Archive for June, 2021

Tripping on $5 a Day

In the summer of 1963 (or ’64?) I took my only trip to Europe. Following my first full-time job with an engineering firm downtown – where as an “economist” I ran an adding machine for several months – I borrowed $750 from my father to finance the trip. That wasn’t a nice thing to do: My father had little money; on the other hand, he had nothing whatsoever he wanted to do with it.

With my first real girlfriend, Marcia, we made plans to go by slow boat to meet my friend Steve Foster in England. Those were the days of the Europe on $5 a Day guides. You could actually do that – even stay in (lesser) hotels or B&B’s for pocket change.

A couple months before sailing time, Marcia flipped me off (supposedly on her mother’s insistence – it took me years to realize her mother likely had nothing to do with it) and latched on to my best friend Dave. Dave and I remained best friends; it was hardly his fault that she was pneumatic, scrumptious and willing. But was I devastated? Boy was I devastated. I always am when a woman gives me the heave, which has happened more times than someone with self-respect should admit.

My ship ticket transferred to Dave, and I flapped over to England by plane. (I packed everything needed in a Rucksack, the damned uncomfortable backpack of the day.) Steve and I picked a London B&B at random from the $5 book, and who should we meet on the gracious front steps but Steve’s brother – one of those coincidences that frizzle the edges of reality.

Back home, the soap opera expanded. Dave had ingested a packet of heavenly blue morning glory seeds, said to produce psychedelic effects. What they produced in Dave (or more likely what his expectations triggered in a brilliant but troubled mind) was full-blown paranoia. Dave was mid-size but built like a monument. It took five cops to subdue him before he was carted off to the nuthouse for quieting down. So Marcia sailed alone.

Steve and I saw some of London, then went up to the Lake Country, Wordsworth’s stomping grounds. More than anything else in England, I recall wandering through sheep fields, finding scattered bones and bits of fleece in the rain. We stopped for fish and chips; they were so good we ordered more fish and chips for dessert.

How did we get to Paris? That totally escapes me. In Paris, as usual, the Metro was on strike. Parisians with the slightest taste of authority used their position to make all outsiders feel unwelcome. Even news-vendors sneered because they, on whim, had the power to withhold the news.

I found the people and countryside of southern France-northern Spain delightful. They make a cakish, puddingish dessert called gateau Basque, a major delight. From Spain I brought back lots of single-shot bottles of liquor and a wooden tourist statuette of a monk that still sits on our kitchen windowsill here in the mountains.

Marcia met up with Steve and me in Greece, where we all stayed in the roof-shed extension of a dirt-cheap rattletrap hotel. We were attacked by bedbugs, which leave massive welts. The only local remedy was ammonia. Marie slapped it on to stop the itching, though it did nothing to alleviate the mounded bite.

That’s the only memory I have of Marcia being with us, though she may have stuck on through the tour of Greece (in a compact Mercedes bus) and the Dalmatian Coast of then-Yugoslavia. 

I loved Greece – the atmosphere, the history, the bits of goat-on-a-stick served by locals (though I also ate some surprisingly lousy baklava). The temples, any and all of them, are beautiful enough to make you weep. And the heave and dip of the mountains made me wonder how they ever came to invent geometry.

A highpoint for me was the ferry run up the Dalmatian coast. (Did you know that Dalmatians, the dog, excrete uric acid, like birds? No wonder they don’t do well in apartments.) The ferry was an overcrowded mid-size ship with most people just standing around. There, Steve and I met the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She was Australian and her name was… Dawn. Really. Had she the face of a goddess it would have lessened her.

One drawback was the sanitation equipment. Southern European public crappers were porcelain slabs set into the floor with a four-inch hole straddled by two incised footprints to show where to place your feet when letting loose. My problem then was that back then I was physically unable to take a dump without pissing at the same time. So… I held it in. For a looooog time.

But for me the grandest treat of all Europe was Dubrovnik, a city dating to the seventh century, half way up the coast of Yugoslavia when I visited, now in southern Croatia. (At one time or another, it was ruled by just about any European power you could name.)

Its ancient center is constructed entirely of stone – houses, streets, walkways of stone, encircled by crenelated stone walls 30′ high and 30′ thick. “Magnificent” barely touches it. The walls serpentine up the hillside like a childhood dream of the ultimate city, where eternity took a bellyflop and refused to rise again. The streets feed you ancient truths. Then, suddenly, a Baroque cathedral, wholly out of place, with a dual-curved flight of steps that laugh splendidly at their incongruity.

(In the ’90s, when whichever damn-fool side in the Croatian war was shelling the place, I wondered how the human race can be so dimwitted, so dead to beauty. But I often wonder that.)

Steve and I read that there was to be a performance of “Hamlet” out on a castellated island that was Dubrovnik in miniature – same 30′ stone walls, same stone everything. We settled in our seats for a rare treat, not stopping to think that, yeah, you can expound Shakespeare in Serbo-Croatian. After the initial “Hark!” everything else sounding like further ”Harks!” to our unattuned ears. We left early.

Steve and I knew that if we traveled inland to Zagreb (how did we get there? no recollection), we could catch the fabled Orient Express – a long train-ride to Paris.

Back in England, Steve left on an earlier flight. I had nowhere to stay during my final night. It had gotten chilly (as it does in England, without rhyme or reason), so in a small clothing shop that afternoon I asked for a “turtle-neck sweater.” With an almost audible sniff, the proprietor suggested perhaps I might mean a “roll-neck pullover.” Perhaps I might. I bought one. It was thin and crappy.

Next, of all things, I bought a teapot. I’m flying back to the U.S. with a backpack and little else – what muddled reason to buy a teapot? Walking through nighttime London parks in a soft drizzle, I carried it, wrapped in an odd-shaped package that dangled from a string. A quiet bobby stopped me and asked, in the gentlest of tones, what I was doing and what I was carrying. 

Maybe it looked like an anarchist bomb. (I would make a good bomber, because I always appear totally inoffensive.) After I explained that I had planned to wander while waiting to catch my plane, he touched his hat and left.

I spent most of the night cold and half awake on various benches.

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Old bookstores and little museums

When I was growing up, Leary’s Bookstore in Philadelphia was close to its end. For many decades housed in a three-story building by the city’s consumer center of 8th and Market Sts., it was rumored to be the largest used book store in the world, its wares spilling out the door and across tables that lined an alley beside Gimbels department store.

By the 1960s, it was strangled with French grammars from 1911 and long-dead engineering texts. According to Wikipedia, it died in 1968. 

What you won’t find on Wikipedia is Chafey’s Books, on Market St. near 17th in Philly, my weekly haunt in the early 1960s.

Mr. Chafey, who sat at the cash register to the left of the door as you exited, held a slow, neverending smile that said, “Here I am, and I can think of no reason to be elsewhere.” He spoke in a high, reedy, near-piccolo voice and would buy anything. He would give you two bits for a ten-year-old World Almanac that he had not the least possibility of selling. Later, he would add it, randomly, to his collection. 

Random was the secret. There was no order whatsoever to the mounds and tumbles of books at Chafey’s. They reclined, spine-up, three deep on tables edged with four-inch boards to prevent their escape.

They also skyscrapered in stacks in front of those tables.

They crawled and heaped and grew and meandered in their accidental associations. History lay by engineering, science by religion, fact by fiction, medieval by modern, sewing by spelunking. You could burrow into these books like a groundhog, root through them like a boar, and never know exactly where you were in the last 400 years of the printed word.

There for a few pennies I bought, along with some occult oddments, a fat medical reminiscence with an extraordinary introduction. There I found – and to this day flagellate myself that I did not buy – The History of Meat, published in 1915 with color plates by either Armour or Swift. There I think I recovered brother Rod’s lost copies of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, given for safekeeping to a tangential acquaintance. My only other remnant of Chafey’s today is a 1924 edition of Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected (With copious references to authorities).

Yet the main lure for me was not the books. Opposite Mr Chafey’s cash register stood a small table stacked with art prints, priced at $1 each. They were a revelation. I bought Chagall, blue-period Picasso, El Greco, Magritte, Dali, shimmering beauty that dead-broke me could afford to push-pin to my wall. 

Many years later, at the Welcomat, I wrote about Chafey’s and received a note from his daughter living in Arizona: No one before had acknowledged her father, who kept an entire barn filled with books somewhere in the city’s western suburb. I was and am delighted with her delight.

Chafey’s forms a logical connection to small museums. You don’t believe so? Please repress your ignorance, be quiet, and listen.

Linda and I tripped over some marvelous little museums when we traveled. Each started with a single, intense focus and beat it to death with glee, compiling hundreds of items that added up to a concise reflection of the mind of the originator, often unnamed.

Take Mr. Ed’s Elephant Museum, along Rt. 30 in eastern Pennsylvania. Mr. Ed has a fixation like few others. Elephants large and small, in 2, 3 and possibly 4-D. No image of another pachyderm – not a rhino, not a hippo, 10,000 elephants, from bead miniatures to a colorful full-size talking statue out front. 

He also sells homemade fudge – pounds and hills and mountains of fudge. A fire hit Mr. Ed’s some years back, but he successfully rebuilt. 

Not far from Mr. Ed lie the pastures of the Land of Little Horses, perhaps less a museum than a cross between mini-circus and barn show. The various performing breeds spent generations being downsized to near eohippus under an Argentine wacko before ending up on the rolling sward of PA.

We were especially taken with a tiny, black, wild-eyed stallion with Sylvester Stallone ambitions. For contrast, the Land also promenaded a massive Clydesdale, shaved and groomed in a checkerboard pattern (how are such things done?). The non-Italian stallion would run circles under the Clydesdale without the least sense of embarrassment.

Sedan, Kansas, 30 miles down the road from Linda’s home town of Cedar Vale, was the birthplace of famed Ringling clown Emmett Kelly, who gloomed around the ring as Weary Willie, his painted mouth turned down like he’d watched his teddy bear being steamrollered. He’d end his act sweeping the spotlight out of the ring.

The last time I visited the website for the Emmett Kelly Museum, it indicated that it has either moved from its former dusty quarters – every bit as sad as Weary Willie – or morphed into something awninged and bistroish. In 1985, when we stopped by, the Kelly memorabilia was unmemorable, but people had dropped off all sorts of other stuff – old typewriters, notebooks and attic effluvia.

What is not formally recognized on the website (but which exists between the lines) is the museum’s sterling feature – the world’s largest collection of commemorative Jim Beam whiskey bottles. Don’t you dare laugh – these things were hoarders’ gold, formerly showcased around the country by a couple in their trailer, who then retired and… donated them to the Emmett Kelly Museum.

Bless them. You will not elsewhere in your lifetime see such and so many individualized ceramic booze containers.

[Should I choose to continue with little museums on the next go-round, we’ll likely end up in western Nebraska.]