I can recall four family vacations from my childhood, each accompanied by a distinct image: Orlando, 1982. Me, cowering inside the tramcar on the rickety Thunder Mountain, crying and pledging to never go on another roller coaster again. Los Angeles, 1985. Me, cowering inside the tramcar at Universal Studios while a mechanical shark raised itself out of the water, then slowly moved from side to side as though watering its front lawn. Dubuque, Iowa, 1986. Me, getting vertigo from the endless farmland, yet astounded that there was still a place where Coke was sold in tall glass bottles. Washington, D.C., 1987. Me, being dragged through the state house by my father, who insisted that we exercise the notion of “people’s government” and meet our congressman, a guy named Barney Frank.
Fear of travel is part of my DNA. Like my droopy eyes and thinning hair, it is a trait I inherited from my father. My mother is an incessant world traveler; she’s been to more countries than democracy itself. My father, on the other hand, has only been as far as Italy, as in the Sons of Italy—the fraternal lodge in Newton, where he spent the majority of his time, located half a mile from our house.
In the days leading up to a family vacation, my father would triple his face time at the Sons of Italy, as though it were a tanning salon where he could build a base before exposing himself to my mother’s ultraviolet rays. “Give me one more prosciut sandwich, Carmine,” my father would say, rubbing his hands together, his suitcase and plane tickets next to his barstool. “You think they got good prosciut where I’m going? Fugghedaboutit. All they got in Florida is sunshine and assholes.”
Travel made my father anxious. Constant family time made him irritable and claustrophobic. It’s not that he didn’t love us; he did, very much, so long as we came in small and infrequent doses, like raw oysters. My father viewed us as though we were a half hour television sitcom—he needed a commercial break every nine minutes to make a phone call or get another scoop of ice cream. In that sense, a family vacation was like a three-hour foreign film, more obligation than enjoyable retreat, depriving him of the basic pleasures that the Sons of Italy provided: cold cuts, neighborhood friends, scotch and college football.
As soon as we deplaned at our destination airport my father would begin his commentary. He had a preternatural talent for making normal things seem illogical and offensive. “Lookit the size of this airport. That’s what they spend their money on in LaLa Land? Big airports, so the movie stars can feel like big shots?” Even things with no downside at all wouldn’t stop him from griping: “Seventy-four degrees and not a cloud in the sky,” he’d say, shaking his head and snapping his chewing gum. “Only in Hollywood.”
Any inconvenience was blamed not just on the specific trip, but on the concept of vacation itself. If we missed an exit on the way to Sea World or got caught in a slow-moving line at Epcot my father would make a tsk sound and say, “Lookit this. See what happens when you leave home?” When the waiter at Denny’s brought my father sausage links instead of patties he shook his head and said, “Lookit this. I could have stayed in Newton, got the sausage links at Ihop and saved two grand.”
While my mother, sisters and I walked through theme parks and along promenades, drinking slushes and gawking at inflatable alligators, my father always lagged behind, reorganizing the bills in his money clip or nostalgically looking over his football betting cards, wondering what he was missing out on back home. When we lounged by the hotel pool he’d sneak off to the payphone to call the Sons of Italy and check on arbitrary things. “Dominic, it’s Pelly. Did Joey’s cousin come in to fix the bathroom tiles yet? Nah, I’m down Florida with my family. Fugghedaboutit.”
Thus, my father resented anything that existed outside of Newton, the town in which he grew up and spent most of his life. Driving through Orlando, on our way to some family restaurant, my dad would look out the window, chewing his toothpick and shaking his head at the desolate Art Deco landscape. “In Newton the neighborhoods are full. The schools are full. The churches are full. Look at this. The only way they can get people down here is to build a make-believe castle. And even then all they get is two dogs and a stray cat. Je-sus Christ.”
On our last day of vacation my father was more relaxed, almost jovial. The closer we got to our departing flight home, the brighter his demeanor. On the plane back to Boston he was unrecognizable, calm and patient with the flight crew and affable with the fellow passengers. “I must say, kids, that was our best vacay yet,” he said on the drive home from Logan. My sisters and I sat silently, afraid to respond, still traumatized from his outburst over the price of Coppertone at the Holiday Inn gift shop, just two days before.
“Wouldn’t you agree, dear?” he said. “I said this could be our best vacation yet.” My mother said nothing, just stared out the passenger-side window with her iron-jawed resolve, the same stoic look she used whenever I’d threaten to ride my bike onto the Mass Pike and kill myself because she wouldn’t buy me something.
Our trip officially ended when my father pulled his Oldsmobile Cutlass into our driveway to drop us off. “I’ll be back for supper,” he said, waving cheerfully as he backed out. We stood in the driveway with our suitcases, watching as his car disappeared up Langdon Street, back toward the Sons of Italy.
* * * *
My friends and colleagues spend months planning exotic trips to places like New Zealand or Japan or Argentina. They set aside money and count down the days. They submit vacation requests to their managers and then guard their allotted time as though it is a nest of newly hatched bluebirds. In some cases they visit doctors that administer a series of required shots. Then they endure dreadfully long flights. They document the trips on Instagram and Facebook: A sunset. A rope bridge. A selfie in front of the village pub. A bowl of plantains. I have seen these things before, but to my friends they might as well be moon rocks or dinosaur fossils.
When they return, I expect stories of spiritual awakenings, of some perspective gained, of a greater truth revealed to them by an indigenous tribe. Instead I hear of jetlag, lost luggage and dysentery. I expect their eyes to glow with some kind of deeper meaning. Instead they look weary and sad, resentful toward their jobs, depressed that they can’t spend the rest of their lives thatching palm fronds or shaving bamboo. My friend Bob took two overseas trips this year. The first was to Bali, the high point of which was a Sri Lankan Mud Crab dinner. The low point was his connecting flight there, when the plane encountered a surprise cyclone and had to emergency land on another island. The turbulence was so horrifying that passengers vomited into paper bags and knelt in the aisle in prayer. His second trip, a few months later, was to Costa Rica. The pinnacle of that trip was jet skiing, an activity I’m quite certain is available off the beaches of South Boston. The downside was malaria, from which he eventually recovered after a month of antibiotics.
To some, travel is the reason for being. The women I’ve met on OK Cupid and Tinder are fanatical about it. The word “travel” is either in the first sentence of their bios or atop their lists of “Six Things I Couldn’t Live Without”. Their main profile pic usually involves a yoga position and a South American country. When I told one date that I’d never left the States she told me we wouldn't be able to relate to one another. Another response was: “That’s awful”, and yet another was “fuck you” followed by pitying laughter. Apparently gainful employment means nothing to these people; if you don’t have a passport, you might as well have an outstanding warrant or an STD.
It is easier to lie about travel. When people ask if I have any “big summer vacation plans”, I draw inspiration from a recent movie or television show. I had just seen the documentary Blackfish when my sister, who constantly pesters me for being a homebody, told me I needed to get out of the snow and go someplace warm for a few days. “Actually,” I said, “I just booked a trip to the Pacific Northwest to kayak with killer whales. What are your plans?” When Rambo 4 was in heavy rotation on the Spike network, I told friends that I was heading to Burma over Memorial Day weekend to rescue an old college professor.
The truth is, I can’t even dream of a vacation. Planning a trip is like shopping for a bedroom set—I’m overwhelmed and indecisive and therefore choose whatever’s cheapest and closest to me. In 2002 I took my first adult vacation. I had no friends, so I asked Bubba, the line cook at my favorite diner, if he’d like to join me. He asked where we were going and I told him I didn’t know. He suggested Miami, that the party scene was world-renowned and since it was April the colleges would be on spring break and the place would be crawling with chicks. I told him that sounded great. My mind went to pool parties, salsa dancing and linen suits. Immediately I felt cultured, like a seasoned traveler. I felt like everyone else.
Since I didn’t own a home computer I used my iMac at work and bought a package deal on some travel website—four nights at a beachfront Hilton, round trip airfare for two, all for $1800. When I presented this to Bubba he said it sounded like a great deal, then asked if he could pay me his half some time in May, after he got his tax return. “Sure,” I told him. The trip was three weeks away. If I was frugal up until then and spent money only on the bare essentials—gas and food and cigarettes and drugs—then I’d still have…almost $400 in my checking account.
Just before takeoff Bubba told me this was the first time he’d been on an airplane. He fidgeted in his seat and breathed deeply. “Relax,” I told him. “There’s nothing to it.” That feeling of being a seasoned traveler came again. I leaned back in my seat and grinned.
“I bet this is your first time in North Carolina, huh?” I said in the Greensboro airport during our six-hour layover. Bubba nodded, extinguishing his cigarette in an ashtray. I drummed my knuckles on the table and looked around the smoking section. “Are you hungry?” I asked. “Wanna get some lunch?” Bubba nodded again and then pulled a small fold of cash from his pocket. His lips moved as he counted the money underneath the table. He put it back into his pocket.
“Actually I think I’m good. I’m gonna take another walk around the airport.”
Elated from our arrival at Miami International Airport, we decided to forgo the complimentary shuttle bus and splurge on a taxi to our hotel. After twenty-five minutes on route 1A I asked the driver if our hotel was in walking distance to the bars and clubs. “Walk? Uh…no. No sir. No walk,” he said in a Latino accent. “It very nice hotel, though. You like.”
“Great,” I said. I looked at the meter. The fare was forty dollars and we were still on the highway. I looked out the window. The sky was an endless canopy of gray.
Our hotel was one of several monolithic structures that loomed in a row above the shoreline. I paid the fifty-five dollar cab fare and we walked through the circular drive to the lobby. I looked beyond the hotel and saw the surf: it looked manic and unwelcoming. Scattered on the beach were empty lounge chairs, their umbrellas rippling violently in the wind, some even toppled over.
A family of five stood in front of us in line at the concierge desk. A small boy and girl tugged on their mother’s dress, the girl’s fingers jammed into her mouth as she eyed the pot leaf on Bubba’s tie-dyed tee shirt. The father held a third child against his shoulder, an infant who stared dumbly at me. I smiled at him. At first his expression did not change, then his lower lip stuck out and foamy saliva oozed down his chin, soaking into his dad’s shirt. The father either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
The concierge waved us toward the desk. He checked us in and handed us our key cards. “How far are we from South Beach?” I asked. “Is it a long walk?”
“It’s about eight miles,” he said. “But there’s a bus that departs every half hour. The station is right across the street.”
“That’s perfect,” I said, waving my hand at the concierge, as though I had just been told a personal masseuse was waiting in my suite.
Two hours later Bubba and I were heading down Collins Ave., toward South Beach, sharing a bus ride with a dozen elderly people. Their skin was so bronzed and soft they looked like Pakistani Cabbage Patch Dolls. Every other block the bus stopped to pick up a couple more seniors. The driver got out, took their canes and helped them up the doorway steps. “Oh, hello there,” the seniors said when they noticed us, pleasantly surprised, smiling at us for the duration of the ride, as though we were a delicatessen that would nourish their waning life force.
South Beach was an esplanade of supple bodies and Top 40 music. We got a table at an outdoor bar called The Clevelander. Next to the service bar was an empty stage. I saw visions of Carson Daly and heard the distant cheers of a thousand wet tee shirt contests. We ordered food. I had three bites of a chicken sandwich and half a Heineken when my Crohn’s Disease acted up—my abdomen constricted and my ribcage felt enflamed.
“The chicks here are amazing,” Bubba said, his eyes following a pack of coeds that walked past our table.
“I know,” I said, scanning the area for a men’s room and wondering how long I’d be able to hold my oncoming bowel movement. I shifted around in my seat.
“You okay, dude?”
“Yeah, it’s just…these clothes…they itch like hell.” This wasn’t a lie. I wore an outfit I had purchased a few years prior in Hollywood on Melrose Ave: black stretch polyester clubbing pants and a matching button-down shirt. The pants were snug around my hips and flared out at the bottoms. The shirt was retro 70s style, slim fit with a big collar. Everyone else in The Clevelander wore fraternity tee shirts and cargo shorts, and I looked like I just walked off the set of Scarface. The idea of peeling the pants off in order to shit in a public bathroom sent chills through my body.
Later, we sat on a bench on Ocean Drive and people-watched. I asked Bubba what he felt like doing and he furtively counted his money again. My stomach pain resurfaced. A group of teenagers walked up to Bubba and asked him for a light. They wore baggy clothes and Rastafarian beanies. Bubba asked if they had any weed. They said no and instead handed him a purple flyer with the word “HELL” printed across the top. It was a rave in some warehouse in downtown Miami. “What do you think?” Bubba asked me after the teenagers walked off.
“I don’t know. My stomach’s bothering me. I think I’ll go back to the hotel and lie down. But you should go, if you want.”
I told him absolutely, go ahead and have fun, and if possible score some drugs. Preferably weed, but I’d accept anything.
* * * *
I woke up at nine the next morning. Bubba was by the window, smoking a cigarette. His bed was still made. “I saved you some coke,” he said, nodding to the bedside table. There was a small twist of Cellophane on it. I unwrapped it and tapped it out onto the glass table guard. A couple small chunks of a clay-like substance came out. It looked more like pocket lint than cocaine.
“You might have to let it dry out a little,” he said. “I didn’t realize the bag was in my hand while I was dancing. It’s probably a little damp.”
The coke was too malleable to cut up with my ATM card. I aimed the room’s complimentary hair dryer over it while Bubba recounted his night: a symphony of glow sticks, industrial music, mescaline, hard liquor, Red Bull, cocaine and, for the climax, a police raid. But no sex. Not even a courtesy grope. “It was a dumb idea,” he said in summary.
“Why? Sounds good to me,” I yelled over the hair dryer, waiting for the cocaine to granulate.
“I spent too much money. I only have forty bucks left to my name.”
I shut off the hair dryer.
Forty bucks. With three more days of vacation.
I tore off a piece of hotel stationary, rolled it up and tried to snort a line of cocaine that had the same shape and consistency as those little balls of pasta my mother put in her chicken soup. They made it into the straw but got stuck, so I unrolled the paper, picked them out and wedged them in my nose, one ball per nostril. “I’m going to the beach,” I said, nasally, and then stormed out of the room.
I was pissed. I sat in a lounge chair on the empty beach, wrapped myself in a towel and waited for Bubba to come out and apologize, though for what, I wasn’t entirely sure. After forty minutes the sky had clouded over and the wind whipped sand in my face. Since my nostrils were clogged with balls of rubbery cocaine I had to breathe through my mouth, causing my lips to crack and blister.
Sulking got me nowhere. It was time to cast my resentment aside and make the best of the situation. So there would be no linen suits, no cigarette boats to Cuba, no rooftop mojitos. So what? Vacations take their own shape, they have their own current, and it’s best to drift along with it, see where it takes you, rather than hold on to the banks of some agenda. Maybe there was a greater meaning here, a lesson on the value of companionship, of friendship. Maybe there was more to Bubba than the short order cook I occasionally got high with in the alley behind the diner. Maybe I would learn more about him, and in turn learn more about myself, and in turn learn more about life in general.
I shook the sand out from my clothes and hair and walked back to the hotel.
The room was dark when I returned, the heavy curtain drawn over the window. I turned on a lamp. Bubba lay facedown and motionless on his bed. I called his name. I poked his shoulder. He grunted something, then turned his head away from me and kept sleeping.
I watched a movie on TV. Then another. Then I went down to the hotel restaurant and got a sandwich. When I came back, Bubba was still asleep. I watched four episodes of Monk on USA Network. I took a nap, woke up, got a cup of coffee and went for a walk on the beach, just as a heavy rainstorm passed through. Back at the hotel room I changed into dry clothes and tried to wake Bubba again. Nothing. I drew the curtain back, flooding the room with light. Bubba moaned and mumbled something, then pulled the blanket over his head. I left the curtain open. An hour later, the sun went down and the room was dark again.
At 10:30, halfway into an episode of Law & Order, my eyelids got heavy. I drifted into sleep to the smell of cigarette smoke. My last conscious image was Bubba, sitting by the window, smoking.
I didn’t see him again until five o’clock the following day. When I asked where he’d been he told me he took a “long walk”, then he promptly got into his bed and took a nap.
That night Bubba and I took the bus to Little Havana. We didn’t say much to each other, just strolled around the neighborhood. I asked if he was hungry and he shrugged. “I only have six bucks, dude.”
“Don’t worry, bro. It’s on me,” I said. We walked past the restaurants and food trucks and stopped in a bodega, where I shelled out nine dollars for a loaf of bread and a pound of Cuban bologna. I slapped his shoulder. “I got your bus fare back to the hotel, too,” I said.
I still had two hundred dollars in my checking account. I could have loaned Bubba some money or at least sprung for a nice meal and a couple cocktails before our trip ended. But that would have been forcing it.
For the next day and a half we stayed in the hotel, taking naps, eating bologna sandwiches and watching television. We bonded over The Shawshank Redemption and Seinfeld reruns. Occasionally one of us would fall into a transient depression and stare off into a corner of the room for twenty minutes. Then Jerry would say something funny, or Morgan Freeman would impart some wisdom, and we’d snap out of it and say, “Man, that’s some true shit. I’m gonna have another bologna sandwich.”
I may not have gained any perspective or insight from the trip, but I did accrue a small measure of appreciation for my studio apartment. It seemed fresher. I had left both windows open before I left for Miami, and as a result the stench of cigarette ash and stale bong water had aired out. My bed was made and the floor wasn’t covered in boxer shorts. The temperature inside was chilly and crisp but it felt good, like an early New England morning. I enjoyed it for a moment and then went to close the window. Outside a robin was perched on an elm tree branch, looking back at me. Spring was coming. It was good to be home. And that’s something.
Dear Readers: The Greater Fool will be off for the rest of August. Enjoy the rest of your summers. We'll talk again in September.
The Greater Fool
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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