|JUNE 1997 Part 1|
|Instant summer here: bang. Eighty-four degrees, no humidity, clear pure sky with a few rambling clouds. A bug is playing a tissue-and-comb melody on the screen.
Spent the afternoon walking, sweating, spending money and counting the bad tattoos. Grand Old Days, in other words. The city blocks off a street for thirty, forty blocks and lets people swarm back and forth between food booths and beer pens. In the past, I seem to recall, you could walk the streets with a beer in your hand; now the beer drinkers are confined to parking lots and held behind orange plastic webbing. A distinct smell rolls off those lots. Not a pleasant smell. I caught a few blasts of reefer, like the perfume of someone I dated in college. (Like? Not hardly. And we didn't just date. We were in love. Then she gave me tachycardia.) Also the smell of roasting beer-soaked dullards, lined up twenty deep before the taps, heads nodding to the beat of the music. When women live together, it takes them a few weeks to synchronize their menstrual cycles, but put ten guys who don't know each other next to a beer keg and play some Zeppelin, and they will synchronize their head nods within, say, fifteen minutes. We're clearly more adaptable to immediate challenges.
A hot bright day, perfect for this sort of thing, if you like this sort of thing, and I really don't. Not a lot. I went to Grand Old Days before when I lived in St. Paul, just ten blocks off Grand, and then I was still doing my best to fit into St. Paul. Instead of detesting the Uptown Art Festival in Minneapolis, I would now learn to detest something in St. Paul. And so would I become a local.
I don't discount the pleasure of walking along, eating and looking at people; that's one of the reasons I used to love the State Fair before I tired of going there daily to write a story on something that was the same every day, every year, every decade. Like any Minnesota crowd, the Grand Av. crew were generally carrying around extra avoirdupois, frequently expressed in a pale white beer gut with a rill of hair up the center. Half the men were preceded by their stomachs, their heads swiveling about like the raja atop a ceremonial elephant. The women were generally thinner, with a few rail-thin young girls darting like minnows around them. Many, many women wearing very, very little - older Lolitas accompanied by low-grade Lotharios, loping along side with the bored look of men who believe that there will always be a beautiful young adoring woman at their side no matter what happens.
Young crowd. Young, cheerful, and either genially loutish or pretentiously "alternative." We sometimes feel antipathy towards those who are not like us when we were that age - either because they were the sort of people who ignored us, beat us up, looked down on us or just spoke a lingo we didn't get. Of the two groups, I suppose I was "alternative," or "new wave" as we called it in the dim misty age of the 80s, but nothing I recall of myself from those days matches these inked, slovenly ragamuffins in Haight-Ashbury garb with matted hair and tongue studs. What I recall of my alternative youth was an imperative to stay awake, be sharp, dress in thrift-store sport jackets and skinny ties, and say clever things about clever music. (The next step in the progression - an MBA and a coke habit - I skipped.) But today I saw a barefoot white guy in a dashiki carrying around a bongo drum. It's as if we learned nothing. Right back to all the dance-in-the-dirt foggy-headed hippie nonsense.
Fine; I don't care. Those who don't remember the past are doomed to buy it at the Gap next season.
It's the tattooing I don't get. Since people were wearing little clothes, you got to see a parade of the ink-needle art. You want to ask someone why they felt their life would be forever better if they indelibly stained their scapula with a black spider. Or a big lurid rose on a wobbly teat. Or a thicket of thorns around an ankle. You never know when you will turn out to be successful, and have to attend a formal affair requiring a summer evening gown. And there you are with a faded thatch of red weeds erupting from your decotellage. Mr. President? This is my wife.
Perhaps by then everyone will have them, like scars are common after a great war.
But did I have fun? Sure. We walked and walked, ate a gyro sold by genuine unfriendly barking Greeks, stood in line at Caribou Coffee for half an hour waiting for overpriced slushees, saw many fine dogs in various states of exhaustion, and saw people you never see around the demographically constrained Lake Harriet. In other words: a whole new set of people to complain about.
I'm not as bad as I sound. After all, I was there to meet my producer from the radio station. Mid twenties, huge. Dresses in black for the summer. Beard and long hair, heavy ring with a scorpion symbol. Too bad I couldn't find him; he's better at poking fun at people than anyone I know. Final lesson, I suppose, is judge not, lest someone point at the short guy with the balding head and the look of faint distaste, and have their own good chuckle.
Fair enough, and a small price.
This will, unfortunately, be short, for I am one beat Bleater. I got up too early, wakened by the sun and the birds. Two of my favorite things, but not unless I have at least six hours of REM under my lids. I could see the birds in my half-dream state - big cheery Disney birds shouting out a song, welcoming a merry old Sol over the horizon. The glory of a summer morning, and I could only think sit down and shut up.
Woke hours later after thin piddling sleep, aware that a hugely hellish day lay ahead. I did everything fast - a fast walk around the lake, a fast hour sitting out back reading (alright, so it wasn't exactly a duty-per-nanosecond day) and then I ran off to Southdale for the semi-annual haircut. At least that's how it seems. I was completely Samsonized this time. I rotate between two stylists, and the other one is about to have a kid - I think today's clipper thought that by the time the other stylist returns from maternity leave it will be three months from now, so she'd better shear me to the skull.
The car, thank God, started. Back home for a nap (you know, this really wasn't as demanding a day as it had seemed), but it was one of those naps where you spend your shuteye judging the quality of your nap; perhaps only ten minutes of solid Nod. Got up, threw back some microwaved coffee, dressed and sped to Uptown for the Meeting. (The car, thank God, started.) The details of the meeting I am not at liberty to discuss, although I will mention that I ate appetizers for supper: never enough. Five plates of appetizers cannot equal one solid meal. And I only had 2/3s of one plate. I could see an episode of woozy brainfog ahead if I didn't eat, so I thought I could get home, cobble together a small meal, and then head to the Diner for the show.
The car, goddammit, did not start. It whined with its usual noisy impotence, right in front of a row of snooty outdoor diners. I got out, looked at the engine, and as usual not finding a big sign that said "HERE'S THE PROBLEM!" I slammed the hood and called the Giant Swede to give me a ride. Home, then some blessed time with my wife, then off for a breezy show
I really, really wish I could say more, but if you don't know what I'm talking about, good. If you do, you might understand.
It's now 12:47 AM, and I have to write my column. I guess that's what makes this day hellish: late-night radio followed by later-night writing. All I want to do is sleep. Or find the slumbering birds and yell at them now. See how THEY like it.
Back on foot. Just like the old days with one car, my day is proscribed by how far I can walk, and how much I can carry. I went to the grocery store today and loaded up the basket, and the clerk asked "do you need help with this out to the car?" I was startled by the request - I'm short, sure, but hardly infirm; I could have bench pressed the clerk, for that matter. Probably just a reflex question. Then I realized that I'd shopped as if a car was waiting to ferry my goods home, and I had two sacks of milk, meat, lemonade, and other weighty goods. I should have said yes, I need help to the car. Ten blocks down the road, I would have said that the car is at my house.
But of course it isn't. It's at the shop. The mechanic called up today with the usual story: she runs fine. No problem. He asked if I was the guy on the radio, and I said I was; I promised a nice long segment of free publicity if they could fix it. At which point he said he thought he knew what the problem was.
A less than perfect walk around the lake today, due to mats of odorous green crud. Dead algae has collected around the shore - it's a seasonal thing, but no less offensive for its predictability. (See also, the TV show "Martin.") You could walk on it, it's so thick. And it's starving the fish of oxygen, which explains all the big fish throwing themselves out of the water and wriggling around. What I thought was merry whee-ha summer's-here exuberance on the part of the piscine community is actually asphyxiation. Jasper tried to catch one of the fish today, but I jerked him back before he plunged into the e crud. It's not a happy walk for either of us - he keeps looking longingly at the nice cool water, and I keep jerking him back. I don't want him looking like the Swamp Thing's pet. I give him water in my hands at the fountain, but it's not the same. Such a peculiar creature. He won't swim - when we encounter water dogs splashing around and enjoying themselves, he stands on the bank and looks eager, but it's the same look I had when I was watching the popular kids play baseball.
Minor carps. The day was glorious, and I'm sitting outside at 12:45 AM in a tank top. The show was fine - a nice relaxed Tuesday episode. We began talking about Grand Old Day, and went to rollerblading, girlwatching, helmet wearing, the etymology of "chauvinism," the meaning of "bodkin," "Zounds" and "Bloody," Hanna-Barbera comics, odd food preparation instructions, and the name of the surly-bonds poem they used to run at sign-off. (High Flight.) Something I said about Superman and America caused a flurry of calls from Canada, and the last half hour had full lines. There's nothing more amazing than looking at the board at 11:45 and seeing all the lines going.
Of course, what I forgot to say was more plentiful than what I did actually say, but that's the Diner.
Absolutely silent out here now, or it will be after a motorcycle passes...there. No planes, no motorcars, not a single modern annoyance. The sky is perfect black, and there's none of that hellish orange haze that just to keep the DC sky from letting the stars say their piece. A few seeds from the big elm are pattering down on the porch roof, which itself is making small cracking sounds, unwinding from the heat of the day. Sometimes I miss the morning, the early morning when the sun is just starting the last lap of the stroll towards noon. But the end of a summer day feels wise and content, with nothing to prove. Everyone knows morning, but this feels like a private club.
Fog tonight. It's as if the clouds got tired and just decided to sit down, take the load off. Couldn't even see the highest lights on the transmitter tower. It followed the first real summer shower, one of those sunset rumblers that rolls in, dumps a bucket of big rain on the lawn and mutters off to irrigate someone else. Thunder overhead, but not the sort of thrilling crash-bang you get with one of those storms that has a point to prove and hangs over your head until it thinks you've gotten it. Jasper reacted by crawling up in my chair and putting his head in my armpit. He's never done that before.
But he's been peculiar today. When the air-raid sirens went off (quick mental check of the calendar and the world situation) he sat down and howled in concert, a standard mournful canine ullulation that could mean "I'm here" or "I swear obedience to you, great Dog who is everywhere." To his ears, the siren must be the howl of the omnipotent Dog who knows all, sees all, smells all. It's everywhere. Later around the lake he encountered a mounted policeman, which had been the occasion last year for much alarm. He'd slunk around the beast, ears flat, wary and alarmed, but this time he barked a stern warning. Go away, huge smelly beast with the man-part on top. After a suitable distance, of course.
Mostly he panted, and I sympathized. Mid-80s today, just perfect, but damned hot. I will not, cannot, ought not to peep one not of complaint about it; I'll just note that it seems odd after that dank interminable spring to suddenly have summer blaring in full voice, almost without prelude.
I'm now reading "Absolute Power," a thriller set in DC. It's enjoyable to read a book that takes place somewhere I know, which I think is the one advantage of living in DC. On the other hand, personal experience tells you that the DC of the thrillers, with their raven-haired seductress White House officials and impossibly handsome principled lawyers, is nothing like the DC that actually exists. The city is actually stuffed to the gunwales with blobby pasty drones, earnest women in sensible shoes, and people whose upper lips moisten with excited sweat when the subject of microeconomics comes up. Also, there are many black people in DC, and these thrillers inhabit a fairly albino universe. But it's fun to pick out the archetypes. The aged billionaire in this book is clearly Jack Kent Cooke, local real estate mogul, owner of the Redskins and - for a while - the husband of a storied younger woman. She gets killed in the opening pages, and her husband hires an assassin to redress the matter. It's like being a Minnesotan and imagining Carl Pohlad hiring a hitman.
I have about a month left of this, I think - a month of late rising, afternoon lollygagging under the sun followed by long walks. It will seem no more precious for its imminent end. I've had this kind of summer since I came back, and it's hard to imagine anything different. But I'm trying. I generally get antsy after four years of something - anything, really. (Except marriage, home ownership, dog stewardship - the important things.) Something new has to happen, and I am certain that it will. And then in four years I will figure out a way to recapture these open airy summers, forgetting how restless I can get, forgetting how the long confinement of winter can make me so anxious for human contact I have long conversations with grocery store clerks. That's about to end. Eulogies to follow, but not, I hope for a while.
Shed a tear for the Ford Catatonia, now beyond repair. Terminal; headed towards the great Crusher in the Sky. Well, no; if there is an afterlife for cars, it's not a crusher. They would be reunited with all their original parts, restored to showroom condition, loose trim would be tightened, burns removed from seats, tires made to gleam like Batman's codpiece. If there was a heaven for cars. And if the Catatonia was headed for heaven. After all it's done the past few years, it may be up to its rear-view mirrors in sulfer.
The repair shop told me not to sink the money into the repairs, and coming from an auto mechanic, that's stern news. So now I have to find something else, and it won't be as fast or sporty. I'll be driving some damn bubble around, hoping I hit fifty before I get to my destination. The Catatonia may have been undependable, fickle, high-maintenance and given to inexplicable sulks, but it was a hellion on the road. I'll miss it.
Meanwhile, I drive it around and pray it starts.
A service attendant from the dealership was shuttled me back to the shop in a ten-ton van, a real tot tank. She looked and spoke like Frances Dormand, or Marge in the movie "Fargo." For someone who owned fast cars - we got to know one another's automotive preferences during the last trip to the shop - she drove with a carefulness that suggested the company penalized her personally for damage to the vehicle. And by personally, I mean "two teeth per door ding."
Perfect day, otherwise; heat, sun, and a brief violent storm in the afternoon, just like the quitting-time monsoons in DC. Sara was at a play tonight, so I took Jasper to Dog Heaven to romp with the other canines. He just about pulls my arm from its socket a block from the park, because he knows all his friends will be there. It took me two years to have the nerve to let him off the leash at the edge of the park; I suppose it's like being a parent and watching your kid run off to play with friends, and to hell with you, old man. But there's something charming about watching a little beast run at full speed to rejoin this ragged pack of mutts, baying Hallo to this ragged pack of mutts. Dogs so seldom get to be dogs. They're too busy being what we want them to be, which is our idea of dogs - i.e., furry babies who poop in the weeds.
Had an average show tonight, but I feel that the quality of the average show is coming up. Last night was mostly words; tonight was mostly cars. Bad car stories, five calls from fellow old Pacer owners, and then many calls on what to call the new convenience store going up at Dad's station. Some of the ideas were quite clever - I liked Comet Stop, and OmniFill. ("We Slake All Thirsts.") One caller suggested Ralphsmart, after my dad's name - my, these people pay attention. But like the other night I felt as though I was periodically inarticulate and disconnected. The callers can actually do that to you. I banged out the first thirty minutes in fine form and high energy, and then you get a couple calls where the energy level is low, the mood a bit off, and it takes things down a notch. Not, I believe, noticeable to the audience, unless they really pay attention. And of course they do. Well, I'd rather worry about the show than shrug my shoulders and say Whatever. This will end some day, and I want it to be well-remembered.
Tomorrow: more heat, more sun, more walks around the great blue lake. Just got my first bona-fide mosquito bite of the season, incidentally.
From here I can hear the car out front, the hot engine pinging as it cools down. From now on I treasure every day. I honestly believe my eyes will sting when I hand over the keys.
A sheaf of humiliating magazines arrived today. I cannot remember subscribing to them; it was probably during a period when Sara was working herself to death (a period known as 1974 - present) and I wanted to give her something lightweight to help her decompress. Something that would be the equivalent of my computer magazines. So I bought Home, which I liked for a while, and Martha Stewart's Living. The last one had recipes, and since she'd let her Gourmet subscription lapse, I thought this would fill the gap. Instead of not making three-cheese Turkey Tureen Fantasia, she could not make Hand-Shaped Polenta Balls with Pomegranate Garnish.
But since she is consumed with all things legal, these magazines barely get a glance. I understand. She has 14 cases on Tuesday, so whatever advice Martha has to offer cannot be of immediate importance. Just having the magazine on the table is good enough, a talisman of a richer life, a portal to another place. Doesn't matter if you use the door, as long as you know it's there. Well, I end up reading these things. Home is boring; the cover says things like "Three Great Beach Houses," presumably for those who have two great ones already, or four mediocre ones that could be consolidated into three great houses. The magazine seems to suggest that I should be prowling around the house with a critical look and a tape measure, ever prepared to knock out a wall and build a new bathroom or a home office that folds into a closet like a Pullman bed. "Extend your outdoor space!" says one story. How? Either I violate the property line or I open a gateway into a new dimension. I suppose that should we ever do a stem-to-stern refit on a house, this would be a nice source of ideas, but for now it's like having a nagging neighbor who pops in once a month and urges me to faux-marblize the bannisters.
Martha Stewart's magazine, oddly enough, is one of my favorites. Far from being a hectoring shrew who commands me to rise at dawn and go pull eggs out of the butts of sleeping hens, and then mash them up in a pot I fired the previous week and hand-glazed with a substance made of Andean Peasant Spittle, Martha is my friend. She is doing all these things for me. Thus they need not be done. It's lovely to look at; one of the longer articles (one whole page) deals with chills and peppers, and they're posed as seductively as Victoria Secret models. There is one sequence of chile preparation that looks disturbing - the chile is drawn, quartered and gutted, and the pictures look like something the Anti-Vivesection League would hand out.
There's no one home in any of these pictures; rare is the actual human who walks through these perfect gardens. Occasionally you get a hand, perhaps a glimpse of a person setting a table, but otherwise everything is deserted, a perfect world left behind when the aristocrats learned that the rabble was at the gates. It's where you'd like to think you could spend a few years, somewhere between hitting your income peak and coming down with prostate disease. As long as someone else does the preparation, anyway. The recipes in this book are longer than the stories in the New York Review of Books.
I also got a computer magazine today, and sat back to read of new techniques in CGI scripts and Applescript macro writing. I won't do any of that, either. I'm glad I have these magazines. Without them, my knowledge of the things I never do would be as small as the next person's. It's not what you do that sets you apart. It's what you would do if you had the time.