Saturday, April 25, 2009

Who the hell is 'Moondog'?

My Island is a nice place to live. It takes a while to get used to the steady ebb and flow of traffic headed for the racetrack, hotel, and casino at the end of ‘Da I-Lan’, but after a while you begin to identify the cars and their destinations. For instance, the Buicks and Cadillacs are gray hairs headed to the slot machines. The brightly painted ‘rice-burners’, with their annoying ‘angry wasp’ exhausts, and the beat-up pickup trucks are headed to the poker tables. The Escalades and the Acura SUV’s with the blacked-out windows and oversized wheels are headed to the table games. The high-priced pickups and Suburbans will likely end up at the greyhound track. There is nothing carved in stone about this system, but experience tells me that it’s close. Being an area where families live, including teenagers, we also get those REALLY annoying teen-aged white boys in painted-up used cars with rap music playing on stereo systems designed for stadiums. The speakers are so badly bottomed-out that there really is no music, just a piercing, penetrating buzz that is so loud it vibrates my windows and hurts my ears inside of a closed building and forty feet away. Some day there are going to be lots of deaf young white men who finally turn their hats around and look in the mirror.

It’s starting to warm now and people are coming out of their houses. As I mentioned in an earlier piece, ‘Da I-lan’ has a lot of huge old houses that have been broken up into apartments, Those apartments are attractive to young people just starting out and working at entry level jobs. As a result, the warm weather brings out a flow of people on bicycles, couples holding hands, old people walking to the store, families and young women pushing strollers followed by toddlers whose little feet are flying just to keep up. I like seeing the families with the young father right there with his wife and their offspring. They are a family unit; the building block of our nation. I also see the young women, sometimes in pairs or groups, as they push their strollers along the street. Their animated conversations are often filled with anger and words that I’m still shocked to hear from a woman’s mouth. Where are the fathers of those children? Somewhere there is a male whose DNA matches that of their child. Are they supporting these women? And their children? If not, why not? Why are these women and their parents not screaming from the rooftops of the injustice of a ‘father-less child’. Maybe this all just goes back to a traffic accident many years ago that left me growing up without a father.

Down from the soapbox! The warm weather also breeds a variety of sights, some of which are enough to make me question my eyes. Close your eyes and imagine, shuffling down a public street, a three hundred pound shirtless man wearing what appear to be pajama bottoms and shower shoes. Yea, I opened my eyes too, just too scary.

Now picture a gaggle of young men, hats backwards, sports tee shirts, absolutely enormous baggy shorts hanging halfway off their butts exposing plaid boxer shorts. They walk along in an odd, bouncing kind of urban strut, each chattering and frantically gesturing with one twisted arm as the other hand clutches the baggy shorts to keep them off the pavement. Outfits like that must go a long way toward reducing crime since it must be impossible to run from the police when your pants fall around your ankles.

Perhaps the ‘King of the Streets’…well, at least on ‘Da I-Lan’…and after dark, is a local celebrity(?)…character(?)…oddball(?)…fill in your own word. He’s been around for years and ALL, believe me ALL of the locals know OF him, even if they have never seen him. I speak of “Moondog”, and he’s DEFINITELY not from an old Patty Duke TV series.

One of my first nights here I was still having trouble sleeping in the new place, especially with unaccustomed street sounds. Somewhere around 1 AM, I climbed from bed and walked to a window, perhaps to close it. There, on the next block was a strange sight. A single light, not bright enough to be a car or motorcycle, turned the corner and came toward me. As it passed beneath a distant streetlight, I could see large flags fluttering behind the light. When my curious apparition reached the next streetlight, I could see a man on a bicycle, battery lantern taped to the handlebars, wearing a construction worker’s helmet and a vest of bright orange with crossed reflective strips. Behind him fluttered full size American and POW-MIA flags, securely taped to the rear axle and seat of the bike. What the hell was that? Later I would learn that I had seen Moondog.

My curiosity piqued, I began to research my new discovery both in the real world and on the Internet. What I found was that, once upon a time, there was a boy named Charles who was ‘slower’ than the other children. As the years went by, he fell well behind the class and was simply left behind. As he was growing up, he got into trouble for some relatively minor infraction and may have been a guest in a juvenile facility for a short time. The records are unclear about that, as they are for many interim years. Although many mysteries persist about Moondog, he is a regular at parades through Wheeling, always marking the end of the festivities. He makes modest and usually anonymous contributions to local charities, shying away from any fanfare and instead choosing simply to make his donation wrapped in a scrawled note that states, “from Moondog”.

In an unusual public appearance, the Wheeling Nailers Hockey Team honored Moondog with his own night at the arena, and with his own bobblehead doll. I was among five thousand people standing and applauding when a painfully shy, graying man in his mid-fifties, dressed in an ill-fitting suit, that had probably been given to him for the occasion, stood fighting his instinct to run. He smiled a tortured smile as he nervously waved to the adoring crowd, all the while clinging to the new orange bicycle given to him by the hockey club. I couldn’t help but wonder what was the motivation for so many people to show such adulation to a man of no particular accomplishments. As I thought about it, I began to realize that their appreciation of Moondog was not for his accomplishments, but rather for the spirit that he represents. A man from humble beginnings, with many limitations, Charles beat the odds and became the best man that he knew how to be. He rides freely (and ever safety-conscious) without handouts. He sets his own course and lives his own life without infringing upon or asking for help from others. He does what he wants because HE wants to do it and BE DAMNED the opinions of others. And finally he holds dear his country, his city, and his neighbors, whether they know that or not. But they DO seem to know, and five thousand of them stood and applauded to tell him so. Roll on ‘Dog’!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Some Serious Spandex

As I have aged, the effects of…well…age, a completely corrupt lifestyle, and the appetite and dietary habits of a sixteen-year old have combined to offer your most humble and obedient servant a couple of choices. Those were specifically: 1) exercise and lose weight, or 2) get fitted for a box and a hole in the ground. After an appropriate amount of consideration, I finally chose number one, beginning a whole new trend in my lifestyle choices. I have ridden a motorcycle for years so anything with two wheels works quite well for me. The downside is that 800 pounds of steel and chrome won’t do me a bit of good unless I powerlift it in multiple cycles each day. The futility of that fell upon me, and, in an unaccustomed flash of intellectual light, the bicycle came to mind.

In reality, I have for several years enjoyed riding a bicycle. The new bicycles are equipped with sophisticated gearing systems that allow the rider to tackle terrain from steep hills to flat roads without having to be a candidate for the Olympics. All over the country, old unused railroad beds are being renovated and surfaced with compacted crushed stone, asphalt, or concrete. Thousands of miles of these ‘rail-trails’ follow streams, skirt hills, and generally wind unobtrusively through areas where steam trains chugged along 150 years ago leaving clouds of black coal smoke. These trails are largely in scenic areas and are a joy to explore. My highly touted town of Wheeling has two very nice trails that I know well.

It’s a hard transition from a sedentary corrupt lifestyle to an active corrupt lifestyle. The bicycle is a heartless taskmaster that requires effort, perspiration, and perseverance; but will, in return, strengthen muscles, improve breathing, and head off yet another open-heart surgery. So with this in mind, recent years have seen his somewhat bloated buttocks morph into slimmer and more muscular although occasionally sore as hell buttocks as thousand of miles pedaled by. Those miles were mostly very pleasurable and as enjoyable as any other hard, physical labor can be. They also introduced me to a breed of person that anyone who regularly engages in physical activity will recognize. Allow me to introduce to you Mr. or Ms. ‘Serious About My Sport’.

We’ve all seen them. They’re the ones who have the absolutely newest equipment, clothing suitable for that sport and that sport alone, and the ability to unerringly bore to tears even the most enthusiastic among us with lengthy tales of their fierce dedication and noble accomplishments. They have ALL of the specific sport magazines; their houses are adorned with memorabilia, trophies, and souvenirs; and they LIVE for their next lesson with this coach or that. SERIOUS! They are SO SERIOUS! No one on this planet has ever built their lives so completely around one undertaking, and they just can’t wait to brighten your otherwise dull life with their story of commitment. Yep, that’s the guy (or gal).

In bicycling I’ve labeled that character as the ‘spandexer’. Those of you non-cyclists probably have not seen this creature, but he or she can be found anywhere bicycles are ridden. Comes to mind a trip along the Great Allegheny Passage, a 110-mile rail-trail between Pittsburgh, PA and Cumberland, MD. After a seventeen-mile uphill grind from Connellsville, PA to Ohiopyle, the home of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house, Fallingwater, I stood puffing like a steam engine and sweating like a pig in my old jean shorts and wet tee shirt. Suddenly there they were, pushing their way through the crowd of unworthy. My eyes beheld a cluster of four ‘serious spandexers’, two male and two female. Their bicycles were the most expensive model of the most expensive brand, two male and two female, all glowingly spotless and equipped with fenders, front and rear; lights, front and rear; basket, tire pump, water bottle, road bars, mirrors, speedometer, air temperature and humidity monitor, heart monitor, tool kit, and an agglomeration of options whose earthy use escaped me entirely. The only thing missing were the chauffeurs’ seats. Each of the serious was wrapped head to foot in spandex, an elastic and body molding fabric, carefully color coordinated to match his/her bicycle, with spiffy color splashes that seemed to dash about their bodies. On each head was a carefully designed helmet, color coded exactly to match the bicycle, tapered to a teardrop shape, and ending gracefully in a point almost a foot after the head ended. A small mirror the size of a thumb hung suspended on a flexible rod from the edge of each helmet. My heart raced at the sight before me. As they neared, one of the males slid off his especially notched and tinted racing glasses to show the masses that he too had eyes just as they did. Then, as if coordinated by an unseen director, each rider dismounted from his or her colorful steed and, although obviously disdained by having to pass so near the unwashed, walked their bicycles to a secure area where they could be guarded by paid staff. The click of their color coordinated cleated shoes against the asphalt echoed back from the wall of the old train station as they disappeared into an area obviously off limits to sweaty plebeians such as me. I remember thinking that they had probably ridden nearly a mile, and it was good that they had stopped before perspiration occurred. It must be rough on the aging butler to have to run along side and mop each brow. Although I was comforted by the realization that they were safe and comfortable now, I just couldn’t escape that nagging fear that the champagne may have become too warm during their arduous journey.

There are younger and apparently less affluent, but nonetheless serious versions of the serious. As we wide-tire, blue-jeaned, unhelmeted riff-raff trundle along the trails, we had just bloody well yield to the cry, “Passing on your left!” lest consequences be felt. They usually travel in groups, but occasionally one will venture out alone to reassert their unquestioned authority over the trails.

I have learned to keep a keen eye in my common little rear-view mirror for the approach of a serious. I have personally heard persons who failed to yield in a timely manner called, “dumb ass”, a scalding rebuke intended to scar the psyche of a less committed, and ultimately causing them to reflect upon the purposelessness of their attempts at bicycling. Some of the weak simply pull to the side of the trail, lay down their bicycles, and walk away never to return. It’s a frightening sight to see.

I carry within me a dream that some day I too may dress myself in panty hose painted to look like a candy bar wrapper, put my head into a plastic serving bowl lined with sponges, and wear yellow Velcro golf shoes as I speed down the trail asserting my superiority over those slugs who should still have training wheels. Some day…but not this week.

So Here I Am

“You should have a blog.”
“A blog? What the hell is a blog?”
“It’s a place where you write stuff.”
“But I’m a writer, I already write stuff, and I have a website.”
“You still need a blog.”

That conversation never happened. Well, it sorta did, but only in my head. In looking around I saw that other writers have blogs, so apparently I should have one also. So I went to a website and got a blog. Having a blog is a bit like going to a pet store and buying a boa constrictor; once you have one, what the hell do you do with it? I explored around and looked at other peoples’ blogs and found out what they were doing. Basically it’s a kind of journal where you post your thoughts and ideas, and other people come to read them. Oh…ok. I guess that’s all right. Years ago a television or radio commentator, and I’ve forgotten his name unless it was Andy Rooney, used to do a commentary he called “Things I think I think”. This blog will probably be something like that.

I live on an island. Really. An island surrounded by water and connected to the mainland by bridges. When you tell people that, they automatically get an image of palm trees, sandy beaches, and natives in colorful clothing. Not this island. It’s not Greenland either where people live on a chunk of ice and rock and eat caribou meat. My island is about halfway between those scenarios. In the eastern United States, the state of West Virginia has a northern panhandle, a tapered sliver of land between Pennsylvania and Ohio. The western side of that sliver is bounded by the Ohio River, a large, very commercialized river that is formed by the joining of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers at Pittsburgh, PA, and flows southwest to eventually join the Mississippi River. The city of Wheeling, WV sits pressed tightly between the river and a range of hills. The river is probably a half-mile wide at that point, and Wheeling Island, a large, football-shaped island, sits in the river close to the Ohio border. And you thought geography was dull.

The Island, or "Da’ I-lan" as it’s known locally, is a lovely place actually. On one end is the iconic Wheeling Island Casino, Racetrack, and Gaming Center. This complex has effectively put Wheeling on the map and is its best-known feature. Also there are Wheeling Stadium and Godfather’s Gentlemen’s Club, which are much less well known, and one of these allows aging perverts to oogle naked and perky twenty year olds without being subject to arrest. The streets are wide and tree lined, and there are many beautiful houses, some that date back to pre-Civil War. There are elegant Victorians, some American four-squares, and a collection of eclectic styles and sizes. The whole bloody island is a designated historic area, and there is a certain appropriateness that I live there. Like many older areas, a high percentage of the older houses have been broken up into multiple apartments or have fallen into disrepair. This is sad but unavoidable as repair and operating costs begin to exceed the value of the properties. Enter into this mix your most humble and obedient servant who was looking for an escape from the cultural and fun wasteland that is southwestern Pennsylvania, and a match made in heaven was consummated.

Wheeling is an old American city. Its rich history goes back to the late 1700’s and the end of the Indian Wars. Its location on the Ohio River and the construction of the National Road (US 40) provided access to raw materials and markets spawning industrial development. With the addition of railroads in the 1800’s, Wheeling became a thriving industrial center and grew like a mushroom. In the 1900’s, the glass, nail, steel, tobacco, china, and commodities businesses gradually fell like dominos and the boom times were over.

But Wheeling wouldn’t die. Like a fighter who gets up again and again, Wheeling remains a vibrant and active town that is the envy of cities twice its size. It has a thriving cultural center focused around the riverfront amphitheater called Heritage Port. The Wesbanco Center hosts minor league hockey and arena football teams between concerts, expositions, tournaments, and a myriad of other uses. Live Vaudeville theater is still presented on weekends and the famous Capitol Theater is being restored as a performance venue. More than twenty miles of paved bike trails follow the river and an old railroad bed, and are used by bikers, hikers, and skaters. The restaurants…don’t get me started. Wonderful restaurants and dance clubs where people my age (and that would be old) dance along side the kids. Shopping, movie theaters, magnificent parks, and I didn’t even get to the Casino. You might guess that I like this area, but even more so, I am captured by the life and spirit that is here. More later.