Tuesday, February 06, 2007

My Florida Job On A Pale Horse

The Author On His Way To Work

One of the most persistent mistaken beliefs about my stay in Florida, so persistent that I myself have been caught believing it, is that I have no occupation, no fixed mode of living and wake up sometime in the afternoon with barely enough time to get out to the beach in time to scrape myself up an appetite for the cocktail hour. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I have, in fact, risen as early as ten o’clock on several occasions and sometimes not even gone back to bed.

More to the point, I do, in fact, have a quite regular and respectable job nude modeling (actually, a little more than simple modeling is involved, so it is really like nude role-playing with a lot of running and screaming thrown in). In addition to this, I am gainfully employed, as needed, by a local tour company that caters to seniors, where I can even say that I was chosen for my philosophical training, for as the Phaedo has it: philosophy is training for death. I work as a tour guide on Pale Horse Tours, a Florida based company whose luxury day cruises are designed to emphasize the fleeting beauty of life, the impermanence of all things and the ultimate desirability of death, in a fully handicap accessible fashion via air-conditioned tour buses with three gourmet (yet ultimately cloying) meals at local restaurants and two between meal snacks included: “the beautiful ride to the place topside.”

The tour begins early: a lot of older people wake up before dawn and we see no reason to keep them waiting. No matter how early we get the bus to the hotel, there is always some older person who is well waiting: this is good. This person is almost ready. If he is having a smoke, so much the better.

The morning introductions are by far my favorite part. Everyone climbs aboard the cold still bus and there are the chirpy friendly sounds of senior ladies saying hello and being polite and kind in a way you fear no humans ever will be again. It is still quite dark out. It is like those winter morning rides on the school bus, perhaps when you are going on a field trip somewhere special. Very special. This is what we want people to experience, it is an integral part of the service we offer.

The microphone comes on very low and deep and at first you are not sure who is talking. It is like you are still asleep. Sometimes we begin in a foreign language that no one present speaks. The engine makes a subliminal hum, powerful and enveloping, regular like a heart beat. They are waiting. They are ready.

“This is how it all begins,” we say “in the dark, in the cold. In confusion and ignorance. In the youth of youths. A blank slate: tabula rasa. Before “Ma-ma” and “Da-da.” Before words. We are naked, but we do not know we are naked. We do not know Good and Evil, our name: it cannot be said we know we exist. But we do. We have wanted nothing and have asked for nothing. But the world exists and it does not ask for us. It takes us THERE.”

At this, the bus shoots out of the parking garage into the now bright morning sunlight. A few ladies (and sometimes men) yell.

“Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. Pale Horse Tours welcomes you to sunny Sarasota. We hope you enjoy your stay here with us and the pleasant but all-too fleeting wonderful day we have planned for you. Local time is 8:00. Today should be an absolutely gorgeous day with a high about 68. You should hold onto those sweaters, though, for as the sun rises, he surely sets and tonight’s overnight low will be a cool 45. Now that we’ve all been born, who’s ready for breakfast!?”

Their first meal is a simple one, with a preponderance of dairy and soft foods: this is really what many are accustomed to anyway, but we go the extra distance and provide them with rubber spoons and applesauce in Gerber jars. There is zwieback and an assortment of porridges. They are all of the finest quality and no one ever complains, they are usually quite pleased at their fresh squeezed juices in sippy cups. There is coffee, for those who wish it, but we much prefer them to have a Mimosa or a Bloody Mary: these are more conducive to our overall message.

The mornings are very pleasant: we tour the neo-natal ward of Sarasota Memorial Hospital: every Grandparent loves babies, especially someone else’s. Our next stop is the exclusive Happy Times Day Care (slogan: “Mommy and I are One”). The entrance always gets oohs and ahhs as the furniture is done to scale from a toddler’s perspective, with giant chairs and blocks. The seniors are fitted with cumbersome padded suits, which make them very clumsy and prone to fall down, but are designed to protect them when they do. We spent a lot of money and research into the rug. The easiest way to get around in the suits, which are deliberately top heavy, is to crawl or scoot. People giggle a lot during this part, it’s silly.

The greatest amount of research, specific to the group, was in the maternal pheromone extracts that pervade the room and blankies. Period hair care and perfumes are also present, as indicated by our clients' demographic profile and questionnaire. For some, this is the second most beautiful and relaxing part of the trip.

Once they have negotiated the giant living room, the suits come off and they are ushered in to observe the little tots being taken care of. Home cooking boils in a nearby kitchen. The whole set-up is very home-like and, again, accurately tailored to the period, including the dress of the daycare workers who have that tired, but beautiful young mother look. This always makes us smile, but tour policy forbids us to remove our sunglasses at any time.

Local schools take up the rest of the morning, as we cruise through playgrounds, treehouses, secret hideaways and sports fields: the whole K-12 experience. The classes are chosen for their compatibility for this tour by their catalogue of ideal types: crybabies, spazes, cut-ups and proto-drop outs: a wide and familiar cast our guests are sure to identify with. Our guests are further encouraged to seek out their favorite subjects and activities, put on athletic gear or pick up a musical instrument to “get the feel of it again.” Around 11:00 the seniors get their choice of pizza, burgers, or hot dogs. They often eat with an unexpected gusto, for the morning porridge is designed to be famishing and we have been running them pretty quickly since middle school.

We serve this snack because the primary meal of the day is meant to be eaten with more appreciation than this snack, which is all appetite. Lunch is a somewhat sophisticated affair, and very much tailored to the profession of the individual: box lunches for some, table service for others. This is one of the most exquisitely researched and specific of meals. They all share one thing in common, however: whether it be beer, or wine, or several martinis, drinks are served and are the true focus. The seniors get back to themselves, they loosen up and not a little serious flirting goes on, regardless of status, aided by a well researched mix of oldies. There is a lot of classic cuisine at lunch: Salisbury Steak, Shepard’s Pie, Chicken and Dumplings.

After a tour of the professions, from the banking district to the docks, the early afternoon is spent with noisy newborns and troubled teens from local programs. This is when a lot of our guests start to nod off a little, and who can blame them? This is the time of day when one’s frustrations have either been overcome or accommodated (usually quite a bit of both) where one is either glad to be a little tired or feels betrayed: there is nothing new under the sun, and this is either a relief or a vast disappointment. So we make our way to the beaches, and stop for ice cream on St. Armand’s.

The ice cream is soft, it is milky and palliative, but cold. It is the warmest part of the day, but it’s not hard to feel a little chill before the end of the cone. Those who opt for bowls are all ready quite ready; they are not here to mess around and they know childhood is over. We pass out newspapers, a mix of new and old: how little and how much has changed. Here on St. Armand’s they are among their peers in silly hats and tiny dogs. They have reached their present.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!
The bridal of the earth and sky—
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
For thou must die.
I sing, as I collect up the napkins and water bottles.

The beach is beautiful, but because so little is there: just sea and sand, the sun and the wind: the four elements. It is too cold for many swimmers or sunbathers. We encourage our guests to take a handful of the fine powdery, glittery, pure white sand. We tell them the history of the beach, where the sand was 100 years ago and the water 10,000 years ago. We tell of the middens and the piles of shells the first people left. We give a reasonable estimate of the age of the transition from seashell to sand. We talk of the first univalves and bivalves in the sea. The first algae, and the primordial sky that made the waters salty. We compare the number of grains of sand on this beach to stars in the sky: the number of grains of this beach are infinitesimally small in comparison. As the sun begins to set and turn huge and red, we tell of the future death of that star and its child, the earth.

“Think of this beautiful sunset as somehow last. Last for you, or last for the species or all species. The last for the sun itself. All these things will surely come, but across a gulf of time so great, it is as distant to us as it’s birth. At the end of the universe, black holes will swarm around like these gulls, snatching up scraps. As this warming sun takes it’s leave, all falls cold and dark. The universe, too, will go dark and cold, with every point so far away from another and with so little energy no message could be communicated, were there beings to communicate and anything to be communicated. Such a universe cannot be said to hold foolishness or wisdom, good or evil: it is universally tepid and inert: its battery extinguished. The fundamental forces no longer have meaning, gravity is overcome. God is not dead, but unconscious, never to be revived.”

“But all this is so distant and vast, it is not even a prophecy we can truly hear. In the history of mankind, our lives have been little more than a day cruise, and in the universe, immeasurably less than a grain of sand.”

We now ask our guests to open their palms and see how much sand they have been able to hold onto.

Dinner is a fine affair at the best restaurant. Everything is gratis and comped. There is music and dancing and a sumptuous feast. It is cool, but bright. People, on the whole, really look around to see who they’ve been with. No one exchanges numbers, though. Photos of grandkids are pulled out passed around, but if our work has been done right, they are left on the table. Here is where you see people at their best, their most free: lovers are still lovers, idiots idiots, and skeptics try and chat us up like we could somehow make a bargain for them. Others buy lottery tickets or cigars. Everyone dances, though not everyone sings. There is cake for some reason.

The coffee service is exquisite. We make a big show of bringing it out: it is the finest, darkest roast. We only serve it black. Some ask us if we have decaf, for fear it will keep them up. We smile beneath our cowls (put up against the evening chill) and tell them not to worry. People are as happy as they are like to be, on this tour, anyway. We have printed everyone’s photos, and they are strewn about the tables in no particular order: people laugh at themselves, each other. We give out prizes, and usually they give prizes and toasts to each other. We stay late, very late for a senior day cruise. The check never comes, but soon enough, each of their own accord, they step onto the bus. Some went on the bus to an early rest just after dinner. No one ever stays behind or leaves the tour at this point. Instead, they thank us. They wave to the restaurant and the world. They don’t have to, but they tip us and, more often than not, call us by the names of their children, or even grandchildren.

On the night ride to the facility, they are all soon asleep and perfectly quiet. They look beautiful and peaceful under the stretching shadows cast by passing lights. I often wish we could wake them as we go over the bridge at night, because it is something everyone should see, but no one does, but, of course, it is quite impossible at this point. This is the most tender and difficult part of the tour and we touch their cheeks as they lay there. We guides don’t look at each other, but we know we are all crying in our oxygen masks, standing in the sway of the bus, as we go up and down the aisles cloudy with the bitter air of diverted exhaust, checking our cargo. It is so sad and beautiful and we have yet such a long hard night ahead of us.

TURN #100: WEEK 86; WORDS: 99,850 NEXT BY 14 FEBRUARY 2007