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.

 

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 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.