The Truth About Rusty

Gary is pretty docile for the most part, but after a day of solid cheerleading at 37,000 feet and long lines for baggage claim and car rental, we were both very tired and on the verge of all out crankiness. We had arranged a special rate on the rental car for the few days we were to be in the Orlando area. After we signed all the paperwork, we were directed to the lot to pick up our car. No one at the pickup window seemed to speak any language clearly, but the attendant told us that the cars for our special rate were on Row E. All we had to do was select the one we wanted. As we approached Row D, another attendant looked at our paperwork and pointed us toward the cars down Row E and said to choose the one we wanted, so we selected a nice SUV, as it was the only thing parked there that was not a fleet Crown Victoria. The SUV was unlocked with the keys in the floorboard, so we photographed all the dents and dings and headed for the exit after loading our luggage in, adjusting the seats, the mirrors, the air-conditioning, the vents, and the radio. All of this was done under the watchful eye of the Row D attendant.

That didn’t prevent our being stopped at the gate because the car we had selected was not available at our special rate. We were not in a position to back up, and the gate manager wouldn’t let us move forward. He insisted we were eligible for only a Crown Victoria, at which point, Gary said rather firmly (this is putting it mildly), “Do you think I look sixty-five?” I quipped that you shouldn’t ask someone under the age of thirty or you might get an answer you don’t like.

For just a few seconds, I thought we might end up stealing the SUV because we had the keys, the gate had been opened and there was no stopping us. However, the gate attendant maneuvered the traffic and we reversed only after we compromised on a higher end SUV that had just been returned and was in our special rate category. I don’t know why they had us switch because what we ended up with was way nicer than what we’d first selected. We got in and all was well.

That is until a mile down the road when we reached the Florida highway system. Toll roads everywhere. The hotel was not that far, but we paid over four tolls in less than 15 miles. At one point, the GPS sent us on the scenic tour, which meant two more tolls that could’ve been avoided. I don’t want to do it, but someone should investigate to find out if Florida’s highway department is in cahoots with the GPS manufacturers.

The one great thing on this trip was that the resort hotel was actually a furnished two-bedroom apartment. With daily maid service, I could’ve stayed a month, especially since the balcony was screened in. We unloaded the car, went for Cuban food and decided what we’d do for the next two days. That’s how I ended up at Gator Land on Saturday.

I suspect that Gator Land is where those who can’t or won’t afford Disney take their kids. The ticket price is unbelievably affordable, a nice way of saying downright cheap. Gary had been there twenty years before, so he thought it would be a fun diversion. One thing I can say about Gator Land is that the place is filled with more reptiles than I could imagine actually inhabiting Florida. The place began as a refuge when the critters were on the endangered species list. After successful breeding, the place is swarming with creatures that would make the nicest pieces of luggage.

Alligator luggage moves quicker than these captive animals.

Alligator luggage moves quicker than these captive animals.

There is even a swamp attached where you can stroll along a boardwalk through cypress trees and look at their very own wetland. I’d been to a similar swamp almost 30 years ago on my last Florida trip. That swamp, my first, had seemed exotic, as I’d never visited one. This marshy mire, however, had the feel of that much-neglected house down the street. The one where a reclusive neighbor has let the yard go for some reason like a paralyzing case of chronic depression mixed with agoraphobia and garnished with apathy’s cherry. After seeing a baby water moccasin lounging on a rock near the boardwalk, we returned to Gator Land proper.

Gary told me how wonderful the place had been back in the day. The gators he had seen had literally jumped out of the water to get a whole chicken dangling from a wire during shows that take place throughout the day. Due to our early afternoon arrival and an eagerness to see the sights, we ended up at the day’s final performance. Perhaps the trainers have not realized they should rotate alligators for each show, or perhaps captivity has dramatically reduced the need to stalk prey, but the scaly actors we saw performed with the same zeal as a refugee cast member from one of the nearly 7,400 performances of Cats on Broadway. You get more action from those 700-pound people on talk shows that have to be cut out of their houses.

A single hungry alligator giving a lackluster performance at the final gator show of the day.

A single hungry alligator giving a lackluster performance at the final gator show of the day.

Having once seen an airboat driver on a Louisiana bayou actually get his hand bitten by a younger alligator in the wild, I was not impressed by the various domesticated gators being played with while their mouths were taped shut. We didn’t even get to see one of the youngsters petting them get knocked down with the swipe of a tail.

Reptiles are not the best thing to see at Gator Land. That would be the people who go there. It’s a collection of people who’ve made questionable choices in life. Faced with fewer and fewer areas of unmarked skin, where could they put just one more tattoo? Sure, kids are expensive, but what’s one more mouth to feed? Regular or menthol? Bra or braless? Coors or Miller Lite?

People-watching is not limited to Gator Land. That would be the entire state. Yes, as a Californian, I’m one to talk, but Sunday came all too quickly. I hadn’t had a chance to recover from my big dose of public at the reptile farm before we were off to Florida’s east coast. We had to dip into the Swiss bank account to afford the fortune in tolls it took to get there. It was obvious that Gary hadn’t been raised with toll roads because he placed his exact change in the basket one coin at a time. I wasn’t really paying attention to this amusing method until he dropped a quarter that ran under the car. Cars were lining up behind us, and he was tempted to get out to find it while I scrounged for another coin. It wasn’t until one of the last of nearly a dozen toll booths that he believed me when I said he could just throw it all in at once.

We had set out early and were ready for breakfast by the time we’d almost exhausted our wallets from paying for the Florida highway system. We didn’t realize how close we were to our destination so we surveyed what we thought were our only choices. The two places on that lonely road that appeared to have had a visit from the health inspector in the last decade were Denny’s and IHOP.

We selected Denny’s because I had yet to learn about the brioche French toast at IHOP, not that the brioche would resemble anything coming out of a real boulangerie.  The breakfast didn’t matter because sometimes a seemingly insignificant choice turns out to pay big dividends. The floorshow of people-watching was the best so far. As we placed our order, I noticed a woman on the parking lot, right outside of our window, getting into her car. I’ll describe her, and you can decide for yourself what was going on.

Even in California, you don’t see a septuagenarian with burgundy hair in hot-pants and a t-shirt with cleavage so low that you felt you might see less at her mammogram. This ensemble was adorned with seven-inch turquoise heels, an oversized chartreuse handbag and cane. Yes, a cane. The cane was not your typical walking stick available from the drugstore or medical supply. No, her cane was more like something produced by a wood carver and sold at a Renaissance Faire. Our lady’s cane was a rough-hewn piece that coiled into a spiral near the top. It looked as though she might’ve have traded it for sex with an old wizard. Whoever this woman was, she hadn’t lost her tan since 1951, and the whole effect was brought together as she posed alongside her ’85 Olds Cutlass with the duct-taped passenger-side headlights and a toothpick dangling from her lips.

I have a bad habit of assigning nicknames to strangers who amuse me. It allows me to keep my emotional distance while observing, and I’m the first to admit that they’re not always kind. That’s why I don’t share them with the actual stranger. That said, I think our lady by the Cutlass would fittingly be called Rusty.

Rusty climbed into her car with very little effort considering that she had that cane, and she sat there from the time we ordered until we finished and the plates were cleared. I noticed that she had walked out of Denny’s with a plainly dressed woman with overly permed hair. That woman had gotten into a small pickup and had driven away, presumably to church somewhere. I was puzzled that these two very different women would be friends, as they were sort of a modern-day, poor-white version of Melanie Wilkes and Belle Watling from Gone With the Wind.

Of course, I was assuming that Rusty was some sort of eager old hooker. Rather than raising money for one of the plain woman’s notable causes as Belle had done for Melanie, maybe I’d misread the situation and the plain woman was some sort of wetland madam pimping out her most experienced worker.

The morning was growing late, and it made sense that Rusty was waiting on afternoon business to pick up once church let out. As she sat in her hot car, I could see her through the venetian blinds as she applied a new layer of lip-gloss. Then she reapplied mascara, then more lip-gloss, and then she lined her lips. She took a second look at the mascara in her rear-view mirror and applied still more, pausing ever so briefly to pull her reading specs off her head as she fumbled for something in the glove compartment or perhaps the floor of her car. I could never tell, but was so curious as to why she had vanished out of sight for those moments. I wanted a closer look, but worried she might have a rape whistle if I moved in her direction. We had places to be, so we drove away without ever learning the real truth about Rusty.

©2014 Patrick Brown

Cheerful Travel

I hadn’t been to Florida since Spring Break of my sophomore year. I had a great time that week even though by most collegiate standards the vacation I had was dull compared to the bacchanalian revelry one sees along the coasts. I stayed with a Baptist family and went to church five times. However, I still had time to water ski, lie on the sand and go to Disney World. I also learned how to play poker from a deacon’s wife.

The opportunity to return to Florida didn’t come for 30 years. When you live in Southern California, you have warm weather, mild winters and access to as much Disney as you want, so Orlando and its surrounding areas are not always among top travel destinations unless your goal is to reach the Caribbean.

We departed Los Angeles on a Friday in early April, in order to land in Orlando that evening. The flight time and the change of time zones kill the better part of a day, but we were prepared for that. We had very carefully selected our travel time to avoid certain things like hurricanes, spring break, election debacles and families vacationing with lots of children. Wouldn’t you know, the one thing we weren’t aware of was the annual cheerleading competition taking place in Orlando.

Gary and I made our way through the LAX terminal, noticing a few teenagers at drop off, then at security. They were fairly subdued at that hour, and they were so sporadic that we had no idea they were forming a herd to end up in our part of the terminal. My mind is distracted on travel days. From the point I close my luggage at home until I find a seat near the gate, I’m on a mission and cannot easily be distracted.

Once we arrived at the gate, there was no room in the seating area, so we piled our stuff in a couple of adjacent chairs before taking turns to get snacks for the trip. Having reached the gate, or close to it, I had begun to get into vacation mode. I had already dived into a book, so my head was down. The writing was smooth and the subject was interesting, so I barely noticed that the teens were gathering at the same interval as Hitchcock’s perching birds. It wasn’t until one of them flapped his wings, so to speak, that I realized what was happening. There was a legion of them, and they were beginning to wake up!

I wasn’t fully aware what fate had in store until the flight was announced. First-class boarding was called along with parents who need assistance with small children. I didn’t worry at first, as these young people were not gathering their things in preparation to depart, and since we had been seated in the adjacent gate’s lounge, I had forgotten that they were standing in our gate’s immediate boarding area.

As we waited our turn to board, I was in denial that any of these noisy kids would be going with us. Ours was a direct flight to Florida, and surely these spirited young people were in school somewhere. It was unlikely that they would be taking such a long trip so soon on the heels of spring break. No, they had to be going on some field trip to Sacramento to study state government. I heard more murmuring and the occasional shout, and with apprehension, I glanced over my shoulder to see 26 energetic teens and their sleepy sponsors lined up behind us. How could this be?!?

Of all the flights taking off that day from LAX, the cheerleaders were on ours!

Of all the flights taking off that day from LAX, the cheerleaders were on ours!

Gary and I try the occasional trick when flying coach. First, we buy as early as possible, and when there are three seats on each side, we buy A and C, hoping that no one will select B. This doesn’t work every time, and on really full flights, it doesn’t work at all. I always say that if someone sits in the seat, I’m going to deliberately spill into his or her space and hold conversations with Gary until the intruder decides to find available seating elsewhere, but inevitably we welcome the poor soul and I get smashed against the window. We usually get a sleeper that can’t be roused even if the oxygen masks drop.

Such was the case of Flight 4355, which by the way spells H*E*L*L on your telephone keypad. It seems that the sponsors were parents, and that these bleary-eyed guardians had decided their job was finished until the plane landed safely. After all, they had had roused their teens out of bed, survived the trek to and through LAX, and had made sure these kids, who were more and more awake by the minute, had gotten onto the correct plane. Getting into the correct seat, however, was the flight attendant’s job.

The parents lumbered down the aisle with large disposable cups of coffee, which I’m positive were decaffeinated. One such mother squeezed into the seat between us, her disposable coffee cup jerking so wildly over our heads that the familiar logo was just a green blur. Without a word, she kicked off her flip-flops, washed down a banana muffin and curled into the fetal position for the next five hours, 99% oblivious to the madness that reigned supreme.

We almost didn’t leave because one of the cheerleaders left her seat as we pulled away from the gate. She was looking for an electrical outlet in the wall of the cabin in order to charge her phone—the one that she, along with the rest of the passengers, had been instructed to turn off. Flight attendants and a couple of the girl’s peers called for her to take a seat. Where was her mother to tell her to sit down? Was her mother even chaperoning the trip? Did anyone know where on the plane her mother might be, or if she was on the plane?

Ah, that would be the woman sitting one row behind the disruptive girl, scrunched next to me, not saying a word. “Ma’am! Take your seat at once,” stated the flight attendant firmly. “But I need an electrical outlet. My phone is dying.” Mother of the Year clearly had a hands-off approach to letting her daughter handle her own business.

Once airborne, it was like flying with the cast of Glee. The noise and enthusiasm never waned for a second. No one instructed the kids not to practice cheers or told them that regardless of how cute they thought they were, the entrance to the plane’s rear galley is not the place to form a pyramid. The flight attendant in our stretch of the fuselage maintained a broad smile throughout though by the end it looked more like a grimace. You know she was seething on the inside each and every time she had to move that drink cart all the way to the back in order for one of the little darlings to get to the lavatory.

Perhaps it’s age, but I really think there’s a problem with too much self-esteem. I think it started with telling kids that they are winners just for showing up. Everyone gets a trophy, and if you attend a party, you get a goodie bag. We’re all winners; there are no losers. I don’t know who thought it up, but it was probably a couple of parents who never won anything when they were kids.

If everyone gets a prize for participation, how can anyone learn that everything that is said and done is not great? I recall the feelings of not winning a particular award, or coming in second or third place—or not placing at all. It made me try harder next time. A ribbon for participation at a grade-school track meet would’ve left me with the false impression that I was an athlete on par with the physically fit and agile. Surely I would’ve seen the truth after placing next to last with only the obese kid to eat my dust, but what if I had received a ribbon when my participation had been lackluster due to an utter dislike for running, not to mention my loathing for our track coach?

I struggle with humility enough as it is. Can one imagine what I’d be like if I’d been told everything I’d ever done was perfect? I’d be writing with way more grammatical errors and thinking every word out of my mouth is comedy gold. Self-esteem can lead to over confidence, and in the case of the non-athlete, it’s a slippery slope to becoming a cheerleader.

Midway through the flight, our seat-mate’s daughter, the one still looking for an electrical outlet, stood up and announced to anyone listening that she was a cousin to the Kardashians. (I love that when you type Kardashian it comes up as a misspelled word. There may still be hope for humanity.) This particular cheerleader didn’t look the type to have sat on a secret like that for the first seven months of the school year, so I was quite sure that she was directing her remark to anyone within earshot even though her head was turned in the general direction of another cheerleader.

She must’ve been disappointed when no one, not even her comatose mother, looked up to see who had announced being on the fringes of pop-culture “greatness.” My nose was in my book so that she couldn’t see me listening. I glanced over at her dozing momma, mouth agape and drool running down the corner of her mouth. With no care for her physical appearance, I deduced that the head cheerleader’s blood connection to the Kardashians was paternal.

Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, I was hit with a memory. I was in college, perhaps a year or two after my previous Florida trip. I was traveling with a musical group, and toward the end of the tour, 50 of us disembarked from the charter bus, bursting with energy and the urge to spread out. We had been dropped off at a private school where we would have lunch and a free afternoon. Lunch plans were delayed when the director pulled us together for an impromptu meeting. She told us that she had never been so embarrassed by such insensitive and arrogant behavior. Who did we think we were? Where did we think we were, and how had we ever come to believe that we could walk in like we owned the place?

My co-travelers that long ago day and on this flight were insensitive, and yes, rude. My true discomfort was recognizing my lack of patience when I had once been in their shoes.

©2014 Patrick Brown