Abandoned Woolworth's, St. Paul MN

Last Friday was about as good as it got, I think. Nothing special; nothing happened. But it’s those days that mean the most – when the ordinary days are good, you can’t help but feel grateful. Amend that: you can, and often do; the human mind can always find something to bitch about. I have purchased a satisfying meal at low cost, as I do every day without noting how my most elemental needs are met with little friction, yet the ketchup dispenser is out and I must use the little packets of tomato-based condiments, which means I have to rip them open, and cannot dunk my fries. No, I have to pour the ketchup on the paper liner and smear them. It’s just not the same. And then someone cut me off in traffic as I drove along in my climate-controlled vehicle, and THEN at the consumer-entertainment-distribution node they did not have the widescreen version of the blockbuster movie I intended to absorb at home on my sofa. What a rotten day. No, you can turn any silk purse into a sow’s ear; humans are good at reverse-engineering.

I filed my column in the morning while Gnat played on her computer. It wasn’t hot out, so I could open the windows: summer breeze, cicadas. We practiced piano, only to discover that there wasn’t piano class today: hurrah! Off on errands, then. First stop, the Party Store. Her birthday party was coming up, and I needed extra magic hats. (Don’t ask.) We drove to an old strip mall upgraded a few years back, anchored with B-list department stores. Once there was a magnificent movie theater here – I saw “Empire Strikes Back” here with the Giant Swede, his date, and a blind date; I remember being glad we didn’t hit it off right away, so I could enjoy the movie. (That’s geekdom.) (And that’s pathetic.) The theater was a high-60s pop-modern masterpiece, the sort of place in which Judy Jetson would get a hickey. Gone ten years.

At the Party Store I found the hats, which were seven dollars more than the ones we bought from a catalogue. Apparently this was some special sort of felt, spun from dryer lint of Tibetan monks and brought across the heaving seas by Chinese freighters running on premium vodka. Then we wandered down to Bed Bath and Beyond – that last item is never specified or elaborated upon; if there’s some interdimensional portal in the store, it’s not clearly marked – where I got cleaning goods, resisted once again the desire to try out that OrangeGlo Wood Restore Sealant System, and let Gnat play with the feather dusters. (Usually we have a sword fight with spatulas; this time it was feather boas.) We discovered the massage chairs – cruel, punitive devices that drive wooden knuckles into your spine with clear and honest malice. Probably spent ten minutes trying all the chairs and settings until our muscles felt like pulverized Jell-O; it was remarkable we made it out of the store under our own power. On the way back to the car I noticed that a part of the strip mall had an enclosed walkway, and the floor was paved with ancient cracked terrazzo. We went inside, and it discovered a little piece of American mall history. No other portion of the old enclosed mall survives; this hallway did, because it branched off and intersected with another corridor. The floor was from the 60s; there was brown & shiny tile from the 70s, and mirrored ceilings from the 80s. Best of all, it had a faint aroma that now seems so strange and exotic: indoor cigarettes. (I later discovered that it came from one tall elderly gentlemen, one of those guys who smokes so much he an infuse large public spaces with the smell of fresh Winstons simply by standing in one place for a few minutes.)

“Why are we here?” Gnat asked. I wanted to do the Spock thing from Star Trek 2, put a hand to her head and whisper remember! But what’s the point. Back into the sunshine. Time to kill – someone was coming to Jasperwood to make a bid on my latest folly, a small water garden in the backyard – so we went to the bookstore. She chose a Bearenstein Bears book, and I took advantage of a three-for-two sale on Harper Perennials: “Hip (the History) by John Leland, a study of the birth and rise of the concept of Hip; “God’s Secretaries,” by Adam Nicholson, an account of the making of the King James Bible (heard an interview with the author a while ago on Dennis Prager’s show; wonderful stuff, and was curious to see if he repeats Anthony Burgess’ speculation that Shakespeare not only worked on the project but inserted his name into the 46th Psalm.

(Note: upon checking the index, he doesn’t seem to consider it. You make the call. Here’s the 46th Psalm:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Take out the Selahs. Count 46 words from the start, and you get “Shake.” Then count 46 words from the end. You get “Spear.” The KJV was published in 1611; Shakespeare turned 46 in 1610.

Anyway. After choosing our books we went to the coffee shop for a snack. Gnat looked up at the pictures of authors on the wall, and asked who they were. I told her, one by one, and told her what they wrote. (Came up short on Trollope, though.) She was thrilled to learn that the lady on the end wrote Frankenstein.

“Do you know anyone who writes books?” I asked. She smiled and pointed at me. Then asked, sensibly: “Why aren’t you on the wall then?”

“Those guys are dead,” I said.

She seemed to think of the next question, but dropped it. “He kinda looks like you. That one with the glasses,” she said. I looked: Chandler.

“He wrote about a detective,” I said. “Philip Marlowe. A very brave man who helped people in trouble.”

“Oh. Tell me some more stories about the writers, daddy.”

You cannot pay anyone to ask questions like that, let alone with such earnest enthusiasm. So I got out the Little Golden Book of Anecdotes you carry around in your head and did what I could while she gnawed on her Rice Krispee bar. When finished, we left and headed home. Class dismissed. Not that it felt like class.

After supper I checked Amazon: they had not shipped my new camera. I’d ordered it months ago, before its July 31st release; still no word on the ship date. Hmm. I wanted to use it for Gnat’s birthday party. Content it hadn’t shipped, I went to Ultimate, eyeballed it, tested it, noted the lower price, and bought it. Went home, called up Amazon to cancel the order. The status had changed to NOW SHIPPING, and this could not be stopped by hand of man nor act of God. Oh fer criminey’s sake. Called the secret 1-800 number (1.800.201.7575) and got right in, of course; no one knows the number, so there’s never anyone on hold. They promised to dispatch swift runners to throw their bodies in front of the delivery trucks.

Watched a noir – “Narrow Margin,” a thriller set on a train that had absolutely nothing worth frame-grabbing. Pretty dang good: it has a fistfight in a cabin that paved the way for a similar scene in “From Russia With Love.” Ended the night in the gazebo reading “Public Enemies,” an account of 30s gangsters, learning that Dillinger stayed for a while in an apartment 25 blocks north of my old home pre-Jasperwood. Small world. Then bed, utterly content; an unremarkable day. May they all be so wonderfully dull.

New Sunday Fence, if you haven’t read it; new matchbook, new site addition to the Institute’s archives. Consult your local links below, and I’ll see you tomorrow.

Oh, the party? That’s next Sunday’s column. Oh, the photo above? An abandoned Woolworth's store in downtown St. Paul. Shuttered for years. What I wouldn't give for ten minutes inside.

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