Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Being Stupid in the Woods: Stevensville 1988

This was when Fru and I lived in the Bitterroot, just outside of Stevensville, Montana, when we rented a brand new log cabin in the woods. The cabin--on about three and a half acres--was located on a dirt road (McAlla Creek Road, I think) off another dirt road up the hill on the western side of Highway 93. Fru and I would drive up to Missoula during the week to attend classes, but otherwise didn't work until we moved to Missoula and found jobs in town. But in our first week in the cabin, the small town realty lady who found the rental for us told us we should take a drive up the mountain and then hike to the top of St. Mary's Peak.
Sounded like fun.
But what's a small drive uphill to Montanans is a bit different to a Chicago-born Illinoisan. That is, the road up the mountain was all dirt and narrow and steep and winding, with jaw-dropping drop-offs and Fru did not like it. I was driving my red Chevy pickup and was uneasy--though I'd lived in the mountains and mountainous areas at times, had driven dirt and gravel roads to Alaska, I was not quite used to these little Montana Forest Service Roads that were stitched to the rocky hillsides all over the state. It was a lot longer drive than the realtor lady had promised and I don't think we even made it halfway before Fru had had enough. We turned around in some precarious fashion and headed back to the cozy wooded comfort of our cabin.
So, later, I went by myself.
It was a weekend. It was sunny and mild and it must have been late September or early October. I made the winding drive up the mountain and came to the trailhead, where I parked. I'd brought along my small book bag backpack with my journal, a coke, a banana, a bologna and mustard sandwich, so that I could have lunch at the top of the peak. And off I went up the trail, hiking.
It was early to mid-morning and, though there were a few other people on the trail, I was mainly by myself. I hiked through the trees, bumbling along uphill and sidehill and switchback-hill, having a good time, wondering just how long a hike it was. The trail was narrow but well worn--easy to follow. I could tell I was getting closer, because the trees grew smaller, became more sparse (I could see the sky more often now) and then I reached a spot where it leveled off, but was still among the trees. There, a man stood and he was calling to some boys among the trees on the short slope below. I stopped to rest, said hello, and he replied with similar pleasantries. The boys came up the hill and the man said to me, "There's a couple of lakes down there. You can take a side trail if you want to see them." He pointed up the trail as he said it. "Okay," I said. "Thanks."
The man and boys left and I was alone again. I peered down the slope, thought I could see some water, more like ponds than actual lakes, but what the heck, I guessed I should go see them if they were that close. And I walked up the main trail a bit, but didn't really see a side trail. So, I took what looked kind of like a path and wandered downhill for a bit and sure enough, there were some pond/lakes, water caught in a crease in the mountainside among trees, water shallow and reedy, a place you'd expect to see a moose or something. But there was only me. And I was ready to get back to my climb to the peak.
But where was the trail?
Okay, I'd threaded my way down here, I thought, but had paid no attention to how I'd get back . . . I stood there for a while, in a quandary, then tried to retrace my steps from whence I'd come. But I was just wandering in the woods. And then it occurred to me that I was lost . . . Ahhh! Lost! . . . I became a little panicked, then more so as I stumbled about. What will I do? Where was I? What would happen and who would tell Fru? . . . That lasted, oh, maybe thirty seconds. Because I just as quickly realized that I wasn't lost. I was just being stupid. (It reminds me of a time when I was a kid and lived in Johnson City, Tennessee and I'd gone down to the creek to play in the winter and the creek was frozen over and I stepped out on the ice and the ice cracked, gave way, and I went plunging into the water, scared, helpless, except the water was about two feet deep and came only coldly up to my knees.) So I stopped myself and thought and told myself, all you have to do is angle uphill through the trees and you'll hit the main trail. So, I wasn't stupid because I got lost, I was stupid for thinking that I could get lost.
And I angled and climbed and found the trail and continued up it, finally getting past the treeline where the sun was out and it was strikingly beautiful. Then I made it to the peak, rocky and grassy (treeless) where there was a stout little forest fire lookout ranger station. I climbed that and had my lunch on its rustic veranda and you could see out over the other mountains: eastward down into the Bitterroot Valley and the smallish Sapphire Range, westward over the Bitterroots and into Idaho. Very nice.
On the hike back I came across quite a few people. At the trailhead I saw my landlord, Phil, and his little girl who was riding a pony. We said hello and he asked me how I liked the hike. I told him it was great. He said something to the effect that, it wasn't too much, kind of like a playground--here his little girl was going to ride her pony up it. I agreed--of course--I mean it's not like someone could get lost up there or anything.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Winter Work: Champaign 1988

When I drove up to Champaign, Illinois from Florida to live with Fru it was January. She lived in a soft warm pleasant duplex on Ivy Court, but outside of her shelter it was a dark bleak cold winter and I had to find me a job. I'd been painting houses in Seaside and was tired of it and, anyway, it was the dead of winter and there was no painting jobs advertised in the Champaign newspaper. So I found some factory work.
I got the jobs through a temp agency--two different ones--and both were in a town about twenty miles north called Rantoul, where there was an Air Force base that was in the process of closing. In Rantoul there were two factories right off I-57, one on the east side of the highway, another on the west side. At first I worked on the east side. This factory made things like oil filters for Catarpillar tractors and construction equipment, they made car parts and also did car assembly. My job was to put together dashboards for Chrysler Jeeps and then those dashboards were shipped to Canada for the eventual full assembly of the vehicle (and then I guess they shipped the vehicle back to the U.S. for sale). The dashboards would come along on an assembly line, semi-naked and steering-wheel-less, and I had a drill and would drill the plastic-fake leather cover onto the aluminum and plastic frame and then send it on down for the next part of assembly. It was silly work, but it was work (and not nearly as silly as what I did at the second factory.) . . . I'd worked in factories before, in warehouses and such, and I never much cared for it. It's noisy and repetitive and sunless work, and even if it had windows, this was in the winter and there wasn't much natural light anyway. I had become used to warmish winters, of the sun rising over the ocean and getting high in the sky and staying there for long hours--even in January--so it was a bit of an adjustment to not see much sun, to wake up at five in the morn and go out into below zero temps and start my dreary car and use the heater and drive up through snow flurries in black flat bitter hard landscapes to some ugly factory in some strange ex-Air Force blue-collar town like Rantoul, Illinois.
But I did it.
I recall one time during lunch, the guy I worked with--some youngish local fellow, nice enough--watched me eat. I had a sandwich made out of dark German rye bread. He stared at my sandwich, as if he'd never seen black bread before, then looked at me and said, "Aren't you the wrong color to be eating that?" It was meant as a joke, a racial one. But I thought, man, what a small world you must live in.
When that job played out I got another one across the Interstate at a factory that made toothpaste and powders and cheap medicines. They didn't really make the products but, rather, packaged them. It was very odd. Right up there with a job I had folding paper sacks in Des Moines once. I only worked there for a few weeks but during that time I stood at an assembly line where these bottles were filled with generic bright pink Pepto-Bismol anti-diarrhea liquid. I can't remember what I did exactly, maybe made sure the labels went on correctly or move them to some other line after they were filled or something. But I also worked in the baby powder room. This white baby or bath powder--cornstarch or talc, I guess--was in a separate room and you had to wear plastic booties and hair covers and such and there were big thick plastic sheets hanging from the ceiling--dividers--trying to keep the run-off residue from escaping too far. The room was full of escaped powder, it smelled of it and was smogged with it as the plastic bottle/containers went through a machine and were filled with powder. I'd load the empty bottles onto a conveyer and they'd go through the machine to get filled and capped and then I'd unload them. Weird. Then I worked the eye drop line--or was it the nasal spray line?--and with this job I'd stand at the conveyer line as the sprays came out of the machine and my job was to tighten the screw-on lids as they went down the line. Yes, for eight hours a day, using both left and right plastic-gloved hands, I'd screw down tiny cone-shaped lids on small bottles of generic nose sprays (or eye drops). I briefly was in the toothpaste production line where minty fresh toothpaste was squeezed into the tube. Interesting. I also worked the packing line where all I did was open and construct cardboard boxes for the final shipping of these products.
Both jobs lasted a little over a month, I think. And as I said, it was winter in Champaign and it was a cold one and I had spent my previous winters in Florida and Seattle. It's not like I wasn't used to long cold winters--I was born in South Dakota, grew up mainly in Iowa--but I was in a new town and a new state and a new temp job, I only really knew Fru (and, really, despite our intimacy, I didn't know her that well) and I knew Margaret (from Iowa City) (who now lived in Champaign and worked at the bank where Fru worked--it was Margaret who introduced me to Fru) and was just meeting other people. But in East Central Illinois, where it's flat out flat and almost treeless outside of the towns, square mile after square mile of corn and soybean fields, where the wind came blasting unstopped across the plowed prairie, it was honestly below zero almost that whole first two months I was there, definitely not above freezing, and I was up early and driving to Rantoul in the dark each working day.
I specifically recall one morning when I was working at the packaging factory. I drove up to Rantoul and parked my Ford in the big lot. There were no lights in the lot, just the stark lights of the factory, the lights of truck traffic on the Interstate, and I sat there in my car for a bit, down, wondering what the hell I was really doing there--here--in this bleak world (besides being with Fru). I had parked right in front of a barrel--a rusty oil drum--and on the barrel was a beat-up bent sign that said USED OIL. I have no idea why it was out there, other than as some kind of marker for the parking scheme of the lot, and to hold used oil. And as I sat there, dreading the walk to the factory where I'd be screwing in caps of nasal spray, this big black raven/crow landed right on top of the snow-spackled sign. I guess it was only a crow, but it was big, tough, feathers puffed and hunched against the bitten wind and cold. It seemed to look at me, cawed loudly, loud enough for me to hear inside my car with the heater hopelessly blasting.
Man, that was depressing: this big black crow staring at me while sitting on top of a USED OIL sign in the dark five-thirty a.m. sub-zero air, in the parking lot of a toothpaste factory off the freeway in Rantoul, Illinois.
That week, Jimmy called me from Florida and asked if I wanted to meet him in New York City. He had a sublet in Queens.
I talked it over with Fru--assured her I wasn't leaving her.
I went to New York City. 
I came back to Fru in the Spring.

Monday, July 14, 2008

To Whom It May Concern #2

Driving up to the Midwest at the end of the week. Champaign, Illinois. Iowa City and Des Moines, Iowa. Gonna see my Mom. Maybe my younger brother, if he comes down from Minneapolis. See some old friends--Scott, Larry perhaps--in Des Moines. Home is still home, at times.
Had a great trip to the British Virgin Islands last month: Beef Island, Tortola--Road Town--The Indians, Little Harbor on Peter's Island, The Baths, Saba Rock and Virgin Gorda, Monkey Point on Guana Island, Lee Bay on Great Camanoe, a day at Sandy Cay, Great Harbor on Jost Van Dyke (I met Foxy), then the Diamond Cay area near Little Jost, then White Bay on Jost, then a storm crossing to Norman Island and the Pirate Bight there. Sailed a 43 ft cat. Never been there before. Water water and islands full of scrub trees and cacti and lizards and friendly people and sandy bars; water water deep blue and green blue and white blue and electric Kool-Aid impossible blue.
There's nothing more to report.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Biking in the Street Under the Trees: Iowa City 1980

It's hard for me to remember exact years from Iowa City. Yes, it was quite some time ago, but it's also that those first years--when I was a student--tend to blend together for me. They were great years, new years, years where I finally conquered the leftover pains of adolescence and saw the possibility for an enjoyable life. An enjoyable world. And I think it was 1980 when--come summer and classes had ended--I stayed in Iowa City and did not return to Des Moines.
My first two and a half years at the University of Iowa I'd lived in the dorms. Burge Hall. The 2000 Floor (a small, half-floor near the basement whose windows looked out upon the residence hall's loading dock). But then I moved out to an apartment on Van Buren Street. And that summer I decided to stay in town and work for the University as a janitor. It was great fun.
And it was a good job, as far as summer jobs went in that town. I wasn't really a janitor--I forget what the title of the job was, exactly--but what I did was work on a crew with other students (alongside the full timers--who had their own stories, who became acquaintances and friends), cleaning and servicing the residence halls. In fact, I worked at Burge Hall--my first home in Iowa City. In fact, I worked with some friends I  knew from 2000 Burge: Quinn, Steve, Dale. Quinn had led us to the job. He had been our RA at Burge the first year and was done with school and was working for the University, he was a local (almost) from the small town of West Branch outside of IC.
There were others, too. There was Rob, who later went out to Colorado, got a job driving camp kids in a school bus but then drove the bus into a too-short tunnel, smashing, wedging the bus into it so that it made the local Colorado papers. There was "Games", who we called Games because he would always say "Stop playing games and get to work" and he later moved to Houston and was shot to death while coming out of his apartment to see about a scene of  domestic violence. There was Brad, who ran track and went on to be a dentist. Clyde--a civil engineer. Keith--a nice guy from some nice Iowa town where they said Ufda all the time. And two others whose names I can't recall but were--like us--satisfied with the summer job and understood the humorous abject irony of it, that here we were--soon to be successful men of consequence--working as janitors in Iowa City, Iowa. Sure we were all basically mistaken, but that's how we saw it, I'm sure. Being a janitor was a running joke among us; when we were in a movie theater once and there was a janitor in the background, we all yelled out "JANITOR" and laughed and laughed.
We were young. Life was funny.
We spent our days washing windows, buffing floors, putting beds together and taking beds apart, going room to room to clean them out, strip and wax floors, put the rooms back together. We spent our hours getting rooms ready for summer students or visitors, making beds, doing laundry service (we'd go up to occupied rooms, knock on the door, and in a deep masculine voice say "Maid service"). We had keys to each floor, later a master key--we had keys to the castle that was Iowa City.
Because it was much more than just the work that summer. It was for me--and for a lot of my coworkers and other friends who'd stayed--the first real summer on our own. For me it meant that Iowa City was my town and Des Moines was in the past . . . I remember that Fourth of July, Matt and I (Matt was working in town for his uncle) went to City Park along the river to see the fireworks and there were a bunch of other people we knew and we got stinking low-down drunk and Matt had his uncle's big old full-size rusted-ugly construction dump truck--drunk truck--and we drove around in it, Matt and I in the cab and many others in the bed, asking people for directions to California. Of course it was stupid and dangerous and illegal. But we did it, we only thought of it as outrageous, funny, entertaining fun.
The main difference was that, during the fall and winter, Iowa City was a crowded town: students mulled and walked everywhere, like herds of wildebeest on the great savannas of Africa. But in the summer, the town was quiet, peaceful. Plants and trees hit full blossom and size. There were enough students to keep it interesting--late night parties full of the cool late night people who'd stayed the summer--and the bars were more intimate and interesting, different somehow. On weekends we'd get cheap blow-up mattresses (the kind used in swimming pools, we called them PFD's (Personal Flotation Devices)), and cans of beer and we'd haul ourselves down to Crandic park in one car (while leaving another at the canoe house on campus) and we'd jump in the Iowa River and float and swim and drink beer for two, three hours until we reached the canoe house and then we were off to other things. There were summer romances, summer sex, summer food, summers within summer.
I still remember one particular moment that year--my first summer in IC--I'd been to some party, a daytime party on Davenport Street. It was a cool and relaxed affair. I'd just gotten a bicycle--I hadn't ridden a bike in a long time, not as transportation or for pleasure. But I decided to leave the party, by myself, and I rode my bike down the street. And it hit me: the quiet town, the old beatific houses, the warmth and laziness, those big big oaks and maples so tall and full of leaves, their shade so deep--everything soft and dreamy--the street itself made of dead red cobblestones, and it was wonderful, pleasurable, stunning in its simplicity and beauty. It was just me biking in the street under the trees.
Sure, it was only a college town in summer. But it was our college town. It was our summer. It was mine. I was independent, an individual, and everyone I met was someone of interest and wit. The world--these little experiences within it--could still hold a freshness, newness, and it was my life within it. It was special and sublime. We were special and sublime. I was too. And really, isn't that the way everyone's life should be?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Coming into Seattle: 1987

Oh, man--Seattle. I mean, I love Seattle. It's one of the best cities in the USofA and probably my favorite. I mean, I spent part of my childhood in Vancouver, WA and we went to Seattle a handful of times and I knew of the city, of the Space Needle and monorail and Pike Place Market, of Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier--of Patches the Clown and the Pink Elephant Carwash--by the age of seven. When I came to Seattle as an adult, though, I was not a happy man. It wasn't the city's fault and I had a strange affinity with the gray raininess, the bleak nights and downtown bars and cafes, the winter-to-spring time of year in the Pacific Northwest. I had a good time and some of that good time was linked to the bad times, to the self-pitying, drinking, chaotic down-and-outness of my own existence at that period. Even getting there was a lonely travail.
I'd been back in Florida--Walton County in the panhandle--living with Tee on the beach in Gulf Trace. Before that, I'd been back in Iowa City in grad school (the Iowa Writers Workshop) but had quit to move back to Florida and to live with Tee. Which did not work out. My best friends Matt and Brock were in Seattle--Matt having scrunched off from Iowa City not long after I did and Brock because that was his hometown and he had returned there after a long trip--after living in Key West and then Grayton Beach a few years earlier. So, after the sad disaster which was my life with Tee, I took off in my ugly blue Ford, headed for the Northwest.
My plan had been to go to Eugene, Oregon. I had had other plans to go to Eugene--home of the University of Oregon, a school I liked--that had never panned out. So this time, I was going to do it. I left Walton County and drove to Pensacola, stayed with Tommy for a night or two and he checked out my car. Then I drove westward to the Texas border and spent the night at a motel--in Beaumont--then across wide Texas (did I sleep in my car one more night in that state?) to El Paso and into New Mexico where I stopped in Las Cruces. I watched the Super Bowl in a motel in Las Cruces--but found that I could buy no beer because it was Sunday and Las Cruces was a Catholic town (as the name might suggest). The whole way--the long lonely driving--I was heartbroken and full of remorse: for Tee, for leaving the Iowa Workshop, for being praised for my writing yet being unpublished; for being an idiot. I drove on, not making the extra trip to Santa Fe like I'd promised myself, not making the trip to Bisbee when I got to Arizona (like I'd promised myself). I'd taken the southern route on the Interstate and did stop near Tucson, spent a night in my car at a rest stop near the California border. I hit San Diego, where Doug from Grayton was living, but did not look him up as I had promised myself. I did go to Los Angeles, did look around at some of the old haunts from 1985. I think I called Mike, but he was out of town and I did not linger in L.A.
All the while and during this solo driving, I was as miserable as a dead duck.
I headed north and it wasn't until Northern California that I gained some sense of excitement--driving through the Mt. Shasta area, hitting deep snows with a clean highway around Castella, then the drive over the border into Oregon--that I felt like my old self somewhat, interested in my surroundings and looking forward to a new life in Eugene.
The rolling valleys of Oregon were nice. I pulled into Eugene and got a room off the highway. Went into town, walked the University. It rained and rained and rained. I used the Motel Six telephone to call Brock and Matt in Seattle. I told them I was coming up.
I was down. Depressed. Screwed-up and screwed-over. Most of it of my own making.
I did not stop in Vancouver to see my childhood home, did not stop anywhere--I was on a mission now, a mission to reunite with old pals and get settled somewhere for a while--until I hit the traffic and confusion of the Emerald City.
It took me a while--driving around, stopping to call Brock and get directions--to find where they were living. And they were living in Queen Anne, in the upstairs apartment of a house that was owned by Brock's father right next door to Brock's father's print shop on First Avenue West, a couple blocks from the Seattle Center and the Space Needle itself. It was evening when I parked in the slanted street and got out and went through the door and walked the narrow wooden steps up into the odd little place where Brock and Matt had been living. They greeted me with open beers and cigarettes--telling me that they had for weeks been living clean and sober and tobacco free (having made a two-man bet that they could last a month) but since I was in town they "invoked Missouri Rules" and now were drinking and smoking.
I joined them. Later they took me around the neighborhood, to The Mecca, The Ginza, The Otter, Sorry Charlie's and other pleasant dives. We drank and laughed and told stories, but things weren't as funny as in years past. But I was glad to be with them, glad to have a place to sleep--even if it was on a camping mat in a sleeping bag upon the floor. Glad to be back out west.
That first week, wherever I went, people would say, "I like your tan." It was February and I had been in Florida, but I didn't think I was tan. But I fell into the routine. Matt got me a job at Duke's--a restaurant--where sometimes the pro-basketball Supersonics players would come in to eat (they still played at the Seattle Center back then). I wandered the gray streets, made plans to see the gray mountains, the gray sea. But I was low and misbegotten. I drank too much, smoked too much, felt sorry for myself too much--but also reveled in the too much in my own perverse way. But that's getting ahead of myself.
I love Seattle. I came to Seattle. I saw Seattle. 
But I did not conquer.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Cats of Grayton Beach

More people owned dogs than cats in Grayton Beach, but there were more cats than dogs in Grayton Beach. That is, there were a lot of homeless kitties wandering the sandy streets of that little Florida town. I actually don't know how many of them were un-owned, or how many were out and out feral cats, but come nightfall, you couldn't go very far without spotting some feline or another skulking about like sad little orphans rummaging around for a tin of tuna or two. Maybe it's because I like cats so much that I noticed them all the time.
In Grayton I worked in the kitchen at the Paradise Cafe. The cafe was a semi-high end Cajun restaurant that was only open for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday. It was about the only business in town back then, in the mid to late Eighties. But working in the kitchen--first as dishwasher, then as the salad man, then as prep cook--I was able to save scraps to feed the cats at night. I'd save shrimp and snapper, crawfish etouffee and crab claws, aged beef and old oysters; any small scrap that I thought the cats would enjoy. And after work, after the diners had left and things had been cleaned and kitchen work winded down and beer was drank, I'd take the scraps out back where a multitude of cats waited and I'd put it down for them and watched them eat like crazy. It was top-of-the-line good spicy fatty food. They all seemed to like it and they all seemed to know it was coming. I don't know what they did on Sunday and Monday nights when the cafe was closed.
There was one wild cat, an old orange Tom, who looked like Henry Miller, the writer. At least like Henry Miller when he was an old bald man (not that many people nowadays or anydays know what Henry Miller looked like). This cat was a fighter and had lost a lot of fur, especially around his head, a head which was big and beaten, hard and bony as a shell with a prominent jaw and shape to it--so he was Henry Miller the cat. I'd see him about town now and then, his orange-red tabby coat in shambles, his body language one of "leave me alone or else...", so I never tried to pet him or call him but he was a great cat nonetheless.
Holly had a cat. Holly lived in Pat's house just up from the cafe when I first came to town. One day we--Matt, Monica, Ron, Tommy, Sam, Jack (good ol' Jack)--were sitting around Holly's living room and she came in with this little grey kitten. We were all young people from somewhere else and Holly had the only working washer and dryer among us, so people were doing their laundry, the waiters and busboys and such bleaching their white shoes and shorts before work at the Paradise that evening, and Holly brought in the mewling kitten and proceeded to give it a flea bath while we all sat around drinking idle beers in the day's humid heat (very few had air-conditioning, even though it was summer and we were in Florida). I had not been in Grayton for too long, but as I sat there, listened to the tumble of the dryer, to the cats mew and Holly's loving attention to it, I felt a pleasant calm come over me, like I was home, like I was part of a family. That little cat was part of that equation for home, that sense of comfort and well being.
Later, during my days in Grayton, I owned two cats. I use the term owned very loosely here. This was when I came back to town and lived in a trailer. One cat had been Monica's at one point (we were basically unsettled people and those who had pets--cats--often did not keep them like they should have) but now it roamed town with the other homeless felines. (I think even Holly's gray kitten ended up in the streets of Grayton.) Since I knew the cat, I fed it and pet it and invited it into my trailer. This cat--a female, black and white and I can't recall her name, she was Monica's old cat--was very grateful and friendly. In fact, she was too friendly. She was one of those cats that had to be right up in your bed, right up on your chest, right up in your face every night. I had sympathy for her, but it drove me crazy. I tried to train her to stay at the end of the bed (and of course this cat spent the day outside, in dank dirty flea and tick encrusted land) but she would not learn. Eventually, I turned her out. Sorry. But she drove me nuts--I did continue to feed her, though, until she went away.
The second cat I owned was Snake. I named him Snake. He was not big but was all black and semi-feral, a smart cat that showed up outside my trailer one day and I fed him some food and he came back the next day. Snake and I had a pretty good relationship. He showed up when he wanted and I fed him. I could pet him, talk to him, but he refused to come inside the trailer. Snake came and went. I fed him some of the scraps from the cafe, good ones I brought home just for him. I'd put them in an old bowl out on my porch at night, whether I saw him around or not. The problem with that was, if he didn't come to eat it, by the next morning when I'd step outside, the bowl would be teeming with roaches, ants, centipedes and other whatnot of insectdom. Yeech. One day, after I'd been out of town, I came back to my trailer and there Snake was out in the grassless yard, killing a lizard. Man, he must have been hungry to kill a lizard--not too many animals will eat them--so after that I made sure to have some store-bought dry cat food around to feed him. But Snake, like Monica's cat, eventually drifted away--or maybe I drifted away or left town (which I did, going back to Iowa City before coming back to the panhandle once again--and once again after that once again). I did not see him for a long time, but he was still alive and so was Monica's cat . . . One day, Doug gave me a ride in Grayton and we rolled by the trailer and there Snake was and there Monica's cat was, both of them in the dirt and attacking each other. "Man, there's my old cats," I said to him, "they're fighting over my place and I don't even live there anymore." Doug found this very funny for some reason. We were probably stoned.
So, cats had a hard time in the panhandle. Dogs were treated quite well, but cats never got much long-term respect. But the cats did their best to survive. I know of a guy who told me that when he went out and grilled at night, about fifty cats came crawling out of the woods as soon as he put the meat on. Poor cats. I had two other cats, when I lived with Tee in an unfinished house right on the beach in Gulf Trace (about a mile up the road from Grayton), whose names were Lucy and Velcro. Lucy liked to ride in the car, Velcro couldn't control his claws and stuck to everything. But after I left Tee, she told me Velcro followed someone down the beach and disappeared. She kept Lucy, who had kittens, which got Tee kicked out of a rental and I don't know what happened to that cat after that. I don't really know what happened to Tee, either. But I'll bet Velcro went to Grayton Beach and lived in the streets.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Coming Into Santa Fe: 1984

I'd graduated from the University of Iowa in December of 1983 and then went back to Des Moines to try and figure out what the heck I was going to do. I had a degree in English, but I wanted to be a writer, not a teacher or businessman or counselor or anything else. I'd been offered a slot--essentially--at the Iowa Writers Workshop (MFA grad school) but was not ready for more college. To be honest, though I wrote quite well, I was still a little wet behind the ears as far as experience and true maturity went--I'd spent my high school years and a couple after that ensconced in my own head, insecurities and depression--and I was ready to get out into the world (or my limited version of it) and live me some life.
So, I went back to Des Moines and my parents' house. Hmmm.
In Des Moines, a friend--Craig Stillman--landed me a job at the Ninth Street Warehouse doing inventory for Younkers. I hated it and was lousy at it and, because I had a degree I guess, they promoted me to the office where I payed bills and did paperwork . . . I suppose if I'd stuck around they'd have moved me into management and then executive training, as long as I continued doing lousy work . . . But that had always been a temporary job and place in my mind anyway, so come March, I quit and took the train to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Amtrak station for Des Moines is a few towns south, in Osceola. That train went out to Colorado, I think, and then San Francisco, I think. I needed a southwestern train and I took the bus back to Iowa City and my friend, Margaret, gave me a ride down to Ft. Madison, Iowa where I could catch the Amtrak that would angle me down and over. Margaret had been Cin's roommate. Cin, back in Chicago, and I were still in love, but it was a long distance thing. I was not ready to commit to anything and she was committed to her family business. But we stayed in touch (letters, phone calls) and saw each other when we could. Of course, I was headed for New Mexico, not Chicago, which probably told her something that I couldn't quite articulate in person.
The train ride was long, uneventful but new to me. I never flew, I always drove or took the Greyhound Bus and this time Amtrak. I liked that it took a long time to get somewhere and all I had was my stuff stuffed into a canvas U.S. Mail bag that I'd gotten ahold of somehow somewhere (it was grayish white and imprinted with US Mail in huge black letters) and was clicking my way down through the open farms and plains and desert to the small town of Lamy, New Mexico. I'd been to Santa Fe once before--briefly--when Matt, Clyde and I took a western trip one summer from Iowa City. It was one of those places I'd mapped into my brain, a place I liked and wanted to know better, so that's why I went. It also turned out my friend from Iowa, Joel, was there, attending St. Johns College, and he said I could stay with him and that he'd pick me up in Lamy. I don't know why the trains did not run into places like Santa Fe or Albuquerque, Des Moines or Iowa City, and instead hit these small towns.
And Lamy was a small town.
It was mid-day when I got there. The sun was up, the air was dry and dreamy. I remember the smells--western smells of sage and dust and pinion (though I didn't know what pinion was at that time). Off the train in this no-horse town, I stood around. Joel was not there. The station worker came around with the bags and I had to stop him to get my duffle. "That's yours?" he asked and I nodded. "I was wondering what the U.S. Mail was doing on the train. You need to cross that out if it's your bag." I nodded again (and never did cross it out). A number of other people got off the train and I stood there at the open station, looking at the fuzzy hills, the bald hills, the white clouds in a pure blue sky as those people all got in cars and trucks or walked away. Then it was only me and the station worker. "There's a cab," he told me. "It's the last ride out of town if you need to go." "I'm supposed to get a ride." "Well, that's the last ride, U.S. Mail," he said and went into the tiny station. I stood around some more, the only person left. I had second thoughts about the cab (this was before cell phones and email and such and my meeting with Joel had been set up through letters, many days and weeks ago) but wasn't really worried. I was happy to be out of Iowa and in this dry bumpy sand-purple-green-colored country.
Then, down a gravel road came an old yellowgreen VW bus. It parked in the lot and it was Joel, Joel a slight smart artistic-minded guy and he looked rumpled and confident, different than when I'd known him in Iowa City, but still Joel. We said hello. He told me the car--the VW--was his roommate's (Mike's) and we hopped in and he took me over the rough roads to a small highway and into Santa Fe. 
He took me into Santa Fe and all its winding streets and knobby hills, its adobe this and adobe that, buildings and walls in tans, browns, reds and pinks, adobe churches with smooth Henry Moore sculptureish shapes and odd angles, where streets were named Paseo de Peralta and Old Pecos Trail, Old Santa Fe Trail, Canyon Road, with mountains in the distance and bald Mt. Baldy still holding some snow on its crown. He took me to the east side of the city where Monte Sol and Monte Luna loomed, and onto some gravel roads where he lived in a rented adobe on Camino de la Luz. We parked and I took it in like the young man I was, excitable and impressionable, and we went into his worn and beatific home and he showed me the place, the kitchen and single bathroom, the two shotgun bedrooms, the living room where the red couch was, where I'd be sleeping. I stowed my duffle behind it. We went out and he walked me up a hill behind the house, just pinion and cacti, juniper and sage and lizards, where there was a small abandoned reservoir and we could see the city below and the distant distance to some degree and he started naming the hills and mountains for me (the Jemez Range and Sangre De Cristos), some of the plants and such. Later, I met Mike and I thanked him for letting Joel use his car to come get me in Lamy. Then, late in the day, Joel and I walked Old Santa Fe Trail to Cliff's Liquor Store and we bought some beer and on the return walk it rained, but the sun came back out--low slanted intense--throwing its light upon the wet adobe walls along the Trail, so that they shone, and they were the color of blood. 
It was 1984 and I was done with college and Iowa and I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Such simple facts meant a lot to me back then. Maybe they still do.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Night at the Thrifty Western: Missoula 1988

I'm trying to remember how we did this, Fru and I. How we moved out to Montana from Illinois. In January of 1988 I drove from Florida to live with Fru in Champaign. But by February I went to New York City, stayed there with Jimmy till late March, maybe April. Then I came back to Illinois, to Champaign where I worked at a nursery just east of Urbana, then spent the summer working concrete construction. I applied for grad school at the University of Montana--was accepted--and so, by September, Fru and I moved out to Missoula. It's strange to me now to think I could do all that roving around in one year, but back then it was the norm for me. Time passed more slowly, months of experience were often like years.
But I know we had two vehicles. Fru owned a nice, earth-brown Honda Civic. I had owned a powder blue Ford Maverick, but had traded a buddy (Kurt) that car for a beat-up red Custom Deluxe Chevy pickup truck. (If you're going to live in Montana, you gotta have a truck.) So I think Fru and I drove out to Missoula in her car, looked for a rental to live in, then left the car, flew back and loaded my truck up--including her cat M.R.--and drove back out to Montana. Or maybe we drove out and back, then did the exchange with a flight. I'll have to ask her.
Missoula was a town I'd first noticed in 1983 while on the way to Alaska with Brock and Matt. It was a pretty town and it was in Montana and I defy anyone to drive through Montana and not fall in love with the place. So, Missoula was cool, pastoral yet still a little rough--real and non-gentrified--and I filed that away in my brain like I do with many interesting little places I happen to fall in and out of in my life. I came through Missoula again in 1987, after leaving Seattle, this time noting that the university was there . . . I loved the West, spent a happy chunk of my childhood in Vancouver, Washington so had a feel, a connection to it, to the Pacific Northwest, and always felt that was where I'd end up if I ever settled down. Thusly, in 1988, after being accepted to the MFA writing program at Montana, I asked Fru if she'd like to go with me--the two of us--and live together among the mountains and bears and pickups.
She said yes.
But Fru was smart enough to also apply at the university and get accepted and was smart enough not to try and be a writer but rather join their accounting program. (She worked at a bank in Champaign, had attended Western Illinois but never finished her degree.) So, we'd both be students in Missoula, and back then their school didn't start till mid September. And come late August, off we went on a reconnaissance mission to Missoula.
It was a wonderful drive. It was wonderful to have a woman like Fru to share it with, a new adventure both physically and emotionally for both of us. I think I drove the northern route, up through Minnesota and into North Dakota and into Montana, through dry dusty Glendive and Miles City (where we stayed the night and a horse sale was going on), through rimrocked and natural-gas-burning-stacked Billings, into the Rockies and old Butte and then the run to Missoula. I recall Fru and I standing downtown, smelling the strong scent of pine, looking at the streets and time-forgotten buildings, the Clark-Fork River, the distant mountains and treed hills, the bald hills of Mt. Sentinel and Mt. Jumbo, happy and excited, maybe a little stink from the paper mills too. We spent our time getting to know the city, the university, the area. I wanted to live outside of town, in a cabin if we could, maybe down a bit in the Bitterroot. I wanted to write and drink morning coffee among trees and mountains, drink beer in cowboy/rancher bars, make love with Fru in a new western town that was ours alone . . . stuff like that. We didn't have a ton of money, so we didn't stay in downtown Missoula but got a room south of it, on Brooks Street near a mall. It was a clean little motel called the Thrifty Western Inn.
So we had our room, were in our new state, new city (essentially for the first time) with no jobs, no house or apartment, no true knowledge of the community, no real idea of what comes next except that we'd be attending the University of Montana in less than a month. We were excited. Fru and I had known each other for a little less than year, I'd been living with her in Illinois for months. And that night, in the cubical of a motel room, after Fru had fallen asleep, I felt terrible.
I could not sleep and it was dark and the uncertainties of it all crept into my brain and blood and heart and I felt a slow molasses-like anxiety, a burrowing insect of dread, take over me. It's like when you wake up at three in the morning and all your petty fears become the pinpoint of your concerns, or like on a winter Sunday evening and you turn on the overhead light and you just feel rotten for no real reason--that's how I felt. I felt bad enough that I drew a hot bath in the motel room tub and sat in it, trying to figure out why I was worried, why this unease hit me so hard at that moment at the Thrifty Western Inn in Missoula, Montana. I had moved around plenty, been to places with no work and only a few friends or no friends, so why now and why there?
And, I think, it was because I had someone with me. Someone I felt responsible for, responsible to. This was not Fru's life and I wondered what I was getting her into: would Missoula be just a small stop and then I'd ask her to move on again? Would our relationship fall apart and I caused her to leave job and family and friends for nothing? Fru's mother was sick--cancer--and she had said to me to take care of her daughter and now I did not think I was doing that. Could I do that? Was this whole thing a huge mistake, just another run at another dream of mine that would never pan out? . . . I sat naked in the tub and could not answer any of that, and that unknown future--my culpability in the unknowing--was where the dread emanated from. Poor Fru. Poor me. It was the middle of the night and I'd lost my nerve.

The next day the sun was up. The world smelled of pine. The mountains were clean and sharp and the city of Missoula went about its daily business like all the other cities in the world. And Fru and I went about the restructuring of our lives. After a day or so more, we found a cabin for rent in the Bitterroot just outside of Stevensville, uphill on a dirt road near St. Mary's Peak. It was brand new with a loft and fireplace and big blonde wood logs, on a half acre with neighbors barely visible through the scattered brush and jackpines. Beautiful. We moved there in September. Started school. Took many naps on the couch and played cribbage in bed when the cold snows came. Yes, it was impractical but it was an enjoyable impracticality. Still, before the winter was done, in 1989, we moved to a little dollhouse of a cottage in Missoula, on Rollins Street. But it all worked out.
It's still working out. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Feat of Strength & The Cast Iron Stove: Grayton Beach 1986

This is from when I returned to Grayton Beach for the first time. I'd landed in the little Florida beach town pretty much by accident in late 1985--worked at a resort in San Destin, then at the Paradise Cafe in Grayton--but had returned to Iowa when the restaurant closed for the season. Back in Des Moines I'd worked for a department store, stockroom and maintenance, but it was just a job to tide me over until I left for somewhere else. And I'd decided that that somewhere else was going to be Eugene, Oregon (I don't know why)--I'd been reading books by Knute Hamsun and Henry Miller and decided I'd go out West with no job and little money and see what happened. But what happened was the chef at the Paradise Cafe called me up at the end of the bleak winter and asked if I wanted to come back to Florida and work for him again. So I went back to Grayton--willingly and happily.
Back in Grayton I saw the same good people and met quite a few new ones. Neither Brock or Matt were there, so it was just me and these new-found friends (Southerners all) and I lived by the beach--on the beach, really--and it was all copacetic. This was when I got my trailer and when I met Pat and her three daughters (and eventually met Tee, who was my undoing that year and for another year to come--though I'm very adept at being my own undoer too). Pat ran a small jewelry shop--hand made--next to the cafe. I think she called herself a goldsmith. I liked Pat. I liked her daughters. They were all a complex and complicated lot, full of life and disaster. But Pat shared her place of business with a photographer--I think her name was Susan--who was a little distant. I was in Grayton without a typewriter (this was before the prevalence of PC's, let alone laptops) and she had one but was reluctant to loan it to me (Pat's idea). But one day, as I was working prep in the kitchen, this big truck pulls up in the sandy road along the cafe and in the back of the truck is a potbellied stove, round and cast iron and heavy. Pat walked into the kitchen and asked if I'd help unload it for Susan the photographer.
I said, "Okay."
The guy who brought the stove and had driven the truck was an old gentleman, he could not move it. I don't know how or who got it in the truck to begin with. Big Daddy Dave--the dishwasher--was working that day and he came out with me to help move the stove/fireplace. Big Daddy was a character all to himself: seventeen, a local boy who lived up by the bay, who attended a special education school, who had attached himself to me because I didn't ridicule him. Anyway, BD Dave came out and we went to the back of the truck where the old southern gentleman had lowered the gate and we took hold of this ancient metal stove. But it was awkward, in both size and shape, in weight, and there was not a good way for two people to grip and carry it, so I said, "I got it."
"Are you sure?" the man asked.
"Yeah, yeah." (But I wasn't that sure.) And I wrapped my arms around this thing--it was about chest-high in the bed of the truck, I was standing in the white loose-sand road, it was a good ten/twenty feet to the door of the shop--and pulled it in close and slipped it out of the truck.
Man, that SOB was heavy. Like lifting the carcass of a hippo. But I was thinking of a co-worker in L.A. who had moved a steel door all by himself, so I sucked it up and squatted a bit, held on and duck-walked this cast iron stove across the sand and thin weeds and into the door of the little shop next to the cafe. Inside I set it down where Susan asked me to, stood up and ironed out my back with my hands. Pat was there, Big Daddy, the old man and Susan and they were all duly amazed. I was amazed and of course egotistically proud (but being a Midwesterner I kept it to myself). I think Susan asked me to move it again--adjust it's location--a bit after I had recovered. No problem. And right after that, she asked if I still wanted to use her typewriter and I said yeah, sure.
It was a small thing, but it was also a bit of myth-making for me--strength and power--a new and tiny story for the denizens of Grayton Beach, for Big Daddy Dave and Pat and my co-workers at the Paradise. It was a test for myself--of strength and will--in a way, and I had passed it. I think of it and I think of how, that same year but in September when I was back in Iowa City and in the Iowa Writer's Workshop (before I dropped out) and I threw my lower back out for the first time in my life while helping someone I didn't even know move a couch. Ouch. It was both a physical and psychological shock to me, to have injured myself so. And then a lifetime of not completely trusting my back again . . . but that's a different story. On that day I was The Strongman of Grayton Beach.
Never did get that typewriter, though. I wrote longhand.