Havelock Series Part 2: Steam Shack! Baby, Steam Shack!

I found Emerald Isle, North Carolina to be one of the most surprisingly beautiful places in the United States. It’s white sand, ever caressed by the undulating green waves of the Atlantic was breathtaking. Looking out from my room’s balcony as I drank my morning coffee, my anxieties drifted away with the tide and joined the seemingly endless emerald ocean.

“Is everybody ready?” Denise called from upstairs. My short respite was gone and I was brought back to reality.

That reality was that North Carolina had once again become my home away from home. I was working again as a choreographer and dancer with Coastal Arts Project and had somehow managed to convince my close friend, Denise, to join me. The remaining cast of characters included Beth and Jessie, who were always a part of our performances and three other dancers named Carlos, Wilson and Kim-Chi. We were scheduled to be working together for close to month and by this point over a week had already gone by. As I resigned myself to another long day, I stepped back inside my bedroom and continued upstairs to join the rest of the group.

“Yeah,” I answered Denise when I arrived at the top of the third floor landing, which opened into the living area. “I’m ready. Where are the others? We gotta get going.”

Before Denise could answer, our other housemates came into the room from the stairwell.

It was very much like the reality show, “The Real World.” There were five of us- Wilson, Kim-Chi, Carlos, Denise and myself- all sharing a beach house for the duration of our stay in the lovely beach town of Emerald Isle. Both Denise and I knew Carlos from high school and I’d met Wilson a few times through mutual friends; Kim-Chi was the only complete stranger. Regardless of my familiarity or lack thereof with my housemates,we all seemed to settle into an acceptable, if not comfortable, rhythm. En masse, we were a united Colors of Benetton ad featuring two Asians, a black guy, a white woman and a guy that’s bi-racial. Once the cameras were gone, it proved to be slightly more difficult to keep the harmony going.

“Alright, let’s go,” Denise said with not a small note of irritation and we shuffled down the two flights of stairs to the cars.

The absolute contentment we all felt about living in a beach house was matched by the utter contempt we had for our daily commute to the theater for rehearsals. Every morning at six-thirty, we left the idyllic Emerald Isle for an hour and a half drive to Vanceboro, North Carolina; the land modernity forgot. This exhaustive trek, however, did give us plenty of time to really become comfortable with each other and bond as a group…well, everyone except Carlos and me who seemed to hate one another every other day. I was mulling over the ridiculous commute in my head from the front passenger’s seat when Kim-Chi announced the approach of our “almost there” landmark.

“There it is,” Kim-Chi said, obviously not quite awake yet.

It was a quintessential Hansel & Gretel styled gingerbread house- well, gingerbread shack. It sat at the front of a piece of land with a larger, less candy-cane trimmed house about forty feet back. I assumed it was used as a playhouse for children, but as such, I found it strange that its location was chosen to be under ten feet from road. It’s as if the parents of these unfortunate children were exhibiting a cruel form of passive-aggressive behavior.

“I told her to go play close to the street, not in it” the mother would tell the news reporter, between sobs, after an unfortunate event involving her child and a speeding car.

I liked to imagine what that mother would look like and my thoughts would invariably stray until I concluded that she wasn’t the children’s mother at all, but the evil witch who’s lured them to her home of gingerbread and candy-canes. Hooked nosed and snaggle-toothed, she’d devour the children right before her hair appointment to get her mullet trimmed…it was a rural area, after all.

Ten hours later, we were passing the little gingerbread house again on our way back to Emerald Isle after a long day of rehearsals. This time, however, we were all filled with anticipation rather than contempt because we would have the next two days off. We stopped by the grocery store for provisions once we made it to the little island and headed off down the winding road that lead to our subdivision: Windmaker.

All of the island’s beachfront subdivisions had nautical names and fittingly, many of the vacation homes of New England snow-birds within those subdivisions bore bright, tropical paint schemes and little signs denoting it as The Shells’ Clam or Pirate Booty. Our little house was peach and nameless, but it seemed to fit us because of that reason rather than in spite of it. As we approached our nameless abode in the sea of cliches, Denise slowed the car and eventually came to a stop. She was looking past me out of the passenger-side window.

“Look!” she exclaimed with wonder as she rolled down my window from her driver’s side console.

Three deer came lumbering from behind a house, followed by a small fawn. They all seemed at ease with our stopped car as they rambled through the well-manicured brush in search of food. It was a beautiful sight and for an instant, my breath caught at the scene before me.

“They’re so cute,” Kim-Chi and I both exclaimed as she lowered the back window to get a better look.

At that point a shrill scream erupted from the backseat. Denise and I both turned towards the sound and immediately began laughing at what was unfolding before our eyes.

Wilson, with one leg on the seat, was attempting to-walk, climb, run- as far away from the innocent deer as he could muster. The car’s back seat and its occupants definitely impeded his plans but he was giving it the old college try.

“They’re going to eat us!” he screamed in real horror. “Get us away! Away!”

To you, Reader, being of sound-or sound enough- mind, Wilson’s reaction will seem totally absurd. The thing about Wilson, however, is that he’s a city-boy through and through. Being of full-Chinese heritage (with half of his parental unit being Filipino, by the way) he’d grown up in complete urbanity. Having attended boarding school in England, he learned to speak English by watching The Golden Girls. He shared this little tidbit of information with Denise and I one night the tree of us piled into my king-sized bed to watch reruns of what many call the original Sex & The City.

“What is it with gay men and The Golden Girls?” Denise asked in slightly mocked exasperation. “I don’t know one gay man who isn’t in love with it!”

Since Wilson’s grasp of the English language had a lot to do with Rue McClanahan, Wilson’s personality has the sexual suggestiveness and unapologetic vanity of Blanche Devereaux crammed within his slight, 5’6” tall Asian frame. That said, his reaction to the deer didn’t seem at all out of charcacter.

Ending Wilson’s hysteria, Denise put the car into drive and quickly finished the short trip to our beachfront house. We were still laughing while he tried to explain the vicious nature of wild animals as we all ascended the stairs to prepare dinner. We were going to watch my favorite movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I’d been in love with it since I was about four years old (yes,4!) and knew every step and song as if it were my own creation. As a kid, I liked to perform all of the musical nembers and that nigt proved to be no exception.

Despite having the day off, Denise and I awoke early one Saturday morning and left our housemates still asleep. By this point, we were both fed up. Carlos and I had finally had the end-all argument for the duration of a Vanceboro commute and he vacated the beach house to move in with Beth. The perpetually accident-prone Kim-Chi had not only broken the refrigerator door handle but also managed to snap Denise’s phone in half, ruin a bathrobe she borrowed from me and break the chlorine tablet-holder for the hot tub. Not feeling up to spending our day with her, we reluctantly left Wilson behind and headed to Jacksonville, NC (a mere thirty-minute’s drive) for the day.

We had an uneventful, but relaxing day. We stopped by the T-Mobile store to see what could be done with the mangled remnants of Denise’s phone, stopped by the bank and had lunch at Ruby Tuesday. It was late afternoon by the time we were headed back to Emerald Isle to rescue Wilson. As we passed the sprawling expanse of the Camp Lejeune military base, George Michael’s Careless Whisper began to play from the playlist I created on Denise’s Zune over two weeks earlier. I turned up the volume and we both settled back to enjoy the great 80′s ballad with the windows down and sunroof open. As if connected by some unspoken force, we both began to perform our best impressions of a sitting stripper as the instrumental saxophone belted out its sultry melody.

Our trance was broken, however, when we noticed a car directly next to us whose driver was stealing glances and laughing with gusto. I waved and smiled at the driver as he accelerated forward and out of our sight-line. As if on cue, the next song that wafted through the speakers was Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush. Decreasing our physicality somewhat, we focused on our falsetto vocals needed to imitate the strange, almost childlike voice of the artist. We never got an audience for our impromptu encore, though. If someone had pulled up next to us, I imagine they only heard something not dissimilar to cats in labor and probably assumed we had escaped from a mental hospital and were on the run.

Wilson forgave us for our abandonment once we arrived back to the three-story peach house on the beach and the three of us quickly made plans for the evening, which was only a couple of hours away, as the sun was already setting against the darkening sky and green water, sending jagged and beautiful streaks of emerald, heliotrope and tangerine across their surfaces.

We drove around the seemingly abandoned beach town, in search of a restaurant or bar. It was January and it was winter, so many of the businesses were closed for the off-season. We eventually made our way back to a little establishment we’d passed many times as we drove on and off the island. From the outside, it resembled a group of single-wide trailers nested together into a loose rectangular formation. The sides and roof were made of corrugated aluminum and the “front” bore a wide sign that read The Steam Shack. Having little to no other options available to us, we decided to give the Steam Shack a try. After all, how bad could it be? Upon entering the Steam Shack, unfortunately, we were tempted to turn around and leave.

Many television and film writers use the clichéd, music-stopping scratch scene when trying to convey a character as being…different from the environment they are entering. This never happens in real life; well, almost never, because Denise, Wilson and I experienced it after stepping through the threshold of the front door.

It was definitely a bar and was comprised of two main areas: the bar area with a few small tables and bar-stools and the “other” area with two pool tables and a long, bar-height shelf on which to place your drinks while making your shot. Being the eternal optimist, Denise convinced us stay for a drink.

“Where else are we gonna go?” asked. “We might as well give it a shot.”

Knowing she was right, Wilson and I agreed and we all made our way towards the bar. Our progress was halted by the bartendress, a portly blonde woman of advanced years, who had left her post and approached us with a kind smile.

“Hi y’all! Welcome to the steam shack!” she beamed as us in a cheery, southern drawl I refer to as North Carolinac.

The term North Carolinac as the name of a dialect isn’t meant to be derogatory by any means. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I can’t say that I am a linguist, but I have enough characteristics to play one on television. I’ve always payed close attention to these regional differences in the people I meet. Not only is it interesting to me, but also gives me vital information about the area or my immediate surroundings.

In Marylandese, any vowel followed by the letter “r” creates the “-errr” sound and minimizes everything else but the last sound in that syllable. For example, a housewife speaking Marylandese would say, “I’ll errn your clothes,” rather than, “I’ll iron your clothes.” This lets me know not only that my shirt will be pressed, but also that there will probably be a clambake later that afternoon. In Alabamax, I simply have to fill their mouth with chocolate pudding in order to mimic the sloppy, muffled sounding dialect. This lets me know that firstly, my teeth will be brown for the duration of my stay and more importantly, a shotgun and noose could be used on me at any point.

I remember vaguely catching a drawled and accented comment about the bartrendress’s name being Betty, or something similar, as she ushered Denise, Wilson and me towards a folding table in the crossroads of the bar’s two areas.

“Y’all help yourself to some food and come ‘n see me at the bar, now,” Betty said gingerly as she did her best Vanna White impression, drawing our eyes to the folding table before us.

Upon the table were a couple of half-empty pizza boxes, barbequed chicken wings and a bowl of salad. It wasn’t the best buffet I’d ever seen, but it was nice to be offered it.

It was at that point I realized that maybe the cliché entrance that stopped us in our tracks wasn’t so much to do with the bar’s local patrons not being welcoming, but more to do with the surprise of seeing non-locals in the off-season. This place was a beach town, after all and thrived on tourism. Betty’s welcome, combined with polite nods from random strangers as they shifted their stools to allow us a place to stand at the bar, made me feel that I’d been too hasty in my assumptions. Is it really important that if in Betty’s North Carolinac dialect the words “shack” and “bike” rhymed? I was beginning to not think so.

After ordering our drinks- vodka and various mixers all around- Denise and I decided to play a little pool while Wilson sat at the wall shelf on a bar-stool. Before our game ended, we were approached by to men who asked to play doubles with us for the next game.

“Sure,” Denise replied. “But I think we’ll get another round before.”

At this point, we were finishing our third round and were preparing for our fourth. It was understood that we’d alternate buying a round for the three of us, but with each visit to the bar, Betty gave us an increasingly lower total until our bill became nonexistent.

“Well, that’s nice of her,” I thought as I made my way back to the pool tables with our drinks.

The two men we were playing pool with ended up being very friendly and fun guys, despite their overt attempts at flirting with Denise. She eventually told them she was married after it became too much and they laid off of their attempts-mostly. As our second doubles game wound to a close, I happened to notice Wilson at the wall shelf.

It is common knowledge among drinkers that Asians lack the enzyme in their bodies that metabolizes alcohol properly. This isn’t to say that they can’t have a drink, they just can’t drink more than a couple drinks, in general. Wilson was at his threshold and we decided it was time to grab a bite to eat.

We left the Steam Shack, our last drink having been some time earlier and headed to…The Steam Shack; another Steam Shack just a few minutes away that was evidently a restaurant. It was another irregularly-shaped establishment but was made of concrete with a beige stucco exterior. We parked the car and rushed towards the door, hoping that we’d made it before the kitchen had closed.

Once we entered, our hostess informed us that they were technically closing in less than fifteen minutes, but that the kitchen would take our orders, as long as they were on the simple side. Being grateful and in real need of food, we followed the hostess to a small table by a window and sat down. The hostess passed out menus and stated that our server would be with us shortly.

To our other side, the servers were all sitting at a table talking as they folded napkins. Upon seeing us, one of them, a male, stood and approached our table.

“Hey guys, are you ready to order or can I start you off with a drink?” he asked.

“We’re ready to order, I think,” I said, not wanting to keep the staff there any longer than was absolutely necessary.

After taking our orders, our waiter left the table and Wilson immediately leaned forward.

“I think he’s gay,” he said in a yell of a whisper.

“Wilson!” Denise said. “Leave the poor guy alone.” her comment may have been heeded if she hadn’t been laughing as she said it.

After our meals came, we all tucked in and worked on them ferociously. Although I was quite famished, I still considered Wilson’s choice on oysters on ice a little brave, even in this beach town.

“It’s an aphrodisiac,” he said just before slurping another one from it’s barnacled shell. “I love them.”

Just ten, our waiter passed by our table and Wilson did his best “Come get me” look as he caressed his neck. The waiter blushed and joined his laughing coworkers at their napkin-folding table.

“Stop it!” I said as I slapped Wilson on the arm.
“What? I’m just flirting,” he replied, “with the hot guy!” The second half of his statement was definitely many decibels louder than its predecessor.

“Okay, finish eating so we can get him out of here!” Denise said with a smile.

We eventually managed to get Wilson to the front door after a big show of slapping his butt in between scandalous comments, much to the serving staff’s enjoyment. As we approached the car, Wilson beat me to the call.

“Chinks in the front!” he said as he stepped towards the front, seat.

During our time together, we invented a new way of “calling shotgun.” If you were Asian, you simply said, “Chinks in the front!” If you weren’t Asian, you simply said, “Chinks in the back.” The racial epithet could also be interchanged with “round-eyes” or “darkie” in our little trio. Add in Kim-Chi and Carlos and we truly became the Rainbow Coalition.

Before our stay in Emerald Isle came to a close, Denise, Wilson and I took an afternoon walk on the beach, collecting seashells and leaving Kim-Chi to her own devices. It had been a rough few weeks, with the fight between Carlos and Kim-Chi’s destruction spree, but the three of us, somehow, didn’t manage to completely alienate each other. It was chilly that afternoon and a light mist blew in from the ocean. As we walked back to our peach and nameless house, we lingered to read the names of the other houses along the way and admire their architecture. We didn’t speak much, but we didn’t seem to need to. Everything we had to say was understood in a simple look or sideways glance.

That night, we decided to eat leftovers and I went for the Chinese food. We’d gotten it as take out and I felt the need to consume every last bit of it since it had taken so much to get it. Wilson, being utterly unimpressed with the take-out joint’s workers, spilled out a barrage of profanities in rapid-fire Chinese at the openly-visible kitchen.

“It doesn’t take this damn long to make,” he told us in-between his rants in Chinese at the frightened workers.

“Well, I got sweet and sour chicken,” I offered, “maybe they had to make me some of the sauce. It’s late.”

“It’s just ketchup and pineapple juice!” Wilson exclaimed. “I can make it for you in two minutes!”

As I warmed my Chinese leftovers, I thought about the Steam Shack bar. I imagined it being the ketchup and the three of us being the pineapple juice when we first entered the front door. We weren’t an expected combination, but with a little bit of an open-mind, we managed to create a deliciously good time.

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