Friday, October 27, 2017

Chapter Five: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope






Epic journeys are said to begin with a single step. In my case that translated into burning off the tank of gas I bought before hitting Interstate-26 heading down to the South Carolina coast. There was no grand plan, no destination, the main reason I was heading south was because that was my general direction when I left the Quincy town limits behind me. But as I merged into the flow of traffic in the back of my head this felt like the best way to start off my journey.

On the way towards Charleston the idea of hitting the Atlantic coast and then deciding to go north or south began forming in my head. Old U.S. Highway 17 runs roughly parallel to much of the southeastern Atlantic coast and from Charleston I could either head down to sunny Florida or up north towards North Carolina and Virginia. So I drove feeling a freedom that I could barely remember from that small segment of time after the army but before marriage and the demands of work made life truly a burden.

My initial intention was to drive until I was tired and then get a motel room. Which I figured would be Charleston, but as I hit the junction of Highway 17 the urge to go on was overwhelming. So, acting instinctively my decision was to head north which would take me towards the Grand Strand area of the state. With the local NPR stations providing news and later my collections of CDs keeping me entertained, I made it all the way to the curious town of Georgetown before hunger forced me to stop.

I say curious because while the municipality can trace its history back to the colonial era in the form of stately churches and grand colonial houses, they did something really stupid that endangered it all. Back in the late 1960's the city leaders allowed a steel mill to be built next a small inlet of the bay the city lay next. It was a great place for two reason, the first being that it allowed cargo ships carrying scrap metal to dock and unload. The second reason was because the finished product could easily be shipped out on the railroad tracks running right beside the property. There was one huge problem though, that combination of advantages placed the steel mill right in the middle of town.

For several decades the mill provided hundreds if not thousands of high paying jobs that allowed families to build a future. An issue no one foresaw was that in the early years of its operation the mill produced a rust-colored haze that descended on the houses and other buildings close to the mill. In a manner of a few short years ancient homes that had survived the American Revolution, Civil War, and numerous hurricanes and tropical storms decayed away into ruins.

Clean up operations and anti-pollution additions to the steel mill itself halted the disaster but the damage was largely done. The residents decided to ignore the outward signs of what couldn't be saved but a brave few did speak up saying that if the ocher-tinted dust ruined houses, just what in the hell did the stuff do to peoples lungs? Southern sensibilities against making a fuss, and upsetting a money making apple cart, soon came into play and all that worry over health and well being was hushed up.

Proving once again that all things change eventually, many times for the worse, by the 1990s the steel mill began facing competition from other operations overseas producing a cheaper product. Like other American business, namely my former employer, cost saving measures were instituted but the spiral downward couldn't be resisted. The mill ended up being sold on several occasions with the new management each time going through the required motions of promising to bring it back to its old glory.

My ex-wife and I visited Georgetown during one of the truly good years in our marriage. The excursion was a just a day trip to allow us a breather from the kids. Like normal children, they had both become quite adept at exhausting their parents. One of Emily's friends had recently told her about how many of the colonial homes offered tours and that Georgetown's main street was now dominated by cutesy boutiques and stylish bistros. Near the end of the day she and I strolled the waterfront walkway on the inlet and while everything was perfect both of us were shocked at seeing the rear of the largely defunct steel mill.

While I stand by my assessment of the decaying outward appearance of the Tightlock factory back in Quincy, the disaster of the Georgetown steel mill made it look truly trivial in comparison. From our vantage point looking at the open, rear area of the plant, everything suggested it had long been abandoned with cranes, railroad cars, and piles of scrap metal seemingly waiting for the workers to return from their long lunch. The plant and all other buildings on the site were painted the same rust color of the dust that had settled on all the nearby structures when it first opened. This only added to the general eyesore when compared to the all the efforts to make the main street look green, healthy, and most of all, full of life.

A local saw us looking at the plant and gave us the full rundown on its history and said that the current owners keep a skeleton crew employed to prevent the federal government from forcing them to cleanup decades worth of toxic compounds that saturate the soil. When I asked this gentleman if he thought it would ever be cleaned up, he just laughed and walked away.

***

When I reached Georgetown it was long after sundown and my concern was finding a decent place to eat. The bar and grill I picked overlooked the waterfront but there was a chilling aspect to the glow of the city. Bright lights illuminated much of the scene, all except where the steel mill was located. It was like a black maw of nothing coolly residing amongst the oblivious living.

It was probably just me still getting use to being part of the daytime living folks, but I felt overwhelmed by the people around me. At the other tables in the bar conversations going on seemed more lively.

Surreptitiously, I watched a young couple holding hands while leaning in close and whispering intently to each other. The engagement ring on the young woman's left hand suggesting their conversation in all likelihood revolved around some aspect of the future. I found myself wondering if they actually understood the nature of what they were trying to do, or if “love” had overwhelmed them almost assuring a messy downfall.

Several tables over from them a group of about five or six people were celebrating a birthday, whose I couldn't rightly discern since they were all having a great time. Every time the noise started to get a little too loud two of the waitresses would come over and skillfully defuse the situation. When one of the party-going customers placed his hand on the backside of the short-haired brunette waitress, she quickly grabbed it and twisted to the point he went silent and grimaced in pain. To the rest of the partiers it was the funnest thing to have ever happened, the offender realizing his mistake backed down and apologized profusely. The waitress, to her credit, didn't release the man's hand until he promised to personally triple her tip.

I did take some pleasure seeing an obviously exhausted mother and father trying to eat dinner. Their children, one a toddler clearly enjoying the mastery of the word “No” and the other an infant, laughing hysterically at each other. The consumption of food seemed to be the least of their concerns. I must admit, I enjoyed the laughter because it was real and didn't require the humiliation or the degrading of another person. One of the things that made me uneasy around people was that such humor was so widely accepted these days.

“You okay honey?” the short-haired brunette waitress asked taking me by surprise. The young waitress looked to be in her late twenties of early thirties. I admit, I was taken by both her outward physical attractiveness and the look in her eyes suggesting an intelligence far sharper than anyone else in the room. This young woman, probably a struggling college student, would definitely not be working tables all her life. Frankly, I felt sorry for any fool, particularly those of the male persuasion, that got in her way.    

“Oh absolutely, I'm just a million miles away. Food is great, I haven't eaten this well in a long time.” I said hoping my words were coherent. I simply didn't want to tell her I was snooping on the other customers.

“Great, I'm here if you need me,” she said with a professional enthusiasm before walking away that a less worldly person would take as personal interest.

It pains me to no end, but for the briefest second, a small part of me wanted her interest to be something other than making her customers comfortable, and then receiving a good tip. In all the years I worked night shift, I had seen other guys and gals fall into that trap. You spend a few years sentenced to working when most everyone else is asleep and its unreasonably easy to start misinterpreting the slightest show of interest or compliment as something more than it was intended. One poor fool who worked nights with me for a few years became so inept around daytime people the rest of the crew and myself stopped inviting him to our annual Christmas party at one of the bars in Quincy.

Thinking of that former workmate, I was suddenly struck by an idea that while on the surface seemed insane, given the demands of work and a person's natural desire to find companionship it actually made a little sense. There were specialized internet dating sites that catered to all manner or modern idiosyncrasies, why not one for poor fools who worked night shift? The idea was so outrageously funny I must have made some sort of sound because my waitress instantly reappeared at my table.

“You sure you're okay, sir,” she said now showing real concern. “Can I get you another drink?”

“No, really I'm fine. In fact I'll take the check now.” I said to the waitress. Looking back over at the couple with young children another thought crossed my mind. “Yeah, there is one more thing,” I said to my waitress before she had a chance to walk away.

Motioning for her to lean in close, something she seemed a little wary of, I told her I would cover the bill for the couple and their children. But she couldn't say a word to them about it until I left.

“I'll do just that,” she said giving me a real smile this time and maybe just a little bit more. For a minute, I allowed myself a lurid fantasy of us meeting after the bar closed and then heading off to some place we could be alone. Not realistic, but I chalked it up as part of my journey to learn to live again.

5 comments:

The Bug said...

I like how generous he’s being with his windfall. And I’m sad that he’s on this journey alone. Maybe that’s the happily married me projecting :)

Jimmy said...

I am liking this more with every chapter that I read, you did really well with your descriptions, giving the history of the area he is traveling and keeping it interesting at the same time.

Pixel Peeper said...

This character is getting more and more interesting and likeable as the story goes on. Now I'm hoping he'll find someone to share his life (and good financial fortune) with.

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Harry Hamid said...

Again, I like the character, and the way you're introducing readers to what i assume is your own political and geographical environment is great. I can't believe we're already up to part 6!