, the way it was served by waiters who enjoyed the work, their reserved humanity and the happy hum of the businessmen, all this did something to us. It opened our feelings, which is a rare thing for a restaurant to do. In the past Robert and I had wounded each other after the divorce from his father. That day my faith in his judgment, his willingness to take me in hand and the mysterious magic of the Bistrot softened some of what had been hardened from all that. Outside the streets of Lyon looked entirely different. img_0283_2Robert went on to the white Cathedral and I walked about the shops and plazas in a daze. Later, on the train Robert wrote the following in his Journal.

The city had seemed sober and northern and monochromatic –completely without spark—when we arrived, hungry, into a gray noon, with apparently a fine mist between us and any color the city might have had. By the time we headed back to the train station at 4 PM, the invisible mist had lifted, my belly had been satisfied, I had sweated my way up to the city’s heights, my intellect, or rather my vision, had been braced by an extra post lunch coffee, the sun had grown stronger behind the clouds. So that now the martial rows of houses along the river revealed previously unseen blues, pinks, and yellows–still all very restrained. Gradually too, more direct rays had penetrated the weather and produced their shadows, and with them the facades and the very bend in the River Soane with its curving heights were revealing the nuance of a third dimension.

In Paris we had many fine meals but never one like the lunch in Lyon.

Copyright © 2009 Shirley Lupton.

I met Shirley Lupton in a writing class and was impressed by her cool, sardonic (is “sardonic” a combination of “sarcastic” and “ironic?”) Dorothy Parker-ish take on life, at least as expressed in her manuscripts. The first story by Shirley I read had the wonderful title “Nicole Kidman’s Bathrobe,” and was every bit as funny as the title suggests, but it also contained some very interesting insights into human relationships. Later, as I got to know her as a friend, I concluded that my initial impression held up. Shirley proved to be as witty and as insightful in real life as she was on the page.


Football Fans—Bah!

September 13, 2008

Over a beer the other evening, my friend Mort said that football players are the third most boring people in the U. S. of A. He awarded the second slot to sportscasters, then went on to say that the fans are the biggest bores of all. Mort tends to make silly lists like that when he’s drinking. Give the man a few brews and he’ll go off the deep end every time.

We were in our favorite neighborhood bar just around the corner from his house, enjoying a cold one and playing darts. Mort, like always, was winning. The funny thing is the more he drinks the better he shoots, and the more he wins the more outrageous his opinions become. Most of his conversational bombshells don’t bother me because I know how he is. I know he likes to drop them just to see what sort of reaction he’ll get—to see me flinch—so I usually let his outlandish statements just lie there. But this time I got upset; the crack about football fans was downright mean. So I came back at him with, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

Mort took the time to score his first bull’s eye before he turned to me and said, “Have you ever listened to one of those pests talk once the pre-season games begin—or even during the draft?

“Mort, I’m a fan myself.”

“But you’re the exception that proves the rule. You’re intelligent—more-or less—but ninety-nine percent of football fans have never had an original thought in their heads. Everything they have to say about their favorite game is warmed-over sportscaster prattle they’ve gleaned from guys like John Madden. And the worst part is they can’t wait to inflict their secondhand insights on anyone within earshot.”

“It’s a free country, Mort. You don’t have to listen.” I tossed my first dart, which missed the board and stuck in the men’s room door.

“Wrong!” Mort said. “In my office after every game those dunderheads call a meeting near my desk to discuss its finer points. Loud. Over and over and over. I’m force-fed boring football stats and idiotic athletic clichés which have been lifted, word-for-word, from some sportscast, and delivered as Revealed Wisdom.”

“When that happens, Mort, just take a break. Go take a leak.”

“You kidding? It’s even worse in the bathroom. Football fans are stationed at every urinal and stall, ready to talk the ears off the trapped souls who at that moment have no choice in the matter. Others buttonhole innocent hand-washers at the sinks. It never occurs to those dimwits that just because you’re male, it doesn’t automatically follow that you’re interested in childish pro football drivel.”

“Really, Mort, you’re overstating the problem.” My second dart struck the target’s metal rim and fell to the floor. I ignored it. “What’s the harm of a little fan chatter? And anyway, it’s only—what, how many games are there in a complete season?” Right off I was sorry I had asked such a basic question and was glad when Mort didn’t notice, or just ignored me.

“Nothing’s wrong with it, if it were only once in a while. The fact is, though, football fans give equal weight to each game, and they discuss it all week long with an intensity usually reserved for an event like the Second Coming. Then the cycle starts again, from scratch. Same crap commentary week after week. The fan’s endless jock-jabber begins to wear really thin by the end of the season.”

Mort shot another bull’s eye. I could see where this game was going, but I got lucky and during my next series I scored a clean ten, which made me feel a little better; at least I wouldn’t be snookered. “Mort,” I said, “you just have a low boredom threshold.”

“Only when it comes to football talk. I get fed up starting with the first reports from training camp.” He fired a thirty-pointer, then said, “Look, buddy, I love the game of football—it’s just the boorish and boring fans I can’t stand. Most of ’em have the social graces of a chimpanzee and the I. Q. of a cucumber.”

“That’s a rash generalization, Mort. The fans I know are—”

He cut me off. “Just listen to ‘em. Like for instance that wild and crazy guy at every home game, the one who leads the team cheers. He’s there every Sunday, skunky-drunk, making a fool of himself and annoying everyone around him, and it’s not just because of his body odor.”

“Not everybody,” I said. “Some of us enjoy the way he really gets into the spirit of the game.” With my next series I managed to score 20 points on the first dart, but the other three somehow wound up in the wall. “Anyway,” I said, “that guy is a bad example of your average football fan.”

“Or a good one, depending on your point of view. The grown men are the worst, you know. They’re little boys in large bodies—with skulls as thick as a lineman’s thighs.”

By this point I was at a loss for words. I had to admit that a lot of Mort’s rant was spot on. The interminable discussion of obscure football facts, the endless repetition of certain trite phrases like “We can win it all if the team stays healthy,” and the childish bantering arguments that fans indulge in does get old fast, even for a dyed-in-the-wool fan like me. But I would never admit that to Mort. I pointed to the darts in his hand. “Your shot.”

Mort toed the line and leaned in toward the board. He slowly raised his right hand, a dart pinched between thumb and forefinger, squinted into the bar gloom, and said, “Wait. I’ve changed my mind. Football fans are really victims. They’re like those suckers that P. T. Barnum said are born every minute.” He flicked his wrist and let the dart fly straight for the bull’s eye—”thunk!” Mort took a deep breath, raised the second dart into firing position and said, “Their worst sin is allowing themselves to be manipulated by slick businessmen who, in order to stimulate ticket sales, regularly threaten to move the team to another city.” Flick—”thunk!”— another bull. Mort smiled, then took a sip of beer. “The team owner’s—those powerful rich guys scheming for more cash to feed their greed—they’re the real bores.”

Couldn’t argue with that. I decided to go to the men’s room rather than watch Mort throw his last dart. I had to, I couldn’t bear it any longer.

A version of this satirical fiction was originally published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on September 21, 1979. Back then it was about baseball fans; but now, since we’re into the football season, I decided to switch it for the blog rewrite. I’ve changed the game, but it doesn’t matter; rabid sports fans—the worst of them—exhibit the same extreme behavior anywhere there’s a ball to pitch, swat or punt. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.