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. 

Sturm und Drang

Today’s post was written live and direct.

~o~

I am on an airplane, on my way to Florida. I am helping my friend Clem, a steel sculptor like myself, install some large scale pieces. We have 48 hours to accomplish this task. I think we started drinking as soon as we hit the airport but we may have waited until after checking our bags.

The plane is paid for, my meals are paid for, my own motel room is paid for and we’re heading to the beach just in time to intercept a major tropical storm. So far so good.

But let’s back up a second here. Maybe we should begin this story at the beginning.

Clem, John Clement, is my excellent friend and studio mate of over a dozen years. Whether or not it is true, I consider myself instrumental in getting him and his girlfriend on the same page that led to their successful and wonderfully good looking marriage. I did this by providing an outstanding example with my own ultra-groovy marriage as well as offering advice to both parties that may not have been stellar, but at least it wasn’t poisonous.

One of the sculptures that we are installing is Clem’s. Two of the sculptures that we’re installing are not Clem’s. One of these two sold for 450 thousand dollars. This is by no means your ordinary installation. Somehow, all three sculptures are arriving on the same truck and the other galleries involved are piggybacking our installation services. I am the go to person for this installation because I owe Clem a bunch of money and I don’t have it, so this way I am able to work off my debt. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m ten years older than Clem this trip would have none of that ever so tasty embarrassment factor attached to it at all. The other reason I might be here is because I have over twenty years experience at rigging and I can operate machinery and tools accurately and efficiently.

Clem has other people that he can use for this sort of job but they are young and prone to recklessness. I, on the other hand, am more moderate, more considered in my actions. It wasn’t always so but it is now. I may not have grown up but I have definitely slowed down and on a big job like this, where other peoples property and money are on the line, it pays to go with a more experienced hand. The more so when that hand is free of course, but still.

~o~

The trip starts where all these kinds of trips start; at the airport bar. Two rounds of beers, two shots of tequila. Did I mention moderation? Not my fault or my doing. I’m only along for the ride and this ride starts at the bar. I’m traveling with a bar owner; it’s only to be expected. By total and complete coincidence we have just run into one of Clem’s ex-bartenders. This ex and his girlfriend buy us a round, we buy them a round and it’s time to head to the gate. The plane is delayed. Back to the bar. This developing drunk seems inevitable and the fact is, I don’t like to tamper with the inevitable.

~o~

I have only just learned that our destination is Sarasota and that Sarasota is on the west coast of Florida. I like to think of every experience as a potential learning experience so I’m already way ahead of the game and I haven’t even finished my drink. This should be good.

~o~

The delay is never officially explained though I do see a lot of arm waving by the weather guy up on the flat screen. There is a hurricane passing through our destination. But never mind our destination; after more shots and beers I do believe the hurricane has made landfall at our point of origin right here at LaGuardia Airport.

~o~

We’re now in flight and I have Coltrane on the iPad; Equinox. Cool happened a long time ago now. So much music has happened; so much time; so many ears but this one song is such a concentrated dose of perfection that it overwhelms the before and after of popular music. I divide music as before and after this one song. You may not agree but that just makes you a putz.

~o~

The airline has blessed me with a free in flight snack. It isn’t just me, its everyone. It’s amazing what we’ve become accustomed to eat. A moderately salted chip made of crushed popcorn, it immediately reminds me of the coarse compressed paper of old fashioned egg cartons. My guess is that after extracting the corn syrup and fermenting the remainder to make ethanol the refiner gave the desiccated remains to a waste contractor who’s pals with a cattleman. The cattle refused to eat it and, left with tons of the stuff, he figured there was nothing else to be done but make it into a salty snack, put it in snappy packaging and tout the health benefits.

~o~

We land on the late side. We rent the car and find that no one is available to bring it around from the lot. We have 2 fifty pound bags of tools as well as duffels full of clothes and rigging so it’s actually a small problem, but there is a reasonable excuse for the poor service. The wind is blowing a steady 60 miles an hour outside the door and it’s raining horrendously. Maybe I’m just old fashioned but wouldn’t you think that this is exactly the circumstance in which providing the car at the door service would really be a ……. what’s a good word to use here….. Ah yes… Service?

~o~

If it wasn’t for the palm trees you could be anywhere in America that is prone to hurricanes. I say that because we have passed through miles of franchised businesses before we found something local to eat and there is a tropical storm thrashing around a few feet away from our outdoor table at Walt’s Seafood shack. Walt’s has kind of a grass covered tiki hut porch so we’re sitting here drinking Longboard Beer and eating alligator bites. Nothing happens without a beer or cocktail or shot in some peoples world. I am in the company of one of those people. It is both refreshing and disorienting. Very much like alcohol itself when I am able to think about it.

The wind is thick with moisture. Humidity has to be hovering around 110% as the sports radio guy would doubtless report it, because, you know, everything is bigger than life in professional sports. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe professional sports are smaller than life and need to be exaggerated in order to bring them up to life size. Just a thought.

The wind keeps changing directions as the storm revolves around its quiet eye. We are obviously nowhere near that eye. The lights at the bar flick off for a fraction of a second along with all the other lights as far as I can see and it is absolutely black until someone’s Plan B trips into effect and all is bright again. Still, everyone seems made nervous by it. The fry cook kid who so lovingly dipped our alligator into a bath of hot oil comes out from the kitchen and tells us where the alligator comes from. “Out in the country”, as he calls central Florida, “or from over in Louisiana.” He has a slight look of distaste when he says Louisiana. It has always been my observation that in tall states like California, the north and south hate each other; in wide states like Pennsylvania, the east and west hate each other. A map of Florida looks tall and wide so maybe that means they hate everyone. I don’t know but it seems like everyone needs someone to hate and the go to first choice is bound to be your neighbor.

~o~

After a short drive through bands of blinding rain and flooded streets we end up at our motel. It is on a street of motels that all have similar names, mixing and matching words like Bay, Cove, Beach, Harbor, Key, Pointe, Grove, View, Club and Lagoon. Every motel complex runs into the next and they all look alike so it’s best to come here if you already live here. Otherwise, like us, you will need to pay careful attention to the bogus directions the front desk guy is giving us over the phone, guiding us in like a plane lost in a storm. None of this helped by the fact that the pilot and navigator are full of fried ‘gator and beer.

~o~

Up early. Let’s get this thing started. We stopped at the 7-11 for weak coffee and something claiming to be an apple doughnut. It has no apple in it and it is not a doughnut. First off its missing a hole. Secondly, doughnuts are supposed to be fried in oil, right?; not just soaked in it. On the upside it seems to have been submerged in sugar paste for 36 hours so “Apple Donut” it is.

~o~

 

We’re driving out to the house where we will be installing the work. The road is thigh deep in water that smells of sewerage. Our brand new GMC Equinox is not loving the water and starts flashing lighted little icons across the dashboard. The on board diagnostics don’t know what to make of seawater up the tailpipe but clearly this is exceeding some kind of warranty fine-print.

~o~

We get to the house, make introductions and I leave the group and walk the thirty paces to the beach. I want to assess the tide because the wind is going to be driving the next several cycles. I have already checked the tide tables and we are near high water. As the tide peaks, rolling waves pour over the dunes; the water running in widening channels down the driveway into the lagoon that used to be the front lawn. The howling winds try to strip foliage and siding and the rains overflow swimming pools up and down the Key. Talk turns to what’s playing at the local movie theater. We need to reassess our situation and the wisdom of proceeding with a plan that didn’t include a variety of elements trying to kill us.

~o~

We have no choice but to go to breakfast. We head to the local shopping center diner. It is huge, full service and utterly empty. We walk in and ask if they have a table available. There is something about a life threatening situation that brings out the best in people and the two waitresses are as friendly as can be. If time and desire allowed for it, I think we could arrange poached eggs and grits with a happy ending. Diner chatter usually revolves around the weather but in this case the lack of customers and the rising water in the parking lot makes weather talk a little more urgent. We finish up and leave a nice tip. I think our waitress may have four and possibly as many as eight extra teeth in her head but it gives her an exceptionally large smile.

~o~

I’m watching Clem closely for signs of our direction. I don’t have anything hanging in the balance here but I know he does and I’m game for anything; a matinee, a sculpture installation or ransacking evacuated beach houses; it’s all the same to me. I see his knit brow and I know he’s as sober as we’re going to be today. Out comes the phone and I know that he is calling in the experts. His sister and her husband live on the east coast of Florida and they are both exceptionally good looking. They are also world renowned oceanographers and climate experts but in this family everyone is noteworthy for there beauty. Their surpassing intelligence is a given.

The only question is “What is it going to be like tomorrow?” Clem’s brother-in-law, Kenny, is just finishing up a helicopter lesson. Kenny  says that if we’re going to do it, today is the day because no matter how bad it is today, even with the most advanced gadgets in the world, they can’t tell us what it’s going to be like tomorrow. Words to live by no doubt. Kenny is the National Geographic Explorer of the Year because he does insane things everywhere he goes but the fact is, we’re looking for an excuse to do this job and, as the saying goes, “Any excuse in a storm.” Time to call the truck.

~o~

The truck is parked twenty miles away because the driver has more common sense than we do. I am listening to Clem’s end of the phone conversation. “Yeah man, it’s not too bad, we’re gonna do the job. Yeah, yeah, just pull into the parking area just past the guard booth. Yeah, you’ll see the booth as soon as you make the turn unless it’s floated away. No man, the parking area is high and dry. Ok maybe not dry but not nearly as submerged as the rest of Siesta Key.”

~o~

We make our way back out to the house and the sewage smell has pretty much abated. The lagoon and the street are a single body of water with a very pleasant current running through it freshening everything in its path. The wind is blowing hard out of the Gulf and by this time it is clear that the tide will not be ebbing, therefore the next high tide will be the one to worry about as it overruns itself.

~o~

The owner is happy happy happy that we are going to do the job. He hasn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary about the weather. I think it must be typical of very successful people. You and I are always weighing the worst case scenario against the best possible outcome. For people like our client, best outcomes seem to be a given. One of us is clearly unbalanced but given that he owns two beach houses right next door to each other and that these are by no means his only properties; that he collects art and toys, and that we work for him and not the other way around I have to think that maybe it’s he who is tapped into the light fantastic. We’re all excited by the prospect of getting underway and the real possibility that we are going to regret this but it also has the prospect of a heroic adventure.

Oddly enough, now that we’ve decided to go ahead with this venture, it seems like a shame this raging tempest has been designated a tropical storm. I mean, if we’re gonna do this I want to do it in the teeth of a hurricane. Life is full of these little disappointments and there is nothing to do but turn into the torrential rains and the massive, locomotive winds and carry on. Oh well, you work with the hand you’re dealt.

~o~

We’re ready to begin and I climb into the driver’s seat of the reach-lift. A reach-lift is kind of like a fork lift with a telescoping boom, big balloon tires and a single, caged in operator’s seat. I’ve operated these in the past so it only takes a quick run through and I’m ready to go. Clem confirms the truck is en route, finds a nonlethal spot on the machine to sit, and we make our way back to the beach club parking area through a shower of waves crashing over a makeshift sea wall of rocks that are all that remains of the sandy beach. Throughout the day and into tomorrow we will be subject to repeated soakings from bands of circulating rain but the winds are so high that our clothes dry within minutes and the temperature is so tropical that there is never a threat of even a chill. Today I’m working in shorts and a T-shirt; tomorrow I think I’ll work in a bathing suit and a smile. There’s always room for fine tuning, you know what I mean?

~o~

Once committed to our course of action we are all business. And now that we have the tractor trailer here, we are eager to get it unloaded and back on the road before the sea carries the rest of the seawall into the Siesta Key Beach Club parking lot that is our staging area. Judging from the handsome beach club, tidy cabanas and palm shaded tennis court I have to believe that the beach here was pretty nice. It’s all angry water now.

Common sense dictates that we start with Clem’s sculpture. Get the learning curve out of the way on something we can at least replace should the need be. Nevertheless, we are starting with the biggest, heaviest and most fragile sculpture; sale price $450,000. If your gonna go down, go down big, right? Everyone, including the client, his house manager and the gallery director, has an opinion about how to carry out the transfer from truck to house, over a mile away. None of them agree with us. Well, we’re either gonna look real good or real bad. We decide, against the naysayers and take the piece in backwards. We’ll figure out how to turn it around when we get there. The advantage in our method is that we’re less likely to tip over. That seems like it’s important. Clem and I discuss the options but it’s only a formality. Communication between us is easy and neither one of us needs to be schooled. It’s very slow going as the roadway is invisible beneath a few feet of water. I don’t steer the reach lift so much as aim it through the overhanging palms and florals. The disappearing fire hydrants and mail boxes have pushed this whole outing to the point of epic.

~o~

The concrete pad for the $450,000 sculpture is about 60 feet from the crest of this dune. Maybe 50 feet. We’re getting splashed by wind driven surf. While we’re getting the piece rotated and into its final position there is a wobbly metallic sound. Everyone is looking at each other when I see the eaves fly off the house and head towards the mainland. Ok, so that answers that question.

~o~

During one of my trips back to the beach club to get a packing crate full of tools I end up nose to nose with a drowned 2012 Mercedes Benz SUV. The owner, a woman in her 40’s, was trying to make it out to her beach house to check on some landscaping she’s having done. Why she feels compelled to do that, in this storm, is anyone’s guess but my guess is that she’s an idiot. I had met the landscaper in the parking lot earlier and his high clearance truck was able to make the trip through the flood waters by taking it nice and slow. Aside from blowing smoke up the clients ass I cannot imagine what he hopes to accomplish today. The SUV on the other hand was being driven as if it were a Boston Whaler. The landscaper tells me she was leaving a deep wake in her tracks and when she slowed down, all that water converged on her. She is asking me to move the car with my machine. “Sorry lady but this machine will tear that car to pieces.” I think maybe I can tow her out of my way but she has fried the computer. The electronics won’t even allow her to put the car in neutral. The landscaper thanks me for even considering it. He says the car is five months old and this is the second time she’s done something like this. She seems nice enough but she is thoughtless in the way that only the wealthy can afford to be.

~o~

All good things must come to an end, of course, and as we finish placing the last piece on its concrete slab, that feeling of exhilaration and focus ebbs and we are able to take in the scene. The lagoon is in the street, the ocean is in the pool and the beach is in my underwear. No doubt about it, things get misplaced in a storm like this. I’m looking around and there are broken things everywhere. But not the things that are supposed to be here. Palm trees have shed a few fronds but that’s about all. The Mangroves, Saw Palmetto, Inkberry, Blanketflower, Salt Grass, Beach Verbena, Matchweed, Sea Lavender, and all the other salt resistant shrubs and ground cover look fine; healthy even. The rest of the landscaping is a landscapers wet dream. And I do mean wet. Ferns, lawn grass, Olive trees, northern perennials, decorative flowers and anything else that needs to be near a sprinkler are either stripped bare, knocked over (too much wind resistance I would guess) or wilted and burnt from the salt. Calm throughout it all are the birds. And not little birds either. Big lanky things, Herons, Egrets and Ibis that have been sitting in low mangroves as if nothing is happening at all and for them I suppose nothing is happening. Occasionally they poke at the fish swimming across the submerged lawns but, as a long time observer of birds, I’ve noticed that birds don’t seem to reflect on their situation very much. Sure they’re driven by the same anxiety to survive that the rest of us are but they don’t seem to sweat the details. Rain or shine, wind or calm, they really seem to be in the moment. It’s an enviable quality.

~o~

I parked the machine and we’re all piling back into the gallery directors SUV. I don’t know what this beast of a vehicle is but every idiot light on the dashboard is blinking it’s disapproval as we sputter along just barely keeping water out of the intake. Bubbles are coming out of the subaqueous tailpipe. With proper cropping and an overhead view, a picture of this vehicle could be mistaken for a fat man in a bathtub.

~o~

We’re back at the motel. I have water coming in under my door. I’ll bet Clem doesn’t have that happening up in his second floor room but if the roof blows off tonight I’ll have the last laugh.

The motel is ultra-standard. Two floors, outward facing box rooms, one big window with blackout shades and a huge air conditioner that does everything but cool and dehumidify. The bathroom is a study in mold.

~o~

We shower and change and go looking for dinner. All the high rise hotels around us have hurricane shutters drawn on every floor. They are sealed tight against the elements. It turns out that dinner is immediately next door in the form of a Gilligan’s Island themed establishment. In fact, most of the restaurants are open. It defies my expectations but the tourists are out and they’re hungry and thirsty and in need of a scruffy middle aged guy playing a guitar and singing along with an iPad karaoke app. He is the paid entertainment. The waitresses are pretty, the food is practically tolerable and the beer is beer. We are so tired that we quickly fall silent and relax into crowd watching.

~o~

Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, I feel like I’m an anthropologist observing the primitive rituals of a culture that I barely recognize as my own. I live my days among these people but I share so little of their interests.

Everyone here is interacting in the way that humans typically do but it seems foreign to me. A few feet away, through a wall that is inches thick, there is a howling, shuddering storm. We have only just come in and I want to go back outside again. I want to soak it in; open my eyes as wide as I can. The wind is thick as water; I want it to pick me up. I want it to but it won’t. I am too earthbound. I don’t understand why no one else sees what is going on out there. But really, I do understand; it is feeding time and my species, like all species, is obsessed with feeding time.

~o~

We finished up at the house this morning, parked the reach-lift, toasted the whole affair with a beer and we are on our way. Its close enough to lunch time that we are able to find a reasonably good Mexican restaurant to renew ourselves at. Renew is shorthand for wolf down some heavy food and get on with the business of drinking Margaritas.

~o~

We’re walking around Sarasota Harbor, killing time before our afternoon flight. There are a dozen or more boats washed up onto the sidewalks and beaches, gently rocking in the shallow surf, waiting for an insurance adjuster. All the nice boats have weathered the storm, attached to their moorings by braided Samson lines. Every beached vessel is a once proud possession that has passed through too many hands and has, finally, fallen on hard times. I remember reading that, in the old days, elderly Eskimos, so as not to be a burden, would wander out onto the ice when they felt their time had come. Sometimes they even had a little help from the family if food was scarce or if Grandad was particularly annoying. The same rule applies here but the idea seems to be that when you are done with your boat, you wait for a big storm and then tie it to its mooring with dental floss or a medium quality shoelace.

~o~

The morning has been a lot like yesterday weather-wise but now, as the afternoon wears on there are occasional breaks in the clouds and the sun comes out for a few minutes of absolutely brutal heat and humidity. It is immediately apparent why this town is empty in the summer. When we first arrived Clem told me that this is a favorite destination for snow birds; elderly northerners who come here in the winter months to escape the cold. The winters here are lovely, so I’m told. A five minute burst of summer is grotesque. I finally understand that the shuttered buildings and lack of people is less about the bad weather then it is about the good weather. A sunny summer day here is a curse. It’s time to head to the climate controlled airport.

~o~

 

The airport is empty, and I don’t mean lightly peopled. Our flight was cancelled and we are awaiting the next one; the last flight of the day. We are the only ones at the bar and have been for hours. I’m drinking rum. We close the bar. I haven’t done that in 25 years. We go to the boarding area where the last bar is closing. More rum. Time to get on the plane. Clem says “No. Wait.” The final call is announced. A few stragglers wander on; the attendants are getting ready to close the gate. Clem nods his approval and we board. We haven’t looked at our tickets. We don’t even bother looking for our seats. We each pull into an empty row and spread out. Done.

~o~

That was awesome.

The Dream Job

I had a strange dream last night. It may have been the take-out food, laying heavy in my stomach or it may have been the election season, weighing heavy on my soul.

In the dream, I was driving along a road. It was not a new road; it was rough but it was serviceable. The road was running by the side of a vast construction project; the beginnings of a bridge I thought to myself. The project lay in the middle of a rolling sandy riverbed with a small but growing stream meandering down the middle. It had been the dry season but now it was raining and the stream had turned to a river and the river was building towards a serpentine flood.

The site was abandoned except for two guys in waders working under a pile cap; the thick concrete slab sitting on top of the driven piles that together provide the structural support required for any building that’s meant to last. They were bracing the formwork and getting ready to pump concrete. The one was supporting a heavy timber with his shoulder while the other was securing it with hammer and spike. They were chest deep in water that was swirling with sand; as if they were standing in the middle of a concrete pour themselves. The spot they were working was tight; their bodies were hunched but they were getting the job done.

They couldn’t see that waves of water were heading towards them but I knew they didn’t care. The job had to be finished. I know that feeling. I’ve been in that moment. I’ve been on that kind of job. It is a situation where pride and necessity and sacrifice are braided together.

This is who we are. This is what we do. There is no time for later.

My friend and fellow Dockbuilder, John McCrudden, has just finished burying his father after a years long illness. It wasn’t easy. His father was a time traveler. John texted me not long ago and our exchange went like this.

John- “My dad is reading the paper to me but I think he’s making it up.”

Me-  “What makes you think so?”

John- “Germany just annexed the Sudetenland.”

Me- “Again?”

John- “No, this is the first time according to him,”

Me- “I see. Still, I was a believer right up until that “First Time” thing.”

John- “Germany just invaded Poland. More to come.”

Within days of his father’s funeral, his father-in-law became gravely ill. His sister was recently diagnosed with cancer.

As John might say: “My plate is full but there’s nothing good to eat.”

John has met this wall of abrasive water. It has been relentless and wearing but his resolve is firm. He has waded in, taken hold of the bucking, angry python that is a concrete hose, and done what needed to be done. He is driven by need and guilt and faith and responsibility and honor. All the things that drive the best in us.

John has been a great support to me as I deal with my own father’s infirmities. I can only hope that my friendship is of a comparable quality. I think it is. I think we are together under that pile cap and its threatening load. That is why, in this business, we never work alone. We always work together because to build this bridge, to make this crossing successfully, requires more hands than any one person has and more skills than any one person can master.

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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.

.

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Jackpot!

The Good Book

There are some books that you want to read. There are some books that you have to read. And there are some books that are ill-fitting shoes; you try to get into them but there’s just too much resistance and they are set aside. And then there are the classics. Books that can be read again and again with something new taken away at each reading.

It’s been awhile since I dove into a classic so I thought I’d go straight to a book that pretty much everyone is familiar with. Anyone stressed out from a cross-country road trip will find a copy in their motel room. It is there to calm, and to soothe, and to inform. In fact, in one form or another, it’s probably the most read book out there. I am, of course, referring to the phone book.

I am a purist so I prefer the White Pages but for raw excitement I will occasional succumb to the cheap thrills of the Yellow Pages. Illustrations, bold type, extravagant claims; it can be a little overwhelming. All flash; very Hollywood.

No, for me it’s the small label, indie film charm, of the White Pages. Visually calm but with the promise of discovery ’round every turn of the page. Did you ever take a strong magnifying glass to the beach and look at sand? Do! You’ll be surprised. The White Pages is like that. It is the map and the treasure; X marks the spot but so does every other letter. In fact, in my phone book, X is represented by a phone number and a single X. No first name or initial; no address. Very mysterious.

The phone book is like that; there is history, mystery and romance.

The phone book I’m reading is, I believe, a classic in its own right. The September 1998 to August 1999 Bell Atlantic White Pages for Brooklyn; Area Code 718, complete with six pages of CUSTOMER RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES (their caps not mine). The very first line reads “The last thing we want to do is turn off your telephone service.” You see? From the very first line you are in its grip. Hold that up to your “Call me Ishmael.” This is a threat! To you personally! And it’s real!

In reality, almost every phone book can be considered a classic. The hidden gem of a small, exclusive hotel, shares so much with the boutique qualities of a small town phone book. Those books are a history lesson in geography and the migration of people’s. Rural Minnesota books full of Anderson’s and Andersen’s; the French and Scottish surnames of Coastal Maine. And every book has its standouts. I am reminded of a mid-70’s Philadelphia White Pages of my youth. It takes me back just thinking about that manuscript; the leaves unbleached, thin as rolling papers. Maybe it’s hometown pride but that book had what I consider to be two of the finest entries anywhere. Phillip and Douglas Updegrave. Yes, you read that correctly. Phil Updegrave and Doug Updegrave. What a great family legacy. And these names would have been unavailable to the world at large were it not for being documented in the White Pages.

But for sheer variety it’s hard to beat Brooklyn. The Brooklyn book has a nice balance of names both familiar and unfamiliar. Sure, Queens is the most ethnically diverse place on the planet but when they say a fat man has more chins than a Chinese phonebook it’s just a joke; a little word play. Take it from me, there are way, way, way more Chin’s in the Chinese phonebook. The Chinese phone book is the king of the Chin’s but the Queens phone book has got to be running a close second.

Reading from the Queens book is like reading from a book in a language you don’t understand. In fact, it is reading from a book in a language you don’t understand. The Queens phone book is page after page of what look like menu items. A few hundred thousand names that are obviously phonetic spellings, transposed from alphabets that don’t contain any familiar letters. These names are wonderful I’m sure, but for a westerner they are sound without meaning; they don’t connect to anything. There are no narratives to build around them; they don’t remind you of anyone you might know or even know of. Bottom line? It kills the book’s dramatic tension. So Brooklyn, as in so many other spheres, is the place.

In place of all those Chin’s, Brooklyn has the Smith’s. The nice thing about the Smith’s is that everyone knows them.  They are America’s default next-door neighbor. You would think that Smith was the most common, English speaking, last name and there are a bunch of historical reasons that it is but in this Brooklyn book they are outnumbered by the Williams’, unless you count variations like Smythe, Schmidt and Kowalski, which is Polish for Smith.

With the big entries like Smith, Johnson, Brown, Williams and Jones, I like to see if the first names are represented by every letter in the alphabet. Sadly, Johnson and Williams are each missing an X. It’s always an X isn’t it. There’s always something getting in the way of perfection and it’s always something like an X; an element that seems deliberately inserted to foil a flawless performance. One more reminder that nothing worth doing comes easily.

The nice thing about reading the phone book is that you really can start anywhere. The story is timeless and familiar, the characters like old friends. Oh look! There’s John McCrudden. He actually is an old friend. The only Dockbuilder I know who can do justice to song after song from the golden age of Broadway musicals. Oklahoma, The Music Man, South Pacific, West Side Story; his “I Feel Pretty” will bring you to tears. In fact, it isn’t him at all. My John doesn’t even live in this state but you see it doesn’t matter. The connection is made.

No two people read the phone book the same way. Without guile, the telephone book interacts with you. The White Pages would never presume to leverage your affections. It is happy to let you write the story; you create the narrative. You see? Here is Daniel Walker. Daniel Walker was my first friend. He died and yet here he is. It’s good to see him. It brings back memories.

Plotnick, Plotnick, let’s see Barbara, no; David, no; Elizabeth, no; Seymour, no; aha! Walter! Walter Plotnick and I each had a broken arm in first grade. His was left, mine was right. It must be getting on 40 years since I last saw Walter and here he is. Not really though, but maybe. I live in a different city than the city whose suburbs I grew up in. It’s unlikely that this is the same Walter but that’s the beauty of the phone book. Everyone you know or ever knew, including fictional characters, is likely to be here but not if you don’t want them to be. All the names of old enemies belong to someone else. Their names have been diluted to the point of anonymity. Or not. Your choice.

Even though you can start reading the Phone Book anywhere, it’s only natural to start by having a look for your own name. You know, see if there are any others of you roaming around out there. I imagine it’s a strange feeling to see your name in a phone book and know it’s not you. Like there’s another you; a you who may be living one of the lives you misplaced along the way.

Then a review of those who share your last name. I have an unusual last name but there are other Mednick’s out there and though I doubt we’re related, they feel like lost family members when I read their names. It’s reminiscent of when you see old photographs of relatives who died before you were born.

The adolescent in me had to look up Lipschitz but who knew that I would be rewarded with a Lipshits? Truly a gratifying moment but let’s be honest; I don’t care if your dad discovers the cure for cancer, if your name is Lipshits, it’s time to go get yourself a name change. That said, the adolescent does wonder if the world would have been different if Lipshits had been Jesus last name. Jesus Lipshits. You gotta think so. In these matters, it’s important to let that internal adolescent have his way. He will take you places that will make you laugh; no harm is done and you know he so rarely gets out these days.

After that I believe it is only proper to introduce yourself to the first and last names in the book. I consider it a common courtesy. To quote Dirty Harry, “A man has got to know his limitations.” The limitation of our knowledge of this discreet universe will fall between AAB and ZYZINSKI. That knowledge may seem trivial but it does tell us something; like the person whose presence is noted by their absence. There are no people who are named by a number. In my phone book, no one is named by a symbol or pictograph.

It seems inconsequential but it does tell us about conformity. Jung spoke about archetypes; the unconscious patterns we follow. Every culture may have a different creation myth but every culture has a creation myth. Every group may be structured differently but every group is structured. So it is with names. Everyone has a name but nobody is named R2D2 or 7come11 or i8 1-u8 1 2. Sure there is an M. Four, a J. Five and an E. Six in our book. There are Aziz, Joe and Doris Seven as well as Willa Eights but that’s not the same. I’m talking hard numbers here and I’m just not finding them. And do you know why? Yeah, me neither. I can’t figure it out because the kid next door would give his last Twinkie to be named C3PO and he is by no means unique in this desire. For years my own sister was known only as #1.

After these few introductions, simply move as the spirit moves you. Allow the connections to make themselves and follow up every lead, no matter how daft, because you never know where it will take you and that really is the point isn’t it?

So first off, there are a ton of SAINTs. I mean, I’m no religious scholar but I never heard of half these saints. Saint Albord? Saints Arromand and Aude? Saint Felix? I guess he was the happy saint. Saint Finbars? Saints Perix and Pard and Preux? Who the hell are these people? All these folks named SAINT and yet there is not a single entry under SINNER. And this is New York City! How are we to explain that? I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking going on here.

Like salt on watermelon, comedy and tragedy go together in life and therefore in literature and this applies no less to the phone book. But comedy is the reaction to tragedy; tragedy is the dominant theme. Maybe that explains why, while there are some HIGHs in the phone book, they are greatly outnumbered by the LOWs.

Examples are as common as tears and each is equivalent to the next.

You see, I know it ended in a lot of death and heartache and jail time between the families of Devil Anse and Ole Ran’l down along the banks of Tug Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River but this isn’t the line between Confederate Kentucky and Union West Virginia. That issue is not an issue here. But maybe the past just wouldn’t stay put down there and something had to give. Time is a distance but sometimes not as much of a distance as separation requires. Maybe it was time to leave the past behind and start anew. Whatever the case, up here in Brooklyn, there are way more McCOYs than there are HATFIELDs

Pride and vengeance were the undoing of those families and that line of thinking will always lead you back to Romeo & Juliet.

It saddens me to say this but while there are plenty of MONTAGUEs in the Brooklyn White Pages, there is not a single CAPULET. Wherefore art thou Juliet?

But romance is ever present so sometimes it’s just relaxing to see if you can find two people who need to meet. A few of my favorites are:

GRIN and BARET (Jeanette and Michael respectively) who should probably never date.

NOW and THEN (Susan and Rafael respectively) who should probably just go out occasionally.

KISS and TELL (Morris and K., who seems to prefer a little anonymity. You can understand why) who are gonna have a blast but will be running into commitment problems.

Speaking of KISS, what have we here? Another KISS, first name Hersch! Oh man, I hope his middle initial is E.

Then we’re on to STRAIGHT and NARRO (Danasia and Aureliano) who will have a steady, joyless relationship that they’ll both feel really “good” about.

And finally:

LOVE and MARRY (Sonia and John) who I think may have a real shot at happiness.

I guess the luckiest guy in the phone book lived up in Bay Ridge. Of the ten people with the last name of LUCKY, there is one with the first name VERY. Very Lucky. I worked with Lucky for many years but we all knew him as Lucky Sweeney. The phone book name was his little joke. He was a dive tender; the topside help for the commercial diver. The tender is on the radio with the diver and looks out for the divers needs including tools, materials and air. Air is a big one. You want to piss off a diver, just let his air run low. They hate that. Lucky’s tag line was:

Every day’s a holiday.

Every meal’s a banquet.

He was great to work with and around the winter holidays he made a wicked Glogg which had the entire crew hammered by coffee. We don’t work that way anymore and in a way it’s a shame. The new rules took a lot of the joy and camaraderie out of the work.

Before exiting the good book, I like to see if I can build a familiar phrase using only the available names. Today’s result was most satisfying because in the end the White Pages is really about the connections between people and in that way it’s appeal is as universal as a catchy tune.

Mei, An, Yoo, Ann, Yoo, Anne, Mei,

Noe, Madar, Howe, Day, Toste, Tha, Dyes, Ittehad, Abedi,

Onn, Leewah, N, Formey, Yisu, An, Yoo, Formey,

Soe, Happy, Toh, Gheith, Er

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.”