Sunday, September 27, 2015

Another Milestone

Friday, I fired up my file-transfer program and sent a manuscript of something like 212,594 words to my agent, who'd asked to look at it before I sent it to the publisher, which I figured was a good idea. This represents a year's work, and, potentially, the first book of mine from which I'll get royalties and decent promotion.

It only took 50 years to get here.

That's right: sometime in September, 1965, I was published in a magazine for the first time. I'd arrived at Antioch College earlier in the month and been assigned to their new experimental learning program. They didn't tell us much about it, but our faculty advisor would in the fullness of time. Then he, a Quaker, went on some Quaker peace mission to Russia for the rest of the quarter (from which he never returned) and we were left to flail around. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but had no way of going about it, and, worse, there were no courses open to freshmen that dealt with it. Maybe the experimental program would have worked for that, but we had no way of finding out.

I spent a lot of time bored out of my mind but one day had a flash: I'd just bought a new record in the campus bookstore called The Singer-Songwriter Project on Elektra, and thought, hey, maybe Broadside magazine would like a review. So I sat down and typed one out and sent it in. About a week later, I got an envelope from Broadside, which I thought was odd, both because I'd already gotten my monthly subscription, and because it had first-class stamps on it.

Broadside was one of several folkie magazines out there at the time, not as high-profile as Sing Out!, and sharing a name with The Broadside of Boston. It was dedicated totally to political and "topical" songs, and, indeed, had printed the music and lyrics to "Blowin' in the Wind" on the cover of its first mimeographed, stapled edition. It was run by Gordon Friesen and Sis Cunningham, the latter of whom had been a member of the Almanac Singers in the '30s, along with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Both, although I didn't know it at the time, were deeply dedicated members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), and in fact, the magazine would fall into chaos a few years later when Gordon was abruptly ordered to move to Detroit to organize auto workers. The Party did things like that.

None of this made a lot of difference to me: I'd just been published, and in a magazine I read! And that first-class envelope had not only the next issue of the magazine, with my piece in it, but an encouraging note from Gordon Friesen urging me to write more. So I did. A review of Richard Fariña's novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me followed, just days after Fariña had plunged off a cliff to his death following a publication party in California. They printed that, too. I may still have the clips from both of them out in King Tut's Tomb in an old, hard-to-open filing cabinet.

Next, since I was now on Antioch's co-op jobs program and working in Princeton, I was given an assignment: do a piece on Len Chandler, a folksinger/songwriter who was right up Broadside's alley: not only was he good, he was a Negro, and fiercely commmitted to the civil rights movement. They put us in touch, Columbia, to whom Chandler was signed, sent me a copy of his album Carry It On, which I liked a lot, and a date was set for an interview. Somehow, I acquired the use of a tape recorder, which used tiny 3" reels, and, on the day of the interview, went to see him. "Oh, man, I did it again," Chandler said. "I agreed to do another interview tonight! But come along with me, this should be fun: it's the Russians." And, indeed, it was, two reporters from a magazine that, as they described it, was like Life magazine in Russia: profusely illustrated, very popular and widely read, and an important place for Len Chandler to be seen. Their office/apartment was in the Dakota, which even then I knew was a luxurious place, and we sat on thick carpeting around a low table on which were snacks: dark bread, caviars, herring, and an entire bottle of Stolichnaya frozen in a block of ice. I tried to be polite, because I was an uninvited guest, but after the introductions ("You study at Antioch? We have heard of this place." Yeah, well, don't tell my parents that.) we all relaxed. Me, especially. I'd never had vodka before. After it was over, I had a little trouble negotiating the hallway, which Len remarked on. "Come on, let's go to this place in the Village where my friend is performing," he said, and we got into a taxi and headed downtown.

I don't, obviously, have crystal clear recall of what happened, but we wound up knocking on a door in Sheridan Square, which opened a bit, whereupon a voice exclaimed "Len! They've just gone on," and welcomed us in. Upstairs was an after-hours club, and ex-Weaver Ronnie Gilbert fronting a jazz trio and singing Billie Holiday songs, and her bass player was a guy whose name I recognized from record jackets, Bill Lee, father of Spike. It was pretty good, and I managed not to pass out, and after a while we headed back to Len's place where I managed to get an interview of sorts done. One thing I remember was that he said "I don't write songs for specific purposes. I write songs, and if they're good, that's all that matters. I don't write them for the Movement, or to make a political point: that's how you make bad art. I write them to satisfy myself in the hopes that they'll satisfy others. And if some of them are political, some aren't, but I won't sing any of them if they're not good." Of course, I thought this was great stuff. And I didn't know how Gordon would feel about it.

It took me a while to compile this into an article, but Broadside was in no rush, so I was back on campus by the time I finished it. I'd met a girl in Princeton, a pretty and very smart young high school student, and was now getting involved in ride-shares at school to New York, where I'd jump on the bus at Port Authority and go to Princeton to see her. On one of these trips, I decided to take the Chandler article up to the Broadside offices, and one of the passengers was Bobbi Fox, who was also in the experimental program, in the women's dorm that was aligned with our men's dorm. She had a boyfriend in Cleveland who'd send her love letters he illustrated with amazing cartoons, because he had a job making greeting cards for American Greetings. His name was Robert Crumb. At any rate, Bobbi was really into folk music, and asked if she could go along with me to meet the Broadside folks, and I said sure. It was in some public housing project on the Upper West Side, and I rang the doorbell and Gordon came to the door, slipping out and closing it behind him. "I hate to be impolite," he said, "but everyone in there has the flu and I can't ask you in." I understood, and handed him the envelope. Bobbi couldn't contain herself: "Mr. Friesen, what do you think about Bob Dylan?" she asked. He sighed. "Bobby's all right, and this new stuff is interesting, but I just wish he'd write a song about Vietnam." Bobbi's eyes widened and she said "But Mr. Friesen, all his songs are about Vietnam!" At that moment, I knew my Chandler piece was doomed (and, later, saw this as a perfect illustration of the generation gap).

The article was, indeed, doomed. So was my career at Broadside, but I'd been initiated. I became very close to my new girlfriend's family, and looked on her freelance graphic designer father as a mentor, and he reciprocated by getting me a few assignments. He shared an office with Jerome P. Agel, a gadfly in publishing who'd "produced" a book his office-mate had done with Marshall McLuhan, and published Books, a magazine that was mostly about publishing. When I was in New York, I'd hang around the office sometimes, and that's how I got to meet, briefly, Ornette Coleman, who was delivering sandwiches for the deli Agel ordered from. Then, one day, Agel handed me a record. "My friends say this kid might be something big. He's doing a show next week, and I'd like an interview if you think there's anything to his stuff." It was Tim Buckley's first LP, and I liked it. I went to the show, did a clumsy backstage interview with Tim, who had some young lady next to him he was impatient to dive into, and I wasn't very happy with the results. Oh, well. Agel didn't care. Next up was Aspen, the magazine that came in a box. They were doing a McLuhan issue, and guess who got to design it?

This was how I learned that having connections was valuable, and they came through: as the only person anyone acquainted with the magazine knew who was under 21, and, thus, eligible for half-price airfare, and who was already working at a rock magazine downtown called Crawdaddy!, I was selected to fly to San Francisco and write about this multi-media thing that was happening in the ballrooms, and I was assigned a photographer, Steve Schapiro, to go along with me. I've already written about this elsewhere at great length, but the end result was published in Aspen #4, with a short text by me on the back of a poster of dancers at the Avalon Ballroom that Schapiro took. For that, I'd been taken into the heart of the scene, met (and been kissed by) Janis Joplin, seen incredible music, talked about things like community and the future with some incredibly bright people, and seen a city I'd never seen before. Paid? Who needed to be paid?

Working at Crawdaddy!, I had the bug seriously, so it was a drag to be fired when Paul Williams, who'd founded it, decided to change the staff while I was in San Francisco, so I loped back to college, intent on learning about writing. Which, with the exception of a writing course I couldn't take until I'd dropped out (I didn't have the prerequisites, but the instructor was remarkably kind in letting me audit it), and another on participatory journalism, which I remember as an informal class given by an instructor who'd been given a grant to write about it, I didn't do. The participatory journalism class, though, resulted in another trip to San Francisco (the instructor had money to fund students who needed a bit for their research), where I wanted to do a piece on San Francisco State after its strike, and wound up in Berkeley just before the riots around People's Park, as well as (aha!) meeting the staff of a magazine I'd just started writing for, Rolling Stone. Their record review editor, Greil Marcus, was going back to school to get a Master's, and they needed someone not only to replace him, but to be on the greatly expanded staff they were planning. This was something I really wanted to do, and was talking to the managing editor, John Burks, about it, when I made a gaffe that could have sunk me: I'd been waiting to talk to Jann Wenner, the editor, and he stomped into the room holding a telegram and saying "John Lennon just married someone named Yoko Ono!" And I, who'd known all about Yoko since her participation in the New York Avant-Garde Festival, which I attended religiously each year in high school, said "Yoko married who?" because it did seem like an odd pairing. Wenner glared. "Oh," he said, dripping with sarcasm. "I suppose you know who she is." And, because I did, and was eager to show off, I told him. He kind of stared at me and left the room.

I got the job anyway, as we all know, and after I was fired, I took up a life of freelancing, or penury, as it's known. Over the years, I've gotten to travel the world, met lots of famous people, had private performances by Iggy Pop and Bob Marley and the Original Wailers, among others, witnessed more incredible gigs than any one person has any right to have seen (and no, I'm not going to try to recall them just now), and written millions of words for everyone from Penthouse to the Reader's Digest to Who Put the Bomp? to the Wall Street Journal to Il Corriere della Sera to New York Rocker. Many of those words, in the 1970s, were for Creem, a magazine that warped many young lives and gave me the largely ceremonial title of West Coast Editor, while paying me as little and as late as they could, and this allowed me to get tons of records in the mail while a little voice in the back of my head told me I should also be writing about other stuff. I couldn't -- the term "rock critic," once given, tends to stick to you, and indicate a very lowly and unsavory level of the totem pole to the publishing world at large -- but that didn't stop me from reading and looking and taking stuff in.

I also got to write for a daily newspaper here in Austin for five years, and its alternative paper for a bit longer than that, and I also wrote two work-for-hire books (flat fee, no royalties), one of which went out of print in a week, the other of which I only wrote ⅓ of, but I am given to believe sold very well indeed. I got to edit a couple of magazines, and even started one in Berlin that I lost to greedy partners eager to embrace the Internet, although they had no idea what it was. I had several people represent me as an agent, the first of whom was an obese woman in Greenwich Village who took me out to lunch (who knew you could get lunch in the Village for $1?) and dropped me after placing a magazine article that wound up making me several thousand dollars, the second of whom solicited a proposal for a book I ached to write and then refused to read it (I believe he may still be in business, but can't remember his name), and finally found the one I'm with now, who seems to be the real deal. After all, after I'd been in business only 49 years, he managed to get me my first real book deal.

Every now and again, young writers approach me for advice about getting published, and my first piece of advice is not to go for a writing career. I have starved -- literally -- for weeks on end, adopting an eat-every-other-day regime, and, at one particular low point in Berlin, eating out of garbage containers (the Germans toss lots of good food) and roaming the streets for bottles I could turn in for their deposit (hint: go where skateboarders go, since Berlin skaters live off of 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola, worth €.50 apiece!). On the other hand, it's taught me how to cook well for remarkably little money when I have to, and I'm proud of that. But publishing has been vanishing in the years since I started, and with the stepping-stone of magazines no longer available as widely as it once was (what would be the analog of Creem for a young writer today? Nothing.) there's nowhere to whet your skills, no editors to help you along, no pay at all. Most of the writers you read today either have other jobs, are rich, or have married money. And when the rich provide the content, the rest of us are in deep trouble. I hope it'll turn around, but I also hope I can now do nothing but write books, and treat anything else as gravy.

Fifty years. Since I was a teenager. Not a hell of a lot to show for it except some yellowing clippings and rambling reminiscences here on the blog. If I had to do it over again, would I? Ahh, probably. What else would I do?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Land Of Disenchantment: A Few Days Off

And so all the factors fell together and on Tuesday, September 8, the Grey Vibe and I left Austin for a few days' adventure in Santa Fe. And boy, did we get it.

Part I: Land of Broken Dreams

It kind of goes without saying that West Texas isn't very interesting, from a landscape point of view, or, really, any other point of view unless you're in the oil bidness. But if you're trying to get to Santa Fe without dawdling, you have to go through it, so sayeth Google Maps. I don't necessarily trust these phone-based guidance systems, as you'll see later, but Google usually does a great job. My own bit of improvement on the system is to write the steps IN BIG LETTERS in a notebook kept next to me in the front seat, so we see:

L 183N/US 84W 30m

and so on. It lets me know each intersection (usually) and that intersection is usually there. I did, however, manage to get lost in Early, Texas, not an easy task given its size. The reason, one of the failings of these systems, is that they don't tell you subtleties like that Early Blvd. is, in fact, 84 West. So I drove the wrong direction for about 20 minutes, and, sure after a while that I'd gone the wrong way, turned on the phone to get me to the next route, 153 West, where I would be for the next 71 miles. 

But for some reason, the phone decided I wanted to go back to Austin on 153 West, which I didn't. And I couldn't find a way to change its mind. Furthermore, when I got back to the place I'd made the wrong turn, I saw what I'd done wrong, and that just 30 miles down the road, 153 would appear. But I couldn't turn the goddam phone off. 

I was headed to Clovis, known to me and millions of others as the place Buddy Holly recorded so many of his early records, as did other West Texas stars. So for the remaining 237 miles, my phone was chirping "Make a U turn" or "Take County Road 445" and the like. As I was checking in at the La Quinta, it was still saying "Turn around." 

Clovis, approached as the day was ending, was not impressive. For miles and miles, I'd seen nothing but failures, buildings once housing a bar or a store or a gas station, long shuttered and left to the elements. In West Texas, there were whole downtowns that were like this, some with the concrete buildings falling in on themselves. I wondered who'd been there, tried, and failed, and where they were now. Clovis seemed to have no center that I could see, but lots of dead businesses. I turned the corner up Prince Street, and it was the same, except with a bit of new growth: franchises were taking tentative hold, and, perhaps sensing the halfway-to-elsewhere location of the city, something of a Motel Row was growing. I was glad to see the La Quinta, even if the receptionist didn't seem glad to see anybody, let alone me. 

The next thing was dinner, and helpful friends had found two possibilities on Yelp. I'd seen a couple of Mexican places on the way in, but as is the custom around here, they closed after the lunch hour. There were two, Leal's and Don Mario's, that had dinner. I chose Leal's after being snippily informed that it wasn't pronounced in two syllables (lay-ALLs), but rhymed with "wheels." It turned out to be the most horrible, gringified Mexican place imaginable, although I'll say that their "crispy chile relleno," made crispy by the addition to the batter of the traditional Mexican ingredient panko bread crumbs, is a good idea in theory. Pretty bland otherwise, and I think there was MSG in the salsa.

The bed was welcome after the long drive, seven hours or so, and I awoke the next morning ready to eat breakfast and bomb on to Santa Fe, where I was sure a far better experience awaited. Don Mario's was waiting, and it was yet another gringified joint. I wished I'd noted more carefully the couple of places I'd seen coming in, but I hadn't. Service at this joint was horrific, and the waitress stared uncomprehending when I ordered chile verde with eggs. Apparently it's not pronounced chee-lay vayr-day, but rhymes with silly birdy. I may have seen the reason for the weird service on the way out:

But first, are you expereinenced? Have you ever been expereinenced? Not sure I have...
Nor was that the weirdest sign I saw in Clovis. Prince Street in daylight was more depressing than at night, the worst evidence of that busted dream problem being a very large restaurant about to fall apart. It still had a sign up, Great Wall: American Food and Sushi. Sigh. But I knew that Prince would end at US 84, and that that would be the beginning of my next leg of the trip. Turning right onto it, I saw a Subway, also with a sign board. It read FACE YOUR DARKEST FEARS. 

Okay. Bye, Clovis. Buddy will have to wait for next time. 

Part II: Santa Fe, Sunlight, Seniors, and Slaves

Obligatory New Mexico chile shot

The landscape was changing into outright desert, although at this time of year it starts raining, and, indeed, people in Santa Fe were complaining that I'd have an awful time unless it stopped. The desert, of course, responded as usual, turning green and coming to life. There weren't really dramatic landscape features, but there were mesas and mountains, and Austin doesn't have those yet. And there was life out there: signs to Wastella and Bovina. Of course, I got lost trying to get into town, but it smoothed out well once I followed signs to Historic Downtown. I'd already glimpsed some Historic in Historic Ft. Sumner, which had Billy the Kid memorabilia and his grave, among other things. Why, my route took me directly underneath the Historic Bridge, so labelled, built in 1938 and restored in 1967! The town just sings history: too bad I didn't have time to stop and gawk. 

Santa Fe's Historic Downtown, however, is just a bit older. 1610 is the generally-accepted date. I'd just lucked out yet again on a hotel room, as I had last year in Montreal. TripAdvisor suddenly came up with an unbeatable price at the El Dorado Hotel and Spa, and I grabbed it. I gladly handed the keys to the Gray Vibe over to the valet, stumbled upstairs, and checked in. The room was comfortable, the lowest grade they had (must be nice to have a fireplace room later in the year, though), the lobby had mammoth ceilings, the restaurants seemed reasonably priced, and I was set. The first order of business was to find a place to eat. I was already tired of heavy pseudo-Mexican food, and yet I was confident that I could find better nearby, but I wanted something a bit lighter. The local alternative paper's best-of list had just come out, and a "gastropub" called Fire & Hops seemed not only nearby, but very interesting. And so it proved: the calamari looked a bit overdetermined from the menu description, but wasn't, and the Cubano sandwich was nicely made, if a challenge for my store-bought teeth. And the real discovery was La Cumbre Brewing's Elevation IPA on tap. The mixture of hops they used are so fragrant -- and so complex -- that it's a joy to drink. 

I'd done a quick reconnaissance around the 'hood shortly after getting in, but in the morning I decided to go get breakfast outside the hotel, because of lingering mistrust of hotel restaurants. I stumbled into the first place I found, the Alameda Cafe, where a Salvadoran gentleman named Francisco J. Castillo pours an extraordinary cup of (organic) coffee. His breakast burrito (the signature breakfast dish of New Mexico, apparently) I'm less enthusiastic about, but I suspect that's because I'm not too enthusiastic about breakfast burritos in general. That aside, this is a find. 

My next stop, after a quick check-in at the hotel to grab my camera, was the Railyard District, about which I'd heard so much. The word was that it was the center of a hot art scene, which was what the younger folks in Santa Fe had going, and there were all sorts of cool things down there. I also needed a shirt, because I was having dinner with an old friend that night and the one I'd packed had been poorly chosen: I hadn't seen the stains or the giant hole by one of the buttons, and my friend told me that the REI down there would have something. 

The Railyard district had a very interesting fact embedded in it: although everyone knows the Santa Fe Railroad, it did not, in fact, stop in Santa Fe. Instead, there was a spur from a town further south, Lamy, and today there's one from Albuquerque. There was more to that story, as I'd find out.  Instead, I mooched around a mall set in the former headquarters of a shipping company that made history when it was used to supply the workers at the Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos, a place so secret that it was known only as PO Box 1663, Santa Fe, and newly-arrived workers reported to an anonymous building nearby and were driven out to the town. The mall has a nice selection of photos of that period, along with ones of the Railyard in earlier times. 

Down at the end of the Railyard District lay what must have been the reason for the reputation: SITE Santa Fe, a sprawling arts building. They were celebrating their 20th anniversary by inviting some of the artists who'd done projects there before to make new works. 

I thought the protuberances looked a bit dated, but they probably can't be held responsible for something they did two decades ago, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that as an Old Person, I was allowed half off the ten-dollar admission. Thank heaven. After a quick tour of the place, I had a revelation: academic art is academic art. The only thing that separated this stuff from the similar stuff I'd had to see and sometimes write about in Europe was that it was a bit more naive, a bit less over-thought. But you still have to evaluate it, not by what it is, but by whether it accurately represents the artist's "position" and whether the problem or argument in the artist's statement is well-realized. It was awful. I fled. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent back in the core of the city, walking around aimlessly to figure what was where. Mostly, it was a Shopping Experience, selling the same sort of tack you see in upscale shopping malls, with a local overlay of heavy silver-and-turquoise, cute Indians, roadrunners, Kokopilis (isn't he Arizona?) and the like. Around the central plaza, tents were going up for the annual Fiesta, which, I'd been told, was mostly for the local Hispanic population. I located the state's historical museum, inside the Palace of the Governors, as well as the state art museum and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, filing it all away for further exploration. 

I'd been here before, with my family on one of our driving vacations that we started to take when my dad had earned three weeks' vacation and my sister was old enough. We'd pack up in New York and head to wherever we were going, and one time we did the Southwest. I remembered most vividly lunch on a rooftop, in an eccentric (for the times: this was about 40 years ago) restaurant where I had cold raspberry soup. Avant garde! And at the next table, an Anglo couple were chatting with a pigtailed, weathered Indian guy who looked like he'd stepped off of a nickel. It all felt really exotic, an exoticism that vanished when we got to the sidewalk in front of the Palace, which then as now is lined with craftspeople selling, and in some cases, making, beadwork, silver, turquoise, and the like. Today they're still there, but not the sad, resigned Indians I saw as a kid. They're a mixture, and the stuff is overwhelmingly schlock, although the state claims it supervises quality and adherence to tradition on the part of anyone selling there. 

My shirt-shopping had come to naught: both at REI and at one of the few boutiques selling men's clothing, the price of a shirt seemed to be fixed at $138. My dinner host was Baron Wolman, the venerable staff photographer when I was at Rolling Stone, the man who founded Rags, the short-lived counter-culture fashion magazine, and someone I'd reconnected with when he came to Berlin to direct the hanging of a show of his photos at a gallery around the corner from me. I was tired, but had a much better idea of where I was, so I repaired to the hotel. 

D'après Telebob

Baron had selected a new restaurant run by a crew that included a woman he knew, Radish and Rye, not far from the Railyard District. He'd been there a couple of nights previously and couldn't wait to go back. It's only been open a little while, and there are a few problems (including a waiter who said "Fantastic!" to everything), but what's on the table isn't one of them. I had a problem, too: my appetite was off, and my sense of smell was acting up again. Some of this may have been due to the low-carb thing I'm trying to institute, but I think there's more to it, and I hope to see my doctor about this soon. At any rate, my charcuterie plate (served without any sort of bread: major oversight) was one bit of rubber after the next, when I'm positive it was better than that, and only the radicchio salad and the shishito peppers (like padrons, but not as exciting) had any taste. I had to cancel the bowl of corn chowder, which Baron claims is one of their masterpieces, because I just didn't feel like eating (although I'm not sure I'd have been able to handle the big-ass smoked marrow bone floating in it). Dang. Next time. 

The next day I breakfasted at the hotel (a yogurt "parfait" with fruit and granola in it: just what I needed) and set off for some art and culture. First stop was the Palace of the Governors, with the state historical museum behind it. There, I began to get the basics of the story, how Juan de Oñate and his family came north from Mexico and settled on a site where there had been Pueblo villages to establish a regional capital in 1610. This was cool until the Pueblos got fed up and attacked the city in 1680, an event depicted in an oil painting where they're hanging the priests and knocking the cross off of the church. The Pueblos held on to the city for 12 years, making the Palace into a sort of apartment house, and then the Spaniards took it again and held it. The Palace has decent documentation of all of this and the artifacts aren't much to look at, but there is a room with portraits of notable New Mexicans of the 19th century, including Juan Felipe Ortiz, a Catholic priest who'd managed to bring a lot of Indians to the Church by incorporating their rites and ceremonies into a Catholic context, the same way the mass conversions of Europe had happened a millenium before. Of course, when a new Archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, arrived he was shocked at the goings on -- dancing! -- and excommunicated Oritz. (Nor was this the first time the iron fist of the Church had descended on New Mexico, since the Spanish Inquisition had already grilled a bunch of people who may or may not have been Jews who'd outwardly converted, but maybe not all the way. There's apparently some debate about these conversos, and I saw several books about them but wasn't sure of their veracity, so I didn't buy one). 

One thing the colorful cultures and breathtaking scenery of New Mexico tend to make us forget is that it's reliably the second or third poorest state in the union, along with Mississippi and Maine. And while you don't see it much in Santa Fe, it's sure out there. This is probably why the New Mexico History Museum makes so much of the Fred Harvey Company, started by a British immigrant who rose from dishwasher to owner of a restaurant next to the railroad tracks in Florence, Kansas. He made the connection with the trains, and the unavailability of safe food for travellers, and soon partnered up with the Santa Fe Railroad to operate restaurants along their line. Restaurants need workers, and one of his executives had the brilliant idea of advertising for girls to move to these outposts to staff the restaurants. This led to a spinoff whereby guides -- also women -- would take tourists to local Indian pueblos to buy jewelry, blankets, and pottery, thereby establishing tourism as a business that brought much-needed money to the region, particularly to its poorest inhabitants. He also established a chain of hotels for these tourists, including La Fonda, which is still in operation in Santa Fe. The museum, considering the constraint of having to work around the fact that poverty has been the overriding leitmotif of the state's history, does a real good job. 

It also pays host to travelling exhibits and I caught a good one, dealing with art showing the Virgin Mary in the Hispanic New World. Most of the paintings were from wealthier Spanish colonies like Peru and Mexico, and to tell the truth, I preferred the Palace's display of santos, carved wooden images from the 18th century, which are appealingly primitive, but amidst the opulence (or attempted opulence) of the images on display, this statue really stood out:

Our Lady of a) punk rock; b) PMS; c) Perpetual Sorrow

(My usual Blur-O-Vision approach kind of helps this pic, but compare with this piece of street art):

Friday was for history, what there was of it among the frantic shoppers, who I now realized were trucked into the city in buses and given some time to do the city. A lot of them were senior citizens, some in parlous physical condition, and I began to realize what Santa Fe was, in some respects, reminding me of: Sun City, Arizona, where my parents spent the last 35 years of their lives, outliving three sets of friends, and one of the most horrifying places I've ever spent a lot of time in. There was no age compact in Santa Fe, of course, a minimum age for residence, and the presence of Hispanics and a few African-Americans -- and all those tourists -- definitely brightened things up. I'll never be able to "retire," and in fact have no desire to, since I love my work, but a lot of Americans hit a wall when they're no longer going to their jobs each day, and need to be coaxed out of their former skin to learn how to live differently. There was a touch of this in Santa Fe, which I saw most vividly at the farmers market on Saturday, and of course a lot of these retirees have more money than Sun Citizens, but Baron told me that the median age in town was 45, and that made sense. 

Besides the Palace, there isn't much old building left, but the alleged Oldest House is one of them. Big as it looks from outside, it's tiny inside (although it had another story and maybe a bigger downstairs, if drawings of it are anything to go by). 

Built 1646, a youngster compared to several pueblos, stuff in Puerto Rico, and a slew of buildings in New England, sez Wikipedia
It stands near the Mission of San Miguel, which the sun made impossible to photograph like I wanted to, and which, along with the Palace, was at least begun in 1610. 

This, we learn, was built with the help of Mexican Indians, "servants" of the Spaniards. Apparently it's not kosher to refer to them as "slaves," which, if they fitted the pattern of the Spaniards' use of the local Indians in California and Mexico, is the more apt term. No wonder the Pueblos hanged the priest. 

It's more impressive inside, with a nice altar

and a bell dated 1356, which they'd hauled all the way from Spain. 

Note the milagros hammered into the wood frame
Another place I remembered from my childhood visit was the Loretto Chapel, notable for a wooden spiral staircase whose construction apparently defies physics, created by a guy who wandered out of the desert, built the thing, and vanished. It costs $3 to see, and I passed, because it's likely the only thing to see there and I'd seen it when it must have been free: my parents' hatred for the Catholic Church would have prevented them from spending a dime. 

I lunched at a famous restaurant, Santa Fe Bite, which had been a local institution, Bobcat Bite, until a mess of acrimony shut it down and the owners renamed it and rehoused it as, of all things, a motel coffee shop. I had been told that it had the definitive green chile cheeseburger, and guess what: it did. It was too much for me to finish, and the waitress gave me a tip I'll pass along: they have a 6oz. burger on the menu. Order it with green chile (extra) and cheese (extra) and it'll be a bit cheaper than the burger on the menu -- and you can finish it. You'll want to. 

Then I ran into more history: the opening of the Fiesta, which commemorates the settlement of 1610 and is definitely a celebration of Chicano pride. I was standing at an ATM, waiting to use it, when the gunshots announcing the beginning went off. This was followed by some Indian singing, and that was followed, inexplicably, by bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace." And that was followed by someone singing the most awful song I've heard in a while, which turned out to be Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," containing the lines "At least I live in America/So I know what it's like to be free." Uh, sure. But then I remembered the date, which someone I know refers to as National Pick The Scab Day. A depressing reminder, among the exotica, of where I was. 

This all tired me, and I had to plan my return the next day, so I went back to the hotel, feeling I'd exhausted most of the remaining options. I ate dinner in a place I mention only to warn you off of it: I wanted something light, and they advertised dinner salads, and it was across the street from my hotel, but man, the Hilton, to which it's attached, should do something about El Cañon. The food was awful, but not as bad as the two giddy guys who man the place. They think they're a comedy team. They're not. 

My appetite and digestion were massively screwed up by this point, and that may explain my indifference to the farmers market the next morning, although I'm still kicking myself for it. 
Obligatory cliched photo of chiles

The market is in the Railyard District, and only a short walk from my hotel. I had a problem in that I was going to overnight in Big Spring, Texas, and wouldn't arrive home until Sunday afternoon. I wanted to buy some New Mexico green chiles (far more useful, if less picturesque, than the red) to take home, but I didn't see how it would be possible because I didn't have a cooler, and didn't know where to get one. But these aren't the generic "Hatch" chiles that are now a national phenomenon. These people know their stuff:

Take that, HEB!
Another knowledgeable merchant was the Tomato Lady, American cousin to Eric le Tomatologue in Montpellier, with her list of available varieties: 

There was no way to get these back, cooler or no, and I could only stare.

I waited for that woman to put her hand there so you could see the size of these puppies. 
I should have bought some seeds. There were seeds there. I should have bought a cooler down the road. I should have picked up lunch. But I didn't. Instead I went back to the hotel, checked out, and hit the road. 

Part III: Blowout and the Terror of Critter Alley

There's a lot of nothing between Santa Fe and Big Spring, and Vaughan, NM is smack dab in the middle of it. Good thing, too, because I was low on gas and needed to recycle the morning coffee. Having done so, I got back on  the road. Then there was a funny sound. I looked at my right rear tire, from which it had come, and it didn't look good. I found a turnaround and headed back to Vaughan, but not for long. A worse sound happened, and the tire sounded different -- way different. I got out to see what was what. This is what was what. 

Being the cool character I am, I got out the spare and all the relevant tools and discovered that I couldn't budge any of the nuts, because they'd been installed with a power tool. Back in the car, I dialled 911, which tranferred me to Guadelupe County 911, who gave me a number to call for a wrecker. I called and the guy said he'd be there in an hour. So I sat and waited. There was a stiff breeze, which helped keep things cool, and the amazing landscape to contemplate. 

The immediate neighborhood
It may seem incredible, but 59 minutes after the call, a yellow truck that said TNT TOWING pulled up and a burly young guy emerged and identified himself as Thomas. He had the tiny spare on in no time, and opined that it'd last me about 100 miles, so we motored back into Vaughan, where he checked his stock to see if he had a replacement. He didn't. "So we call the next guy," he said. "We all help each other out around here." And the next guy had what we needed. He also had a slab of limestone into which he'd sand-blasted a bas-relief design and then painted it into a loving portrait of Thomas' big Peterbilt wrecker, which wasn't in evidence at the moment. As Thomas took the dead tire off and put the new one on, another truck showed up and a Hispanic guy got out with a couple of baggies of tomatoes and chiles, just perfect, to give to the guy who'd brought the tire. I guess they do help each other out; it was a nice slice of life in the middle of nowhere. 

$177.91 later, and hearty thanks to Thomas, whom I hope you never have to see, but am happy to have met, I motored on towards Big Spring, still several hours away. Okay, I told myself, the big adventure which had lurked in the back of my mind, sure that it would happen out on the road, had happened, and now it would be a nice dull trip back to Austin. 

If only. 

I got to worrying about whether my Google Map route was right: could US 380 really be this long? Had I missed a turnoff? I stopped for a bathroom break and a Diet Coke to wake me up, and asked the lady in the convenience store if I'd missed Big Spring. No, she said, there was a turnoff just down the road. I was in Post, Texas, and... And she was interrupted by a fat, red-faced farmer in overalls. "If he takes that road there through Gail, he'll get there. Most direct route from here." She agreed he was right. It was also dark by now and my night-vision isn't what it was, so a direct route was very welcome. As the day had dimmed, I'd already had one apparition, a huge, shaggy, dirty white dog walking very slowly across the highway, a giant heart outlined in black among his markings. He made it to the other side, but he was an unsettling sight. At any rate, after confirming that the road just a few feet past the filling station was correct, I got in the car and got on to FM 669. 

The overture: seconds after I'd gotten onto the road, from the side two gigantic wings unfurled, then sank quickly, only for their owner to get unstuck from the dinner he'd been enjoying and rise into the night sky, a huge raptor of some sort that I didn't get to identify because there was also -- is this possible? -- a giant bobcat which cast a disgusted look at me and sauntered into the woods. I pushed on, suddenly aware that my route was teeming with nocturnal life. Among that life, as it turned out soon thereafter, were many, many whitetail deer. Joe Nick Patoski's sage advice came to me: "Deer are never alone. If you see one, be careful because there are more." I never saw more than two at one time, but I was very, very lucky because all of them stood where they were on the side of the road and turned away from my headlights. I was driving with heightened awareness, knowing that at any time a critter could jump into my path and I'd have to react -- fast. There were a couple of huge hairy things that might have been woodchucks, small rodents -- voles? -- dashing across the highway, healthy big jackrabbits and smaller non-jack rabbits. One of these fell victim to my back wheels, but there was no damage to the car. On a bridge, where I stopped being vigilant because there was no land on either side, another huge raptor sat, and took off, annoyed. Toads sat in the road and I passed over them without touching them. And all the while my car was dive-bombed by crickets. 

Some lights appeared in the distance, and suddenly the wildlife stopped, as if a tap had been shut. I realized I hadn't seen any possums, nor had I seen that iconic Texas critter the armadillo. I saw a sign to Big Spring. I exhaled. Finally 669 ended, and I realized I had no idea how to get to my motel. Checking its address, I asked the navigation app to get me to the address on LaMesa Drive. It smartly came up with something, and I noticed that my gas light was on. Okay, let's go. Soon, I was in downtown Big Spring, and then there was a gas station with $1.99 gas. I filled up, then the app directed me. Suddenly, I was in a residential neighborhood, on Mesa Drive, not LaMesa. I got out the phone and corrected the address. It wanted me to go to Midland. It refused to recognize the "la" in the address. I was sitting in a nice neighborhood shouting at my phone, hoping the Big Spring Police had lots of better things to do. Finally, the stupid phone realized what I was doing and got me to where I was going. It was an hour and a half from the end of Critter Alley to the motel, lots longer than it should have been. But then, the route I'd gotten from Google was faulty. I didn't care. I checked in, went to a nearby truckstop, had a sandwich, and went to bed. 

Nothing much happened the next day except I got home. Finally.

Monday, September 7, 2015

And Now What Happens Next...

I hit this blog so infrequently these days that I'm a bit ashamed. I do love to write, and here's my personal outlet, but as most of you know, I'm writing a book, and after a few concentrated hours doing that, well, I don't want to write anything.

However two weeks ago, I surprised myself by finishing the first draft. What that means, for those of you who don't have the exquisite joy of making the world's largest jigsaw puzzle out of the world's tiniest pieces (which is an apt way to describe the finding and stringing together all these facts) is that, to employ yet another metaphor, I've built the house, know where all the rooms went and built them there, the floors and ceilings are done, but now I need to do some decoration and landscaping so someone will want to live there. Ideally, this book will be both filled with facts and as readable as a novel. I have models for this but I'm loath to name them because I'm sure that I'll fall far short of them. But you will enjoy it.

It was an odd experience. There was a point when everything I was doing changed and I got a lot more into each chapter, and more entertainingly, than I had before. One of the things I have to do now is to go back to the beginning and start working with that mindset, as well as attending to this list of omissions and elisions: can you believe I neglected to mention Wanda Jackson? Neither can I. Please, nobody tell her; I'll make it good in the rewrite.

It also took nearly a year, a year of waking up, eating breakfast, drinking coffee while reading the news and the Well, and then attacking the stack of books, CD booklets, charts, and miscellanea, sometimes consulting three of them so I could write four words. I'd write for between 60 and 90 minutes most days, checking yesterday's work as a way of getting ready for today's, hoping that the opening I'd given myself to hint at the next bit of the narrative was sufficient to keep it going. At night, I'd read books related to the work, some excellent (Elijah Wald's Dylan Goes Electric!), some dull, and at least one, an authorized biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, disgraceful. Once a week, if I could, I'd take a day off and take care of errands, swabbing the decks, changing the oil, or just plain doing nothing. The only other interruption to the routine was having to do a couple of Fresh Air pieces, both writing and recording them. The recording day would be a day off, since it was usually around noon and on the UT campus. But most of the rest of the time I was writing.

And, as such a routine usually does, it brought me to the end of the first bit of the labor. But I'm not quite ready to get to the second part because my brain's filled up with what went before. So tomorrow morning I'm going to get into my car and start driving. My goal is Clovis, New Mexico, best known as the headquarters of Nor-Va-Jak Studios, Norman Petty's recording operation, where a generation of Panhandle stars -- Buddy Holly most notably -- recorded. The next morning I'll drive a few more hours and be in Santa Fe, staying until I've checked out the Saturday morning farmers' market, and then turning around and arriving back here in Austin on Sunday. I will do nothing music-related, and try to wipe my brain clear so that when I look at what I've accomplished so far next Tuesday morning, I'll be able to get to work with the concentration and energy I've had over the last year. After that, I hope, I'll hand it in and pray that the publisher likes it. I think they will. You will, too.

* * *

Meanwhile, I seem to have lived through my second summer in the new Austin without killing anyone, although there were times I was sorely tempted, and times I was the one in danger: people who drive those behemoth truck/car monsters don't seem much interested in other drivers, and had I been T-boned by the Volvo SUV going 40 mph in the supermarket parking lot the other day, I wouldn't be typing this. Or I wouldn't be driving to Santa Fe because I wouldn't have a car. 

The worst fatalities of the summer here were all plants: that happy picture of green sprouts emerging from the potting soil on my deck didn't last long. More rain came and one day -- really: it all happened on one day -- they all wilted, turned brown, and died. The basil and oregano followed shortly thereafter. That relentless heat isn't so good for plants, nor is the huge amount of rain we experienced anything their DNA is programmed to respond to. I'll try again, although with the chiles or not I can't say, when I get back. The forecast is for cooler temperatures. 

But if the plant life suffered, the animal life did not. Most spectacularly, a very large toad began to guard my back door at night, positioning himself under the light so that handy snacks came his way without his having to exert much effort. 

The Guardian
It's hard to assess scale on a picture like this, but he's about the size of a softball. He enlists a couple of underlings in his dinner party, too: there's a very small gecko who hangs around and doubtless knocks bugs off the wall, and a fast brown anole who does likewise. When I find a tree roach in the house, I go all curling and start sweeping it towards one of the doors. The back door critters get the ones that I throw out from there, although I have no idea if toads eat tree roaches. 

Out the front door are more critters: another brown anole lives by the front door, sort of under the jamb, and I was shocked, surprised, and very happy to welcome a new critter I'd never seen before living on the tree out there: an arboreal Texas Spiny Lizard, a full foot long. 

Photo from Wikipedia. My guy won't stand sill long enough to photograph.
It's pretty wonderful knowing that these -- and, no doubt, other -- critters are out there in the yard, and I purposely didn't have the back yard mowed this summer, because I know that the low ground cover gives habitat not only to these lizards, but to a wide variety of insects that serve as food for them and the birds who visit the yard. Since what I do is sit at this desk and look out at them, it's ensuring myself the free entertainment that comes with the house. And something new I've noticed has been that every now and again a bright green feather falls from the sky. I've been told there are flocks of monk parrots in Austin but that they tend to be so high in the trees one rarely sees them. I'd like to have one of those rare moments because besides liking lizards, I'm a big psittacophile, and sort of like being dive-bombed by the parrot mobs in Barcelona. Those aren't as shy as these here are: they're very visible, and very in your face. 

* * *

In other news, I went to get my blood pressure medications renewed last week and was asked to submit to another blood test because my lipids were "high." I was actually glad to get in to see the doctor because she was leaving on vacation on Monday for a week, so she wasn't around when the chirpy receptionist called me on Monday and said I'd been "diagnosed with diabetes," that I'd have to make lifestyle and diet changes and I should "look up diabetes diet on the Internet." This, I suppose, is how medicine is done in the U.S., and a major reason why I'd rather be elsewhere for medical emergencies: my doctors in Berlin and Montpellier would be livid at such casual, off-hand treatment of a patient. 

So I got yet another pill to take twice daily, and I gather I should cut back on my carbohydrates, but I have so little data to go on that I have no idea if I'm pre-diabetic (as are many people my age) or in full-blown diabetes, where bread is death and so is pasta. I suspect the former, and I intend to get some straight facts and figures before I do anything too radical. And yes, I'd love to exercise, which really wasn't an issue in Europe, since one had to walk places to get things, and, in France, when I realized I'd reached the end of my working day, I'd often just go out and start walking around town. I also had two mile-long hikes per week when I went to the market, and walked to the supermarket every day. You take your life in your hands here, though, where there are no sidewalks and the automotive giants careen down small roads in defiance of the speed limit. Also, years ago, I was warned never to exercise when the temperature was over 91º F (just over 32º C) because it could cause heart damage. I suppose when it cools down a bit I'll drive myself over to the Greenbelt or other appropriate area and find a walking circuit I can take, but the absurdity of driving myself to and from exercise isn't lost on me. But I do like walking: going over the same walk day after day keeps your powers of observation sharp, and so it's good for my business. Among other things. 

* * *

I'm still ambivalent about having made this return to the U.S., and now that the media's ginned up the Presidential horserace again, even more so. There's a part of me that doesn't want to know that people like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz and the like exist, let alone have people who follow them and believe what they believe. The plutocrats in the extractive industries are trying to buy the election (and may well succeed thanks to low-information voters and the general depressed intellectual level of the electorate), and what damage they aren't doing is being done by Our Digital Overlords and the so-called "sharing economy," which looks like serfdom to me. A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a review of a gallery show of political posters, and this was one of the featured images:

This is dated 1935, and, although it doesn't mention some of the of the issues of our moment (I think the 5-day week woman is meant to be black, so she sort of counts), like police militarization, women's heath care, and minorities being stripped of their voting rights, it's breathtaking to see how many of these issues have been nearly eroded away (right to organize, collective bargaining) or are under assault (Social Security) or whose abolition is seriously being discussed (child labor, higher wages, which at the moment means raising the minimum). 80 years, and the battles won and then the victory snatched away. 

Fortunately, the discussion of democratic socialism has entered the picture, and the media ignoring Bernie Sanders to the extent it does is helping that discussion spread. I don't expect to see it instituted in this country in my lifetime, or, really, ever, but if you'd like to get informed so you can contribute to the conversation I recommend the late Tony Judt's Ill Fares The Land, which my friend Nikki was handing out like candy at Halloween a couple of years ago, and which shows the positives and negatives of the American and European approaches. I realize that most Americans aren't interested in how they do things elsewhere, or else we'd have had functioning health care before I turned ten, but there are a few, and a lot of them read this blog. 

So happy Labor Day, even if the idiocracy is trying to tell us this is yet another military holiday or it should be abolished in favor of a holiday on 9/11 -- or even though the rest of the world celebrates it on May 1. Stay strong, I'll try to do the same, and maybe we'll have tiny victories to celebrate in the near future. 
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