Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Carnival -- Part I

Some of the older reporters and editors in the newsroom giggle at me when I ask newbie questions like, "So what's so great about this Carnival thing I keep hearing about?"

They think it's cute and they laugh at my innocence.

Little do they know.

Carnival is actually hard to explain. In the simplest way possible: it's basically a party that closes down the city for two weeks. Schools are off, banks are closed, prostitutes are shipped in from neighboring islands. It's a chance for the locals to take back their island, if only for a short time. Music concerts, food villages and booze flood the streets.

Since I work at a newspaper, it's a busy time for us. People love to lose their minds and have proof of the debauchery in tomorrow's edition.

Being the lone sports writer on staff, the higher-ups said I should cover the Water Sports & Activities event. Once again, simple terms here: A bunch of people -- over 5,000 -- crowd the harbor waterfront to see a bunch of Jet Skis, medium-sized boats and larger vessels race in a completely unorganized fashion.

Throw in some tent vendors, cheap rum and over-sized speakers blaring local crap music and you have yourself a nice little Sunday afternoon.

As if you couldn't pour any more fun onto this event, the Carnival organizers also have a "greased pole" event. In simple terms ... I'm sure you can figure it out.

They have a pole. They grease it up. They hang a flag on the end. If you grab the flag and don't fall in the water, you get $100. The whole spectacle attracted idiots from all directions. I saw several unsanctioned attempts on the flag by very drunk adults -- I think it's designed for children -- and then I lost interest before the actual event began.

I decided to grab a rum and punch and walk the crowd instead.

The Water Sports event is on the water front, which is the exact place I run every morning to train for an upcoming marathon. Before I left, I tried to estimate how many crushed beer cans and how much debris would tarnish my glorious training site the next day.

Confused and a little dehydrated, I tossed my empty cocktail cup in the trash and stumbled home.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Morning interruptions

So today is Thursday and my morning routine has been interrupted by some person knocking on my door all four days this week. Now I don't like to complain. I like to sleep in the mornings.

All four visits were warranted. I wasn't surprised by any of them. But still, they irritated me enough to write about them so here you go.

MONDAY: the V.I. census lady. Down here, the census is handled a little bit differently. Since no one goes by your official physical address -- "Yeah, it's the house near the fence, past the stray dogs and right next to the palm tree that looks like a Iceland volcano" -- the census form is mailed to your P.O. Box and you're supposed to hold on to it until a certified census person comes to pick it up at your house.

The first form was mailed. I procrastinated. A week later, the census lady knocked on my door. I hide in the back room. A week later, she ran down my girlfriend, who was headed to work and couldn't deal with her so she set up an appointment to visit me at 8 a.m. How grand is that?

Back in the states, I heard you guys have a one-page census form. Here in paradise, it was a 56-question booklet that the lady goes over with you one question at a time.

"OK, now let's do your wife, Brianna. Do you know all of her info and where her parents were born?"

"What? You got to be kidding me?"

TUESDAY: the Direct TV guy. Now this was a glorious encounter. For so many days I have been deprived of ESPN and other pointless cable networks but those days would now be over, pending a really bad thunder storm.

We get the feed from San Juan, Puerto Rico so channels like MTV are in Spanish. It is hilarious to watch 16-year-old teenage mothers flip out because they can't handle their new-born babies and get irked by their own mother's participation. Not as good as the Bubble-Bee Man show on The Simpsons but almost.

I worked out a deal a few days prior to get the satellite for around 40 bucks a month. Not bad, huh? But in order to get a DVR box, it would be another cool $200. I had a fresh $100 bill in my wallet when the installment guy came so I went for it.

"So you got any extra DVR boxes on that truck because my friend, Mr. Benjamin, loves to record the shows he can't see because he's at work?"

I slyly revealed the $100 bill and raised an eye brow, "How 'bout it?"

The Direct TV guy laughed. "You know they are going to re-design the $100 bill? I read about it in the Daily News today."

I put the money back in my pocket and sat down on the couch. Defeated.

"So how many channels am I going to get?"

WEDNESDAY: the dog groomer. Since my dogs had started to smell like Fritos and they love sleeping on the pillows on my bed while I'm at work, we decided to get the girls cleaned up.

Brianna was recommended a guy named Paul and he turned out to be pretty cool. Once again, I woke up at 8 a.m. because he had an earlier appointment cancel on him.

I had to sit on the porch with him because the dogs get a little crazy with groomers. While he cut, cleaned and reversed vacuumed every loose, filthy hair off my dogs, we talked about a wide range of things: local high schools, different kinds of beer, his wife, his girls on the side, why I should be very nice to my girlfriend or else she will leave me. Pretty basic stuff.

When he was done and half the block was covered in Hunter's skeleton hair, I realized I did not have enough cash for him -- Mr. Benjamin was spent at the gas station Tuesday afternoon. I asked him to follow me to the nearby bank and he gave me the classic deadbeat sympathy look.

When I left the ATM and gave him the cash, he mentioned that he also sold drugs to make ends meet for him and his family. I told him that I could only make one ATM withdraw a day and then revealed that my uncle was the man behind the saying, "Just Say No To Drugs."

He was not familiar with the motto, sort of shook his head and drove off.

THURSDAY: the refrigerator repair man. What a character? Now this jackass came last month because our fridge was leaking and sure enough it was leaking again.

Last month, after I nodded at him and acted interested in what he had to say, he started to pitch me on some cancer-preventing pill that he has taken for the last 15 years. This time around, it was some cell phone service provider.

"Just fix the refrigerator, please," I said. "I have to be at work soon."

It was 9:30 a.m. and I wasn't planning on work for at least another three hours but I couldn't stand his banter. Blah, blah, blah. He took the frozen food out my freezer, put it in the sink and then went on this rant about how the VI youths are killing each other.

"Please, just finish the job," I said. "The ice cream is starting to melt."

After about an hour of pointless fidgeting, he gave up. I guess that was all he needed to earn his pay.

"I'm going to tell Roy (my landlord) that you just need a new fridge," he said. "This one has expired."

"It's either that or I'll see you next month, huh?" I barked. "What will you be pushing by then? Sewing machines, male-enhancement pills?"

He didn't laugh. He immediately put together his tool box, said good bye and walked out. I guess I can kiss that new fridge good bye.

All I need is a few ice cubes for the rum. Is that too much to ask for?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pounding Guinness on St. Croix

So I made my St. Croix debut over the weekend and if you don't know where that is then you need a Geography lesson. Let me help you. I live on the island of St. Thomas. It's about 40 miles north of the island of St. Croix. Together, along with the tiny island of St. John, they make up the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Now that we're all caught up, let me continue. St. Croix (STX) and St. Thomas (STT) have almsot the same population (50,000) yet STX takes up twice the land mass.

"Oh yeah, there's always been a pissing match between the two islands," a female news reporter shouted to me from across the newsroom during my first week.

The two islands compete over money, the better high school sports teams, government officials and the ever-climbing murder rate.

So I got the assignment of heading south to cover a women's tennis tournament (yawn) and the inter-island All-Star basketball doubleheader (passive yawn). I was more excited because I took a tiny little two-engine seaplane to and from and the paper put me up in a trendy hotel on the beach that I later learned appealed to same-sex couples.

First, the flights. Almost threw up on the way down because of the turbulence. Drinking three beers at a nearby bar while waiting for the flight probably didn't help. The turbulence on these suckers was crazy. Straight for a second, slide right, straighten out then dip. It was like a really bad carnival ride.

Awe, carnies. Homer Simpson once described them as Gods among men.

OK. So when I arrived, our STX photographer, a guy named Cris, who I've talked to countless times on the phone but never met in person, picked me up at the airport. We immediately drove to the Women's Coalition of St. Croix 18th annual tennis tournament. I nodded my head, acted interested but really couldn't wait to check into my celebrity hotel. I researched it online beforehand and couldn't believe they were putting me up on the beach. To tell you the truth, I couldn't believe they were putting me up, period.

The hotel, itself, was dead and when I put down my bags and washed up, I noticed my room did not have a single towel. Celebrity hotel my ass. Didn't they know Aaron Gray from the VI Daily News was staying there? Jeez.

Went to the basketball doubleheader and it was running late. Very late. We didn't get out of there until midnight but the night was young and I was ready to hit the STX social scene. Quick fact about STX: the island only entertains about three cruise boats a WEEK where STT can house up to seven cruise boats a DAY. That means no yuppie tourists were nerding up the bars.

I met up with a news reporter, Danny O'Shea (just like the Rick Moranis character in The Little Giants) and he brought out a "new girl he was seeing." This cat was hired maybe two weeks after I was -- he literally just got a car on STX the other day. How was he already "seeing" girls? The kid moves fast and drinks fast, too.

We decided to hit up this Irish Pub I've heard about on radio commercials. It was called 1884. I'm not sure why and I ignored some drunk fat dude when he tried to explain it to me while I ordered the first round.

Now I am no stranger to Irish Pubs and my old friend, Bernard, a renowned booze hound and an Irish Pub manager in Annapolis would have scoffed at the sight of this one. Aside from a Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey flag hanging on the ceiling, the rest of the bar looked like a T.G.I. Fridays. I mean I had a great time pounding Guinness there but a traditional Irish Pub it was not.

I awoke the next day, watched SportsCenter and laid outside my room near the beach before charging yet another meal to the room. This time it was a shrimp, spinach and bacon omelet. While sitting alone at breakfast, I realized I was the only person there under the age of 65. Same-sex friendly my ass. They never pulled that shit in grandpa's day.

My return flight -- click HERE to see some crazy video -- did not leave until 2 p.m. so I walked the hotel grounds and quizzed the desk clerk on the differences between our islands. For some reason, I found myself actually defending STT in our friendly spats. I guess I can officially call it home now. The VI census lady, who stopped by the house the other week, said I have to wait a year.

Until then, I guess I'm still just a poser.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Marvelous Marvin

So I didn't know how to feel when I came home from work yesterday to find a large black man named Marvelous Marvin with long dreads inside my house rubbing down my half-naked girlfriend with assorted oils and lotions.

Even though I had arranged for the in-house massage, it still felt creepy.

It was Brianna's birthday and a friend that sits near me at work knew MM and we hooked up the massage deal. After a few crazy days at work, Brianna needed the stress relief.

Afterward, she got all dolled up and we went out to a fancy dinner at Oceana, one of the best restaurants on the island. I got the fillet. It was the best meal I've had since I've been here.

So after dinner, we returned home for a romantic evening and that's all I have to say about that.

Today, which is Brianna's B-Day (plus one), my good deeds continue. After my morning run, I stopped by the pharmacy to pick up her prescriptions, waited in line for 25 minutes at the post office to pick up her new bikinis and as soon as I'm done here, I will alter my travel arrangements for Saturday so my beautiful girlfriend can accompany me to St. Croix for the night.

The trip to St. Croix is for bizz. I'm covering the territory all-star basketball game, sponsored by Mr. Tim Duncan, and some StreetBallers named Hot Sauce and White Chocolate will be there. I can only imagine White Chocolate is Caucasian. Hot Sauce also goes by the name Frank's.

I put that shit on everything.

So am I the best boyfriend on the face of the planet? I would say so.

Massage for me? Nah, I tickle too easy. But maybe I should get my massage license. Then I can pay a vist to Marvelous Marvin's girlfriend and introduce myself as Amazing Aaron.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Georgia on my mind

I drank too many lunch beers at the St. Thomas airport waiting for my flight, which is a habit I have when I'm excited about a trip.

After a social zoom to Philly where I was partnered up with another thirsty soul, I grabbed a seat in the terminal while waiting for my connecting flight to Charlotte, NC and fell asleep. During the 90-minute trip south, I felt hung over and questioned my ability to rent a car.

The good people at Hertz didn't mind. For it was just a 2-hour drive to Augusta, Georgia and this sober puppy was looking forward to a flat out burn through the great state of South Carolina. I was listening to some Dirty South rap music inside my Chevy Cobalt (only $12 a day) and drove at top speed on the right side of the road until I landed smack dab in the middle of golf's equivalent to the Super Bowl.

My fiend and host for the 36-hour excursion, Ben, met me at a CVS Pharmacy parking lot. He was running late from work. I was looking shady as ever sitting at a dark CVS Pharmacy parking lot eating a McDonald's ice cream cone.

It was OK. No one was going to mess with me and the Cobalt. I cracked the windows and played some Ludacris just in case. You know, for some street credit.

So we had a few drinks, a few laughs and then Ben locked his keys inside his truck. After AAA came faster than expected, we called it a night just a shade after 2 a.m. For in five short hours, we were going to be rubbing elbows with the Southern elite while watching grown men hit tiny white balls down extravagantly-groomed pieces of land.

* * *

I went to the final day of The Masters last year with Ben so my jaw-dropping was a little more contained this time around. But there is something about Augusta National that just makes you quiver. Can't really put my thumb on it but maybe after a few more trips -- what'd ya say, Ben? -- I'll be able to properly put the experience into perspective.

At all times, there were sparks of excitement. You hear a crowd roar in the distance and wonder who just did what. You see the club members wearing the famous green jackets and wonder what they did or who they killed to gain entrance. You see the pretty debutantes, the wannabe golf pros, the golf pros and the pimento cheese sandwiches.

If I was going to be executed and I had one final meal to choose, the pimento cheese sandwich at Augusta would be involved in some way or another. I ate four of them last year -- only two this past weekend. I know, I'm getting weak in my old age.

What stuck out the most was how the gallery got so quiet when a player was putting. I'm sure that goes with any PGA event but at The Masters, it's the effort that went into it, the motionless tension.

We set up our chairs on the 16th green at 8 a.m. We were about four or five rows back and approximately 20 feet from the pin. I could have spit on Tiger when his approach shot fell into the rough right in front of us. Freddie Couples was so close I saw that he didn't wear golf spikes and he didn't wear socks. Damn hippie.

A couple friends and family told me I was on TV when Phil Mickelson came around. Did anyone tape it? I'd like to see it.

The best thing about Augusta National is how pure it is and how it's cutoff from civilization. Kind of like North Korea, but in a very good way. Everyone knows cell phones and cameras are not allowed but it's also the little things: manual scoreboards, zero commercial sponsors, old people sticking to tradition. It's like we were locked in a time machine for the afternoon and we had nothing to do but enjoy nature. Haven't felt like that since walking the Appalachian Trail.

Of course, I yelled "Get In The Hole!" with the rest of the lunatics and enjoyed people watching during the breaks. Phil won it, of course I was pulling for Tiger, but watching Kim birdie 16 might have been the highlight of the day for me.

Ben's mom, Jeannie, had us over for a delicious dinner after the round and before I knew it, I was passed out on Ben's couch watching highlights on TV from some golf tournament.

* * *

I woke up this morning in Georgia at 6 a.m. in some sort of trance. I'm back in my office now, on this island in the Caribbean. When co-workers asked me about my weekend, I just shrugged.

Tomorrow I will start looking into the next adventure.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Free balling?

So I woke up today, drove my girlfriend to work, came home, went for a run, washed the dishes, made mac n' cheese for lunch and ran out of ideas to take up my time before I had to deal with the dirty laundry project.

There the bag was. Just taunting me with its wet clothes and mildew smell.

It was evident I had to take care of this problem. I'm leaving for The Masters tomorrow and I'm down to my JV pair of boxer shorts. After the JV runs out, I have two pairs of boxer briefs I usually use for running races and after those are gone, it's Commando time.

Kosmo Kramer: "Oh, I'm out there, Jerry, and I'm loving it!"

So the word on the street was this place, "Loving Hand" or something like that does good service. So I packed up the car with the bags of dirty (and wet) laundry, some soap and a book and I started down the street.

I passed a shanty laundromat that I noticed during my running loops. For some unexpected reason (it's in the ghetto), my pace usually picks up when I run past so I continued to drive.

Finally, I came across the "Loving Hand." I was told to ask for Ester. I asked, she wasn't there. Before I knew it, my clothes were taken away from me and put into a line comprised of other people's filth. I was handed a receipt and given a smile.

"Tomorrow, in the morning," she said.

That works. I planned on washing the clothes myself (I even stopped to make coin change for a five) but the laundromat worker, not named Ester, took care of business for me. I hope.

If she doesn't do a good job, I'll end up at Augusta looking like Happy Gilmore's caddy, who washed his dirty undies in the ball-cleaning thingy.

And I just checked online, Tiger is tied for third and two shots back.

My next blog post will be from inside the continental United States of America. That is, if I don't make any shoe bomb jokes on the plane and remember to drive on the right side of the road.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

En Fuego

So my beautiful girlfriend was preparing dinner last night as her manly boyfriend with dashing good looks rested on the couch and awaited his feeding when they heard a strange noise.

I went into the back room of our one-bedroom cottage and saw smoke coming out of the washing machine. We were doing a load at the time and the machine was full of clothes and water. Well, the thing caught fire but the flames were inside and smoke was seeping through the machine.

Have you ever tried to extinguish internal flames trapped inside a wet washing machine? Trust me, it's not anyone's Shining Moment. The NCAA tourney is over but I'm trying to make that a year-round term. Thanks, CBS.

Now we're shopping to buy (or rent) a washer and dryer. The original dryer didn't work in the first place so I'm kind of excited. Actually, no. I'm not excited at all.

I'll be sure to let you know how my first VI laundromat experience goes. I wonder if they serve beer there?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Vanilla Sky

So I made about 13 different calls for different stories I was working on yesterday and left about 13 voice messages. After that, I just sat at my desk and stared at the phone waiting for it to ring.

"How did they turn on me so quickly?" I asked myself. "Do they already hate me?"

Of course not, silly. The features editor sits directly behind me (Yes, it's a small newsroom) and alerted me that everyone was still on Easter Break and no one would call back until Tuesday.

"Today would have been a good day to take off," she said with a giggle.

Don't have to ask me twice. It was a quarter past 11 a.m. and I briskly walked to my car with no plans of looking back.

The only problem with an impromptu half day off is that I really didn't know who to call and share the splendor with. It was Monday and most people I know were either working or planning to go to work.

Ask anyone in the media -- it's an ever-occurring hassle. Our work schedules are so crazy and they change so often that it's hard to pinpoint your exact days off during any given week.

But who cares? I live in paradise and the beach is never hard to find.

I grabbed a few beers, packed a backpack and started to walk to Lindbergh Bay. See, I had to walk because Brianna borrowed my car for an all-day bender with her work friends. Their boss treated them to jet skis in the morning and open bar tabs in the afternoon.

Shit. Why didn't I call them? What the hell was I thinking?

Well, I rolled solo and enjoyed every second of it at the beach. I read a book, lost consciousness and went swimming -- on a continuous loop -- until the sun went down. Just before this group of French teenagers asked me to join their beach volleyball team, I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a picture...

This place continues to baffle me, but in a good way.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Fan mail

Happy Easter, everyone.

I'm not much or a church-goer so I'm spending my precious Sunday inside the newsroom. Once this basketball coach calls me back (he pleaded with me all week to come out and cover his tournament so I did and now he can't be reached? Argh!) then I'll probably make a dash toward the beach before the sun goes down on another picturesque weekend in paradise.

So now that I have you, I wanted to thank the people reading the blog and reciprocating.

My good friend, Chico, who freaks out the masses in Southern Florida, called me this week to tell me about an experience he had inside a convenience store at some ridiculous hour. He witnessed "some 40-something year old woman" purchasing Steel Reserve and it reminded him of an LIP entry. He then asked the classy vixen out on a date.

An award-winning journalist by the name of Tim "Chappy" Chapman suggested the blog to a media teacher and she used it as an example during a lecture in class. To think a gaggle of hungover college students read these fine words inside the classroom just made me smile.

It also suggested that Chappy's school, James Madison University, my alma mater, is on the right track and is turning out some talented scribes at a medium pace. Chappy has been the Editor-In-Chief at the school's student publication, The Breeze, since he was a sophomore and is bound for great things in the media world.

And last but not least, I have to give a shout out to one of my new island friends, Frank Daddy. While sipping cocktails the other night at a local wine bar, we started to discuss what our next move would be. He was sitting about three bar stools away and when a decision on our next destination was decided, he simply asked, "What do I look like? Some kind of enabler?"

It's always a pleasure to run into a fan.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

F-bombs and angry mobs

You stateside folk take schedules for granted! You don't even know.

The only things carried out here on time are the ferry launches, church (so I've been told) and Carnival.

"Things are a little different here compared to the States," my future boss warned me during an interview over the phone. "Games rarely start on time, events are canceled due to confusion and sometimes, things just fall apart. For example, the high school football season just ended halfway through a few years ago. No warning. No solid reason."

And like that -- Poof, it was gone.

(Ahh, nothing like a Usual Suspects reference)

But the one group of people I have really become annoyed with on island is the basketball referees. Now I did some soccer officiating in my younger days and my father, a FIFA-certified bad ass, will attest to this: As a referee, you have to remain professional at all times or else your credibility will be shot and your calls will be questioned constantly. That's just common sense.

The referees here joke around with each other during the game, talk back to the adolescent players and run like hell at any hint of controversy. They are overweight, obnoxious and unreliable.

Now I, and most sports writers, avoid factoring these slobs into any story at all costs. Even if a player or coach openly comments on the refs, I try not to give them mention because the story should be about the players and what happened on the court. Not about what these idiots did to ruin the game.

Last week, I couldn't contain myself. It just shows how backwards this place can be sometimes.

Here's a link to a girls basketball story that was published in our paper. Please do not laugh at the layout of our award-winning web site. If the link doesn't work (wouldn't surprise me), here are a few paragraphs from said story:

Controversy over the final score was voiced by coaches, players and fans after the conclusion of the game.

An additional two points was accidentally credited to Alanna George, of Kean, with 2:16 left in the game. The error gave the Lady Devil Rays a 37-29 lead.

Antilles coach Chris Uybarreta called consecutive timeouts after he was informed by fans of the inaccuracy. He consulted the referees, but the score remained.

The Lady Hurricanes scored six unanswered points over the final 1:42, which should have tied the game, but it resulted in a two-point victory for the Lady Devil Rays. Erica Donastorg, of Kean, could have cleared all doubt, but she missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity with four seconds left.

"I called two timeouts to try and straighten out the situation," Uybarreta said. "But we're not going to sulk. The girls played their butts off and I'm proud of them."

Kean athletic director Peter Seipel, who was the acting coach for the Lady Devil Rays, expressed similar sentiments.

"I'm extremely proud of how the girls played their hearts out and persevered through all the controversy," he said. "As for the ending of the game, it's not our decision. I don't want to point any fingers, but it's on the officials because they make the final call. Both teams played their hearts out and it's unfortunate that something like this mars what was a very good game."

Now what I did not include in the story is when the 20-year-old girl who was in charge of the home scoring book was confronted by fans and coaches about her mistake, she was more than gracious towards the criticism.

"F*ck all you motha f*ckers! You think I cheat? Then f*ck you! I hate you white bastards!" were her exact words. She screamed that message in ear shot of dozens of impressionable teenagers right before she threw the scoring book across the gymnasium and stormed out.

"What an exit," I thought.

Silence came across the gym after she left because the referees left right behind her. With no one else to complain to, naturally, the angry mob shifted its attention toward the best-looking person in the room.

"Newspaper guy! Are you going to tell the truth in your article? They cheated us!"

I knew exactly when the scoring mistake was made and who the fake points were awarded to. But do you think I alerted them of that? Hell no. I wasn't going to get involved, take sides or accept any free beverages.

Instead, I listened to their rant, I politely nodded and I walked back to my car. When I got back to my office, I knocked on my new boss' door and had a seat next to her desk.

"Got a good one for you today..." I said.

She sensed my demeanor and let out a sarcastic sigh. Then, without even taking her eyes away from the computer, she spoke.

"Welcome to the Virgin Islands."