The Toasty Tent

This stretch of the planet is having a cold snap right now, sustaining temperatures well below freezing for days on end. Today Prague enjoyed a high temp of something like -4 C, or 269 K. (that’s about 25 F). Now before all you midwesterners (both of you) get all in a huff saying, “That’s not cold! Why I had to walk to school…” let me just say, Yes, it is cold. When you were tramping through the drifts with only wonder bread bags for shoes you were saying “Crap! This is cold! I can’t wait until I can buy an RV and take it down to Boca Raton in the winter!” Don’t deny it.

So where was I? Right, I hadn’t told you that yet. I’m at home. I’ve been on a trip and as a cheap bastard I had the heat turned way down while I was away. I came home to an apartment at a balmy 12.5 C, turned on the heat, and went out to dinner. When I got home more than two hours later the place was up to 14.5. It takes a long time for things to heat up here. So with my home at less than 60 F it was time to get creative. That’s when I invented the toasty tent. I am now sitting in one of my moderately uncomfortable comfy chairs right next to the radiator. I have a blanket draped over the radiator and over me, bringing a significant fraction of my home’s heating power to bear on only a few cubic feet, some of which contain my head and other favorite organs.

I am toasty.

I’m sure I’m not the first to put a blanket over the radiator to keep warm. It’s obvious, really. What sets my invention apart is the name. Toasty Tent. Come on, that’s golden!

Some engineering remains to perfect the toasty tent. The blanket is smaller than I would have at first thought ideal, but that keeps it from getting too stifling in here. If I move my hand toward the floor, there is a sudden drop in temperature at the bottom of the blanket. At first I was most concerned with the light level, but the smaller blanket lets in enough light I merely had to dim my laptop screen a bit. The main problem is the difficulty in keeping a beer within easy reach just outside the toasty tent. If I move around too much the blanket pulls off the radiator and I have to construct my haven all over again. With only a little engineering this problem can be overcome. All I have to do is make it so my head is not a significant part of the structure.

Apparently my radiator also has a “safety feature” called a “thermostat” that shut it down just as things were reaching their toastiest. The final version of Toasty Tent will have to be sure not to insluate the radiator, but merely to make sure its heat stays in the correct general area. A delicate balancing act for the world’s top scientists at Muddled Industries, Inc.

The Toasty Tent is just what this energy-starved world needs to keep going. By only heating the parts of a home where people are, a typical family can save a fortune, and help the environment at the same time. The Toasty Tent. It just might save humanity.

Bulwer-Lytton Lives!

We stood in line, the splash of the street lamp in the chill summer fog making an island of us: there was the prostitute, chain smoking and immune to the cold in her fishnet stockings and yellow plastic miniskirt, hair in disarray and eyes only shadows; there was a young couple, junkies with colored hair leaning against each other for support, feet spread wide in a perfect square, holding each other in some half-remembered habit of intimacy or perhaps just attached by some of the hardware adorning their once-chic clothing; there was the derelict, lying in his own foul cloud, sprawled against a building in a twitching parody of death, unsure where the next bottle would come from but knowing it would come; there were the other assorted bums, lowlifes, and losers swimming to the shore of our island but moving on again after a while, lacking patience or still possessing hope; and there was me.

Pub 12

I am in the Slovak version of an English pub. I was hoping for a pale ale of some sort, but the Guinness is mighty fine. I just got here, so there’s not much to say yet. There’s a strong wireless signal, but the network has been secured.

European history will be marked by the

* * *

Time has passed and I have been pleasantly interrupted by a distractingly attractive bartender, a black frenchman who works for IBM, and a hungarian family on holiday. All of them in their own ways mark European history, but for the life of me I’ll never know what great wisdom I was prepared to impart above. There I was, on the verge of bringing the continents together, predicting the future for crying out loud, and I forgot what I was going to say. Woe, continents! I have condemned you to continue your drift, aimless and destructive.

There’s a cover of California Dreamin’ running around, and while it’s pretty damn disco, all the leaves are brown here, and the sky is often gray. I wear long pants and socks all the time. If I were back in San Diego on a Friday afternoon I’d be at Callahan’s or Tiki, doing much what I’m doing now, but it would be warm outside. I would have taken off my shades when I went in. I would have kicked off my shoes (although at Joe’s Place (r.i.p.) stealing my shoes and hiding them was a matter of sport for a while). But California, while a legend, is not a myth. The days are easy there, and the nights are warm. The women are as beautiful as science can achieve, and there are good cheap beer nights if you know where to look.

It’s nice.

I’ve been in Europe for a few months now, and I can’t help but think where I’m going next. It’s cowardly, really. I have heard many times people speak with admiration about what I have done and continue to do, but in the end, what does it pile up to? If I never stay still, I never have to form attachments. I have a bit coming up at Piker Press about that – I really hadn’t planned the story to come out that way, but it just happened. I’ve slowed down my submission rate over there because most of my short bits have the same tone and I want people to say “Hey! Cool! There’s one by Jerry this week!” Instead of “I read it last week.”

I’m rambling now, not writing, which by the title of this here blog I’m allowed to do, but I don’t want to alienate any more regulars, so I’ll stop.

Dateline: Liptovský Hrádok, Slovakia

It was a pleasant trip down here yesterday. fuego did the driving, MaK the navigating, and I the passengering. To navigate in this country you have to know the names of every damn village and cottage between your start point and your destination — referring to roads by number at an intersection is rare, and using the same town name at two consecutive intersections also seems to be against the rules. Sometimes even when you do recognize a town name on a sign it’s difficult to tell what intersection the sign is referring to.

One wrong turn eventually led us to a little place whose name translated (with only a little license on my part) to “Snowville”. It was pretty and appropriately named. The snow was coming down hard as we went through, and it seemed that everyone in town was out with shovels. We got to see the village twice, as we reached a dead end at the far end of town. The road went on, but when we asked a guy if we could get through he said “maybe in a Jeep.”

Eventually we got here and settled in. This place is nice, and very inexpensive. We have the bottom floor of a house — two bedrooms and a fully-equipped kitchen — for less than $30 per night.

Once we settled in it was time to set out in search of pivo and a bite to eat. We quickly discovered that options are limited in L. Hradek. We walked down to the most center-of-town-like area and surveyed our options, but one place had the wrong kind of beer, one was an English-style Pub which was right out as far as MaK was concerned, and one was a not-so-special hotel restaurant. Finally we asked some people on the street where a good place to go would be. After much discussion, first directing us to one place and then another, we said we just wanted to go to a place to have a nice beer and relax. One of the guys took charge, and walked with us to a place very close to our little home away from home. The man said hello to everyone in the pub, including the kitchen help.

It wasn’t a fancy place at all, but it was comfortable. It is part of a hotel that serves a sports complex; I assume it is where teams stay when they visit. We sat, our beers came, MaK chugged hers in the Czech fashion, and we settled in for a nice meal. My dinner was excellent. While sipping my dessert beer I said to fuego, “You know what I like about this place? It’s not smoky.”

fuego looked around and noticed that there were no ash trays on the tables. It turns out we were in a non-smoking bar. fuego asked if this was a Slovak law, and the bartender said no, they just didn’t want people smoking in there. I honestly never thought I would find anything like that in Eastern Europe, where tobacco is a food group. When we were done we bought some beers to go and made the short walk back here, tired, happy, and not smelling of smoke. It was a good day.

She was a writer, part 2

I was in a nostalgic mood the other day, thinking about the meaningless encounters in my life that, had things gone differently, would have meant something. I wrote about a woman in an airport bar in Cincinnati. I’ve thought of her off and on for more than three years; I even occasionally tried to dig up an email address for her through her publisher. I didn’t try very hard, I admit, but for me she was always out there, a person I had hit it off with but had not had time to alienate. Even as I wrote that bit I wondered if she would stumble across it.

She died in 2002.

You may have read John’s comment to the previous piece informing me of the case, and you may have read my reply. I’m embarrassed by my reaction; I tried to make light of it and ended up making her early death to be about me. I knew the moment I posted the comment I would want to delete it, but in the interest of honesty I will let it stand. You’ve all read it by now anyway. I have not seen any other replies, as I am in Slovakia and Al Gore hasn’t been here yet. (George Bush is in the capital right now, but I think he still expects someone to hand him a sandwich when he says ‘Bratislava’.)

During the drive down here I thought of her. I wonder what ended her life. I wonder if the cancer came back or if she lost her long struggle with her own self-image. Probably neither of those things. Perhaps it was a car crash. Maybe she was struck by lightning. She was thirty-nine, give or take. My memory, not the best, had munged the name of her book; for the record, her name was Lucy Grealy and the name of her book is Autobiography of a Face.

In the end it doesn’t matter. For a few hours I sat on a barstool next to a bright light. I checked out her ass. We had a nice chat. Did she already know she was dying? As we sat there was she facing her own mortality and chasing the inevitable with Chivas and Beer? Could I have made a difference? What if she died of loneliness, while I was thinking of her all along? Then again, for all I know she was happily married, and I was just some guy in a bar during a particularly tedious layover. I’ll never know what that encounter meant to her, and she’ll never know what it meant to me.

I wish now she could know I still think of her, but I have no way to tell her. Her striking eyes are dust, her figure is lost, even her deformed jaw is just a playground for the worms. And I still sit alone in airport bars.

She was a writer

The airport was deserted, except for the bar. Everyone got there hours early, only to discover that even the most earnest security official can only delay you for so long. I sat down, and ordered a big beer. “You can have a shot with that for an extra buck,” the bartender informed me. I looked over the booze and figured a shot of Chivas was worth almost a buck, and had that tacked on. I was sitting, contemplating which to drink first, when a woman pulled up one barstool down and ordered a Sam Adams, large. Moments later she had also ordered a Chivas, for the same reason I had.

We started talking. We both feared what was going to come next. We both thought that Bush was stupid (“lightweight” was the word I used), and that a terrorist attack was just what his administration had been hoping for.

Physically, she was striking. She had a great butt, piercing eyes, and her lower face was a wreck. She’d had some disease as a child that ate her jaw and (if hyperbolic memory has not overtaken me) almost her life. She had written a book about it, Anatomy of a Face. If memory serves. We’d had another double-round by then. She was on the NPR rolodex under self-esteem, and was coming back from an interview.

She held her hand over her face much of the time. I guess even if you’re synonymous with self-esteem you get tired of people staring. “I’m a writer,” she said. I wanted to say I was a writer, too, but it sounded pretty me-too-istic. Probably I mentioned it eventually. I still had a day job, though.

I wonder, all these years later, if she remembers the guy in the bar at the Cincinnati airport who was checking out her ass when he didn’t think she was looking, who occasionally had the courage to look into her terrifying eyes, and most of all had a great conversation about everything under the sun while a cloud hung over our nation. Maybe it was the time, maybe it was the setting, maybe it was my own slower disaster, but I will never forget her.

Doesn’t ANYone here speak English?

There are two waitresses at U Sladečku, a.k.a. Crazy Daisy, who I have taken as a personal challenge. Both are brunette, slender, and pretty. If either speaks English I don’t want to know about it. One of them I have dubbed the Anti-Amy. Put Amy and the Anti-Amy side-by-side and they could easily pass as sisters. At least, until they start talking. Or, well, when Amy starts talking. The anti-Amy doesn’t say a whole lot. To anyone.

The czechs, I am often reminded, are a reserved people. That’s OK with me; I’m fairly reserved myself. Amy is not reserved. Not at all.

The Anti-Amy was not working today, but the other she-of-the-hard-won-smile was. Compared to the Anti-Amy she’s a ball of fire, which means on occasion she will toss a litte half-smile my way when I fuck up the czech badly enough but in a sincere way. Also working tonight was a skinny blonde with bad teeth who on rare occasions is almost friendly.

I sat with my back to the wall farthest from the door, next to the piano upon which menus are stacked. I settled in with a beer and a bowl of soup and looked for more parts of The Test that I could delete. (I found a bit I really liked that had been orphaned – it really hurt to delete “The madman Lawrence is back.” “He’s better then?” “I’m not sure. He seems all right, but he has your finger. He says he wants to return it.” You don’t get chances to write stuff like that often.) ANYway, I was unwriting along and a piano player settles in on his little red pillow and starts tickling the ivories. I had been about to leave, but I prolonged my stay.

By this time the place is pretty crowded, and all the open tables have “reserved” tags on them. I feel kind of bad taking up a table at times like that, but I’ve noticed that Crazy Daisy has a pretty plastic definition of “reserved”. At a certain time of night they want to make sure their tables are used efficiently. So it was that there were several tables unoccupied but reserved. It’s all about asking nicely. I sat in my corner, watching the ebb and flow of the bar, listening to the piano, and working on a part of the story that still makes me misty (embarrassing when you’re sitting next to the piano player, facing the whole bar).

“Do you have menus in english?” comes the voice across the room in unmistakable New York. “Do you speak English?” he throws at Smiles-Only-Rarely with hostility and disdain. He turns to the whole bar, his arms spread wide. “Does ANYBODY here speak English?”

Smiles-Only-Rarely turns away from the abuse to fetch the menus from where they sit next to my head. I catch her eye and smile ruefully, shaking my head, skrunching my eyes in a pained expression. Is it? Yes it is! A fleeting smile. She collects two menus and turns back into their sarcastic entitled bitchiness. He’s continuing to be a complete asshat, and suddenly Smiles-Only-Rarely notices, seemingly for the first time, the “reserved” tag on the table. Alas, all the other tables are reserved as well. No room in the inn. His New York victimhood fully confirmed, he escorts his wife out in a self-righteous huff. See ya, pal. Some of us have to live here after you convince everyone that Americans are jerks.

Smiles-Only-Rarely returns with the unneeded menus. She looks at me again. “New York,” I said, shaking my head. “Even Americans hate them.” I don’t know if she understood me, I doubt she did, but I got a real, honest-to-God smile. I love New York.