Cross Country

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The AAU Cross Country Nationals were held in Rock Hill, South Carolina this year. My little guy, Coleman, is 8 years old and he qualified in his age group, the Sub-Bantams. I think that means little chickens and I try not to read anything more into it than that. Cole runs Indoor Track, Outdoor Track and Cross Country. He’s always been fast and annoyingly energetic but track has given him confidence, discipline, a team he loves and a place to belong. He identifies with his group, which can be a two edged sword but the coaches are adamant about supporting the sport through respect for all runners regardless of team affiliation.

Cole has qualified for The Nationals before but we never went to anything beyond the Regional Championships. It isn’t the kind of thing we can really afford but at the same time, he’s been running track for about a year and a half and this is his last go ’round as a Little Chicken. He loves it and we’re very proud of him; we just felt like he deserved it and once he moves on to Bantam, being on the younger end of that group, he may not qualify again for some time. We booked the flight, a car rental and the hotel. The whole team has a block of rooms at the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn, and we’re all set to go.

Why is it that just when you think you’ve got things pretty well figured out, that’s just about the time when they fall apart?

Two days before the flight we get a message on our answering machine. The message is from Randy, the manager of the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn. Randy says our 99 dollar room was booked wrong and do we still want it for 227 dollars. This is not good. It was a stretch to go in the first place. The added expense makes the whole thing suddenly seem like a bad idea. And by the way, what do they mean it was booked wrong? We called Holiday Inn’s 800 number and booked it more than a month ago. They gave us the room! They told us the price! It’s not like we haggled over it and they reluctantly accepted our ridiculously low offer. And why, a single day after the booking deadline, after mind you, not before but after, has this become an issue? I call the hotel and what sounds like a female parakeet with a southern drawl answers. I explain the message and she says she’s sorry but the manager has gone home for the night but we can call back in the morning. I can see our hotel room, with it’s plush kingsize bed and free continental breakfast, dissolving in front of my eyes and I launch:

 

“Look lady, you need to call the manager and he needs to call me and explain why
I am holding an 81/2 x 11 sheet of paper, complete with confirmation number
and price, that you are about to sell to the highest bidder. Now listen to me!
I do not want to get down there and find my room gone.
Do you understand me?”

~

“Yes sir, I’ll call him! Thank you for calling the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn.”

~

I email the coach and he says he’ll follow up. The next day I get his email; the hotel manager is immovable and the booking agent is claiming ignorance of the whole thing.

One way or the other, I always believe a claim of ignorance.

I don’t hear from the hotel manager or anyone else before the flight and I have to say I’m worried. I feel like my only chance is to have a face to face with this guy but in my heart I know it will be useless. There is money on the line and I have no leverage whatsoever.

The night before leaving I have a dinner date in Philadelphia with The Fungi Social Club, about whom I may write at a later date. I make my way to Philly and stop at my mom’s. I don’t write much about my mom. What can a person say about their mom that won’t end up sounding schmaltzy or maudlin or get everyone at the bar crying in their beer. Better to acknowledge the lady respectfully and move on. Everyone, or at least every son, knows what I mean. But setting all that aside for a moment, it is worth mentioning that my mom has a better Scotch collection than your mom.

I was sampling some of that collection and recounting my Lilliputian woes because moms always like that kind of thing; they always take your side and occasionally they even have good advice. This wasn’t going to be one of those occasions. Her logic was that Southerners are well mannered people and therefore I should basically throw myself on the mercy of a court that still seems to be licking wounds suffered during the Civil War and its apparently endless aftermath.

I have often wondered about that; how The Civil War seems to be a defining part of Southern identity, especially when compared with The North. I’ve worked with a lot of guys from The South and invariably there is a Confederate flag somewhere in the mix, often tattooed directly upon their person. In The North it is a non issue on every level. It is not on anyone’s mind in the slightest. Except as an academic matter, it is a fully forgotten event. No grudge is borne, no resentment nursed, no offense taken. There is no gloating or self satisfaction regarding the war. There are no meaningful reminders; nothing to jog the collective memory but even if there were, nobody cares. It is not part of how Northerners define themselves for the very simple reason that Northerners don’t define themselves as Northerners. Only Southerners do that.

There are monuments of course; there are always monuments. But Civil War monuments are few and discreet and really kind of anonymous. Monuments are meant to evoke history but in fact they seem to isolate and entomb it. Stone is noble and there is stately grandeur in the Beaux Arts and NeoClassic architecture typical of the period but that’s all you get. On the actual subject at hand, The Civil War, the stone is mute; bloodless; amnesic even.

Just to go that extra mile, because I’m an extra mile kind of guy, I have returned to my old neighborhood. For a time, I lived on West 89th street. At the end of the block, in Riverside Park, is Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Every time I walked the dog I would go look at it; try to imagine a past when it was new. When the war was still a memory within easy reach. Nothing.

Now I’m here in Morningside Heights, 122nd and Riverside Drive, to stand in front of Grant’s Tomb, just to check for residual emotions and I’m getting nothing. It doesn’t help that in 1865 my people were busy being persecuted in Eastern Europe but still, I’m an empathetic person and I have a good understanding of history; I’ve done my reading. Also, I’m a middle child; I see everyone’s point of view and they are all equal before me. I have no trouble putting myself in your shoes or anyone else’s shoes; the more so if you’re sporting an 11 1/2 wide, in which case we’re as good as siblings. When confronted with history I can usually force an emotion but then, I get choked up over the pastoral section of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture too. But honestly, Grant’s Tomb elicits nothing. A total blank. I mean, who the hell is buried here anyway?

Ok, so back in Philly I wandered off to my dinner, which included a Scotch tasting, a wine sampling and an excellent bottle of Port. I shall forever be grateful that the last bus back to New York was a 9 o’clock. Had it been an 11 o’clock, I may well be there even to this very day. An evening like that can so easily slip down that slope that can only end in Tequila and regret. I made my farewells to my fellow club members and scooted back to the safety of Brooklyn and the promise of an afternoon flight into an uncertain set of accommodations.

I spent a mostly sleepless night rehearsing the coming confrontation with the front desk. I tapped around the internet looking for a Bed & Breakfast in the Rock Hill area figuring that this event alone would probably use up almost every available hotel room. I was encouraged to find some beautiful spots at a fraction of the cost of my anonymous room; if that room was still even mine. The only real advantage of staying at the hotel is mixing with the other kids and parents on the team. It may not seem like much but really it is a very rich part of the whole experience.

The next day Cole and I made it out to LaGuardia without running into traffic. The plane ride was smooth and uneventful and my hangover was well within the nausea control limits recommended by the F.A.A.

So far, so good.

With the ultra-friendly chatterbox Dean, at the wheel of the Dollar Rent a Car bus, we headed out to the aptly named Rental Car Road. As a person who gets lost almost every time I get behind the wheel, I appreciate that kind of simplicity. I would recommend a trip to the Charlotte Airport based solely on the chance of getting a ride from Dean. He is too good to pass up just because you have no reason to be there. Personable doesn’t even begin to describe this cat. With the looks of an aging Rock-a-Billy star and a kind of affable southern charm, he strikes me as a man who, in another time, would have been a riverboat gambler. And not just any old riverboat gambler. A real cardsharp. The kind they used to hang. He would have worked the Proud Mary or the Natchez or the Mississippi Queen. And you know what? I would have considered it an honor to lose my paycheck to him. Dean seems to me to be an inhabitant of the new south but a product of the old. Not only that but he’s super helpful and inquisitive beyond anything that can be covered in a 4 minute bus ride. I want to tip Dean just for being Dean. As I reread these last sentences I have to wonder if I have an unusually low threshold for what constitutes acceptable entertainment. Whatever the case, this trip is starting out well even as we are heading towards the OK Corral of booking conflicts. We step out of Dean’s chariot and into the Dollar Rent-a-Car office:

 

“Welcome to Dollar Rent-a-Car. How are you today?”

~

“I’m good. How you doin’ ?”

~

“I’m fantastic!”

~

And you know what? She is fantastic! Her name is Shelae and she is an attractive black woman in her early thirties with an attitude so positive, so genuinely upbeat, that she makes me feel ok about renting a compact car. As if it really isn’t a reflection on my personal prosperity, not to mention my manhood. But I have my son, my smile and my strong chin; I can get by on that.

“How can I help you today?”

~

“Yeah, me and my friend are here to pick up our rental.”

~

At first she’s confused; maybe she’s thinking I’m schizophrenic. Then she leans over the high counter and spends a few moments exchanging pleasantries with Cole. She makes a nice attempt to seduce me into some unneeded insurance and points us towards the area where the compacts are. I ask her to repeat the directions because without a doubt I am going to get lost in the parking lot. Shelae cheerfully escorts us out to the compacts. She’s a sweetheart. I feel bad about not buying the extra insurance. I don’t need it but I feel like it would have made her even happier, if that’s possible. I’m starting to sense a trend here. Something about southern hospitality and being pleasantly separated from one’s money.

We’re in the lot now and there are no compact cars:

 

“Oh well.” says Shelae. “Take any car you like.”

~

I’m really beginning to like it here.

So let’s see. There isn’t a lot of choice. I can either take a Nissan Something-or-Other or a Dodge muscle car. Come to think of it, I guess there’s really no choice at all. We exit the lot, I put the pedal to the metal, skid around a corner and off into the North Carolina afternoon with squeals of terror and delight coming from the back seat.

We shoot down I-77 and cross into South Carolina. Over the border, I-77 becomes The Billy Graham Parkway. For an urban sophisticate, that’s creepy. It’s creepy for me too. A quick station seek on the radio reveals about nine stations. Most of them are religious gobbledygook, one is political gobbledygook and the remainder are playing the top 7 songs of their respective genres in lightning fast rotation. It looks like the genteel hand of civility is fixed to a strong arm of conformity. This does not appear to be an environment of competing ideas. Lots of black and white; not a whole lotta grey.

Exit 79 off of I-77, a left, pass a giant shopping center, two lights and another left, to the back of another giant shopping center and there it is, the Holiday Inn. The hotel looks the same as the surrounding car dealerships, the Sears, the chain stores, the chain restaurants and every other retail outlet I’ve seen thus far. I know that as far as I may travel in this state, every town will be dominated by a shopping center and every shopping center will be identical. I believe they call this Low Risk Architecture; not because it can’t offend anyone, or inspire anyone for that matter, but because it is built so economically that even a total business failure isn’t going to cost anyone a whole lot of money. Pour a concrete slab, throw up the prefab stucco walls, fill it with cool stuff from China, man it with low wage workers, open the doors and complain about how your culture is disappearing. Or, as I like to say, “Aim Low.”

Ok, so we enter the lobby and I see a young guy at the reception desk. His name tag says Randy. Randy is the manager. From my perspective, Randy has been the point man for the hotel in this debacle. Everyone who has tried to correct this situation, the booking agent, the coach, whoever all else, have had to deal with Randy but I haven’t actually talked with him yet. Randy is just finishing talking with a very large and clearly irate black man. I can see the hopelessness of my situation but Cole is by my side and I have to both spare him any anxiety about this, his first big trip, and get him to the bathroom because he’s turning yellow.

I am all smiles and urgency. I ask where the bathroom is and ever so nonchalantly slide our reservation across the desk. Who knows, maybe we’ll slip through the corporate cracks.

When we return, there is a local cop standing by the desk. I think the big black guy rattled Randy and he’s decided to call in reinforcements; a little bit of cavalry. Better to have and not need, than need and not have. Turning to me, Randy says there’s a problem. So much for corporate cracks. The details of the conversation are not interesting but the bottom line is that he, as the local representative of Holiday Inn, can not honor this reservation which was made by them, the Corporate Holiday Inn.

I’m calm and make my case; he recounts the recorded conversation of my wife and the Holiday Inn 800 number operator. Our mistake was not booking through the local, graft approved, booking agent. How that bears on the 800 number folks I can’t say; either can Randy. He parses the language but his case is weak, or would be if he weren’t holding the magnetically encoded key card to my room. I ask him if I’m the only one who is having this problem and he says no; not by a long shot. He’s had cancellations and arguments all day and most of the guests have yet to arrive.

My assessment of the man and the situation is rolling over and in all fairness I need to adjust my expectations. He’s not a bad guy but he’s been put in a bad position by a system that doesn’t integrate the local booking process with the national booking process. Throw in a wildcard third party like the booking agent and it’s time to call the sheriff. Randy’s kind of been left holding the bag by an uncaring machine whose executives would never dream of staying in one of their own hotels. I see him as just another little guy. Unfortunately, I’m littler still. Our conversation has been cordial but has come to an impasse.

Randy offers me the room at $227 a night and assures me that this is the discounted price. For that kind of money I could have stayed on Times Square but then, we’re not on Times Square. When handed this defeat I turn to the only option I have left and wouldn’t you know, it’s my mom.

You see, I’ve lived in New York City for half my life and I have found that New Yorkers have a very fine sense of injustice and are hair trigger adamant about their rights. When you live in an eat or be eaten environment it only makes sense to bite first but it can be cause for misunderstanding. However today, with my mother’s gentle guidance, and the good manners and quiet nature borne of my native Philadelphia, I have not bitten. Dean and Shelae have prepared me for this:

 

“Would you still like the room?”

~

I do not let slip any anger or resentment. He has won the battle and it’s time to move on. My tone is all good humor; our conflict, no more than a game of checkers:

 

“Well, we’re not gonna chase all over town looking for a room. Sure, I’ll take it.”

~

Randy prints up the papers, I sign them and he hands me the key card. That’s when I make my move; after the surrender of Fort Sumter. But here’s the thing, it wasn’t premeditated; it just came out:

“Hey man, is there anything you can do for me so that I won’t feel so bad about this?”

~

Randy takes a moment and I can see he’s honestly reflecting. Then he says:

“You know, you’ve been so nice about this, how about dinner for both of you.
And drinks. As much as you want.”

~

He hands me his card with instructions to the restaurant staff. It reads:

:

—Dinners free. Drinks free. Everything free—

~

“Wow, that’s great! Thank you so much. Honestly. It makes a big difference.”

~

“And full breakfast too. As long as you’re here.”

~

“Wonderful! Thank you so much!”

~

“I’ll tell you what. Let me change the price of the room.”

~

He tears up the contract and I get a much more reasonable rate. Coupled with dinner, drinks and breakfast, I’m shaking his hand across the fortification of the the front desk and we’re pals. Truly and honestly.

Randy notes that we are in a room with a single king size bed and he offers to upgrade us at no charge.

I say:

“Look Randy, unless this is the honeymoon suite and you need it, you’ve already been really good to us.

Really, we’re fine. Thank you.”

~

So I sign the new contract, he hands me the keycard and the last thing he says is:

“I gave you free Internet too. The code is inside your key envelope.”

——

When we get to our room I have to laugh. It was all so easy. Like the song says:

As easy as

ABC123

Which, perhaps not coincidentally, happens to be the access code to the Internet.

~

A little while later Cole and I are sitting down to dinner and the influx of guests has begun. Arguments are breaking out even as a second cop arrives. I have a nice piece of fish with lightly sautéed vegetables. Cole has a hamburger as big as his head. I am sipping a craft beer and Cole is working on a lemonade. We have a low angle view of the devolving state of affairs at the desk. The booking agent, wherever he may be, has outdone himself. Rooms have been changed, without notice, to other cheaper hotels but the booked price remains the same. Rooms have been given away without warning; tensions are escalating.

“Overbooked?!”

 

The word is spat like an obscenity; an outrageous question; an inconceivable statement. Voices are being raised and fingers are being pointed. It’s a profit taking frenzy and poor Randy has been left to fend for himself. He’s doing his best but he’s been surrounded. I find myself witness to one individual’s capacity for stubbornness as he fights off one assault after another. I am reminded again of Southern pride and Southern sensitivities. His professionalism and dedication to the cause of hospitality, whose motto could easily be:

 

The Customer Is Always Right In All Matters That Don’t Concern Money

 

are the only things that can explain his not yielding to a demand for unconditional surrender. That and the fact that he’s probably the only one here who is actually armed. Bottom line: Corporate policy sucks and the booking agent has clearly screwed everyone; communication between the elements is non existent and the situation is simultaneously unraveling in both an ad hoc and post hoc manner, which I guess is kind of an accomplishment.

I feel bad about it and especially bad for Randy but the parties have engaged and there is no turning back. Fresh skirmishes are breaking out all over the lobby; North and South are locked in a struggle, the scope of which neither understands and the forces of which are out of either’s control. Forces at a distance, powerful and determined, have set events in motion. Once again the result is conflict, played out at a local level between individuals who don’t understand each other. One party cannot let go of the past and the other does not recognize the past even when it is staring him in the face, asking for a credit card.

Cole and I were the sole exception. We the meek, we the pacifists, we the noncombatants. The generosity of our host was not just our good fortune. It was a peace offering to god, before the onset of hostilities; our dinner, a sacrifice cast upon the waters in hopes that the inevitable conflict could somehow be avoided. Of course, nothing inevitable can be avoided.

Later, after the money is shed like blood, the rivals will retreat to the bar. There, they will nurse their wounds, have a nice snack and wonder at the conflicts unfolding on the wide screen TV and at the ever present possibility of man biting man.

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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.

A Thought for Your Penny

Memory is a funny thing and for pretty much all the reasons that everyone says. It’s selective and subjective, cherished and requisite for a good liar.

My father, a photographer, once or probably twice since he never thinks I listen the first time, told me that we remember colors in reverse. The color we remember an object being, is likely to have been its compliment. Which is to say we remember colors by their contrast. An interesting idea since it suggests that memory is as much about remembering what a thing is not, as much as by what it is.

I remember three of my father’s photo studios. The earliest was over an appliance store called Nate Ben’s Reliable. I was very young, no more than three or four years old, and as I recall the place had no ceiling. Every surface had been painted black for better light control. The walls seemed to rise on up and disappeared into the night sky; into outer space but without the stars. In that studio it was always nighttime. It was always a moment before the big bang. All potential.

A visit to my father’s studio meant play time in the prop racks; trying on clothes and looking for treasures. There was one prop, a giant horse-shoe magnet, that was too large for the prop area. The magnet, in reality just plywood and paint, was left over from a Smith-Kline Pharmaceuticals shot for a children’s iron supplement. This was back when vitamins were pitched to parents instead of directly to kids via cartoon character shaped pills. The giant magnet was always around but never in the same place twice. Slowly orbiting the studio it was, I imagine, a force of creation; emitting invisible fields of attraction and repulsion.

The studio was a place where time moved in uneven intervals. Eons would pass; nothing would happen. And then, without warning, all the lights would go out. You were suddenly alone, afloat in the blackness. The strobe lights would flash, POP, and you’d be blind for a moment from the whiteness of it all and that meant a new universe had been recorded on film.

After everyone’s vision cleared, my father would jockey people and props around; darkness and then, POP, another new universe would appear on film. He always said that being a photographer was a lot like being a salmon. You shoot frame after frame, roll after roll like a salmon laying it’s thousand eggs in the hope that one survives the jaws of the art director.

Things were always getting lost in my father’s studio. Lenses, props, bills, wardrobe items; nothing got lost as much as the prints themselves but nothing got lost forever. Eventually a finished print would show up, sometimes weeks later, and the key thing was that you had to grab it when you saw it. Even if you didn’t need it at that very moment. A mental note of its last known location was not enough. These sightings were random and fleeting. Like some rare and endangered sea mammal it would surface for a breath and then disappear. You captured it right then and right there or it would be gone again and for how long nobody could say, submerged as it was in the chaos and clutter of a busy studio and a creative mind.

My job in heavy construction shares some of those qualities. There is always a lot of old stuff where I work. When you are doing excavations and building foundations you necessarily have to dig up the past. Old building foundations, old piers and sea walls; a reminder of the shifting contours of this island and the evolution of land usage. In an old city like New York the past is always getting in the way of the future and while sometimes it can be worked around or even incorporated into new designs, more often than not it has to be removed and sent to the dump.

Not so long ago I was working in a hole in the ground burning a pipe pile. The pile, full of reinforced concrete, was for a new building foundation. It was a 48 inch wide pile with 3/4 inch thick steel walls. We were burning the last dozen feet off to bring it to proper grade for the pile cap; the part that ties the piles to the building itself. 48 inches might not sound like much but that’s the diameter. The circumference is near 13 feet so we work in pairs. My buddy Matt was burning from one side and I was burning from the other. Whenever I’m asked if I can burn I always say I’m adequate. In reality I am very competitive and proud of my burning. I’m not always the best but I’m always in the running.

Burning, like a lot of things, is actually several events encompassing a wide range of skills. You don’t always cut flat plate and you don’t always cut flat. You cut rust, which is not only time consuming but painful because rust doesn’t melt. The good steel melts and the rust causes the red-hot slag to spray back at you. In burning, as in working out of doors, it helps to know how to dress and also to have a fairly high tolerance for pain. But it’s okay. It reminds you that you’re alive.

There is also burning an object at or under the water line, which is either fun or incredibly irritating depending on tidal issues. And then there is burning a non-hollow object. In this case a steel pile full of reinforced concrete, as I’ve said. I’m pretty good at this type of cutting and was well ahead of Matt when I looked up to change positions. If you’re not comfortable, you aren’t going to burn well so you should be changing hand or body position almost constantly.

There was a pool of muddy water to my right and a wet embankment in my face. To my left was the pile. I had put a piece of lumber in the water and was leaning into the pile while balancing my toe on the slightly submerged scrap timber. When I looked up there was a disk on a little outcrop in the embankment. I picked it up and figured it was a washer but then there was no hole in the center so I slipped it into my pocket. As I was standing with the pipe drillers a short time later I took it out to have a closer look. It turns out to be a coin of some sort. I scratch it clean with my wet fingernail and it looks like it says…. let’s see.. ONE …uh..C*NT. ONE C*NT. Well how do you like that? It must be an old token from a Times Square peep show. Even so, that seems a little harsh.

Then I turn it over and there is a lady’s head with a banner on her brow, which reads LIBERTY. Wait a minute! That’s not ONE C*NT, it’s ONE CENT. ONE CENT and this thing is old! It’s scraped on one side where the back hoe bucket must have caught it but only three of the original thirteen stars are missing and it says 1883 or is that 33? My eyes are too gone to tell. But yes I’m sure it’s 1833. One of the crane operators says his brother collects coins and proceeds to call his brother who takes the info and says he’ll call back. He calls right back and tells us that it’s worth between 5 and 25 dollars depending on condition.

At home I get out a photographers magnifying loop, a souvenir of my father’s studio, and sure enough it’s 1833. When I showed Matt the next day, he said “Hey look! That head is the Statue of Liberty” which of course would not exist for another 50 years. I, of course, told him. It’s rare that I can correct Matt without his wanting to kill me but I know it’s all affection so I don’t normally worry too much. I just suffer the arm punches with as much good humor as I can muster and a very modest amount of internal bleeding. A couple of days later I showed the coin to my German friends. In 1833, Germany as a state would not exist for almost another forty years. My German friends didn’t think that was particularly amusing.

And here it lay, not only at the tip of Manhattan but in the landfill behind the crib wall that formed the southern seawall in the 19th century. Not only that but I found it in this triangular pit about 60 feet on a side. It is the confluence of the old 1/9 subway line turn-around, the FDR to West Side Highway tunnel and the N and R trains. And water mains. And gas lines. And air shafts. How had it not been found before? This tiny parcel of land has been turned over like a fertile field dozens if not hundreds of times. This is made land. Nothing of it exists except by the hand of men. And I do mean men. As the guys like to say “If it was easy they’d have the ladies doing it.” Sexist yes but fundamentally true. There are no girls out here although I have heard of some with the termites; the carpenters. The lone female is the sister of my foreman and on the job friend, Alex. Alex and I would never meet socially; he’s devout catholic with all that implies, and I am lost cause. Third generation Dockbuilders; she’s the exception that proves the rule. Or disproves it. Your call.

But anyway, you get the idea, it was old and here. Right here in the dirt. And always had been. Or had it? Was it picked up from somewhere else? Part of a ground up building or excavated soil recycled into landfill? The past becomes the present becomes the past. You know there is a market for landfill just as there is a market for land. What do you think landfill is? It’s land!

And how did it get here? At the end of a concrete pour you will often see a laborer toss some money into the wet mass. An offering to god. Thanks for not letting the form blow out. Was that it? Or did it fall out through a hole in someone’s pocket; the better part of an hourly wage, all that time ago. Who’s hand did it touch last? How did it get here?

How? I’ll tell you how. It was dumped by circumstance.

So, is that the meaning of it all? Is that all that it means? This penny?! This penny had evaded capture for over one hundred and seventy years to get to my hand. It is why I prefer used books. It seems like you don’t find them, they find you or better yet you find each other. Forces of attraction guiding small changes in direction toward an ultimate goal. Like all the history of the world has led up to this meeting. This utterly meaningless meeting.

This singular moment, this pointless event, will probably not echo in eternity but it does remind me that the ball is rolling. That weak forces as well as strong ones are at work and that seemingly unrelated events tie it all together. And the penny? I don’t know where it is right at this moment but sooner or later it will surface, like a lost photo in my father’s studio.

A Day in the Life, Part 1

Part 1: A Day In The Life

I had a pretty interesting day at work today. It involved digging around in the dirt.

When I was a kid I went to summer camp in New Mexico and while there I spent a few days on an archeological dig. We sifted through a bunch of material and although we found nothing of interest, at least nothing of interest to me, it was a taste of treasure hunting that I was never to lose. It was also an introduction to anthropology and eventually, when I went on to college, I majored in it.

My first year in higher education was at Northern Arizona University. With its large native population and long history of habitation it’s a pretty good place to do anthropology. To tell the truth I chose NAU for its proximity to good backpacking but I never would have been able to sell that to my parents as a good reason to move 2200 miles away for school. I transferred after a year to the University of New Hampshire and I continued in the field there for at least the one semester and probably both though I can no longer remember for sure.

I think the second semester I duel majored in anthropology and sociology, the idea being that if you’re a major in something, the teachers tend to cut you a little more slack in an effort to keep you in the department. I would have majored in everything but it would have required a visit to my student advisor and that was out of the question. All I had to do to endear myself to the archeology professor was to boil his road kill. He was trying to build a skeleton collection of indigenous fauna.

Of course I dropped out after that year but my interest never really went away. I always maintained that I gave it up because there really are no jobs after you get an anthropology degree. There is nothing much to apply that knowledge to unless you want to teach but in looking at the question right now I realize that the subject, like so many before and since, simply was unable to hold my attention. Having said that, I never really lost interest, it just became another one of my many interests. I suspect a lot of people are like this and it probably could be considered a syndrome which means it deserves its own name, something like Highly Ordered Attention Deficit: H.O.A.D. “Poor dear”, they’ll say “he’s kind of HOADy.

One of the very first things you learn in archeology is that wherever there has been human occupation, there you will find a trash pit. I was thinking about that recently and naturally enough it got me thinking about my job. Going over it in my mind I realized that I’ve worked on a good variety of jobs this year. I’ve had a hand in a high rise apartment building, a junior high school, two waterfront recreation areas, a water treatment plant, a ferry terminal, a museum and a hospital. The last one, the hospital, is the subject of this story.

We have been removing material from the hole that will be the basement of the hospital for about three weeks. It’s been slow going; we have to reinforce the pit so surrounding buildings will not start sinking or shifting on their own foundations. The backhoe has been pulling up an old concrete slab and we finally got down to the muddy fill just the other day.

We are two blocks away from the river but it became apparent pretty quickly that we were digging up an old solid filled pier. This type of pier was common in the 19th century and consisted of timber piles stacked like Lincoln Logs in a grid and then filled with large stone. As a point of interest the stone is said to have come from abroad as ship ballast. I think that’s probably incorrect since it’s bluestone, the same as that used for sidewalks before the use of concrete for that purpose. It is abundant locally and the use of local materials or materials at hand would be standard for the time period.

As the hole got deeper and filled with ground water we put in pumps and that is about when the bottles started showing up. They were here and there without any order and were obviously washed into their present positions. The first one I retrieved was a ceramic bottle in perfect condition. I’ve seen these before and my guess is early to mid nineteenth century, before glass came into common use. Who knows what was in it but whenever there is no imprint to the contrary I assume all bottles are beer. That’s not so far fetched as it may sound. It’s been said that there were about 140 breweries in New York at this time. After that came some heavy glass bottles that were also probably beer and then some medicine bottles with the imprint of the druggists, complete with addresses.

The thing about a waterfront is that people work there and eat there and stand and look at the river traffic there. And when they stand there sipping their beverage and pondering the comings and goings of the world they are swept away by their imaginations to distant ports. Ports of the mind. And the time slips away and the bottle is empty. It’s time to get back to work or go home and the bottle slips from the fingers to join the barques and barges, schooners and ferries. It hits the water on this, its maiden voyage, and bobs once or twice as it fills with water. Each bob it swallows a mouth full like a drowning man and then with a last gasp of bubbles it slips beneath the surface, settles to the bottom and relaxes into the soft silt. You can tell where the best spot to stand was, either because of view or venue, by the piles of bottles that accumulate in a location. In fifteen years of pier work, most of it with the divers, I can say that an overhead view of a pier, minus the pier is like a solar eclipse of bottles. The perimeter is clearly marked out, with more bottles by the waterfront where there is the greatest activity and thinning towards the end yet the whole thing still clearly outlined.

Now the medicine bottles didn’t jive with this scenario. Also, the glass is thinner; the casting more refined and so they must have been from a later date. The waterfront was gone having moved east and the old hospital was erected on made land. Landfill. As soon as I saw the medicine bottles I knew there was a trash pit on the site and that we were digging around it if not yet fully in it. Every scoop of the bucket was bringing up yards of material and a bottle or two. At the end of the day everyone cleaned up and left except for me. I was energized and excited to begin the hunt. I had a pretty good idea where to start looking and climbed down the steep mud embankment to have a look around.

With my boots sinking in I was looking at a wall of silt and stones and bits of glass and porcelain. Broken plates and bowls and cups are common in fill all over this area. Often they are covered in elaborate blue patterns. They are from China I suppose and even a small fragment can be quite astounding in the complexity of the pattern and the beauty of the brushwork.

I was digging away only a short time when I pulled up a ginger ale bottle. The cork was intact as was the cork of the next bottle I pulled up. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything as even a cork will eventually allow water to leach in but it does give one hope of finding a full bottle. I don’t suppose a full bottle is worth any more than an empty one; in fact none of these bottles is worth more than a couple of dollars, but I like the idea of this thing having weathered a century and more as if waiting for just this moment to deliver its goods.

By this time my gloves were heavy with mud and soaked through and I grabbed a likely looking scoop from the muck to dig with. I turned up several more items including a nice dark blue medicine bottle and a large cattle bone. Back in those days dead horses and cattle were legally and routinely disposed of by being left out with the trash and so in turn were used as land fill. I had as much as I could carry back to our shanty and so quit my labors. I tossed my scoop aside but even before leaving my fingers it occurred to me that it might be something. It didn’t feel like wood or stone and the weight was odd for the size. It was encrusted with mud but I thought it might just be a more or less intact bowl, which would be a great find. Then I thought it seemed more like a gourd and I thought it might be a colonial era artifact. I retrieved it and with an armful of stuff went up the hill to wash off my finds.

The GINGER ALE bottle, from MORGAN & BRO 232 west 47th St NEW YORK was indeed full and still had a curl of ginger in it. The other corked bottle was probably beer and bore an imprint of the brewer, JOHN HECHT BROOKLYN NY and the year, 1862. A nice find. The blue medicine bottle was from TARRANT & Co DRUGGISTS NEW YORK. And the bowl when washed clean turned out to be a human skullcap. The saw marks suggest it was an autopsy.