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SO LITTLE TIME
I have the distinction of being the only person in American history to try buying a tavern and having, half-way through the negotiations, the owner's daughter win the first US 2002 Winter Olympic Gold Medal, prompting the owner to raise the price $100,000. So when I wander evenings around the country, it is not only to have an after-work beer, but to keep an eye on others who share the same interest. Here in Muskegon I have discovered the Beach Street Inn, the only I am constantly reminded by its owner Steve the only beachfront restaurant/bar from Muskegon to the top of Lake Michigan.
Perhaps it dates me, but while relaxing on a deck overlooking a vast expanse of water, whether salt or fresh, I enjoy being accompanied by Jimmy Buffett music. Buffett has been a favorite for many years, not only for the unique, Florida-Keyed milieu his music ensconces, but for other, more personal reasons. I know that Buffett was introduced, after failing in Nashville, to Key West and the lifestyle that would make him famous by my favorite singer Jerry Jeff Walker. I know that these balladeers now produce their own music, Buffett on Mailboat Records, Walker on Tried and True Music, thereby shunning the corporate music industry. As a writer endlessly trying to tempt the Gods with my scribblings, there is enormous satisfaction in this. So as I sit on the deck of the Beach Street Inn, it is Jimmy Buffett I want to accompany me.
But time weathers all senses, and I have grown tired of the same old Buffett songs. I muse of all things Buffett, how I recently sat in a marina south of here and ran into a fanatic who told me of all her favorite songs, mostly recent releases I did not recognize. I recall sitting in an informal group in a hotel bar in Vancouver across from Jeff Reinebold, the newly hired head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football team, and casually mentioning that I loved Jimmy Buffett, and Jeff a complete stranger instantly replying with my favorite line of all: "He went from sailing ships, to raking mom's backyard." Both of us jumping up and shaking hands with the revelation that we shared a common bond, becoming fast friends. I know where Joe Merchant is. I recall watching a Buffett concert in Massachusetts, and a sloppy, fat, fish-rigged stranger deciding that the song he would wrap his arm around my wife's waist and sing along to was 'Let's Get Drunk and Screw.' Recently I have decided to retire some of my old favorites, and bought the new Buffett CD, something about 'Around the World.' I listened dutifully, searching for a new passion, and found one in a simple, quiet song called "Mademoiselle."
It is a beautiful song, subtle and sensual, about a man observing a woman sitting all night without dancing, and his asking her to dance. It shows a maturity not evident in Buffett or Walker's earlier songs, such as 'Pissing in the Sink,' or 'We're the People Our Parents Warned Us About.' But it is the refrain and the last words of the song that resonate most to one approaching fifty, a guy with his own dreams of opening a tavern: "...we all have so little time..."
Today as I walk out of my hotel lobby I run into a fellow road warrior who says to me, "I see we're dressed for the Beach Street Inn." I smile and nod, button the top button of my Hawaiian shirt. "Something happened out there," he continued, "I don't know what, but there's ambulances and sirens and the whole nine yards on the beach." Out the door I go, cruise down the southern shoreline of Lake Muskegon and onto the sand flats and to the right, circling into the parking lot of the Beach Street Inn. I see the commotion on the beach and walk the hundred yards down to it, mute, forlorn dozens milling about, rescue workers huddled, speaking in hushed, somber tones.
"What happened?" I ask someone.
"A sixteen-year-old boy drowned."
I stared closer at the firemen and EMT's, and saw the yellow body bag lying on the ground before them. I arrived just in time to see them place the bag on a stretcher, then hoist it onto a golf cart and drive slowly back through the crowd toward the waiting, silent ambulance, an EMT walking alongside, his hand holding the leg of the dead boy through the bag. The man is crying. It is a stunning sight, a scene ostensibly lovely and warm, the lighthouse a short distance into the lake, the long, rock levy that guides ships into Lake Muskegon lapped with Lake Michigan's rising, swelling waves. Markers are posted warning of dangerous water. I walk back to the Beach Street Inn, and though I was not going to drink a beer this evening, I sit down on the deck and order a Bass Ale. It seems so incongruous, the dunes and levy before me, the seagulls arcing above, how such a terrible tragedy can occur so quickly, so mercilessly, so finally to a mere sixteen-year-old kid. I think of him the moments before entering the water, laughing and splashing with his friends, enjoying the remaining summer before returning to school. My waiter, a twenty-year-old black girl named Allison, delivers my beer.
"What happened?" I asked her.
"Second one in two weeks," she responded. "People don't realize there's an undertow here, even though it's only a lake. It's very, very dangerous..." I sit and ponder the scene, the tragedy. As the father of three girls I can only imagine the devastation a nearby family endures this very moment. The beer tastes good, and I order another. I notice a different tape playing on the small speaker over the deck, not my Buffett tape. When Allison returns with my beer I ask if she's tired of hearing Jimmy Buffett.
"Oh," she exclaims, rolling her eyes, "I'm soooo sick of it!"
I smile, and do not request the old Jimmy Buffett tape. The girl is not of my generation. Allison sits with me and we talk of her college plans, of racism in her parent's home state of Arkansas, and she points out her boyfriend, sitting nearby. When she walks away I watch her, and wonder of that hazy, undefined time in aging men's lives when young women cease to consider them as 'threats,' but more as mentors. I sit back, resume my thoughts on the sand, the lake, and a sixteen-year-old boy. The deck is lively; small groups wandering in off the beach, sitting down, laughing and drinking. I begin humming my own music, my new music.
'...we all have so little time...'