London, England – Let’s say you’re lost. Let’s say you’re in a foreign country. Add in some rain. Throw in jet lag. Forget the map you’ve already checked. Do something most guys don’t do: ask directions. At least here they speak English, right? But it’s me with the funny accent.
“Oh, God,” one of the two men said as I asked if I could ask a question.
“Which way is Marble Arch Station?”
“Don’t turn,” I repeated, but they both had already crossed the intersection – without looking back at me, the poor lost soul on the rainy streets of Westminster.
Hyde Park Mansions, Cravens Road, Bishops Bridge, Sussex Gardens – the names swirled in my head as I looked again at the map. I’d unknowingly gone exactly the wrong way as I left the hotel in search of Oxford Street. I’d already made a trial run that morning down Edgware Road and was within two blocks of Oxford and all its shops, but it began sprinkling and I realized my umbrella was back in the hotel room. I turned back and vowed to take a different, more interesting route on my second attempt.
Bad idea – the one about taking the alternate route. Good idea – the one about the umbrella. But after almost an hour of trying to find Oxford and looking at Bishops Bridge rising into the air, where the hell was I?
Later, and after my question to the two gents, I found myself just as lost. A young man without an umbrella was trying to cross the street the same time I was. The traffic was endless. We both moved down the street to the intersection, and I asked, “Which way is Marble Arch Station?”
“The best way is to take the tube, it’s right down there,” and he pointed to an entry way to the London Underground a half block away. I followed him and we both ducked into the entrance and out of the rain. I bought a ticket, asking for the Edgware Road station, instantly giving up on the whole Oxford Street idea.
“Go down to Platform 1,” the lady behind the glass said. “Then take the circle and go to Edgware.” Little did she know I had already been going in circles. Asking directions even to Platform 1 I felt a fool. I stepped onto the subway car, the recording shouting, “Mind the gap!”
Within seconds I was gone – at least away from Lancaster Gate, which is where I was but didn’t know it. I asked the young girl sitting next to me for help. She got out her own map of the Tube and told me to get out at the next station and take the Central Line. “Queensway,” the conductor said over the PA system. Suddenly I was out of the car again as the young girl gave an open palm, side-to-side wave as if to say, “Whatever.” She was very helpful though. In fact, she had saved me.
I followed the signs to the Central Lines, green and yellow life lines that would take me back to where I began this crazy journey. The recording came on as I boarded, “This line is a circle line to Edgware Road,” the announcement declared with that distinctive British clip as I sat down and watched the Queensway tube sign disappear along the age-old brick walls outside the train windows.
I slipped my tube ticket in the exit turnstile and the gates opened. I exited. Not bad. I emerged at street level and saw the hotel marquee within one block. It was pouring rain. But I had my umbrella and I was home. Safe.
When I next go to Oxford Street, I’ll walk.
The heartbreaking scenes of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation on the Jersey shore are almost too much to bear. New York, Manhattan, Virginia, the Carolinas, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware – the whole Eastern Seaboard – share in the disaster, surely the worst of its kind in modern history.
I’m married to a Jersey girl and have become familiar with the phrase “the Jersey shore.” In Texas, where I grew up, we went to “the beach.” But in New Jersey, Cherie went “to the shore.” And the Jersey Shore is the best there is. I’m not talking waves, swells, sets, surfing categories. I’m just saying for an outing to the ocean, the Jersey shore is it.
New Jersey takes abuse of all kinds from comedians, and particularly from New Yorkers – and that abuse is passed down to listeners who believe what they hear, even though these comedic images of Jersey are nothing more than fiction. In reality, New Jersey is a beautiful state, and the Jersey shore in particular is a beautiful place, treasured not only by those from the state of New Jersey, but by New Yorkers and visitors from all over the world who come to enjoy the clean sandy beaches, the cold Atlantic, and the boardwalks that give the area its unique character.
Hurricane Sandy changed all that. The storm hit hard as it moved onshore at Atlantic City and moved on to wreak havoc for 500 miles in several directions. Boardwalks disappeared, 80-mph winds and torrents of sand inundated picturesque seaside communities.
So when you hear about the “Jersey shore,” understand that it holds a special place in people’s minds: fun at the ocean, romantic boardwalks lit up at night with roller coasters and ferris wheels, the smells of foods of all kinds being prepared. A day at the shore, sadly, won’t be the same for quite a while.
Maroma Beach, Quintana Roo, Mexico – On a sunny day, the Caribbean would beckon. Visibility would be good to a hundred feet or more. The Palancar Reef, one of the world’s premier diving and snorkeling areas, is a short boat drive away. But today it’s pouring – tropical rain. Drenching rain. Thunder in the distance. Lightning strikes visible on the beach to the north. Rain pours through the thatched roof of the palapa.
“Okay, time to go,” says the captain. “Everybody with a purple wrist band follow me.” He leaves the palapa, wades through the running water, and heads for the boat. “And please take off your shoes before you get in the boat, okay?” More thunder.
We huddle below deck in a cramped, humid compartment not quite big enough for all of us. But we’re all in there. The captain sticks his head in. “We’re taking off now.”
At the dive location, we gather topside for “instructions” from the captain. “First, has anyone not snorkeled before?” Several people, amazingly, raise their hand. “This is a snorkel.” The captain is holding up one for everyone to see. The rest of the instructions take maybe twenty seconds. “Okay, who here cannot swim?” Again, amazingly, a couple of people raise their hands. “Okay, I’ll have a life ring with me in the water,” the captain says. “You two hold onto the ring. Okay, is everybody ready?” We begin jumping into the dark murky water.
Within minutes we’re strung out a hundred meters across the ocean and, because of the strong current, we’re also swimming for our lives. The captain dives down to show us a lobster. The closest snorkeler to him kicks his fins, creating a sand storm. Visibility: zero. More swimming for our lives. The current gets stronger. It’s wise to keep up with the captain, whose bright yellow flippers are about the only visible thing underwater. The two people who can’t swim are holding onto the life ring.
We swim (furiously) back to the dive boat. “Okay, let’s go to a second location.” The captain looks at me for reassurance that his idea is a good one. I nod toward a sister dive boat behind us, driving rain making her appear like a ghost ship in distress. She’s barely visible. Diesel fumes and smoke swamp our view as we pull away.
At the second location, more currents, more extreme swimming (forget snorkeling). Nobody cares about the fish or the lobster or the reef. Crackling thunder splits our ears as we surface momentarily. Again, we’re strung out across open water. The captain is yelling at the laggards. It’s time to reboard.
Xcaret, Quintana Roo, Mexico – May 31, 2012
…We snorkeled early, but the sea was rough and the water chilly. We walked back to the beach and read under the palapa and had mango margaritas.
Later that afternoon, a young boy shimmied up a nearby palm tree and snagged some bright yellow unripe coconuts. He excitedly showed them to his mom and another lady in the beach chairs near us. I noticed the Russian letters on their beach bag. We tried to converse with them. I took a couple of pictures of the young boy and his mom and said I would send them the photos if they could give me their address. What ensued was hilarious as we tried to communicate; they knew not a word of English, we knew no Russian. Cherie had one of the ladies speak Russian into her iPhone, but the translation was impossible and we all laughed together at our hopeless communication skills.
The boy wrote his name in a back page of my journal as he sat on the end of my beach chair. I asked if he knew English and he firmly shook his head. No! His mother and her friend talked excitedly to one another. Email! That began another furious writing attempt by the boy. For some reason and thinking it would help, the ladies were asking (in Russian) what our room number was at the hotel. Finally the father showed up. He spoke no English either. The ladies had earlier told us they knew some French. He took the journal and wrote his email address, but not before fussing at his wife for apparently being in the sun too long without enough sunblock.
Later that evening in front of the outdoor theatre, the young boy ran to where Cherie and I were sitting. He stood in front of us and smiled. Then he waved. He didn’t say anything. But he didn’t have to. We understood. It was a wave from Russia – with love.
Honolulu, Hawaii – With Diamond Head sitting quietly in the distance and with the spirit of Duke Kahanamoku always present, Waikiki Beach is one place where your feet should be – at least once in your life.
Eternally famous in films and books and songs, Waikiki withstands the hustle and bustle of downtown Honolulu, which is literally a stone’s throw away. Stroll the shops, sample a Mai Tai in a hotel lobby bar, and then simply cross the street and you’re on the beach at Waikiki. People from all over the world spread their towels and enjoy the beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean lapsing up to the shore. Surfers bob up and down, waiting for a gentle wave – practically the only kind you’ll find at Waikiki. Serious boarders head out to the North Shore or Pipeline or any of the dozens of beaches further away from Honolulu to catch the real waves.
Meanwhile back at Waikiki, more Mai Tais are prepared, more burgers are cooked at Duke’s – a fabulous bar and restaurant overlooking the central part of the beach where the Waikiki Beach Boys – a service group – will take you out in their outrigger canoes. Or give you a surfing lesson, teach you how to paddle board, orprovide you with their other services that include burial at sea.
Asbury Park, NJ – Cherie and I tripped through here last summer. She’s a Jersey girl. Used to pay fifty cents to see Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Stone Pony before they made it big. For me, finally making it to Asbury Park was many moons too late. Still, I had to smile walking along the boardwalk. All of those lyrics by Springsteen came back to me. “Kids huddled on the beach in the mist…”
Out on the beach a few families hung out, a rocky pier jutted out about 50 yards into the cold blue Atlantic, and a lifeguard stood nearby. At the end of the boardwalk was a long, red-brick building stretching from Ocean Avenue to the edge of the shore – the Asbury Park Convention Hall. We walked inside: shops, a concert hall, posters announcing the coming concert featuring the Turtles and other ‘60s rock groups, and a restaurant and bar.
A crowd gathered on the boardwalk to watch guys pound a sledgehammer and try to ring the bell at the top of the tall mark. Moan and groans. Nobody was coming close to reaching the top.
The Stone Pony faces the beach in Asbury Park, NJ. A little bar in a little Jersey beach town. So simple, so beautiful. This is where it all began for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band a long time ago. The great Clarence Clemons, the band’s saxophonist, had died two weeks before. Pictures and posters and flowers lined the beach side wall of the Stone Pony on that cloudy Sunday afternoon in July. The Big Man, the big smile, the big sound – gone.
Further down the boardwalk stood a fortune-teller’s shop. “You know the cops finally busted Madam Marie for telling fortunes better than they do…” I wish I had been here forty years ago.
With the success of the Fox TV hit “Alcatraz,” I kept thinking of the tour I took to the real thing a few years back. The show has the authenticity: the set is eerily similar. The cell blocks and the small cramped cells, the prisoners wearing the denim shirts and pants and heavy blue jean jackets, the guards wearing those familiar dark uniforms with the old style cop hats.
On that chilly summer afternoon in San Francisco, I went for the headset and tape recorder “walking tour.” But once I hung out on the island for a while, I wanted to get out of there. Real bad. There’s a bad vibe there, believe me.
Sure, it’s interesting. I was stunned to learn of the massacre, the shoot-out and the escape attempt in the library back in the 1950s.I saw the cell for the Birdman of Alcatraz, made famous by Burt Lancaster in the film of the same name back in the 60s. I went into the kitchen—a small simple place. In one cell, a dummy prisoner with a wig lies in bed as the tape describes the escape attempt that was the basis for the Clint Eastwood movie, “Escape from Alcatraz.”
At the end of a hallway is a window that perfectly frames the San Francisco skyline a short distance away. You can hear people on party boats having a good time. What torture for the prisoners who lived there. Freedom – so close, yet so far away.
The tape ended. I walked around outside (another tribute to the show’s set: they’ve even got the steps outdoors perfectly matched to the real thing). The warden’s house is nothing but walls now. The landing dock is graffiti-covered with slogans from the American Indian takeover of the island back in the 1970s. The water laps up against the rocks, icey cold.