Alley, downtown Mpls

Today I got into a cleaning & arranging spiral, one of those moods that starts with a minor reordering of the cereal drawer and ends three hours later with all the fridge shelves in the sink, soaking in hot water. It’s the sort of thing you do when the weather shifts, and some internal barometer tells you to pull in, gather provisions, check your powder, and prepare for the long siege of winter. So why I did it when the mercury hit the middle 80s, I don’t know; sheer glee, I guess. Gnat was at school, both columns were in, the evening’s work was still ahead, and I could tackle the parts of the house I’ve let slide these last few weeks. It felt good. And of course it was all a means of avoiding something; but what?

The book, of course. So tonight I began the hideous, gruesome process of laying it out and printing it off, so I can send it to my agent before the next one comes out. (Details, as you might expect, to appear at the relevant time.) I’m fooling myself, really: this book has a deal-killer built right into it. A short-story connection that requires color art. Oh, that’ll fly. Well, I’m going to wrap it into a proposal for the next two or three books, and we’ll see who bites.

While I worked in the house the contractors worked outside before inexplicably disappearing at 3 PM. At first I suspected The Rapture, since it was unlikely they would quit at three, having shown up at 10, and having been off the job two days out of the last four. There’s always a reasonable explanation for everything, of course, but four weeks into a five-day project I am disinclined to accept the justification and leave it at that. A Bobcat was left in my backyard for a week, for example – a big ugly thing smashed into a pile of dirt. I wouldn’t mind if they’d left the keys, and I could have driven it around for sport. After a week it moved to my driveway. Then it vanished. I thought they needed it to transport materials up to the project, but it turns out they’re going to do it by hand. Fine. Leaving aside the matter of storing their equipment in my yard for a fortnight, there’s this: I’d been told they couldn’t come after a rainy day because the Bobcat would tear up the yard. Fine. But if they don’t need the Bobcat after all, why not come on the day after it rained?



There! I’ve run rings round them logically!

In the list of human sorrows, this is about 169,932 from the top, so I don’t expect sympathy. Twenty years ago I would have begged to live a life where “issues with contractors” loomed large in the daily parade; twenty years ago I was hauling Tahitian Treat up the staircase to stock the cooler, convinced my career had died before my eyes, and there was nothing to do now but turn into one of those guys who hangs around the college town long after his college days have passed, content to be a Local Eminence whose bygone accomplishments still ring clear for at least a 10-block radius.

There was one of those guys in the coffee shop I frequented – not a natural mentor, shall we say, but gruff and blunt enough to be one of those fellows whose grudging spare respect was highly prized. He’s still livin’ the life of the mind, keepin’ it veritas! In retrospect, he was a failure by the standard yardsticks of adulthood, and he was plagued by a combination of ego, financial constructions and ill humours. After a while you suspected that his Olympian Standards masked corrosive resentment of those whose who succeeded in the literary trade and did spend the afternoon glaring at the coffee-shop help for laughing too loudly. The last time I saw him I had published my first novel; I was sitting in the chair he wanted, and he threatened to punch me in the face if I didn’t move.

Googling . . . well, he’s still out there, still writing poetry and letters to the Nation. Good for him. Lesser men would have chucked it and gone into something that paid the bills. Better men, too, of course.

Every day, twice a day, I call the Jury Hotline to see if I’ll be needed. So far so good. I still expect to be called in Friday afternoon and selected for a nine-week murder trial. That’s this week’s routine: get up, morning with Gnat, brisk lunch, off to the bus stop, home to call. Last week’s routine was entirely different, and involved a mad race up the avenue to get downtown before the bailiffs were sent for me; after two days the routine was solid and familiar, with habits and quirks already in place. Same with the routine I established when Gnat was in the burbs for three weeks. (That’s the secret to happiness for me, I think: new routines. The knowledge that I can take any new situation and impose rote habit.) The trip to the bus stop will be my favorite routine for this next year - the walk to the corner, hand in hand, the conversation before the bus arrives. Today we studied the marks in the concrete: 9 4 69. The curb is cracked and cleaved and worn, but you can make out the date when it was poured and stamped. I’ve taught her to look for the names and dates in concrete, if only because I’ve always been fascinated by those marks; they’re like time capsules in plain view that contain nothing but an assertion: I was here today and you’ll see this tomorrow. At the park a few weeks ago several of the concrete benches were stamped WPA 1939, and this gave them great poignancy - here the bench had rested for seventy-six years, facing the Mississippi; the trees had changed but the treeline had not. Traffic whined on the bridge; the flag snapped over the old hospital building; you could smell hotdogs. The relationship between today and 1939 was the same as your elbow and your ear. You could get them close but never make them touch. A few dozen yards away from the WAP tables laid slabs poured in ’64, marked with the name of a man long gone out of business. Al Parker. Forty years of feet and water hadn't erased his name; standing atop his handiwork in the impossibly sci-fi sounding year of 2005, we could still see his name and the day he finished the job. So few things are marked with the fabricator’s name and the exact date of completion; sidewalks are a common exception. Probably why we pay them little attention. If you had never seen a name or date stamped in a sidewalk, and you came across such a notation locked in the cement bond, it might be fascinating: who and why? But every street has a name, and every sidewalk has an author.

“Another one over here, Daddy,” she said – she had found another name from the ’69 sidewalk project. The square had an indentation on the boulevard side, a concave deletion filled with grass. I asked Gnat why she thought the sidewalk looked like this, and she didn’t know. So we went up the block to look at another patch of sidewalk that had the same concave profile, accomodating a large oak. See? They made the sidewalk to go around the tree. But there’s no big tree back there. So why is the sidewalk curved?

Shrug. "I don’t know."

Because there was a tree here, a big one. It’s gone now but we can tell where it used to be, just by the shape it left in the things around it.

"Oh! Poor tree. But now there’s a new tree." She hugged it. "And this is my favorite tree in the whole wide world. Oh the bus!"

And it came and she bounded on board, fearless, off on the daily adventure.

I doubt I can get a metaphor for life and parenthood out of every trip to the bus stop. Tomorrow we’ll probably talk about whether Spongebob has a butt made up of right angles.


No Screedblog today; worked on the book and a column due Thursday. Also, I’m not in the mood. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker: as I grow old and older / and I totter towards the tomb / I find that I care less and less / who fisks whom, myself included. There is, however, a minor addition to the Institute, which can be glimpsed by clicking the New This Week link below. See you tomorrow.

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