banner air-conditioner harvest this year…the almanac says it’s almost time!

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well, i played like a rockstar and ended up driving last Wednesday in nighttime rain and fog and glare and not much traffic at all. i did just fine. turns out that working my procrastination muscles pumped up my eye muscles until no strain or weather could stop me! i forget the power of procrastination sometimes…its mysteries are endless.

the neighborhood in Portsmouth, VA where i stayed was way sketchier than any road i took to get there. this whole gig quickly began to feel like an indie movie or stephen king novel…for so many different reasons.

i stayed in a historic Olde Towne Portsmouth hotel, right at the intersection of High street and Heroin road, down a couple of blocks from Hooker’s Corner, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, and the oft-photographed, colonial era Going-Out-of-Business district, according to my in-room tourist map. i arrived late night, dragging luggage and expensive equipment from my rental car in the alley behind the hotel, over the broken glass and gravel path, onto a single patch of concrete sidewalk, through the front doors, up the stairs (with desk guy blandly watching my struggle the whole time), across the baroque Lobby of Grandeur, all the way up the elevators to my 3rd floor room with a view and a broken deadbolt. comforting.

i wedged my suitcase under the door handle and strolled over to the two curtained windows overlooking the steeples and historic brick apartment buildings of Portsmouth. The floodlight outside the window next to my bed made it a little tough to see the night skyline, but really illuminated the beauty of the rooftop air conditioner garden planted in tidy rows, already waist high at the end of a hot, damp summer. i could tell it was recently watered and well-tended…each row of equipment with its own irrigation pond. it’s clearly been a fruitful year for the air conditioner growers in the tidewater area.

as i added up the odd details of this little American locale, i felt more and more removed from the eastern seaboard i’ve come to know and closer to the strange new england towns that so often open odd, foggy, quirky tales of horror and intrigue. there was little i could do but laugh and start taking notes. for all my best intentions heading down south with workout clothes, there was no gym at the hotel…drat! (yay!). despite all the words i planned on posting, the internet was down, always reported by the front desk as “up in a few more hours.” power surge? empty promise? a cover for false advertising?

just for effect, there was an almost complete lack of cel phone coverage in my DeadZone of a room. i had better contact with the mainland when i was in Japan than in this hazy little harbor town. then there was the 350lb half-naked, cigarette-smoking, staring man hanging out of a 5th floor apartment window across the rusty way, the young morning desk clerk with her proud 4-toothed smile, the dusty fake plants in my room that coordinated nicely with the maroon, light-blue and gold bedspread from a 1985 overstock sale, the randomly selected bathroom amenities like shower gel and conditioner (but no soap or shampoo), the booklet in my room featuring ads for a hotel restaurant that no longer exists (or that perhaps is only visible through the eyes of the criminally insane)….the fact that one of my students reminded me of Brick Tamlin but with less humorous non-sequiturs…the ice-spitting air conditioners in the conference room taking aim at students and expensive laptops…i’m sure there’s more that will make it into my novels and novelties one day.

but i want to be clear that i’m not complaining. i didn’t get any Hilton Honors points for this stay, but it made Portsmouth far more interesting to my quirk-seeking eyes than a free USA Today or Crabtree & Evelyn soaps ever could. i’ve stayed in worse, even when worse just means boring. i can easily say i was less impressed by the hotel room i booked in the parking lot of an outlet shopping mall in Charleston, NC, even with its free hot-breakfast buffet and immediate access to chick-fil-a and lightly discounted lucky brand jeans.

of course, as always, the people i taught and who hosted my stay down there helped make the whole thing terribly delightful and funny. we quickly established a sarcastic rapport, found a beir garten to wash down some hilarious observations after class, and stumbled to the perfect spot to watch my saints lose their NFL opener. on day two, we all laughed heartily, after grinding our teeth a bit, when the lunch cafe we frequented began a brick-drilling project during our final meal together. in two days this group of 9 already had inside jokes enough to call us a clique (a funny one, not a bitchy one).

so once again for me, it’s the interesting, the unusual, the out of place, the unexpected, the unnatural, the unanticipated, that make the colors and scents and sensations of a place mark a spot in my memory, my heart. there is romance in crappy maid service, hilarity in irregularity, a story in every strange character’s face…especially the ones who don’t wear chain-brand name tags, the ones still holding on to more glorious times, the ones without much to lose who will converse with a traveler and give her a taste of this beautiful patchwork of people, perspectives and purpose…the taste of portsmouths and pittsburgs and point lomas and patuxents…a proper portion of all places, each perfect with imperfect personality.

my travelin’ bone is tired, but resting comfortably, next to my alliteration bone…they will both be up for more itchin’ and walkin’ and talkin’ in a few short weeks. san diego, here i come, boring and bland be gone!

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