Once Upon A Time

rose

I had a brief conversation with a gentleman on the subway stairs this morning. I was walking down to the lower level platform where the D, N and R trains stop. He was walking up to the 9th Avenue Bridge platform where the F and G trains stop. He wanted to know what train I had just gotten off of; the one he had just missed.

“G?”

“Yeah, G.”

I guess I could have just said “G” and been done with it but I must have been feeling chatty. I had the same question for him.

“R?”

“No, D.”

I could tell things were really warming up between us. But the fact is, I knew the relationship had no future. We were simply heading in different directions.

If you are not from here you may think that this was an exchange between two people, in a city of millions, who will never see each other again. But that isn’t really the case. Traveling very early in the morning, well before dawn, catching the same train every day, you do tend to see the same faces. Actually you rarely notice the faces but you know these are the same people, day to day.

Down on the platform I take a seat on a bench. Same seat, same bench, every day. I sit on that bench for about five minutes before the R train comes and during that time, most mornings, a not unattractive middle aged Hispanic woman walks by. She’s heading to the other end of the platform because that’s where her stairway will be when she exits the train at her stop. It’s a subway thing and if you don’t live in a city with a subway it may not have occurred to you but there you have it.

I don’t know the Hispanic woman’s name and I never will but she always smiles at me and silently mouths, “Good Morning.” I smile and nod back. It’s our little ritual. We’ve been doing it for about 3 years; maybe 4.

One time, on the ride home in the afternoon, I realized I was standing right next to her. We were sharing a pole; the train was crowded. The situation fairly demanded an acknowledgement. It was awkward but ignoring people on the subway is a skill learned early and practiced often.

I thought for a moment that I might say, “So, how was your day?” but we haven’t been formally introduced. In the subway, as in the supermarket, formal introductions are not strictly de rigueur but still, one has to properly read the situation. There are some people who will just break the ice and say “Hello.” Sometimes I’m that person; sometimes not.

But the fact is, I don’t know this lady and I don’t want to know this lady. I’m sure she’s perfectly nice, she’s got a pleasing little something going on in her walk and I know she likes to smile. But I don’t care what’s going on in her life and I don’t want to pretend to care what’s going on in her life. We already have a fully formed relationship. Perfect as a glass marble. Why ruin it with an introduction?

The R train comes; the doors open; I step in. It is the last car on the train; third door from the rear. When I exit I will be at the stairway that takes me to the escalator that puts me in front of the Staten Island Ferry. I sit in the seat by the door that has just been vacated by an overweight Hispanic man. Same as every day.

Across from me is a man who wears pre-washed jeans, a wine colored shirt and work boots that have never seen a day of what I would call work. If it’s cold out he will be wearing a jean jacket that matches his pants. A few stops later a tall woman will get on and she will sit with him and hold his hand. They don’t talk but they are contented in each others company. She is taller than he is and unattractively built but he adores her. He’s a little simple. She likes it that way. She wears a mix of blacks and grays. The colors of their outfits never vary. Season to season the clothes change but not the color scheme. I would guess they shop at Sears.

We will get off at the same stop, Whitehall Street. She will get on the escalator first. He will be one step back and therefore one step down, accentuating their difference in height. He will drum his fingers a few times on her lower back. Every single day. They are creatures of habit, as are we all. We are all headed to Lower Manhattan and I assume they work in the same building; a corporate cafeteria I’m thinking. They are both in their middle fifties. I think they probably met later in life; perhaps each is living with and caring for an elderly parent. It’s just a story I tell myself but it fits the evidence, scanty as it is. They recognize me because all of us that exit together recognize each other. I don’t know why they aren’t coming from the same place. I could easily ask them, but why? My explanation is as meaningful as theirs because I don’t have a pony in their race. And while truth is often stranger than fiction, sure knowledge lacks mystery.

And mystery is the dark matter that propels it all.

I used to have this girlfriend. We were in college together in New Hampshire. Back then, she was the love of my life because she was my first love. Her name was Carole and she was excellent in every way and through the good fortune of youth and my own inadequacies I was spared a life with her. We lived in a divided up old Victorian with 16 bedrooms. One person per room, except at night when a room might be empty and another room might have double occupancy. I’m still friend’s with one of our housemates, Dave. I think it’s my friendship with Dave that reminds me of Carole.

After I left college, Carole and I drifted without direction; further apart and further away until the distance was just too great to bother with. I was 19 and working in a factory. I quit and went traveling around the country. I did that a lot in my youth. I would just get in the car and go. My car or someone else’s, it didn’t matter. Backpack, sleeping bag, camp-stove. Sleep in state parks, bath in town pools, see my country, keep an eye out for local pies.

Heading east, I woke up one morning in a town park on the outskirts of Kansas City, Kansas. I was making my way towards Philadelphia to begin art school; my wanderings having run out of time. I sat over my camp-stove, boiling water for hot chocolate and instant oatmeal, studying the map and considering my options; fast and boring interstates or slow and interesting back roads? It was a Saturday morning. I needed to be in school first thing Tuesday. I only had 3 days but my search for the best route kept pulling me north.

I think detours begin somewhere in the chest. The heart, the lungs, the throat. That’s where you feel detours developing. Then up into the brain for calculating purposes; back down into the chest; double check with the brain. Decide.

Fueled only by beer, sandwiches and desire I drove straight through to Durham, New Hampshire; about 1500 miles. It took something like 28 hours but I wanted to see Carole. I missed her. I stayed for a day and then I left for school. I never saw her again  but I never forgot her either.

Years later, I moved to New York City and eventually, through Dave, I found out that Carole had also moved to New York. Carole is a redhead and every now and then, when I would see a redhead, I would think of her and look for her face in the crowd. I found her name in the phone book and it felt strange. Something we’d started had, to my mind, never been properly completed.

I had always wondered what ever happened to her. I don’t know why but isn’t that always the case? Don’t we always wonder what ever happened to the people who inspired so much emotion? Especially those relationships that  have no clear ending.

More years passed but eventually we did meet up though I don’t recall how that happened. I credit Dave but he calls it blame and doesn’t want any part of it. Carole and I met at a bar and she told me about herself. She asked if I was seeing anyone and I said that I was seeing Heather. She asked if I thought I would marry Heather and I said yes, I thought I probably would. That was only slightly dishonest because, although we were not yet engaged, I have always known that, given the chance, I would marry Heather. I would marry her yesterday; I would marry her tomorrow.

At length, I realized that Carole and I shared nothing in common but our history.

I want to say that this meeting with Carole satisfied the question of what ever happened to her, but in a way it really didn’t. I realized that the reason I hadn’t known, was the very reason that we hadn’t stayed together. I simply hadn’t cared enough and neither had she. The question of what had become of her was so much more interesting than any possible answer that it ended my curiosity about pretty much everyone I ever lost touch with. In a way it was a gift because it freed me to move forward without regret or regard for the past.

In retrospect, I guess the real question wasn’t, What ever happened to her? The real question was, What ever happened to us? but the same answers apply. People like to assign blame for this sort of thing but assigning blame is a pointless exercise. It didn’t work out. That’s all. We were simply heading in different directions.

These days I only think of Carole when I see Dave and only by force of habit. It’s the dried flower of memory. The softness is gone. The scent, with all its associations is gone. Its fertility and promise are gone. But still, it is a flower, worthy of a moments recognition; a reminder that once upon a time, something innocent held an impossible mystery.

 

Duct Tape

 mousey

A man, A mouse, A dog, A house

 

About a week ago I saw a mouse in the kitchen. Actually, the dog and I both saw it. The mouse ran out from under the stove, zipped across the floor and under the dish washer. The dog looked up from her food dish and tracked the intruder with her eyes. Then she looked up at me to confirm that we had seen something. Satisfied with whatever she saw in my face she put her head back down in her bowl.

 

I got out a bunch of glue traps and figured I’d have it all wrapped up by morning. Morning came; nothing. And the next and the next. Ok, so these critters come in from the garden now and then; it’s been another unusually warm winter so maybe it slipped back under the door and returned to the wilds of Brooklyn. Having mentally set the mouse outside for the moment, I am left to wonder: How long do we call something unusual that seems to happen every year?

 

Days pass and last night my little guy and I are in the living room, sitting on the couch, working on his math homework. He takes a break to get a snack which is something he does about every twenty minutes, pretty much ’round the clock. He returns from the kitchen and says:

 

“Dad, there’s a lizard in the kitchen.”

 

My little guy is kind of known for attaching the wrong word to things but I suppose it is in the realm of possibility that someone’s lizard has wandered in. Still, it seems like an unlikely coincidence. I ask him where he saw it, just to confirm what I already know.

 

“It’s right under the thing with the numbers.”

 

There is only one thing with numbers in the kitchen and it’s the stove clock. Uh oh! That doesn’t confirm what I know. I’m still thinking floor. I can feel the paradigm shifting; it’s making me a little bit queasy. The laissez-faire approach isn’t going to work. I’m going to have to kill something.

 

“There’s a lizard in the kitchen? Is it possible he saw a lizard?”

 

Oop, it’s The Wife. Her paradigm is shifting all over the place.

 

This needs to be handled gingerly. She hates rodents of any kind. She also hates lizards. And amphibians. She’s not altogether too fond of birds either. Or fish. Insects, of course. Come to think of it, she’s shown a diminishing interest in children and the vast majority of adults too. She likes me and the dog. The dog and I are about on an even footing; we are locked in a battle for her affection. If I’m the bearer of bad news the wife is gonna freak and the dog is gonna rule, at least for a minute. Thankfully I can pretty much count on the dog to soil the rug at regular intervals but let’s face it, this is also a test of my manliness. And while ordinarily I am an excellent test taker, manliness may not be my strongest subject. Forced to choose sides along the hunter-gatherer divide, I would much rather gather. You don’t even need to force me; I like it better there. It’s like treasure hunting for snacks. Sure I could hunt for my meat if I had to but the fact is, I prefer to do my hunting with a fork. At Peter Luger’s or Spark’s; Smith & Wollensky or The Capital Grille; Five Guys Burgers & Fries or even a nice, store bought pemmican. The only thing I’m really able to kill with any efficiency is time. But that’s not gonna put Chateaubriand on the table or rid me of Stuart Little here.

 

I’m a product of urban civilization; highly evolved with a specialized skill-set but subject to bouts of the heebie-jeebies. Now it’s time to bring that skill-set to bear on this mouse. My specialty is heavy construction and I’m not sure how cranes, gas powered tools and concrete are going to help me sort this out but I feel certain they will.

 

“Okay pal, show me where you saw the lizard.”

 

Off to the kitchen and …… look at that; there’s a mouse on the stove top. We make eye contact and he’s into the heat vent for the oven, directly below the clock. Oh, this is gonna be a snap. Out with the glue traps again, I surround the vents and fire up the oven. In a few minutes the heat will drive the mouse out of the vents onto the traps and voila, mouse on the half shell. Until then I get back to parsing word problems with my young Einstein.

 

Okay, so let’s see:

 

Sheena needs to bake 55 cookies for her sleepover. She has already baked 21 cookies.

How long before Sheena realizes that cookies are loaded with refined sugar

and saturated fats and that diabetes is epidemic in her demographic?

 

It’s the new, New Math. I’m just here for moral support.

 

I return to the kitchen a little while later to collect my prey and there he is scampering across the counter seeking cover behind the fruit bowl. How is that possible? Really, it isn’t. It’s Inconceivable! He was completely surrounded by space age adhesive. I don’t have time to figure it out. He’s cornered and cowering and therefore at his most dangerous. His lightening speed, his barely discernible claws and somewhat bucked teeth are nothing to mess around with. I know! I saw that first Alien movie. Ferocious things come in small packages that come blasting out of your chest cavity. He’s capable of anything and I need to carefully guard my internal organs and major arteries as well as be ready for a screaming retreat if he turns and attacks.

 

And that’s the problem. What I want to do is stand up on a chair and shriek like a little girl. Mice give me the willies. I think it’s the hairless tail. But I’m gonna be no ones hero up on that chair. So what I’m gonna do is release the inner predator. Ok, I’ve released the inner predator and he doesn’t want to come out. Mice give him the willies too. I’m gonna have to go in there and drag his sorry predatory ass out and apply a little shame and encouragement. That done, I am now ready for battle. In his corner, a half ounce of mouse. Possibly ferocious. You can never tell, you know? In my corner, 155 pounds of Hebrew National Bologna. Unquestionably loyal. Questionably brave. Ferocious? I guess you never know until you’re cornered but all the evidence points somewhere west of fearsome; closer I think, to squeamish and reckless. You work with what you’ve got.

 

I rearrange the glue traps at the end of the counter, blocking his way back to the stove. I rustle the fruit bowl and he’s off again and…. I don’t believe it! He has somehow made it tiptoeing at high speed (my goodness they’re fast) across the traps on their plastic rims? Is that what I saw? Unbelievable! Inconceivable!

 

He crosses the stove to the counter on the far side and squeezes into the alcove that holds the microwave. I remember when microwaves first came out. If I had one of those beauties, before the shielding was more or less perfected, I could have turned the microwave to high and nuked him like one of those little pink potatoes. Just another drawback of man’s mastery over nature I suppose. 

 

The important thing is, he’s cornered. The problem is I can’t get at him. Once again I surround the area with glue traps but I’m losing confidence. I need to flush him out and force him onto a trap. But if I walk away I know he will somehow make good his escape. Time to call in my helpmate. By now she’s upstairs in bed with the dog warming her feet. I call her cell phone from my cell phone so as not to arouse suspicion or curiosity from the kids. I don’t need them to see either possible outcome. The one where I waste the City Mouse of storybook fame or the one where the helpless little creature kicks my ass.

 

Hi Honey. Are you two cozy up there?

That’s nice.

Could you please bring me

 

The Duct Tape and Some Bleach

 

Oh Yeah!

 

Gonna bring down some Trench Warfare on his furry little ass!

 

In my one hand, I am armed with Duct Tape; the indispensable tool of homeowners, jerry-riggers and paranoid survivalists (is there any other kind?) the world over.

 

In my other hand, household bleach. Sodium Hypochlorite (NaClO) 5.25%, the A-list antimicrobial pesticide and corrosive. Gas Attack! Cruel but effective.

 

I tape the sides of the microwave to the wall, I tape the bottom to the counter, I cover the top. There is a single opening, with a large glue trap in front of it. Pop the top on the bleach, a half cup down behind the microwave and there he is dancing across the glue trap on his extended little claws. He’s on the counter, clear of the trap. He sees me and jets right back the way he came, picking ninja style, like he’s walking on water. Worse yet, like he’s walking on pavement. It’s Inconceivable. If I so much as look at one of those traps it sticks to my elbow.

 

On reflection, these many days later, it occurs to me that this little creature, with its awesome will to survive and its Fred Astaire like dance moves, might have made a fine little pet. But that is today. Last week my course was set. I was determined to follow it through to its hopefully bloodless conclusion.

 

For House & Family!

 

To paraphrase an old saying, if you can’t bring the mouse to the trap, you must bring the trap to the mouse. I seal the entire microwave to the surrounding wall and counter after dumping more bleach. It’s unconditional warfare now. People used to do this to each other so there’s a lot of historical evidence as to its efficaciousness.

 

Ok so that’s a wrap. I wash up and go to bed figuring to dispose of the mortal remains before I go to work and before anyone gets up tomorrow morning.

 

~O~

 

Rise and shine and let’s go see the carnage. Pull the tape, slowly pull the microwave out of its niche; it’s creepy, you know. Dead things are creepy. And mice give me the willies. I am facing down a case of the creeping willies here.

 

What is this? No mouse? Just an empty bag of Gummi-bears? You know, I was wondering where those got off to. So this is where the kids hide the evidence. Only the evidence isn’t so empty. Theres a live tail sticking out. It’s Inconceivable!

 

Thats it! I’ve had enough! I cover the bag with a bleach soaked dish cloth and an oven mitt to prevent escape and I start punching. This is maddening! It’s an outrage! I’m all juiced up with disgust and regret but the inner predator is out and he’s pissed.

 

I want it to be over but nothing is going to be easy about this one. No tidy package to slip into a bag and forget about. This will be a killing. In cold blood. Blunt force trauma. I’m shooting for the stars. Infinity and beyond.

 

I’d like to tell you it ended there but it didn’t. I went for the broom stick. Like an overhand pool cue I jab at the offending mass with the handle. One mouse in the corner pocket.

 

I read somewhere that mice have no bones. The whole thing is built on cartilage. But nowhere have I read that they have no internal organs. I pull back the dish cloth and I’m detecting life. It’s Inconceivable! I’m beginning to think that word does not mean what I think it means.

 

With my bare hands, I wrap the whole thing up in the bleach soaked dishcloth and pick up where I started off. Duct tape. I wrap the whole thing up like a homemade baseball and I am done. That was brutal. I kicked a rat to death at work not long ago but this was more hand to hand. More intimate.

 

Later, from work, I texted my wife:

 

The Mousey has left the Housey

 

 She wrote back:

 

Thanks!

 

Somehow “Thanks” does not seem like thanks enough. I think I have Post Traumatic Mouse Disorder. I’m still a little amped up.

 

I text her back:

 

It was a mighty battle

 

Her return text:

 

My Hero!

 

Ah, sweet victory!

 

Move over Rover.

The man of the house is coming home. 

Day #2 – Cross Examination

It is apparent from the moment we enter the courtroom that I will be denied my opportunity to correct the unsightly behavior of the Spiky Haired Lawyer with the buttoning compulsion; the one representing the Van’s Passenger. He has, in the overnight hours, come to his senses and decided that any amount settled on out of court is better than going up against The Angry Fat Girl. Given the quality of his client and the exceeding unlikelyhood of her actually having sustained any injuries at all, I have to think that this caused him no loss of sleep whatsoever, except perhaps in those hours when he was busy spending his contingency fee.

 

The Angry Fat Girl must see Out of Court Settlement possibilities dancing before her like so many french fries. She has not changed her outfit, except for her blouse, since yesterday and I have to think this is a bold tactic designed to throw off the other attorneys. I let my eyes settle on her so as to take in the whole picture and I realize that her dress is not black like her jacket but rather a deep blue so very near to black that I wage a small debate with myself about it before giving in to the truth; she’s colorblind. Perhaps not in the medical sense but for all practical purposes. This is borne out by the fact of her blouse. It is a hot turquoise. So is her barrette. And the bauble hanging from her jacket that appears to be in the cephalopod family. Also her notebook. It is told of the great attorney Clarence Darrow that he would insert a wire in his cigar and light it at the beginning of the court session. The ash, thus suspended, would grow ever longer without falling, grabbing all the attention in the room for himself even as others were speaking. I’m not saying this is The Angry Fat Girl’s intent but I am not saying otherwise.

 

The two remaining plaintiffs, the Van Driver and the Young Asian Woman, take the witness stand and say their piece. They are drab and rehearsed.

 

One comes away without anything but a sense that something small has happened in their lives and they have been encouraged to pick at the scab until someone pays them not to pick it anymore. The Young Asian Woman has clearly had some kind of suffering but the extent is impossible to determine. She is not entirely unpleasant in stature or demeanor so I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. She was hurt. It caused a disruption in her life and studies. She was an architecture student at Pratt during this time and since architecture is hot right now I think she’ll come out of this lawsuit with something in her pocket.

 

As I mentioned, this plaintiff was in another accident; a three car pileup only ten days earlier. Does this complicate things at all? Under a withering barrage of objections and against every promise not to do so the Angry Fat Girl pressed this point. She would begin a sentence and continue while an objection was made and on through the objection being sustained until she was complete. She is angry and feels like people don’t hear her. It got to the point where The Judge told her she had to stop talking or they were going to have to take it outside. Which they did. Along with the other lawyers and The Court Reporter.

 

I am somewhat fascinated by The Scrivener and have even found myself not paying attention to the goings on in favor of watching her endlessly flaccid demeanor.        

 

I am sitting in the front row of the jury box, on the third base line, right at third base. I can see her, The Court Reporter, the true object of my interest, from the side. I am at a good enough angle to see her yawn but not enough so as to see her blouse. What color is her blouse? It becomes important because, except for her skin and hair she is a study in grey. I know her blouse is grey. It must be! It would be a failure of mythology if it were anything but grey. An unacceptable fracture in the perfection of her stereotype. I check the cuffs of her knit sweater repeatedly but nothing creeps past them. It dawns on me that she is Irish. Yes, even obviously so. I don’t know how this escaped me but then she is like wine, revealing herself slowly and only to those paying close, no not close, strict, attention. I adjust myself in my chair but really I am trying to get a look at the whole of her over the edge of the jury box. She is wearing dark sensible shoes. Grey capri pants and a grey knit sweater. They are of the same tone. It is implausible that her blouse would not be grey and I am left only to hope that it is the same grey. Lunchtime arrives and we adjourn. She remains at an oblique angle and I am left to hang.

 

Later in the afternoon, as the lawyers are taking a side bar and we are able to take a brief recess The Court Reporter stands and turns her back to me. She is talking to the Court Secretary but it is a torture. She has no idea of my interest of course but it seems that every move is deliberately designed to keep my interest and keep me from final knowledge. Finally, she stretches and turns and there it is. The blouse. It is grey. The same tone as her capri pants and knit sweater and also of her stenography machine. They are all identical. Her hand bag is there. It is grey though slightly darker. Her chair, slightly lighter. She is perfect. Then she speaks and the spell is broken. She sounds exactly like my Aunt Sheila.

 

There is a blue vase sitting next to The Judge. It has dried flowers, robbed of their color, surrounding a red silk rose. There is also a real rose; it’s head bent down poking over the lip. It was cut short and has been dead for days.

 

 

Day #1 – Opening Arguments

Today is the first day of the trial. I am Juror #5. The Judge is a dyed redhead. Under her frock, a silk or nylon leopard print blouse is clearly visible. No wedding band but a huge ring of emerald and gold on her right middle finger. I can only hope it’s costume. It’s as big as a man’s watch, which she also wears. She is in her late fifties and must have been pretty good looking in her youth. I recognize her type as a feather, sprouted from one of the more eccentric wings of my tribe.

The Court Reporter is female. I can tell because of the skirt and fingernails. There are no other indicators. She wears no makeup and no expression on her face. She is as pale as death. As soon as I saw her I thought of Bartleby the Scrivener.

In God We Trust signs, made of engraved brown plastic, are hung outside the courtroom door and over the head of The Judge. The eagle on top of the flagpole behind The Judge has its wing tips jammed up into the acoustic tile ceiling. By the time we get into the courtroom, it has already been decided that The Cab Driver was at fault. All that is left to us, The Jury, is to determine the amount, if any, of compensation for the supposedly injured parties.

Apparently they were able to determine the guilt of the defendant, The Cab Driver, by the fact that he plowed his still accelerating vehicle into a 15 passenger van, sitting at a full stop in traffic, on the Brooklyn Bridge. His cab had to be towed away. The passenger in the back of his cab, a young woman, is claiming lots of pain and suffering based on this accident and not at all on the three car pileup in which she was involved the previous week. I believe her because she’s Asian and they don’t lie about this sort of thing.

The Driver and Passenger of the van are claiming neck and back pain. MRI’s supposedly tell of degenerative conditions in the two of them. There will doubtless be lots of medical testimony. They both work for a city run homeless organization. They have both been under the care of the same Chiropractor for two years. I hope they don’t think they’re going to be getting any money out of this. I hope they’re in it just for the civic pride of lynching an Arab Cabby. This is my hope.

Each of the four upstanding citizens involved in this debacle, the three plaintiffs and the defendant, are represented by different lawyers. In essence, this is three lawsuits being tried simultaneously. The lawyer for the Injured Van Driver is the handsomest and knows it. He looks kind of like JFK Jr. His description of the enormity of the impact and the pain suffered by his client are utterly unconvincing but it isn’t unpleasant to watch him try. The lawyer for the Young Asian Woman is bearded and somewhat limp although he would seem to have the most to work with.

The Van’s Passenger, who’s pain is not an improbable byproduct of her weight and age, has a lawyer with rather scruffy hair. At first I thought he had a slightly punkish thing going on because the hair was a little too studied looking, but after seeing him several times over the last few days I am surprised that this is actually the case. It’s odd to be surprised when you’re right about something but there you have it. He has an annoying habit of buttoning the top two buttons of his suit every single time he stands up. It’s like watching one of those preachers who puts their glasses on for the sole purpose of having a prop to take off when it’s time to make a point, which is just about constantly. I have vowed to myself to tell him my feelings on the matter at the conclusion of the trial. All this is made worse by his chubbiness, which is not pronounced but is exaggerated by his hunched shoulders. His shoulders are not stooped so much as drawn up to minimize the opinion that he may have a neck. He is hopeless and should settle out of court for bus fare.

They all pale before the lawyer for the defendant. She is short, round and angry. We only had the opening arguments today and she objected constantly. The Judge, who is paying a little bit of attention, finds her course and annoying. I believe it is probable that many people feel this way about her. She is a bulldog in cheap black business dress that is screaming at the seams. Her accent would make any girl from South Philly proud. She is so distressing that I have not dared to mentally undress her. She’s just right for the job.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I dropped my 15 year old off at the airport this morning. He’s on his way to summer camp. I did the same thing yesterday but this time he actually got on the plane.

I had it set in my mind, erroneously as it turns out, that the flight was at 8:45. We were about 150 feet away from the gate at Newark, having a piece of crumb cake, with plenty of time to spare. There are no site lines to the gates. Concessions block everything. I’m not saying this as an excuse, it just so happens to be the case. We didn’t hear the boarding announcement because, with all these obstacles blocking sound, unless you are reading the lips of the person making the announcement, all your going to get is what sounds like a muffled trumpet. It’s the wah, wah, wah, of Charlie Brown’s elementary school teacher. Again, I’m not trying to shift any blame here, it just so happens to be the case.

Clay was hungry, as always, so we stopped at one of the concessions for the snack. It’s relaxed between us. I adore him but he drives me crazy. I’m sure he would say the same thing. Camp will be a nice break for him from my constant corrections. Corrections I don’t want to give, corrections I don’t want to have to give, but I just can’t seem to help myself. It must be some kind of developmental peculiarity of parenting. Camp will also be a nice break for me from his self-centered self and his own developmental idiosyncrasies. Beyond being a teen there is nothing wrong with him, but that is enough. Beyond being a parent there is nothing wrong with me, but that too is enough.

While we’re waiting, I’m trying to decode the ticket for information about his arrival time in Minnesota; after all, I already know everything I need to know about his departure time. The stub is printed in the same font size they used to use for microfilm. In other airports, there are TV monitors every 50 feet with arrival and departure information. Someone here determined that “information” was not a worthwhile use of a screen when that same screen could be used for non-stop advertising lightly peppered with celebrity gossip and inspirational stories about overcoming adversity. I’m not making any value judgements here, it just so happens to be the case.

Finally, I make out 825. That’s it. No : break, just 825 and it dawns on me that this might be the departure time. I check my watch. It’s 8:21. I grab the kid, we turn the corner and step in front of the gate desk just in the nick of time. It’s still 8:21. There are no less than 5 attendants trying to figure out seat 18A because it isn’t checked off even though everyone has boarded. I say to them, pointing at my 18A, that no he isn’t on board, he’s standing right here and can he get on the plane?

“Well, no.” says the lady at the desk. “The plane has left the gate.” which is a lie. I can tell it’s a lie because there is an eight foot tall window, a hundred feet long, directly behind her and through that very window I am looking at the plane.

“What are you talking about?” I say. “It isn’t 8:25!”  I hold up my phone showing the time.  It is now 8:22 and the plane is backing away from the building.

“Well, yes, but 8:25 is the departure time. The plane is gone.”

“Departure time from where? The gate? The ground? The State of New Jersey?” This conversation may or may not be turning relativistic but it is definitely passed the point of being academic.

I’m cursing up a storm because of my own idiocy but it isn’t made any better by the idiots I’m talking with. The senior guy comes over and immediately tells them to rebook me a ticket at no charge. It’s all pretty clear. They let the plane leave a couple minutes early because it was fully loaded. Fully loaded except for one of the passengers. An unescorted minor, who had already checked his bag, got his boarding pass and was supposed to be in the care of the gate. Whoopsy Daisy.

I’m calling my wife to explain this minor catastrophe, complete with my own culpability and the departure time details. The gate lady, listening in on my side of the conversation, is now trying to correct me that the time the plane leaves is somehow different than the departure time. I’m trying to figure out why this woman is tampering with my diminishing good nature as well as my understanding of my native language. I want to ignore her but her unsolicited comments, and something about her hair, are begging for confrontation.

“Depart means leave, right?”

Oh boy! I can feel the potential energy of this situation developing into kinetic energy. I don’t want that to happen in front of my son and while I am not totally averse to being arrested and strip searched by an overzealous TSA employee, this just doesn’t seem like the most opportune moment. Nevertheless:

“If not; if I have somehow misunderstood what is meant by depart; if that is the case, then “Departure Time” isn’t really all that useful a term is it!?! Maybe someone in authority should consider doing away with it altogether; replace it with a term and a time that match in a meaningful way. How about “Leave Taking” or “Decamping” or “Exiting” or, dare I say it, “DEPARTING!” What a perfect god damn word! Somebody should consider using that word to describe when the plane leaves the gate and then attach a hard and fast time to it. Holy Jumping Jesus Christ, wouldn’t that be a great idea?”

“And here’s another one. When people have checked in with their bags and all, make sure they’re on the plane. And if they’re not, get this, if  they  are  not, if there is a large checked in bag and nobody attached to it, maybe that should set off some kind of alarm; some kind of bells and whistles. At least a sparkler, right? Because, you know, there are people out there who like to blow things up! For some of them, it’s their actual job description.”

Great Caesar’s Ghost, I hope it’s a high paying job because these folks are working overtime trying to cut all the curves off this wheel.

None of this, of course, is in any way depriving me of my own dumbshit lapse. I’m just tossing out some ideas here; kind of opening up a conversation.

Well, there’s nothing to do but take tomorrow’s plane. There is only one seat available and it is on the last flight and unaccompanied minors are not allowed to fly the last flight. I guess the thinking is that if things are a little quirky in the morning, they must be an absolute shit-storm by the end of the day and we reserve shit-storms for people who are actually on urgent business or desperately trying to get home.

The shame of it all, is that we made it from Brooklyn to the so called Departure Gate in about 30 minutes flat. No traffic in Brooklyn, no traffic in Manhattan, no traffic at the tunnel, the bridge, the highway, nothing! Even the parking lot is damn near empty. We were the only ones in the baggage check line and when we go through security there are only a hand full of people ahead of us. I’ve always liked Mondays and this just seems like one more validation.

On the drive home we sit in rush-hour traffic at the Holland Tunnel and make small talk. I can not wait for tomorrow. It cannot come soon enough to erase this error. Clay seems fine but I have already given this some thought. He is going to miss the introductory events that make for a smooth transition into camp life and he has always been a person who is troubled by transitions. I have 23 hours of self torture ahead. Clay will figure it all out by this evening and get a healthy 18 hours of self torture in before arriving at camp. Still, he is adaptable and makes friends easily. Another one of the many things that I admire about him. Also, by the time we get home, my wife has called the camp and they have reassured her, and therefore him, that it happens all the time and, in fact, Clay will be flying in to camp from Minneapolis with another camper who missed their flight. Ok, so I’m not alone in my misery and stupidity but I am alone with this child who I have let down and to whom I have exposed my imperfection. Alas.

As a small consolation, he and his mom have a night out together and go to the movies. They decide to see

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

Good plan. Now he’s too scared to worry about camp. He spends a sleepless night with the lights on. One more thing he shares with me. We don’t like scary movies. Or sad movies. Or chick flicks, naturally. Or anything with tension or romance. No tear jerkers either. No thrillers, dramas or low brow comedies. What can I say, we’re a tough audience.

Naturally enough, tomorrow comes. He’s starting to worry about camp and what he’s missed. He’s a very smart kid; he’ll adjust, but now he’s got me worrying. He’s a teenager and teen intelligence comes with all kinds of qualifiers. I guess all kinds of intelligence comes with all kinds of qualifiers but, as with everything else, those qualities are exaggerated in teens. I try to take comfort from the fact that he seems capable of learning anything they throw at him in school. On the other hand, he’s utterly incapable of learning to put the cap back on the toothpaste, or taking his phone and wallet out of his pants before putting them in the washing machine. Also, he is maddeningly disorganized but I think the blame for that may rest at my feet. We’ve tried to help him. We’ve tried in a hundred ways but it’s just no use. Heredity is just too strong a force. In fact, it is so strong a force that I think I can plausibly lay blame with my own father for the rampant disorganization around here. I can, but it doesn’t help. I still need to pick up Clay’s clothes if I hope to avoid a meltdown every morning because his only shirt, the “only” shirt he can wear “today” is missing.

Although he owns thirty shirts, the only one he wants to wear is, inevitably, the one he can’t find and, invariably, it is bundled up on the floor next to his dirty clothes basket.

He talks incessantly and while I’m grateful that he’s still speaking to me I dearly wish he had something to say that didn’t involve television, fashion or the petty squabbles and verbal assassinations of kids I’ve never met.

The girls I’m interested in. Everything else is filler.

The girl struggles are endlessly fascinating because, let’s face it, girls are fascinating and figuring out girls is a life long diversion. It’s interesting and challenging but ultimately pointless. The target is too highly evasive and too highly evolved. The target is constantly moving and changing shape. The bait that works in the morning is poison by late afternoon; and I’m a seasoned veteran. It doesn’t help that teens are so hopelessly inept. They seem to make sense to one another but that’s about as far as it goes and probably not even that far. If you are not of their tribe you are as good as a separate species. An alien. And a stupid alien at that.

My wife says “Teens should only be allowed to share the company of other teens.” I understand that viewpoint and agree with it about 96% of the time but it’s important not to forget the entertainment value of their struggles.

Often times I will see a boy and girl on the subway debating the fine points of some unbelievably witless question. They’re shifting around and smiling, the fluorescent lights gleaming off their braces and the conversation ebbs and it’s all awkward, the air is twisting around them and I want to scream:

“Kiss her you moron. She wants you to kiss her.”

Or

“Take his hand! Would you please just take his hand! Can’t you see he’s in agony?”

I know they’ll get to it eventually but meanwhile the rest of us are suffering, replaying our own teen insecurities and failures; our own struggles and self-doubts. I know this because I’m also watching the young woman standing in the corner pretending to read her book but she is mesmerized by their incompetence. As the teens exit the train this woman catches me looking at her looking at them and we both crack up.

Her smile says: “God that was painful.”

My smile says: “That used to be us.”

The camp my teen is going to is a language immersion camp. Yeah, I never heard of that either and I think it is reasonable to ask; “Who sends their kid to language immersion camp for summer vacation?” In our case, the answer to that question would be “Him.” This was his idea. We never heard of this place before. He heard about it through a teacher and he wanted to go. He really is the greatest.

The way it works is, each language has its own village complete with style, architecture, culture and cuisine. The villages include French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, English, Russian and a bunch of others.

The villages are separate but in fairly close proximity. I guess the idea is that the campers are immersed in the language and culture of their region of choice. It’s the next best thing to being there. Ideally they develop a certain pride in their group, they identify with their adopted culture and, ultimately, become xenophobic. Thus having become fully enculturated, when the time comes they can rise up, Lord of the Flies like, and reenact the Second World War. That last part might be my spin but, given the players, I think it’s a plausible scenario.

Today’s trip to the airport is the same as yesterday’s except in all the details. Going on the assumption that the same flight, same time, same circumstances rule should be in effect, we leave Brooklyn with two hours to spare. You can’t be too careful after a fuckup, you know what I mean? And I can’t wait to put this one behind me. Get him on the flight and pretend the whole thing didn’t happen.

We leave home and turn right into traffic. I dodge around and take a back way to the tunnel. Ok, we’re good. Up onto the highway; more traffic. We make it to the airport where the parking lot is already filling up. We grab a distant spot and hurry into the terminal. His bag is already in Minnesota but I need to get a pass to get through security so that I can escort him out to the departure gate. Again. Of course, there is a line. We get everything squared away and head to security. There are fully 200 people ahead of us. It’s starting to feel like a conspiracy but I am on a mission here, totally focused. Not however, so focused that I don’t notice a half dozen soldiers who are not five years older than my son; young men and women, children really, saying goodbye to their grim faced families. My problems are petty and ridiculous; just the way I like them.

Finally we get to the gate and we check in with the staff. The nice thing is that we have not run into a single person from yesterday’s debacle. No explaining to do. Maybe they all got fired. The not so nice thing is that this new staff is easily as clueless as yesterday’s staff. My son’s ticket needs an unescorted minor stub which, somehow, did not get issued yesterday and nobody here quite knows how to do it. They give it their all and figure it out and immediately tell him to board. He hugs me and I hug him, “I love you”, and he’s gone.

Wait a minute! I’m not prepared for this. I’m upset. I don’t know how but I’ve been caught by surprise. How can that be? We’ve had so much practice! I have to call my wife. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for him and for me but now he’s gone and I miss him terribly. Immediately, I want him back. I’m all choked up when I realize they’ve boarded him a half hour early. I sit in the long window, looking at his plane, and we text until they tell him phone off. The last text I get off to him is that I slipped an iPod into his carry-on bag. His last text is “Haha great!” He’s happy and now I’m ok. I did something right.

The Art Opening

Sculpture: Tom Butter

I went to a friend’s art opening the other night. I entered the building, stopped to check the directory to locate the gallery and turned to find my pal Tom standing right behind me. That’s a good sign since a trip to a gallery where I don’t know anyone is usually brief and depressing. Brief because I don’t much care for looking at new art and depressing because artists are, as a rule, terrible conversationalists. Artists don’t talk so much as they give a point by point recitation of their resume. It’s a transparently self-centered exercise and unforgivably dull. The only upside is that invariably these people’s egos are as fragile as the thin film of burnt sugar on a creme brûlée. It’s a combination that fairly demands a little soft tissue probing. Torturing artists can be fun but it’s so easy it barely qualifies as sporting.

Tom thinks that I’m macho because I’m in heavy construction as well as the fine arts. In fact, a lot of people seem to think I get a lot done for someone with three kids, a full time job and a so called career in the arts but Tom genuinely seems to be impressed by it. Maybe he’s just shy and it gives him something to talk about. We are friendly now and there is a real warmth, but that was not always the case.

Tom is a sculptor I met back in my Philly days. I worked in art galleries as a preparator, which sounds like a salad position in a restaurant but is more like a salad position in a gallery. You know, hang the work, paint the walls, date the receptionist, that sort of thing. Back then, Tom was one of the few artists whose work I could really identify with. He lived in New York and was in a good gallery and he taught and was good looking and super talented and he has a great last name; Butter. Tom Butter. How can a name like that not shine? It’s inevitable. Like an unfair advantage. Tom was also mysterious and ultra-smart. For me, he was an artist to be like. Not that I wanted to make his work, or have his life, but I wanted to be a respected artist with important things to say, a good gallery in Manhattan, an exotic girlfriend and a great name. Man, then I would have it all. Back then it didn’t seem like too much to ask, it just seemed so far away. Except the name. That! That was too much to ask.

I felt back then that a good first step would be to befriend this guy. It wasn’t a strategic move, it was simply that I wanted his approval. Like many young people and not so young people for that matter, I sought the approval of those I respected who were in a position of authority. I guess that’s normal and certainly beats seeking the approval of those whom no one respects and have no authority at all. Better to aim a little higher, I say.

Well naturally I didn’t get his approval which should come as no surprise. I, and almost everyone else, always look for approval from those who won’t give it. Which is probably just as well. Where is the value of something that is given away for free? I was forced to admit that, unfortunately, this was going to require some work. If I wanted respect, I was going to have to earn it. In fact, I was never able to find a way to talk to Tom at all. I’m sure I was awkward but I also think he was a bit tightly wound.

Years later, after I moved to New York, I would run into Tom every so often at his art openings or at Parsons School of Design where I worked as a technician at night and he taught during the day. It was always the same. A simple hello; totally ungratifying. Even more so because he was so animated with his students. Eventually it dawned on me that he was comfortable in a position of authority like the student teacher relationship. All I needed was to put myself in that position. In other words, all I really needed was a question.

By this point I was more grown up and beyond caring about the approval of others. Age and the daily abuses of heavy construction had pretty much cured me of that, but Tom was a loose end from my youth. My desire to connect with him had lost its sense of urgency and need; it was now more like a hobby.

Around this time, it so happens, I was working on my own show. It was my third solo exhibition and I was trying hard to grow the work around a tightly focused idea. I always underpin my work with a ton of research and in this instance I was meddling in art history. History is a place I have an interest in but I probably shouldn’t be allowed to go. I have a terrible memory and I’m not a stickler for facts, even when I know them. I had been doing research on the mathematics of Postwar American Art. There has never been a period of such raw experimentation with such astounding successes and yet that aesthetic passed away like all the others before it.

To me it was a mystery and I thought if I revisited some of the more formal tactics used by the greats I might learn something. Maybe some of that greatness would rub off on me.

I was using everything from John Cage’s chance operations and Myron Stout’s handmade, obsessive precision to Barnett Newman’s personal preferences for canvas size. From the standard intervals of Donald Judd to the variable intervals of subway stops on the A Train between West 4th and 125th street, I used it all.

I couldn’t see it then but I realize now that these names were the superheroes of my youth. I did not read comic books until I was in my twenties when I stopped watching television. But as a kid I would always look through the picture books in our house and, my father being an artist, all the picture books were contemporary art books; all the magazines were art magazines.

I was trying to tether my work to this most explosive period of American Art when I ran into Tom at school. I cornered him, if it can be said that someone can be cornered in the middle of a hallway, and shot him the question that I’d been rolling over in my mind and which doesn’t seem to be answered in any book. It is also the question which I had formulated for just this occasion. The only other question on my mind was: “Will he take the bait?”

As any fisherman will tell you; when you go fishing it is important to know your prey and to use the right bait. The right bait on the wrong hook will not get you dinner. The wrong lure in the right place will leave you hungry. But if the lure is convincing and the fish is provoked and you are quiet, all that remains is patience. I am a patient man.

Hey Tom,

What was the failure of modernism?

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Jackpot!

This Old House

Good morning deviants. This post is going to be a short one. I’m having house problems.

Last week I noticed that my porch roof looked rather….soft. A slight gap here, a small twist there and all of it leading to a sense of unease. I decide to take a day off from work, tear down a few boards and look to see what the problem was. In an old house like ours, that’s how this stuff starts. You pick at a crack in the wall and suddenly, so it seems, there is a gaping hole and a pile of plaster at your feet. There are no small jobs in old houses.

You always hear the lament that things aren’t built the way they used to be. That’s true. There is no horse hair embedded in the plaster, over the rough coat, over the wooden lath, past the uninsulated gap to the brick. But once I removed the porch ceiling I could see that this house was built before building codes or basic common sense. There is a general sense of know how with a strong sense of “Git ‘er done!”

My 90% deaf friend Vinnie was doing some work in his old house. He was shouting the details of his discovery at me even though I was standing right next to him. He was redoing some plumbing and found that there were no pipes in the walls. All the water was being moved around the house through garden hoses. I think the sense that craftsmanship has slipped away is mostly based on a reduced amount of building ornamentation. Buildings just don’t look so grand anymore. Houses are startlingly efficient but not visually impressive. And unless your wealthy, I guess that’s always going to be the trade off. Me? Two weeks into it and I’m just trying to finish this damn thing.

Now, I could describe the problems that I found when I took down the ceiling and I could lay out my plan of action because, after all, I am a man of action. I could do a “This Old House” point by point reconstruction complete with product endorsements but no. First off, there are people better equipped to do that than I. Lots and lots of people. And, in fact, they already do. And while I may bring a certain slant to the writing end of this project I don’t bring any actual skill on the construction end. Yes, I am a Dockbuilder. A tradesmen in heavy timber, concrete form work, pile driving and all the other gentlemanly arts. But house carpentry? No. Dockbuilders refer to carpenters as “termites”.

There is no “wood” where I work. Where I work, there is only timber. No 2″ x 4″s. No plywood. The smallest piece of wood I work with is a 4″ x 12″ and, except for tying a patch into the middle of a repair, we use the timber full length; 20 feet is our shortest. The larger stuff, the backbone of our work, is 12″ x 12″ x 24′. All our timber is Greenheart (clorocardium rodiei) an extremely dense, strong, weather and pest resistant hardwood from the rainforests of Guyana.  All the timber is handled with the crane.

At my job, there are no nails or screws or adhesives. No paint. No table saw. No chop saw. No dinky claw hammers.

At my job, timber is cut with a chainsaw, pounded in place with a sledge hammer, drilled with a pneumatic drill, and bolted together. The shorter bolts weigh about 8 pounds each.

I have a mind that can wrap itself around the problems of large projects, because large projects are fundamentally about tearing out bad and bolting in good, in a pattern that will resist the piloting errors of ship’s captains. But there is something small and precious about house carpentry that kind of eludes me. For instance “fit” seems to be important. I’m going to have to pay attention to that. In Dockbuilding fit is less important than overall mass.

And all these little tools and screws and plastic widgets and batteries. Everywhere I look I have rechargers winking their lights at me accusatorially. And every year there are hundreds of improved products. It’s like being a doctor. You have to keep up with every development.

Or not. That’s what I’ve decided to do. Well, not decided. I’m doing it the only way I know how.

Git ‘er done!

Que Sera Sera

Hey Drew,

My wife had to work last Saturday and so did Charlotte, the neighbor across the street. Her husband Chris was left with their two girls Miranda, 5, and Kendal, 7. They are a mixed race couple, same as us. Chris had six tickets for a members only event at the Brooklyn Zoo that included free rides on the restored Brooklyn Carousel as well as snacks and events at The Lefferts Homestead, an 18th century farmhouse. Chris called with the invite for me and my little guys Cole, 7 and Miles, 8.

I guess you can see where I’m headed with this.

Two middle aged white guys with four kids of color in tow. Two boys, two girls, two men. Gay! Pretty much guarantees that you’ll be ignored by the single mom’s and all the dads. Couples are occupied so you become a magnet for married moms, alone with their kids, looking for a gay guy to girl talk with. I let Chris field the heifers while I kept a laissez faire eye on the chilluns and watched the neurotics. It’s always fun to watch today’s parents molding tomorrow’s psychopaths. I try to keep a positive spin on it.

There isn’t really much to tell about the event. The zoo had animals; the big hit was the baboon’s ass. Bright red for reasons that only another baboon could fully appreciate though the kids came in a highly vocal second. The homestead had old fashioned handmade toys for kids to try, like 6 inch wooden stilts. I mean, what is the point of stilts that don’t make you appreciably taller? I guess when you’re under 4 feet tall, 6 inches is a big deal.

“Look at me dad, look at me! I’m a giant!”

The boys had them pretty well mastered in a few minutes, the girls wouldn’t go near them without crying. The kids are too old for the storytelling circle and too young to appreciate the house, built either in 1777 or 1783 depending on your source. It has a sloping concave roof with wooden shingles. There is a photo of it being moved across Flatbush avenue into the park about 100 years ago. In the photo there is a slowly cresting wave of brick houses and low rise apartment buildings creeping up the blocks on all sides. Blocks that didn’t exist when the house was built. Blocks that aren’t even squared to the lot the house sits on. The house seems dropped into the scene like Dorothy’s house into Munchkin Land.

The photo was taken at that moment when it wasn’t clear who the intruder was in the situation. Were the buildings overwhelming the pastoral scene or was the farmhouse getting in the way of progress? I guess the answer depended on whether you were standing on a porch or a stoop. Oddly enough the loser in that battle is the last one standing. Many of the new buildings in the photograph are gone now, replaced by apartment blocks only a generation later. The remaining ones have been stripped of what little dignity they originally possessed; glassed over and turned into cell phone stores, roti shops and cheap clothing outlets. Down the street, a few steps into Prospect Park, under the maples and sycamores, the homestead has its dignity and its porch intact.

And then there was the carousel. It’s an old beauty and as it is a device that goes round and round it’s purpose is to make you want to puke. Coleman was a little intimidated by it and wanted to sit on a bench instead of on the back of one of the horsies. As luck would have it the benches were few and taken so while the others rode, Cole and I sat out and watched. As luck would also have it the other kids wanted to ride again and Chris was looking a little green so we slipped into the cool vinyl couch of the beast, with brave faces and a nervous belly.

I never used to have this problem. When I was a lad I used to go on a ride called The Zipper. To my mind the reasons for calling it The Zipper aren’t entirely clear. I think it probably should have been called Vomit Now. This would have been the very early 70′s and the carnival was on the lower fields of Grey Nuns on Old York Road. The carnival was designed to take the small change from the kids and keep them busy while the adults played illegal slot machines up in the school. The slots were arranged in an oval with their backs open to the center where the operator could keep an eye on the innards. Whenever a machine was about to make a colossal payout a nun would come over to the machine, graciously ask to jump the line, take the handle away from the player and start jacking coins down the slot. Within a pull or two she would hit the jackpot, scoop up her winnings and walk away from the adoring parishioner she had just ripped off. And the adoring idiot would just marvel at the sister’s good luck. I swear it’s true. First hand knowledge. I was sitting cross legged under the table watching with my friend Richard as we were digging dropped quarters out from between the machines.

The Zipper was basically a dozen tipsy cages spinning on a pair of drive chains that were rotating around a parallel pair of 40 foot propellers that where spinning. Rated number 1 on any carnival ride shortlist, every description of it is priceless. I have only just now learned from Wikipedia that I was riding the pre safety improved model. Improvements came in ’77 after a hefty number of gruesome and litigable accidents. It is, in fact, hard to think of any description of this ride that would even remotely suggest that those injurious outcomes were anything but deliberate. I urge you to have a look at the Youtube clips of it and then consider this little gem of a fact. The stripped down model I rode turned about 40% faster.

Ordinarily I am loathe to use anyone else’s writing beyond the length of a short quote but this entry from another web site is just too precious to pass up.

# 1 Ride – The Zipper

Truly the most metal of all the amusements – the Zipper is King of Kings amongst carnival rides. No matter where you are, in any state, in any town, the Zipper ALWAYS guarantees you the following three things:

1) The most insane, scary, drunk and high ride operator in the entire fair

2) The largest line, consisting of more middle schoolers smoking cigarettes per capita than anywhere else in the nation

3) The ONLY ride that gives you both a 10 in Fun and a 10 in Likelihood of a Fatal Accident.

The Zipper rules all that comes before it – a 48 foot tall beast, where the only thing preventing you from meeting an untimely demise is a two inch long pin, that’s half an inch in diameter. The ultimate deathtrap, the Zipper rewards those brave enough to look past the squeaking, creaking, and falling of integral pieces with an incredibly intense riding experience that changes every time you go on. What’s that clicking noise? No time to think about it – you’re being hurled head first toward the pavement. Is that a screw that just hit me? Doesn’t matter, because we’re going BACKWARDS, baby.

Nice right? Not anymore. A 99 year old carousel is now an alarming prospect. I’m sure it’s partly mental but still, after I turned 40, everything that could make me dizzy did. After I turned 50 even the mirror became disorienting. Then again that may be another story.

So there I was, facing down the hellish, nauseating threat of the carousel. The platform spinning round and round. The horses going up and down. And only two padded benches for the cowards. The merry old gentleman operator, a clever disguise for the roaring soul eater. He whose name must not be spoken. For a reckless torpedo of a kid, Coleman can have extraordinary moments of fear over the most mundane events. In retrospect, it was less like fear and more like shyness. As if a formal introduction to the wooden horsies might be all it would have taken to dissipate his anxiety. “Coleman, this is Sea Biscuit. Sea Biscuit, this is Coleman. You two are gonna be great buddies”.

I know his anxiety must have been on my mind because as the carousel started turning and I began testing myself, successfully, as to whether I could make myself dizzy I started to look for stable points for us to focus on. I started by pointing out the music maker. A one man band, minus the man, called a Wurlitzer Band Organ, it sits on the blacktop, unmoving, in the central area along with the drive motor and operator, the carousel spinning around them. Opposite the Wurlitzer there is a bare breasted caryatid, her arms draped languidly over her softly quaffed hair. Her breasts are high and her nipples suggest that she was carved on a cold day. A surprising addition really to a ride that dates back to 1912, and yet it doesn’t look at all out of place. Personally I  think they should have one like her on every street corner in America.

Now we’re picking up speed; pushing I would guess 6 rpm maybe even 7. I need a strategy, a game-plan to get us through this. Or maybe just to get me through this. When you look towards the center of a spinning object, as we did with the fulsome caryatid, you are looking at the slowest moving part of that object. If you are seated on that spinning object it’s a pretty good tactic nausea avoidance-wise. Better yet is to look at something else on that object that is spinning with you. As a matter of relativity you are now standing still, centrifugal forces aside. But staring at my hands is only going to alarm Coleman so I look up and I see the very slowly turning crank. The horsies that go up and down are not pushed up from below they are pulled up from above by a driveshaft with offsets like a hand cranked drill laying on its side. As the shaft turns these offsets describe a small circle. The crank passes through a sleeve at the top of the pole that carries the horse up and down and the pole slips up and down in a guide mounted to the floor of the carousel. Cole is either very interested in how this simple mechanism works or he is too petrified to resist my guided tour. Either way the ride is soon over and as the last strains of Que Sera Sera played by organ, xylophone and drums fade away I can see he’s ready to ride again.

A Man Out of Time

I used to know a guy named Jack VanSickle; Mr. Van we used to call him. The chatter around Blue Water Lake is he died a lonely and miserable drunk. So naturally, I’m looking for the punchline.

I met Mr. Van in 1971. He was my group leader at a backpacking camp in New Mexico called Cottonwood Gulch a.k.a. the Prairie Trek Expedition. We traveled around the four corners area, so called because of the the right angle joinery of the four states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. We were in search of good, off the beaten track backpacking and adventure. Mr Van was a bachelor science teacher from Rushville, Indiana and this was his summer gig.

I spent three summers with Mr.Van; my last two as his quartermaster. This promotion came with the perks of lower tuition, greater responsibility and while not exactly a councilor I was not exactly a camper either. An early step, if you will, in my long ascent to world domination. My job was to pack, unpack and generally keep organized, Mother. Mother was a motorized Conestoga wagon. A large, rumbling, slat sided truck with arched hoop roof covered in old fashioned oil canvas. She held our gear and food and water. Often times, while exploring the dessert, the water from her side tanks was the only water we would have for weeks. Strictly rationed. No washing. Her petcock was our nipple of life.

There were 16 campers as well as three other counselors including Kurt Vonnegut’s nephew, Ricky Vonnegut. We called Ricky, Choo Choo, because he was obsessed with taking pictures of freight trains as we drove in our van from one spot to another. Nobody would have noticed this, we were self obsessed teens after all, but Ricky had figured the best way to get a clear shot was to match the train’s speed, lean out the window, face glued to the viewfinder and ever so carefully focus and then wait for the engines to align with the mountainous background to form the perfect composition. The problem was that we were doing 70 miles an hour in an effort to overtake the train’s engines and get everything just so. Ricky was the only adult in the van and consequently the driver. Take it from me, regardless of claims to the contrary, teenage boys do scream like little girls.

There was a cook named Tom Hyde. Tom’s secret to perfected eating habits, which was no secret at all, was that whatever didn’t get eaten at dinner, was included in the next morning’s breakfast. This was before nouvelle cuisine so Beef Stew Pancakes and Barbecue Chicken Oatmeal were not considered delicacies.

The peculiarities of memory allow me to remember Ricky’s name because of his famous Uncle Kurt. I remember Tom’s name because of a single piece of junk mail. I was the quartermaster and therefore I called out the weekly mail from stops that were arranged before the beginning of the summer. Tom was a botanist and this was in the early days of automated mass mailings for credit card applications. One day Tom received a letter from a credit card company. Showing off their intelligence network capabilities of combing data for worthy credit card recipients the letter started out as follows.

T. Hyde Botany

We know who you are and We know what you do.

From then on he was known as T. Hyde Botany.

There was a third counselor but I don’t remember his name. No stories attached themselves to him therefore no memory cues. All I do remember is that he left at the end of camp and went directly to Amsterdam. At 13 that didn’t have any meaning for me. Now I understand that he was off on an adventure of his own.

We picked up mail along our travel route at these one room post offices; sometimes nothing more than a desk in a store or the front room of somebodies house, in towns that probably no longer exist. The southwest was full of ghost towns but there were an equal number of fringe communities. Clusters of old houses and shuttered businesses; wooden mausoleums that were waiting for their elderly inhabitants to die, so that the buildings too might finally rest in peace.

Most of these towns had grown up in the 1870′s and 80′s around mines and mills producing silver. Silver and gold, the so-called bi-metal standard, had been used in US coinage from the beginning. The use of gold and silver allowed for large and small denominations of coins, before the introduction of paper money in 1862, without resorting to gigantic and minuscule coins minted from a single metal. That sounds good. Exchange rates between the two metals were set by law. That sounds bad.  Laws are the kind of thing that markets are notorious for ignoring.

Then along comes the California gold rush of 1849. So much gold gets introduced into the market that not only does it damp the value of gold it undermines the value of silver. The good news is that with more metal you can mint more coins. Instant prosperity. Simple! Silver mining remains profitable enough and towns here grow. That was good news.

However, as I understand it, which is just another way of saying that I don’t really understand it, the constant recalculation of value between the two metals by speculators  was becoming unmanageable. That was bad news. Hoarding and dumping were a constant strain on economies and in 1873 the US Congress, along with most of Europe, followed England’s half century lead and tipped towards a gold standard. If you were big into silver, a so-called Silverite, you would have called this The Crime of ’73.

Silver was still used in coinage (that was good news) and it would be, in ever more dilute amounts, until 1965 but a one to one correspondence between the metal value and coin denomination was on the wane. The demonetization of silver, along with the great silver strikes here in Colorado that flooded the market in the last quarter of the 19th century, further eroded prices. That was bad news.

The good news was that help was on the way in the form of The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, whereby the government promised to buy silver. Lots and lots of it. 4.5 million ounces a month more than it was already buying for the purpose of coinage. That’s over 280,000 pounds! A Month! The miners took a moment to wet their pants, jack up the price and then dig like mad.

Of course for every profitable action there is an unprofitable reaction. All this government support for silver caused a flood of silver in the market that eventually undermined its value relative to gold. As they say, or more accurately as Gresham’s Law states, “Bad money drives out good” which means that overvalued money drives undervalued money out of circulation into hoards. Everyone ran to the bank to trade silver for gold. That was bad.

At the same time, all this unexpected federal support for silver undermined confidence in the promised gold standard and the Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893. The market was flooded with cheap silver and everyone holding Treasury Notes, which were redeemable in silver or gold, ran to the banks to get the gold. That was bad too. The resulting run on gold brought the United States to the brink of bankruptcy before the jolly joker himself, J.P. Morgan, and a syndicate of his pals stepped in with a loan of gold, on attractive terms naturally, that saved the nation from insolvency. Not a great guy to owe money and favors to. Nope, not a good situation to find yourself in and one I personally have tried my best to avoid by consolidating all my gold holdings into a single low karat ring on my left ring finger.

In 1900 the Gold Standard Act made the gold standard official but in these parts the steep decline had already taken hold. Mines and mills, banks and railroads throughout the region were shutting down. When the money left, the people left. Silver camps shut down all over and real estate values simply dissolved. Other metals of value, Lead, Zinc, Molybdenum for high strength steel, saved some towns and slowed the demise of others for awhile. But by the time of the Great Depression, when metals demand all but disappeared, many towns throughout the region had been abandoned. The days of mine camps and remote mountain towns was over.

But there are always those few souls who root easily and deeply; those who never leave, preferring to tend the graves of their loved ones while waiting to join them. Enter Mr. Van. It seemed to us that Mr. Van knew everyone in the southwest worth knowing. Tribal elders, shop owners, nomadic prospectors still panning for gold. He knew everybody that was nobody. Old old people; the children of boom and bust. These ancients had stories to tell about the mines, the ore crushing mills, the tribes, the rustic living homesteads, the tragic deaths of loved ones.

And then there was the backpacking. Caves and canyons, lava beds, rock formations, mesas and mountains; we covered them all. Mr. Van was our Wagonmaster; we were his pioneers; Mother and the two Ford Econoliners were our wagon train. For us, every road was a back road, every town, every pueblo, was in a state of ruin and every ruin was open for exploration. Hiking in the San Juan’s? Mr. Van knew people at the San Juan County Historical Society. Of course he did! So we went following the trail of a doomed 19th century expedition. Of course we did! We were looking for the remains of the definitely lost and probably cannibalized Fremont Expedition of 1848-49. It was all directly under foot; a finger touch away.

Mr. Van had nothing but contempt for what he called GAT’s; Great American Tourists, enveloped as they were, in the fatness of their luxury. He hated their crass ignorance of this holy land; a land they ignored in favor of cheesy roadside attractions offering cheap imitation mementos of the vanished and vanishing cultures he held in such high regard. For Mr. Van, and therefore us, authenticity was the law. He was right but he was also a man out of his time.

After setting up a base camp in a new location we, the boys, would break out the topographical maps, plan a trip and pass it by the counselors. The counselors would point out that we had the map upside down and were planning a trip over a cliff. After a brief lesson in topo map reading we would plan again, get approval and the following morning set out with tents, sleeping bags, food, water, stove and toilet paper. Everything but a counselor. We were on our own, unsupervised for a few days. We’d walk through deep waterless canyons, along high desert cliffs and over windswept mountaintops thousands of feet above tree line. Not for a moment did this strike anyone as unwise or unusual. Up until this moment I never gave it a second thought at all. But I will say this; Every bit of self confidence I have springs directly from those formative times, the responsibility that Mr. Van put on us and the prize of winning his trust.

And it’s not like we didn’t get lost once in awhile. But when we did, we figured it out. Poured over the maps, checked compasses and backtracked or set out on a new route. It was a thinking man’s game entrusted to a bunch of 13 year olds. Genius really, when you think about it.

Mr. Van would stay back and drink scotch while the other counselors did the same or borrowed the Ford van and went in search of a town with a bar and a girl or set out with a group of the boys who hadn’t proven themselves. The name of the game was Wingin’ it and nobody did it better than us.

One afternoon, after I was done setting up camp and supervising the digging of the pit toilet, Mr. Van called me over. “Art, do me a favor. Go get me some snow for my drink.” We were camped beyond Mayday, a ghost town in the San Juan Mountains of south western Colorado. Our base camp was at about 9,000 feet. The snow pack was directly up the almost vertical mountainside at about 10,000 feet. I never would have thought to question Mr. Van. I was happy to do it for him. Things are different now aren’t they; the expectations of children and grown ups. But I’ll tell you what; if he asked me to do it again tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate.

The second to last time I saw Mr Van was 1973. It was my third year; my second year as quartermaster. I was already being groomed as a counselor although I never did become one. We did the desert loop. Keet Seel ruin in Navajo National Monument, the Gila Wilderness, Canyonlands, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay), El Malpais Lava Flows, Arches and more. We saw ancient Native American cave paintings deep underground in a cavern on a reservation ranch that nobody saw but us because these were Mr. Van’s people. He was like a white medicine man who held respect wherever he went because he valued that which every other human had passed by. He was not so much the story teller but he knew where every story was hidden.

He took us to see very old people, sitting in dusty yards or on the rough porches of their tiny desiccated towns. Our job was to listen. The land, the houses, these shuffling relics were all equally dry. The people and their stories would soon disappear but not the towns. The buildings, in this arid environment, will last for another century at least. I have stood, at a steep angle, in a miners boardinghouse, half slid down a talus slope, that had not slept a soul in any living persons memory. And of course the land. The land would remain; little different than when these people’s grandparents had arrived a century ago.

Dust devils, cholla cactus, dead grass, tumbleweeds, open sky and light. So much light that an Easterner’s eyes become thirsty for color. Touching down in Philadelphia at summers end, the lushness was an ocular plunge into cool waters.

It would be 20 years before I saw Mr. Van again; it was also the last time I would see him. I took my wife to visit the camp when we were backpacking in the area. I was in my mid-thirties. We pulled up and he was sitting on the porch of the log cabin mess hall. Camp had ended for the summer. Hummingbirds were whizzing around; all else was quiet. We got out of the car and approached him. “Hello Mr. Van. It’s Arthur Mednick. I was your quartermaster back in the early seventies.”

“I know Art. I’ve been expecting you.”

Tick Tock Diner

Time, so they say, is irreversible. The Past, so they say, is different from the future.

Time does not stand still.

I went to college for seven years. Even so, I am at least a couple of years away from a Bachelor’s Degree. My freshman year was three of the best years of my life. The same could be said of my sophomore year. So much for the vaunted rules of time.

One of those sophomore years was spent at the University of New Hampshire. I lived in a house with 15 other people. We each had our own room of a divided up old Victorian. We shared three bathrooms and two kitchens; one on the ground floor and one on the third floor.

The ground floor kitchen had several refrigerators. We each had a section of refrigerator but my friend Dave likes to tell it that when I was hungry I would, in his words, forage through them all. Forage is his word now. I can’t think it or say it without making a mental note of him.

For the record and in the interest of fairness my friend Dave disputes many, if not most, of the facts in this story. However, since I am the writer, I would like it known that Dave is a notoriously unreliable, not to mention uncooperative, witness. Furthermore, during this time, Dave was a degenerate drunk, an unrepentant sybarite and a known communist sympathizer. And it is This Reporter’s Opinion that he also practiced….. WITCH-CRAFT!

That said, I don’t recall if I treated all those refrigerators as my savannah but it’s entirely possible. I still eat that way when left to my own devices. I’m less of a hunter-gatherer and more of a scavenger. An opportunistic eater one might say.

Apparently I was able to avoid drawing predators, in the form of angry housemates, by employing a survival mechanism that I like to call Nibble and Move. Pretty self explanatory and altogether successful when coupled with the track covering behavior of fluffing the refrigerated leftovers to camouflage my covert snacking.

The upper kitchen was outside of my natural habitat but not outside of my interest. I used that kitchen to boil road kill that my Anthropology Professor had buried for a season. You know, to get the last furry bits off. He was making a skeleton collection of local fauna. I don’t know what I was thinking but I’m afraid I thought it was a good idea. His name was Howard Hecker.

When Howard and I first met he said ”Mednick eh. Are you related to the poet Mednick?” I answered that I thought it was possible but probably not. Then he asked if I knew Hecker flour and of course I did. Even back then, barely nineteen, I occasionally baked bread. “Yeah” he would say, “I’m not related to them either.”

One of the fellows who lived in the house was named Robert Armstrong. “All American Boy”, my mother would always say when hearing his name. Surprisingly, his was not the most memorable name. That belonged to the birdlike and serious Cat Sleep. A definite top floor turret dweller, she lived in the round room. She was serious, industrious and motivated. A genuinely diligent student, she would make any professor proud. We shared nothing in common.

Over Christmas break, Robert Armstrong, “All American Boy”, had moved out and now lived at another house out in the boonies between Dover, where I lived and Durham, the town where the University was and I presume still is. That house was called Shaky Acres and every full moon was occasioned by a Full Moon Boogie, after the song of the same name by Jeff Beck. I can no longer remember how many of those Full Moon Boogies I attended but whatever the number I can only recall one. And of that one I remember nothing. I don’t think it was because I’d had too much to drink, although chances are pretty good that I was drunk, but only that so much time has passed.

Everyone thinks about time. The great distance between then and now. Where does it go? Whatever happened to my dearest what’s her name that I loved so well? How did I become here? How did I get here is a question of time as much as circumstance but adds the fleshy dimension of history and the question of free will.

History is the accumulation of events. Events exert pressure on subsequent events.

Pressure subverts free will.

My friend Mike is a city planner or would be if he weren’t working for the MTA. There was no work in city planning and after years of trying he settled for the MTA and a steady meal ticket. Mike’s family came from Ireland in the 1840′s, driven by the potato famine. After passing through New York harbor they joined the push west to Ohio and opportunity. And then on to Illinois. Failed farmers they joined the California gold rush. And then north. And then back east to Chicago. Finally settling down in New York, the very place they had departed more than one hundred years earlier. A trip of generations in search of a bite to eat.

Were they really making choices or were they pushed along by the force of history? Is it free will to follow a trail of survival? Are any of us exercising anything more meaningful than the choice between low fat and skim, caf and decaf? It’s the past. The past propels us forward. Again and again we steer blind but experienced, into the headwinds of the oncoming present, looking for calm and a cessation of hunger.

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