|MAY 1997 Part 2|
|The first words I spoke to another person - and I don't count my dog; I'm not that daft yet - were spoken at 4:20 PM.
"Plastic is fine."
This may be a personal record. The phone messages were taken by the answering machine; the blustery weather kept the Parade of Wives and Infants indoors, so no one passed the house or was available for an over-the-fence chat; Raina Dog did not show up at the front door, teeth bared, barking for Jasper to come out to play; the troubled and globular neighbor kid who drags Rolf over to play did not walk by; my wife, busy with the new trials, did not call, nor was she available for calls; no one on the daily walk was familiar, so I gave no more than a head-nod. About the loneliest day I've had in years.
Except, of course, it had the guarantee of my wife at the day's end, and then a conversation with tens of thousands of people.
"Plastic is fine."
My voice came out croaky from disuse.
Plastic, I should note, is always fine, unless Paper has handles. The clerk was cheery, a nice burgher's wife who damn near grabbed her customers by the lapels and said GOOD TO SEE YOU! When I bade her a good evening, she lit up as though the prospect had been previously unconsidered, and was a delightful surprise - THANKS! I WILL! Compare her to the sullen scanner-swipers at the local supermarket, who seem to have realized minutes before that this is, indeed, their career.
There's one clerk at the local supermarket who doesn't like me, and I don't like him. I have no idea why. It's instinctual. I like the guy who notes that I frequently wear headphones, and the round pale young woman whose skin seems to be irritated by the rough fabric of her apron- there's always a lurid welt around her neck- is as sweet as you can get. The tall girl with the pierced eyebrow has no time for any of us, and the timorous sweet little girl with the body weight of a field mouse is smarter than any of them; she can make change without punching the sums into the machine. But there's this one flathead with gold chains who has that amotivational high-school jock-king attitude. The only thing he's read lately was the headlines on the Weekly World News. For almost three years, we have exchanged low-level waves of hostility, because each of us represents the thing the other does not like. Whatever that is. I avoid his line. I'm pleasent when I get him. But it's not fun for either of us.
More wind today; a hard walk around the lake. It was deserted - a few shivering joggers, no dogs. Jasper heeled the entire distance, ears flat, legs scissoring in a brisk trot as though he, too, wanted to get it over fast. I was in a hard snarly mood from the start of the day, because I woke too late. Stayed up until past three watching a Harold Lloyd movie, then slept until noon. Everything felt off, and I felt as though I'd sinned. Like the day was a train I'd missed. If I wake at ten the morning is still possible; at 10:50 I can put my hand on the rails and feel the vibration of the train, fresh out of sight but still something I could pretend I could've caught if I really wanted. It's bad on a sunny day to wake and find the sun easing over the apex, so I'm glad today was glum, wet and windy. This will happen again in a while, and I'm sure I will miss the splendor of a summer morning from time to time. But I will have spent a few minutes on the other end, in the perfect hour of a summer night, when no cars pass and no planes rumble above, and no distant thudding stereo pokes a hole in the silence. Everyone knows daybreak, and it's the friend of few. Two-twenty AM in the summer is a nice private communion. You can drop on the grass and look at the stars.
And then the wind starts in the trees, like the next day assembling itself all over again. I like the hours I keep, really. I see each day from every angle. Even the ones without people have a plot. Tomorrow, the story's different.
Tomorrow, I might chose paper.
On the sunniest of days at the height of precious summer, you could find them indoors in a dim room drinking coffee. It could have been 1979, 80, 81 - for almost half a decade the core javahounds of the Dinkydale Deli consisted of the same pale individuals. I was one of them; Glowering Jim, the poet, critic and nasty drunk was another. There was Paul, a wiry fellow with Singing Detective's disease - the most European American I'd ever met. Harvey, the charismatic Christian shoe repairman with many missing teeth and a happy grin; Gordie, the retarded janitor in his forties who sat in the corner and listened to ball games on his transistor radio. New people came and left, but that was the core, those were the people I talked to. On the periphery were other Dinkytown habitues who got a nod when they walked in, who probably regarded the place as theirs as well. And of course they were mistaken.
They included a stocky science fiction writer known for excessive beard-fumbling, and a man with a Bible-prophet beard, an Einstein mop of gray hair, a jean jacket, and body odor that would melt Gibralter. For entertainment, a nervous woman who looked like a pixy blown up to twice her real size. She earned a place in local lore when she failed to extinguish a match after lighting a cigarette, and set her newspaper on fire. Someone ran over with a full pot of coffee and dashed out the flames. She didn't come around much after that.
A decade and a half later:
I'm at Calhoun Square in Uptown. I've come to get my mail, perhaps have a cup of coffee. Sitting at a table by Bon Viande with the same miserable expression is the gray-haired man. Older, dressed the same, staring straight ahead with the look of the damned. I'm amazed. Where has he been? How did he make the transition from Dinkytown to chic Uptown? I move along. In another coffeehouse I stop dead: it's the beard-picker. The beard is white now, but there he is, holding a manuscript with one hand, the other hand buried in his plumage.
I find a different coffeehouse. Starbucks. I'm waiting in line, and hear a muttering behind me, a conversation that can't quite make the leap to true words; when I turn I nearly shriek: it's the pyromaniacal pixy. She hasn't aged one day. Still nervous as a bird, still in search of coffee, coffee, coffee. She says something to herself and leaves.
I take a seat.
"Excuse me - mind if I sit down?" I look up: a well-dressed fellow with a newspaper and a drink.
"Sure," I say. "Go right ahead."
"Ah!" he says. "Mr. Lileks."
"I recognized your voice from the radio." He introduces himself, and we talk.
He's the childhood friend of my roommate in college from the year I started going to the Dinkydale Deli.
I wanted to round up the other regulars just to point out how we were all together again, and wasn't it odd?
And then we would recall that none of us really knew the other, and none of this meant anything. I'm certain it does, but damned if I know what.
A warm day, which is good - and a warm night, which is better. Lately the nights have been cool, as though the warm day was an proposition the earth thought better of, and rejected. But it's almost midnight, and I'm typing outdoors in my shirtsleeves. Partly to enjoy the weather, and partly to avoid the nightmare upstairs in my studio. I partioned my hard drive today, and now the volumes are mounting at their discretion. It's like spending an afternoon rearranging your file cabinets, and at the end of the day, one of them won't open and another one has vanished. I blame a suicidal plug-in to Netscape - it went down and took the browser with it, and apparently during reboot it pulled the pin on the dynamite strapped to its code. Bang: the whole 'net drive is gone. Never seen that before.
In the last Bleat I mentioned the cast of characters who hung around the Dinkydale Deli a decade and a half ago, and how most of them drifted back into my life in the course of a single afternoon. Today while walking around the lake I saw the bitter poet stamping down the hill. Seventy degrees, and he was wearing a sport jacket. I've never seen him around here. I didn't stop to talk; I would have only gotten a curt nod, if that. Ten years ago he offered to punch me for something I said, although the real reason he wanted to punch me was simple, and sad: I had ceased to be someone who had nothing to do but hang around in coffee shops. I had a newspaper job and I'd published books, whereas he was still sitting in the same musty corner. I was a living example of how inferior talent succeeds in this crass stupid world.
Sunday is Mother's Day, and for the first time in my life I don't have one.
Hmm: rain is starting to tap on the porch roof.
Last year I drove up to Fargo for Mother's Day, almost certain this was the last one. Mom was still looking good and putting up the great front - the pain was tremendous but she hid it deep; her rage and frustration was as great as her discomfort but she put out the smile as bright as ever. She didn't think I was coming. In fact, while I'm sure she hoped I would come, she didn't want to think I would come because it might be the last time, because she didn't want anyone to think that, ever. Nothing was ever going to be the last time. I got into town early, bought some flowers at West Acres and then drove downtown. Parked by DeLendrecie's department store, now reconfigured into an office building. When I was a kid and downtown Fargo had life and breath - in the days before West Acres, in other words - this would be the last stop of a shopping trip with Mom, the last great emporium on the edge of downtown. It was a relic of the 19th century, even in 1966 - the two-story atrium with the mezzanine, the pnuematic tubes whizzing metal pills through tubes, landing in the basket with a whoosh and a plonk; the inscrutible chimes that signalled messages to employees and managers. It smelled like perfume and hamburgers, wood and old ladies. Floor upon floor of goods, each wrapped in a DeLendricie's box and put into a DeLendricie's bag. You could tell it would be around forever, because its name was engraved into the sidewalk in gold letters.
At the end of a shopping trip we went downstairs to the luncheonette for a drink. They had a Black Cow machine, and stools that went all the way around, so I could spin until I became ill.
Mother's Day is Sunday, of course, but I went home last year on Saturday, to surprise Mom at dinner. At six in the evening the DeLendrecie's building was open, to my surprise; I walked in the old doors, stood on the balcony and looked around. It wasn't as big as I recalled. The Gap is bigger than the main floor. The ceiling of the atrium no longer lofted to the nape of heaven. No bells, no hissing tubes. The original pressed-tin ceiling was still there, but it looked like a large lobby, not a vast store of shiny marvels. I went downstairs.
The luncheonettte was gone, of course, but there was a small restaurant. Open but empty. The counter of the cafe was exactly where the old counter had been. A bored waiter sat on a chair. It didn't spin all the way around. He would have had more fun if it had.
I left, and drove up Broadway to the train station - now a microbrewery. It's right around the corner from the old Quality Bakery, where Mom bought me a glazed donut if our Saturday shopping was starting early. The bakery is gone - there's a small strip mall there now - but anyone of a certain age who walks past can smell sugar and bread. I parked behind a bar and walked to the station.
They were sitting in a booth. Everyone knew I was coming but Mom. She looked up at me with a smile of someone unaccustomed to getting her prayers answered with a yes. "I thought something was up!" she beamed. And I feigned ignorance - what did she mean? Pretending that I had never left town, never gone away - like her husband and her daughter, I was only a few minutes distant. Sorry I'm late; had a hard time parking. What are we having for supper?
Casual, happy, ordinary, because it couldn't mean anything more than it did on the surface. This was just one more Mother's Day, and an endless number stretched out ahead of us. Right?
Towards the end she slept in my old room, because the pain kept her up at night. She listened to music and tapes from doctors who recommended algae and meditation. The room had been left intact from the day I left for college - the only additions were a stack of cassette tapes, some clips of mine piled neatly on my old desk, and the card I gave her for her last Mother's Day. It had cardboard flowers that popped out when you opened it. They never faded or shed their blossoms. The day she died I wanted to rip it up and shove it to the bottom of the wastebasket, but I didn't even touch it.
I threw it away months later. The writing was smeared.
Had to stop writing for a while - the thunder is rolling in, and I haven't seen that in months. Someone lit off a string of firecrackers down the block. Summer is close.
The dog wanted attention; he climbed into my lap so I picked him up like a small child and nuzzled the beast. He's no compensation or replacement for children, but in a way you have to envy the dog: when something is gone. Bonds are strong but once broken, they heal soon. Faster if the food is better than usual.
I don't envy him at all.
Minnesota: sunburn one day and frostbite the next. Today around the lake I had to shove my hands deep into my coat pockets. I looked like a man of miseries, eyes streaming with tears from the hawk-beaked wind. Yesterday I got my first tan line of the season and my nose was seared turnip-red.
But everything grows. The weather reads aloud a page from early April , but the tulips, the lilac bushes, the hostas and ferns keep reaching towards June. The ferns are the most unusual plants in the yard - right now there are little spirals at the end of tall tendrils, looking like something out of a Jurassic-era diorama. As if the plants will be eaten by trilobites. They'll turn into ordinary unruly domestic ferns soon, but watching them grow makes you realize that they probably haven't changed their modus operandi in a hundred million years. Which is good. They got the fern part down pat. No need to evolve. Don't want sentient ferns knocking on the door demanding a cup of mulch.
Dad called tonight, on the first Mother's Day without one. Not the best day for him, although he makes do. The conversation was lumpy. He might get in the truck and drive to Oklahoma tomorrow, just for something to do. He'll probably pick up the show at night. He picked it up on the road last week, and tried to call in, but the line was busy. He doesn't quite understand why I talk about some of the things I talk about. "You were talking about ketchup," he said, and that's all he said about the matter. Spent the evening scanning and drawing, preparing the next Big Web Site addition - a page devoted to the lake. Of local interest only, I'm sure. I've assembled a batch of old photos and postcards of Lake Harriet, and after the trees are fully adorned I'll take the camcorder out and reshoot the locales in the old photos. Saw the trolley roll past the pavilion today; I'll have to get some shots of it as well. Two years ago I saw the trolley and thought: spring. Now I think: with proper compression, I can get this down to 300K.
I keep trying to get closeups of the faces in the photos and postcards - the men and women draped in hot layers of hot wool on a hot Sunday afternoon, staring out at the same lake I circle daily - but their faces are always hidden by shadow, by the brim of a hat, by the grainy resolution of the photo. No one comes forward. No one claims their day and dares me to compare it to mine. The northwest corner of the lake is the site of all the pavilions - five, I think, with four destroyed by storm or fire. The pilings and debris are still underwater, but the lake is exactly the same and the trolley still rolls by ten times a day. It's easy to romanticize the past and think they had it better then, but I look at the photos of everyone swaddled crown-to-heel under a punishing sun, and then I catch sight of some sylph wearing two ounces of spandex as she chases herself around the water, and I think: this is definitely an improvement. Immodesty has its benefits, chief of which is an absence of heat rash.
Sitting now at Starbucks in Edina. The first winter back home I walked here daily in the winter - thirty minutes each way through the snow. Why, in my day we had to walk three miles just for a cup of coffee. I did it for the exercise. I would buy foodstuffs next door at Lund's, some beer at the likkasto, cram it all in my backpack and stagger home. Still had the DC pack-mule habits. If I couldn't fit it in the backpack, I didn't buy it. How I made it through that winter without slipping backwards on the ice and cracking my spine on the beer, I don't know.
It's about 46 degrees out there. Only the appearance of the sun - timid, peeking out as though it's afraid it's been followed - keeps me from swinging into a full homicidal rage. Around the lake today at noon I was snarling and glowering at the ground, trying to keep my cap from flying off. I took it out on the dog, I'm ashamed to say - refusals to heel got a slightly more energetic chain-yank than they might have on a sunny day. (I apologized with a nice game of Ball when we got home.) Only one thing to do: toss a few more meteorological interns into the bubbling sulfur pit, pray to all available gods from Abraham to Zoroaster, hope one of them is in charge of Spring, and reacts accordingly.
Now in the basement, with the usual tableau: Jasper curled in a chair, nose buried in his paws. No doubt they contain a record of everywhere he went today - the walk around the lake, the scent of his playmates, the wet dirt at the creek, uncatagorizable smell of dry cleaning fluid on Sara's jacket. His paws are a daily diary, and he reads it while he sleeps. Some nights after he's been put in his place by a bigger dog, he will have odd grunting nightmares - keening through his nose, grunting, running in place. I want to tell him that his feet are giving him bad dreams, but there's no point.
Nice comfy show tonight. From cold weather to plant terminology to Pre-Raphealite painters to the old TV show "Search" to Fibonacci's Number Sequence to the secret plans of the Hugh O'Brian Youth League. Also taco sauce. I cut a promo tonight, and I dread hearing it tomorrow - I'm sure I'll sound completely different than what I imagine. It still seems boastful to say "It's the Diner with James Lileks" - or, for that matter, to say "Hi everybody, this is James Lileks" as though this should mean anything to anyone.
Confession to a bit of dangerous vanity. I went into a tanning booth today. I couldn't stand the cold weather, the weak sunshine, the blinding whiteness of my legs, as though my marrow had been replaced with halogen gas. Dammit, I wanted UV rays. So I went to a tanning booth. It was like climbing inside Liberace's coffin. Bright, yet restful. I spend nine months out of the year swaddled up like a mummy; an occasional session of irradiation feels like therapy.
Jasper just woke, stretched, and then hooked one paw under a leg and pulled his back paw to his muzzle. It must have been a good day. There's no such thing as a bad aroma to him. Every night is spent on a bed of roses.
I feel light again. I have shed one of the greater impediments to peace of mind: 32 unlabeled videocassettes that had been heaped around the TV in tottering piles. Each was a palimpest of Star Trek, X-Files, Discovery documentaries, movies that went on an hour past bedtime, Almanac appearances, et cetera. I had some time to kill, and decided to plow through the stack and throw out as many tapes as possible. I don't know how I came to have that many, anyway; I try to discard a tape as soon as it's full, just to avoid this problem. But I stopped watching TV and just started taping it for some day in the future when I'll want to watch the second half of "In Like Flint." I realize now that day will not come.
I found some forgotten treasures: an episode of the X-Files I hadn't seen; the penultimate episode of "Cracker," which I had searched for in a previous attempt to organize the tapes (I've waited 9 months to watch the last episode, because I couldn't find the one that preceded it) and three Star Treks unwatched for good reason - i.e., the appearance of Majel Barret. One tape that seemed familiar yet wrong. - it was from 1992, and consisted of shows taped in Washington DC. All the ads were familiar, like a half-recalled nightmare. Now I am down to three tapes. The rest belong to the landfill, and hence to history.
It's raining tonight, a steady soaking rain that should coax a few blades out of the lawn. There are still bare blasted patches where Jasper squirted his herbicide, and vast swaths of unruly quackgrass. Last year I rented some lawn-rehab equipment with the Giant Swede - we aerated, leveled, seeded, fertilized, and at the end of the summer our lawns looked as pathetic before. The Aerator was a monstrous machine - a spiked drum that ate the earth with great lusty greed and spat out small cylinders of turf in neat rows. It looked as if a Precision Dog Defecating Team had marched along and done its business. My neighbor's lawn is thick and even, but then again, he has more hair than I do, too. Maybe that's the key here.
I learned today that next week will be colder than this week. Fine. I give up on May and pin my hopes on June. That will probably be when I get an office job and have to spend the day indoors.
What's galling me now is that I made the switch to clear liquor too soon. At the end of the day, after two hours of yakking, I enjoy a good drink. Right now I'm sipping a glass of Absolute Citron, which is my favorite drink for warm summer nights. It is not a warm summer night. It's a brown toasty belly-warming scotch night. But I have no scotch. I feel like someone who put out the Christmas lights just because it snowed.
Went to buy some sneakers today, because the sneakers ordered from the department store haven't arrived. A couple of months ago, in a joyous, hopeful belief that spring would arrive, I went to replace my tattered Bass canvas shoes (green with blue around the - the, ahh foothole) - with this year's version. (Blue with green foothole accents.) They said they no longer carried my size, and would have to order them. I did so. No show. Today the side of the shoe ripped open on the walk, and I flopped along like Li'l Abner. At Target I figured I'd buy some cheap functional canvas shoes, the sort where the heel wears through after a month but you don't care because they're only $13. I found one pair. One. In a size too big. Miles and miles of women's summer shoes, but one pathetic blue canvas shoe for me.
"We had some," a clerk said, "but they're gone."
I didn't move fast enough. Should have bought those summer shoes in February. Now they're gone to make room for the fall stock. Due any day now, I suppose.