From Wikipedia: Aldine, built on the International–Great Northern Railroad, was named after a local farm family. A post office operated in Aldine from 1896 to 1935; after 1935, mail was delivered from Houston. In 1914 Aldine included two general stores, a fig preserver, and several poultry breeders and several dairymen. The population briefly reached 100 in 1925. In the 1930s and 1940s the population decreased to between thirty and forty residents.
I was driving in a rather rough neighborhood. I had been here before just a few months ago. It was almost familiar except that new roads were under construction and the roads were changed again throwing off my GPS devise so time and again I was lost even with the power of digital information. The houses were small and basic. There were many businesses that seemed closed or abandoned or both. It is a confusing space on earth. Dogs wandered about some areas, in others, there were fences and gates around clusters of houses so that these neighborhoods were cut off from the highway. There seemed to be only highways.
I wanted to go to the mall after my work, but I could not find it. Even with the GPS. I passed the same spot more than twice. I think. The box warehouses looked the same. The office parks. The weed lots that are for sale. The roadside businesses both employed and already abandoned.
I was lost. I had indeed been at the same place more than once. I had given up going to the mall, I needed to just get back to the hotel. The underpass looked familiar. That is, at least the homeless person on the corner was indeed the same as before.
The roads moved in front of my eyes. They twisted and turned and bent into strange shapes. The world was moving all about me in new ways that I could not understand. The traffic piled up, the trucks and cars sped by or changed lanes and without warning. I feared for the safe passage of my rented car. I wished for the additional insurance. As I was also frustrated. Angry by this time that I could not find my way back to my temporary home, the hotel. An obvious place. A place on the internet, clearly labeled yet, in these changing roads, a vanished space on an open land filled with identical landmarks. The rough patches where the few trees grew were surrounded by large machines taking up entire fields and forests and stacking them into piles.
It was a new world growing up about me. Every day the city grew. The beltway grew, a highway under construction for a lifetime. Lanes merged in front of my eyes. Traffic was stopped up by various accidents and incidents. There seemed at all points some scraps of cars that didn’t make it along the way. The little crosses at the roadway were becoming my only landmarks, places on the road where those drivers who died provided the only unique marks – dark houses guiding me home.
And finally I found my home away from home. The bland hotel, the one where the door didn’t work so well, the halls smelled dank, the highway noise was kept out by the din of the air conditioner. This must be the place, I thought.
When we were children we were uprooted from the place we knew and moved far far far away from the friends who were family and up up into a new place, a village on the banks of a certain river that ebbs up and flows down so the waters move in two directions, a feature not lost on the Natives who called the river Muhheakantuck.
We lived not far from the River Muhheakantuk in a large yellow house. The house was different than the one we left behind in suburbia. It had no heat outside of a few rooms on the first floor. No running water most of the summer. And the backyard had been for generations been used as a private landfill so that there were parts of the ground that bounced from buried bed springs and places that went crunch crunch crunch as one walked atop rusting beer cans. Not to mention the broken glass. And the poison Ivy. And the weeds. And the house itself where the carpets and stink of the previous owners was not cleared out before we moved in. The wind and the ghosts and the mice all conspired to make very strange noises not just that first winter of discontent, but for years after.
While our green acre was a devastation of modern life and a home we lived in as squatters, it inspired my lifetime interest in environmentalism and perpetual misanthropic state since I could not imagine in my childish mind how people could just dump trash outside their door and live on top of it. So we kiddies took to rambling about, sneaking outside the confines of our crappy “yard” (much larger than that little lot we left behind in suburbia but less verdant and beloved than our inland empire) and we would sneak. Out past the first trash heap, the second one and across the glass-infested swamp. Through some woods and more woods until we came to a stream next to an apple orchard. The stream no more than a seasonal drainage, part natural, perhaps somewhat influenced by the generations of farmers dating all the way back to the Dutch and the estates.
The stream marked the boundary of the village property owners of Lefferts Corners where a collection of rotten houses and economically distressed families scratched the grounds and apparently dumped trash outside their doorsteps. The woods we sneaked upon were owned by a family that had their own children play in the woods from time to time – this was a long time ago when children could play on their own and not call their parents every few moments with an update or be part of some structured activity set intended to get Zoe and Xiamano into high school/early college so they can die fat, happy, on several trendy medications, and in an aroused state, as we all should so perish. We kiddos found a rope swing. Thinking back this was totally ridiculous. The stream was no more than a trickling smattering of manure and pesticides from the various fields and orchards, but it had a rope and we would swing and jump and play and frolic and….
Wait… Someone’s coming.
Into the marsh. Into the woods. Melt into the rocks of the waters itself.
Since it was not our land and we did not belong there one bit.
We loved the stream and my brother and I drew maps to it. Made up little signs and places them about the woods naming various areas. We once built a bridge, a little structure we secreted into the forest and covered another trickle in the attempt to “freak out the other kids.” That was us then. Freaking out the village children by building faerie bridges and putting up strange signs.
We named the tricklet stream Apple Blossom Rock. Since, while we very inventive, sometimes you name the place after what it does, like a river that runs in both directions. There were apples, in the orchard, blossoms that filled the waters but once a year, and being in the country and nature… rocks. Lots of rocks. So much different than those sandy shores and grounds we had grown up so so long ago it makes my teeth hurt and ears grow longer.
And one day, we did not pay attention.
We were surprised not by the village home owner and their brood, but by a lady on horseback… The daughter of the Estate. On one side of Apple Blossom Rock was the village. On the other. The orchard and the estate of the Lady Martense.
Lady Martense had been (allegedly according to the dark mutters of the people of Lefferts Corners) a cigarette girl born in Queens New York from a family of swarthy troglodytes who one cocaine sodden night in a club, met Mr. Lord Sir Martense, a stock broker (we kids had no idea what stock brokers did, but we did know what a troglodyte was). We were once told by a neighbor that Lord Sir Mr. Martense had married the (then) girl and moved upstate with his money and connections and bought the palatial estate of which the border was, not that he knew the name, Apple Blossom Rocks. We were told he had a “direct line to the city” and could see his stocks on a ticker all day where he still made trade. This blew our mind. Not the cocaine part. The “direct line to the city.” We were but simple children and we knew the city was far away and back then, cell phones were still part of science fiction.
The young lady on the fine horse looked at us. I felt about one foot tall. A ragamuffin and all wet and all muddy and all pathetic in front of this fine young lady, the daughter of the Lady of the estate.
She shooed us away. Or maybe we melted away after telling some bullshit story about knowing the people of The Village.
Do you parents know you’re are here? She may have asked.
In terror and lurking fear, we vanished.
And for some time, we remained away from the rope swing before again playing there. And then one day, the rope swing was cut down. And then another day, the orchard was cut down. And before we knew it, our childhood was over.
It was years later, perhaps a decade when we got reports that in the old orchard a house was being constructed. The Lady Martense’s husband, a man of seven feet tall who wore only kilts – it is strange how children form memories that replace any truth – died and as he lay on the pyre she swore she would no longer live in the 18th century manor overlooking the river Muhheakantuck but build a new place, a house to rival even the finest Glambox or McMansion ever seen.
And with her warm hands, she started to dig. Actually, she paid several people to dig using huge machines. These machines dug and dug. We kiddos had all grown up and old by this time. We heard reports from the parent that still lived in the yellow house. We heard the machines worked all the time and at odd hours. It dug and shaped the land. It moved the blessed Apple Blossom Rock and cut down the last of the remaining apple trees.
As I was gone away I had reports that a house grew up over years.
A large house.
Spanish in style, yet Miami it would have been all in place however, in the old Dutch Mountains this house stood out on the grounds out of place and outside of the local world. Which it was. The owner of the land had worked hard to build this house. To put in an infinity pool. To put in expensive windows. To put on a tin roof of fake Spanish tile. On paper, at least as a list of items and materials, this was a fantastic house. Work went on it for years. And from the village, we could see this fantastic house sitting as if positioned for all to see. And many wished it gone, to the point that some planted trees that over time would shade or occlude the view of this monster house from view.
Then, one day, the Lady Martense, died.
And the house, having been complete a mere year or two, lay fallow for a little over a year, before something quite fantastic happened.
Large machines, driven by unknown hands, came to knock down this structure. The huge dinosaur machines went crunch, crunch, crunch and in a matter of five days, one day for each year the mansion was under construction, was torn down, sorted into boxes, and the remainders buried under the land. The machines scooped up all the plantings and took them away.
And dug at the earth. Hard. They dug and dug and restored the drainage ditch, the little stream to where it used to run, not in front of the grand manner but behind where it once stood, restoring Apple Blossom Rock to a pathway we as children would have recognized.
We do not know why this house was vanished. It was effaced as if a pharaoh had come to chip away at the previous God-King to anathematize all memory.
While the rope swing is gone, our youth over, the bridges and little signs long since rotted away, the little stream is returned to those old days of long ago.
I stumbled upon a familiar town deep in the woods. Actually not that deep. Just a tank of gas and a somewhat useful foot on the peddle got me there. The place looked familiar since it was used in a film long ago. I did not see that film when it was in theaters since I came out when the film did. The film was Deliverance and the town is Sylva, North Carolina and I was driving down the same street as used in that film and as I drove I was more interested in finding a parking spot than I had time to The Googles “where the fuck am I and was this street used in a film?”
This blogger for one reason or another has been to a hundred, perhaps several hundred dying little villages across this Great and Sainted land.
The little shops were run down and the buildings were very sun burned and for the most part vacant. However, here and there is a few businesses still thriving or at least thriving enough to pay the rent and somewhat clean the windows when they remembered. This was not the time of Deliverance, the long gone days were done and grandma’s golden general store and the local butcher were gone and but dust on a few brick walls as remembrances. These basic shopes have long been replaced by a number of cute establishments that could find a home in any number of little towns that make the trade papers and tourism board brochures. The little village of Sylvia is a mountain town and within the sphere of Asheville so that while there is a paper mill and rail road tracks, a number of modern road side establishments both ma and pa and corporate, there is the little bookstore, the provisioners for mountain hipsters, and a number of other businesses including the same as one finds in any small village that is on the cusp of collapse (see this blogger’s rant on Main Street USA where businesses were enumerated and itemized in a most sardonic manner).
I had been told first about Deliverance by my mother when I was very young. I guess that year made an impression on her, seeing how Mr. Reynolds was on the screen and I was in the nursery – they did that back then. Put babies in nurseries and kept mothers for a few days. I was brought home, I imagine, in a bassinet from the hospital and I believe my grandmother was there, still in her 1960s garb with the sun glasses and head scarf or perhaps she just put those on for the pictures. I was driven home in a Rambler – a now vintage and perhaps rare car – to a tract home in the suburbs. And my mother sometime in that same year watched Deliverance, the horror film of epic woodland folk and sweaty small towns, and perhaps I was still in the womb when that happened. Perhaps all the fingers in all the world have been pointing to here for some time. Or perhaps not.
I first watched Deliverance when I was nine or ten. It is a longer story than fits in this blog, but I was a child alone in a den in Long Island late at night with a colour TeeVee and cable, three things we as a family of that time could not afford. At that age one has no concept of time. Something from not too long ago seems like ancient history and in 1982 or 1984 or whenever the fuck I was that kid in that room with that TeeVee, Deliverance seemed so long ago so far away, it is strange now to reflect that this film was but as old as I. No Citizen Kane, no Alice in Wonderland, no Casablanca or Lawrence of Arabia (all favorite films at that age), this was of my own lifetime, give or take a few months, days, and hours.
I was up late, one of those unsupervised children of the 1980s we all now fear. I had watched classic Star Trek until about midnight and then on HBO (Home Box Office… the internet of our age and a amazing thing to have in the home since we still had an old black and white and struggled to get channel 13 WPBS) came this film my parent has spoken about and to which the adults alluded to just by going “de a ling ding ding” whenever they didn’t like to be outdoors. I had also seen it in a copy of Kenny’s Mad Magazine collection, since Kenny had no children of his own and didn’t mind our reading his comics. And this was the 1970s, let me remind you…. we drank out of a hose and went on adventures outside of our property without a plan or cell phone…. I’m not saying that a few of us didn’t get kidnapped and die…. But I had some idea of Deliverance. And now the chance to see it. My caregiver, the alleged babysitter, had passed out upstairs long ago after a pack or five or Chesterfields and several bottles of wine. And there was Deliverance. Just right there, on the Boobtube. And I watched the shit out of that film and enjoyed every moment. I did not, however, so much appreciate the abuse I received at the hands of the alleged babysitter… but that is another matter altogether. But having been armed with Deliverance, it was not so amazing that adults acted in strange and mentally ill ways.
Outside of the Kudzu that covered most of the hills and crept over the lamps, spare cars, and sheds, I did not consider the film nor think other than this looked like a quaint enough village if not like a thousand other rotting places I have seen. I parked the car by the burned down building on what may be a main street (the filmed Mill Street was the other direction) and took it all in. I was about to get to the bookstore, but remembered I had little time and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, needed some victuals to which I assumed a Mexicanhispanicy spot seemed the best bet.
It was. The food was wonderful and the space indeed the type of spot I recognize. Old tin ceiling, worn counters, storied building kicked into shape but needing so much more work than I knew the businesses income could support. Being chained to a small Main Street myself (for reasons far outside the space of this blog), I understood and sympathized and yet there was tinge of envy. The men were young and had mustaches and suspenders. The woman ample arms with amazing ink. The other patrons were laughing and talking with little care in the world and I was rushing my day to get to [omitted] so I could [redacted] the next day. I checked my phone for the map to ensure I had enough time to have dinner, drink a single yummy local pint of brew and legally get on the road to arrive in G— by sundown.
I finished my bill and exited. The early autumn sun yet shone on the Kudzu and the store fronts, both burned down and yet occupied. I took a few snaps and returned to my car. To the highway, and left the safety and comfort of the mountains and the hills that I can been taught to see only as a backdrop to that 1970s Gothic film, the iconic epic of the age, the long lost now lonely time that I was born.
Editor’s Note: This blog is written with a Vizio laptop on often constantly moving trains, airplanes, and cars. Anyone who knows this machine knows that the trackpad is very sensitive and changes text, removes and deletes text and otherwise hon one’s writing. We apologize for such occurrences where sentences just seem to end and with
I often joke that there exists a network of Woodstocks in these United States. These Woodstocks serve as havens and safe houses for those among us who do not march on the same step, were tuned out, turned out, and dropped away from society. These are not subcultures, but actual wounded birds hit by the windscreen of life that nest together for succor and sustenance. All Woodstocks have a few elements that come standard and one or more of the following:
1. Rich people who just had enough and took their money and retired early
2. Creative people who believe an art gallery can be deep in the woods the same as it could be in Chelsea
3. Musicians who play the accordion, kazoo, ukulele or all three and/or all at once
4. Drum circle or at least one White Person With Dreads (WPWD) who “discovered” the African drum
5. Rich people who sip white wine and wear black but still work at least two days a week (usually somewhere else) and support 90% of the economy by eating out all the time, buying coffee from the local roaster, and supporting the local arts
6. Townies who hate Hippies/Are Hippies
d. All of the Above
For those of you who don’t know, there is only one Woodstock. The original Woodstock, that is. Actually, the original actually did not have the concert of the same name. That occurred close to a hundred miles from the actual town of Woodstock, New York. Nevertheless, Three Days or Three More Days of concert matters not, the town was already famous, already had a name for itself and plenty of wealthy artists and those rubbing two sticks together too. The Village itself had for a century been an artist enclave and served generations of New Yorkers for their mid-life crisis and nervous breakdowns where the stock broker became an herbalist or the society dame left Park Avenue and moved to a cabin in the woods and now talks to crystals bloviates about wise women to anyone who will listen. There is always a supply of artists. And herbalism. There is always herbalism and alternative medicine in these places. Any counter culture worth its salt will talk about the magnetic energy in minerals. By minerals, this is of course Dead Sea salts infused with organic hemp oil or zinc or radio active tungsten. The Village of Woodstock has a school of art a playhouse and a few camps of theatrical societies, some of these artistic enclaves dating back to the days of Slabsides and the self sufficient idealists and transcendentalists who turned away from the cities and went deep into the wilds of the then-wild Catskills trying to form farms that imported nothing and exported Positivism and whose descendants are people who buy beans and rice in bulk and hide it in buried shipping containers… or something like that
The Village of Woodstock today is pleasant enough. A largely homogeneous population go about their business of selling crystals, posters, tea, and fresh bread to the many, many, many tourists and interested parties who fill the sidewalks each and every weekend. It is a great spot to brunch (there are three options, one really), shop for…. something…. and spend an enjoyable afternoon if one leaves before the weekly drum circle or does not mind the “Homeless Land Rights” dude protesting or the grandmothers who have been trying to stop The War since it started… which is a rather quaint sight since Father Time and the inescapable approach of the cold scythe has been heartlessly reducing the number of clever protest banners as the war rages on and on in some form or another. There are many things to do in this Woodstock. One can bathe in the mill stream on a hot day if one is not sensitive to any of the residual chemicals since those waters were used by the tanneries nor grossed out by the townies and their questionable habits of hygiene. Coffee from Bread Alone (or Sweet Sue), a drink at Landau (or Joshua’s), and pizza from the Village Pizza. A quiet hamlet where things remain caught in a pleasant time warp, perhaps the village itself has played hard with the elves of the mountains and fell asleep for the past thirty years leaving Mr. Van Winkle to age and move on.
I have been to a number of Woodstocks in the years. I myself, am somewhat a member of the Greater Woodstock Community, whether I wish to be or not it is something as a curse and gift visited upon those few and in a certain amount of time, we will find one another in these communities. The people of Woodstock relocate often, and frequently to the other Woodstocks. Burlington, Vermont with it’s socialist mayor. Battleboro, Vermont, a Green Mountain college town. Portland, where all things Woodstock come from and hence, in the great circle of life, return. New Orleans is a contender, however it has very rough murdery stabby pointy sides that keeps it, for this author, just outside the ven diagram attempting to be drawn, but otherwise there are very strong Woodstock elements and areas of the city. Ithaca, New York to Austin, Texas there appears to be at least one of these Woodstocks in each state in order to allow refuge to those in need of tarot readings, the healing power of crystal, and creative and intelligent conversation and thoughtful music of all generas punctuated by bad relationship choices, sexual peccadillos, and some awkward mornings. Except that I am hard pressed to know where North or South Dakota keep their Woodstock, so perhaps there remain states from which the creative or damaged, or broken-creative must flee for greener pastures.
No enumerations of Woodstocks would be complete nor any pilgrimage to the network of Keep [village or city] Weird a success without a stop at Asheville North Carolina.
Asheville is not just the city but an entire area that seems to vibe so that the West Village and some hilltop towns are just as much Asheville as the area of Greater Boston is from a distance just “Boston” to the many of us. Asheville appears a safe zone for those travelers who do not find those safe houses in the flatlands, coasts, or deeper parts of the Deep South as well as the Southern Mecca for buskers and musical-quality folk as well as a few gutter punk posers with their pit bull puppies and worn instruments they strum un-melodically. The city is much smaller than Portland but larger then Brattleboro. It is more pleasant in clime than Burlington and New Orleans. I did not pull any crime statistics but in just a casual visit it seems to be less stabby than the Big Easy and fewer homeless junkies than Portland.
The city itself takes about half a day to cover. There are indeed more stores and browsing that can be done, but to get a sense of the landscape of the downtown this is manageable by foot and even more rapid by private car. There is all manner of establishments and certainly enough venues to employ almost every musician since they seem to spill out of everywhere, be awake at all hours, and infest the streets like pleasant locust making everything from a funky din to a down home cookin’ soul sound. The Grove is a mall like none other, actually an old Arcade (see my previous work on Newark, OH) but ten times as wonderful. There are elements of modernity, the parking lots and parking lots, but these are full to capacity most of the day since it seems the city is a thriving destination to many. There are a few tall buildings of mid-century and one at least thrown up – and by that I mean vomited – in the sick-o 1970s, a brown monster dirty walls and sad glass that perhaps once was Ma Bell or the American branch of whomever made Cyclon B. This blogger had little time, but had heard tales of the city from a great many ex-and-then-returned-ex-and-then-returned Woodstockites. From these traveler stories I had heard only good things and I wished for a little more time to stay and that my simple lodgings were not a dorm bed in the West Village.
The West Village, I was told, has grown in the past years and seems to be experiencing a sort of Williamsburg Brooklyn syndrome in that it was the place people lived who could not afford to live downtown gathered but in time they all agreed that it was too much bother to truck their music and Friday night lives into the city and realized they’d save a bundle on taxi fare were they to just plunk down, turn out their music, and uncap a home-made bottle of beer or micro-brew pour right outside their door. It took me but a few minutes of conversation and several recommendations of local venues I could walk to in order for me to cancel my planned 45 minute bus trip and potential $30 cab ride home for a more leisurely night where travel but was five minutes by foot. The music was OK, the bar a bar, but it was as fun as it was disorientating since I could not tell were I in Portland, Burlington, Ithaca, Brattleboro, or another Woodstock but not in an unpleasant oh-shit-I-am-in-a-fucking-Dunkn-Doughnuts-and-this-could-be-anywhere kind of way.
However, it was unmistakably not New Orleans. For reasons of Raceclassgender your professor covered long, long, long ago in your poli-sci 101 class.
I am glad for these outposts. These oasis in the ocean of the geography of nowhere. For all the guff and rant I give on the political and financial contradictions, silly crystal worship energy talk, wealthy art poseurs passing themselves off as down-to-earth Volk, mediocre musicians, townies, lost souls, experimental community people, granola elderly hippies, I understand why people leave Woodstock, for other Woodstocks – and why they continue to return time and again.
I have traveled many a road in my short life. From those invented trails we kids would make in our back yard to some of the storied highways and byways of this green land and foreign glens and vast expanses. When young we had a number of roads named and mapped in the event we got lost. There was Long Trail, a winding cut deep in the woods, Bumpy Road (so named since in a storm we kids took the the road and our heals in the mud led to many bumps), Short Trail that cut past the back of the swing set and in front of the manure pile, Via Road a bramble trail unfit for our junky bikes but on certain adventures we would take this road less traveled. It was amazing then, this network of roads and now as I am older, far older, it is more amazing since the property of my youth but was a postage stamp of 1/4th of an American acre, and the backyard even smaller, and the network of roads but a part of that backyard of suburban America.
I have traveled by Citron across the Atlas Mountains in an electric storm. I have driven all night from Chicago to run out of gas at the Canadian border and push the car back into my Motherland. I have flipped my car on an icy road to crash and turn through the forest and snow, the only thought on my mind, “Did I pay my insurance?”
The Blue Ridge Parkway is accessed only by a few points on the map. It is not a thruway. I have grown up with Parkways, it is part of my early memories of traveling from my suburban home to the far away place of my grandmother, Upstate back when Upstate meant farmlands and wilderness. We would travel along the Palisades Parkway, a still extant road that runs from New York to New Jersey and then returns us to the womb of Bear Mountain and the Mountains of Madness of which Bannerman’s Castle guards but a lonely watch over those various ghost that may or may not infest the Highlands. The Palisades is but today a cut through for the millions of billions of commuters, but here and there the old grand park manifests and all are reminded that this is a strip of wild in an otherwise built upon world.
There is the Taconic Parkway. A slender ribbon of lands that takes one from the Bronx River up to the Berkshires and the rolling flowing lands of Albany. This is a fun road to drive if by fun you mean thrill-seeking. Many of the twist and gentle pastoral turns have been irons out by the workings of huge machines, but this is because the travelers who take this road do so at high speeds are not there to enjoy the few remaining lookouts and rest stops that have yet to be cut off by guardrails and huge blocking stone but to get home to their flat screen TeeVees, 2.5 children, and medication stashes out in the garage. It is one of the most dangerous roads in New York. From the boundry of the Bronx River up until Red Hook, the road is a road rage road race dotted only by small smashed parts of cars and the sundry police that take to the road in order to gain some modicum of income for towns from Cold Spring to Red Hook after which the traffic subsides, the road takes on a more gentile nature, and the police go haunt the small town movie theater in order to frighten up a few fines from the local teenagers in order to pay the bills of their dying and Walmart-infested town’s bills.
From Asheville, NC the road has already been meandering for some three hundred miles or so. Unlike the other parkways mentioned, and a few more not enumerated, this parkway does not service villages or settlements but exists only to bring the traveler through the wilderness. It is a pure road of vantage points, vistas, and travel for travel’s sake. It is a forced march, a summer abroad, a walk save that we do so aboard motorcycles, of which there were plenty, classic cars, of which there were several, or whatever manner of transportation we have accessed. For me it was Plain Jane rental car. Nothing memorable about it other than the windows rolled up and down better than anything I currently own for my private use.
I drove on with little expectation since I have acquired the habit of not using The Googles to delve into every detail of my travels, allowing some manner of discovery in this age of X and Y concordance and Yelp Reviews. This did mean I went the wrong way for some miles. North when I had meant to go south since I had to get to [redacted] for [omitted] and this was but a small diversion along the way. My being in the region also meant that I was not dressed in the attire of the Modern American Hiker. I wore a suit jacket, button down, and dress shoes. Of course I wore pants too. However, this I believe is not optional outside of certain locations, and Key West so is not remarkable nor a matter of illumination when painting a picture with words. When I did get out for a short walk, the others on the path, no matter how paved or level, looked at me with some fear or disdain, I was hard pressed to discern other than I knew I did not match their own sport sneakers, North Face jackets in case the temperature dropped below 70 (F), water packs to ensure proper hydration on the .8 mile hike, or the acres of spandex(tm) that the female hikers wore since they had not gotten the memo that tights aren’t pants and matched in colour the Ray Ban glasses of the men since it seems men’s eyes are apparently quite delicate, even on an overcast day. The Ray Bans also made them look like douchebag. Which, may be intentional.
The green pressed in on both sides of the road as I drove on this thin tarmac through the still-wild areas and as I drove on the twists and turns and passed through the high peaks with just a touch of the gas peddle. Built over the span of fifty years, and launched as part of the New Deal in order to put Mankind to work, the Blue Ridge Parkway was only completed in 1987. The parkway is our American Cathedral. So rare it is that our society can bear some project that take generations, perhaps this is the last one of our Nation. The Trans Blue Ridge Highway is a feat of roadscaping. Were all our highways so built, perhaps this writer would not be so inclined to not rant and rave against the highways of 17 lanes cutting across the geography of nowhere but praise their grandeur. Above all that, above the strip malls, the interchanges that consume acres and acres of land, above the humdrum life of commuters, the highway takes but the rare few with leisure or the inclination to stop and rest not at one, but every rest stop in order to take in yet another vista and catch one’s breath at the majesty of the world either placed in front of us by accident or built for us to marvel at, depending on our own often individual eschatological inclination.
While unable to traverse the entire length, the little I did reminded me, what has become of us that we do not continue to build roads to inspire and take those Sunday drives with the family as we were meant to. Someday perhaps we will rebuild the geography of nowhere and rebuild our network of highways into something special.
When children are young they are told they could become the next president of the United States. When children become teenagers, the same people warn them that they’ll become cast aside drunks languishing in some no name dive bar rolling about on the floor pissing and puking but not in a romantic way.
It is then, not every day when the universe positions the president of the United States, argued as the Most Powerful Man/Person in the world in tossing distance to a group of merry lads and lasses all of whom are plowed before 9PM as a regular routine.
Indeed, the motorcade came out of nowhere. At once, the door to the establishment was blocked by several men in suits. Were one to have hesitated, to have waited just a moment to use up the entire Happy Hour as the Naive Americans once did, the way indeed blocked and no one could pass. In Gothem the police are about everywhere. They are our internal army in order to keep the population docile and their comings and goings lights flashing and sirens crying has become but the sound of the wind in the trees, something that unless those flashing lights are pulling over your taxi or you are stopped and detained for a simple Quality of Life infraction, the sound and fury is ignored. It was very hard to dismiss this motorcade of police. It was harder to dismiss the serious men in suits who did not appear as our own Men in Blue, these were the Men in Black, the elite among thugs.
In no time at all the positions were taken. This was rehearsed in every detail. The way the cars boxed in the limos, the double lines of police, the barriers set up, the spotters and perhaps snipers on the roof (we did not see the later but imagined them since everyone had seen The West Wing), the way the population at large was pushed out of the way for the night with ease. “I cannot tell you who this is,” said the man in a pressed suit, “but this individual is very important.” “That’s fucking the president of the United fucking States,” said Larry. “Larry! Shush you before you get us all arrested,” the bartender shouted as she pressed to the window. The rest of us, that is, all the bar patrons trapped at the end of Happy Hour were crushed together in on knot in the doorway of perhaps the smallest of the still extant dive bars of the city.
A last refuge of the scoundrels. Strangers for the most part, except for the regulars. They were known elements. The list was right out of central casting, or central booking. The war veteran sipping his wine brushed his comb-over and complained he wasn’t allowed outside to smoke, “I’m a war veteran!” he demanded or confessed. The self-identified film maker with an Irish accent and straw hat bounced about having the time of his life. Clearly the creative type fallen now upon hard times and living out the last of his puff in a bar or doing research into his next project. The two bartenders, both women of a certain age, perhaps about the same vintage, both had seen too many long shifts and were bored by the stories of hookers with hearts of gold and broken business men with small petty dreams they keep alive in paper sacks. The manager exclaimed to the police blocking the door that he himself had working in bars before he was old enough to legally drink. Twenty years! Twenty years a manager! He was both amused by the situation and rather annoyed by the lack of business calling out, “Will the president reimburse me for the lost business, I have no customers!”
Indeed in a city where anything can happen and does, even the most anointed of our citizens is but an inconvenience to the more pressing routines of rushing about on errands and tasks.
The bartenders had changed shifts, but both of them remained since perhaps in their long lives they had yet to have seen it all and this was an event neither wanted to miss out on even though one belonged elsewhere for the night and the other was loosing out on nightly tips in order to cover, it can be assumed, high rent. The remainder of the patrons were an assortment of passers-by and a younger set unimpressed by meeting the president of the United States of America.
If by “meet” it is but separated by a wall of bricks, a building that had been replaced by a yard of rubble, another brick wall of the restaurant that the president was dinning in, several police barriers and the combined forces of the Secret Service – an ocean of brooks brothers suits and Burberry ties and cheaper Sears suits of the NYPD detective squad and perhaps a few drones just tossed in for good measure.
It was just another autumn afternoon in Gothem and the usual rogue nations, G8ers, and Global Leaders were presenting and otherwise worrying about writing nonbinding treaties and statements at the UN. As Gothemites, we are used to the motorcades and having our trendiest bars closed on short notice so various wealthy political blowhards from the world over can do blow and so it hard. It was still an unusual location, the cusp of SOHO or border of Little Italy or Chinatowncityworld as the case may be. Houston Street is no Savelle Row.
Larry, get out from behind the bar you fool! The bartender yelled at the little man pouring himself a beer having taken full advantage of the distraction by POTUS outside. He laughed and made a cartoonish gesture of being caught and trying to hurry. It was clear these few knew each other very well, it was a working relationship but one nevertheless.
Outside the commotion calmed down. The rushing about, the set up, the securing the area, the what not and so forth of all these important players had turned at once, dull. The Secret Service was replaced by NYPD sergeants and the like. There was the chance to leave. The War Vet had been snoozing in the toilet. Since there was an opportunity to get outside and smoke, he at once left. So did a very worried man was to meet his girlfriend, a little man who kept pacing back and forth and calling on his phone as if perhaps his girlfriend could just up and leave him over this incident, “Henry, you should never be in a bar next to the president, it’s over! But… But… Loretta…” I imagined him saying. Another small group, younger people, seemed even less interested and certainly not wanting to be in the doorway with the regulars, since everyone was crushed together hoping to get some view of someone important. “I kissed the mayor last night,” one of them exclaimed, then started to make sure every sergeant on duty knew. “Was it consensual?” a voice quipped.
As the night drew on, the crowd across the street dissipated and the police started what one said was 90% of the job… just standing around.
Years ago I had been hired for a private-eye type of stakeout. I had to keep eyes on a building and record who entered or exited. It was an all day affair. Boring as hell. Not the type of boredom as tending to an art gallery, where once in a while you look up from War and Peace and ask, “let me know if you have any questions” and make a wincing smile. This is the boredom of not being able to take your eyes off of your target. The boredom where at any moment, anything could happen. A tense state of affairs, I assume as cats feel all the time on their mouse house stakeouts. Waiting, tense and ready to strike, yet knowing one has to conserve energy because one could be here all day and catch nothing. No wonder why cats are assholes.
The bar phone rang several times. It seemed that some patrons wanted to come in. After a discussion with the sergeant in charge, it was negotiated that if names could be provided, these individuals would be searched at the checkpoint and allowed entry to the bar under heavy police escort. I was to meet my companion and entreated her to come to the bar, to have the chance to perhaps see the president if not at least have the honor to be walked down the street arm and arm with the police, in a manner of speaking.
It was perhaps the first, maybe the only time available, to have police escort one to a dive bar as it was the first and only time in the lives of those gathered that they had been prevented from leaving, actually encouraged to drink, by the Secret Service.
New patrons came in small groups to replace those who left, except except for my friend and I, they too were regulars to the establishment. I had never been although I passed by it just about every day and had walked by it my entire life, considering was one of the few bars to pass the hundred year mark or be well on its way.
It was no Sweetwater Tavern. That place on St. Mark’s Place was a large spacious establishment old enough to be well worn and still maintain a telephone booth. Rumor has it that William Boroughs had picked up boys there back in his Junky days. The narrow hall that made the bar reminded me somewhat of McSorley’s however, that spot had long ago become more a tourist attraction than watering hole for locals. Indeed, the space was so narrow that one had to flatten out just to pass those at the bar and the wall across was plexiglass covering all manner of photodocuments and good thing too since I and others were pressed to the wall in passing. I am not sure I have ever, outside of a rush hour subway, pressed up against such a great many people I did not know nor want to touch. But, that was one way to become fast friends, I guess, and as the night went on we did make merry and drank in those stale waters served in tall glasses.
Next door the royal family dinned away in what later would be reported by the press in ever great detail so there was no mistake as to what was on the menu, what was selected, what bites were taken, and in what direction he and the Royal Missus masticated. Even on this was an otherwise nondescript Wednesday night, not even the New Friday everyone talks about, there was a need for these sordid gastronomic details.
And in time. His nibs and his lovely lady with the arms were finished, I can only assume they paid the bill as again a flurry of activity hit the streets and again the men in suits of various qualities rushed about on a a very choreographed almost dance number and lights again flashed, and doors opened, and people waved, and the drunks squished into the doorway or against the small dirty window and phones went up and snapped away in camera mode and in a moment, just a second, someone said, “Jebsus, I think I see him! Oh no… I don’t.” In the end none of us saw more than a momentary blur, could have been the First Family could have been deer unexpectedly jumping. All this wait, and no wave, no MisterPresidentIvotedforyoutwice, no kisses on top of mayor kisses tonight for anyone. We had camped out all night and this was it.
And the cars pulled out.
And the barriers were tossed onto a waiting truck.
And the police melted into the night.
And the city did what it does best, appear as if nothing had ever happened that today was just like yesterday and will be like tomorrow.
The regulars took their positions.
Everyone on the street left.
Except for the sergeants. They all said after this, they need a good drink. And the men we had been joking and chatting with and who kept a nervous eye on us all night ponied up to the bar and put away their badges, lifted a pint and listened to Larry’s stories, stories I am sure he had been waiting all night, perhaps even longer, to tell.
“It was Dublin, but a time of The Troubles…” I heard him say as I paid my own tab, and took the arm of my companion and asked her, “So…. when are you telling your parents I got you escorted into a dive bar?”
“This country is like a perfect garden,” the passenger next to me cupped his hands as if this garden was some kind of a jewel or he approximated much larger and perhaps celestial hands holding this garden. “This garden needs to be constantly tended. I you are born in the garden, it is all you know and perhaps you don’t know the work it takes to tend the plants and flowers. You may make a choice and choose to just sit on your couch, have your beer, not worry about this garden. When you get up, however, you will see that the weeds have taken over, you will see the flowers have wilted and you will say ‘oh my, what happened?’ Or you can choose early on to help tend the garden to learn from those who have done it before you.” The older man looked up for his hands. “When I was done telling this young man – as I said he was a drunk student – he was in tears,” he laughed, “he said, ‘I am such a fool, I am such a fool’ to which I said, yes, yes you are.” This was when the man was new to Chicago and driving a taxi in the early 1980s not long after he had fled Iran. He said so many people then told him to go back to where he came from, but he said, for me, there is no going back.
The flight was going through a horrible storm and jounced and bounced about, but he paid no mind.
He continued his original story.
He was in the middle of telling me a story about a property he bought in a city north of Chicago some years ago. The house had been foreclosed upon and he had picked it up for $50,000. A 5 bedroom house with a two car garage just two blocks from the shore of Lake Michigan. He had meant to get right to work bringing the property up-to-date but the economy worsened, his job was outsourced, for the second time. He had come here from Iran, he said no one knew the story of why he was driven to leave, but he assured me under a dictatorship you know exactly what you are dealing with. Not so much with the American system since we do not admit those areas where our system is under the hand of corruption. After all, four of five Illinois governors were in or had been in jail.
One day I got a letter from a lawyer saying that I was being sued for damages my property had caused someone else. This was strange, I thought, the house was just sitting there. The daughter of the lawyer, she also was a lawyer, spoke to me on the phone and I told her that I did not understand what this was about. She claimed she was interested in the community, that she wanted to clean it up, and let me know that the fees for the hour would be $150 and that I was already needing to pay $2500 in legal fees. I said, I did not hire you, but she said she worked for a man suing me, and that the fees associated would be mine to cover.
In Illinois there is a law that anyone within 1200 yards of a property can sue the owner for neglecting the property. This makes sense, I mean if there is a house with no door and children walk past it on the way to school… there may be a man taking drugs, maybe a criminal lure a children into the house or the children use the house for play and get hurt or the floor collapses. But, my house was in OK shape, all they found was missing gutters which the thieves had stolen, a missing hand rail someone cut off and took, and a place where a tree had bent the fence. What the lawyers had done was to find a person who would be named in the lawsuit. He pretends to be caused damage by my property but he is just given some money under the table. The lawyers then sue to collect their fees, even to get the property. I researched and saw that they had done this 500 times in the past four years. I think the word for this is extortion.
The man went on to describe his fight with the lawyers, his time spent in filling out responses, taking pictures, making repairs, and the lost sleep over his troubles. He went to sell the house but by this time more houses were going vacant in this town and he placed the house on the market for $36,000 then $24,000 then $18,000. Buyers were frightened away by this ongoing lawsuit that he continued to fight. The lawyers reached out to make a deal. If he donated the house to the non-profit the plaintiff ran, he could just walk away. But he continued to fight and continued to be threatened with higher and higher fees for the lawyers he did not hire, for damages not to property or person such as injury but by those damages allowed by a money-for-nothing culture where we sell hamburgers, trade papers, and sue each other in order to gain some crumb of the American Dream. The Iranian man sighed. “I finally settled with them for $1700 just so I could sell the house and be done, but at the last minute the buyer said not $18,000 but $10,000! I wanted to be done so I said, OK, if you buy it for $11,000 we are finished. Then, at closing, it cost me $8000 for just the title insurance. I walked away with $1300 after all that…..
The plane was buffered about by the winds and jumped up and down, passengers groaned and I clutched hard to the seat – as I that would do anything. The man looked at me and dismissed this goings on and waved his hand, “I look at it this way, either we land… or we don’t.” A violent wind banked the plane a hard right then left tossing the stewardess on to the lap of one passenger then another, someone in the back of the plane yelled out “I’m going to die!”
He was on the flight because he was moving from Chicago after 27 years to Houston, Texas where he had bought a house. He was having a delay in selling his house in Chicago and was already having difficulty with his property in Houston. I could tell by his eyes he was serious, he was ready if need be to go if it was his time. I was not so ready and fear bubbled up from my stomach into my throat.
“This country is becoming mean. It is becoming unfair and corrupt.” I acknowledged that things were indeed getting more difficult and people somewhat meaner if not more suspicious of their neighbors.
“Have you heard of a Homeowners Association?” he asked me. I admitted I was largely unaware of the particulars.
The plane started a steeper than usual descent and bounced up and down as it hopped from one cloud to another.
Homeowners Associations are all over Houston, not just the fancy communities with gates, he told me. These people send out someone who goes about looking for problems – things to fine you for. They first sent me a letter saying I had to replace a slat on my mail box. This was a house that the bank owned for years, the grass was three feet tall, the house had fallen apart, but I spent months fixing it up and hauling away grass clippings and brush, and now they were saying that a slat was missing on the mail box and they would fine me if I did not replace it?
In Chicago there is corruption, we all know the unions and how they work… but, in Houston the unions are weak, I did not know anything about Homeowners Associations. In Chicago, you have to join a union if you so any service. In Houston you have to join a Homeowners Association, it is mandatory. For $350 a year, but for this you get nothing. They do not pick up the trash. They do not provide police. They do not handle the water when it doesn’t drain from the street. But they pay some guy to drive around and come on your property looking for things to fine you for. If you think about it, each association has maybe 1000 houses, that is a lot of money. So, I fixed the slat on the mail box, but then they send me a new letter that there are weeds growing in the lawn. Then another letter about the pool in the back has frogs in it and is dirty. OK, I know I need to fix the pool, and I make plans to do this but then I get yet another letter about some trash behind the back door and more threats that I will be getting fined. I say, after all I went through in Chicago, I need to just get on a flight to Houston and stay as long as it takes to fix these problems.
Clearly real estate was not this man’s lucky streak. However, from what I saw of Houston, I can believe there are as many pay-to-play schemes as people can come up with. Driving about Houston there area a lot of fences not just about the yard, but in front of the house. A lot of houses are cut off from the street by some barrier, a fence, a fence and hedge, a gate across the driveway with some cloth ziptied in order to keep prying eyes. A great many gates leading into housing developments. I thought this was to keep out some dangerous criminal element, but perhaps it is also to prevent the Homeowners Association from creeping up and finding that you have not sorted your glass from you papers.
The airplane came in for a final landing and touched down without issue. The old Iranian man became silent. He had spoken of a great many things, but his stories of property ownership and the many issues he faced as he learned out ways was especially interesting. We shook hands and parted ways off to make our connecting flights as if nothing had happened.