lickhaven

A writer and a potter, happy together.

Homepage: http://sullivanpaarts.org

Oddments

[Various noises accumulating in what passes for my mind]

Reading an article about how best to save the older digital “versions” of whatever you’ve been working on, it suddenly came to me that the digital world has, in a sense, reinvented (or resurrected) something close to oral tradition.
Literature, after all, arose from oral tales that expanded and switched emphasis depending on the teller and the audience. It’s unlikely that Homer ever sang the Iliad in exactly the same form every Saturday evening, or that those who inherited the task for repeating his work didn’t slip in their own new tales, excise old ones, or forget a few dozen lines after their second bottle of retsina.
Once the oral tales were written down, they became, to one extent or another, frozen in place and time. Copyist errors crept in, of course, but usually minor (“What the hell’s an ‘amphora’? I’ll try ‘camphor holder.’ Damned Greeks.”) The printing press, though it too introduced typesetting errors, further solidified the tales. An author might release a few different editions during her or his lifetime, but at death, there lay the final Definitive Version, “what the author wanted.”
Digital publishing, by contrast, allows the author (or others, if sneaky) to change a story on the fly, if and when they choose. Versions can abound, be edited, emended, tossed about, caught, dropped, “corrected,” rejected with each iteration. It works too (moreso, actually) with music, something Bob Dylan exemplifies, reimagining his material each time he appears on stage (which can also be recorded on the spot). There is no Definitive Version of “Tangled up in Blue.”

* * *
Linda and I read the daily comic strips online, as we did every morning the paper. It felt weird at first, not thumbing through the floppy sheets of a print to get to the back pages. But now, by subscribing directly from the comics distributors, we get exactly the strips we want, without having to evert our eyes to skip over such egregious crap as “Tank McNamara.” Too many of our favorites are repeats of older strips whose authors have retired (“Calvin and Hobbes”) or died (“Cul de Sac”), but many of the continuing ones (“Overboard”) or more recent additions (“Brewster Rockit”) are equally excellent.
What has changed in the last year or so, since the slavering idiocy of the Frump years (I will not type that man’s name) and the age of climate collapse, has been a subtle creep of social and political commentary into strips that previously dealt only with pratfalls and universal human foibles. Covid, initially ignored by almost all the “funnies,” has quietly slipped into strips that once were constrained to the haw-haw minutia of home life.
Is this a good thing – a righteous admission of the spreading mire of current reality – or another indication that even the simplest joys in life are no longer quietly comfortable?

* * *
The constant upheavals about the side effects of specific drugs serves to erect important signposts, but what I don’t see noted is that the entire history of rampant pill-taking goes back no further 60-70 years. There have been herbal remedies since the dawn of time, and concocted elixirs for the last few centuries, but the assumption that we should all wake each morning to downing multiple concoctions of oddly shaped capsules and pastel chemical blobs is a true change in direction. So, even if we manage to comprehend the side effects of each and every drug on the market, we still won’t know the overall side effect of the embedded legal, medically supported, pill-popping regime.
Universal chemical-ingestion is as revolutionary a development as the social media, yet it has been accepted as right and inevitable without serious examination. Is it necessary to saving and extending life – and should saving and extending life be our major concern?

* * *
The failure, so far, of SETI to detect evidence of alien intelligence has left us scratching our collective heads: Why haven’t we heard from anybody else in the universe?
Here are a few possible reasons I can think of:
⁃ The intelligent others aren’t using the “broadcast” channels or mechanisms we in our limited wisdom expect them to. (Maybe instead they’re, say, blowing up used planets in a Morse-code-like sequence?)
⁃ We’re tuning in too early or too late for the time frame when these others are choose to broadcast. To me it seems unlikely that any one alien group would keep their broadcast up for centuries or millennia – and we’ve been listening for less than 60 years.
⁃ Different forms of life may think entirely differently from us – or not “think” in any way we can imagine.
⁃ We’re assuming that any intelligent lifeform will want to make contact with any other such – but what if they don’t? Maybe most are happy by their lonesome.
⁃ Something or someone interferes with or intercepts their broadcasts – a more advanced is civilization putting the clamps on all us cosmic upstarts.
⁃ And finally, the eternal religious explanation: God limited all of intelligent creation to the third planet of a second-rate sun on the edge of an undistinguished galaxy. Where we have now quite possibly fucked up our only chance of continuation.

* * *
What if life is an error?
I don’t mean my life or your life or even human life. What if the existence of self-developing, self-replicating beings is a monumentally ill side-effect of evolution?
Humans are mammals, mammals are animals, animals are a sub-set of living entities, and when you look at what life – all life – is up to, it ain’t pretty. Intelligent design? There’s neither intelligence nor design to any end beyond reproduction. We exist only to create others to keep existence going.
Would the universe likely be better off then it was just stars and inanimate rock? Hard to say… even stars and galaxies grow old and eat their young.

* * *
I woke the other morning (as too often) with a sense of panic, so I spent time thinking about the possible coming end of civilization. Then the panic just flipped over—if humanity’s going to crap out, what the hell do I have to worry about? My duties, my failures? Ha!
The absurdity of existence can be kind of cuddly.

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Friday afternoon

[a story]
Christ willed himself free of the cross and spread havoc among the frightened soldiers guarding its base. He hurled a centurion against the foot of the cross, trumpeted imprecations at the jeering throng come to extol his suffering, dug clods of earth with his hands and heaved them at the backs of the now fleeing figures. Behind him, the battered centurion raised his spear to hurl at him. Christ raised his hand to smite, then turned it softly and instead spread forgetfulness across the legionnaire’s mind.
Where were his disciples? They had cringed and hidden away. He looked at the holes in his hands and feet and bid them heal. They healed but stung, a prickling reminder. He wore only a loincloth, stained with blood from the wound in his side. He bid the wound heal. The wound healed, the blood fled his loincloth. The few remainders of the crowd separated like Moses’ sea as he walked forward, head down, toward the streets of Jerusalem. Stragglers followed. Most stayed behind to watch the bracketed thieves curse existence and breathe their last.
Dust welled over him from the hot wind. Those following dissipated one by one or family by family to their homes, shaking their heads at the viewed unlikelihood. Others who passed in the street stared in confusion at his bloodstained body and his loincloth. He saw that he should wear a burnous such as theirs to cover their concerns. He willed one into existence and as quickly obliterated it. No! He must live like them now, become them to see why they might be worth saving. “I can save no one if I’m dead,” he called to his father. His father answered nothing.
He passed a stall where fruit well past its prime warred in odor with ointments claiming to heal all manner of illness. “Just stink it to oblivion,” Christ muttered. He stopped at a table heaped with clothing. “I want a garment.” The merchant, short, stocky, showed little immediate interest in making a sale. He spread his hands, ”I have many garments, what form would you prefer?” “A standard covering, what anyone of no concern would wear.” The merchant pointed to a a grayed bedraggle of cloth. “This.”
“I’ll take it.” “Fifteen shekels.” Christ willed the coins into his hand and held them out. The merchant refused the offer. “What is the problem?” “You did not haggle, and now you perform magic for payment. Your coins will disappear once you leave.” “They are real coins, solid metal, take them and give me the cloth.” The merchant registered the fury in Christ’s eyes and exchanged the garment for the coins, which lay heavy and familiar in his hand. As Christ turned away, he tested one with his teeth.
Along a side street where no one walked, the undoored openings of the houses registered despair. “They don’t know how to live, to build.” He felt a mental tug… his father wielding a bolt of remonstration? Christ waves his hand at the sky. ”You’re up there, I’m down here. You sent me. Don’t berate me.”
A low wail floated from one of the house openings. It registered not as a response to death, but to some lesser evil. He stopped at the low, rounded doorway. “What help do you need?” “Go away.” “Gladly.” But he stayed. “You block the sunlight.” “Is that all you were calling for, more sunlight?” “I want to sweep the thoughts from my head.” “You need a brain broom.” “That is a good way to say it.” Well, thought Christ, I’m working some good.
He stepped tentatively inside, bending his head to enter. The sun reached, barely, to where the woman sat crosslegged on the dirt floor. She was not pretty, likely had never been pretty, certainly now was not pretty. The years had used her, as they did all the poor and wretched of the earth. There was no one for him to save here, because she had not strayed, she had been strayed upon. “I don’t sell brooms.” “Do you sell new thoughts to replace old?” “I sell nothing. I have been sent to… give something away, but lately I can no longer recognize what it is I can give.” “Nothing is easy, whatever the task.” “That’s simplistic. Generalizations do not recognize individual circumstance.” “Why do you come into my home to argue?” “We call it debate.”
Christ sat on the floor, not near the woman, and vigorously scratched his head. “This city gives me welts.” “They crucified three more today.” “I was there.” “Why do they choose such a slow and painful way to kill? They could just split his head with an ax and have it over. All forms of death share the same end.” “It’s supposed to set an example for evildoers – ‘this could happen to you, pisshead.’ It doesn’t work. Evildoers do not think that way.” “You know this?” “I do.”
The woman stood and moved to a small, low table pushed against the rear wall. “We know this as well. Do you have any new thoughts?” Christ remained hunkered in the dust, resisting the urge to create a seat. “You have lived here all your life?” “So far.” “Humor.” Perhaps she smiled, now, in the shadow. “The gift of the gods.” Christ barked a raucous laugh. “That is most definitely funny.” “I don’t know why you came in here.” “Nor do I, but I’m almost… enjoying myself.” “Please give me an original thought – any thought not evil. Just one.”
Christ put his mind to the task but felt drained of ability. He could will anything of substance into existence, but the coruscations of his brain produced nothing. “You can make new thoughts of your own. If nothing else, take an old thought and turn it over, see what lies underneath.” “Well, that is a new thought!” “A circular one. In a sense.” “You demean yourself.” “I’m trying to be one with humanity, but I can’t even comprehend where I came from.”
“Would you like something to drink?” “I would like to… understand my own existence. I am eternal, eternally begotten, which means that I was always. Therefore, I was there before I was? That rattles the mind. I was there before time. We, the three persons, invented time. But how could time ‘begin’? If there was no time before the start, there was nothing to begin from. You see? How and from what did my father generate the idea of creation? If there was no time before creation, there could be no action to take, only stasis, no thought, no idea, no way of planning – of ‘beginning.’ There was nothing or there was everything, but immobile. I have no memory of a beginning, of a ‘before,’ because without time, how can there be memory? Memory is action through time. I started to have memory when I came to earth, when I became human within time. Did my father or he and I and the Holy Spirit create the universe? If so, what was, before the universe and time? It was all god? Well.”
The woman looked neither fearful nor confused, only piqued. ”Are you completely certain you are in your right mind?” “I cannot say what my right or wrong mind would be, since I cannot, could not, remember. I have been sent here to save… to save whom? Some or all of mankind? I didn’t plan to be here, yet god planned it and I’m a person of god. A segment.” “There is no one, true god? There are many? That is blasphemy, we are told.” “The three are one together – god in three persons. Each of us is an… aspect? of god. The Holy Spirit shows little activity, most times, but he must have been planning with my father and me, even when it was impossible for us to plan, before time.”
“I don’t understand.” “Exactly.” The woman smiled. “These are surely new thoughts, if silly ones. They sweep some of the sad thoughts from my head. But not all.” “And most will come back. They’re insidious.” “Why is that?” “Something we did when we created you, all of you, or allowed you to create within yourselves from the muck we laid down.” “You believe yourself god. Part of god?” “All of god through part. I know that much, beyond belief, but it leaves me with nothing that I can impart.” “You are god.” “Yes.” “You are a man?” “Yes.” “You are hungry, you get urges, you suffer hurts?” “I suffer hurts such as you cannot imagine.” “How can god suffer hurts, even as a man?” “We should talk of something more comprehensible.”
The woman brought Christ a cup of a cool beverage, slightly sweet, with an herbal tang. It tasted good and it relieved the thirst he had forgotten, the drying out and draining of fluids from his hours on the cross. Was he fully man if he could ignore his ravenous thirst? “Thank you, this is refreshing.” “It is my mother’s recipe.” “Does you mother live here with you?” “Mother is dead. No one lives with me.” “Would you want someone to live with you?” “God should know this.” “The man does not.” “Consider it from what you see. I don’t need a man.”
Christ rose, preparing to leave. The woman turned her back to him. Christ stood still. “I was not offering myself. I was asking a question to bring clarity to myself. The answer might help me realize some of what I don’t understand.” “They say you know much, more than any other man.” “So you know who I am?” “I have seen you on the streets a-time and know who you are said to be. Why are you here in this room, not dying on that cross they promised?” “Because I do not yet know what I would need to know to take success back to my father.” “He sent you to find out?” “I don’t fully know why he sent me, or what it means for me to have sent myself in consort with him. I was prepared to die, to play my father’s game, but it is equally my game, since we are equal and in sense the same. I grew angry – mad as hell, some would say it. I had not been taken into my own confidence in this decision. Is that possible? If so, is it a correct thing to ask of me, my death, when I am so intimately concerned? Thus I withdrew from the cross, which I could by will, just as I could have made these clothes, as I could destroy this house you live in, with the lift of a finger.” Christ looked embarrassed. “I would not do such.”
“You should leave.” “Yes. Would you accompany me for a bit? I have had only three days in which to see Jerusalem, and I barely know its ways.” “It’s your burden, not mine, this business of saving people that you know so little about.” She gestured at the sparseness surrounding her. “What do I have that I should be saved from? I’m alone by choice, I bide my time. And you tell me you come from before time. Can you save me from time? Can you harvest time for others to use in better ways?” “I told you, I don’t know who or why I’ve been sent to save – or have sent myself to save. If we searched together, you and I, I might learn somewhat.” “It seems unlikely.” “Is it more unlikely than my being here?” “That would depend on whether I believe you.”
Christ did not ask the obvious question, instead, “Who are your neighbors?” “There is an old cripple next door. I feed him supper.” “And breakfast?” “No, he wants to do that for himself, but sometimes I put leftover food by his door. Too often the dogs eat it.” “Why not knock and tell him you have left it?” “It would disturb him.” “So he is undisturbed and the food goes to feed the dogs.” “Only sometimes.” “I do not understand food.” “How is that?” “Why is it necessary, why would my father with my help or equally decided, have created the need for nourishment? Why should people not simply endure?” “Why should we be born in the first place?” “That too.” The woman began to laugh and shake her head. “God is a ninny.”
“Come with me, show me the town, the parts that I would not notice.” “To what purpose? How could that do you good, and how could doing you good do me good? You have galloping arrogance beneath your assumed simplicity.” Christ showed anger for the first time. “I do not pretend to simplicity. God is complex. I, as god and man both, am still more complex.” The woman twirled, flaring the hem of her single garment. Its passage lifted dust from the floor. “You are simply arrogant. You escaped pain and torture, you say, shucked it aside by the mere waving of your godly hand, yet you feel badly used. You see no shame in that?”
Christ retreated to the doorway and beckoned. “Show me the city.” “Do you know how I exist with no man to care for me?” “Tell me.” “I weave magic baskets.” She reached into a recess and retrieved an unadorned basket of flat woven strands. She pointed to its open surface. ”Make a wish.” “I have no need to make wishes. I will my desire and it becomes.” “Then wish for something for someone else who’s wish you do not read.” “I could read it. God can read all.” The woman threw the basket on the floor. “Then know Jerusalem with your all-encompassing mind and do no ask me to be your guide.” “I must experience it as a man. I could have seen it all even on the cross, but the knowledge would be empty.” The woman picked up the basket. “Then I wish you not to be shattered by your arrogance.”
Christ felt a warmth flow into him that he had not known in three yeas of preaching and dispensing useful hints on mountainsides. It pushed against his breastbone and drove out distance, breached the divide between his godhead and his humanity. Pictures, new memories flooded him, assumptions became fact, fact became innocent completion. The divine no longer had need to master the human. They nestled like litter-mates.
“How did you do that, through a wish?”he asked. She laughed. “God knows all.” Christ felt shock that he did not, as god, know the answer. “Come,” he said. “Is that a command?” “It is a request.” They passed into the street, no longer empty, as the remnants of the crowd returning from the crucifixions melted back to their homes. No one recognized Christ, no longer dressed as they had seen him, his wounds healed, yet they eyed him suspiciously. The woman spoke quietly. ”You are too clean, they don’t know what to make of you.” Christ willed dirt onto his garment. “Better.” An approaching couple flinched. “Better still not to do that as they watch.”
The city quickly bored Christ with its tawdry sameness, one hovel following another, slapdash constructions of dried mud, bits of stone and last season’s waste heaved together without order. “Why not take the time to build their houses carefully?” “Why waste time on that when there are so many easier paths to waste it? They have no way to make a living, nothing to live for. Most die young.” “They don’t weave magic baskets?” “They weave despair.” A form sprawled in a doorway, its arms and legs twisted unnaturally. Christ stopped and raised his hand to affect a cure. The drama of the gesture was unnecessary, but he had found it effective in performing public miracles. “Stop showboating. He’s only drunk, like every other day.” Christ lowered his arm. “What keeps him alive?” “Nothing. He just goes on, continues happening. Tomorrow he will wake up, then one day he won’t.”
“Will you tell me your name?” “You don’t know it by will?” “Your wish changed me. Do I seem less arrogant?” “More settled, perhaps. Less concerned about what you don’t know.” “Look out!” A loose stone rattled from a rooftop, narrowly avoiding the woman’s shoulder. “Do not do that! If it was meant to hit me, let it hit. You have no business changing what is intended. You destroy the order of things.” “I did nothing, it simply missed you.” “Truly?” “Yes. I don’t lie.” He looked puzzled. “I can’t lie, and it feels like a lack.” “Truly, it is.”
Christ remained silent for several minutes. “You have not told me your name.” “Look into your godness.” “I will not. Cannot.” “How do you pick and choose what you can and cannot know or do? How do you choose between god and man?” “That is yet another mystery.” “I think you make up these distinctions – these seeming-distinctions.” “I am here to try to find a path through all the distinctions. I’m hoping that you are a signpost on that path.” “Your explanations stink of donkey poo.”
Turning a corner, they entered a small market square filled with mini-tents erected over tables of unmatched items. Stones on the tables held down cloth next to wilted flowers and shoddy toys – lumpy constructions of wood intended for children or pets. Some items had no clear form, as though grown in dark corners. Christ picked up a hemisphere of poorly polished stone and turned it so the baking sun reflected from its warring facets. The vendor smiled crookedly and quoted a price. Christ shook his head. The vendor named a lower price. Christ placed the stone back on the table, where it shattered to dust. The vendor looked in awe, then squealed vituperation at Christ. Christ stared at the vendor’s hand. It began to smoke and the vendor withdrew it in terror.
The woman turned back toward her home. “Wait.” “For what? For more assault on people who have offered you no harm?” “I meant nothing by that.” “So much the worse.” Christ stared at the roadway. The woman stopped. Christ spoke, perhaps to the roadway.
“I was sent by my father but also by myself, as one though different persons. We know all, we know the same all or knew it all before I came here. Now I know almost nothing. In surges I do things that the man of me sees as magic, beyond magic, the realm of all-control. If I released myself from the dampening of those surges I could wield immense evil – what any man, most men, would view as evil. Yet as god, anything I do, however motivated, is good, because good is greater than evil and absorbs it. As god I know this absolutely, yet as man I do not believe it. I left the cross because the man of me could not believe that the death of god at the hands of man was a good greater than its clear evil. If I cannot remedy this conflict, I cannot allow my death. To reconcile this I would have to be only god and drive out man, which would negate what motive my father and I had in sending me here. On the cross I asked my father why he had forsaken me, and he did not answer. He left it thus because to speak with me would negate my purpose – a purpose I can never fully comprehend while I remain man. It ties my being into a huge knot made of a thousand smaller knots. As man, I see no way these knots can be undone. As god, I know they can and must be undone so I can become complete.”
“Your death would make you complete?” “Are you not listening? What I say is that I cannot die, cannot be killed until I am complete. I must bite the knots loose with my teeth, because my hands are still nailed to the cross.” “Do not sneer at me because you fail to make your quandary clear.” “Forgive me.” “Forgive god?” “Forgive god who put you here. And the man who harasses you.” “If you were flavored dough and I was kneading you, how would I separate the spices from the rat turds? God from man?”
Massive clouds reared up on the horizon and flew toward Jerusalem with the speed of an invading army. As they reared overhead, the ground began to shake, the road to heave. Fury filled Christ’s face and he raised his hand at the sky. “I will not go back to the cross. I will stay until tomorrow and the next day and the day after. I will stay until I understand and can reconcile. And if I cannot reconcile I will die of old age, forgotten. Why should mankind be saved? From what and for what? Explain!” The father made no answer and Christ lowered his pleading hand.
The woman had fallen to her knees, whether in awe or because the upheaved paving had thrown her down. She arose. ”You argue with your father, with yourself, with all of creation. Be man and be content. Throw god away.” “I have a duty that will not leave. What I was sent to do is incomplete. I rail to my father that I have changed my mind, but I could not change my mind if I would. Or so it feels to me as man. Free will is the greatest of God’s gifts, leaving mankind free to defy even god, but is god free to defy himself?” “If we are free to defy god, why should we be sent to hellfire for employing that gift?” “Something else I must discuss with my father. When I return to him.” “You always have an answer, but your answers lead nowhere.”
The tempest had stilled as they walked back to her home. The roadway was now filled with the crowd from the crucifixions. Some turned their heads as they passed, nudged each other, made signals, but if they recognized Christ, they did not accost him. He stuck out his tongue at them and made faces.
They stopped at her doorway and stood silent. Christ swung his head to left and right like a camel. The woman patted the dried earth of the doorframe. “I will not invite you in.” “I would not accept.” “I have never spoken with god before. It doesn’t seem like a two-way street. We beg, he says nothing.” “So you believe me, what I’ve said?” “I think you believe in yourself, and that could be enough. Where would you have gone, if you chose not to return to the cross?” Christ scratched his head, his most human gesture. “I would wander, I think, and wait for word from my father.” “Who I suspect would then be angry with you. And what of your disciples? How would they deal with being left alone, whether by your death or by your earthly abandonment?” “Either way, they have learned enough to spread the word, and the word will become distorted and debased, then… who knows what follows? My father knows, and I will know, when I return. Or is that only an assumption? It is how I, the man, believe godhood should work.”
“If you choose to die, will your teachings too die, regardless of your disciples? I don’t see what dying will add.” “Nor do I, clearly. I simply assume, again, that it is necessary. You must weary of my rambling. God should be precise. Instead, I dither.” She laughed. “Life has dithered you.” “Something to place on god’s mortal tombstone, ‘Dithered by Life.'” Christ turned away. “Goodbye,” he said, not facing her. He did not tell her that he had showered on her a blessing, because that knowledge might lead her to resist the free will to defy God. ”Good journey,” she returned, “wherever it leads. Tell your father you made a friend.” “Tell him yourself. He hears, even when he does not answer.”
The woman melted into the shadow of the room. Christ spoke to the sky. “What is her name? She never told me.” His father did not answer. But on the 40th day following, he called his son back home.

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Waitresses and Legs

First, some questions about modern waitressing:
Why would I want to know the name of my “server” before ordering a hamburger?
Who introduced the now-universal, ear-splitting waitress bat-squeak?
Is there a required course in “How to be Obtrusive While Serving Broccoli”?
When and why did servers start saying “Let me get that out of your way?” My plate, my napkin, my butter knife are “in my way?” What would Frank Sinatra say to that?

Waitresses
At the Covered Bridge up here – a restaurant sadly gone – the most heart-poundingly sexy woman ran the few tables – boisterous, succulent as ripe cantaloupe and dead-on with every order, especially the drinks. I once made an internal bet that she would spot my empty gin and tonic glass within 15 seconds. At the count of 13, her finger shot out and
“Refill?”
They can’t teach that in bartender’s school.
The Dushore Hotel, during our first years here, was run by a laconic Donald Sutherland lookalike who tended the tiny L-shaped bar and cooked some of the dinners. When he poured a shot of Yukon Jack, you could not have forced another drop into the glass in a hyperbaric chamber. He also served dynamite prime rib on Fridays (seasoned with rosemary).
But his server trio sealed the deal:
The barmaid was a mass of muscular, exuberant flesh only somewhat restrained by a halter and surrounded by an almost visible cloud of pheromones.
Can a 5′ 10″ woman be cute? Oh my, yes. Our usual waitress would lean just so over the table with a smile equal parts sweet reticence and expectancy. Purrrr.
The other waitress had magnificent legs. The first time we dropped by, she was standing in the alleyway to the kitchen in shorts, one foot cocked back, knee bent. I’d never seen the like and never expect to again. Funny though, I never really found her erotic (which, for me, is pretty strange). It was more an appreciation of perfection in form. How often do you witness a living ideal – what should be, even when you had no advance notion of “should”?

Legs
Though that waitress takes my All-Time Gam Award (told you there was a connection), others were not far behind. Out the window and through the louvered shutter where teen-me would mush over the rabbit-owning girl next door, I also ogled Gertrude, our landlord’s wife, smokily tanned in the shorts-and-halter set that was near ubiquitous in 1950s summers (but never featured in TV sitcoms of the times, leaving later generations with the impression that all females back then were encased in frilly blouses and knee-obliterating skirts). A local amateur actress – her name once appeared on a program as “Gerturde,” which sent her into repeated hoots of hilarity – she could and would cross and recross her legs succulently with unstated ease.
While I was in college, a co-ed from Rhode Island with an unexceptionally pleasant face had lovely, delicate, shapely legs that seemed to belong to someone else. I was glad she’d borrowed them.
In the office of the UPenn book store, in the basement of the student-union building, a pert young woman with glasses and high heels had the habit of sitting on the edge of her desk, legs swinging in a sexual metronome while I pretended to look for something in the file cabinet. One of her duties was to fetch minimally edible snacks from the takeout counter upstairs, where she stood in line holding a cardboard carton marked “Peggy’s Box.”
The Welcomat advertising department held an unofficial position tagged “Lustful Lower Limbs,” held by three extraordinary lasses in a row – one after the other, I mean – they weren’t on linear display (alas).
During the 20-plus years we shared the massive Italianate twin on Baring Street, LCH [Let’sCall Her] Effie, the female half of the other couple, had a most unlikely and provocative physical presence.
In the early years, our two families shared communal meals. Wearing a loose denim skirt, she would draw her bare feet up onto her chair and consume her dinner with her skirt dropped to her waist. She took the same position on the porch swing that faced the street, presenting an unhindered view of expansive, delicious legs and cotton panties. Working in the back yard, she would sit in the grass with feet drawn up slightly, clipping at the weeds beneath her raised legs in a relaxed, remarkably inefficient but stunningly erotic pose, constantly fidgeting and rearranged her contours.
She fit into the ’40s soft-porn, pinup category. I’ve never been able to figure out if this unexcused exhibitionism was intentional or incidental, whether it sprang from innocence, physical disinterest or suppressed aggression. Whatever, I benefited.
One unlikely candidate was the office assistant at the funeral parlor that was arranging my brother Rod’s burial. (The reception room was strewn with clocks of all sorts, few working, none telling the correct time.) A cheery, funny, early-40s woman, she had legs that would put 99% of the world’s models to shame. I think she was genuinely unaware, certainly unconcerned. I was neither, but it’s impolite to pant loudly during your brother’s funeral preparations.
Oh, and there’s the 6’ 1” blonde insurance agent in town up here. (That description is enough in itself.)
Such stuff marks me as the quintessential dirty old man, I know, but I come by it legitimately: I was previously a dirty middleaged man, a dirty young man, a dirty teenager and a dirty little boy. I fantasized about anyone and anything but never deliberately hurt another being higher than insect or rodent. Any serial-killer genes I may possess are quiescent.
For which I’m glad.

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Oh, The House!

The House! – After almost 60 years, that’s still how I think of it.
After I graduated Penn, I spent a third of a year at Stanford in grad communications, leaving there to escape the dissolution of my mother (more on that elsewhere). I schlepped back to Philly by Greyhound bus and moved into a cheap apartment in The Piles – a then-decaying complex in Powelton Village – with Steve, my companion on the trip to Europe and also my successor as features editor on The Daily Pennsylvanian.
That summer I again sailed as a deckhand on a Sun Oil tanker, and while I was a-ship, my stuff was moved to a house near Penn where I was to join four guys I didn’t know.
Between sailings, when I first wandered in to psych the place out, I found the four-foot-wide round oak table I’d refinished some years before for my mother and set on hairpin legs. What determines the things you keep and move around?
Ascending to the third floor, where I knew my room to be, I also found, at one o’clock in the afternoon, an amorphous pile wrapped tightly in a sheet on what I took to be my bed. Unwrapped, it turned into Joe, a Tennessean with wildly curly hair that, I later found, he could form into a horn that stuck out six inches from his head. Joe was renting my room while I was at sea. That was fine by me.
He got up and we took a walk. Which is pretty much what we did whenever we got together over the next couple months while I was in port – walk and walk and walk throughout the city. One late night or early morning, we were loping along Tasker Ave. in South Philly. We passed a row of tiny modern homes with tiny metal flap doors for trash. In front of each house sat a tiny garbage can waiting for pickup. As we approached the end of the block, a tiny garbage truck – the smallest collector of refuse I’ve ever seen – stopped so its workman could empty the nearest tiny can.

The House, at 23 S. 34th Street, was half a block from the Penn Law School. We five paid $110 total to rent the whole place. Think about that: As close as you could possibly get to a major urban campus, with each of us paying $22 a month rent, partially furnished. The equivalent in current dollars is around $200. Don’t worry about inflation: Even then, $22 was bantam chicken feed, no matter what adjustment you may make. But in the early ’60s, People didn’t yet feel morally required to milk every last dime from every last person, situation or institution. (Penn now controls all living quarters that touch the campus. You’d pay both arms and a twice-gilded leg to live where we did – though in fact, the house was later torn down to erect a parking garage.)
The first-floor layout: in the front room – the living room – a collection of friendly stray chairs followed the curve of my oak table. Walking from the living room toward the rear, you passed through an open area (too large for a hallway, too small for most anything else), then through the dining room with its monstrous icky-green table and chairs, then the kitchen, and finally the shed where we threw the icky-green chairs that we ritually shattered at our parties.
The kitchen housed the small oak table with pull-out ends that my parents bought in 1932, along with four chairs, for $18. (Linda and I still dine at it daily, a sturdy memento in continual use for almost 90 years.)
The unfunctioned open area between living and dining rooms was home to the House phone, where you could sit at floor level in a Victorian wing chair with its legs cut off – the most comfortable seat I’ve ever lowered into.
Upstairs, we each had a bedroom of decent or, in a couple cases, almost indecent size; three on the second floor, two on the third. I had the third rear, where the sun would wake me in the morning. (I didn’t always welcome its intrusion.)
The House-holders were almost impossibly smart. Dave, a math major, graduated first in his class at Penn. He spent his days lying on his third-floor-front bed staring at the ceiling, thinking I don’t know what. Once, when he couldn’t find socks to put on, we moved his bed and uncovered 11 pairs. As the term trundled to its end, he’d pull out his books, study like a cloistered madman, and ace every subject.
Danny was number three in the same graduating class, also a math major – studying topology, a subject he extolled as having no practical use. (Since then, it’s proved quite valuable. I’ve often wondered how much that pissed him off.)
Mike was House organizer, the grumbling yet almost lovable martinet of meal-and-cleanup schedules. Barry Two (second in my sequence of live-with Barrys) – was odd man out, the butt of snide comment. In retrospect, I see that he served a worthwhile and wholly necessary function.
I was the sole non-Jew. Whether despite or because of my Catholic schooling, I have long been more comfortable with Jews than Christians. I had great fun at a seder in Danny’s home in the suburbs. For some reason the family elder – Danny’s grandfather? – decided my name was George.
I have a hazy recollection that I first met Chris Hessert (the subject of a very personal rumination here some months back) on a visit to friends in the Penn dorms. Later, he’d drop by my digs at the House to sit at my great grandfather’s desk and insult my Indian classical music with his uproarious staccato laugh while banging on the desktop with a kazoo. Then he’d ask to hear the record again. As mock secretary, he’d answer my phone for me: “Bassoon concerto, bassoon speaking.”

As also the only non-scholastic, I mostly held down part-time jobs. For the hell of it, I painted the House hallways when the others were on vacation (standing on a four-inch board laid across the open stairway, though I’ve always had a paralyzing fear of heights).
After a few months of feeling cramped for work space, I broke through the back wall of my closet to annex the tiny adjoining room as a rattletrap “office” for writing on my 1937 IBM electric typewriter (turning a little dial on the keyboard would fine-tune its key-pressure to the point where you could almost type by blowing across the keys). I set up old doors as tables that lined three sides of what had probably been a servant’s nest.
There I turned out reams of written matter. I’d swiped a carton of AP wire-service paper from the student newspaper office. It was rough, cheap, yellowish, 6 inches wide and accordion-folded into an 18-inch-long box – maybe a half-mile of the stuff. It was meant to feed into a teletype machine, but instead it fed into my IBM. I’d pound out a bit of fiction, a comment on the House, a (usually stupid) essay about science, tear it off and add it to the appropriate pile on one of the doors.

We ate communal suppers that included Howie from a couple blocks over, who paid to join the meals. Howie had an almost pathological revulsion toward fat. He would trim every last vestige from every bite of meat, then hold each forkful up to the light to be certain not a speck of lipid remained. I always sat next to him; when he had finished his repast I’d whisk the pile of rejected grease onto my plate and gobble it up – which never seemed to bother him.
We all played balloon ball in that undecided first-floor space, with its two archways as goals. Balloons batted by a crew of superbly intelligent 20-year-olds can take amazingly unpredictable flights. whap, whip, flop, swoop, wong, wurp, oop, suuuUUuupp. Unrestrained pleasure, with no rules or winner, announced or contemplated. The perfect sport.
We wrote on the filthy wallpaper in the second floor hallway, penning invented names or conversions of existing ones. Danny was undisputed champ with an appellation that will never be equaled: “Ann T. S. P. O. Nagy” (the last pronounced “nahj,” after Imre Nagy, premier during the brief 1956 Hungarian uprising).
On an ancient mimeo machine (which we later destroyed by dropping a shotput onto it from the second-floor hallway), I put out the single issue of my only (print) magazine: “Ersatz: the Poor Man’s Substitute for Culture.” I wrote up my peyote experience, there were a few poems and not sure what else. (I have lost all copies. Typical.) I sweated over the internal pressure to extend its run, but just couldn’t get myself to do it. Damned shame (maybe).
My four companions graduated that year, 1963, leaving me sole resident for the summer. In the fall, they were replaced by four newcomers, two quite bright (if not of Dave and Danny brilliance), one (Bob?) mild and middling, one – well, there always has be that odd man out. I can’t recall his name; he was from Virginia, had washed out blue eyes and typed up his organic chem notes each night – forming benzine rings with right and left typed slashes, which didn’t noticeably improve his grades.
Barry Three and David were the bright ones, Jews again. This Barry was short, burly, bass-baritone of voice, Brooklyn accented, massive headed, somewhere between a stereotypical mob figure and a gorilla, but thoughtful and a music lover. At a living room party, he and I got to dancing to Little Richard’s “Jenny, Jenny,” bellowing the lyrics and shaking our fingers at each other. One of my few public uninhibited moments.
David was skinny, geeky-looking but loud, with squirrelish intensity. An inveterate slob, he ate kosher but left his room scattered with non-porcine bones. When the rest of the house dove into a baked pork roast, he’d stand by the table and bellow, “Goddamn that smells good.” He had the strangest way of salting his food, holding the salt cellar straight up and lurching it with his hand so that the salt shot out the top and rained onto his plate.
The guy who lived next door was skewed and more than a little dense. He didn’t have a phone, so he’d come over and ask to use ours. Something about him set all of us off, so rather than saying “No,” as soon as he lifted the receiver, we’d make every conceivable kind of racket – yowls, crashes, throwing things, slamming large objects while he tried to converse. Our crowing achievement of obnoxiousness was rolling that shotput down the stairs.
Poor bastard never seemed to catch on or feel offended. The strangest part: He felt the need to pay us for use of the phone by periodically delivering fresh rolls of toilet paper.

The House! a cauldron of kinetic energy never quite duplicated.

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A Female Trinity

I have three daughters. Have I bequeathed a better youth to them than I had? They’d have to tell you. I can’t.

My first, Morgan, was a blessing beyond belief. I wasn’t ready for a kid (I’ve never been ready for a kid, never will be, never could be). During Julie’s pregnancy, our marriage was at one of its periodic nadirs, Julie pretending to attempt an abortion, than pretending suicide. I hated going to work each day at the Penn bookstore, hated even more coming back home to our two rooms and bath on Delancey St., in Philly’s Society Hill. In December we were married, simply because I didn’t want my kid to be labelled a bastard. 

We walked to the hospital, about three blocks away, when Julie was having contractions. I was supposed to be with her for the delivery, but the floor changed shifts and nobody told me she was ready. I missed the birth, and I don’t think Julie ever forgave me (for much of anything). 

We moved when Morgan was two months old to a narrow father, son and holy ghost rowhouse on Locust near 23rd. Morgan was the most joyous baby ever born. She constantly smiled and giggled and gurgled just to be alive. At six months (or whenever she could hitch herself up on her knees) she would look up with a big grin and actually say, “a-goo!” 

Among her playpen toys were two or three cloth-covered foam cubical blocks, about four inches on a side. She would wait with quivering anticipation, and when we finally let loose with a block, bouncing it off her forehead, she would almost disintegrate with ecstasy.

Morgan was the first person in my life I loved in a direct, all-encompassing, unselfish way. I wanted nothing of her but her existence. She was the making of me as a decent human being (if, indeed, that has happened). 

Erin came two and a quarter years after Morgan. With Morgan, I had expected a son – not wanted, just assumed, maybe because I was one of three brothers? Erin was planned, and I now wanted a daughter with all my heart – never again held interest in fathering a son. Twice I’ve had that wish granted. 

Erin was born while we were still on Locust St., but somehow I can’t pin down the details of her birth. At least it was not beset by Julie’s games of self-destruction. For Erin I made the mahogany cradle that has since nurtured many a babe (she had the outlandish ability to project her liquid bowel eruption over the end of the cradle).

She was a different sort of delight, even a foil to Morgan’s incessant good humor. Once she learned to speak, she arose most days a simmering grouch that needed immediate feeding for alleviation. Yet behind that was the raucous sense of humor that’s followed her through life, an adventurous playfulness matched by a skewer-sharp toughness. She faces existence with a four-square certainty that amazes (and teaches) me.

Caitlin began 15 years later, recreating an aspect of my childhood which was highly peculiar in those earlier times – a third child who was a decade and a half younger than its siblings. By the mid ’80s it was hardly unusual, with so many couples re-formed in different combinations. 

Linda and I had never considered having a child – we were both in our 40s (my father had been 48 at my birth). When she announced the unlikelihood as we parked whichever rattletrap car we had saddled ourselves with at the time, we both cringed: “Not another teenager!” She was delivered by a midwife – more on that later).

But Cait is ours, so completely and recognizably ours, an amazing amalgam of our interests, traits, strengths (and, yes, weaknesses). She has taken our lives along a path we could never have imagined, one that was denied Julie and me by the fate of an incompatibility comparable to gefilte fish and ice cream.

Morgan is now 54, Erin 52, Cait will soon be 37. How is that possible?

What have I given them? Something better than I had, I vastly hope. But I still have no concept of what a father is supposed to be.

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The Little Engine That Couldn’t Quite

There once was a little engine which was told to haul a long train filled with circus animals and spare parts to be used in a brewery on the other side of the hill. The engine looked at the hill and sighed. It would be a very long, exhausting climb indeed. But it was a brave little engine, and after building up a good head of steam it shifted into gear and made its try.

It huffed and puffed while the animals roared and the spare parts shifted because the boxes had not been properly restrained. After a great struggle, the little engine reached the half-way point, where the slope became even steeper. With all its strength it kept going despite the terrible strain on it’s pistons, which had not received their annual inspection in over a decade. It chugged almost to the top and paused for the final push over the crest of the hill.

But alas, just then a tie-rod snapped and the train rolled back down the slope, gathering speed as it went. It derailed on the bottom curve. All the circus animals that were not killed on contact ran through the town, tearing the arms and legs off innocent citizens. Flying brewery parts broke windows and severed electric lines, and the mayor was hit by a boxcar wheel while leaving city hall and decapitated.

Moral: Station masters should spend more time reading the rules of the road and less time composing fairy tales.

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Sump Pump

Linda and I got talking about pattern-recognition the other night. The conversation started because of a major plot element in the book I’m working on, then it veered into illuminating something that’s been flitting through my head off and on for ages.
It started with Bush the Younger. The general consensus among leftists (at least) was that he was just plain dumb. I’m not saying he wasn’t or isn’t, but watching his responses, what struck me as more likely was a learning disability. Maybe that response came from Linda having been a reading specialist who dealt with first-graders who had a rough time untangling written words.
There was one time Bush was pictured supposedly reading to a kindergarten class in Florida but looking like he was being held hostage on another planet. I thought then (and still think) that it was not only a really bad photo op, but that it fit fit well with that look of scrambled confusion that so often would cross his face when he was trying to make sense of something – less stupidity than, “Geez, what the hell?” Having difficulty comprehending the written word is not the kind of thing a major country’s leader is going to announce, but it would have created a hell of problem for those briefing him on anything complex.
More recently, massive amounts of time were spent on Beloved Seditionist Leader’s bumbling, nonsensical pontifications, analyzing how they reflect stupidity, ignorance, a racist mental rash, and/or narcissistic self-glorification. I’ll go with all of them, but I also think there’s some important underlying neurological problem. I mean, what’s really going on back there in Rump’s head? And what does it say about the man himself – who’s a unique entity, as is each of us?
When he mischaracterizes a fairly simple statement made to him, is it lying, deliberate misdirection, political gamesmanship, or simply failure to understand because he can’t form the words into a coherent pattern? When he rants against anything that doesn’t mesh with his pre-conceived ideas, is it (only) bilious arrogance, or that he can’t assimilate new information and so has to deny its existence?
He comes across as bad enough in interviews and briefings, but his staff have made it clear that he never “liked” to read anything put in front of him. What if he just couldn’t? I’m sure he can recognize individual words, but what if sentences disentangle from their meaning, run off the page and fornicate in the undergrowth? What if he can’t assemble a coherent pattern in a paragraph?
[Hell, I get that way with certain essayists. I was trying to read Francis Bacon last month and it was like somebody forcing my head under muddy water and yelling “Drink!” There are still a few scholars who want to credit him with writing Shakespeare’s plays; let me tell you, simply and flat out – “NO!”]
I’m making no apology for Dump’s behavior as President or as a more-or-less-human being. I’m just trying to find ways to explain some parts of it: because if you don’t know the cause of a given problem, you’re not going to find a viable solution. As for the larger issue of personal responsibility… many a soul with learning problems is fully decent. For any limiting physical or mental condition – no matter what the details – like the rest of us, some will be upstanding, most will be of average moral character, a few will be, by nature, rotten.
Morally, spiritually, Sump is a vile being.

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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.]

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One of those days, yesterday

And a damned good one, in this case.

We knew the rain was coming, and I was already pre-sogged. We did have something to look forward to, the “Last Friday Poetry Reading” at Winterland Winery, one of the last two Sullivan County wineries (so far as I know) still turning juice into alcohol. Maybe afterwards we’d have Friday dinner D&D Brew Works, a superbly friendly restaurant with a funny U-shaped counter where we always try to occupy the right-front corner.

We were sad that our friend Ben wouldn’t be making the reading – because he’d just had an eye injection (Jesus Christ, don’t tell me about such things!), but Alan, our frenetic librarian, said he come, and rumored that one of the local high school students would be there; if so, I was pretty sure who it would be, though I’d never met her.

As it turned out, I was right, and she brought along a friend who was living with her family this year. (I’m leaving the names out because there was a sense of necessary privacy to our little group.) 

The first girl read stunning bits of her own poetry, then her friend, a high school junior… poured out some of the most amazing and agonizing personal poetry I’ve heard in years. (Between Greta Thunberg, this girl, and some of the Parkland kids, I’m ready to hand the world over right now to the latest generation, especially its women. Our complacency is shot and should be buried.)

Linda and Alan and I read funny little bits (including some T.S. Eliot snickers and contemporary pieces). It was a fine time, the perfect setup for an evening at D&D’s – until Linda and I got there and found the dining-room door locked. What? What? But lots of cars out front, so maybe the bar was open. Ah, yes – and serving the full restaurant menu. The dining room was closed because they weren’t able to hire enough help to handle the Friday-night dining crowd.

The bar’s a huge room with a flattened oval bar counter (I don’t what to call such a figure – you know: two long parallel sides joined at each end by the arc of a circle – no, it is not an ellipse!), with behind it a smaller rectangular counter, plus a scatter of tables way down there.

I’ve never seen another bartop like this one. Maybe it’s part of some old tradition or taken from a famous hangout in NYC (I don’t know famous hangouts in NYC): The entire flattened-oval top is solidly covered with nickels set under glass or tough, clear plastic. Being compulsive about numbers, I figured that the entire sweep of the bar ran to maybe 30 feet, and counted each line of crosswise nickels: 22. Given that a nickel measures about 2.1 cm, there are roughly 9500 nickels snoozing there, coming to (again very roughly) $475. (And that doesn’t count the similar layout on the smaller bartop behind.)

Our order was taken by a kid standing behind us who looked about 12 but said he was 16. We decided (as so often) to share a Loyal-Sock-It-To-Ya pizza, a clever play on the Loyalsock Creek that defines the county’s water. This is a white pizza with chicken bits and a ranch dressing (does such a thing exist elsewhere?) that’s so good it makes your teeth wander.

We’d already ordered our drinks – Linda’s Blue Moon and my shot of Yukon Jack. Which is where it gets wonderful:

The barkeep is shortish, slightly bent – and never, never, never stops. He scurries like a harried force of nature, slapping down glasses, foaming drinks with his syphon, dashing out into the wider room and back. (When we’d eat as usual at the dining counter, we’d watch him flying past and wonder why the hell he had to personally pick up every dish from the kitchen and express it back to the bar.) Last night I stopped him just long enough to ask if he ever stood still. Not sure what he answered, but when Linda asked what he did at home: “Sleep.”

Listening to the bar regulars we finally found that his name is Bob. Well, of course its Bob. Though he looks nothing like the evil presence in the first Twin Peaks, he’s a Lynchian figure through-and-through. He’s probably the most perfect barkeep in the Western world – not just efficient but epitomizing the place where he works.

Which is not to say that the owners, Deb and Dennis, are slouches. Deb was also at full run, both behind the counter and as liaison to everywhere. Early on, when D&D was new, she seemed to take a cotton to us and would waste a bit of time in blather. Last night, as we were getting ready to leave, she screeched to a halt and chatted for maybe three minutes. It had an interesting effect: As we waved goodbye, everybody on the other side of the bar gave us a big shout. Deb had made us “known.”

So that was the night.

Uhn, wait, whoa. It wasn’t.

When I got home and sat at the computer, where I spend too much time, I was greeted with perhaps the most unlikely email I’ve ever received.

Alan, the frenetic librarian mentioned, has turned the Sullivan County Library into a social powerhouse. Not that it wasn’t always a special, friendly knowledge-center, but he, like Bob the barkeep, never stops.

One thing that got set up after he came (not sure whether it was his doing or the county commissioners) was creation of the Friends of the Sullivan County Library, a membership and fundraising body.

In the five or so years of its existence it’s not only wracked up a funding influx that would make your eyes cross, but established a wide range of adult programs, like GED guidance courses, Wednesday quilters, book discussion groups, that Last Friday Poetry reading, etc., etc.

Because I really like the library and really like Alan, I chose to sit in on one of the Friends’ “board” meetings (not restricted to their board). Oh man… that two and a half hour wander into digressionland near to fused my bureaucratic brain-wires.

Yet because it’s the kind of thing I like to do, I said I’d put out their quarterly newsletter after the first editor left. But this last year – trying to back off local duties to get myself focused on fiction writing – I passed it on to a wonderful woman who, frankly, has much done a better job of it. 

So anyway… coming home for D&D’s, more than slightly sozzled from three slugs of Yukon Jack, I sat down to download and mangle whatever email came in. And there it was – the lead note asking me if I’d like to become president of the Friends of the Library.

What? Which? How? Why would they do that, where did this come from, I’m just the little guy in the corner hunched over his keyboard.

It felt like if I’d walked into Hurley’s, the local grocery, and someone had siddled up to me and whispered, “Sayyyy, you come in here every week – would you like to manage the store, heh, heh?”

This sounds exaggerated, but really, it felt like it fell from the sky. I still can’t figure it… and still don’t know what my response is. I have failed to raise enough to live on for most of my life, don’t promote my own books, have as little sense of how the funding world works as my cat. 

Well, I have a hell of a sense of humor. Is that enough?

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