Monday, August 31, 2009

Day of the Locusts


A sad and scary episode is unfolding in the hills north of Los Angeles, and I suppose it's crude to even consider the literary value of an apocalyptic fire while it's still raging, while people's lives are still at risk, but it's also irresistible. I felt the same way about the Australian wildfires, which included scenes of incinerated car wrecks and people submersing themselves in swimming pools as walls of flames swept overhead, and one hardy woman who saved herself and her children by hiding in a wombat burrow. Some day, some great literature will no doubt come out of all that.

It's easy to be smug about people building houses in hurricane zones or on fault lines or in desert hills that have always been prone to wildfires, but disaster can strike anywhere. And when it does, it illuminates what matters, what works and what doesn't, which provides raw material for potentially great literature -- or, considering the L.A. locale, perhaps an awesome (or, in the wrong hands, awful) movie.

I am far distant from the L.A. fires, and can only go by news accounts, facebook status updates from friends who live there, and my own experience of being trapped at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. During the latter episode, the park's now-legendary fires swept through in 1988 and forests and fields and cabins for miles around were consumed by flames that blackened the skies and rained burning embers down upon the small group of mostly reporters who hovered by the geyser, where the firefighters told us there was a higher oxygen level (the greatest danger from such fires, beyond being burned alive, is suffocation, because the fire consumes all the oxygen in its path). Everyone but the media and the firefighters had been evacuated before the fire jumped ahead of itself and crossed the only road to the inn, trapping us there, and that night, after it had swept through, we drove for miles through a hellish scene of burnt and smoldering forests, punctuated by lingering, small fires and the occasional still-torching trunks of trees. The sense of invincibility that we tend to carry with us through our daily lives gets torched by such an experience, too. 

So far, I've been struck by two accounts from the L.A. fires. One involved two foolish people who ignored evacuation orders for an area called Big Tujunga Canyon and attempted to ride out the firestorm in, of all things, a hot tub, which a sheriff's office spokesman said "did them no good whatsoever." The two survived but were severely burned.

The other, in an AP story that I assume originated in the L.A. Times, included the following quote from a man who had waited anxiously for news about his home. "It's the worst roller coaster of my life, and I hate roller coasters," said Adi Ellad, who lost his home in Big Tujunga Canyon over the weekend. "One second I'm crying, one second I'm guilty, the next moment I'm angry, and then I just want to drink tequila and forget." Ellad left behind a family heirloom Persian rug and a family photo album he had put together after his father died. "I'm going to have to figure out a new philosophy: how to live without loving stuff," he said.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


August 21, 2009 

Yesterday evening I sat out on my friends Lee and Dick’s screened porch drinking bourbon and watching the summer rain on their lake. The rain fell at a long slant on the water for about half a glass, then slowly dissipated as the clouds withdrew their touch.

At that point a single verdant cypress on the far shore was unexpectedly spotlighted by a shaft of sunlight coming through a hole in the clouds. A car throbbing with hip hop music passed on the distant road. As the hole slowly closed, but not completely, the world was saturated with a new, diffused, golden-green light, dazzling, wet and soft, that permeated even the porch. There must have been a hundred different shades of green. An array of filters was imposed on the scene in quick succession. The surface of the lake quivered under an aimless, skittering breeze. It was like being on acid.

“Light in August,” Lee said, summoning one of the reasons that, despite my love for New York and the wider world, I find it hard to be gone from Mississippi for long. 

Islesboro, Maine


August 13, 2009

Her real name is Honor Blackman, but she’s better known as Pussy Galore, the character she played when she was young and hot in the 1960s Bond movie “Goldfinger.” Some people on the island of Islesboro, Maine still call her Pussy Galore, though never to her face. She’s almost 80 now.

Pussy Galore and her husband own the second largest summer house on the island of Islesboro, which is in Penobscot Bay midway down the Maine coast. The largest used to belong to Kirstie Alley, who acted in the TV show “Cheers” and, incidentally, produced so much household waste at her Islesboro place that her staff kept 14 garbage cans queued up by the back door, which seemed to say a lot about wealth -- a subject that held great fascination for me at the time of my first visit to Islesboro more than 30 years ago.

I recently returned to Islesboro, and this time was struck more by the passage of time than by displays of wealth. Everything seemed to have remained more or less the same, which was odd, and only emphasized how much everything else had changed. It’s good to have a place that can serve as a bellwether, illuminating anything from the pitfalls of wealth to the vagaries of time – a place in the margin where you can take stock now and then.

Islesboro is a place of stunning scenery -- shimmering blue water, rocky islands and long vistas of the mainland mountains, characterized by an odd mix of sprawling summer “cottages” (as their absurdly wealthy seasonal residents refer to them) and the comparatively rustic abodes of local fishermen, plumbers and the like who have been exploring their own small gene pool within the confines of the island since the 1750s. The demographic counterbalance gives Islesboro a depth not normally associated with playgrounds of the rich and famous. Though I am personally more drawn to the worker bees, I have to admit that the queens are entertaining in their way.

I first visited Islesboro in the summer of 1978 when a friend and I joined the ranks of a third, smaller island demographic: Workers who were there by choice, who were neither lords nor serfs, and whose unique station afforded us opportunities to hold parties on estates that we didn’t have to pay for and to sail on other people’s 90-foot sloops while they were shopping in Boston or hobnobbing in New York. Rich people tend to have a lot of good stuff, but it occurred to me back then that most of them don’t enjoy it as much as you’d expect. As seasonal workers we maintained the lush landscapes of their large estates, changed the sheets on their multiple guest beds (one cottage had 16 guest rooms), and crewed and maintained sailboats worthy of a cover of Wooden Boat magazine, which they shuttled between Islesboro and places like West Palm Beach. All of which gave us unique, generally unencumbered access. It seemed to me that we had the best of both worlds. Also, we were young.

I lived that summer in a tiny, gabled house beside a cove that miraculously emptied and refilled twice a day as a result of the shifting tides. For roommates I had Ando, a musician from Corinth, Mississippi, and Tom, a Meridian native who more or less launched a Mississippi-Maine seasonal migration that continues to this day. My friend Lisa and I arrived at the start of the summer in her green VW Rabbit with her now-legendary dog, Poo Poo. We didn’t know each other that well starting out, but after realizing, at a party in Jackson, that we both had friends living on the same island off the coast of Maine, it seemed to make perfect sense for us to head out together on an open-ended journey. I stayed until October; Lisa is still living in Islesboro today.

I’d never seen the kind of ostentation on display in Islesboro, and I was both fascinated and a little put off by it. I’ve always enjoyed looking down my nose at snobs, and Islesboro can be a very good place to exercise this tendency. I went to work as a bartender at the only pub on the island, while Lisa got a job as a housekeeper for Princess Joan of Luxemburg, a Connecticut native who had married into royalty and who, after being widowed by the prince, that summer married an elderly duke from France.

People like Princess Joan tend to go back and forth between lavish dwellings, hauling their supporting casts (maids, yardmen, nannies, cooks, etc.) with them. Over time she and Lisa became friends.

Lisa and I had followed my friend Tom to Islesboro. He’d moved there in 1977 to work on the summer house of a woman from his hometown, Meridian, Mississippi, and afterward decided to stay. Lisa was friends with a friend of Tom’s who had likewise followed him to Islesboro, and soon after, other friends began to arrive, with the result that by mid summer we had almost enough Mississippians to play the island in softball. We were short two players, so they awarded us two guys from the Caribbean – the only two black guys on the island -- to round out our team. The guys, who crewed someone’s boat, became honorary Mississippians.

It was a magical summer, and Lisa, her sister Cindy, Tom and Ando all stayed in Maine after the trees began to turn, and are still there today. The rest of us return for periodic visits, as I did earlier this month for my sixth trip to Islesboro, which had the feel of a reunion, hovering as it did around the 30th anniversary. Further amplifying the feeling of reunion: The Dark Harbor ice cream shop hosted its 30th annual island footrace and the island held a seventies-themed, multi-generational dance at which Ando’s band played many of the same songs they’d played at the pub in the summer of 1978, most notably Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” the bar’s theme song that summer.

There were a few minor changes in evidence. There is now a bookstore next to the Dark Harbor Shop, which was sold out of copies of Sultana (the storeowner had tried to set up a signing but at the time my schedule was too complicated, and he more or less gave up). The store’s big seller now is a tell-all book by summer resident Isabel Gillies, who plays the wife of Detective Eliot Stabler on Law & Order SVU. The Pendleton boat yard is definitely bigger than I remembered, and there’s now a small assisted living facility tucked away into the trees. But overall, the place looks pretty much the same. Coming in, as I do, at long intervals, Islesboro tends to seem contained in a way that only an island can, and even more so because so many of the same people are there, doing much the same thing they were doing the last time you saw them. It all seems a bit surreal, as if the summer of 1978 is continuing to unfold, the primary difference being that the key characters now have gray hair.

Part of the feeling of stasis stems from the fact that no one really wants Islesboro to change. There are strict covenants to prevent wholesale development while enabling construction of some affordable housing (typically on hidden lanes), and as always, the necessity of a ferry ride to the mainland exerts its own limitations. There is no hotel on the island and there are no real restaurants, so it’s no place for tourists. You’ve pretty much got to be fabulously wealthy, have family ties going way too deep, work on the island, or know someone.

The sameness of Islesboro is in some ways deceptive. People have been born and have died since I first visited, including Billy’s father, who now lies buried in the family cemetery down the lane from his house, and Lisa’s mother, who died at her house last summer. Yet I felt like I was revisiting a place that exists outside the normal space-time continuum. The Ottman twins were still there, lithe and beautiful as ever as they made their way from one end of the island to the other on their bikes. Ando was still playing his guitar, singing in the same band that rocked the Islesboro Pub the summer I tended bar. Billy Warren still runs the Dark Harbor Shop, the primary meeting place down-island. Billy Boardman still works at Stanley Pendleton’s boatyard, as does Nick Love, a member of a wealthy summer family who moved back after a career as an actor and model. Shake Mahan, my boss at the pub, runs the grocery store, and has for 20 years. From all appearances, my peers have neither ascended into the upper echelon (which looks no more attractive to me now than it did then) nor settled for the lower rung. We’re all still somewhere in between and generally happy there. Everywhere I went I recognized people, and was pleased to observe that their offspring are the 23-year-olds of the islands now, enjoying the place much the way we did in 1978.

There was a powerful reverb, and in many ways it felt like I’d never left – as if my previous life was continuing to unfold, in my absence, 2,000 miles away.

Somebody's darling


August 3, 2009

The morning’s yahoo news carried an item about the mistakes job-seekers typically make, such as sending out resume email-blasts and wasting time at job fairs. None of which compared with what I saw last night, which was perhaps the most tragic episode in job-seeking history, ever.

I was sitting in a restaurant in New York City, and it was pretty late when the woman walked in the door. She was stunningly beautiful, with a mix of hardness, craziness and vulnerability – Amy Winehouse stuff – that was both attractive and screamed Trouble. I should say right off the bat that I have no connection with this woman, and everything I relate here is based on uninformed observations or comments I overheard.

I watched as she approached the bar and asked to speak with the manager, who, it turned out, wasn’t in. Hearing this, she stared at the person with a look of strange, muted desperation -- shock, really, like she’d just been told she wasn’t going to be evacuated and everyone who stayed behind would die. She was quietly but intensely focused on this idea of talking to the manager, and that focus struck me as unnatural. I suspected drugs, though it was possible she was just crazy. From all appearances, talking to the manager mattered more to her than anything. Yet she was very quiet about it. You could hardly hear her voice.

Normally when you ask to see someone and are told that the person is not in, you maybe ask when is a good time to see them, whatever, then leave. But this woman just stood there, clearly not inclined to leave. Instead she claimed a small, rarified space in the center of the restaurant, smack in the middle of the line of traffic. I later learned that she had previously applied for work at the restaurant and was determined to be hired.

Aside from the fact that she was acting so weird, the dominant impression you got of her was that she was really, seriously good looking. She was blonde, Hispanic, with dark, oddly blank eyes and a voluptuous form that was set off perfectly by a shimmery sundress. She was sexy to the point of being disturbing. Her body seemed like its own invitation, and that would become more distressing an hour or so later, when she was wheeled out of the restaurant on a gurney, looking sexy as ever despite the fact that she was comatose. I know, it sounds weird, and it is weird.

After being told a second time that the manager was not in, she repeated her desire to see him, then stared at the employee as she was again told that he wasn’t in. After about 10 minutes of people trying to get through to her that the manager wasn’t in, and that he had considered her and wasn’t interested, the staff went about their business. The restaurant was busy. She sat down at the bar beside me. I looked away. Now and then she’d make eye contact, but each time I quickly looked away. It was the look on her face, the crazy, crazy need. I’m often attracted to trouble, but I know when I’m outclassed. I had no idea what it would take to straighten out her world, but I knew it was going to take way more than a job.

After a while she got up and approached a staff person again and began to make threats, a new tactic. She claimed one of the employees had stolen from her and said she was going to tell the police that the restaurant sold alcohol to under-aged drinkers if they didn’t give her a job. The staffer explained to her the concept of extortion. She said she wanted a drink. He said no. He asked her to leave. She would not leave. He walked her outside. She stared at him -- that empty yet focused stare. A couple of times tears filled her eyes, but each time her resolve returned and she repeated her requests and her threats. I noticed that her purse was heavily laden, and I began to wonder what was inside. I decided not to leave just yet.

The bar was closing when she went into the bathroom, and I thought: Not good; she’s not coming out of that bathroom. And she didn’t. After a while one of the staffers knocked on the door. No response. After a few tries he told her, through the door, that if she didn’t come out he would call the police. No response. So he called the police. I know this guy, and by this point I was getting concerned. I imagined two scenarios, one involving her with a gun and the other involving her slitting her wrists. So I waited just outside the restaurant door. Soon the police arrived. They had to remove the bathroom door from the hinges because there was no key, and they found her slumped on the floor, OD’d on heroin, they later told us. The police summoned a fire truck and, for some reason, two ambulances. I stood on the sidewalk, watching their ministrations as a crowd of late-night New Yorkers gathered to observe the commotion. I hoped the woman wouldn’t die. 

When they brought her out it occurred to me that her beauty might be all she had now, and that it was probably not going to be enough. In fact, it would probably betray her. The police asked if the restaurant had any contact information for her, so they retrieved her resume, which she had delivered folded up (and unevenly folded at that). It was sad, seeing what had brought her to this point, or at least what she claimed on paper had brought her to this point. It sounded normal, but there was something about the presentation that was off. 

I later heard that she survived the overdose. Not only that, but she called the restaurant the next day to say she still wanted a job.


The kindness of strangers


July 25, 2009

There was a woman, perhaps 80 years old, on the G train between Brooklyn and Queens, who looked very confused. She didn’t look like she should be riding the subway alone. Though she was well dressed, I wondered if she had dementia, judging from the way she glanced around nervously each time the train stopped in a station. In fact she was just completely out of her element.

Across from her was a family of tourists from someplace far away. I noticed them because they were arguing, and concluded that they were from someplace like Croatia because their looks and language said “east European country near the Mediterranean.” Wherever they were from they were definitely not having a good time. Their arguing got louder and louder, and after each outburst the father would lean back and stare sullenly across the car. The two sons would continue their debate while the mother stared placidly into space, seemingly uninterested in whatever problem they faced.

At the next stop the old lady approached the father of the seeming Croatian family and asked him a question. He shook his head dismissively – rudely, I thought. Seeing the old lady’s turmoil, a young black woman quickly stood up and began trying to help her; she studied the subway map and told the old woman the train she needed to take, where she should get off to catch it, etc. The young woman then got off the train, pausing in the doorway to look back and say, “OK?” to which the old woman nodded. But it wasn’t entirely true. As soon as the train started moving again the old lady gave me a look that said, “The black woman was the one who tried to help me. That surprised me.” It was one of those looks that tell you that race is a subtext whether you know it or not. I say that not because the old lady was a racist, but because she was able to convey to me, with a subtle white-to-white look, her surprise that the one person on the car who had come to her aid was black. I don’t know how she did it, but it was clear, and I was glad this was something she would carry back with her to wherever she was from.

After that another young woman sat down next to the old lady and, while the “Croatian” family began loudly arguing again, the old lady tried to communicate with the new young woman, who studied the subway map, pointed some places out to her, and, when her own stop came, turned to me and said, “She needs to take the 7 train.” In that way she passed the responsibility for the old lady to me.

Seeing this, the elder son of the Croatian family turned to me and said, in halting English, “Can you tell us how get to Rockefeller Center?” Wow, I thought. You people are seriously lost. Not only miles from Rockefeller Center, but on the wrong train, going the wrong way, and getting more lost with each passing stop. I told him they needed to get back to Manhattan, at which point another guy overheard us and said he was going to the train they needed, and they could follow him. The older son thanked me. The father glowered. The mother ignored everything. The old lady watched to make sure I remembered that I was now in charge of her.

Because I was getting off at the same stop as the old lady, I motioned for her to follow. I don’t think she knew how to say anything in English other than the name of the place in Queens she needed to be and “thank you.” When we got off the train, it was actually pretty complicated getting to the 7 train because they were working on the lines – you had to go up to the street, walk a couple of blocks, cross a busy intersection, go another block, and climb some stairs. And once we got there, she couldn’t find her metro card. I had an unlimited monthly card, so I swiped her through. She was confused when I didn’t follow, but I wasn’t going on the 7 train, and once she realized I’d brought her there anyway, she said thank you four or five times, then said, “Anna,” and pointed to herself. I said, “Alan,” and pointed to myself. She blew me kisses until she was out of sight.

This got me wondering: Why do people think New Yorkers are unfriendly? Sure, they don’t exactly nod at everyone they pass on the street, but how could they, when they pass hundreds of thousands of people a day? Here was a case in point to refute the myth: You could plop down a very old lady with almost no language skills in an unfamiliar subway system and total strangers would take care of her.

I also found it reassuring that one young man was managing to find the balance between an oblivious mother and an angry father, and do what he needed to do to find his way.

No outlet


July 10, 2009

Now and then there seems to be a disharmonious convergence along the Old Bridgeport Road. It's an old road, and although it's a beautiful and generally peaceful place, a lot has happened there and not all of it has been nice. The Bridgeport Road was the second road built after Mississippi became a state, and it was a major thoroughfare through a slave-holding region and saw a lot of violent activity during the Civil War. So there's some karma there. More recently, it saw a lot of acrimonious activity on the political front over the county's failed efforts to bulldoze its high banks and old trees and widen it.

But lately, the road seems to be seeing more activity resulting from the blurring of property lines. I recently posted a comment about the random shooter who stopped this week along the Old Bridgeport Road, which now leads only to my house, after the old section was abandoned by the county in favor of a new, modern road that was built to the five houses at its former terminus. The guy had backed his silver Impala into the road, just inside my gate, and started shooting his pistol blindly into the trees. It's bad enough that I have gun-nut neighbors who shoot AKs and Uzis into hay bales, sometimes at night, which means a person such as I could be killed while reading in bed. But now I had someone coming onto my property expressly to shoot his gun, without a care for who might be around.

When I investigated, the guy hastily put his pistol away (or so it seemed – I never actually saw the gun, just saw him stuffing something into the pocket of his pants). Then he went to get in his car. I hollered at him out the window of my truck, my string of angry expletives, to which he responded, “I’m not just anybody. My parents are in the military.” To which I responded, “I know you’re not just #*&% anybody – you’re somebody shooting a @&$* gun on my property!” He eventually apologized, gave a strange smile, got in his car and drove away.

Then yesterday I was on my way home and when I turned onto Mt. Olive Road, off of which the Old Bridgeport Road runs, I saw an old pickup truck going very slowly, with its tailgate open and a large can of garbage, without a lid, in the bed. It was obvious the driver was looking for someplace to illegally dump his garbage, as people often do on both Mt. Olive and the Old Bridgeport Road. So instead of passing him I followed slowly behind. When he got to the Old Bridgeport Road he turned on his blinker, as did I. I’m sure this confused him, so he stopped on the Old Bridgeport Road, just inside my gate, and started to back out. I waited on Mt. Olive, with my window down, and as he came past he stopped his old, ragged truck beside mine. Seeing the look on his face, which was fearful, I softened. I said, “You aren’t fixing to dump that garbage on the side of the road, are you?”

“Oh, naw, suh,” he said, in the subservient tone of an old black man who grew up in a Mississippi where it was ill-advised to cross a white man, even one who was 30 years younger. “I know that’s wrong,” he said. “This here’s just some stuff from the deep freeze.”

I looked in the back. The garbage can was full to the brim with what looked like spoiled food. “Just taking it for a ride in the country, I guess,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically.

I said “OK, see you later,” and he drove on.

Somehow the fact that he was apparently bent on dumping garbage on my property bothered me less because he was someone who had lived in the area before there was even garbage pickup, when people just threw their refuse in the creek, and I felt kind of sorry that he felt the need to address me as a superior. But still. Any day of the week the bridge over Fleetwood Creek has five or six buzzards roosting on the rails because of all the stuff people dump there. Deer hunters dump their waste there, too – deer guts and carcasses. People leave couches, dead dogs. It gets old.

Having had to defend my turf twice in one week (even if the threat levels were vastly different), I was thinking that for some reason the Old Bridgeport Road was attracting negative attention. First a guy pulls in to pop off a few caps, then I catch a dumper red-handed and end up feeling like I'm the bad guy.

So the next day, I hear a truck approaching my house, but notice that it keeps going, back onto what anyone can see is private land. Mind you, to drive on the Old Bridgeport Road today you have to pass through my gate, which bears a sign announcing that it is private. Plus, it’s hard to get past my house on the road now because of trees downed by spring storms. I have to thread my truck through. All that’s back there is woods and pastures, anyway, and all the land is private.

Hearing the truck pass into my domain, I got in my truck to investigate. And a short ways down the road I came upon a red Toyota and, a short distance behind it, the pickup truck pulling a trailer. The two vehicles were returning from where the road dead-ends, where I had blocked it because of some very destructive trespassers on four-wheelers. Again: There is a new road. The Old Bridgeport Road is closed. There are posted signs. There is a gate. I wish I didn't have to care about these things, but nowadays, you do.

I stopped my truck in the road so the car and truck couldn’t get past. They were trapped. I got out, thinking, maybe this isn’t a good idea, because they’re trapped, they may have a gun, but it turned out to be a lone, young woman talking on her cell. She said she was looking for “the Ellis house,” and asked, “Have they closed off this road?” She was just someone who was lost, and who (and I give her credit for this), would apparently drive her car through a creek if she needed to to get where she was going.

I said that indeed they had closed the road, then explained that she could get to where she was going by driving back to Mt. Olive, turning left and then left onto the new Edwards Road. She began talking loudly on her cell, and I walked away.

I backed into my driveway and waited for the truck to pass. I was surprised to see that the truck had a Rebel flag tag on the front. A white guy was driving, pulling a trailer-load of chairs and what looked like a party tent. It seemed odd, a Rebel flag guy caravanning behind the young woman, who was black, but this is Mississippi. Far stranger things have happened. He gave me a very bemused look as he passed.

All of which made me feel, again, like I was being very territorial, even if it was generally warranted. I consoled myself that I had only been an asshole to the guy with the gun.

Then, yesterday, I ran into Charles Knight, who used to live in the cabin on my place, and when I told him about the guy shooting the gun he reminded me that years ago we were outside and heard a fight down on the Old Bridgeport Road, and when we investigated, discovered a guy beating the crap out of another guy, who was not even fighting back. It looked like the victim was reconciled to taking a beating, which likely meant he faced the potential for worse. And I'm telling you, the guy was seriously beating him. It looked like he was going to kill him. We tried to intervene but they ignored us, so Charles and I each went back to our houses and got our guns, and this time the guys got back in the car and drove away. Apparently the one guy had just driven out to the Old Bridgeport Road to beat the other one up. We were a destination. I wouldn’t attempt to intervene in such a dispute today, because it would be easy to get shot, but then, I did approach a stranger with a gun a few days ago, so maybe I would.

Charles later sat on the jury in the murder trial of a guy who had executed another guy about a mile behind my house. It was a Jackson drug execution. They convicted him.

The day of the fight we had called the deputies, and they came, but several other times I’ve called them about people shooting around my house when they didn’t show up. Neither do the game wardens when I call them. I once called the dispatcher at the sheriff’s office and said, “If y’all aren’t going to come, I’m going to start shooting back.”

He said, “That’ll work.”

So I did. I shot over the heads of whoever it was, based on the location of the source of the gunfire, and they left. I used bird-shot, which isn't dangerous overhead; a bullet, by contrast, even when fired straight up into the air, can kill someone if it falls on them. After that anytime I had poachers shooting near my house, I just shot birdshot over their heads and they left.

I don’t call the deputies anymore. The last time they were out here was for the Pee Wee Redmond incident, which is a story unto itself.

Don't get me wrong, it's actually wonderful living along the Old Bridgeport Road, it's just not like most people think it would be. It's especially nice right now, on a summer night, with the owls calling from the swamp and the fireflies drifting through the trees, and the sounds of crickets and frogs and cicadas. It feel like it's a sanctuary, then, as much as any place can be, and no one is shooting at all.




Sultana, the song, by Son Volt


July 3, 2009 

Here are the lyrics to the new song "Sultana" by Son Volt:

Sultana

April 27, 1865 the worst American

Disaster of the maritime 

No one knows the count of lives lost

The soldiers, civilians and the sisters of charity

At $5 a head Captains Mason and Hatch

Boarded 6 times the legal load of the Sultana 

Leaving Vicksburg bound for Cairo

Memphis was the tragic last port of call of Sultana

6 miles out of Memphis a boiler gave out

From the flooding swift river and extra heavy load of Sultana

The current was cold the river was wide

A mile to either side away from the burning Sultana

3 boilers blew fire and lit up the night sky

Hell was a better place than on board the Sultana

The worst American disaster on water

The Titanic of the Mississippi was the Sultana

Hell was a better place that night

The Titanic of the Mississippi was the Sultana

 

Friday, August 28, 2009

The scene of the crime

We were playing in the surf when several porpoises came in fairly close, arcing gracefully through the shimmering green breakers, which had the unexpected effect of sending a group of people scrambling in panic out of the water. I had forgotten that not everyone knows how to differentiate between porpoises and sharks. No doubt the people who ran, who appeared not to get to the beach very often, thought we were crazy for not running, too. But it is the nature of panic to spread, so once the other swimmers saw this sudden exodus, they ran, too. Maybe this is something porpoises do for fun.

I’ve always loved swimming with porpoises. Years ago a friend and I were skinny dipping in the warm waters of the Gulf at the outer beach at Horn Island, at sunrise, when a mother and twin baby porpoises came up and swam with us, in a friendly way, almost close enough to touch. It was moving, this momentary overlap of different worlds. I like that they’re curious about us, too, and imagine the porpoises who escaped the aquariums during Katrina were very popular story tellers to the porpoises in the wild. It’s actually easy to tell porpoises from sharks at a distance because when a shark’s dorsal fin protrudes from the water it stays pretty level, while porpoises tend to swim in arcs at the surface, so their dorsal fins go up and down.

That said, I’d have probably still been in the water if it had been sharks, because I tend to be slow to respond. As evidence, I was once riding with a friend in his truck at night when a speeding car passed us, careened out of control and plunged into floodwaters on the side of the road. My friend stopped the truck and as I sat in the passenger seat evaluating the situation I saw him running through the beam of the headlights toward the car, which was already half submerged. At that point I realized that I was a bit behind the curve. So I got out and helped him extricate the very drunk driver of the car, who was sitting in her full-length fur coat, clinging to the steering wheel as water poured in. She was apparently slow on the uptake, too, but at least she had an excuse, being drunk. My slow response gave me pause, both literally and figuratively. It always takes me a minute to react to a sudden change, as readers of these notes may recall from the first note I posted, “Brooklyn, 1 a.m.”

Fortunately there were no sharks in sight on this splendid day at Pensacola Beach, which still, after I’ve been there countless times, astonishes me with the whiteness of its sand. I was there with my friends Sara Rabb, her boys Gus and Sam, and Les and Corrinne Hegwood, my beach outing sandwiched between Sultana events in Fairhope, Alabama and Atlanta. It was my first trip to the beach this summer, and in a sense I was returning to the scene of a crime, because it was at Pensacola Beach that I, as a child, annually received such severe sunburns that I sometimes ran fever, which I am informed was probably the primary cause of the melanoma that was removed in May. There was no sunscreen back then and there is no way to keep a kid out of the water at the beach. Things were different then. My family traveled to Pensacola in a car with no air conditioning nor seatbelts, my parents smoking all the way. Now we know. Marshall Ramsey, who encouraged me to get my suspicious spot checked out (which enabled its removal before the cancer had spread to my lymphatic system – thanks, again, Marshall), said that after his own melanoma was successfully removed his family decided to celebrate at… the beach. It makes a warped kind of sense. It seemed appropriate for me, too, though this time I was slathered in SPF 50.

The Sultana talk at Fairhope’s Page & Palette bookstore the night before also seemed appropriate as a way to begin winding down the spring and summer Sultana tour. I gave my talk in shorts and sandals, rather than my customary authorial costume of jacket and slacks. I had arrived at the Page & Palette dressed casually, for summer travel, and when I asked if there was someplace I could change the store manager asked why I wanted to change. I looked around and saw that the staff and customers were mostly dressed like me. So I didn’t change. The atmosphere was decidedly laid-back, and though the crowd wasn’t large, I signed perhaps 50 books.

The Page & Palette is yet another wonderful independent bookstore. The store had all three of my books, too, which is something I can say of only one other store, Lemuria, in Jackson, Mississippi, my home town. The Sultana tour has really opened my eyes about my industry; I have seen just how poorly big, moribund corporations are responding to “the current economic environment,” and by contrast, how innovative small publishers, indy bookstores and alternative publications are proving themselves to be. Maybe it won’t be such a bad thing for many of the old trees to fall, to allow new sunlight onto the forest floor. That is my hope, anyway – not that everything will end up being owned by amazon. The Page & Palette has a nice coffee shop and an art supply business, and it’s quite a social gathering place. It’s been in business for three generations, and the bookstore’s owners, Karin and Kiefer Wilson, clearly know how to adapt. I wish them well. They definitely did right by me.

Being in Fairhope also gave me a chance to meet up with some friends I had not seen in a long time, including Cindy Wilson, with whom I went to high school, and Susie Spears and Jim Hannaford, whom I know from my days at The Clarion-Ledger. I’ve pretty much quit reading at my author signings, choosing to tell the story of the book instead, in part because I don’t generally like to hear authors read and in part because I’m tired of hearing myself read. During the Q&A at the Page & Palette, Cindy was inspired to read a passage from the book that she especially liked, which was much more enjoyable and, I thought, appropriate. After the Page & Palette event I drove to Pensacola to stay with my friends Willie and Sara, and the next day, when Willie had to work, Sara, the boys and I went to the beach.

Late in the afternoon I set out for Auburn, Alabama to spend the night with friends en route to Saturday’s event at the National Archives in Atlanta. It was a nice, long, mostly interstate drive, set to a Sirius XMU soundtrack, with a subtheme of vacationing families with folding chairs, bicycles and ice chests strapped to the roofs of their SUVs. It occurred to me, as one heavily-laden SUV after another passed me, that I was witnessing the end of an era, that we will one day look back on those SUV vacations much the same way we look back on my sunscreen-free childhood vacations at the beach, and wonder: What were we thinking? As Willie observed the night before, people in the future will no doubt look back and say, I can’t believe they rode around burning gas and discharging fumes into the atmosphere, for every errand and every trip, as if the air itself was a dumping ground. I think he’s right. It will seem absurd.

In Auburn I met my friends Paul and Libby Hartfield from down the road in Bolton (who drive a hybrid, by the way), and their daughter Emily and her boyfriend Nate, at a party given by biologists at Auburn University, where Emily and Nate are in grad school. It’s always interesting to go to a party with a specialized cast, so long as it’s not lawyers, who are insufferable when bunched together (I have a lot of close friends who are lawyers, but fill a room with them and they will bore you to death talking about nothing but the law). Generally, a specialized party provides a window into a different world, which was the case here. I learned that fish communicate by all sorts of sounds, most of which we can’t hear, and that, as Emily pointed out, people tend to feel sympathy only for animals with vertebrae (there is rarely an outcry over the mistreatment of mussels). Emily has a friend, Alexis, who was at the party, who is studying marine life in Antarctica, which made me very envious. Emily also gave what may be my favorite endorsement of Sultana; she said she loved it all the way through, and was afterward inspired to go back and re-read Mississippi in Africa, which she found even better the second time around. Emily is not a fluffer; she meant it, and her opinion means a lot to me.

I spent that night at Nate’s, then headed to Atlanta, which is one of my least favorite places. With hundreds of thousands of vinyl-siding-clad apartment complexes built on scraped-down hills beneath high-power lines, and seemingly endless, congested eight-lane thoroughfares lined with fast-food restaurants, Atlanta strikes me as the worst example of an American city. It has a few nice neighborhoods, though, and I had a great time when I spoke about Mississippi in Africa at the National Archives, so I was looking forward to the Sultana event. Mary Evelyn Tomlin, who puts the events together, had surgery a few days before and so could not attend, which was a shame because she is not only charming, thoughtful and smart, but is one of those rare people who loves her job and excels at it in ways that someone else in her position might not have even thought of. For Mississippi in Africa she built a program that involved unveiling the National Archives’ huge cache of African American records, which proved to be an inspired pairing. For Sultana, she was bringing in three Civil War reenactors and a local historian to talk about the Atlanta Campaign; for the program’s title she borrowed a line from Aunt Pittypat in “Gone With the Wind”: “Yankees in Atlanta! However did they get here?” I liked that because my guys -- Romulus Tolbert, John C. Maddox and J.Walter Elliott -- were part of the answer to the question.

There were about 80 people at the event and their questions – always my favorite part – reflected the diversity of their backgrounds and interests. One woman asked if any U.S. Colored Troops were aboard the Sultana, which is something that had never occurred to me, and sadly, I didn’t know. Another woman asked what I thought the country would be like if the South had won (and I got the impression that she had considered this with some fondness); I said I didn’t think we’d like the result very much, and she looked a bit bemused, then said, “Well, the Russians would have Alaska.” Another woman said she could envision Sultana, the movie, as “Gallipoli meets Lonesome Dove.”

Jim McSweeney, the director of the National Archives’ Southeast Regional Office, led the program, and afterward the local Barnes and Noble store sold books during what was characterized as an “ice cream social.” At one point I watched through the window as two of the reenactors practiced their drills in a courtyard. I’ve never quite understood what drives reenactors, but as I watched through the window their obsessive role-playing seemed to border on the bizarre. Here were two guys dressed in pristine replicas of Union uniforms, one of whom wore a wig and, it appeared, facial makeup; the taller of the two barked orders at the shorter one, who dutifully responded, over and over again. It was easy to imagine them doing this alone, for their own pleasure. Yet when they put on their show for the audience, it was illuminating, and the audience loved it.

Later that evening Jim McSweeney took me to something called Summerfest, an annual event in Morrow, the part of Atlanta where the National Archives is located. My old friend Laura Ashley (who, along with the Hartfields, came to the event), always has to listen to me rant about Atlanta or the first 30 minutes each time I come to town, and each time submits, patiently. Given the poor urban planning, the Atlanta Eat World sprawl, and the typical southern problem of everything being viewed through the prism of race, Atlanta is nonetheless the epicenter of something important and interesting. For one thing, it may very well be the wealthiest black city in the world. I don’t know that for sure, but it sure looks it. Summerfest and the National Archives program also illustrated that a new dynamic is being forged there. As one woman, who is black, told me as we stood in the parking lot after the Sultana event, “This place is just such a gem. Where else can the great granddaughter of a slave, like me, sit down next to a Civil War reenactor and talk about things we have in common?” The credit for that goes to Mary Evelyn and Jim, who are responding thoughtfully and imaginatively to something intrinsic about the city. Atlanta has its white-flight suburbs – way too many of them, in my view -- and its gangs and crime (ditto), but Summerfest, which drew perhaps 10,000 people, was the most truly racially integrated event I’ve been to. There are few places in the world where it could have happened.

Afterward I went back to my hotel room at the Renaissance Concourse, one of those places with a 12-story interior atrium and glass elevators which were all the rage in Atlanta in the seventies. The hotel is at the airport, hard beside the Delta terminal, with a view of the runways, and it was interesting to see the place I’ve passed through so many times while traveling, this time from the sidelines. It was like being camped beside a Star Gate. As with the SUVs, I had the feeling that I was time-traveling to my own time, that I was observing something very 2009, with all those jets coming and going, all night and day. It would have been an amazing scene for someone from the 19th century, and a very interesting one if someone could travel back in time from a future of who-knows-what, and it was both amazing and interesting for me, at the time.

The next day, Sunday, I headed back to Bolton. It’s a six-hour drive, all interstate, during which I tried, and failed, not to get caught up in the high-speed competition. When I’m driving on the interstate I try to ignore the jockeying for position that characterizes interstate driving, but after a couple of hours I’m invariably drawn into the fray. A former girlfriend once told me that her mother said, “Before you marry a man, watch how he behaves when he drives. It’s revealing.” And it is. And what it reveals about me is not always attractive. I think of an old George Carlin comedy routine in which he said, Everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac. If anyone happens to drive the same speed as you, you have no choice but to speed up or slow down. It's hopeless, once you get sucked in. 

I have a particularly low tolerance for people who block the left lane -- who use the passing lane for other than actual passing, for example. I will flash my lights. I have found that there are three basic groups of left-lane blockers: The timid, who are afraid the right lane will run out, or that someone will pull in front of them, and who often have handicapped plates; the arrogant, who believe they are entitled to the most free-flowing lane (or what would be the most free-flowing, but for people like them); and the oblivious, who are unobservant, or talking on the phone, or both, and who often have hats or boxes of Kleenex in their back windows. I dislike all of them. So that is part of what I bring to the competition. During the drive back to Bolton I also encountered two personal nemeses, one a middle-aged black guy in a Kia, the other an old white man in a Grand Marquis, both of whom kept passing me and then slowing down, which forced me to pass them, which prompted them to pass me again, each time with more annoyance. After sparring with them for perhaps 40 miles, I made a pit stop so they could pass out of my personal world for good.

Back in Bolton it was 97 degrees at 6 p.m., and humid as a hothouse. Summer in Mississippi – that, I love, though I often find myself wishing, when I'm running on my mountain bike trails, that there was a beach, or at least a spring-fed creek, at the end.

Anchors away!


June 22, 2009

The policeman standing guard inside the gates of the Washington Navy Yard barely glanced at my ID, and the same was true for the others in my party. He basically just smiled and waved us through. Apparently all that was necessary to get through security for the afternoon’s ceremony was to be dressed well and to SEEM to have some sort of identification.

This was remarkable considering the Navy Yard is a site of great historical and strategic military significance, in the heart of the nation’s capital, and that among those in attendance at the afternoon’s event were Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, arguably the second most important military man in the world, former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus, who was being sworn in as the 75th Secretary of the Navy, numerous foreign diplomats, representatives of the military-industrial complex, a phalanx of marines and sailors and a hundreds of other well-wishers, including my little cadre of friends.

I hate to say it aloud, but was this not an event that warranted extraordinary secuirty? Yet judging from the convivial, non-threatening atmosphere, it may as well have been Sept. 10, 2001, when we could still afford to be unconcerned. The relative lack of security actually felt oddly reassuring, making us seem somehow more secure – a feeling that was enhanced by the trappings of pomp and circumstance that soon began to unfold, including inspiring speeches, highly accomplished military displays and rousing John Phillip Sousa tunes that brought to mind the soundtrack of a 1950s movie starring, perhaps, Glenn Ford, which included renditions of that famous Navy song about the shores of Tripoli, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Anchors Away”, and the ditty that children sing with the words, “Be kind to your web-footed friends, ’cause a duck might be somebody’s mother…” It all felt very Back Then.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking: Really? We can just walk right in? And the first checkpoint is INSIDE the gates?

I later heard that one exceptionally pretty woman had been told not to worry when she had trouble finding her driver’s license in her purse, because, as the guard said with a big smile, “You don’t look like a terrorist.” My first thought, upon hearing this, was that more people ought to watch “The Battle of Algiers,” because among the many lessons imparted by the film, which chronicles the overthrow of the French in Algeria in the late 1950s, is that suicide bombers may assume the personae of exceptionally beautiful women. Also, is it not true that a person can be arrested for joking about terrorists, even in a baggage screening line? It was as if we had passed through some invisible barrier, before the physical one, at which point we had been scanned and determined to pose no threat, and so, from that point on, were allowed to move freely among other likewise-safe visitors. Then, at the visible, ceremonial checkpoint, we waved our IDs for show, as if to emphasize the absurdity of needing to do so.

Though it was said that the official party arrived in an armored car, the atmosphere of the event was a throwback to a more confident and secure time in American history, when leaders waved from open convertibles, which certainly contributed to the strange tug of patriotism we all felt, even those of us who are skeptical of nationalism and the war machine that parasitizes and perverts it (Hello, Trent Lott, former war-mongering politician who now lobbies for the military shipbuilding industry, who was once a political foe of Mabus but on this day was turned out in a seersucker suit for his official coronation). Anyway, for the moment, at least, it was possible to feel confident, even sanguine, about America’s history and might, having been allowed proximity to power while under the invigorating influence of marching tunes performed by bands of square-jawed marines in crisp white pants, gloves and hats and tight black jackets with tasteful red piping. Guns were going off, without anyone being injured. It was perfect, in its way.

The marines and the sailors who lined up and marched around for us served as stylized, carefully-choreographed stand-ins for the characters Mabus evoked in his splendid speech about sailors of yore who fought pirates on the Barbary Coast during the infant years of our great republic; sailors and marines who routed our nation's enemies during 230 years of battle, in places like Chateau Thierry, Havana, Manilla and the Persian Gulf; men and women who today police the coasts of Somalia and North Korea and fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Our sea services are always forward-deployed,” Mabus said proudly, and I found myself inching toward unfamiliar, visceral patriotism. I felt confident and utterly needless of photo ID.

Mabus noted, quite eloquently, "There is a long, unbreakable line of heroism that stretches from there, back to the beginning. The heroes of our country are the heroes of our own families. They come from us; they defend us; wearing the uniform from 1775 until today, they are the shining fabric of America."

Not to take anything away from Mabus, who rose brilliantly to the occasion, or Gates, or even Dorsey Carson, who thoughtfully plugged Sultana to the reporter from either CNN or Entertainment Tonight (it was never clear to me), but the marines pretty much stole the show. And without doubt, the highlight was the stirring Silent Drill Platoon. The silent platoon guys were amazing, perfectly synched in the execution of their gun-wielding dance routine, without a word being spoken, the only sounds being the slapping of their hands on their legs or their guns. They were both lithe and formal, straight and strong of posture, precise in their movements and perfectly organized, illustrating the graceful choreography that, from all appearances, forms the basis for organized killing. They were, as Dorsey's wife Susan pointed out, hot, and in more ways than one.

Their show went on for quite some time, and they had to be burning up – I could see the sweat on their faces, which was one thing, at least, that we all had in common. The summer sun drenched the parade ground and ricocheted off the old buildings that lined its perimeter, yet the marines soldiered on, running their gloved hands up and down the barrels of their glinting M1 rifles, while staring resolutely, face to face, or sending the guns aloft in a brilliant twirl, then gracefully catching them, in all but one case. And even in that case, the one that everyone lamented, it looked as if the rifle was supposed to stick in the ground, bayonet first, and that the unperturbed marine was supposed to ceremonially pluck sod from its barrel-end. The guys, these troupes of troops, were that good.

Under the circumstances, it would not have seemed odd if there had been a ceremonial plucking of the sod from the barrel of a gun. A lot of the ceremony involved cryptic military traditions that the audience knew nothing about. After being sworn in, for example, Mabus entreated Gates to “break my flag” – a request that no one could explain to me, but which subsequent research reveals to be a traditional comment made when commands change. We watched all of this while fanning our faces with our programs. Most of us were dressed for air-conditioning, with only a few women wearing appropriately gauzy summer dresses and a few men – older and clearly from the South – sporting white linen, poplin or seersucker suits. I had to concede that Lott at least showed good sartorial sense, having gone with the seersucker.

I couldn’t see everything from where I sat because of other people’s heads, but I could glimpse bits and pieces -- vignettes of the troop performances and the actual swearing-in. The rest of the time I glanced around at the guests perspiring in their finery, studied the handsome 19th century buildings surrounding the parade ground, surveyed the handful of Secret Service agents relaxing in the shade (see!) or watched the doves being roused from the treetops by the occasional cannon fire, the latter of which reverberated in our breasts, echoed off the buildings and filled the air with cinematic blue smoke.

Afterward there was much debate about how many times the cannon had been fired, with the number ranging from 17 to 19, in each of two firing episodes. No one professed to know why there were two episodes, and different people counted different numbers of firings. Typically people did not start counting until the first round was already under way, at the point when they began to wonder if it was going to be a 21-gun salute, and because they had started in the middle, their counts were pointless. During the second episode those who were inclined to count, including me, were given a second chance, and we determined to start at the beginning but, in most cases, lost count. It was harder than you might think to keep up, and therefore a good thing that none of us was in charge of the firing. I later googled gun salutes, by the way, and while it’s not worth going into here, there are different numbers of shots fired for different levels of importance. I still don’t know why we had two episodes.

Needless to say the event was heavy on tradition and ceremony. The Navy Yard itself, which served as the set piece, was built in 1799 on the banks of the Anacostia River. Its imposing gates date to 1809, indicating that we were not the first to consider the concept of keeping the place secure. The Yard was burned during the War of 1812 and afterward rebuilt as a shipyard and ordinance plant. There is still an active marine barracks, which resembles a prison, and ships docked along the river, all of which helped imbue the event with a sense of meaningful history. Mabus’s swearing in was also a proud moment for those of us who know him and saw him passed over for the Navy post after President Clinton was elected. At that time, when Mabus was exiting his job as governor, I worked as his environmental aide and wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter outlining his attributes for the post.

Now he was there. The former sailor was in charge of a Navy with 900,000 employees and a budget of $150 billion, at a time when America is waging two wars and pirates are once again rearing their ugly heads, and when the military industrial complex is exerting new pressures for a share of the shrinking budgetary pie. Utterly nonplussed, Mabus seemed thrilled when we finally spoke, after Reed Branson and I tarried too long on the parade ground and inadvertently intersected with his ceremonial passage to the Navy Museum, where the reception was held. He absolutely beamed.

The reception was… a reception, which is to say there was a lot of standing around and glancing around and pacing of conversations over lemonade and pink-tinted wraps. For me, the reception was a good opportunity to see old friends from the days at the governor’s office, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and to cause a good bit of consternation by asking selected people if they knew anything about a private dinner party afterward.

In an email, Mabus had mentioned that he would be having a small dinner after the reception, and instructed me to “ask about it” at the reception. I wondered why we had switched to “ask, don’t tell”, but resolved to follow orders. Except that each time I asked someone about their dinner plans, they replied that they were thinking of doing this or that and that I would be welcome to join them, at which point I would become annoyingly coy. I seemed to be something of a dinner tease. Moving on, I might ask the next person the same question, at which point a few responded by asking, “Why, is something going on?” and again, I would be forced to run for conversational cover. This became distressing fairly quickly, so I decided to come clean, which was not a good idea. When told that there was in fact a private dinner brewing, to which it inevitably turned out that they were not invited, each person I queried felt left out. And oddly enough, I found NO ONE who had been invited, including among several people who were closer to Mabus than I. I could never ask him directly because there was always someone with him. Finally, as the reception was winding down, I saw Mabus’s wife, Lynne, alone, and approached. She had been greeting for the better part of an hour, and seeing me zeroing in on her said, preemptively, “Thank you for coming!” I took that as my answer, and in reverse order, re-approached each person I had asked about the secret dinner and proposed that we have our own secret dinner, which we did, and which was quite fun. I felt a little guilty about blowing off the official private dinner until I heard that it had not come off – aides had advised Mabus that there was no way to satisfactorily limit the guest list, so he ended up dining with the fam.

Our secret dinner was held at a restaurant called Central, at which Bill Triplett got a private dining room off the kitchen for our small circle of old and new friends, which included Lynn Parker, the exceptionally pretty woman who does not look like a terrorist (and who, in fact, works for Homeland Security), Reed, Dorsey, Susan, state Sen. John Horhn, Jennifer Scarbrough and Brad Morris; you can see photos on Dorsey's Facebook profile, as well as a short video clip of the silent marines.

After a late night I made my way home to my friend Dudley’s house in Dupont Circle, got up the next day to meet Rishi Sahgal for coffee (brother of Archana Sahgal, creator of this page), then took the train back to New York City for my friend Danny’s boxing match. As a result, I missed the Ceremonial Parade on Friday night, which capped the Navy festivities.

Opening and closing doors


June 14, 2009

Wandering alone through the zoo; observing an odd moment on the subway; getting soaked at the Mississippi picnic in Central Park; envisioning an animated movie of Sultana; and meeting both the dwarf bartender of the Mini Bar and the formerly loathsome Technoboy of Sultana-page lore.

Those are a few highlights of my first few days back in New York, post Sultana-release.

For the moment Sultana has faded into the background. The book is holding its own, and there are a few events scheduled in late June, but for the most part I’ve been focused on other writing gigs and, tangentially, trying to figure out how to position the book for film – both of which pose challenges in “the current economic climate.”

As discussed previously in these notes, the newspaper, magazine and book-publishing businesses are all in free-fall, which greatly limits opportunities for freelance writing, and the movie industry is tightening its purse strings, too, which has made it difficult to sell what seemed a natural book-to-film project. One contact in the film industry who had previously expressed an interest subsequently went MIA, and a screenwriter who has a family link to the Sultana story told me that studios are skittish about expensive movies that aren’t guaranteed blockbusters, a category that includes anything involving water, with a cast of thousands, that does not include a great love story (i.e., Sultana). My friend Lindi suggested that Sultana could be made into a great animated movie, and cited as a model the indy Israeli animated-flick “A Waltz with Bashir”, and I agree: It could be a very cool animated movie, done on the cheap. But I haven’t a clue how to undertake such a project.

So, in lieu of actual moneymaking endeavors, I’ve decided to just let Sultana do its thing in the marketplace. In the meantime I’ve been trolling for stories, the commodity I traffic in. I’ve got some ideas, and as always happens when I return to New York City, I get barraged with new stimuli. It’s all a form of professional reconnaissance. The recon work also includes networking, which can likewise be fun. For example, I went to a margarita party at the Bronx Zoo on Thursday night. It was held by the Wildlife Conservation Society to celebrate the launching of their new website (www.wcs.org), for which I wrote the copy for 45 pages about countries in which the organization works. The Wildlife Conservation Society also manages the Bronx Zoo and has its administrative offices there.

To get the to party was a long haul by subway from my place in Red Hook – it took almost two hours even though I was within New York City the whole time – and once I got there I had to cross the expanse of the zoo on foot. Neither was a problem for me because I love the subway and there are far worse things than a long walk through a zoo, particularly this one, which is verdant and includes trees that are in some cases hundreds of years old – the latter being something unexpected in a city.

The party was fun, and I made a couple of new friends, but one of the best parts came after, when I had to make my way through the by-then closed zoo to the subway station just outside its perimeter. It was around dusk and I did not see another person during a walk that lasted about half an hour. It was just me and the empty zoo. Many of the animals had been moved into their night quarters. The giraffes were gone from their meadow, as were the zebras and the wild dogs, but there were a few rats skittering across the walkways and black squirrels chirping from the woods, and all sorts of strange catcalls and indeterminate African-sounding wildlife hoots coming from the darkened trees. The sea lions seemed to be particularly disturbed by my passage, and barked up a ruckus. They’d be good watchdogs. The same goes for the peacocks, which sent loud tattles through the empty zoo.

It was a fun, but also a little eerie, being alone in a zoo after hours, and when I got to the gate through which I’d entered I found it locked. No one was around. For a moment it looked like I might be wandering the zoo all night (the fences were very high and, while I had no doubt I could scale them, I wasn’t sure I wanted to). Being stuck in the zoo alone overnight actually seemed like a kind of cool idea, though I’m sure that after a few hours it would have gotten old. At any rate, I eventually found a turnstile that allowed people to go out but not come in, and exited to the human world of the Bronx, and thence, the subway station. 

No matter how much time I spend in New York City, I never tire of riding the subway. It’s the best people-watching I’ve found anywhere, and that includes sitting beside a sandy street in Timbuktu where the parade of humanity included Arab families on donkeys, blue men on camels, Africans pushing carts and a beautiful black girl in a J-Lo t-shirt riding a smoking moped. To ride a distance in a subway car is to sample the world. Imagine sitting in a room full of people you don’t know, and every three or four minutes the doors open and a few of them get up and leave and a few more come in, then the doors close. This goes on for an hour, during which the room goes from being populated (in this case) primarily by black people who are slowly replaced by Latinos, who are themselves slowly replaced by white people, who become very touristy for a few moments, then become very hip, then are augmented by elderly Asians, until, by the time you exit yourself, the room is comprised of young hipsters of all races and ethnic backgrounds, a few elderly people, some gangsta-wannabes, a security guard, a painter, a South American family, and a guy hauling an upright bass. The constant transformation is absolutely addictive 

Sometimes a subway car can get weird, of course, either incrementally or rather suddenly, but there’s something about the fact that it’s constantly changing and confined that creates a consistently interesting dynamic. I have friends who have been in New York City for a long time who also never tire of it. It helps if you’re something of a voyeur’s voyeur, as I am. By that I mean that I like to watch people watching people, something there’s no better place to do than on the subway. The nature of the subway is that people tend to remain aloof from each other while, paradoxically, remaining acutely aware of each other. The result is that people watch when they can, then avert their eyes. A lot of people listen to ipods and/or read, and they’re all halfway watching each other without (usually) making eye contact. For example, I watched one woman watching other people in a way that I have discovered to be quite common on the train. She first looked at whatever book or magazine they were reading – always a fascinating exercise, and after she had gleaned what information she wanted from that she moved on to their respective faces. I watched her going down the line: She read the headlines on the tabloid, then looked up at the reading face; she read the title of the book, then glanced at the reading face; etc., etc. I’ve also seen people do this with shoes. They scan the floor, looking at everyone’s shoes, and when they find a pair that seem noteworthy, they glance up at the corresponding face. I once watched a guy doing this who was not only wearing the same shoes as me, but was otherwise dressed remarkably similarly. He seemed a little stunned when he made his way from my shoes to my face and saw me watching him. There was a brief recognition, then it was back to subway mode.

How could you ever tire of this?

Musicians often travel the subways collecting tips, and some of them are quite good. There are two Mexican guys in cowboy hats who sing songs like “La Bamba” accompanied by a guitar and upright bass whom I particularly like. They’re good. Then there are the guys hawking pirated movies. No one is there for long. Now and then there’s someone hostile, but they don’t last long either. One night a guy came on with a guitar case, and I assumed he was going to play for tips, but he didn’t. He sat in the corner playing one song to himself while reading from a single sheet of paper. When he got to his stop he handed the sheet of paper to a young guy who did not know him. I had been watching the young guy watching the guitar guy, and was surprised by the random connection, as was the young guy, who seemed a little embarrassed and bemused over having been singled out. He read the paper sort of reluctantly, then folded it up and looked around to see if anyone was watching (he didn’t catch me). A few minutes later he unfolded the paper, read it again, then refolded it. This was repeated several times over the next 15 minutes or so, and each time I thought he would throw the paper away, but something about it kept drawing him back, though he folded it smaller each time. I was dying to ask what it said, but I didn’t, not even when I recognized him again on the subway the following night. It remains a mystery to me, and probably (though to a lesser extent) to him. I keep looking for someone reading Sultana on the subway but haven’t seen it yet 

In my first note on this page I mentioned a strange episode in which I wandered into an undercover drug bust in Brooklyn, after which the extremely short bartender at a tiny bar called the Mini Bar came out and asked me what had happened. I hesitate to call him a dwarf, though I did, for expediency, in the first paragraph of this note, because it sounds derogatory, and because he is proportioned well. But whatever he is, he is under five feet tall, and it seems sort of perfect that he presides over the tiny Mini Bar and, during our follow-up conversation there a few nights ago, informed me that he is originally from Milwaukee, which he described as “a sort of mini-Chicago.” Of course. He turned out to be an engaging, charming fellow named Nick, and I now intend to become a Mini Bar habituĂ©.

Technoboy, also chronicled previously in these notes, is perhaps not as loathsome as originally envisioned, but I don’t see us becoming friends. After having been awakened about 20 times too many by his pulsating techno trance music, played at loud volume in the apartment above us, at all hours of the night, and having briefly silenced him with a passive-aggressive poem called “Loud House” that I posted in the foyer, yet having listened, disheartened, as the volume slowly crept higher again over time, until it became intolerable again, I resolved to make Technoboy’s acquaintance and try to work out a compromise when I was not experiencing high midnight dudgeon. The opportunity presented itself when we passed in the hall this afternoon. We spoke briefly and as I entered my door I watched him make his way to the offending apartment. An hour or so later, with the music throbbing at high volume, I climbed the stairs and knocked on his door.

It took a few knocks to make myself heard over the din, but he eventually answered. He has waist-length dreads and is perennially high, and seemed quite stunned to hear that his music was bothering anyone. He apologized. At that moment the music was reverberating through the building, yet he had no idea that anyone might mind. We’ll see if things get better. If nothing else, I won’t be hating on him with quite the same level of intensity.

Also this week I attended my first Mississippi picnic in Central Park, which coincided with heavy rains. I have never wanted to go to the picnic because it seemed kind of forced, and kind of hokey, to me, but I had friends who were going this year so I invited another friend, Venera, who’s from Kosovo, and who I was sure would find it interesting, and headed up to the park. It was a mess on account of the rain but I saw a lot of people I know (including several who are fans of this page, and Malcolm White, head of the Mississippi Arts Commission, for whom I’m writing the text for a book on the history of the arts in the state). We had a good time, and afterward Venera and I hung out at a South African place where she knew the woman tending bar. Venera is a bartender at a champagne bar called the Bubble Lounge, in Tribeca, where she’s trying to arrange a Sultana reading.

We’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, I gather my little stories and sort through them for the next opportunity to sell.