Coming up For Air

Book Review

So, I’ve read my first book of 2022: George Orwell’s, Coming up for Air, and boy, was it a ride! One has to look beyond Orwell’s most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm, and get into the weeds with some of his lesser-known works to find the real Orwell.  This book has been described as an account of a man trying to recapture the lost innocence of his childhood. My main takeaway is that the more things change the more they stay the same. But it is more complicated than that of course. It is more like: you can never go home again.

George Bowling is being smothered in a middle-class existence, mired in a loveless marriage on the eve of WWII.  He takes a week off and travels to his hometown in Lower Binfield, only to discover that it is no longer there. It has been completely engulfed by urban sprawl.

I love the first line of the novel, “The idea really came to me the day I got I got my new false teeth.” The idea to travel back to his childhood home of Lower Binfield, that is.

George Bowling was the product of shop keepers who struggled to keep their business alive as he describes in this passage: “It’s a fact that very few shopkeepers in those days actually ended in the workhouse. With any luck, you died with a few pounds still your own. It was a race between death and bankruptcy, and, thank God, death got Father first, and mother too.”

He details the banal middle-class existence as only Orwell can, interweaving some heavy commentary on the horrors of war and the disgusting nature of human beings they can sometime exhibit as this example of a discussion of the Boer War between two of George Bowling’s relatives readily shows: “…surely he couldn’t think it right for these here Boers to throw babies in the air and catch them on their bayonets, even if they were only, nigger babies?” “Uncle Ezekiel just laughed in his face. Father had it all wrong! It wasn’t the Boers who threw the babies in the air, it was the British soldiers!”

In this book, Orwell refers to several wars, The Boer War, WWI, and the pending WWII. More on war: “It was unspeakably meaningless, that time in 1918. Here I was sitting beside the stove in an army hut …when a few hundred miles away in France the guns were roaring and droves of wretched children, wetting their bags with fright, were being driven into the machine gun barrage like you’d shoot small coke into a furnace. …It was a lunatic’s dream….if the war didn’t kill you, it was bound to start you thinking.”

There was a scene in Lower Binfield, when Geroge went back to visit, where an RAF bomber making a practice run accidentally drops a bomb on the village killing three people. Thinking it was the Germans and expecting a second bomb to drop Orwell describes the following surreal scene: “And then I saw an extraordinary sight. At the other end of the market-place the High Street rises a little. And down this little hill, a herd of pigs was galloping, a sort of huge flood of pig-faces. The next moment, of course, I saw what it was. It wasn’t pigs at all, it was only the schoolchildren in their gas masks.”

George Bowling’s visit to Lower Binfield taught him one thing: “It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got in the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. It’s all going to happen. I know it -at any rate – I knew it then. There’s no escape. Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-smashing along with the others. But there’s no way out. It’s just something that’s got to happen.”

Lest you think it was all doom and gloom, not so. There was quite a lot of humor injected into the novel. Dark humor. This novel, is, after all, satire.

Gringo Land

Photo by the author

I was sitting at a sidewalk table at a café in front of a large window, sipping my whisky and soda. I could watch the passersby on their way home. It was late and everyone had left the café except for me. A tree sat a few feet from me in a large round pot casting a shadow over the empty table sitting next to it. There was enough light to read by. I liked to sit late at night in this café and read and drink my whiskey and soda in peace. It was quiet now that all the other customers had left. There only remained two waiters, one old like me and the other young. The younger one seemed impatient to go home. Probably had a wife to go home to. That was not the case for me nor I suspect for the other waiter.

I noticed out in the street a young man and a pretty girl walking briskly by. I was entranced by the beauty of the girl and I was envious of the young man who was with her.

I signaled the waiter for another drink.

The younger waiter sauntered over.

“What will you have?”

“Another whisky and soda.”

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, senor?”

I just looked at him. He went away to fetch the drink.

The two waiters were huddled together at a table near the door. They were whispering. Probably talking about me I thought. Probably want me to go. Well, I’m not ready to go.

The waiter went to the bar and poured a shot of bourbon into a tumbler of ice and spritzed it with soda water. He carried the drink outside to where I was sitting. He placed the drink in front of me and said, “Why don’t you just fuck off, old man?”

He probably thought I couldn’t hear what he was saying as I am practically deaf. But I hear well enough in a quiet environment.

The waiter went back into the café and sat down with his workmate. They began whispering again. Probably think I’m drunk and need to leave, I thought. Oh, well, I’ll stay a little longer and have one more for the road. 

I like this place. It is clean, well-lighted, and quiet.

I motioned to the waiters for another drink.

“Another whiskey and soda, amigo.”

“No,” the young waiter said. “You’re done. Time to go.”

“Another!” I insisted.

“We are closing now.” He began to wipe the table clean with his towel.

I slowly stood up, looked at the bill he had unceremoniously laid on the table.  I pulled some cash from my pocket and paid the bill, leaving a modest tip.

I walked down the street away from the café slowly, a bit unsteady on my feet. I could feel the eyes of the two waiters burning a hole in my back. I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I didn’t want to face my dark room and the empty bed. One more drink, I thought. There must be someplace open tonight. Only thing was, they would unlikely be as clean and well-lighted or as nice as this last one was. I didn’t want any music. No, I really wasn’t in much of a mood to listen to any music. And I didn’t really want to stand in front of a bar. What was it I wanted? Not much. Just a clean, quiet, well-lighted place.

I came to a bar that was open. It had red and white walls on the outside with an American flag hanging on one side of the entrance and a Mexican flag hanging on the other. There was music pouring out the door from a sound system hidden somewhere within the recesses of the tiny bar. Not really my kind of place, but I was thirsty, so I stumbled there inside.

There was a gentleman sitting on a barstool in the middle of the bar. A couple was sitting at a table towards the back. I went in and sat a couple of stools down from the guy at the bar.

“What would you like to drink?” asked the barmaid.

“Do you have any bourbon?” I asked.

“Si, we have Jim Beam.”

“OK. I’ll have that.”

She poured the drink and marked it on the bottle then set it down in front of me and went back to her perch she was sitting on. She was talking to the other guy, but he turned around and included me in the conversation.

“Hey! Where are you from?” he asked.

“From the States,” I answered.

“Well, I figured that. Where in the States?”

“Kentucky.”

He nodded his head. “I’m from Oregon. You been here before?”

“Yeah, I live here now.”

“A lot of ex-pats here, that’s for sure! I guess that’s why they call it “Gringo Land.”

He laughed. He had a bottle of beer sitting in front of him and a shot of tequila. He downed the tequila and chased it with a slug of beer.

The barmaid looked over in my direction and said, “Do you want to play a game?”

“What kind of a game?”

“It’s called 21. You roll the dice. There are three winners. One who calls the shot. One who pays, and one who drinks the shot. Do you want to play?”

“Sure, why not? Let’s play!”

So, we took turns rolling six or seven dice out onto the bar from a leather cup. Each time the barmaid counted the tops of the dice. I won the first roll so I called the shot.

“What shot do you want?” she asked, pointing to the bottle of tequila behind the bar.

“What are you drinking?”

She pointed to a bottle.

“OK. That’s what I want.”

She poured out a shot and set it on the bar in front of us. We rolled some more. First the guy from Oregon, then the barmaid. At the end of the game, the Oregon guy drank and paid for the shot I called. We all laughed and he left.

In the meantime, the other couple had left and there were only the two of us left in the bar. The barmaid and me. She walked over to where I was sitting.

She was dark and sloe-eyed with long black hair flowing over her shoulders. She was wearing a green plaid shirt with several of the top buttons undone, exposing her ample breasts.

“What’s your name, Gringo?” She smiled broadly.

“Phil,” I answered. “What’s yours?”

“Anna. At least that’s what I put on my Facebook page. You want another shot?”

“No thanks,” I said and then I left.  Now, I will go home. I will lie in my bed and try to fall asleep.  I will think of Anna and what it would be like to be with her. I am probably not the only one in town who has trouble sleeping at night, I thought to myself. Maybe I will dream of Anna. Maybe tomorrow I will find someplace to read. Maybe a quiet, clean, well-lighted place where I can sit and read in peace.

Driving to Berea

Road Trip

Miss Maureen and Miss Scarlett

Maureen and I recently went on road trip to Berea, Kentucky. We took Miss Scarlett, our newly acquired 1984 Porshe 994.

I said, “Maureen, why do you call your car, Miss Scarlett?”

“Because, I don’t give a damn, is why!”

Well, ask a foolish question…

Berea is a small Kentucky town known for it’s arts and crafts, it’s beautiful trail ways, and of course Berea College.

Berea College is tuition free, but the students have to work to earn their tuition. The hotel where we stayed is completely run and staffed by students. As a matter of fact, my own father attended Berea College when he was a young man and he too worked at the historic Boone Tavern and Hotel.

We visited the artisan village, walked around the college campus and one day I hiked the pinnacles while Maureen stayed behind and went shopping.

A very enjoyable stay only three hours from Louisville. We would definitely go back!

The Historic Boone Tavern
Hotel Lobby
A room in the Boon Tavern Hotel
The Cabin at the artisan village
Woodworking artisan at the Cabin
A shop in the artisan village
A loom in a shop in the artisan village
On the trail to the pinnacles
On the pinnacles
Living on the Edge
On a clear day you can see forever
Way over there

Maureen was drinking while I was hiking
Daniel Boone Trail from North Carolina to Kentucky 1775, Erected by the Kentucky Daughters of the Revolution 1915

All photos by the author.

The Seven Factors of Awakening

Buddhism by the Numbers

Japanese Gardens, Birmingham, Alabama. Photo by Benn Bell

The Seven Factors of Awakening

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Investigation of phenomena
  3. Diligence
  4. Joy
  5. Ease
  6. Concentration
  7. Letting go

“At least once every 15 minutes, we need to practice letting go. Bear in your heart no hatred, utter no unkind words, remain always compassionate, with no hostility or ill will. The Seven Factors of Awakening are the practices of love.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

If Wishes Were Horses

If Wishes were horses I’d get on and ride

If trouble was money, I’d be a millionaire

If frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their ass so much

If you can dream and not make dreams your master

If two are dead three can keep a secret

If not now, when?

If traveling was free, you’d never see me again

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain

If I was your wife, I would poison your coffee.

If I was your husband, I would drink it.

The People of Costa Rica

Pura Vida

One of the most enriching aspects of our trip to Costa Rica was meeting the wonderful people that live there. They were friendly, hardworking, happy and always smiling. The have a saying in Costa Rica, “Pura Vida,” and it punctuates everyone’s speech. They say it in greetings and in goodbyes and whenever else it makes sense to say it. It means, “the pure life.” And they surely enjoy life in their beautiful country. I hope you enjoy some of the pictures I took of these happy inhabitants.

Fernando and Maureen

Fernando was our driver on our first day in country. He picked us up at the airport and drive us to our first destination, the Arena Volcano. On the way we stopped for lunch at Mi Rancho.

Our Guide Greivin

This is our guide, Grevien. He took us on a tour of the rainforest.

Corry

This is my guide Corry. He took me on a waterfall tour and to the beach.

Swimming hole
Natural Waterslide
Pretty Costa Rican Girl
Girl in Blue
Two Girls on the Shore
Having Fun at the Beach
Taking a swim
Party Boat
All Hands on Deck!
And the sun sets on another magnificent day in Costa Rica

All photos taken by the author.

Someone to Watch Over Me

Editor’s note: I published this story previously, but I have rewritten it and made revisions and I hope have improved it. Please give it a read and let me know what you think. Thanks in advance!

Downtown Nairobi. Photo credit: Benn bell

The first thing you see when you get off the plane at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport after the “Welcome to Kenya” sign is the sign which says, “DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS.” There were other signs I saw along the way during my two weeks stay in Nairobi but I chose to ignore them. In Uhuru Park, there was a sign that read, “Beware of Human Beasts, Don’t Be the Next Rape Victim, Every 30 Minutes a Woman is Raped in Kenya.” At the Nairobi Serena Hotel, before we were allowed to drive onto the property, a uniformed armed guard probed the underside of our car with a long-handled mirror. Once inside and checked into our room I looked out the window and saw a uniformed guard standing watch. At a restaurant we went to called The Carnivore, we passed through a security fence that was manned by security guards carrying automatic assault rifles and flanked by large German Shepherd dogs straining at their leashes. Yes, I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned.

I had traveled to Kenya with a companion who was there on business attending a worldwide meeting of company officials who were stationed around the globe. While Mary was going to meetings, I was on my own.

On the first day, I hung out at the Hotel. The Serena is a Five Star Hotel and very nice. I had breakfast with Mary in the dining room and later I had lunch out by the pool by myself. I enjoyed a cheeseburger with fries and a Tusker beer. This is the beer of choice in Kenya.  Their motto is, “My beer, my country.” It tasted crisp and refreshing. After lunch, I took a dip in the pool and sat in the sun reading as the water slowly evaporated off my body.

After a couple of days of this, I decided to venture out on my own. I had walked the mean streets in some of the toughest cities in America, so I wasn’t too worried.

I struck out mid-morning on a beautiful sun-drenched day. The skies were azure blue with cotton candy clouds. Nairobi is a mile high so the atmosphere was crystal clear and every object stood out in vivid colored relief.

I walked the half-mile stretch along Uhuru Highway to downtown Nairobi. Traffic was going about in a chaotic fashion as I walked to the corner of a busy intersection crowded with people. I was approached on all sides by people who wanted to sell me things like trinkets or cheap jewelry. A rather large and burly individual who was a head taller than me and wearing a tight red T-shirt walked up to me and pounded his chest. “Promote me! Promote me!” He said over and over again, striking his chest for emphasis.

I just walked away. Soon others were following me and asking me questions. They all wanted to know if I was from the States? Did I know Obama? One fellow dressed in raggedy clothes stopped me and asked for money to buy some rice. I wasn’t inclined to give him any, especially in front of the crowd and all, but I did say to him, “I’m not going to give you any money, but if you will meet me here in one hour, I will buy you some rice and give it to you.” He looked a little disappointed but reluctantly agreed.

I continued to walk along the street deeper and deeper into the heart of the city. As I walked along, I noticed another fellow tracking me and falling into step beside me. He was wearing a dark brown suit, but it looked like it had seen its better days. A little shabby with frayed cuffs. He had on a soiled white dress shirt and a thin black tie loosened at the throat. He was wearing black dress shoes that were run over at the heels and in bad need of a shine. “Hello!” He said, flashing me a big smile. “Can we have a conversation?”

“Sure,” I answered. “What did you want to talk about?”

“I like to talk to Americans about politics and history.”

“Ok. What did you want to know?”

“Can we go somewhere and sit down at a table to talk?”

“Where did you want to go?”

“I know a Tea Room not far from here. We could go there.”

I started to get a little suspicious at this point and I wasn’t in any big hurry to go anywhere with this stranger.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Sudan,” he answered. “I am staying at a refugee camp near the border.”

“I’ll tell you what. I am going to walk around a little bit, you want to meet me here in an hour, we can talk then. How’s that?”

He hesitated a little bit but finally agreed. So, I had the same arrangement with two strangers I had met in Nairobi and I had only been in town for 15 minutes! I thought chances are either one or the other or both wouldn’t show up, and I had bought myself a little time.

I spent the next hour exploring the city. I went to gift shops, hotels, and had lunch in an outdoor café. I checked my watch and saw it was time to head back to meet my new friends.

I got back to the corner at the appointed time and guy #1 wasn’t there yet. I looked around and noticed a market about half a block away. I walked over to it and went in. After my eyes adjusted to the low-level light, I saw baskets of various products including rice. The pungent smell of spices hung in the air. I secured a bag of rice and walked out returning to the corner. My new friend showed up with a big smile on his face.

“Jambo!” he said

“Jambo!” I returned.

I handed him the rice. We made eye contact as he took hold of the bag. He nodded his head. I could tell he really appreciated the gesture. Then he walked away.

Now the second guy, the guy with the suit. I thought was going to be a no-show. I waited about 15 minutes and was about to leave when he rounded the corner. He greeted me warmly and pointed his hand out in front of him and said, “The Tea Room is down this way.”

We walked about six blocks and I was beginning to wonder where we were going.

“Say, where are you taking me?”

“It’s just a little further.”

We walked on another two blocks. While we were walking along, I learned that his name was Asim and that he needed to get back to his camp sometime before nightfall. My friend became a little more excited as we stopped in front of a rather imposing-looking two-story structure in the middle of the block with a wide set of concrete steps leading up to the front door.

“Ah, here we are,” my companion spoke to me as he swept his arm up the stairway in the direction of the entrance. We had arrived at the Jade Tea House.

Once inside I had a distinct feeling that I had stepped into a time portal. I felt as though I had been swept away to another time and place, like something out of Casablanca, the Blue Parrot perhaps. The interior of the Tea Room was dark and the blades of the overhead fans were whirring about pushing the hot air around the room. I felt a little uneasy as I looked around. Others were seated around at various tables deep in what seemed like a conspiratorial conversation as if they were plotting some crime against humanity or an act of terror. Or maybe they were just plotting to get out of Nairobi if they could just get their hands on the letters of transit.

We went upstairs to another level where it was a little brighter and sat down at a table. Soon a waiter come over and we each ordered a cup of tea.

Asim and I started having our conversation about what was going on in America. We worked it around to politics in Africa. There was a presidential election going on in Kenya and we talked about that. Then he reminded me that he was Sudanese and was living in a refugee camp. Oh, boy I thought, here it comes.  As we were sitting there, I noticed a lone individual sidle up to the table next to ours and had a seat. It seemed like he was listening to our conversation. He didn’t order anything, he just sat there on the edge of his seat. I focused on Asim while he made his play. I tried to figure out how I was going to handle his request for money. I excused myself to the bathroom to buy some time.

When I got back to the table, I decided I would pay our tab and leave. Whatever change I had that was coming to me I would let Asim have and that would be it. I called the waiter over and asked for the check. When he got back, I handed him a 50 Shilling note and he brought back my change which I pushed over in front of Asim.

Just as soon as I pushed the money over the guy at the other table jumped up and four other guys, all wearing suits, came out of the shadows and surrounded the table. Two of the men led Asim away, one on each side of him. Two others stood guard and the ring leader came over and sat directly in front of me. His eyes were shot with blood and his breath stank of alcohol. He flashed an ID at me and said he was a police officer with the Nairobi Police Department. I didn’t get a good look at the ID but it looked like an ordinary driver’s license. 

“Why were you talking to that man?” He wanted to know.

“I don’t know. We just met on the street and he wanted to talk.”

“We have been looking for that man. Did you know he was a drug dealer?”

Uh oh! I thought to myself. Here it comes. First the hook then ….

“He’s also a counterfeiter. I see you gave him some money. Why did you give him money?”

“I was just leaving him the change because I thought he might need it.”

“How much Kenyan money do you have?”

“About 20,000 Shillings.”

“Let me see it.” He reached out his hand.

I slowly reached into my pocket and retrieved my Kenyan money. He reached out his hand further and I reluctantly handed it over. He grunted his approval and started to count it.

“Do you have any American money?”

“Yeah. I guess you are going to take that too?”

He scowled.

“If you are not going to cooperate, we can take you down to the station with us and make you cooperate.”

I didn’t like that idea. So, l reached back into my pocket and got the rest of my money out, and handed it over to him which he promptly proceeded to count. He took out a small notebook and wrote some figures down on a page and tore it out. He handed the slip of paper to me with the amount of money he had taken from me written on it, as some kind of receipt.

“We have a machine at headquarters that can tell if this money is counterfeit.  We will run your money through the machine and if it is real, we will return it to you. Where are you staying?”

I didn’t want to tell him. If I ever got out of this alive, I never wanted to see them again. But I felt like I had to play along so I told them I was staying at the Serena Hotel but I gave them a false room number. Like that would do a lot of good.

After that, he stood up and motioned for me to get up. They escorted me out of the building down the front steps to the curb where a car was waiting. They got into the car and sped away leaving me standing on the sidewalk in a total state of bewilderment. It was only then that the full force of the experience hit me.

I looked up at the sky and the tops of the building were literally swirling around in the blue canopy overhead. Or was it just in my head? I didn’t know.  I became momentarily quite dizzy and thought I would pass out. I had to find my way back to the hotel but I was disoriented and actually quite lost. Calm down, I told myself. At least you are still alive and free at last. Now just assess your situation and you will be fine.

I looked around again and saw in the distance the top of a building I recognized that was in the direction of the hotel. I started walking in the direction of the familiar landmark, navigating by dead reckoning. The closer I got to the building the more familiar were my surroundings. Soon I found myself back on Uhuru Highway and almost home.

When I made it back to the hotel I went right to the room and collapsed on the bed. Mary wasn’t back yet and I feared telling her what happened. I knew she would be furious with me for putting us both in danger. When she finally got back, I told her the story and she was sympathetic but I could tell she was not happy with me. Hell, I wasn’t happy with myself either. We spent the rest of the trip looking over our shoulders as we never knew if the rough and rowdy crew would show back up again and cause more trouble.

We got out of the country with no further incidents but I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t talk to strangers.

The Six Paramitas

Buddhism by the Numbers

Photo credit: Benn Bell

The Six Paramitas

  1. Giving
  2. Precepts
  3. Inclusiveness
  4. Diligence
  5. Meditation
  6. Understanding

Giving

Offer to all joy, happiness, and love. The greatest gift we can offer anyone is our true presence.

Give the gift of stability. The one we love needs us to be solid and stable. We can cultivate our stability by breathing in and out, practicing mindful walking and sitting, and enjoying livening deeply in every moment.

Other gifts we can offer: Freedom, Space and Peace.

Cross over to the other shore…the other shore of peace non-fear, and liberation.

Fatal Attraction

Editors note: This is a story that I have previously published which I have rewritten and revised. I hope you enjoy it.

A few months ago, I had the good fortune to move to Old Louisville. As fate would have it, I moved into an apartment building on Third Street just four houses down from a house I used to live in as a young man during the turbulent ’70s. As a matter of fact, my family actually owned that building and sold it in 1993.

Fast forward to the present.

My friend Victoria was looking for an apartment and I have long been encouraging her to look in Old Louisville. It was a very interesting place to live with a lot of old Victorian Mansions which have been subdivided into apartments. And there was Central Park nearby.

One day she was over at my place and we went out apartment hunting together. She had several picked out over on Fourth Street to look at. It was raining so we took our umbrellas.

We walked down Hill Street over to Fourth and as we were about to round the corner, I noticed a “For Rent” sign in the front yard of a house that I had long admired. I called it the House of Lions and Pineapples. It was a beautiful three-story red brick Victorian with two stone lions and pineapples sitting outside the black wrought iron gate.

I said, “Why don’t you give them a call?”

She did and we were able to see it right then. They had just put it on the market and were in the process of cleaning it and painting it when we went in. Victoria fell in love with it immediately and I did too.

After looking at a couple of other places in the area Victoria decided that the house of pineapples and lions was the one for her, so we called the owner and asked for a meeting. Sure, come on over they said. They lived on Third Street, just a few doors down from where I am living now. They gave us their address and we headed over there.

“Hey! Wait a minute! What’s that address again,” I asked Victoria. “1461? Why I used to live in that house back in the ’70s.  As a matter of fact, my family owned that very building back then!”

When we got there and knocked on the door, a little old lady, round and short, answered the door. She was all smiles. I introduced myself and told her I used to live in this building back in the ’70s and wasn’t it ironic that we were here?

“Oh, did you know Dr. Bell?”

 “Why yes! I am his son!”

We sat down and had a nice talk. Joe and his wife Arden bought the house in 1993 from my parents. At that time, I was part-owner of the house myself and received some of the proceeds from the sale. Arden gave us a tour of the house.

“I bet it looks a lot different now than it did then,” she said.

Yep, it sure did!

So, there we were. My friend Victoria was about to rent an apartment from a couple who owned the house I used to live in when I was a kid but was sold to them in 1993, the same year she was born. What kind of alignment of the planets was necessary to bring us to this point? By what chance occurrences was Victoria destined to cross my path and rent this apartment in the building of the lions and pineapples?

It put me in mind of a story I once heard when I was living in Philadelphia.

It seems there was this college professor living in my building, The Marine Club Apartments, who sent his servant to the Italian Market for supplies.  In a very little while, the servant came back, shaking and trembling. It was clear he had been greatly disturbed by something that had happened at the market.

He said, “Mister Coffer, sir, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd. I turned to look to see who it was and I saw it was Death staring me in the face.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. I ran from the market and came back here. Mister Coffer, will you please lend me your car so that I can ride away from this city and avoid my fate?  I will go across the river to Salem and there, Death will not find me.” 

The college professor gave him the keys to his Mustang, and the servant rode away as fast as the car could drive, not without leaving a stretch of burning black rubber behind him as he peeled out of the parking garage. Later that day the professor went down to the Italian Market and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he went over and asked her, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant this morning when you saw him?”

“That was not a threatening gesture,” she said, “I was just surprised to see him in here in Philly, as I had an appointment with him tonight in Salem.”

Thomas Wolfe wrote in his book, Look Homeward Angel, “Through chance, we are each a ghost to all the others, and our only reality; through chance, the huge hinge of the world, and a grain of dust; the stone that starts an avalanche, the pebble whose concentric circle widen across the seas.”

Although chance may have something to do with our lives and though we might make a move this way or that we are still bound like an ant on a leaf rushing down a river to the sea. And there is precious little we can do about it but enjoy the ride.

Victoria rented the apartment and she is living there now one block away in the building of the lions and pineapples. And if you squint your eyes and hold your mouth in a certain way you can almost see the flapping wings of the butterfly in the rainforest that made it all possible.

Hell or High Water

Photo credit: Christopher Fryer

My young friend Victoria had been wanting to take me to this speakeasy she knew about downtown for the longest. We had our chance to go the other night so we went. The only thing is you can’t just show up, you have to be invited. So, Victoria went through the necessary machinations to secure the invite and we showed up on time in our finest costumes for the occasion.

We walked through the unprepossessing door from an alley off Main Street, then entered a small cubbyhole of a space manned by two standing gentlemen and a woman who was seated at a desk in front of a locked door that was located directly behind them.

“Papers, please.”

We showed our IDs to the woman. She found our names on the roster which was resting on the desk and handed us back our IDs. She slightly nodded to the gentleman guarding the door. He swung it wide and we stepped through the doorway to the top of a sharply declining stairwell.

As we made our way down the steep stairway, I couldn’t help but notice the atmosphere changing with each step. The air seemed to grow denser as if perfumed by some unknown censer. The lighting changed gradually and it seemed to give off a soft reddish glow. The temperature was getting colder by degrees the lower we went. At the bottom of the steps, we were greeted by our smiling host. In the background, we could hear the music playing and I swear I could hear the strains of “Put on a Happy Face.”

“Step this way please.”

We followed our host past a long and rather ornate wooden bar into the inner sanctum of Hell or High Water to our assigned seating.  We arrived at a small round glass-topped table flanked by two high-backed leather chairs. He placed two drink menus in front of us and said, “Your server will be with you shortly.”

We looked the menu over and tried to decide what specialty cocktail to order. When the server came over, I decided to ask for a recommendation.

“Do you like the smell of smoke and leather?” he asked.

 I allowed as I did.

“Well then, I recommend Sparks Fly.”

I took a look at that on the menu and saw that it contained Mezcal, Cardamaro, Benedictine, Crème de Cacao, and Gun Powder Proof Rum.  Sounded like an explosive concoction.

“Ok. I’ll try that.”

Victoria had the Devil’s Advocate, which was fitting.

I looked behind me at the room and on the back wall was a gigantic bookcase filled with books. The lighting was extremely dim and the music hushed.

As we sat sipping our drinks and soaking up the atmosphere, I was searching my head for something unfoolish to say.  Victoria is such a good listener I wanted to come up with a good story that would put her in awe and elicit her rapt attention. She was my best audience.

I thought about a book that I had been reading and there was a particularly good scene in it I wanted to share with her about a logic problem. Victoria liked logic problems.

“I say, have you heard about the Monty Hall problem?”

She shook her pretty head no. Her eyes fairly glistened in the low light.

“Well, there’s this book I’m reading called, Sweet Tooth. It’s by Ian McEwan. A very clever piece about a female British spy in the 70s. In one of the chapters the protagonist, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume), and her lover/writer/friend Tom Haley were having dinner in their favorite seafood restaurant in Brighton and Tom says, ‘I’m always telling you stories about poems and novels but you never tell me anything about math. It’s time you did. Something counterintuitive, paradoxical.’

“Serena thought for a while.”

‘Well, there was this one story making the rounds at Cambridge while I was there. It’s called the Monty Hall Problem.’

I took a sip of my drink and paused for emphasis. Then I went on telling Victoria about the Monty Hall problem in the book.

 “So, let me tell it to you as best as I remember it. I think you will like it.”

“It seems there are three boxes. Two are empty and one holds a fabulous prize like an all-expense-paid vacation to some exotic place on earth. You have to choose which one you think it might be in. You choose box number one. The host, Monty Hall, who knows what’s inside each box, opens another box. Say, box number three. It’s empty. He then says to you, ‘Do you want to choose box number two or stick with box number one?’

I then asked Victoria what she would do. She says it doesn’t make any difference because you have a fifty-fifty chance either way.

“Not true,” I say. “If you switch you have a two in three chance of winning. If you stick you only have a one in three.”

“No. that can’t be. If you have two boxes remaining, it’s a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I know that’s what it seems like, but if you do the math that’s not right. It’s sort of a paradox. It’s really about re-evaluating your decisions as you get new information. Monty filters your choice by opening one of the boxes. You now have new information. You know the fabulous vacation is not in box number three. This changes the odds.”

Victoria sat back in her leather chair and stared into the middle distance. I saw in her face the slow signs of recognition as she grappled with the problem and gradually came to understand the solution with the new information, I had supplied to her.

“Oh! Now I get it. I don’t know why I didn’t at first.”

“That’s because it’s counterintuitive. Most people don’t at first. By the way. Tom didn’t get it at first either. Now here’s the kicker, getting back to the book. Tom takes this math problem and decides to incorporate it into one of his short stories.”

The server came over and asked us if we’d like another drink.

I nodded my assent and said, “Yes, but I think I’ll have something more traditional this time. Do you have Old Forester?”

“Yes.”

“Good! Well then, I’ll have an Old Forester and soda. Club soda.”

“And for the lady?”

Victoria says she’ll have a rum and coke.

The server gives a slight bow and disappears back into the gloaming.

“So,” I say. “Getting back to the book. Tom and Serena spend the rest of the weekend together back at Tom’s apartment. He claims to have had an epiphany and now totally understands the solution to the Monty Hall problem, although at first, he insisted just like you, that there was only a fifty-fifty chance the prize was in box number one or two. Serena gave him another way of looking at it. She said what if there were a million boxes? And you choose box six hundred thousand? Monty opens all the other boxes except box number ninety-seven. Now the only closed boxes are yours and ninety-seven. What are the odds now?  Tom still insists fifty-fifty. ‘No! It’s a million to one against it being in your box.  And an almost certainty it’s in the other! Finally, he gets it. 

“So, they go back to the apartment, and Tom thanks her for the idea and starts writing a story about the problem. He calls it, ‘The Adultery Probability.’ They make love, eat leftovers and on Sunday afternoon Tom escorts Serena to the train station. She takes the next train back to London.

“Monday morning, she is back at her job at MI-5. Tom doesn’t know she is a spy and is responsible for his newfound fortune of being awarded a financial grant so that he doesn’t have to work and instead can concentrate on his writing. This is the ‘dirty little secret’ that is hanging over Serena’s head and stands between them like the sword of Damocles as she tries to figure out how and when to tell him about it.

“Three days go by and Serena gets a manuscript in the post. It’s Tom’s story. He has attached a note: ‘Did I get this right?’ She reads it before going to work and is horrified to learn that alas, he did not get it right.”

I can see Victoria is getting a little bit restive. Must be her ADHD kicking in again, I thought.

“Do you want to walk around a bit and explore,” I ask Victoria?

“Sure,” she says. Victoria is always up for a little adventure.

“We’ll continue on with the story when we get back to the table.”

So, we pushed our chairs back and grabbed our drinks, and went for a little trek about the place. We were sitting in the Library Room which was two stories tall and opened up to the ceiling. Up a flight of stairs, there were two other rooms and a mezzanine looking over the downstairs portion of the library. Off to either side of the mezzanine were the two other two rooms, the boudoir Room and the Fumoir Room, only there was no smoking in the Fumoir Room. What went on in the Boudoir room, I wasn’t certain. Each room was richly appointed with distinctive features of the period offering its occupants intimacy and privacy.

Downstairs, in the bar area, there were lounges made of richly upholstered plush red velvet with lamplight gently streaming over each one. I had the feeling that I could sink down into that velvet lining and disappear forever. We stood there transfixed for a while, hypnotized by the ambiance. We snapped out of our reverie and headed back to our table in the library.

We sat back down and a little silence ensued as we thought about what we had just witnessed.

“Don’t you just hate that?” Victoria asked.

“What?”

“That awkward silence when no one has anything to say?”

“Oh that. No, I don’t mind. Sometimes it’s good to just sit and think about things for a while and something naturally will come up of its own accord.”

“Well, I tell you what. Why don’t you tell me the rest of that story?”

“Good idea.” I raise my drink to her and say, “Here’s looking at you kid.”

She smiles back and touches her glass to mine as I resume the story.

“Now, where was I? Oh yes! Serena has just read Tom’s story and discovered to her horror that Tom indeed did not get the problem right. His story went something like this. A London architect suspects his wife of fooling around. One day, when he has time on his hands, he follows her to a sleazy hotel in Brighton. He spies her in the lobby with a man. They obtain a key from the desk clerk and head up the stairs. Terry, the architect, stealthily enters the hotel and follows them up the stairs, staying out of sight. They reach the fourth floor and Terry can hear a door open and close, but he can’t see which one. When he arrives on the floor, he can see there are only three rooms, 401, 402, and 403. His plan is to wait until the couple is in bed together then break into the room and catch them in flagrante delicto. Only one problem. Which room are they in?

“Terry listens for a sound but hears nothing. Time passes. He needs to make a choice. He chooses door 401 because it’s closest. He steps back to make a run for the door when the door to 403 opens and an Indian couple with a baby comes out of the room.  They smile at Terry and go down the steps.

“He figures he has a one-in-three chance his wife was in room 401. This means that until now there was a two-in-three chance she’s in either 402 or 403. Now that he knows 403 is empty there must be a two in three chance, she’s in 402. Only a fool would stay with his first choice, for the laws of probability are immutable. He makes his run and crashes through the door of 402 and catches the couple in mid-stroke. He gives the chap a slap across the chops and makes a hasty retreat out the door and heads for London to file for divorce.

“Serena thinks about this story all day long after she gets to work. It was a good story but it was flawed. It couldn’t stand as written. It didn’t make sense. The Indian couple coming out of room 403 did not tip the balance in favor of 402. Their emergence was random while Monty’s choice was not. He knows what is in each box. If Terry had chosen room 403 the Indian couple could not magically transfer themselves to another room so they could come out another door. After they come out of 403 Terry’s wife was just as likely to be in 402 or 401.

“Serena didn’t think she could just tell Tom the story didn’t work, rather she felt she had to fix it. She had an idea how. Tom could re-write the story and make it work. First, she had to get rid of the Indian couple. Then as Terry takes a few steps back to run at the door to room 401, he overhears two housekeepers talking on the landing below. One says, ‘I’ll just pop upstairs and do one of the two empty rooms.’ The other says, ‘Be careful, that couple are in their usual room.’  

“Terry quickly re-figures the odds and decides to stand in front of room 401 forcing the housekeeper to go into one of the other two rooms. She knows where the couple is. Whatever room she chooses, Terry will move to the other door, doubling his chances. And that is exactly what happens. The housekeeper goes into 403. Terry makes his move and crashes into 402 and voila, there they are!”

“And there you have it. The rest of the story!”

I finished my drink and the server came over and asked if I wanted another but I said no I’d had enough. Victoria declined as well. We spent the rest of the evening in pleasant conversation as is our usual custom and we were well-positioned to engage in another one of our favorite pastimes, that of observing other customers and making up stories about their lives. We found this to be very amusing. Oh, I know, we were perfectly awful, but it was fun.

Later I got to thinking about that evening and thought it would be fun to reconstruct it as a story. I thought the parallels between the two couples were interesting. Similar, but slightly different. Sort of like an alternate universe. There was magic in the invention. You take a little from here and a little from there and you take all the parts and put them together to form a comprehensive whole, synergized and harmonized. Sort of like a stew cooked by chefs to create something new and delicious. A story within a story, like the windmills of your mind. We had fun that night. And I vowed we would come back someday, no matter what it took. Come hell or high water.