The Devil in the Details

by Mitch Parnes

Was it good?

As truly annoying a question as that is, after sex that’s been blissful or, perhaps, otherwise — it still pales woefully in comparison with what we all (all of us travelers, that is) will, repeatedly and  undoubtedly, soon be confronted with.

How was your trip?

Ugh. At least with the first query (no pun) you’ve got an audience of just one. One question; one lone answer. One shot.

All you have to do is simply impart a soulful smile and say — to this insecure, still panting, overly quizzical person (only one, right?) — that it was “really, really great” (or something the like) and therefore you’re then, quite thankfully, sure to be done extrapolating.

Most people will leave it at that. Wisely so. After such a nice, curt reply’s been uttered they should certainly have the good sense to know that further delving is to be done strictly at their own peril.

“Well, if you’re really asking, it would have been a whole lot better had your wig stayed on.”

Far harder is the second question.

My trip you ask? Might just as well be in heaven and have a stranger bade: “So, how was your life?”

“Good, thanks. Yours?”

So? Tell me… how was your trip?

For one thing you don’t have to mutate your reply to an inquisitive lover looking for laudation.

Truthful answer (or not) it’s the softest of lies and, frankly, intended solely for their ears and their egos. Who’s to know?

So… you say, “You’re the best, baby.” Thus you’re done with it. No blood; no foul. A self contained little lie… at the very worst.

No need for it to be infinitely pliable so as to, somehow, malleably and snugly fit into all of the many different shapes that are necessary to placate the various quizzes that the multitudes you left behind will invariably subject you to — upon your eventual return.

My trip?

No one answer will suffice. No single reply could ever satisfy each and all of them: the co-workers, the roommate, the neighbors, the grandmother… no, they will each inquire and thus require their own version.

Then, of course, there are quite a few others to placate (also anxiously awaiting your return with bated breath and “fresh” inquiry).

There they all are: your now unhappily married friends –- living, day to day, vicariously through you — and, for that matter, you’ll also be asked to expound on the same exact question by your dry cleaner, your “on again/off again” girlfriend, the postman, your favorite butcher, barber, bartender and dozens of others including, probably, the main panhandler in your life.

Bootsy… he’s mine.

My charming friend with his palm ever and always outstretched; fair weather or foul he’s there, having once confessed to clearing over four hundred on a good day. Though I don’t usually make nearly that much, still, I always have a buck or two for him and once — a few years back — I had to stick my entire wallet in his mouth and call for an ambulance when he had a seizure in the snow after having some “bad” hootch. We thus created a bond and I thus learned his real name.

Bootsy, surprisingly, isn’t it. Not his God-given moniker at all.

No, it’s actually, Gordon Xavier Christmas III, a black guy with a red “fro” who has copious freckles and lives on the street so as not to have to stay anymore with his mother whom he often claims is a “f’n lunatic”.

He’ll sometimes watch my car when I double park it, always (but always) carries a bucket (don’t ask me why) and, I’ve quite the sneaking suspicion, in all probability, is worth several times more than I.

He’s been staked out there on the steps in front of my building for some time (well before I moved in there during the late autumn of 1999). The better part of ten years now he’s stood outside (come hell or high water or passenger plane attack).

I’ve come to know many things that he certainly is: a former Army cartographer, a lunatic, a disabled Vietnam vet, a recovering drug-addict, an avowed homosexual, a humorist, a dyslexic, a master of the profound non sequitur and, quite possibly it’s more than likely, a bit of a borderline schizophrenic.

There is but one thing I know, in all certainty, that he’s not: my ticket to the glorious kingdom of God (even though I charitably help to support him) as he has pitifully few, if any, real redeeming characteristics to speak of — well none, that is, aside from the absolutely invaluable ability to insure I do not return home to bed on any given night while taking myself too terribly seriously.

Everyone who lives in New York (or probably most major cities) has one. Some street-smart cat who perpetually hangs out right near your home, by your corner, who knows you and each and all your moods and tendencies and whom you, in turn, know by name.

Fact is he (or she) whether you like it or not, is a deep part of your life. Ubiquitous, they’ve seen you walking home from successful blind dates you no longer remember and disastrous last ones you wish you could forget.

Many times Bootsy has seen me (directly back from Madison Square Garden) wobbling home tipsy after having witnessed another of the futile Knick’s mind-bogglingly frequent losses; not to mention other times slump shouldered shoes shined, in suit and tie, slogging home from a tough funeral.

Probably a lot more than just one sad departing or forgettable evening in which I just got lucky was this person there to greet and possibly “get” the door for me.

Not to mention countless other occasions he, and he alone, witnessed the varied gamut of my continence as… returning home he was, as always, found there, ostensibly waiting for me.
And although Bootsy hasn’t seen my daily pocket’s worth of change in several weeks he has, somehow, nonetheless survived. I’d bet on it. How he gets through the winters is anybody’s guess; perhaps his mother becomes a bit more tolerable as the New York weather, so inclement, becomes less so.

My trip?

(Fine, Bootsy, it was great; the Queen says hi… here’s a buck).

Grandma, on the other hand, tends to be rather more expensive (or certainly expansive).

“So… ? Where did you go? What did you see? Who did you meet? What did you learn? Did you visit your Grandfather’s grave in Minsk?”

“Nah, I went to see Hitler’s grave instead”.

“Hitlah???”

“Just fooling Grandma, dear. Of course I went and saw Grandpa’s grave, are you kidding? I even laid a very nice wreath at the foot of it… on my way to Club Med Auschwitz.”

“Really? They got a Club Med? At Auschwitz??? Oy!”

Well, I can’t really blame my dear, old, gullible Granny or, for that matter, even shell-shocked Bootsy for not going abroad and seeking something intangible by seeing some small bit of the world for themselves as, perhaps, their best days have passed; but not the rest… they’ve no such excuse.

(Perhaps my best have, arguably, also passed me as well; but that merely serves to spur me even harder to embark on a long journey so much the more).

What’s their excuse then? The rest of them who stay put year after year. Fast, the decades fly by and yet they smugly sit back and let the world come to them. I’m not saying I’m surprised that they don’t ever think to leave the island Manhattan; you can hardly even get them to venture downtown for dinner or to The Village (a.k.a. Greenwich) for a drink.

“Too damn far”, Big Tim or J.R. or Willy will say while they fiercely dig their toes deep into the city’s pavement. Too far? Despite the presence of the most extensive mass transit system the world has ever known and some hundred and fifty thousand yellow cabs scouring the town’s arteries at all hours, day and night.

I repeatedly remind them that in, say, Oklahoma or Texas, most have driveways longer than the entire City of New York but, sadly, it’s to no avail.

They simply won’t or, at any rate, don’t… budge.

“Chinatown? We got a Chinese joint right around the corner… for crying out loud.”

If they’d refuse to hop a subway car, to go Mott Street for some authentic Cantonese vittles, what on Earth makes me think they’d be so inclined to go all the way to Canton, China or even Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui (let alone Iceland’s Reykjavik) or London, England for that matter… to visit?

Yet, they will all be compelled to ask… “How was it?”

A question — so absurdly steeped in rhetoric as this one most assuredly is — can only be fielded in one possible way.
Yes, that’s the truth, responded to in exactly the same chirpy manner as the other reply we initially spoke about. The one delivered from the reddened mouth of a sweet, slightly sticky, still sweaty lover, laying right next to you: you simply arch your eyebrows, clear your throat and, ahem, say just what you imagine their little heart (each of them: he, she, they or it) wishes to hear.

My trip?

Bootsy: “Cool, Man, and in Amsterdam soft drugs are legal and the Government looks after the homeless.”

Granny: “Great, I met a nice girl right there in your hometown of Minsk; we’ll be marrying when I return in the Fall.”

Girlfriend: “Wonderful but I desperately wanted to come home early as, you see, everything beautiful I saw reminded me of you.”

Bartender Mike: “Fantastic, Pal, but I will say one thing… they don’t know from Shinola about mixing a Martini in Helsinki.”

Married friends: “Man, you should’a come. Should’a seen the ladies. My God! Like you died and went to heaven.”

Roommate: “Okay, I guess, Bobo… but, please, tell me — why’d you paint my bedroom black?”

Yes everyone gets their own version to suit their needs, tastes and transgressions.

But the truth is so far from that. No sound bite uttered could ever begin to do justice to what you have experienced. The fact is, in retrospect, all trips are invariably much the same. That’s right.

It (as if a song) goes something like this: You’re standing there at first, at some airport, at the baggage claim, waiting and waiting (far too long) for your luggage to emerge from the serpentine belt and then — so excitedly — you say, “Oh, great, there they are” and (boom!) the very next thing you know — it’s all over and done; history.

And you’re back… making your descent through the evening clouds with the shiny Big Apple suddenly and startlingly once again coming into view.

That’s it. It’s all there is, when you come right down to it, just that and that alone — it’s merely moments — nothing much more and hardly less.

It’s really nothing more than smells and tastes; it’s faces and skies and rivers and people you see and being rained on and getting miserably lost… and that, I’d say, is all of it; yet hardly even the tip of the iceberg.

You can take a terabyte or two of digital snapshots and buy souvenirs and gifts galore but you’ll find that nothing truly valuable that you ultimately are lugging back home with you need be declared on your customs entry form. No, not yet anyway. Not until they come up with some novel set of squares to be checked and, naturally, with it — some new rather hefty charges for such with steep duty in tow.

This box says to mark an “X” and pay $25.00 if you:

“Spent an entire afternoon somewhere on the Left Bank of Paris drinking coffee and writing a pretty bad, pretty long, pretty sappy poem for a pretty cute waitress who you can safely say speaks pretty much no English.”

Check here and pay 100 dollars:

“If you found yourself wildly pulling for Holland in the European Cup while there. Acting as if you were a fourteen year-old who had grown up in the heart of Utrecht who knows each player and every one of the gentlemen there at the bar on the very outskirts of Amsterdam who, at half-time of the game against France, painted the left half of your face orange and bought you twenty-seven beers all tolled; a joyful evening spent acting as if you’d known them, each of them, your whole life.”

If this applies please denote in the appropriate square; under penalty of law:

“Did you suddenly stop, right smack dab in the middle of a spaghetti lunch at some little off the beaten path joint in Milan, put down your fork to scratch your head and incredulously wonder (to yourself) what the hell it is that we’re doing to our pasta? Why is it that the dishes back home are so unbelievably inferior to this truly delicious, hardly related, sublime stuff you’re eating now?
All beautifully done and perfectly Al Dente and so very indescribably scrumptious though quite simply seasoned, prepared with nothing much more than olive oil and garlic.”

You see, my friends, wherever and whomsoever you are –- you who’ve I’ve met throughout the world and you who’ve I have yet to – either east or west, both north and south –- I am truly ever so thankful –- to you all.

For, to me, the opportunity to travel throughout the world is a magnificent gift (just as precious as life itself) and hardly any less than a true microcosm of it.

It shares most every aspect… its ups and downs; joys and pains; exasperations and exhilarations; and, and, and then it’s all, mysteriously, over.

Then what? Who really knows but (well) with any stroke of luck, and for whatever improbable reason — or perhaps just a clerical error — (or maybe it actually was just Bootsy and his bucket with his teeth-marks still scored deep upon my wallet) –-you’ve made it. You’re in.

Praise be the Lord, hallelujah! You, yes, you’ve been selected; allowed passage into Valhalla for eternity (and everlasting bliss becomes your final reward).

Yes, you’re in! The ultimate restricted country club and you’re now a member (perhaps its token sinner?). And right there waiting to meet and greet and bade you entry isn’t (as the bible says) old Saint Peter, clipboard in hand. No, not him at all.

The first thing you see is some chubby, bald fellow who’s tentatively hovering. He’s wearing a white sheet with a rope belt and a bright halo.

Some guy you’ve never ever seen before who’s just breaking in a pair of brand new of wings and, with a huge beatific smile on his face, he’s inquiring, a friendly kind of reaching out to you. He greets you with a fairly simple question: “Hey, friend. So, how was your life?”

“Fine, thanks. Good. Yours?”

And, that’s the sum of it. Please, do remember to enjoy yours, whoever you are and wherever you go.

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