Get set for a good hard luck story. “Hard luck story” was an understatement. By then a number of things compounded our problems: a gibbon, no money, and a telegraph strike back home. It didn’t help that we were in a big city. German which we didn’t know, studying it would later save us.
But the city of Vienna, which was to become our home, had to be taken on foot. We didn’t have enough money to ride the tram; we could’ve easily ended up without a place to stay. Physically, we had to carry our suitcases between places; I would go ahead scouting for something, leaving Peg, gibbon, and our things in a park for hours at a time. There was nothing else we could do, so to speak, after being evicted.
We thought we were set in a hotel room until Peg started a job she had lined up. The contacts she had made in her German class had paid off. There had been more than luck involved in our job search and taking German was where we started. We had not counted on the hotel manger suddenly telling us we had to move because “a tour group had the whole place booked up.” Pleading our case, explaining we were on a tight budget, did no good, so we were forced to take the next cheapest thing available at about $1.20 more per night. The increase was barely acceptable when we were quickly running out of money. The value of the money we had increased accordingly, and I still planned to pay for my German lessons from the money we had left. Then before we could unpack, an employee of our new hotel came up and told us they didn’t allow pets in their “house.” We felt this was unfair. Our problem with it was that they had seen the gibbon when we checked in and moving again would involve another long walk.
The next place was more expensive ($4.80 per night) and an hour’s walk from our German lessons. It really shot our budget. We tried to move again, after a week, back to the cheaper hotel. We checked out, walking all that way with our heavy bags. (“You wouldn’t believe the distances we walk these days. This ain’t no small town!”) We should’ve known. We didn’t see a problem coming: that they had a problem with the gibbon from the get-go. We were desperate and didn’t see it. We were desperate without enough food. We had money back in the states, but we were desperate because we hadn’t counted on there being a damn telegraph strike. With desperation came random folly.
He clearly did things to shock us, since he was supposed to have been our mentor and teacher. Indeed, he brought himself down to our level by doing what he did. He didn’t have to impress us; he was, at the time, someone who had gone to the Philippines before we did. He had had a successful two-year stint there, precisely because he knew how communicate. And he could relax and never worry about what people thought of him. Instead, he went to the opposite extreme. An observer had to hope he would show some restraint and wouldn’t totally destroy decorum. And he didn’t really ever cross that line. He would come close but never actually stick his finger up his nose. Instead, he would place his finger beside his nose and, without saying a word, dare someone to make something of it. It would be his way of humbling poor souls who fell for his act.
Let’s call him Roger. Someone very recognizable in his baseball cap. All show, no! Yes, he knew what he was doing, with convictions that matched, a particular passion for service, and an example of the very best that America had/has to offer. And throughout the Peace Corps, there were/are many like him.
The single-minded purpose of the veteran volunteer had been to teach. Roger would never flinch when faced with something impossible. (I wanted to use the word disgusting.) A science teacher, he was always experimenting, in the same way he tinkered with our minds. In a more subtle manner, he would listen to us and could anticipate our impulses, those when acted on shrinks were watching for. The possibility of being deselected during those early days of Peace Corp training was always hanging over everyone’s head: one bad rating from a peer would do it. Roger knew this better than we did; so it was good to have him around, doing things had we been him that would’ve led to our deselection. How disheartening the long flight home from Hawaii would’ve been.
As a writer, I have known a sense of insecurity: it was to know I would have to do something else to survive. And inside me I held onto the belief that one-day I would be able to earn a living writing, when in the world and throughout history there were those who did that. But I don’t think I believed enough in myself to do it. New media, the development of the Internet for one, offer new opportunities, as well as my belief in practice. Practice at least means improvement, and writing a blog has given me an opportunity to improve. So the prospect of someday earning money from my writing lives on. This, however, is not something that preoccupies me.
Not someone who was focused on making money, I was a man satisfied, as a writer, with improving. As long as there was something meaningful to do or some adventure, I could pursue writing without making money. But writing was as close to being a necessity for me as anything else. An excuse perhaps, but said with sincerity: fulfilling even without the attachment of money.
To understand me, then, you would have to match my imagination with naivete. It is also important to recognize that I have never been afraid to risk everything for an adrenaline high (it’s a good thing that I never took up alcohol or drugs). So when I heard a British acquaintance in the Sulus (he later stayed with us in Manila) say he walked through Khyber Pass not once but twice, I visualized myself walking through it backwards. To later drive through the pass was thrilling. But bicycling through the jungle of Sumatra, with the tigers and the related experience of primitive fear, was my attempt at following my acquaintance’s footsteps (he hiked across Borneo)…though I couldn’t duplicate his adventures (you never can). And, in spite of making very little money from my writing, I have few regrets about how I’ve lived my life. And I’m still writing.
Poets & Writers, Inc.’s Readings/Workshops program offers small grants for literary events in Tucson . Applications are due a minimum of eight weeks in advance, so now is the perfect time to apply for spring events. Organizations must apply for the grants on behalf of the writer(s) they are hosting. However, many writers initiate events and the application process. Guidelines and application forms can be downloaded from our website at www.pw.org/funding.