Americans don’t have a “Day of the Dead” or “Remembrance Day” like so many other countries. However, Croatia, where I live now, does. On November 1st, Croatians, my wife included, light candles and leave them in their windows, and take lanterns and flowers to the gravesites of their loved ones.
November 1st is marked on my calendar with the other Croatian holidays and it became the day on which I remember my father. I can’t visit him, none of us can, realistically, mom is too old for the trip and it’s just too far for Eric and Sophia. Instead we will have someone place a wreath for him at Arlington and mom will get a card. It’s what I can do on November 1st.
Arlington National Cemetery Ronald Blaine Schmidt Colonel, US Army Birth Date: 07/17/1939 Death Date: 02/28/2017
I’m watching the people, having my coffee and watching the people. It’s what you do. You sit, smoke your cigarette slowly letting most of it burn away between intermittent inhales and sip your coffee, also slowly, demonstrating to the world watching you, sit and sip, that you have time, time in the afternoon to do so. And you watch the people, the tall ones, the short ones, the fat and skinny, old and young, dressed to impress, or for work, or as if it was an afterthought altogether, you watch as they walk by. It’s what everyone does when it’s sunny, when it’s gray, day or night, everyday.
Among the overdressed, dressed to be seen, tall skinny, jeaned and heeled, booted and t-shirted, phone attached business cafe casual, walking or sitting; are the others in between who work more to be seen but are inevitably harder to see.
A very old man in a gray overcoat and hat made his rounds at the cafe with a small ceramic candy dish in his hand asking for money. Almost invisible, to almost everyone; except for the woman behind him waiting to pimp her baby to the same string of café coffee sipping customers. I saw her. She eyed him with the contempt of someone who feels encroached upon as if begging pity were territorial. She watched, then moved on knowing that she would do better to get ahead of the old guy at the next café since there’s only so much to expect from café customers, best to get there first.
I watched him. He wasn’t typical, dressed as best he could, hair neat, hat straight, jacket, overcoat, old, tired, walking slowly but standing straight, clear eyed. As he went from one table to the next looking at the customers I wondered what I would do when he got to me. Then he answered my question.
At the next table, a group of four business casual, late after lunch coffee, meeting-discussing-something-important forty-somethings gave him a bit of change, a small bit, maybe ten Lipa, nothing, from the change on their table. The old man looked in the ceramic candy dish at the coin and a look of dignity and contempt came over his face, a look that said ‘I am old and poor. My world was different than yours and these are my circumstances. Yes, I am asking you for money but this, this single coin is not worth the effort I’ll have to exert to carry it. From you it is an insult, to my age and to what I’ve seen that came before you.’ With a wave of his hand he added without saying a word, ‘For you I prefer to remain invisible.’ Slowly, arthritically , he removed the ten Lipa coin from his ceramic dish and placed it on the table with an exaggerated flourish, firmly deliberately, resulting in a nicely audible bronze against wood click, and dismissed them.
He didn’t come to my table after that. Instead he haltingly pushed forward to the next cafe, likely taking his place behind the baby pimping woman with the evil eyes. I finished my coffee and thought about the things I needed to buy at the market.
On my way home, dodging style conscious bag toting shoppers looking for the names they know on shop windows, and various young and old, smoking, walking, hurried and slow, I passed a woman sitting in front of a name-you-know lingerie shop with her left pant leg rolled up revealing a prosthesis, an outstretched hand and upward looking, searching eyes. I see her from time to time.
Beyond her and ahead of me, working towards the next café I see the old man again and I think about dignity and food, and what he’s seen that I can’t imagine, and walking around everyday missing someones and somethings, and asking for coins, and old, old eyes, old hands. I gave him a pocket full and some paper for my thoughts and ignorance.
Danny Middleton, you fucking asshole. All those things we did. Nobody saw any of it but us. Clearlake, motorcycles, mountains, forest, cabins in the trees on the ski runs, skiing, more skiing, getting stoned, and more stoned. Durango.
You taught me how to ride a motorcycle – stupidly and dangerously. I saw so much because of things we did that I never would have been able to see otherwise. Riding those bikes through the weather up to Silverton and then back over the passes – Bear, Ophir. Fuck, we rode far. Fuck, were we stupid. We could have died a million times and yet it was one of the best things I’ve ever done or ever will do. I can still smell it. If I sit back and close my eyes I can feel it. Hermosa Creek Trail. You can’t turn around even if you want to. I learned how to commit myself on that trail. Maybe I knew some, but that taught me more, taught me that I can make it if I jump, if I jump hard and fast and don’t look back or hesitate.
You were light as a feather on that bike and in those skis. Grace, if grace could be a complete disaster in every other way, genuine, honest, if honest meant knowing most of your limitations. Late… fucking always late. Sitting in the car, waiting so we could beat the traffic up to the ski area, so we could park well… so we could ski fresh out back; and late, always late, but it ended up working out anyways. I used to get so mad.
Ready to go? Let’s get our helmets on and do this before the buzz wears off and I lose my courage. Revving bikes, passing joints, Colorado in our noses, lungs, and heads. My heart pounding, a tunnel through the trees. You can’t turn around. Twenty years later dreaming about that ride still wakes me up at night.
So may places… It was like nobody had ever been there before. A dry creek bed up to the top of a mountain, a lake, bright yellow spring flowers, clear, clear water, greenish, brownish reflecting trees and rocks and snow in July. Blessed to see it, to take one photo, to share it – Danny Middleton you fucking asshole. Thank god there’s a photo. At least one fucking photo.
Who will I look up when I go back to Durango? Fuck. If I go back to Durango? What’s in Durango for me? Nothing but old dreams and no proof, no one to reminisce or relive with. Maybe, yeah, I know my way around – there was my old apartment, and another time I lived across the river over there. This is the grocery store I went to. They had good sushi sometimes, well as good as it’s going to be. I was lonely in that bar over there, that one too. Danny’s bar was there on the corner. They had bands sometimes. I never met any girls there, well, Terri. Anyway…
Life is so stupid. I remember riding our bikes up 550 heading north, past the valley and going up, sun to our right and behind us. I’m following – mostly because I’m somehow less stupid. You’re in front leaning back on the bike, feet outstretched spread-eagle, top gear, full throttle, uphill. It’s cold and warm at the same time. The sun is on your back. I see the black seat, the orange rear fender, the license plate dirty, the light broken. I remember we’d go all the way to Silverton. It would take an hour, then we’d tank up, smoke some, eat a sandwich or something and then ride into the woods. No map, no compass, no cell phones, nothing but jackets a knife or two, some rope and a trail. Stupid. Beautiful. Hours, slowly. Sometimes I fell, sometimes it rained. Sometimes I was scared of what we were trying to do but I did it because I didn’t know what else I’d do if I didn’t.
Do you remember that ski jump where we flew over that blind ridge, caught air and then shot over and across the green trail that was going down? Fuck. I still have nightmares about that one too. I don’t know how fast we went. In my dream or memory or whatever it is, I remember how we tucked, got speed, shot around, took a last look between the trees to see the crossing trail hoping it was clear – but it was already too late – then launched ourselves over. So fast, so fast. Any mistake, anything out of the ordinary and that’s it… and silence on the lift back up. Pass the pipe. Want to get some pizza? No, let’s do that again, this time over the bumps off course and through the trees. Fuck it. Grace and lightness I worked so hard for, struggled for and never had. Meet my force, push and focus on nothing else. Give me your two minutes of adrenaline straight down, nothing to think about except the next bump, ridge, patch of ice or powder, ditch, trees, more trees, rocks… release control and let the skis run. Sure Danny, I’ll follow you. Sure. Fuck it.
Denny’s at three AM? Why not? We’re about drunk and it’s just there on the way. It will be better to eat something before going to sleep. Want to ski tomorrow? That was a good band. Thanks for letting me in.
Danny Middleton died in 2009 in a fire in his apartment. The last time I saw him was in 2001. I moved to London in 2002, then back to Savannah in 2004. I learned about his death from Google in 2013 before a trip out west with my (now) wife.