Chapter 3

The Road Not Taken

It was only a four-minute ride south along Bayshore Drive to my doorstep, the Dinner Key Marina, where I did the usual: I locked up my bike, unlocked my little dinghy and rowed out past the spoil islands to the "Price is Right Anchorage," where the Diogenes was faithfully riding on anchor. The Diogenes is the Choi Lee ketch I rescued five years ago. At $10,500 for 38 feet, my seagoing apartment compares favorably with a studio condominium apartment. The maintenance costs are lower.

     And the pool is bigger. Half an hour of swimming the Australian crawl around the boat does wonders for the circulation and appetite. My neighbors are a mixed bag, but so are Westley’s. The 20 minutes of rowing out is a bit inconvenient, especially in stormy weather, but I don’t have to wait at a gatehouse or in elevators.

     The breeze off the bay was comfortable and mosquito-free. I deactivated the alarm, opened the cabin, tossed some cushions into the open cockpit to the stern, plugged in my reading light and settled down to browse the glossy brochure Dr. Westley had given me.

     The front cover proclaimed its purpose in bold letters and pastel colors, reminiscent of a once popular Miami television cop show. The background was a colorful Miami sunset with palms. The second page displayed a large photograph of the deceased Dr. Cooper: Big head, rather gross features and a businesslike but not unattractive smile. The photo inspired neither great sympathy nor antipathy.

     Under Dr. Cooper’s photo they made their pitch: "Pharmacology is a crossroads discipline forming a junction between biochemistry, physiology, chemistry and molecular biology." It described how pharmacologists (not to be confused with pharmacists) study drug interactions with living cells and tissues. It described career patterns in universities, government and industry.

     The following 13 pages described the faculty and their research interests. Each page displayed an action photo of a prof, a description of his or her educational background, research specialization and citations of two publications. They used state-of-the-art techniques to study drugs, proteins, nerves, heart, muscle and blood. Their ages ranged from about 30 to around 60.

     I recognized the name of one of them: Donald Fleischman. Yes, he was the Donald Fleischman who discovered the sodium-potassium ion pump in nerve membranes. Back in biology at Swarthmore they had assigned us a Scientific American article written by him.

     As the sky darkened, the brochure under the small focussed light became the center of my universe. I flipped pages, thinking about the prospect of graduate study. How would I feel about taking up Westley’s proposition and going back to school? My watch said ten o’clock. I switched off the light and waited a few seconds for my eyes to dark-adapt. The gentle offshore breeze pointed the stern of the boat toward shore. High tide had been at seven o’clock. A one-half knot, outgoing tide was gently struggling against a 10-knot incoming breeze, causing the boat to drift from side to side, shifting about 90 degrees like a pendulum with two-minute swings.

     How many nights had I spent gazing out over the stern, sailing on anchor, just as now? At the northern extreme of the swing was Westley’s Faire Isle condominium complex. On the southern extreme of the swing, glowed the halo of the tourist drag in the "Coconut Grove Business District." Between the two extremes rose a peculiar office building with 20 stories of receding terraces, planted with shrubs and trees. It looked like the ruin of a Mayan temple.

     Between the Australian pine-inhabited spoil islands, I had a broken view of the cavernous Pan Am seaplane hangers, used now by the Merrill Stevens boat-repair facility. Next door was the two-story art deco terminal building for the old amphibious Pan Am "Havana Clipper." The terminal now serves as the Miami City Hall. Yes, in this location I had it all: high rise luxury, hip counterculture, tourist center and remnants of a bygone era — Eddie Rickenbacker, Howard Hughes. It brought to mind that corny old song, "I’ve flown around the world in a plane . . . but I can’t get started with you."

     That’s what the Old Man had been trying to tell me: I couldn’t get started with my life. I could charm a gas-chromatograph/mass spectrometer like Bill Haast could charm his king cobra. But I had no real career. Maybe Good Doctor Westley had secretly diagnosed my malady: the soul of a teenager, in the mind of a cynical 40-year old, in the body of a 28-year-old man. Maybe the glossy brochure was the Good Doctor’s prescription for getting my life organized.

     Solving a murder in my spare time wasn’t so bad. My Mensa friends were always bragging about their far-out hobbies. But what would happen to my plans to sail around the world? I was putting that off until I found the perfect girl. And why hadn’t I found my longed-for perfect girl? Well, the Diogenes and I had certainly hosted enough girls over the years — artsy girls from Coconut Grove, intellectual girls from Mensa and some nice ones from Little Havana, too. I’d even dated a fashion model from South Miami Beach, renting a car for a couple of months to keep up with her. I often rented wheels when things got hot and heavy. But the bottom line was always zero. Years of searching and trying, yet never once a spiritually viable relationship that could endure. Maybe I should have been looking in graduate school.

     Wavelets lapped against the Diogenes and the music from the rock cafés became louder with each port-side swing of my vessel. Earning a Ph.D. couldn’t be any harder than restoring this boat that I bought as a sinking 38-foot hulk. I’d rescued it, stopping leaks, pumping two feet of water from the bilge, and washing off 40 pounds of pelican droppings. And I rehabilitated it, patching broken fiberglass, replacing cables and fittings, resetting the two masts, and rebuilding the diesel engine. And I restored its original beauty, lovingly scraping away layers of rot from the teak deck planking and repainting the fiberglass hull. And I rechristened it the Diogenes.

     If I could restore this boat, I could earn a Ph.D. In fact, that was probably Dr. Westley’s half-spoken message in his sarcastic mention of "that vessel" and "that odd-ball society." I couldn’t have impressed him with my Miami history and photography project, even if I had put it together as a book. He would classify it as adolescent escapism, like my wearing jeans and commuting on bicycle.

     "Double or nothing." That was Dr. Westley’s rude challenge. Get a Ph.D. and pull yourself to the level of Dr. Burk or slide to a level below Mr. Jake Brown. Stand up and be a man. Brilliant analysis, Dr. Westley. Thanks for the "tough love."

     I hadn’t actually thought of the M.E. job being permanent when I first hired on. And during my senior year at Swarthmore, I’d been thinking about graduate school. I had even taken the Graduate Record Examination. Had I fallen into a spiritual stupor during these six years?

     I went below, lay down in my berth, and clicked on the mini-fan. The wavelets rocked me to that state of dreamy sleep where I received answers to my questions.

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