Thursday, August 30, 2001
The last week in August, Madrid slowly returning to normal as its residents (los Madrileños) drift back from vacation. More restaurants and tiendas are open for business than in previous weeks, while traffic moving through the traffic circle at Alonso Martinez this morning resembled the heavy, impatient flow of vehicles that's more the norm. First time I've seen that since the end of July.
There used to be something melancholy about the end of summer for me -- shorter days, the feeling of the normal work life gearing up once more, the coming of cooler weather, followed by winter. Now, I've gotta say, it feels lovely. The air is softer, the sun lower in the sky, the light less intense. Sunrise is happening later in the morning, which for me means deeper, longer sleep. It feels just fine.
I'm in the process of moving (me and half the end-of-summer western world), it feeling like a real demarcation of seasons. Same as last year, then less than a month into a major change of life. Still adapting. I'd spent August housesitting for a friend, or at least had expected to be housesitting for a friend. The friend: Leslie, sister to my best friend's wife, married to a Spanish attorney named Jaime and living in a large, luxurious house in El Viso. (El Viso: a district of Madrid, north-northeast of the city center, known for affluence and architecture of a strange art deco type.)
I arrived in Madrid on July 31st, shortly before Leslie, Jaime and their daughters fled to the family's summer residence, in a small town on Spain's northern coast. They bolted soon after my appearance, which should have left me alone, housesitting. Instead, I found myself sharing the space with Jaime's son, Jaime, Jr., a 20-something real estate person. Jaime, Jr. began conducting business from the house, carrying on with a couple of different women up in the master bedroom suite, bringing the occasional group of friends home to sit in the living room and drink. (In fairness, that last only happened once. The rest became routine.)
Not a bad guy, Jaime, Jr. -- just not the sitch I'd anticipated, and apparently not what Leslie had expected either.
I commenced intensive Spanish classes a few days after arrival, at a school just off la Calle de Génova, near Alonso Martinez. An interesting morning bus ride in from El Viso, quieter than normal, the city looking a bit drowsy, coming to slowly in the August heat.
At the same time, I began the hunt for an apt. so that I could be out of the house when Leslie and her brood returned in September. The paper with the rental listings, Segundamano (Second Hand), came out Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On those mornings I'd pick up a copy on the way to school, search through it at the 11 o'clock break, make calls after classes to try and line up viewing appointments.
That was where I began to see the impact my primitive Spanish could have on the process of building an existence. The simple act of trying to find out about a flat could be high-stress or low-stress, depending on the person I spoke with. Depending on their degree of patience, on my state of mind. Some folks simply didn't want to deal with a less-than-fluent foreigner. Others were kinder. Either way, nothing came together. Partway through the month, with the Segundamano routine going nowhere, I connected with some rental agents, getting a clearer idea of the overall situation: there simply weren't many flats to see, at least until September. Of what was available, the agents consistently pushed me toward the high end, the word "American" apparently being synonymous with "$$$$$."
Leslie and Jaime returned in early September, the house filling up with the noise and energy of their family, with the recommencement of their routines. They assured me I wasn't in the way, but it was clear I had to find a place fast. One of the realtors finally rounded up some prospects, we started looking.
The first stop: a decent flat in one of Madrid's northern neighborhoods. Owned by a 60ish Cuban couple. Extremely nice people. The furnishings, however, were the kind my Great-Aunt Lu and Great-Uncle John in Queens, N.Y. would have had, sans the perpetual stink of his cigars. Stiff, uncomfortable, less than visually appealing. No good.
The second stop: a piso in Argüelles, a district to the west. A hilarious 60-something woman and her 30-something daughter showed us the place. Great owners. But the flat? Small/cramped, especially for the requested rent. And again with the stiff, uncomfortable, ugly furnishings. No good. (The daughter called me afterward, we began going out. That, however, is another story.)
Third stop: a fairly elegant place on a lovely street near Alonso Martinez. Three blocks from the British Embassy, four or five blocks from the language school. Pricey, but more comfortable, with much more space. I went for it. We made an appointment to sign a lease on the afternoon of Saturday, the 9th of September.
I showed up for the signing pulling my monster wheeled duffel, meeting my realtor outside the building, ready to move in. When we entered the apartment, we found the owner had brought a friend. As a witness, apparently. Something about that set an odd vibe for the transaction, compounded when the owner's first move was to try to raise the rent, claiming he'd been getting rental offers for more than our agreed-upon amount. My realtor, I think, was as surprised as I was, but responded with extreme diplomacy. Possibly a better option than my outrage.
The piso had been billed as furnished which, according to Leslie's husband, meant that it had to have everything one would need to move right in and function normally. It had furniture, so I could move in and go to sleep or sit in the living room in a comfy chair and stare at the wall. Other items, however -- plates, glasses, pots/pans, dishrack, iron/ironing board, towels, television, etc. -- were notably absent.
My realtor haggled with the landlord, they eventually hammered out an agreement in which the rent did not go up. Papers got signed. The landlord said he'd send me an inventory for the flat to scribble my name on, went out and bought most of the missing basics, or at least the small-ticket items. Then they all buggered off, leaving me alone in my first Madrid apartment.
Other problems arose with that landlord, beginning with the seriously inaccurate inventory. Not that he was a bad guy. Could be he just didn't know how to handle the lessor/lessee dynamic in a way that communicated he actually gave a rat's ass. But the flat was spacious. Windows to the east and west allowed plenty of light. The master bedroom was roomy, with big windows, the living room long and comfortable, with floor-to-ceiling windows that gave out onto a small terrace overlooking the tree-lined street. For the time being, it worked.
The street: a combination of residential and business/restaurants, providing the bustle of people/commerce during the day, quiet at night. In the spring, when the swifts returned to Madrid for the warm season, there were weeks of them swooping over and between the buildings, calling continually back and forth. In the evenings, the birds disappeared, a few bats materialized, flying silently back and forth above the street.
The mornings began slowly, as they seem to here, the day getting underway between 8 and 10 a.m. To one side of my building lay a neighborhood grocery store where people went for baguettes, milk, fruit. To the other side: a bar/cafetería, attracting early morning customers for café y bolsos (coffee and sweet rolls) and big lunchtime crowds. Across the street were a computer shop, a clothes tienda, a hair-cutter's, a restaurant that only opened in the evenings.
At 2 p.m. the stores closed for lunch, announced by the screech of metal security screens coming down. The porteros of the various apartment buildings -- having spent the morning hours on duty, chatting with each other or with passersby -- disappeared inside for the midday meal. The entire spectrum of neighborhood workers, from executives and office employees to manual laborers of all stripes, poured in and out of eating establishments or passed by in loudly-talking groups. The sounds of the activity floated up four stories to my flat in a nicely soothing way. Between 4 and 5 p.m., businesses opened again, everyone returned to work, the lunch joints closed. Around eight, the screech of lowered security screens announced the day's end, the street quieted down.
There are an unbelievable number of vehicles in Madrid. I've been told that two-thirds of the cars in the country are in the capital -- an amazing statistic, if true. True or not, traffic is intense, especially during work hours. Double parking is a way of life. During my neighbourhood's workdays, in addition to a row of parked cars on either side of the street, a line of double-parked vehicles extends from one end of the block to the other, leaving a single narrow lane for passing traffic. When the drivers of legitimately-parked cars return, they begin beeping their horns in hopes that the drivers who have blocked them in will return and allow them to them leave. Surprisingly, that system seems to work reasonably well. I've never seen fights or shouting matches erupt from the parking situation, though people often have to sit in their vehicles for long periods, working the horn more and more emphatically.
That particular serenade is a part of life in this barrio, one I won't miss in my new flat. The street that runs in front of that building is one lane wide, providing no room for parking. On the other hand, one stopped car can produce a line of impatient vehicles in no time flat, resulting a chorus of braying horns -- briefer than the double-parking solos I've grown accustomed to, but more concentrated, with less show of civility.
On weekends, when many people leave Madrid, the neighborhood empties out, the pace of the days grow more leisurely (especially after 2 p.m. on Saturdays, the hour many businesses close until Monday). Until Sunday evening, that is, when everyone streams back into the city and empty parking spaces disappear once again.
I'm going to miss this street, this block. And I'll miss some things about the flat -- the way the sunlight moves from one side to the other, spilling into the living room around 10 a.m., withdrawing after a few hours to creep slowly around to the rear courtyard until it pours in the bedroom windows, finally withdrawing for the day when the early evening sun moves behind other buildings.
I'll miss the view out my bedroom window at night, the lit rectangles of other flats' windows shining softly in the darkness. I'll miss hearing the neighborhood come gradually to life in the mornings and quiet down in the evening. And I'm going to miss the floors of my piso. Parquet floors, beautifully finished so that they're not only pleasing to the eye, they're just slick enough that -- in socks, with a running start from the bedroom -- I can slide halfway across the living room. I'm going to miss the bentwood chairs and round dining table in the corner of the living room by the kitchen, where I've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours writing, going through e-mail, often with the radio providing a soundtrack of flamenco, jazz, classical, rock 'n' roll.
I'm going to miss all that. But it's time for a change.
Monday, September 03, 2001
This last Saturday found me following a well-worn trail, one taken by countless hordes of Spanish consumers: the inexpensive furniture pilgrimage out to one of Madrid's 'burbs, Alcorcón. The pilgrimage to Ikea. A trip on the metro, followed by rides on two different buses. All to get me to an enormous store 30-40 minutes outside of the city for a couple of hours' worth of trawling for chairs, lamps, etc. Shuffling along with hordes of Spaniards through two enormous floors of household STUFF, finally emerging out in the late summer sunlight (along with hordes of Spaniards), blinking in semi-stunned fashion, arms full of STUFF, feeling like I'd just spent two hours in a blender.
The odd thing: grueling though it was, I'd do it again. And may, this coming week
I'd never set foot in an Ikea store before this, though the company and I had a brief, gratifying mail-order flirtation a couple of years back, stateside. One that began when I encountered a chair at a yard sale, an extremely comfortable bentwood, slingback-style item. I parked myself in it, found it to be seductively comfortable, so much so that I found myself handing over $20, wrestling the chair into my car, dragging it up two flights of narrow stairs into my apartment. Where with time it became clear that this chair had been a steal, the most inspired use of a $20 bill I'd ever made.
A few months later, an Ikea catalogue mysteriously showed up in the mail. I flipped idly through it, unenthused, until I turned a page and found myself staring at my yard-sale chair. My wonderful $20 yard-sale find, sitting in someone else's living room. Whereupon I immediately ordered another. One that had never become intimate with another human's hind quarters prior to mine. And when it arrived -- white, inviting, radiantly clean and new -- I pulled it out of the packaging, put it together, sat myself carefully down in it. And found me totally seduced, to the point that I hardly ever used the yard-sale chair again, probably breaking its bentwood heart. (I got a matching footstool with the new one -- an excellent move that greatly enhanced my lounging hours.)
There are many things about my new piso that feel great. Some of the furnishings, however, were not designed with human comfort in mind. Especially the furnishings that will be hosting my butt during designated lounging hours. Hence I traveled to Ikea with an eye toward finding some slightly butt-friendlier items. And what did I find? That same bentwood, slingback chair. As comfortable as ever, and less than half the price than its catalogue counterpart in the States. Less than half the price. Waiting patiently for me, thousands of miles from northern Vermont, where its brethern (or sistern) are currently lounging about. Naturally, I and my butt were thrilled at this discovery and spent a fair amount of time reacquainting ourselves with this piece of designing genius.
It's an odd phenomenon, Ikea. My best friend once talked about going to a store somewhere in southern New York/northern New Jersey. He told me he found it depressing, that everything looked cheap, shabby. And I saw some of that during this recent Ikea field trip. But I also saw a furniture that I would happily buy and use, especially if I were part of a couple outfitting a new home. In a case like that, I suspect I'd lobby my sweetie re: buying a bunch of it.
The crowd at the store in Alcorcón seemed to consist almost exclusively of Spanish couples and families, the exception being me, the token single male. (Sniffle.) Couplehood and families seem so important to Spaniards, something that nearly always strikes me as endearing. I think they may do it better here than it's done in the States, but then maybe it's just that they haven't traveled as far as the States has re: women moving out into the workforce and experiencing their own freedom, with some of the repercussions that's had on the social structure. That's underway here, but is still a relatively recent development. It'll be interesting to see how they do with it, what kind of effect it will have. Three or four months back, the cover story for the Sunday magazine of the lefty newspaper El País was entitled "Who Needs A Husband?", featuring profiles of a number of successful Spanish careerwomen who'd chosen to remain single. This may not seem like a major deal to someone from the States, or at least to someone from the northeast U.S. or the west coast, but it's a serious change in the societal paradigm here.
They're beautiful, by the way, Spanish females. Interesting, lovely, all that. I saw a woman a few days back whose walk -- whose simple act of walking -- was so graceful, so relaxed and lovely, that for a moment it literally stopped me in my tracks.
But I digress. When Ikea spat me out into the intense late-afternoon sunlight, my hands and arms were full of STUFF I had to wrestle in and out of buses and the metro. A small price to pay for getting it all into the new space where it all looks absolutely bitchen.
As I was in Ikea on Saturday afternoon, when the place was heaving with Spaniards out to spend bunches of cash, there was no opportunity to latch onto a salesperson and flog them with my still-limited Spanish to the point that we could arrange for the purchase and delivery of actual furniture, STUFF I can't haul onto buses. We'll see if I get back out there this week to attempt that.
In the meantime, the moving life continues. Later this morning, the landlord of my current place will show up, we'll go through the piso together prior to me getting out of here. A process that will, if all goes well, be boring and uneventful.
Saturday, September 08, 2001
RETURN TO IKEA
That's right. Two days ago. Some parts of the process went smoothly, others less so.
Highlights? Well, the trip consists of a ride on the Metro to the station Principe Pío, where one grabs a bus to Alcorcón. There, one transfers to another bus, the #1, which eventually winds its way through the shopping fantasyland that's home to the Ikea megastore.
I made it to Alcorcón, got off the bus to wait for the #1. And waited. And waited. Then I waited some more. An hour and a half later I came to my senses, flagged down a taxi.
During that hour and a half, many people passed by -- on foot, waiting for buses or in cars. Including a small, European-make car containing four clowns. In full make-up. All staring straight ahead, motionless, expressions disturbingly serious. There one moment, gone the next.
I finally get to Ikea, as I'm making my way across the parking lot to the entrance, I notice a large sign that didn't register my first time through: 'Garantía de devolución.' Signifying, I imagine, either a guarantee re: sales returns or a guarantee that your purchases will devolve -- your choice. (Q: Are we not men? A: We are Devo.)
I find a person to help me order furniture. I pay for it, find a cart, find the furniture (boxed up in its component parts, as it must be put together at home), go through the check-out line, then go through the line to arrange delivery. Then I buy a few items I can carry, and make the return trip to Madrid with them. That night the furniture shows up.
My new neighborhood has narrow streets with high population density -- parking is tight. On my block in particular there is no parking at all, no room to pull over, and iron posts sunk into in the narrow sidewalk on both sides of the street to prevent any car from jumping the curb. Somehow the Ikea delivery guys found parking, loaded everything onto a cart, got it to my door and helped me wrestle it up four flights of stairs. (Another interesting feature of the new space: it's a fifth-floor walk-up.) When I handed them a thousand peseta bill (about $5.50 American), they looked surprised. It's a weird fact of life here that the Spaniards, generous in many ways, don't tip much. I'm told that Spanish manual laborers make better wages than their American counterparts, but we're still not talking an extravagant living. If they exert themselves as these guys did -- efficiently, with great attitudes -- they deserve something more.
But I babble.
I assembled the furniture (feeling suitably manly), the apartment continues to become a living space. Most of my stuff from the other flat is now here, with one significant omission -- the CD player/boombox. That arrives later today and should make a serious difference.
The difference between my old neighborhood and this one is dramatic, becoming apparent as soon as one crosses la calle Génova, the main drag that separates the two barrios. The old barrio (the southeast point of a district called Chamberí) was a neighborhood for people with money. The British Embassy lay a short three block walk from my building. The tree-lined streets were kept relatively clean (relatively -- the Madrileños toss a fair amount of garbage around), and apart from a nice sense bustle during business hours, it was pretty quiet. Once across la calle Génova, however, the trees disappear, the sidewalks narrow, there are more stores, most looking and feeling a bit less refined. As one continues moving deeper into Chueca, there's more evidence of nighttime drinking, the sidewalks are stained from years of harder life than those in my old barrio. The street noise become more insistent and continual. And as you approach la Plaza de Chueca, it becomes clear that you're not in Kansas any more.
Street life is much more the way of life here, especially around the plaza. As I sit in my piso, four floors up, there's a near constant murmur of noise from down below, punctuated by outbursts of one kind or another -- someone yelling or breaking into a bizarre fragment of song, cars passing or drivers leaning on their horns because someone's blocking the way, motorcycles or motorscooters, dogs barking. Now and then someone in another flat somewhere cranks up their stereo, something which never happened in the old barrio.
There are times when it feels strangely like living near the ocean, near a popular beach. And there's something oddly restful about that.
I have yet to sleep here, though. Last night in the old flat was one of those perfect autumn evenings -- nicely cool, with a fresh, understated breeze. Quiet. Conditions that promote deep sleep for me. Tomorrow night will be my first night here in the new place I suspect it may be a whole different experience.
Re: the walk here from the old neighborhood -- after crossing la calle Génova and heading down the side street in this direction, I pass a small tienda that sells women's wear. This week they've had a hand-scrawled sign in the window that reads:
(Literally: attention, they lowered the panties -- undoubtedly meaning a drop in prices.)
One other thing -- twice now I've seen a car parked around the corner from here with identical Simpsons t-shirts pulled down over the two front seats, as if the seats were wearing 'em. The shirts read "Like father like son," showing Bart and Homer giving the peace sign -- Bart to us, Homer with his hand behind Bart's head, giving him horns.
The Simpsons -- they're everywhere.
Sunday, September 09, 2001
In the new flat. Finally.
Spent last night in the old place in that wonderful bed. Slept lightly, woke frequently. Watched the glowing windows of flats off across the courtyard -- people here stay up REAL damn late -- and as the first grey light of the day slipped down between the buildings, I gave thanks for the things I've enjoyed and appreciated about the space that served as home for this last year. Of which there were plenty, from the list I've already cited to things like the second bedroom, which enabled me to offer a squat to friends or other students I met at school who needed a place to stay.
Got to my feet around eight, packed the last stuff, cleaned the place up (even defrosted the freezer -- don't know what the hell came over me there as it didn't need much attention). Brought my monster wheeled duffel to the new place, lugged it up the five flights to the flat. Went back for the TV, got the meter readings for the water/gas, said adios to the portero, Alberto. Grabbed a taxi back to the new place, lugged the TV upstairs, went out, got the paper, searched for a cup of espresso.
I find a place whose doors are open, producing plenty of noise. I walk in to find 10, maybe 12 males along with one harassed-looking woman behind the bar trying to keep up with chaos. To my left are tables, three or four of which are taken, all the occupied chairs situated well away from the tables so that it's impossible to get through to the empty expanse of bar off to that side. I try to edge through, no one moves despite my polite requests of 'perdon.' It becomes clear that they're determined to ignore me, I finally give up. Three men occupy the little bit of bar space I can reach, the only vacant square-inchage is directly ahead. I start to move in that direction, the person at the bar in front of me turns around, I see it's a male/female -- this is Chueca, after all, Madrid's version of Greenwich Village. Tight pants, shirt open all the way down the front with a form-fitting something underneath, heavily made-up, blonde, wearing a hairnet. In about three-tenths of a second I see the guy, he turns around, his eyes settling on me. Something about his energy doesn't feel good, I obey an impulse to veer off to the right, find a microscopic space for myself at the end of the bar. The guy to my left looks over at me a tad suspiciously, maybe because of my sudden appearance. I say, 'Hola,' he responds with a less-than-enthusiastic, 'Hola,' before turning his attention back to his café.
There's sudden yelling and pounding -- one table, occupied by four 60ish men embroiled in a card game, is undergoing an outburst of controversy about something. The shouting continues, two players smiting the table with thick, emphatic hands. Everyone's gesturing strongly, though no one seems to be looking at any of the others; they're too busy emoting. That subsides, I get a chance to order some decaf. Turns out they don't make it by machine (de máquina) here, they only have instant. I order a cup of high-test instead, start looking over the paper. A sudden commotion starts up over to my left. The she-male has caused some kind of a ruckus, all activity's stopping to check it out as s/he and the woman behind the bar go back and forth. Apparently s/he has no money to pay her/his tab, she finally leaves, no one tries to stop him.
My espresso arrives shortly thereafter, I get a bit of time to become one with the present moment. I find myself suspecting that I won't be returning to that particular bar for a tranquil cup of cafe with any real frequency.
I'm now back in the new piso. Looking around at the post-move mess, girding up to take a swing at creating a living space out of it all. Even though I arranged this move so that it happened gradually and easily, finding myself where I am at the end of it all has me feeling a touch disoriented. That'll pass, I know. I think this is the first time in this lifetime that I've done a move entirely by myself -- everything, all the details, the whole wazoo, including dragging all my possessions up five flights of stairs. In a furren country, no less.
The bells of a small local church just finished ringing. It's a beautiful Sept. Sunday morning.
On to the day.
On the walk back to the old apartment last night, another difference between the two barrios made itself apparent. The residents of the old neighborhood tend to have money -- more money, I suspect, than the average resident of these narrow streets. Way more money. Over the course of this last year, I've noticed that for many Madrileños having money means they also have a house, flat or cabin outside the city -- in the mountains, on the coast, in a pueblo somewhere. So that they often get out of Madrid on the weekends. Which meant that, come Friday night, my old neighborhood emptied out, leaving people-free sidewalks and long, lonely lengths of street, devoid of parked vehicles. An area that got extremely quiet on the weekends -- at times almost comatose.
This neighborhood, on the other hand -- a sizeable portion of whose population is young, active and ready for action -- attracts people on the weekends, so that come Friday and Saturday it gets mighty active in these parts. Plenty of people, lots of noise.
A serious contrast.
From an e-mail sent to friends last summer, 25 days after arriving in Madrid:
Two strange sightings and a strange hearing you should know about:
1) Seen on the subway a couple of weekends ago: a diminutive middle-aged male, probably in his 50s, exceptional-looking in no way apart from his lack of exceptional looks. The only physical aspect that stood out in any small way: thick eyebrows, giving him a slightly more intent air than he already had. He sat holding a cassette player. Not a boombox -- one of those little, low-fi players that have been around for many years, the kind that often get used in classrooms. When I entered the car, I heard music -- faint enough that it sounded like it might have been coming out of the car's PA system. Marching band music. And gradually realized it was this guy, sitting there holding his little cassette player up in front of his chest, his expression strangely concentrated, almost determined.
Marching band music. Judging by their expressions, the people around me in the train were not completely at ease with the
2) The gym I go to plays a local commercial radio station, one that trades mostly in Hispanic or euro pop, spiked with the occasional English language song. Twice now, I've been in the middle of a workout when they've played an English-language number whose refrain goes something like:
"The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire;
we don't need any water, let the motherfucker burn.
Burn, motherfucker, burn."
[Fire Water Burn -- The BloodHouse Gang.]
3) Walking through a long, narrow north-south street in the city center today, la Calle de Horteleza, I passed a store with a couple of life-sized mannequins in the window. By itself, not strange. Someone, however, had put a life-sized Krusty the Klown head on one of them, along with a t-shirt featuring Otto the school bus driver, and South Park gym shorts whose crotch had clearly been stuffed with something fairly sizeable.
An interesting image, standing out from the general old-world look of the neighborhood the way loudly cackling potheads might stand out in a refined Viennese café.
Monday, October 15, 2001
During my fourth year of life, my parents bought land on the Hudson River, thirty minutes north of Albany, New York. About halfway between New York City and the Canadian border. At that time, out in the middle of nowhere. Two acres of woods, with more of the same on two sides of our parcel -- a barrier of thickly overgrown land to the north, maybe 100 feet across, that extended from the river all the way up to the two-lane that formed the western boundary of our land; to the south a small section of wooded terrain extended out to a point (called The Point) marking our side of an inlet that narrowed, becoming a creek, bisecting the property from north to south. On the far side of the creek: marshlands, then more woods, spreading uphill to the road. The river provided the eastern property line.
Felt like a lot of land, and for us, in those times, probably was. No electricity, no plumbing. Drinking water came from a well by means of a hand-pump. A radical change from the life I'd had known up to then, in our small house in the 'burbs on Long Island.
That first summer my father and two brothers -- both brothers substantially older than me -- built a small cabin that became the center of what passed for indoor life during our annual ten or eleven week stay. Soon after that, the family picked up a small powerboat, I gradually became accustomed to river life.
Though the Hudson at that particular point is nowhere near the gigantic expanse it becomes down near Nyack and Tarrytown, it is still undeniably a major river, wide, deep, funnelling a huge amount of water through the valley. More than a river -- a presence, a force of nature.
The section we lived on was the first length of the so-called Champlain Barge Canal. About a mile south of us lay falls where the river widened, where a lock had been built on the near side, flood gates erected on the other side, a spillway stretching between the two, water pouring over it into a sizeable natural basin of whitewater and islands before collecting itself into a proper river again, heading south past Troy and Albany.
A half mile north of us on the other side of the river lived a man I only remember being called Yaybo, a character with a friendly, weathered face in his 50's or 60's -- inconceivably old to me at that time. He had a plot of land with trees, no neighbors that I remember, and a fine view of the river, where he passed the warm season in a teepee. I can't remember any other structures on his property, though there must have been some.
He had worked on the dredging of the channel and seemed well known to area folk. Frequently, when tugboats with barges went by they'd sound their airhorns -- if he was there he'd emerge from the teepee, returning the greeting with a long, relaxed wave of an extended arm. I don't know if he was actually of Native American extraction -- might be he was or it might be he was just a colorful, eccentric individual with an affinity for the Indian image -- but when locals went by in powerboats, they would often call out a greeting in a way that sounds unbelievably hokey now -- cupping hands around mouth to make a kind of stereotypical Indian call, going "Woo-woo-woo-woo-Yay-bo!" I remember him being well-liked, with no disparaging tones to these salutes. I remember seeing him emerge from his teepee to stand and wave. And I remember the sense of disappointment the times we would pass by and receive no response to our call.
I also remember a few times out in the boat with my father or one of my brothers when we stopped to visit. Protocol dictated that visitors call out a greeting some distance from shore -- if Yaybo appeared in response, we'd then head in to his landing, my father or brother exchanging hellos and joking inquiries with him re: health and life before pulling in, tying the boat up. I don't remember him ever refusing a visit.
In my memories, he lived a simple life, having little in terms of property or amenities. And although we also lived a simple life compared to our existence down on Long Island, he had far less in the way of possessions, his lifestyle appearing, to my unworldly eyes, spartan, unadorned in a way that seemed alien. So that I always felt a bit like a fish out of water during stopovers. He was always friendly, always warm, a genuinely likeable person, yet I don't think I ever managed to feel truly at ease with him, and I'm not sure I ever provided him much in the way of conversational entreé.
Inside the teepee, I remember a kettle suspended over a fire from a wooden tripod, in which beans usually simmered. He offered me a taste one time, the plat du jour being navy beans. I think I politely, timidly refused, which simply exasperates me now. What the hell was I so nervous about? You just don't meet amazing people like that every day -- this man was probably a walking repository of wonderful stories and experiences, and for whatever reasons I couldn't come out of my little shell to hook up with him.
Yaybo. An interesting person.
Friday, March 1, 2002
During my first evening here in the summer of 2000, Leslie -- sister of my best friend's wife, married to a Spanish attorney, now living in this part of the world for something like 19 years -- took me out for tapas. Not a carousing binge. She didn't have that kind of time, I was jet-lagged. More of a brief intro to Madrid's nightlife.
Going out like that in Madrid is a joy. The city is positively heaving with eating and drinking establishments, and the people go out and enjoy them. It's part of the way of life, and it's a pretty good way of life.
So we're in Leslie's car, flying down wide boulevards at genuinely high velocity (another part of the way of life here: driving fast and wild). We insinuate our way into a happening section of the city center through a maze of narrow one-way streets, Leslie even manages to scare up a parking spot –- the fact that it was July 31st, half the population away on vacation, probably helped. We walk a couple of blocks, she leads me to a little joint, an old, well-established place, small but loaded with atmosphere, the display cases on the bar packed with tapas of all kinds. We're ordering, I'm checking everything out. I notice garbage all over the floor. And I mean garbage. All over the floor. Wadded-up napkins, food remnants, cigarette butts. Leslie returns from the bar with a couple of plates of stuff, I ask about the refuse display. Her eyes widen, she laughs, realizing I'm new to all this, explains that it's the custom here. In bars, taverns, tapas joints, people toss their trash on the floor. It tends to accumulate in mounds near the foot of the bar and off to the sides, periodically it gets swept up or at least arranged into more compact mounds. It's just what they do. It's not only what they do, people apparently often judge the desirability of a tapas joint by the amount of refuse strewn around the floor, the theory being that more trash indicates a busier place (the implication: busy = good). Or so I've been told.
I adjusted to this surprisingly quickly, same way I adjusted to cigarette smoke in bars and restaurants. But things are changing. Since the turn of this year, many places have installed small trash containers (cubos de basura), either on the floor inside the foot rail at the bottom of the bar or screwed to the surface of the bar itself. Enough people have been using them that I see far less trash strewn around than I used to. Maybe it's an organized attempt to project a more sophisticated image to the international community. A more urbane picture, something more befitting a global power.
I've become accustomed enough to the cleaner state of these joints that flagrant examples of old-style trash-dropping conduct now stand out. Example: me, in a neighborhood joint a few weeks back. La Cafetería Vic-Mar, a local version of what would be called a greasy-spoon in the States. Not refined or genteel. But fun, clientele a bit wilder, more colorful than your normal joint. And the place does good, thick soups.
I'm sitting there one afternoon wading through lunch, a rumpled, loud 60-something couple is seated at a table about eight feet away from me, finishing up their meal. He's working on a cigarette, his wife is finishing up her food -- when the butt gets down to the last puff, the guy doesn't just drop it to the floor, he flicks it several feet away in a lazy arc that lands near the cafetería's entrance, tossing off a couple of sparks when it touches down and bounces to a stop. It had been a while since I'd seen something like that in a public eating place here, so it caught my attention. No one else seemed to notice. A few minutes later, that couple finished up and bolted, their table remained vacant. Within minutes, a younger type sitting at the bar finished up a cigarette, flicking it off in a grand arc like the older guy had done. Or trying to flick it off in a grand arc, not quite making it. Instead of winging its way to open floor, the butt jerked two or three feet through air to land on the chair the previous butt-flicker had occupied, bouncing, tossing off sparks then coming to rest. The chairs in this place are decent hand-caned jobs, smoke began rising from the chair almost immediately as the cane started to smolder. The butt-flicker's eyes widened, he threw himself at the unintended combustion as discretely as he could manage, wiping the butt off the seat to the floor where it slowly went out.
No one seemed to notice, no one said anything.
The Spaniards aren't always as easygoing as this. Observe a busy intersection at rush hour, you'll see what I mean. But when it comes to tapas bars and the like, it's much more tranquil. The food, the drinks, the conversation are too important to sweat the small stuff.
I like that. I'll miss it.
Tuesday, April 9, 2002
A milder day -- foggy, misty, at times rainy. Looking north up the valley, only the ridges of the hills are visible as uneven lines of treetops. Between 50-something temperatures and falling moisture, the remaining patches and banks of accumulated snow are fading, white giving way to green.
This afternoon: went down the hill to visit Maurice and Kay. (Spelled Maurice, pronounced Morris.) Mo's family has lived here in East Calais for generations, he's the dictionary definition of a local boy. Eighty years old, went to school in a one-room schoolhouse over on the other side of the hill (the schoolhouse still there, now a residence). Mo and Kay live in a small home tucked up against a rise in the land, set right out by the gravel road that runs up and over the hill. A place with a bit of Appalachia about it: old furniture on the L-shaped porch, an old, rickety, doorless double garage, both containing mounds of stuff -- even more now since the chimney fire they had just before the holidays -- including a varnished board on which are mounted several sets of antlers.
Mo's a hunter, has been one all his life. He set traps as a kid, would check them during the hike to and from the schoolhouse. He has a Chevy pick-up truck that he adores, during hunting season he drives with a rifle on the seat next to him, covered by his jacket. He loves fishing, loves being out on the water for hours at a time. He loves being out in the woods. Just before I left, we went outside to take a look at his ATV. This 80-year-old character bought the bugger because he can't stand not being able to get to places off in fields and wooded land that his increasingly infirm legs no longer can take him to. "I told Kay," he said, "when I go, it's not going to be in a wheelchair in front of a TV. I want to be out in the woods."
I get it. The woods here are beautiful and they go on and on and on -- for many miles, depending on where you are.
This morning: me standing at my front window, looking down the slope of the hill. Noticed something moving through the brush, visible now in a way it won't be in a month or so, once everything has greened up. From the way it walked, from the movement of its body and tail, I thought it was a cat. It threaded its way slowly, steadily through the bare brush in the direction of the road. On an impulse, I got out a pair of binoculars and trained them on it as it approached the road. Turned out to be a fox, a fair-sized one, with a big, bushy, white-tipped tail. It traveled quickly up the slope to the road, paused there to look around, smelling the air. Then it slipped across the gravel lane and under the cover of the trees, making its way up the steep grade of the hill and out of sight.
I'm not in Madrid any more.
Thursday, July 4, 2002
A short while ago: me, sitting here at the dining room table, noticing that clouds had rolled in, that the breeze had disappeared. The local weather forecasters have warned of thunderstorms later today, the phrase "the calm before the storm" drifted through my thoughts. Which got me thinking about something my sister-in-law had once described to me, from her younger years in Indianapolis, when the air had turned green before a tornado passed through. And that got me remembering a late afternoon/early evening when I was 13 or 14 years old and saw the air turn green.
Happened in April on Long Island, where my family lived during the school year. Must have been April -- the warm season hadn't quite asserted itself but the weather had become mild, and though this event took place around 6 p.m. there was still plenty of light. Clouds had made their way in earlier that afternoon, the neighborhood was quiet, quieter than you'd expect it to be at that time of the day, with people arriving home from work, the parkways and main drags congested with traffic.
I'd been in our teeny house, happened to glance out the living room window where I saw the air had turned a strange, almost luminescent shade of green. The kind of soft green that I associate with the upsurge of fresh new growth as spring settles in and the world gradually grows warmer. Except that this was the air itself, shining with a muted radiance that made everything look different -– soft, fresh, mysterious.
I stepped out of the house into my suddenly unfamiliar neighborhood, walked to the corner, where I found Peter Opramolla staring around at the amazing display. Just him and me, no one else. The air had transformed itself yet people weren't running out into the street to gaze about, call back and forth across small front lawns about the strangeness of it all. In fact, the neighborhood seemed uncharacteristically quiet, which just reinforced the odd, hushed, heightened quality of the event.
Peter was two years older, with a mature, self-contained air. We ran in vastly different circles, knew each other hardly at all. And we got to talking, began getting acquainted, one of the first instances in this lifetime of mine when someone older spent time with me like that. The air shone softly around us, a distinct, luminous green that gradually faded as we talked, growing more and more muted until we found ourselves standing out in an ordinary overcast evening, when we finally said so long and returned to our respective homes.
The overcast here on my hilltop in northern Vermont has lightened a bit, though thunder rumbles faintly off in the distance. The color green is all around, just about everywhere but in the air. Being out here away from towns/villages, there's been no real sense that it's July 4th. No crowds of people, no fireworks, no sounds of barbecues or games of softball. I'll be heading into Montpelier later to go to a film. The town's official July 4th activities took place yesterday evening, but there'll be people around, there'll be restaurants open, there'll be families out walking and ice cream and red, white and blue bunting.
Have a good holiday.
Wednesday, August 14, 2002
Well. I am not making the following story up.
During my 20 months (more or less) in Madrid, I had someone housesitting here in my little hilltop fiefdom. A good person, a hyper-conscientious woman named Kit. Capable, consistent, reliable. Not given to flights of fancy. After she'd been in the house about a week, she experienced something many might consider pure nonsense.
First, the layout of the house. The structure: long, rectangular -- the kind of building that might be called a raised ranch. At this moment I'm sitting in the top floor at the eastern end of the building, the end containing the main living spaces: the kitchen, the dining room, the living room -- three conjoined rooms more or less arranged in the shape of a U. A hallway begins at the inner corner of the living room, running straight down the center of the house from there, away from the main living spaces toward the building's west end. At the point where the hallway abuts the living room a stairway begins, descending to a landing and the front door. From there a second flight of stairs extends down to the lower level of the house. You don't need to know anything about the lower level just yet.
Back in the upper level, the hallway stretches away from the living room, passing first the bathroom on the left, then two small bedrooms, situated across the hallway from each other. Kit stayed in one of those two bedrooms, the one to the front of the house, facing the amazing view this place has. That's all you need to know about the top floor.
So. About a week into her stay here. Nighttime. Kit's in bed, the light on. Reading, thinking. The house is quiet. Until Kit hears the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs. The bedroom door is six feet or so from the stairs, the footsteps did not sound distant. A second person was in the house, climbing the stairs, approaching the top landing, the hallway, Kit's room.
Kit lived alone here. That night she had locked the outside doors before heading to bed. No one else should have been in the building, no one should have been coming up the stairs.
After a moment of confusion and frightened surprise, Kit got to her feet. The footsteps stopped. She hurried out of the bedroom, turned on the hallway light, turned on the stairway light. No sign of an intruder, no sound of anyone moving, nothing. She may have gone downstairs to check the door to the garage, finding it locked, just as she had left it. She went back upstairs, turned out the lights, got back into bed. The sound of feet ascending the steps began again.
This went on for a while -- she'd get up, the sound would stop; she'd go back to bed, it would start up all over again. Finally, she had a talk with herself -- she knew no one else was in the house, she knew that whatever was going on couldn't hurt her. She managed to settle down, eventually fell asleep. The next day she found no sign of anything out of the ordinary in the house. The next night the footsteps did not return, she never experienced them again. She never told anyone about the experience, including me.
Shortly after my return from Madrid, I lay in bed one morning. Alone in the house, early a.m., all the outside doors locked. Somewhere off in the house -- sounding like it came from downstairs -- a door closed. Not slammed -- closed with a solid, firm impact. I felt it more than heard it if you know what I mean, the way you can feel when someone walks from one room to another in a lower floor of a house, the way you can hear a door close. Feeling the vibration of it through the floor, through the bed, in addition to the distant sound. My eyes opened -- I lay still, listening. I got up, went downstairs, found the door to the garage locked as I'd left it the night before. The other doors on the lower level -- to the bathroom, the toolroom, the guest room, the large rec. room where the coal stove sits in front of the fireplace -- were all open, exactly as they normally are.
This was early April, still late winter here. No windows were open, no errant breeze was at work anywhere in the house.
Kit stopped by a day or two later to drop off her set of keys. In passing, I told her about the door closing. She stared ahead as I spoke, then shifted her gaze to me, the words tumbling from her mouth, telling me about the footsteps on the stairs. She then said that Mo, my downhill neighbor (a relative term here -- Mo's house sits almost quarter mile away, across the road from the extreme downhill corner of my plot) had mentioned to her one time that someone in this house had fallen down the stairs and been killed. First I'd heard of it. This house is 30 years old, during its three decades it's had several owners. I had no idea who the original owners were, neither did Kit. We puzzled over the story a bit, then dropped it.
Every now and then I hear odd noises in the house. Not the refrigerator, not the furnace, not the water pump, not something outside. Not the house reacting to the long hours of direct sunlight or cooling off at night. Nothing big, nothing threatening or truly creepy. Nothing that feels malignant. Just odd, clear, distinct sounds, every now and then -- the kind of sounds that another person might make, the incidental sounds produced by someone else in one's living space. It gets my attention, makes me wonder.
I stopped in to say a quick hello to Mo and his wife Kay today. Mo has lived in this town his entire life, his family has been here for generations. He and Kay have resided in their small house a large portion of their nearly 60 years of marriage. I asked him about what he'd told Kit, he confirmed the story: the wife of the first couple to live in this house -- a woman named Mary -- had fallen down the stairs and been killed. I told them about Kit's experience with the footsteps, which came as news -- Kit is much closer with Mo and Kay than with me, but had never mentioned it to them. Maybe because she expected the kind of reaction Kay displayed: disbelief. I told them about the door closing, about the odd sounds I occasionally hear around the place. They laughed nicely at it all and didn't really seem to know what to say, though Kay appeared to find the death that happened here a touch mysterious -- she'd been in this house once and didn't think the stairs covered enough distance to be lethal in a fall.
So there you have it. I seem to be living in a, er, haunted house. Not a highly active one, not a disruptive one (I've never experienced anything as dramatic as Kit has) -- mostly polite, well-mannered. Inoffensive. But still.
Who knows there may be perfectly logical explanations for it all. It's possible. I haven't encountered them yet, but that doesn't mean they're not out there.
In the meantime, the summer goes on, the days slipping rapidly by. The house feels pretty good in the middle of it all. That's all I care about.
Tuesday, April 01, 2003
I'm scaring myself. Woke up this morning with the song Dear Abby' by John Prine going through my head. Got up, bumbled my way to the bathroom to dump the ballast, bumbled my way back to bed. Somewhere in there the song changed from Dear Abby' to Wild Tyme*,' a Jefferson Airplane tune. What, I ask myself, is happening to me? (So far no answer has been forthcoming.)
*Not a bad tune, actually, from, 'After Bathing At Baxter's,' a driving, slightly anarchic kick in the butt. Recorded before their descent into far lamer territory. Not a bad song to have on a repeat loop in one's head (if one has to have a repeat loop going in one's head).
On the other hand, as I write this a latin tune I heard on the radio this afternoon has been cycling around my little brain. Better.
So. My mother (see the end of yesterday's entry) -- a genuine character. (My working definition of character for purposes of that last sentence: a colorful individual who may be more fun to talk about after the fact than live with.)
In their later years, my parents did the Florida thing, tiring of northeastern winters and taking refuge way down south, settling along the state's mid-Atlantic coast, maybe an hour from Canaveral. For a while that meant driving back and forth with the warm and cold seasons, the snowbird routine. As they grew more infirm, it meant being trapped in the house for much of Florida's long hot season due to extreme heat and humidity, or at least getting into a headset where they believed they had to be. They were well on in years when they had me -- I was, I think, an unplanned event (so much for the rhythm method) -- to the point where I never knew my father without white hair. When they finally, each in their turn, plummeted off the twig, they were WELL on in years.
As those last years slipped by, my mother grew smaller and smaller, eating so little that she finally became bird-like, a teeny little human, less and less capable of taking care of herself though firmly intent on dominating her living space and as much of her life as she could, determined to finish out her life in her own home, not in a nursing facility.
Both my brother and I lived in the northeast, 1200 miles away. Just about far enough. And although I mean that last sentence, I smile as I write it because I came to feel real affection for that character my mother morphed into over time. She developed some fairly extreme ways of thinking and methods of dealing with life, and although it could be a challenge to spend more than a couple of days in her company, watching her deal in the ways she developed and giving her the occasional gentle elbow in the ribs about it (to which she usually responded with laughter) was fun. The family sense of humor was one of its great saving graces, and that impulse to make each other cackle carried us through a lot of passages that might otherwise have become truly suffocating with their heaviness.
In late April of 2000, when I'd made the decision to come to Madrid, I flew down to Florida to spend a weekend with my mother, the last time I'd see her before heading off to Europe for who knew how long. I chose not to tell her about Madrid until I was there with her because I knew it would be a major chunk of news for her to digest, meaning as it did that I would be far, far away. A world away, to her, never having crossed the ocean. (Or gone west of the Mississippi, for that matter.) Meaning, in a sense, that what little nuclear family she had left would be whittled down to my brother in New York State. And when I sat down by her customary perch in her living/dining area and told her, it was clearly a major bit of information, a clump of data that made her go silent and stare ahead.
She'd gone through some medical emergencies in her last years, including a stroke or two that left the use of one side of her body tremendously diminished. She tired with little exertion, she needed a walker to move around the house, used a cane whenever she ranged about outside, walking at a snail's pace. In fact, she rarely left her last home there on Lake Fairgreen Circle (situated in a community built around a golf course, a game neither of my parents played), life being simpler, less tiring if she simply remained inside the relatively safe confines of her little dominion, comfortably crowded (to her) as it was with memories and the accumulation of material stuff. One of the things I tried to do, therefore, when I was down visiting, was to get her out of the house, drive her places she might enjoy. Restaurants, other towns, locations with lots of sunlight, with views.
On my last full day of that April visit, I got her out of the house and into the car, took us out on one of the east-west four-lanes that cross the inland waterway, heading toward the Oswego, near the lake, loved them and, I suspect, missed them. I don't think she'd seen anything like this scene for quite a while and enjoyed it deeply.
She grew quickly tired after that, I drove her back to her house by the golf course. The next day I flew back north and continued getting ready to come to Madrid.
Two months later, my brother flew down with my niece and nephew to spend a few days with Mom. Between the four of us, she got to see those individuals she'd wanted most to connect with one more time. And with that (and having achieved her goal of living out her life in her own home), I think she felt ready to leave behind the limited existence her life had gradually morphed into. Shortly before my brother was to return north, she checked out. Her lungs suddenly filled with fluid, she passed quickly away.
I'm not sure that I've thought of that scene at the National Seashore since then, until I saw the two horses at la Plaza de España yesterday. Suddenly there it all was -- one more memory waiting to blossom into a recollection so vivid it almost becomes three-dimensional.
Life. It's something to savor -- now, instead of waiting until you're about to check out. Know what I mean?
Monday, October 27, 2003
Saturday: drove to Burlington, found my way to the Fletcher Allen health care facility, where Kay, one of my downhill neighbors, is receiving treatment. I found her in a two-patient unit on the fourth floor, the room's occupants separated by a white curtain. Kay had the bed by the window -- as I moved into the room, her eyes took me in and her face settled into a smile, an expression of quiet radiance.
She lay on her back, head cushioned by two white pillows, the sheets on the bed white, her hair a white corona around the thin oval of her face. Her body had grown even slighter than her normal slender state (which is saying something), the muscles on her arms had withdrawn beneath the skin so that the flesh hung loosely. And yet she shone, with a loveliness I'd never seen in her before, as if during the course of this possibly life-ending experience she'd released her grasp on the things she often worried and fretted over, surrendering to a situation that had pulled her out of her home, her normal routines, her accustomed ways of seeing the world and reacting to life. The smile on her face was not tinged with emotions that often seemed to play about her features in the time I'd known her -- frustration, restlessness, fragility. Instead, it hinted at a genuine appreciation of her existence, her situation, the people in her life.
I pulled a chair over to the side of her bed and sat down. She laid a hand on my arm, I put a hand over hers. And she talked, easily, the words coming as if she had plenty to say, as if this last week or two had been a hell of a time, a period in which she'd experienced amazing things. She couldn't speak loudly, her words sometimes became inaudible -- I'd lean closer, I'd concentrate, I'd lean closer still, but the ambient hospital noise overrode her in those moments. Asking her to speak up only provoked efforts that seemed to strain her physically, with little result, so I simply listened, letting her volume fall and rise as it would.
She told me about having cancer, about being the only person in her family to have developed it. She related the tests that resulted in the diagnosis, about the treatments, about the medicines that had brought physical relief, about being unable to use her legs (that last the product of a tumor pressing on her spine). She told me about the experience of being brought to the medical center near Montpelier, then to this hospital in Burlington. She talked about her husband, Mo, about her kids, about nieces, nephews, grandkids. She spoke about growing up on a farm, about living here in northeastern Vermont.
And during all this, I was struck by her distinct resemblance to my mother, or at least to the version of my mother I saw during her final days. Her hair, her features, the overall look of her shrinking body, of her arms and, in particular, of her hands. That last really caught my eye -- my mother had distinctive hands, with long, expressive fingers. It felt strange to find myself in contact with a pair of hands so reminiscent of the maternal ones, in a situation so reminiscent of the last times I'd seen my family's material figure.
My mother's final months were not exactly a peaceful time, her not being exactly what might be described as a peaceful individual, though the physical limitations of her last years calmed things a bit. She was accustomed to worry, indeed seemed to hold tenaciously to a lifestyle of worry, believing this world to be packed with danger, with the need to be alert, vigilant. Much of her basic take on things tended not to encourage serenity or restfulness. Her prime method of coping: try to control as much of her world as she could, to impose her will on as many elements of it as possible -- an approach that consumes energy and results in poor, fitful sleep. Which did not deter her from sticking to her customary m.o.
She struggled, she sometimes seemed to wrestle with a deep, hard disappointment in life. But she hung in there. She took care of herself as best she could, and she lived in her own home right up until her passing. (Down in Florida, a long way from the rest of the family, but still her own place -- paid for, under her control.) And at the end, at what many would consider a ripe old age, she waited until she'd seen the people most important to her -- me one weekend, my brother, my niece and nephew a few weeks later. And then she let go and passed over, suddenly, quickly, her lungs abruptly filling with liquid, her system packing it in, giving out.
Within 24 hours of her death, I felt her around. Or, for those who might cock an eyebrow at that kind of notion, I felt a vivid energy around me that I could only describe as hers. Happier, more curious and enthusiastic about everything than I'd ever known her to be.
Think what you will about it, that was my experience.
Kay mentioned that she didn't think she would be going home. Both she and her husband, Mo, had told me it was possible she would be leaving the hospital this week, moving to a nursing facility not far from here in Barre, Montpelier's working-class neighbor city. That prospect seemed to please her. Beyond that, time will tell.
After an hour, Kay's lunch arrived, hospital staff materializing to set up the tray and move Kay to a sitting position, working in friendly, exceedingly kind fashion. I left at that point, finding my way out of the building into a crisp, gray day, thinking. Absorbing a lot of input. Heading off to spend the afternoon with a friend, for a walk around a lake, in woods still full of color, a nice contrast to the late autumn look prevalent in this corner of the state.
This life of ours -- it packs a punch.
[continued in next entry]
Thursday, November 06, 2003
The last several days: gray, wet, cold. Overcast, temperatures in the low to mid-30s. Rain falling through much of it, fog coming and going. All of which has its own beauty in this rural, mountainous country -- fall colors long vanished, the landscape now a blend of browns, grays, greens. Vermont, late autumn, winter not far off.
On Tuesday, the lying bastards in the local weather service predicted that yesterday would bring sunlight and higher temperatures. Yesterday, when that didn't pan out, they predicted the same thing in stronger terms for today. When I woke up in this morning's pre-dawn hours, a glance out a window showed a few lonely stars shining through thinning cloud cover. Thin enough that the daylight hours brought some actual sunshine. Wan, diffuse, thin, but still sunshine. For a short, fleeting while anyway. Then the cold gray reasserted itself. No rain, though, for which I'm grateful.
Tuesday morning I hung out with my downhill neighbor, Mo, for a while. His wife, Kay -- in the hospital with cancer a couple of weeks back [see entry of October 27] -- passed on last Thursday night. Since then, Mo's had plenty of folks around, family and friends, keeping him company through this major life passage. I stopped by during a lull in the activity, no one there but Mo and his two small dogs, Sally and Corky. Sally: a fat beagle who has Mo wrapped around one of her little, er, toes; Corky: a smaller pooch, maybe a Chow -- thick reddish-brown fur; small, bright black eyes; pointy ears, a pointy snout. Kind of cute, not terribly bright. Mo dotes on them both, they dote on him and take advantage when they can -- especially Sally, running off whenever she can manage it to cavort around the hill here for an hour before returning home, pantingly happy, free of shame/guilt.
It's an odd phenomenon: Mo is a hunter, has been for most of his 80+ years. Loves to hunt, will go after just about anything that runs, flies or swims. Except his two designated companion critters: a half-bright carouser and a half-dim lap dog.
Considering the turns his recent existence has taken -- getting a knee replaced four or five weeks ago; Kay coasting suddenly downhill healthwise, getting diagnosed with cancer, spending a week in health care facilities before making a graceful exit from this mortal coil scant days after their 60th wedding anniversary -- Mo seems to be doing all right. (He is as close to being indestructible as any human being I've ever met, and I sometimes think that after everyone else here on the hill lives out their days and topples over, he'll still be tooling around on his ATV, shooting squirrels off our headstones.) He wasn't ebullient, he wasn't prancing about in joy, but he was all right. Able to talk about the impact of Kay's passing on his life, able to talk about other things, able to laugh when the conversation turned to subjects that warranted laughter.
It turns out Mo and Kay had agreed that they would both be cremated, their remains mixed together in a double urn which would then be buried. Which means that Kay's ashes will reside in that urn in Mo's living room until he punches out. It turns out, he said, that not everyone in his family cares for that, and he doesn't care. He's got the urn, her ashes are in it, and that's how things will remain until he drops off the twig and they toss his body into the fire. At which point the rest of the plan will go into effect and their names will jointly grace a headstone poking up out of a bit of Vermont countryside.
I'll say this: Mo, at 82 or so years of age, is healthier, clearer, more mobile than either of my parents were when their respective odometers showed that kind of mileage. He's a crusty, capable old guy, and as far as I'm concerned he should enjoy the rest of his 3-D tenure however he sees fit. Not that my opinion matters. I'm just saying.
Tonight there's going to be a wake-ish type of event at a funeral home 20 minutes north of here. I'll make an appearance, pay my respects, enjoy the people-watching to be had, remember conversations with Kay around their kitchen table. Tomorrow's the funeral service -- I'll skip that. Funerals don't do it for me.
To each their own. You know?
[continued in next entry]
Saturday, November 08, 2003
Two nights ago: pulled on decent clothes -- gray dress shirt, black dress pants, black pointy boots -- and drove north to the town of Hardwick for Kay's wake. Or observance. Whatever it's called when there's no body in evidence and everyone just passes the time talking instead of hanging about a heavily made-up corpse, formerly inhabited by the person we all knew.
It's a small, slightly rough-edged town, Hardwick. A pair of two-lanes pass through the village center, joining at a traffic light to run together for a while as a single road, providing the visible nucleus of town life, a stretch of businesses that give way to a handful of empty storefronts as the road curves around to the east and heads off through the Vermont countryside.
The funeral home lay across a small river from the downtown, tucked away on a side street. The night was cold, dark, mostly quiet, though the parked cars lined up along both sides of the side street indicated activity going on somewhere. In the funeral home, it turned out. Stepping inside, I found myself enveloped by the noise of voices in conversation, many, many voices, belonging to a crowd of people all packed together in one or two rooms. The place was jammed. I scribbled my name in the book near the door, turned to scan the scene. A nearby late-50s male addressed me -- weathered face, dark pants, white shirt, dark leather vest -- turning out to be one of Kay's three kids, one I'd never met in person. Ralph. He extended a hand, we shook, he pointed out where Mo was stationed, talking to a married couple from here on the hill. Without a casket as a focal point, Mo and his kids had set up a large framed collection of photos of Kay in its place, backed by flower arrangements, another larger studio photo of Kay, and hanging above all that, a strange, lit-from-within painting of Jesus. Apart from that, apart from the many people in attendance, the room was plain, unadorned, practically featureless.
Mo stood in front of the photo collection with my neighbors. I made my way through the crowd, attached myself to their small group, hung there until my neighbors drifted off to speak with one of Mo's daughters. I watched the gathering for a while, recognizing faces I'd seen at Mo and Kay's on different occasions. I checked out the photos of Kay, who turned out to have been a genuine babe in younger years. I spent some time speaking with Mo's two daughters, both quite a bit older than me, both very attractive, very good-natured. We swapped stories about their parents, learned a bit about each other, talking for a good long while, surprisingly easily. I met Mo's sister and her husband, both appearing to be in their late 70s. Many of the people there looked like real country folk, the Vermont version. Hard-working, pick-up-truck-driving folks, marking the passing of a friend/relative. Several people apologized to me for having turned around in my driveway in recent days, due to a full driveway at Mo's, to which I didn't know how to respond except give full dispensation.
And after 45 minutes, the crowd thinning, I said good-bye and stepped back out into the cold November night. Pleased to have spent some time at this event, glad to be going home. Thinking about how everything passes, how people, events, days, months and years come and go.
It passes deceptively quickly, this life. And it is deceptively rich and deep, the fleeting moments alive with things to experience. That's how it feels to me anyway, in my better days, my better moments.
Darkness has fallen as I've written this, a bright, nearly-full moon rising above the hills to the east. I hear a lunar eclipse is set to get underway this evening. Right about now, I think. Time to drag on a coat and go take a look.
Friday, January 23, 2004
Four or so decades back, during the years of bumbling my way through elementary school, they made us take a test of some sort that purported to measure each student's musical I.Q. As a result of which, my parents shoved a violin into my pudgy little hands and began subjecting me to weekly lessons.
I loved music. I found myself addicted to pop radio at the age of four. My brothers played rock 'n' roll of all kinds on their cheesy record players (later, stereos of increasing quality) and, I think most importantly, my brother Terry, during visits back from college, used to spend evenings sitting in my bedroom doing artwork, playing Dylan albums as I closed my eyes and drifted off -- that voice, those lyrics seeping into my consciousness, affecting my dreams (both sleeping and waking).
My mother played less dangerous folk artists and shmaltzy versions of Irish music on the family stereo, my father played classical music. Somewhere in there I got exposed to a fair amount of jazz -- don't ask me how that found its way into our white-bread milieu. The house, when I think back on it now, was alive with an interesting blend of sounds. All of which produced in me a near-obsessive affinity for the artform that resulted, with time, in a sprawling music collection, something that became a genuine pain in the ass to cart around whenever I changed living spaces (a far too frequent happening during my lifetime).
Despite all that, I never wanted to play violin. It was thrust upon me, as were lessons and the various youth orchestras I found myself in. I had to be forced to do the daily practice thing, scraping away for the bare minimum period of time I could get away with -- 20 to 30 minutes, never more than that. In spite of myself, I think I was not bad -- in spite of my refusal to do the kind of work that would have resulted in a real violinist. I almost always wound up as the third or fourth first violin in the school orchestra, did well in the yearly state competition, always seemed to qualify as a first violin in the annual county or state orchestras. (None of which is to say I was actually any good, just that I was apparently better than many other kids who'd had violins shoved into their little hands.) But I never warmed to the instrument, never wanted to give more than the absolute minimum, always found myself focusing elsewhere during the daily half-hour of forced practice -- out the window, off in my thoughts to other places, wandering around the room to whatever caught my attention to futz and kill time before resuming a fingering exercise (now there's a pungent image) or before one of the p-units called up the stairs to tell me they wanted to hear some MUSIC.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I've found myself in recent days engaged in the same kind of evasion/self-distraction tactics -- efficient, sophisticated maneuvers, all designed to get me doing ANYTHING other sitting my butt down in front of my laptop and writing.
It happens, it's not a big hairy deal. If I don't pile on the ultradisciplinary, arts-fascist you-SHOULD-be-writing self-browbeating, I'll find my way back to it. Something will catch my interest. Even if it's only writing about not writing.
This afternoon -- not writing in la Plaza de España:
Saturday, January 31, 2004
Yesterday, Friday, Madrid feeling a bit loose, as if everyone were more than ready for the weekend, despite gray skies and spritzing rain. Went to Spanish class, discovered that the other two aspiring Spanish speakers had played hooky, leaving me -- Mr. Boring, Mr. Consistent, Mr. Possibly-A-Bit-Too-Serious-About-The-Studying-Thing -- the only student. Class becoming a 90-minute private lesson. (Woo-hoo!) After which I drifted back out into the city in post-workweek mode, streets and sidewalks crowded with people of all ages -- older couples out walking, teens and 20-somethings about in chattering groups, middle-aged folk window shopping or slipping in and out of restaurants and tapas joints, often accompanied by youngsters. Lots to watch, lots to eavesdrop on.
January is a month of sales here, virtually every shop window in the city bearing loud, colorful signs ("Oferta! Oferta!"), billboards and banners also pushing the theme -- a continuation of the Christmas season consumer party, with the kind of energy and atmosphere that makes it feel like a national sport. Halfway through the month, I began slowly getting into the spirit, picking up a couple of household items -- necessary, practical, yet good excuses to splurge a bit. Then two days back, during my first day of relative freedom after a nearly week-long forced march, I picked up a pair of shoes that caught my restless eye. Black leather buggers of a strangely plyometric design ("Jimmy's down!"), promoting foot stability, yet inexplicably, intriguingly attractive. Heavy on comfort, yet just weird-looking enough to get me feeling insufferably cutting-edge.
This morning: pulled on the new footwear, headed out into the inclement weather. Errands, newspaper, a cup of espresso. A quick turn around a photography exhibit. Stopped in at a local joint for another cup of espresso -- tasty enough that I wound up staying to eat. And as I'm working on the first course, the waiter stops by to drop off a plate of bread, me getting a whiff of a strange, masculine odor. Not sweat, not the reek of someone unwashed -- a scent some men have that is specifically, unmistakably male. Not a smell I find particularly attractive, not a smell I would care to wake up to. But a distinctive odor that brings me back to childhood every time I experience it. A smell that reminds me of my father, provoking all the mixed emotions involved in that.
Considering how cardinal a figure he was in the family structure, I have surprisingly few memories of interactions with him. A remote, distant guy, not the happiest of men, though a well-developed sense of humor compensated some for that. Bright, capable, with a great laugh -- probably an interesting person, but not given to expressions of affection or heart-to-heart talks. Which led me, in unconscious brilliance, to seek out the one moment in his day when I could worm my way into his company and connect before he'd pulled on the habitual armor of distance and vagueness. That meant getting up early and joining him in the bathroom as he shaved. I don't remember deep conversations or high spirits. What I remember is a slightly more relaxed father figure, one who engaged in a bit more chat, who would, after he'd slapped on his after-shave (Mennen Skin Bracer, always -- no aspirations to high style or sophisticated tastes in our lower middle-class household), put a bit more of it on his hands and gently slap it onto both my cheeks -- his smile warmer, his pleasure in the moment more genuine, more visible than at any other time during the day. At least in relation to me.
For a few meditative moments, my body sat at a table here in Madrid in a small restaurant on la Calle de Fuencarral, shoppers streaming past the windows out in the rain-slicked street, while my thoughts drifted back in time, to a place thousands of miles away. When I came to, the restaurant was filling up with people looking for food, coffee, glasses of beer. A woman stood at the one-armed bandit behind me, the machine producing sampled bits of music and assorted noises as she worked it. The earlier peace had given way to lively racket, and I began feeling the pull to get home, make some phone calls, sit down here and write all this down.
Lunch: my own personal wayback machine.
It's coming up on 4 p.m. now. The streets are oddly quiet for a Saturday afternoon in this neighborhood, the rain muting the normal street life. That'll change as the evening hours draw near.
Meanwhile, before you go you might want to check out this example of
a trend we probably shouldn't emulate.
Monday, February 09, 2004
Hey, last night I had a CELEBRITY DREAM -- my first ever, I think. (I say 'I think' because I tend not to remember most of my dreams. For all I know I've been having nocturnal escapades with A-list types for many years. Or not. I have no idea.)
The celebrity: a Jack Nicholson who didn't give a shit about me, despite me being genuine, sincere, wearing my heart on my sleeve.
In the world of this dream, Jack was in charge of... er... a community of some sort. A bunch of people living together in a village or a cluster of buildings around a two-lane road, the area looking West-Virginia-esque. A cult for all I know. The cult of Jack.
I'd been part of that social milieu at some point in the past but wasn't when the dream took place, due to vaguely unpleasant circumstances I did my best to ignore and rise above.
What I remember: I'd been out doing errands, then stopped by the community's village/compound, pulling up near their big three or four-bay garage, parking, getting out of my vehicle. I'd picked up two or three bags of groceries during my travels, apparently didn't want to cart them around during whatever errands remained to be done. So I transferred them to one of the community's vehicles, a minivan parked in a garage bay. Why I thought that would be all right I can't explain -- I can only assure you it made perfect sense to me at the time.
A woman I knew was in the minivan, not pleased to find me storing my groceries in the back seat. "Hey!", she said in protest. I politely ignored her.
Word of all this apparently made its way around the community instantaneously, reaching Jack at lightning speed. I found myself summoned to his small, unassuming, country-style office where we had a chat. After the briefest possible small talk, Jack let me know that me warehousing my groceries in their vehicle was not appropriate, that the bags needed to go back to my vehicle. Pronto.
He did this in a way that attempted to turn giving me an order into getting me into the spirit of doing the right thing. I in turn tried to communicate a bit of the pain I felt at the earlier falling-out with the community and with the current situation. He brushed that casually aside, continuing with the attempt to make me feel some enthusiasm about getting with the program. "I really need you to get behind me on this," he said.
"I've never not been behind you, Jack," I answered in a tone of reproach.
"I know that," he said smoothly, giving me his trademark heavy-lidded half-smile (as opposed to the devilish, full-wattage Nicholson grin) -- a smile so well-practiced that it had become second nature, something he could do in his sleep. Totally phony, communicating that he knew it was phony and didn't give a rat's patoot.
I had to retrieve my bags of groceries and put them back in my car, waking up immediately after that. Feeling dejected about what I'd just been through, especially the obviously-insincere Nicholson blow-off. (Bastard.)
I spent a few groggy minutes under the covers, grumbling, until I reminded myself I was grumbling about a dream. After which I began feeling better.
Jack, you loveable hardass -- all is forgiven, phony smile and everything.
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
During the majority of the portions of my early life spent in the town of Half Moon, north of Albany, N.Y. [see entry of October 15, 2001], I had one friend to hang out with. Jeff Matthiesson -- four years younger (a major difference in those years), pudgy, with white, white skin, freckles, a brush cut. His father owned and worked at the gas station up the road. Their family lived in the small apartment above the business (garage/small store), tight, cramped quarters for a clan of five.
I hung out with Jeff most days, generally up at his place, providing me with some relief during the long summer seasons spent trapped in the woods with my family. Killing time, mostly -- around the garage, up in the apartment, out in the surrounding acres of open country and woods. Talking, reading comics, drifting through the fields or along the river.
Mr. Matthiesson: a redhead, with muscular arms, a ruddy complexion and fair skin that burned easily during the summers. Mrs. Matthiesson: round-faced, with brown hair cut in a bob. Slightly heavyset, even a bit dumpy. Hard workers, both of them, putting in long days between the gas station and taking care of their growing family. Not people I remember smiling much -- probably tired, constantly laboring to stay ahead.
My parents were close with Jeff's folks. They socialized regularly, my father (a shop teacher, the original handyman) helped them convert a big old barn into a house, creating more space for what had become a clan of six.
All of which resulted in the Matthiessons being a fixture of my life for quite a while. Until my junior high years, when I found myself with less and less desire to pass hours with Jeff, drifted away, stopped going north with my parents during the warm seasons, finally lost contact with the Matthiessons altogether.
During my years in high school, my parents planned and built a house on the land in Half Moon, moving up there as soon as I graduated. Somewhere during that time I noticed that mentions of the Matthiessons, once common, had suddenly become rare. My passing questions about them were met with terse, uncomfortable replies, imparting little information apart from clear, nonverbal indications of a major change in situation. Which made me curious.
It took a point blank interrogation to get my mother -- not one to discuss difficult issues directly, never mind comfortably -- to tell me what was going on. The story turned out to be gratifyingly strange, classically strange.
While working on a car during the course of what probably started as a normal day, Mr. Matthiesson suffered a blow to head. A hard enough blow to knock him out. Hard enough to give an intense shock, all the way down into the deepest parts of his system.
My mother said the blow caused a personality change, that the post-accident Mr. Matthiesson was a different individual from the person they'd known. I can't say. What I know is that he came to, looked around, decided he no longer wanted to be where he was, that the life he'd been living -- a difficult existence of hard work in what at that time was a dreary part of upstate New York -- was no longer acceptable. He moved out of the house, found an apartment in Waterford, a town a few miles to the south, took up with a younger woman. I think he stopped working at the garage, found another job.
Scandalous, incomprehensible happenings for that part of the world. Changes that left people like my parents aghast, that must have left Mrs. Matthiesson feeling stunned, bereft, ashamed.
The Matthiessons didn't divorce. They led lives as separate as they could manage, money matters and four kids forcing regular contact. And that's how things stood for a few years. Every once in a while one of my parents dropped a passing comment about the situation, short on details, then immediately clammed up. I gathered they'd taken Mrs. Matthiesson's side, something I suspect most everyone did. I gathered Mr. Matthiesson remained troubled, difficult to deal with, that his life seemed to be drifting in no particular direction, despite all the changes. With time, I got the vague impression that the Matthiessons were having more contact, until my mother mentioned one day that Mr. M. had moved back into the house.
And from there, the Matthiessons were a couple again. Not necessarily a happy one, but more in line with how middle-class folk thought things should be. For quite a while, my parents seemed to regard Mr. Matthiesson with an attitude of heavy disapproval, as if their opinion of him had been damaged irreparably. As if he were on probation for an unlimited period, maybe forever.
[continued in next entry]
Thursday, May 27, 2004
During the 1980s, my parents began migrating to Florida during the colder months, spending more time there with each passing year. I, on the other hand, had headed west, and after a year and a half of trying out life in L.A. I returned to the northeast, staying in Half Moon for most of that winter while my parents cavorted among the palm trees, 900 miles to the south.
One Saturday morning in November, the doorbell rang. On answering, I found a 70ish man standing out on the stoop, a wan version of the Mr. Matthieson I remembered from childhood. Shorter, smaller, red hair fading to gray. I opened the storm door, we shook hands, saying hello, our greetings producing breath mist in the chilly air. When I asked if he'd like to step inside, he refused with a shy smile, saying he didn't have much time, though appearing pleased to have received the invite. He said that he and his wife wanted to get in touch with my parents but didn't have their Florida phone number. I wrote it down, handed it over. A moment of small talk, we shook hands again, he headed down the driveway, waving briefly as he moved off.
That was the last time I saw Mr. Matthiesson, though not the last time he impacted my life. If it had been, I'd have a fine closing to the story -- tidy, concise, just poignant enough. Not always the way life wraps affairs like this up.
Two or three years after my last encounter with Mr. M., things had improved between my parents and him to the point that they asked him to look after the house during their months away -- stopping by on a regular basis to make sure everything was all right, agreeing to be the person the security alarm outfit would call in case of problems.
And a day arrived when the Matthiesons' phone rang, someone from the security firm calling to say that one of the security sensors in the basement had gone off. A sensor indicating water accumulation.
Mr. M. pulled on a pair of rubber boots, took a walk down the road to the house. Where, on entering the basement, he discovered that the hose to the water pump had come apart, that water was indeed pouring in, beginning to accumulate. The solution: flick off the pump's wall-mounted power-switch -- the flow of water would cease, clean-up and damage would be minimal. Or at least more minimal than if the pump were left on.
Apparently, despite sporting rubber boots, despite a couple of nearby, in-plain-view, grabworthy lengths of wood tailor-made for switch-flipping, Mr. Matthieson could not overcome a fear of electrocution. And after a bit of panicked blithering he fled, returning home to call my brother (located an hour and 40 minutes south of Half Moon). My brother made a hurried drive north to shut the pump off. By the time he got there, the basement contained a foot of water.
An unpleasant development in any house. Particularly unpleasant in this house, run by my mother, a professional pack-rat who'd passed many enjoyable decades hoarding cartons and bags filled with dreck. Much of which had ended up on low shelves and storage spaces in the basement.
My brother pumped out the water before returning to his life and 9-to-5 job. I had a more flexible situation, meaning I was elected to handle the remaining clean-up.
What I found on arriving: damaged furniture, ruined carpeting, mold and fungus blossoming in various corners and hidey-holes. Rusting tools. Many boxes of now-dead tchotchkes, knick-knacks, keepsakes, memorabilia. And many large garbage baggies stuffed with scraps of cloth -- remnants of maternal sewing projects (held onto because you never know when you'll need them), perfect for soaking up water and becoming heavy as cast iron.
As you might imagine, Mr. Matthiesson was summarily relieved of all duties connected to the house. I don't believe I ever heard my parents mention him again.
There are no sweeping judgments to be made from all this. I hardly knew this man, know little about the person he was. I know nothing, really, about his internal landscape, am not qualified to judge him. He was someone who passed through my earlier years, who struck me as a decent human being. Someone whose mid-life years brought a series of left-hand turns, beginning with a blow to the head and extending out from there -- the kind of unexpected shifts big novels are sometimes constructed around. Though in this case, to my knowledge, not building to a dramatic climax. (On the other hand, what do I know? Some of this life's most dramatic climaxes may be of the small, quiet variety.)
Just an individual who passed through this world, impacting the people around him in various ways, as we all do. With some moments of genuine drama and others of unintentional comedy. Same as the rest of us.
And worthy of mention. As we all are.
Springtime in Madrid, along el Paseo de Recoletos:
Tuesday, June 29, 2004
The time I woke up screaming:
Binghamton, New York. My fourth year of college. Me, spending the night with P., the woman I was then involved with, at her apartment.
Those years: a strange, turbulent period of this little life of mine. Drama abounded (appropriate, I suppose, for a theater major), me with little real idea what I was doing.
I had recently met, at the apartment of two women friends, a guy slightly older than me who worked with a traveling carnival. Irwin. A hard-edged individual with a hostile, slightly threatening air, using carney slang when talking about people, referring to most as 'marks.' Not very congenial, not a guy I was interested in getting familiar with. Never saw him again after that evening, forgot all about him. Or thought I had.
So. Me asleep in bed with P., I begin having a dream. I found myself walking along a tree-lined nighttime street, the sidewalk awash in shadows, the darkness relieved now and then by the light of a streetlamp. I walked for a while, the dream unreeling in the manner of stylized, arty animation, the lines of the image moving as if the scene were being drawn around me as I strode along.
I finally found myself strolling down the sidewalk of a street toward a house, the dream abruptly becoming vivid, clear, real, dropping the style of animation. In front of the house lurked a figure, something dangerous and savage, wearing the form of a human male. The Irwin. (Didn't look like the Irwin I'd met, but bore his name.) I knew that the only way I could get into the house was by distracting The Irwin -- I found myself holding a doll, tossed it well away from the house. The Irwin immediately ran after it, ripping the doll to shreds on reaching it, making sounds that raised the hair on the back of my neck. I ran for the front door, The Irwin saw me, raced toward the house, trying to cut me off. I made the stoop, threw myself inside, shutting and locking the door just as The Irwin mounted the stoop, scrabbling at the door, face distorted with rage. Through a small square window in the door, I could see it toss its head back, letting loose a howl.
It disappeared then, I heard it move down the stoop and away. I walked through the living room and along a hallway, glancing at the windows in various rooms as I passed, making sure all were closed and secured, the blinds down. At the end of the hallway, I entered a room that had three tall, narrow windows at the far end, the kind you might see in an old Victorian house forming a small alcove, a built-in window seat. The blinds in the left-hand window were halfway up, allowing a possible point of entry from the outside. I quickly went to it, began lowering the blinds. Before I could finish an arm came through the window, punching me hard enough that I flew across the room, landing against a wall and sliding to the floor, the windowblinds now partially broken, hanging at an angle.
Sprawled there, my head and upper back against the wall, I saw The Irwin enter, slithering smoothly in through the window like a large serpent, coming toward me. I knew I was about to die, and I felt a scream rise from somewhere deep within. Not just a scream -- a primal sound originating somewhere down below my stomach, clawing its way up through my chest and throat.
That was my dream, strange enough on its own. But there's more:
At that moment, in P.'s dream, someone said to her, "Wake up, r. needs you." Her eyes opened, she turned over and looked at me just as I came to, screaming -- my head jerking up off the pillow, my body clenched, shaking.
Scared the bejesus out of her. Out of me too, for that matter.
The one and only time I've ever come back to consciousness screaming.
Friday, July 09, 2004
The time I woke up trying to scream:
When: a year or two after the time I actually woke up screaming. [See entry of June 29.] Still a turbulent period, me still generally clueless, just not as severely so.
Spending the night at my brother's house in upstate New York, in a small spare room. I found myself in a dark dream, located somewhere I'd never been in waking life, the sequence that I remember taking place in a large warehouse-style building, being used as a barracks of some kind. Me asleep on a metal cot in an broad, high-ceilinged room, no one else nearby. Intensely dark, no lights shining anywhere to provide relief.
In the dream, I woke up, sensing someone nearby. Gradually, I made out a human form standing by my bed. Tall, silent, unmoving. Focused on me. With time, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I made out shadowed eyes, fixed on me, saw that the form appeared to be wrapped in a black cape. A vampire, I realized in disbelief (the first and only time, I think, that a vampire has ever played a part in one of my dreams). Not cartoonish, not exaggerated -- realistic, with serious intent.
Sudden fear set in -- panic, in fact -- with the sure realization that I was in extreme danger. At which time the looming figure began to bend noiselessly down toward me, me trying ineffectually to scrabble away. Unable to move, frozen beneath the covers, watching my death move soundlessly closer. A scream tried to make its way out of my mouth, without success, my jaw and lips refusing to open, the sound remaining trapped in my heaving chest, audible only to me.
I awoke for real then, that same throttled scream trying to find its way out then stopping as I realized where I was -- safe, in my brother's home.
It's been a long time since I've had a nightmare. A long, long time. I dream a lot, though I mostly don't remember more than a fleeting image or feeling, a sudden flash of memory that appears without warning during the course of the day, leaving me with a sudden, clear sense of a nighttime adventure, even if the story doesn't expand into something fuller, more complete in my conscious memory. And in truth, I'm generally not concerned with remembering my dreams (though it's fun when I do). I know my nights are active with them, that seems to be good enough. My attention is well-occupied with my days, with all the experiences and sensory information the passing moments bring. That's more then sufficient for right now.
Anyway, there it is (not that you asked): the time I woke up trying to scream.
Friday, December 24, 2004
Here's what I remember of my Christmases.
I remember waking up in the wee hours in our small house out in the Long Island 'burbs, unable to sleep from excitement. I'd creep downstairs as silently as I could, step out into the living room, turn on a light and stare at the tree (thickly layered with decorations and tinsel, the closest we ever came to what might be called glitz in our household). My eyes would then take in the mound of gifts beneath the tree, always an amazing show of abundance in a household that normally had little money to spare. I'd slip the plug for the lights into the wall, watch the room burst into quiet extravagance. Then I'd snoop around the gifts until I'd found as many addressed to me as could be located without disturbing the mound. (The pile -- put together with care by my parents sometime post-midnight on Christmas Eve -- could not be disturbed. Gifts could not be opened before the family opening ritual several hours. These rules were not to be fucked with as the consequences could be painful.) Then I sat in a chair and stared and thought and looked out the window, waiting for daylight, listening for the first sounds of others getting out of bed.
I remember my father putting up the outdoor lights in early to mid-December. Always a man inclined to making detailed plans, neatly drawing out diagrams and measurements, carrying out projects with methodical, painstaking care. (Not always a man given to patience with those who didn't do things with that methodical, painstaking care.) Some years the tree would be going up in the house at the same time, meaning the living room would be piled with boxes of decorations, the small cresh would appear by the small bookcase by the staircase, wrapped in ancient comics pages that I would read, year after year. Combined with the strong scent of pine tree, with all the visual cues and memories of other holiday seasons, the old comics (far, far too old -- Dick Tracy! Gasoline Alley!) felt deeply, satisfyingly evocative of something I don't think I could have put my finger on if I'd stopped to think about it.
Until the tree was securely vertical, the multiple strings of lights securely in place, I wasn't allowed near it, which left me drifting around in a strange state of boredom/contentment/excitement. I'd pull on a coat, wander outside to watch my father hang the giant wreath over the living room window or string big old-style lights along the eaves, around the front door.
Walking indoors from the cold, everything smelled fresh, everything looked new and loaded with potential in a way the house never did during the rest of the year.
I remember my grandmother -- my father's mother, the only grandparent who hung about until I was born -- making the trip out from Brooklyn for dinner. My parents had me late in their lives, so they were already on in years. My grandmother was REALLY, GENUINELY, SERIOUSLY on in years. Old, wearing bottle-lensed, black-framed eyeglasses, thick unsupple stockings, big slab-heeled black shoes. Sometimes she'd arrive from the train station in a taxi, other times someone would go pick her up. I only remember getting a first glimpse of her as she emerged carefully from whatever vehicle delivered her, wearing a dark, stodgily elegant winter coat, carrying a bakery box tied with string (always, as far as I know, containing a chocolate cake, densely delicious in an old-world way).
I didn't know her well, she never seemed terribly interested in me. My job was to entertain myself when she was in the house, to stay out of the way, an assignment I had no problem with (after all, there were new toys to abuse and weary of). When the hour for Christmas dinner arrived -- all of us squeezed into the house's small dining room around a table covered with food (my mother, generally not an inspired cook, made up for the rest of the year on Thanksgiving and Christmas, always producing a sensational spread, a genuine knockout) -- I'd tuck my butt into a chair, my attention split from that moment on between eating (and eating) and an ongoing study of the old person who, I was told, was a relative. I got to know her speech patterns, some of her smells, her laugh, her thick fingers, the excess meat on her arms, the abundant wrinkles on her face, her waved gray/white hair. Never really learned much more about her until stories were passed on in later years, well after her long, slow fade, by my mother and older brother. A stubborn, often impassively stoic, deeply Catholic child of Irish immigrants who I'm told was a spirited young woman.
Maisie -- my grandmother.
[to be continued during a future Christmas season]
Last week in cold, damp christmastime London, near Covent Garden:
This afternoon at la Plaza de España in Madrid, temperature in the 50s, an unknown teenager copping some pre-Christmas-Eve z's:
Saturday, September 17, 2005
This morning: woke up in the early hours from a strange, vivid dream. Lay thinking about it for a while, found it not only wouldn't fade like most dreams do once I open my eyes and slide back into waking life, it seemed to extend tendrils of meaning out into other, earlier parts of my existence, my thoughts following them, the process going on and on.
The dream: me, in a church of some sort. Not for what some might call worship -- there with someone else, a woman, either sightseeing or me simply tagging along while she took care of business of some sort. While she spoke with someone, I wandered down an aisle, walking close to the pew ends, trailing my hand along their top edges. At some point, a guy approached from behind me -- tall, nondescript, wearing glasses -- wanting to pass. Which should have been no problem, except that he didn't want to take the simple, logical route of going around me in the aisle -- he wanted me to get out of the way so he could walk right alongside the pews. I'm not sure his presence even registered with me until he was hovering directly behind, making physical gestures designed to push me out of the way.
If he'd said something polite -- some version of 'sorry, mind if I get by?' -- I probably would have stepped aside, let him pass. With him making moves calculated to intimidate me into getting out of the way, however, I found I had no intention of doing so, finally came to a halt as we reached a pillar, told him to back off and go around.
He seemed to take me standing my ground as a welcome challenge, as the perfect excuse for a physical confrontation. Smiling, he took off his glasses, put them in a pocket, advanced to within inches of me, began verbal intimidation. And as he started in with threats, apparently intending to take things to a more intense, physical level, I reached out and smacked his head against the pillar. Didn't even think about it, just did it. Took him completely by surprise, him apparently not expecting any kind of aggressive reaction from me. So I did it again, two or three more times, the guy dazed, unresisting, until someone rushed over and stopped me.
I woke up not long after that, from a scene in a police station interview room of some kind, me being questioned.
My first thought on coming to: I have seen too many episodes of Law & Order.
My second thought: I can't remember the last time I got into a physical fight. And I don't think I would need more than the fingers of one hand to tally up those events. In fact, if the memory banks are pumping out a product of any accuracy, it will only take four fingers to do the job.
Fight #1: at age five, a brief bout between me and Norman Nielsen. Brief because the pudgeball me of that era outweighed skinnyass Norman by a hefty, decisive margin. Don't remember what provoked the conflict, but it ended as soon as I got him down on the lawn and sat on his chest. Post-event, my mother seemed to find me defeating Norman that way to be hilarious, nearly doubling over with laughter any time the subject came up. Hmmm. (Norman: a good guy, actually. Became a drummer in later years. Wonder what became of him?)
Fight #2: four or five years later, in the school playground. No idea, once again, what provoked it, but I found myself on my back, Arthur Goldfinger sitting on my chest punching my face. I think he thought he was a badass -- but as soon as he got up, I did too, unharmed, quickly forgetting about it.
Home life in those years had become heavy with violence, my mother in particular grabbing The Stick (a length of thick doweling she kept up on the stove in the kitchen) and whaling away at me any time her temper got the best of her. My two older brothers were many years older and off in their own lives, so that I essentially found myself alone in the house with the old lady most afternoons until the old man returned from work. Making me a convenient target. My only defense: a defiant smile that I tried to maintain no matter how wildly she was swinging away at me, trying to show that none of it had any actual effect. Which only pissed her off more, of course, so that she'd go at me more intensely. Compared with that, Arthur's silliness felt like assault by powderpuffs -- I waited it out then went on with the day.
(My mother: not a bad person by any stretch. Just lost, unhappy, trapped in a life that had gone off in directions she hated, with no emotional/psychological resources except the dogma of the Church, which didn't do the job. And I suspect she found herself occasionally on the receiving end of a blow or two from the old man as their matrimonial life drifted downhill, both of them at the end of their tethers, quietly desperate.)
The physical goofiness at home continued until the day I grew big enough to grab the hand holding The Stick, bringing all that kind of excitement to an immediate end.
Some growing up in violent homes deal by seeking out fights away from home, using something they're already familiar with to vent rage, confusion, all that. Had the opposite effect on me -- I didn't see the sense in getting into fights. Getting hit hurt. I already went through plenty of it, why seek out more?
And many years slipped by before I found myself in another fight.
[continued in next entry]
Dusk, mid-September, northern Vermont:
Monday, September 19, 2005
It's looking and feeling more like autumn with every passing day. Early darkness. Stretches of gray, rainy weather. Waves of birds passing through, stopping to scare up food. The mornings bring gangs of robins and flickers, spread out across the lawn -- hunting down crickets and other critters before disappearing, continuing the flight south. Leaving a growing silence in their wake as the number of crickets diminishes with each wave of travellers, the quiet occasionally broken by the calling of Canada geese passing overhead. (Or gunfire from hunting-happy local rifle-toters.) Two days back, I noticed the swelling silence outside had become more profound than normal -- even the crowd of local birds normally partying wildly at my feeder had disappeared. Stepping outside revealed why: three hawks flying in long, slow circles directly above. I stood and watched, they finally pulled out of the spiral, drifted away -- also heading south.
Two weeks from today I'm also out of here, making my own migration back to Madrid. Preparations continue, blended with work in and out of the house, some routine, some seasonal. Today I tackled a task wisely avoided all summer long: pulling the stovepipes apart (including the six-foot insert that comes down from inside the chimney), dragging them outside for the annual cleaning. Easily as much fun as a bout of drunken self-castration. I am so grateful no one was on premises with a tape machine recording the explosions of swearing during my most extreme moments of joy.
This morning's fog gave way to sunlight, the first in a couple of days. It's now coming up on 4:30. Lengthening shadows stretch across the yard, clothes on the line earlier swaying in a breeze now hang motionless in still, cool air. The hours slip away. Thursday brings the autumn equinox, the nights grow longer.
Ah, well. That'll change in a few months.
[continued from last entry]
Fight #3: Long story. Long, strange, a bit goofy.
Me in college, my second or third year. I'd gotten to know a woman in directing class, the wife of one of my theatre profs -- him three or four years older than me, her a year or two older than him. Interesting folks. Bright, talented. Her: witty, attractive, with a high-wattage smile. Our senses of humor meshed, the amount of time we spent hanging together slowly increased. Until one day she invited me to a dinner at their home. A social evening, with the two of them and a fourth person, a female student from the theatre department. Not your run of the mill social event, though. No, no. Kind of a test drive, a gauging of chemisty before taking another, much bigger step.
The joy had apparently bled out of Rod and Alicia's [names changed] marriage sometime before I knew them. Bled out, evaporated, died away. Leaving a restless, uninspired pairing -- leaving Rod, moreover, deeply unsatisfied with their sex life and wanting better. Which led him to suggest exploring open marriage, the two of them exploring sexual relations outside of their relationship. With Alicia and I getting progressively closer, she logically sounded me out. And in the discussion that followed, it became clear we were both feeling more than just passing interest in deepening our involvement. Me being a clueless knucklehead, I didn't balk or think twice, at the idea of taking on something of that potentially troublesome class (involvement with married woman), getting entangled in a complicated situation with the potential to unleash life-altering drama of supreme goofiness.
Came the night of the dinner, I showed up at their place -- a tract home in a housing development off campus -- found myself passing the evening with Rod, Alicia and Lisa, a graduate student from the theatre department. A perfectly decent evening spent with three perfectly decent people, but with an undercurrent that endowed everything with a strange, slightly uncomfortable edge. Dinner (spaghetti), conversation (this and that), an after-dinner game (Group Therapy? something past its vogue and redolent of weird times), saying good-night, heading home to mull over the event and the prospect of odder events to come.
[continued in next entry]
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Two mornings ago, under heavy fog:
This morning, clear as a bell:
[continued from last entry]
Cutting to the chase: not long after that evening I found myself back at Rod and Alicia's place. For the real event. About to plunge into illicit activity. Sanctioned activity, sort of, given that the host couple had thrown the occasion together. But still. After the previous evening, Lisa had wisely decided to bail, leaving Rod to line up another partner for the evening -- another theatre department student.
And there we all were. After a bit of preliminary pseudo-social blah-blah, Alicia and I retired to the bedroom. Candles, clean sheets, etc. Especially etc. An evening that turned out to be about far more than overheated thrashing around in bed for Alicia and me, cementing something -- a mutual consent, an intention to get serious about what we'd started. A connecting that continued messily on in the ensuing weeks and months, causing abundant drama and angstful happenings.
A truth: the two of them had, on some level, for some time, been looking for a reason to split up. I became it.
Months later. Alicia had moved out of the marital home into an apartment miles away. She and I saw ever more of each other, becoming gradually, cautiously more open toward the rest of the world about our twoness. Cautiously, because some tensions remained among the involved parties, the situation not yet having reached a point of actual tranquility.
One evening, at her place. After bedtime, the lights off, the two of us falling asleep. The phone rang, Alicia picked up to find Rod on the other end of the line. Talking about being lonely. Fishing, apparently, for company, maybe for an invite to come over. I listened to the faint buzz of his voice, feeling badly for him. I listened to her clumsy, confused responses, her not wanting to hurt him, but also not wanting to disclose that she was in bed with me -- me feeling badly for her and at the same time getting the feeling that it would mean trouble if she couldn't get firm, say goodnight, get off the phone. But she couldn't, and at some point Rod understood why. I heard him yelling, demanding to know if she had somebody staying over, heard her stammering, non-responsive answers, Alicia completely unprepared for a situation like that. And then he'd hung up, the post-phone-call air in the bedroom vibrating with the energy of the exchange.
I had a bad feeling about what had happened, found myself sitting up, swinging my legs over the side of the bed. A part of me urgently counseled getting out of there, going home, the impulse growing in intensity as I sat, indecisive, unable to marshal movement. Minutes passed, me frozen in that position, until I finally got slowly to my feet, pulled on clothes, tried to get out the door without feeling like I was abandoning Alicia. And when I stepped out into the night air and headed down the apartment complex's driveway to my car, I saw Rod striding up the driveway, face set in an expression of intense anger. He ignored me, steamed past, disappeared into the building. I heard his footsteps going up the steps to Alicia's flat, found myself turning around, going back inside and up the stairs after him, to the landing where he stood pounding on her door, demanding to be let in.
[to be continued]
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Alicia eventually opened the door partway, blinking as if half asleep. Not yet understanding the turn her evening had taken. Rod shoved the door open, pushed her aside, stormed into the apartment, I followed. He began yelling, working himself up into a genuine state, Alicia trying without success to piece together a coherent response, me watching it all, waiting. And at some point, Alicia's verbal stumblings incensed Rod enough that his hand whipped out, slapping her, her mouth dropping open as her head jerked back, eyes opening wide with surprise. I found myself going at him then -- this despite him having several inches and 30 or 40 pounds on me -- my perspective of the room suddenly shifting as we wound up on the floor, rolling over and over while we grappled until he came up against the wall.
Alicia got us to stop the wrestling, the only evidence of round 1 a small hole in the wall plaster left by the heel of one of Rod's shoes. And the event continued in that veing -- bouts of verbal chaos giving way to stupid moments of physical grappling. I have a memory of the three of us in the kitchen, he and I locked in a combative stance, holding each other's shirts, his other hand brandished as if he were going to try and lay me out, my hand locked on his arm, turning the moment into a stalemate, despite his threatening rantings.
Sometime later, Alicia got me to leave so they could talk -- her the only person who had actually been struck, despite all the showy physical goofiness between Rod and I. No one bore any wounds or physical marks, despite all the hooha.
Rod calmed down in the weeks that followed, eventually pairing up with a student from the department, the two of them ultimately tying the knot. Alicia and I remained a pair -- a mismatched pair, it became clear with time -- until she got a teaching job at a university in West Virginia and relocated to that part of the world.
And life moved on.
Fight #4: Much shorter story. Or at least I'm going to keep it short. For two reasons: (a) it was so fast, it hardly qualifies, and (b) it digs into family history whose earth doesn't need to be turned.
What I'll say is this: it involved my oldest brother, a guy substantially older than me. We didn't have much of a relationship until I hit high school, when he apparently thought I'd become old enough (and thereby conscious enough) to be worth the effort. What connection we had turned out to be a rollercoaster ride, him often manifesting a sharp-edged insistence that he had the right to behave however he wanted in relation to me. An attitude I grew less tolerant of as years passed.
And of course our dynamic cut in both directions -- we both combined to produce it. One of the last times I saw him, my clear refusal to accept his attitude of sovereignty had shifted into active assertiveness of me being me -- at times unnecessarily so, I'm sure. Which produced sparks, finally resulting in a moment when he physically attacked me, a scuffle that passed like the ones with Rod, brief grappling, me essentially holding off an assault, blows threatened but none connecting. Flaring up then over almost as soon as it started, the old man rushing to the doorway as the action stopped, angrily aghast, then putting a hand against the wall, bowing his head, the other hand against his forehead for a moment before pulling himself together to yell at his two sons in furious amazement.
And that is essentially it. Four brief bouts, none serious enough to produce cuts, bruises, shiners, puffy lips. Nothing, really, compared to some folks' history.
Which is fine with me.