The lure of authentic Tex-Mex had turned the tide of my resistance to hitting the road for sectional play at the Bridge Studio in Wilmington – “the road” being Interstate 95, a serpentine and not infrequently venomous main artery of the so-called Northeast Corridor, an appellation which sends a shiver down my spine – and right back up again.
On entering the concrete concourse, one becomes subjected to the vagaries of construction-related lane closures and those occasioned by accidents, flat tires, and woeful drivers running out of gas. A journey projected to take one hour forty minutes by a Google map or a Garmin can be lengthened by a factor of fifty percent or more with little or no advance warning.
Welcome to I-95 roulette – and yet, it is not the only troll in the devil’s workshop of the Northeast Corridor. My years of experience shuttling between Baltimore and New York offer proof that travel by Amtrak and by air are equally prey to misadventure and force majeure. Thieves stripping copper wires from central station grids. Brake lining fires. “Trouble on the tracks.” Congestion in the airborne shuttle lanes causing cascading delays as the day wears on.
Add to all that the fact that running beneath the Hudson River, there is one set of train tunnels linking The Big Apple and New Jersey. One set – built one-hundred-plus years ago and crumbling, thanks in good measure to Hurricane Sandy (2012), which flooded the system with salt water. When a train gets stuck inside or in close proximity to either the northbound or southbound tube, the delays are massive, as use of the sole available portal is rationed between the in’s and the out’s.
You have not lived until you’ve been trapped in an Amtrak car with no electricity, no running water, and no toilet service for hours on end. Especially in the summertime. The all-time all-star record belongs to Amtrak’s Coast Starlight service, running from Seattle to Los Angeles. In February of last year, outside Oakridge, Oregon, it stopped short of a major obstruction: fallen trees from a heavy snowfall. With one hundred eighty-three passengers on board, it finally got moving thirty-six hours later.
There is no magic carpet ride from hither to yon or back again. Why roll the dice with one’s comfort zone? Jo Ann had lassoed my palate to inveigle me to venture to Wilmington. Indeed, El Camino had lived up to its promise. Back in the 60s, so I’m told, feasting with abandon was called “pigging out.” That I did, on all manner of Tex-Mex goodies, washed down with a couple of Dos Equis, branded with a bold XX redouble on each bottle. Surely a sign – but of what?
We returned home with happy tummies, a modest collection of silver points, and two pristine bars of petrified hotel hand soap. The next morning, however, reflecting on how easily I had been won over by something as primal and commonplace as gustatory temptation, I vowed to myself that in order for Jo Ann to overcome my inertia the next time, she would have to come up with a motivational prize far exceeding that which had won the day for Wilmington.
Little did I know that it would be I who would become the moving force that very next time.
I had risen with the sun, as was often the case, at least an hour before Jo Ann. From our aerie overlooking the mighty estuary of the Chesapeake Bay, with fair skies and nary a cloud in sight, one could see across the entire nine-mile-wide expanse from our shore on the western perimeter and that of Rock Hall on the eastern. A brisk counterclockwise breeze from the northeast whipped the gunmetal grey surface waters into a bazillion small jagged peaks sparkling under the rising, whitening solar orb like an infinite field of diamond chips. Hawks, eagles, and ospreys nesting in the vicinity plied the thermals overhead, cruising for breakfast. Cormorants had commanded the pier posts, standing sentinel atop them, surveying the environs, with wings extended from the shoulders to catch the wind and dry their feathers.
Before ambling onto the deck and settling into a teak rocker, I had brewed my espresso and Jo Ann’s cuppa – Darjeeling for change of pace. In short order, I heard the slider open and close behind me as she joined to admire nature’s glorious display of elements, striving, and survival.
“Good morning, Babe,” quoth I.
“Good morning to you, too!” she chirped, testing the temperature of the tea with a tentative sip. “Did you sleep well?”
“I did. And you?”
“Not so much. I checked before we went to bed last light – to see whether our silver put me over the top. But it didn’t. We came so close! Seventeen hundredths of a silver point. Point One Seven. Think about it. One-sixth of a silver point more and I’d have earned my Life Master designation. I’m so disgusted. There was that one board – if only I had played for the drop instead of the finesse. One trick. One board. One-sixth of a silver point. Can you believe it? One-sixth. I guess I can wait until the next Severna Park STaC three months from now. One-sixth.”
Having my own set of obsessive-compulsive predilections, I knew full well how vexing it was to fall short of an objective by a hair’s breadth. The lack of a sliver of silver would plague her like a thorn stuck in the tender arch of the foot until she could pull it out, until she could eliminate the fractional deficit and attain the summit so near and yet so far.
All too often, it is the little things that drive us nuts. Where did I put that nail file? Did we remember to turn off the porch light? There’s a charge I don’t recognize on our AmEx bill for $2.39 from some fulfillment center.
Jo Ann, stouthearted, stoic, and stalwart, vowed not to let the smidgen gap get to her. “I’m just going to put it out of my mind. Out of my mind. It is what it is. But one-sixth.”
Paris came to my mind – the time we had taken the Eurostar from my home-away-from-home in London to spend a long weekend on the Rive Gauche. She had stashed her British pocket change in a sandwich baggie and promptly lost track of it. Periodically I would find her rooting about in her suitcase, carryall backpack, purse, hotel room dresser drawers, and under the furniture. With each successive failure to locate the errant coins came higher levels of annoyance and more insistent poking, prodding, and bending down, accompanied by exculpatory declarations such as I know it’s got to be here somewhere.
“How much are we talking about?” I inquired.
“One pound and thirty-two pence,” she admitted. “That’s like two dollars.”
Only when that two-dollar fox had been run to ground, hiding, trembling in a crease of the carryon bag inner lining, did the hunt cease. I could readily extrapolate the experience to the matter at hand. The Immensely Minor Silver Dearth would produce a constant, enervating undercurrent of torturous longing and regret. There would be no peace in the realm until the Dragon of Shortfall had been slain.
There were no ands, ifs, or buts about it: I had to act.
(To Be Continued)