Archive for August, 2009

A fourth of Desolation

Jack Kerouac wrote Desolation Angels about his time on top of Desolation Peak, which overlooks Ross Lake, a twenty-mile reservoir that straddles Washington State’s border with British Columbia. If I recall correctly the Ur-beat was up there in the mid-sixties. About that time, maybe a little after or a little before, my friend Jeff’s dad, Vance, started going up to Ross every year to get away from everything and fish off the side of a boat. I don’t know when he started taking Jeff and Jeff’s older brother Gary up with him, but I remember that Jeff started talking about his annual June adventures up there sometime in junior high. 

In our last year of high school, I started getting invited along. We got up there every year a few days before the opening of fishing season and snagged the best campsite on Dry Creek, a little north of Ten-Mile Island, which Vance and other old timers just called Midway. Vance got up every morning at 5 and went out in the boat. The tent did not stir again until the sun hit it, which was much later because the lake is surrounded by tall mountains and ridges.

Steeper than it looks. This is a hillside we called Tableland just south of Desolation -- whoa! In all the years I've been looking at this photo, I only now -- just this instant -- realized that Jeff is in the picture, above and right of center, picking his way up the mountain.

Jeff and I invented a game called Stalkanother, which basically happened organically one year when we camped on Midway Island. There was nowhere to go when Vance had the boat out, and the fish were biting that year so he stayed out. Without the boat to get us to the mainland, we fidgeted, threw rocks. One cold afternoon, when Jeff was bored out of his skull and had finished carving decorations in his walking stick (an annual ritual), he got up quietly and left the campfire. I thought he was relieving himself, but he didn’t come back soon. I grew lonesome after a while and took up my own staff and headed out to find him. Doubtless he’d brought down a grizzly or something and would be eager to show me. The island was just a single hill, but densely forested with small thin firs about six inches around. The only way to hide in there was to be still. I sensed he was hiding. And he sensed I was up for a hunt. Thus was born “the ancient game of Stalkanother.” I sprinted from boulder to bush, bush to tree, tree to ledge, aware of his eyes — somewhere — watching me. A twig snapped. He doubled back, I lunged ahead. I waited. He waited. I stole forward. Finally he emerged behind me with the faintest step, and I turned to see the heavy end of his stick aimed at the my chest, he having gained the position of surprise at close enough range to win a point. The point was conceded by me with a nod. Then he was off and gone through the trees, and the game was literally afoot again. None of this was planned beforehand, nor ever written down. In the following years, even when we were no longer on an island, one of us would just get up and leave camp, quietly, and the gauntlet was down.

Bored at Dry Creek. Incorrect in so many ways.

But we camped most years on Dry Creek, which had easy access to the trail that circled the entire lake. Jeff and I fished a little, but we hiked a lot. We were all over the mountains there. The terrain in the first photo above typifies the whole region. We thought nothing of scampering up slopes like that. For another similar shot that demonstrates that I was foolish enough to hike this kind of topography in worn-out running shoes with no socks, click here.

One of the mountains we busied ourselves with is Desolation Peak.

Jeff and I nearly killed ourselves on our first journey to the top of this breaker of men and destroyer of boys with big ideas. It was a classic instance of leaving the trail because we were sure a better route existed. After we conquered the summit that first year, we swore we were done with that berg. But we did it again the next year, this time using the trail. It kept drawing us back. Even when we rose at 3:30 a.m. and headed out across the grasses of Dry Creek meadow at first light, it took an hour to get to Lightning Creek bridge, and Desi’s trailhead was a ways north of that. By the time we got above the tall trees into the alpine meadows, it was inevitably 10am and debilitatingly hot. We would trudge in agony up the sun-baked, south facing slopes of the two last knolls, slipping on the snowpack that remained through June, to collapse at the top in the shade of the ranger’s hut, and use the outhouse — hanging off the back of the mountaintop with the greatest view you ever relaxed a bowel to — that Kerouac himself had made legendary.

My fourth year at Ross, we had invited Kip and Dougie (whose name was Bert, I think) to join us. The pain and misery of hiking Desolation were too great not to share with others. There’s much more to tell about those days at Ross Lake, and Kip can tell you what he remembers of this trip, but what history will remember is the Pear-Grape Shot. Jeff’s mom was the one who lovingly packed all the food for this annual expedition, all but the fresh fish. We took it all up to Ross in a huge green wooden chest, which we loaded in the middle of the boat for the ten-mile journey up the lake. Among the staples that she placed into this ark, besides Peanut Butter, which I ate so much of that Vance started calling me “ol’ Peanut Butter”, was a week’s supply of Apple and Pear-Grape juice in little cans.

We were extremely amused by these little refreshments, and I can’t even remember why, unless it was just the indecisiveness of the name. Pear or Grape, which is it? We were young, we were eager to find targets for our wit. Anyway, we got to the top of Desolation and set up a camera with a self-timer, then all did our best to sell the product.

Desolation dogs, left to right: Bert (a.k.a. Dougie), Bernard (a.k.a. Kipper), Jeff, and Matt

Desolation dogs, left to right: Bert (a.k.a. Dougie), Bernard (a.k.a. Kipper), Jeff, and Matt. (Click to see the thrill of victory and the agony of the feet in higher resolution.)

This hike took it out of us, but this photograph, which we have always called the Pear-Grape Shot, really captures that moment that you don’t know is your grandest moment until you get some distance past it. It’s the moment you later look back on and would give anything to return to. It never got better than this for us as a group of friends or even as pairs of friends.

Kip’s college life in Boise turned into his career life in Boise, and he came back over the mountains less often, and his time here was earmarked for family gatherings. Bert was a recent buddy of Jeff’s from college, but he virtually disappeared shortly after this. Before the Internet, Jeff used to consider hiring a detective to find him (I don’t know, Jeff may have tracked him down in the last few years).

I think Jeff and I didn’t hike the mountain the next year, or maybe there wasn’t a next year. I thought four was a lousy number of times to do something like that and always figured we’d get back to Desolation for one last go. And we did. We came back a decade later and flung ourselves at the old monster one last time in an adventure we called “A Fifth of Desolation”. That might have marked the beginning of the end of a friendship that was built on just such intense and rarified experiences and was eventually bound to crumble. Certainly I was well into a long period of shift in my spiritual outlook, the outcome of which rather took the old boy by surprise, and both of us were having trouble finding our way in life. The two of us made the climb, ate our lunch, and headed down, almost without talking to each other. And we never went back together. Old Vance is gone, felled by cancer just before the turn of the new century. Jeff himself has gone dark, somewhere in the vicinity of Reno. He hasn’t talked to me in years. But that crazy hill is still there, just like it has been forever, double-dog-daring everyone to take it on.

Ninety years of news on Third Avenue

Note: This post introduces a new feature on my blog: pictures that you can click on for higher resolution versions! Go ahead, try it!

Walking by the intersection of Third and Pike on Monday I noticed that the ratty little blue metal pill-shaped news kiosk that has sat mostly unused for years on the sidewalk there had been replaced by a sleek new fixture, and that it was open for business. This is Turco’s Last Stand.

The airy new version of the kiosk is the latest manifestation of a business that has been operating here for 90 years. I stopped in to introduce myself to Ben Gant, owner. Ben has been written up more than once in local papers because he is doing the unthinkable in a world that is now getting most of its news from MSN and other online sources. He has opened, actually reopened, the little kiosk that has occupied these few squares of sidewalk since 1919. Frank Turco opened a news kiosk here that year and ran it for some 47 years, until he died in 1966. Others have carried on the tradition, and Ben is the current torchbearer, loudly proffering paper-based news media and chatting up the locals. He also sells hot dogs, ice cream and soft drinks from plastic coolers.

Yes, he's a troublemaker. He thinks you should be too.

Yes, he's a troublemaker. He thinks you should be too. (Click for higher resolution image.)

Turco was an interesting figure who used his little kiosk, which changed its physical shape many times over the decades, to promote civic activism and his idea of the American way, in particular the efforts of the Labor party, and he was instrumental in 1919′s famous labor strike here in Seattle. He later ran for mayor proudly stating “not endorsed by any group”.

But I’m not here to talk Turco. If you want to know more about this legendary man, see Ben’s website (http://www.turcoslaststand.com/TLS/Home.html). I’m not even that interested in the Labor party at this juncture, though I know the history of labor’s struggles in Seattle is rich indeed. I was more interested in simply supporting Ben’s effort to keep this kiosk alive in the face of a sincere wish by the city that it would go away.

It was a sunny day and Ben was hawking the Seattle Times outside the kiosk. Bob was there too (Bob’s an employee, but not the one in the above picture, which I took the next day). Ben told me that he isn’t really making enough money to pay people yet, and the other “employees” are mostly people who are willing to work for little or nothing.

Ben is talkative and converstations with him cover a lot of territory quickly. We got to talking about how there are no more barrista carts on the sidewalks anywhere.  A decade ago they were everywhere, I recalled. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an espresso cart. Ben explained that it’s the way Starbucks negotiates for spaces to lease.

“When they want to open a location, they don’t want any coffee vendors on the sidewalk. If an espresso cart was paying the owner of the property 300 bucks to be on the sidewalk, Starbuck’s comes in and says ‘we’ll give you 500 bucks to get rid of the espresso cart.’ They’re vicious. Real Seattleites hate Starbucks. They know how they operate.”

The topic shifted to his kiosk, which doesn’t bother Starbuck’s at all (there’s an installation of the world’s most famous roaster across the street) but is a severe irritant to the city’s transportation department, which has jurisdiction over what happens on sidewalks. I’m all for anything that enriches sidewalk life, as you know, and it seems to me that people gathering to talk about current events and maybe lower a dog or a soda is a good thing. I’ve been aware for a little while that this little kiosk was endangered. The city claimed that Ben hardly ever opened it, and that it was mainly an eyesore in the middle of the sidewalk. I don’t know what it means when people say “eyesore”. Or rather, I fear the kind of world envisioned by people who use the word. Their eyes are sore because they have blinded themselves to the value of smallness and intimacy, of history, and of the gradual decay that is a natural part of — rather the counterpart to — the rise of things. In very fact, the old booth looked like the conning tower of a World War II-era submarine.

The previous incarnation of Turco's Last Stand.

The previous incarnation of Turco's Last Stand. Photo copyright Ben Gant (I think).

A year or so ago the city served Ben notice that the kiosk had to go…unless he wanted to apply for a permit (the kiosk was in violation of three city codes: one for being operated without a permit, one for being affixed to the pavement without a permit, and one for not being kept in good repair¹). Ben was willing to jump through the hoops. The city was willing to give him a chance. Good for everyone.

“The city doesn’t really want me around,” Ben said. But after a year or so of struggle they allowed him to replace the old sheet metal booth with a swanky new glass and steel affair designed by a local architect, one of Ben’s several champion/benefactors. The thoughtful design puts the large glass portions to the north end of the kiosk to admit light, while the hot, sunny south side is made of steel to shade those inside. The roof is angled for drainage. It’s a jaunty little joint now, a sight for sore eyes.

Ben noted that the city only grudgingly allows sidewalk businesses. “I think things have got to change, though, in this kind of economy. I mean, people have to do SOMEthing to make a living, you know? Businesses just starting out don’t want to have to lease space in a commercial building just to see if they really want to go for it. You know, $30,000 just to get your feet wet? There are a whole bunch of pirate hot dog vendors that come out at night, little guys with carts. The Health Department is closed at night, so they don’t have their inspectors out. “

Part of the function of the stand is to serve as a museum to Frank Turko and to the Labor struggle. Partly he wants to engage people in a conversation about their town. One gets the sense that the sale of newspapers here is not really the central point (a fact missed by the surprisingly numerous online commenters who expressed in often foul language their opinion that newspapers, news kiosks, and Ben are all obsolete), but if they sell some news, that’s cool too. Ben carries the Seattle Times, the New York Times (I saw the National edition, not sure if he has the west coast edition), the Wall Street Journal, and several local newspapers (the Ballard News-Tribune, the West Seattle Herald and other Robinson neighborhood papers). He’s waiting for other papers to respond to his requests for vendor contracts, and he hopes also to have news magazines.

Turco's Last Stand redux

Turco's Last Stand redux. (Click for higher resolution image.)

“We might carry a few entertainment magazines if they move quickly,” Ben said. “But mainly news. It’s a newsstand. Let me know if there are any newspapers or magazines you want me to carry.” This invitation struck me as insanely optimistic, since it looks like he’s barely able to get any newspapers except the three you’d expect to see here. But what do I know? He doesn’t seem like a person who has any fear of failure. Ben makes the little money he does by selling copies of the U.S. Constitution for $5.  

“Hey, we forgot to put the sign on!” he said when I asked how long he’d been open, which is a couple months. He reached into the booth and pulled the chain on the OPEN sign so that it lit up in a clean new neon red. Bob said, “Oh, I thought I turned it on.” The grand opening will be, fittingly, on Labor Day weekend.

A man in a business suit came up to buy a hot dog and Bob went inside to dish it up. Ben stayed outside talking with me. He found the old booth claustrophobic, and prefers to remain on the outside of even the new one. Ben actively engages the people who come within earshot of the kiosk, like the newsboys of old whose tradition he carries on. I went over there the next day, too, when the headline was about how swine flu is poised to make 50% of Americans sick this year. Ben was holding out the paper to passersby and announcing the dread scenario with a smile. When he saw me he nodded and started instantly chattering about the predicted pandemic. 

“Swine flu for me and you. That’s what this headline should have been. Or maybe ‘Swine Flu for Me OR You’, since it’s fifty percent.”

I laughed and shook his hand. (I like shaking hands with people on the street. Yes, it’s old fashioned. I’m getting to be  a fogey. Say what you will, it makes me feel like I’m part of my city). “Are you ready for that?”

“No way,” he chuffed. “I’ve got catastrophic coverage, but that won’t help with this. I’ll have to walk off the swine flu.”

¹http://www.komonews.com/news/local/27113574.html

 

Squak Mountain stomp

Squak Mountain is one of the ancient Issaquah Alps, a range of mountains that ran east to west in what over time became the Puget Sound basin. They are now only big hills, mere timbered hillocks compared to the grand and ice-covered Cascades, but that’s because they are older. Worn over time, Tiger, Squak and Cougar mountains are the elders of the mountain community around here, and it is these granddads, fittingly, that get the foot traffic of young children, precisely because they are less steep and rugged than Washington’s spectacular north-south ranges. 

We took Mara on a hike up Squak Mountain yesterday in search of the old fireplace that marks the remains of the Bullitt family’s summer residence on the mountaintop. The Bullitts own [UPDATE: used to own] KING TV, the local Channel 5 television station, and have been active in the region’s public life for many decades. Apparently they had a house up there at one time, but it was abandoned or burned (I can find surprisingly little about it online) and the family donated some 600 acres of the mountain as a state park with the stipulation that it remain undeveloped and in wilderness condition.

The trail never once dipped downward, which in my book makes it a serious hike.

The trail never once dipped downward, which in my book makes it a serious hike.

Red huckleberries. Pucker up

Red huckleberries. Pucker up!

I don’t usually go on hikes without knowing what I’m getting into, but I’ve gotten lazy. Angela heard about the trail and wanted to try it. I used to hike all the I-90 hikes in the Cascades, but I never paid much attention to Tiger or Squak (Cougar is now thoroughly developed — virtually a suburb of Newcastle). I’d heard that Tiger’s trails are popular with people pushing strollers, so I assumed that those on Squak, which is smaller and even closer in, would be extremely kid friendly. This was not the case.

So when I say that “we took Mara on a hike”, I could just as truthfully say, and I do, with great pride, that “my four-year-old daughter hiked a two-mile mountain trail” that never once stopped going up. She only needed help with four or five particularly steep stretches near the top, of less than 75 yards each, over which I carried her piggy-back. Other than that, she made the trek under her own steam, and largely without complaining.

One of my favorite colors -- the underside of sunlit leaves.

One of my favorite colors -- the underside of sunlit leaves.

A moment of rest puts smiles on weary mugs.

A moment of rest puts smiles on weary mugs.

We were driven because we hoped to see this old fireplace, which we started calling the Magic Fireplace. A few hundred yards up the trail, which we were foolish enough to assay with Tevas instead of real shoes, Angela and I realized that there was no way we could expect Mara to hold up for the entire journey to the chimney, which would mean a round trip total of four miles. The trail had once been a rough road, but the woods had reclaimed all but a wide trail’s worth in most places. We parents agreed we’d only do as much as she could do, then turn back without disappointment. But when that time came and she started whining that she was tired, and we made to turn around, it was Mara who insisted that she wanted to see the Magic Fireplace. Tears were brought forth in support of her testimony that it was her sincere wish to continue on.

We were glad of her gamesome spirit, because when we rounded the final turn and realized that the large shape that loomed above us through the trees was a fireplace, and a magical one, we knew that the moment would create an impression of success and achievement in her little psyche that would stay with her as one of those foundational experiences. We ran toward it whooping and hollering. We had picked a bunch of nearby Oregon grape to lay on the hearth as a gift to the faeries that we figured must live there, and we left a cashew for a squirrel who seemed to be some sort of sentinel or guardian of the place. It was utterly quiet up here except for a little breeze playing at the tops of the trees and the occasional chirrup of birds. I don’t know when the place was built, but I wondered at the thought of some member of the Bullitt family reaching this spot of tranquility on the tippy top of an alp back in the 1950s or whenever in might have been. Sure, million dollar homes lie just outside the park boundary now, but how much space would a person of the middle of the last century have needed to have hiked all the way up here, when this summit was absolutely isolated, and said “Yep, this should be far enough from the madding crowd. We’ll build here.” ?

A magic moment worth the effort.

A magic moment worth the effort.

Legends say that if you tarry too long in this enchanted wood, you begin to age...

Legends say that if you tarry too long in this enchanted wood, you begin to age more rapidly...

We had just enough time to snack and water up before descending the way we’d come, though the mountain has a network of trails that go to other points of interest that we may explore some other time. Mara pooped out a little near the bottom, and this time Angela hoisted our little woodchuck onto her back for the final paces at the bottom. On the way home we detoured through Issaquah and went looking for big plates of pasta.

The Brooklyn beats

There was an Arco Mini Mart on the northeast corner of Brooklyn and NE 41st in the University District that was owned by a man named Wayne Eddy, though he went by Ed. I worked there in my third year of college. Ed had inherited the place from his dad, who had had it as a “service station” while Ed was growing up. As a kid, he had hung around the greasy service bays, which were now gone, replaced by the cleanly lit shelves and mopped tiles of the Mini Mart’s interior. Ed did not hide his displeasure at having been stuck with the shop. He regarded it as a hindrance to the real business of his life, which was digging around in filled-in outhouses for colored glass medicine bottles and collecting used records and other goodies. Ed would get ahold of old maps that showed where outhouses had been at the turn of the last century, then go and ask the present landowners if he could turn a spadeful or two of earth there. Back before there was garbage collection people commonly threw bottles down the privy hole when they were done with them. The best ones, ones that had no seams and were richly colored in blue or green or amber, could fetch a pretty penny. Ed paid us well (for the mid-80s) to take care of the store and not bother him, while he ran around looking for his treasures.

The Mini Mart had a lot of regular customers. There were people who breezed through just to fill up their tanks, people who’d seen the sign from the I-5 bridge and found their way down from 45th, but in large part the customers were college kids from the neighborhood loading up on beer and chips and denizens, young and old, of the adjacent apartment buildings — such as the doughty old brick Levere directly across Brooklyn to the west — coming in to indulge a sweet tooth or grab the paper. Sometimes they came in just to talk with me. I was stuck there from 4pm to midnight three evenings a week and 6pm to 2 in the morning for two more.

There was Nancy S., a sad, worn woman (though not old enough to be as worn as she looked) who came in almost nightly for a big jug of wine and whose invitation to dinner at the restaurant of the nearby Meany Hotel I accepted because at that age I didn’t know a nice way to say, “Are you out of your mind? You’re scaring me.” When she was more drunk than usual, she came into the store and insisted something about JFK that I couldn’t interpret through her sobbing.

There was also the lawyer, or the man studying to be a lawyer. His name was Brooks, I think. He always came in wearing a dapper tan trench coat on his way home, never smiled, seemed distracted, but was polite and always bought one tall Budweiser. I got on a bus this past spring, nearly a quarter century later, and he was driving it. He didn’t recognize me. I didn’t ask what had happened to his law career. Another Budweiser customer was the whistler. He was a friendly, talkative, white-haired old guy who had a tooth missing such that his esses all whistled. He would stand at the counter telling me something, and I would not hear any of it because my ears were only hearing the shrill tweets of his voiceless alveolar fricatives.

There was the candyman, a giant, unwashed, unspeaking fellow with a tangle of grey beard who came in once in a blue moon and wandered around the store fetching candy and bringing it to the counter until it made a monstrous pile. It was frightening the first time he came in on my shift, but I got used to it. He never said anything, and he never hurt anyone. There was a strange kind of random thoroughness to his search. He could have just gone along the boxes of candy systematically and taken half of each box. But instead, he would look around as if trying to remember something, then his eye would fall upon the M&Ms, and he’d shuffle over and grab as many bags as his thick hand could hold, and dump them on the counter, then a look would come across his face as though the pile didn’t look quite right, and he’d look around again, grab a fistful of Twix or maybe a couple of Choco-Bliss cakes or Hostess fruit pies. Then he’d go back for the Clark bars and the Almond Joy, then more M&Ms. On and on, for about a quarter of an hour. He put a cramp in my style because I was so good at ringing up people’s orders in my head before they got to the counter that usually I had change ready in my hand before they ever pulled out a bill, and I also knew exactly what I’d switch out if they paid with some other bill. I knew the likelihoods and probabilities, and often I knew what a particular customer would pay with. The big bearded candyman, though, never responded to my question “is that everything for you?” except with a grunt. I learned to just sit back and wait. He would mumble and point at the pile when he was done, which was never a moment that I could anticipate because there was no sense in his purchase pattern. He always paid cash and walked out with two full-size grocery bags (this was before plastic, children) brimming over with dental ruination.

There was a young woman who lived in the Levere and brought me a plate of linguine once. And there were two women who lived in the apartments nextdoor to the north whose names elude me at the moment [later edit: Wendy was one of them]. They teased me a lot. There was Eddie B. who warrants a post of his own but suffice to say that he loitered around the store until he became a friend of mine, then swept off her feet a young woman I had a big crush on, then broke her heart. He played the pinball and video games with some skill. Once while he was playing the pinball machine my friend Holly Brown came in to kill some time sitting on a stool I had put out for just such occasions. I remember her idly watching Eddie across the store leaning on the flippers, and saying “wow, he really bonked it!”

Michael Snow, ca. 1984. Photo by Robert Antonelli

Michael Snow, ca. 1984. Photo by Robert Antonelli

And finally, there were the poets, Robert Antonelli and Michael Snow. Robert was a short, dark-haired hood in his twenties who wore black leather or green canvas army jackets, and was an incorrigible liar. He would tell people that he worked for the CIA and that he was packing heat (a gun). His conversation was on the uncouth side. Still, as his local clerk I was automatically entitled to his staunchest loyalties, and he more than once heckled customers whom he considered had been rude to me, and after they’d gone would shake his head and express regret that he was under strict orders not to use force against people if it could be helped. I liked Robert. He was full of crap, but I liked him. His sidekick Michael was an older guy who wore tee shirts and baggy jeans and the old-fashioned canvas sneakers — boat shoes, I think they were called — that actually are in fashion again now. Michael was soft-spoken, kind of wide-eyed in a way, sort of a big kid who hadn’t realized that he’d aged. A young guy named Todd hung out with them occasonally. Todd was what was called a punk in those days. He dressed completely in black, with heavy black boots, and a black leather jacket with hundreds of bright metal studs on it. He wore black eyeliner. The only thing that wasn’t black on Todd was his hair, which was spiked up in a mohawk of festive pink. Todd was smart and he was gentle as a lamb, though when he wasn’t hanging out with Robert and Michael he hung out with a tribe of similarly noirish young people who, over the course of the year or so that they loitered in front of it, managed to destroy the entire brick facade of a bank building on the Ave simply by idly picking at it with their fingers. The three of these fellows strolling into my store made the oddest company you ever saw.

Robert and Michael would bring me poems. I was a captive audience for them as for everyone else in the neighborhood. As the young woman in the Levere felt compelled to bring me pasta, so Robert and Michael brought me their own latest creations. I wasn’t really sure Robert wrote everything that he claimed he did, simply because I knew he lied compulsively. He once brought me a poem typed on nice thick bond paper, a poem that he said he’d written, which I thought was so good and so compelling, and so…I don’t know, articulate and literate…that I couldn’t believe he had written it. It seemed to employ subtleties of communication in a way this guy never would. Maybe I do him an injustice. I hope so. I have the page to this very day, and to this day I have my doubts that this hot-headed fabricator and show-off could have written it. It’s called:

IMMINENT DANGER

The nieghborhood dogs have abandoned
the full moon which is lodged in the night
like a mottled old bone. Already

I’ve kept awake too late. Out front
the lawn’s frozen into a pane
of silver blades the paperboy will break

within the hour. And then the postman.
He’s just awake, thinking of his steamy kitchen
of butter and syrup. He’s unaware

of the letter he’s to deliver, how
you kept up all night composing
the last words I’ll ever hear from you.

–Robert Antonelli

Michael was more prolific. He would shuffle in just before closing on a Friday night at 1:30 a.m. — after a while I could tell my regulars by the sound their shoes made or the way their bodies moved in the doorway without even looking up from whatever magazine I was reading — and pull from his back pocket a folded piece of yellow legal paper on which he had copied down his latest work for me to read. One he brought me was about the wind rising after the last waltz at a country dance, knocking over a metal folding chair. In that poem he described a mandolin as “half a wooden pear”. I still have it somewhere. If I find it I’ll post it.

I don’t know what ever happened to any of those guys. I saved up my money and went to Europe the next year (1985) and when I came back to work at the Mini Mart they were gone, all three. But Michael wrote a little poem that I have never forgotten. It is one of my absolute favorite poems in all the world because of the way its pictures unfold in my mind, and because the title is almost longer than the poem itself, and because its last line is brilliant. Michael brought it to me on a postcard. It is one of the few poems he’d had printed, with a nice font and some colored background, and he wanted me to have one of these limited “editions”. The reason I have told you all of the above is because I wanted you to be as close to the mental state I was in when I first read this poem, because I’m going to share it with you now.

FOR THE WOMAN WHO LAUGHED AT THE STORY OF HOW FAR MY HOME RUN BALL TRAVELLED

In your dream
you see a fat, white bee
striped, with stitched wings
crashing through a window
on the moon

–Michael Snow

Why I write this way

There’s an independent bookstore up in Mount Vernon called Scott’s Bookstore. It’s in an old converted brick warehouse or factory and it has a franchise of the local Calico Cupboard restaurant in one half of the vast and woody space. On cloudy, sullen Sundays before Mara was born, Angela and I used to hop in the car (actually, we’d climb up into my old Ford pickup — what I used to call the Buckboard) and hit the long road to Scott’s. We’d lunch at the restaurant, and spend an hour or so perusing books. They always seemed to have the most interesting titles out on the display tables, which surprised me because even though the space is large, an indie store’s inventory has be very selective.

One day I came across a thick paperback collection of all of Joseph Mitchell‘s articles for the New Yorker, Up in the Old Hotel. I had never heard of the man, but the image on the front cover of old windows in a brick-fronted building just tugged at me. I spent much of the next year reading these stories. I’m a very slow reader and none of it is what anyone would ever call a “quick read”. Mitchell wrote for the magazine during the 1920′s, ’30s and ’40s. The stories are interviews with and articles about various persons or groups of people who lived in Lower Manhattan at the time he was writing. Most are eccentric, but Mitchell looks on his often lunatic subjects with a kind of reverence or awe, letting them speak for themselves and rarely if ever passing a judgment. One is a lady named Mazie who sold tickets at a theatre on the Bowery during the Depression and was known by all the bums in the neighborhood because of her generosity toward them. Another is the Don’t Swear Man, and still another is a junk dealer. One story is about the Indians who worked on skyscrapers, stepping around empty space hundreds of feet in the air as gracefully as cats. Many stories are about people who worked the Hudson River as oystermen or fishermen or clammers. My favorite, “Mr. Hunter’s Grave”, is simply about a walk in the countryside outside the city.

It just called to me.

The reading of this thick tome was interrupted by several more “exciting” books, not one of which I can now recall the name of, but I kept coming back to these quiet little vignettes of lives and worlds that were disappearing even in Mitchell’s time. He was interviewing crusty old farts whose fathers and mothers had been born during the War Between the States. And he was writing for the most part before World War II changed the topography of American life. 

Mitchell’s writing I found to be unlike anything I’d ever read. He wrote in a style that has been called “generous” and even “languid” (although it might have been I who used that word, I’m not sure). A little background: My favorite author when I was 24 was Mark Helprin, the lyricism of whose Winter’s Tale and other novels and short stories seemed to speak to some part of me that wanted to soar. His books were like long poems. When I was 34, I was all about John Barth, who wrote gymnastically, nay acrobatically, using words with such elegant efficiency that it was like watching a juggler of fire and swords. I was constantly awed and amused at the way he used language to point at language. My favorite sentence from my favorite Barth book (The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor), comes after the narrator and his companion meet up with an old friend and are told by that friend that “he had much to tell us”. The next sentence is, “We too him, said we.” I chuckled for a week over that line, wishing I had written it. Barth’s stories were all about story. Stories within stories, stories about storytellers. He eschewed what he called the “Windex” style of writing, where the words are just a transparent window onto plot. (I did too.) Barth preferred what he called the “stained glass” approach, where the words ARE the story. (I did too, and copied his style.) Consequently, nothing much ever happened in most Barth books, especially the later ones, and by my late thirties I had begun to grow tired of the same old “man sailing a boat” routine.

*  *  *

When I encountered Joseph Mitchell I gradually recognized that I had found my narrative home. Here was a man who not only valued what I valued – folkways and oral history, crooked alleys that predate and ignore the city grid, old eateries and the smell of fish — but he also honored his subjects with the kind of unhurried attention and treatment that has made his essays, decades later, treasures of insight into a time that is now gone. He recounted pages’ worth of oral communication (“torrents of dialog”, as one reviewer put it) from these characters without inserting his presence through even so much as a cough. And he enumerated whole lists of items, such as types of clams that might be found in one corner of the river bottom. But even at the level of his sentences, he was repetitive and expansive and sweet in a way that I first wondered at, the tongue of my mind so long accustomed to the tartness of Barth’s condensed phrasings. Mitchell didn’t take the obvious structural short cuts. In fact, I began to hear a cadence, a long-arc rhythm that the repetition served, and it seemed to harken to Mitchell’s upbringing in rural North Carolina. This storyteller had time. The story wasn’t in a hurry either. The telling would endure itself. The repeated structural elements rocked me into a state of restful attentiveness.

A man in no hurry.*

Mitchell was a self-professed loner who, like me, needed lots of walks during his workday. He seemed to be very open to meeting and talking with people, though it was probably one-sided. As a writer teasing out stories to make a living by, he knew how to get others to speak while “laying low” himself, even disappearing in a way. His best stories are about people who just wanted to hear themselves talk anyway, so his own reticence was an asset rather than a liability. Mitchell left us with only five books, all but one of which are collected in Up in the Old Hotel. My favorite is The Bottom of the Harbor. Every so often I go on a Mitchell jag and read one or all of his books again. Several of them have recently been reprinted.

Mitchell’s stories reveal depths of people and of the times they lived in that would have eluded the grasp of the quick, sassy and cynical journalism of today, the kind I was weened on and took part in during my years as a writer for local newspapers and magazines (and which prevails still). His journalism, I think, is so enduring because he left himself out of it, except occasionally to explain what led him to be wandering around in graveyards on the Jersey shore, for example. This humility is gone from popular essay-making today. I thought I was pretty doggone hot with a pen when I was a journalist, but that’s all it was — a blazing pen. Perhaps because of this emphasis on swankiness at the expense of humble inquiry in my own writing, I did not miss it much when my career took me away from essays and articles to corporate copywriting and technical documentation. I do read some blogs (and other published things) that make me smile and laugh because of their smart, hip writing and their drum-thump comic notes, but I don’t feel any compulsion to add to that body of literature. It seems as though much of it will turn out to be ephemeral. Hand-cuffed to a specific time period through its use of lingo and references to fleeting cultural memes, I think a lot of it will be unintelligible after a short time and uninteresting in the long run. I’ve been happy to be a bystander these past years. 

It wasn’t until Mitchell that I felt that old pang inside me, that drive to write again, and I truly missed it for the first time. But it was because I saw how it might be done with more integrity and for a more enduring purpose than I had previously practiced the art. Before starting this blog, I had not written creatively for many years, but I had often said that if I were to write again, I would want to write the way Mitchell wrote.

*  *  *

I’ve told all this by way of giving some insight into why I write the way I do, which many of you may have noticed is not very Internet-friendly. There seems to be a predilection in popular blog-writing toward a hyperactive – dare I say in some ways Barthian — zaniness, as though the writing is desperate to sound fun, even comic. I struggle to avoid mimicking that cheap style, which comes so easy and is nurtured and bolstered every time I use FaceBook (though the irony should be noted that posts on FaceBook and its even more compressed cousin, Twitter, don’t demonstrate the cleverness and zip that they seem to be perfectly suited for). There are any number of easily googled guides to writing for the Internet. At the top of these lists (because they’re always lists) is… use lists. People can scan and ingest lists easily, the logic goes. These guides assume that the world has attention deficit disorder, and also that depth is unwanted on the Internet, in fact that depth is wasted on the Internet.

The actual "old hotel" in 1928. It's still there. (Click for a larger version.)

But I am not writing for the Internet, even though I’m writing on the Internet. I’m writing for myself first, because I have to. And secondly I’m writing for you. And you are Louis, Kip, Marni, my brother Ben and my sister Jeni, my parents, my nephew Scott, some chums at work (Michael and Jon, what ho!), mostly my daughter in the future, even my wife who sits across the living room late some nights waiting for me to finish a post so she can read it on her computer the way others do.

I still don’t write the way I wish I could, the way Joseph Mitchell did. But if you’ve read this far, you now have an idea of what I’m aiming for.

*  *  *

It’s scarcely imaginable that you’re still awake, but if you are, here are some resources for further reading:

*This image of Mitchell appears uncredited all over the Internet but may be by Maryland Stuart.


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