SEPTEMBER 1999 Part 2
Please: don’t tell me about the putative intelligence of canines, the dispute over whether they can reason, assemble disparate bits of information andsynthesize them into new conclusions. Tonight we had the block party. It’s a once a year occasion, although we did have a street party (with food) for National Night Out, last month. Around five the neighbors had assembled in loose clumps around the keg in front of my house. I decided it was time to join the party, so I grabbed a few folding chairs and headed towards the front door. Previously I’m sure I went out the back; last August, we used the porch furniture. Nevertheless, the dog saw people in groups outside - a common occurrence - and saw me going outside with chairs - a rare occurrence - and it all added up to food. There wasn’t any food outside; I hadn’t brought out the steaks. But when I brought up the chairs Jasper went to the door and furiously licked his chops. The last few years I’ve let him out at night, let him revert to the ancient role of the scavenger padding around the perimeter of the camp, picking up dropped morsels. He took the raw material and correctly interpreted the end result. one of those things that tells you we just don’t know how much they do know.

A good block party, but clouds rolled in at five - mean roiling clouds that had a certain Olympian contempt. Rain pattered down throughout the night - a few showers to send people under trees and umbrellas for a few minutes, nothing strong. As ever: the kids patrolled on their bikes, the babies wailed and tottered and gurgled, the lights strung from the trees glowed in the dusk, the food was fine and a neighbor I’d never met joined the party. Fine folk all. This is why we’re building an addition instead of moving: I treasure this block, these neighbors, these people, this community. My next-door neighbor noted that I wasn’t wearing my Lileks Oil party shirt, the one I always wear to block parties, and he was right; I changed. All was right with the world.

But it wasn’t, really. The rain came again, stopped, returned; the clouds deepened and darkened, and the lightning began. As usual there was a fire in the middle of the street in the old brazier, and everyone gathered around - 30, 40 people, kids, and a dog. (Jasper.) (Later, Raina, the crazy Doberman; it was amusing to watch the two of them form an impromptu pack, with Jasper playing the Michael J. Pollard role of the lesser, nerdier sidekick) The rain came again, and stayed. Now we were all outside chatting and laughing, under umbrellas, listening to the babble of conversation and the hiss of the fire as it fought the rain. More lightning; more thunder; bright flashbulb detonations overhead. Rain in earnest. Wind. Still we stayed, talking and joking. No one wanted this party to end, since this is the end of summer as we all know it. From here on in we retreat to our caves, and we don’t see one another until spring.

Then it really started to come down. The wind whipped up and the lightning was close, constant and insistant .

I believe we have done our duty for God and Girard, I said. (That’s our street.) With groans and complaints the party broke.


It rained for two hours, a punishing storm, angry, petulant. When the rain passed it was a quarter after eleven, a time that would usually find us all around the fire, still talking, halfway along the path to the end of the evening. Not this year. When the skies cleared I walked Jasper to the woods and felt the cool humid cast of the air, noted the dark water that filled the creek like quicksilver oil; it all felt sad and wrong. I wanted to go door to door and pull out the neighbors, relight the fire, call it Act Two. But the moment had passed and wouldn’t be back for a year. Damn. But: What we had was wonderful. Add it to the party we had in August, average it out, and we had a better summer than usual. We’ll all remember this as the year of lightning. (Six years ago was the Year of Rain. In between, the parties are noted by the nature of the entertainment: the year of the magician, the year of the square-dance caller, the year of the naturalist.) What we won’t remember, and what I must note, is that all the food was fine, all the desserts and salads were reduced to crumbs and frond fragments, the keg was wheezing spittle by the time the rain came, and the men finished their cigars. The tribe assembled, and gave summer permission to move along.

And Jasper was right. He got steak.

Uh-oh.

Usually I just write a Bleat at the end of the day, dump out the dross and the petty details, heedlessof how stupid or petty the tales might sound. I live an ordinary life, and aside from the occasional commonplace surprise (saw five raccoons in the tree the other day. Jasper ran after one, treed it, and when I looked up I saw five solemn bandits staring down at me with quiet malevolence. All seven of us stayed stock-still for several minutes, each thinking something different - the raccoons thought they’d be safe if they didn’t move; the dog thought he would prevail, somehow, if he merely waited; I thought it was likely that they were all rabid, and I did not want to endure the regimen of gut-sticking needles one must endure when bitten by a woodland neighbor. But nothing happened. I moved on; Jasper moved on; the raccoons moved on. Another crisis averted. In the world of the beasts, every day has a dozen Cuban missile crises) there’s little of note to report. Which is fine: better the ordinary life baroquely described than a bright whirl of noise and nonsense tersely recounted. I like habit and routine and ritual and order. But -

Well. Today was cold, chilly as last week’s Fargo expedition. The starched flag of late September has been unfurled, and we’ve been pitched into the middle of fall ahead of schedule. I can hear winter sharpening its claws. I can see the snow growing in the swollen bruises of the clouds overhead, and I reach for the razor and draw dotted lines on the wrists. (Lengthwise, not side-to-side.) I am not ready for this. The time of the Gray and the Brown is en route - malicious crow-beak winds pecking tears from your eyes and freezing them as they fall; treacherous sidewalks, dim sun, dead crusts of dirty snow and exhausted heaps of dirt-stained ice, dull clouds, sunset slamming down at five PM -

No!

NO!

Well, yes. Of course. Has to happen. No fighting it. No need to fight it now: it’s still green. It rained this evening; there was a rainbow, even. Everything on the porch still blooms bright. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Summer’s end need not be sad. Fall is a fine time - idiot green gives way to the infinite shadings of autumn, and winter edits the world to a pure fine essence, carves away undisciplined color. There’s nothing intrinsically depressing about a cold September day.

I repeat:

Uh-oh.

Went to Perkins for a meal tonight. I really don’t know why. I wanted a pattymelt, and they have good ones. They could reduce the entire menu down to the Patty Melt, and I’d be happy. Happier, in fact: I hate to plow through the laminated pages ofthe menu to get to my patty melt, because the menu is full of distractions. It’s like striding through a harem to get to your wife. All the new dishes called to me, warning me they’d only be here for a limited time . . . but no. They all looked like patty melts anyway, inasmuch as they involved meat, cheese and bread arranged in triangular segments.

This Perkins was not like other Perkins. First clue: waitress asks if I wanted a beer. “At Perkins?” I said. “Since when?” I declined, though - too early. Post-work beer + empty stomach = long nap. Sara showed up, took a seat, examined the menu. The waitress appeared and asked if she wanted a glass of wine.
“At Perkins?” Sara said. “Since when?”

Whereupon the waitress explained this was the Only Perkins of Its Kind in the Nation. A prototype, secret weapon NX-PRKNS. It was not actually a Perkins, but a Perkins Cafe & Bakery.

“That explains the crappy decor,” I did not say. “That explains the fussy, hard-to-dust bric-a-brac, the rosemaling, the confused mix of Northern European styles and English manor furnishings,” I did not say.

“Wow,” I said.

I remember when they built the place - they ripped down an old Perkins that had been tossed up in the Orange Era, then remodeled to fit the Green Era. The new one looks traditional, Cape Coddish, Disneyesque. Very homey and warm, but I miss the rows of booths, the flat clunk of coffee pots dropped on tables, the weary wraiths of cigarette smoke drifting around the room. Of course, it’s not that Perkins has gone upscale - rather, middle-class dining has been continually redefined upwards. More comforts, more options, more likker!

Will it catch on, spread to the rest of the nation? I’ve no idea. For now I am content to know I had supper at the sole Perkins in the nation where one can sit by a fireplace and look at a shelf of books.

Real books, too. Not House Press Gallery books. I will never forget stepping up on the platform of the House of Representativs Press Gallery and examining the books that lined the wall. They were all cut in half (top to bottom), glued together, and nailed in place. Completely unnecessary. It’s as if the set designer had a vendetta against the printed word.

Well. Today: better than yesterday, although I still feel as though I’m operating on some sort of automatic pilot. I went to the Physicians & Surgeons’ Building (interesting distinction) to take pictures of its demolition; I’d expected to see it blasted into rubble. We wuz too late! to quote the Bishop. (Sorry; obscure, obscure reference.) (To head off questioning e-mails: Monty Python.) I actually felt my heart pound as I rounded the corner, expecting to see another landmark felled to the pounding fist of the wrecker’s ball - but it still stood. Not a scratch on it. That won’t last for long, though. It’s been emptied of tenants, and it has that sad vacant look of a prisoner resigned to a sunrise execution. I wish they’d save the terra-cotta details; they’re nothing unusual, but they represent the work of some long-dead fellow’s day. Someone drew the pictures; someone translated the pictures into a model; someone poured hot clay into the molds made from the model. Someone put them into place and made sure they were level,, scraped off the excess mortar even though no one from the street could tell. All that work, demolished in a second; solid for 85 years, turned to dust and shards by a single blow from a concrete fist.

I don’t think I ever paid the building any attention until the day I knew it was going to come down. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson: the prospect of someone else’s hanging concentrates the mind as well.

Whatever happened to old Tom Whatsisname? You know the guy. Middle-aged, with a senior elf face, given to light sentimental drunkenness, chain-smoker, intellectual (in that late-50s middlebrowNew York sort of way) and destined ever to be remembered as the man who did not sleep with Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Lots of guys didn’t sleep with either or both, but he had movies made about the fact. Tom something or other. Don’t e-mail me. I’ll get it.

The other night AMC had that Jayne Mansfield movie - I think it’s called “The Girl Can’t Help It,” although I’m not sure, and it starred good old Tom Whatsisname. His previous role was in “The Seven-Year Itch,” where he lusted in a pathetically sweaty fashion after Marilyn Monroe. He plays a husband desperately hoping to fail at his best efforts to remain faithful. I think I’ve seen two-thirds of that movie several times; it’s always on late, and I never make it to the end. Same with the Mansfield movie, although the character is slightly different - instead of being a henpecked book editor alone in the city for a month, he’s a washed-up agent face down in a river of scotch, redeemed by the breathy words and airbag bosom of Ms. Mansfield. Both movies are interesting as period pieces, but as I watched the Mansfield film the other night, I felt sorry for Tom Whasisname. Imagine if you knew that Hollywood had you pegged for a certain kind of role: generally unattractive yet sweet fellow who gets to kiss the goddess, but cannot sleep with her lest the audience feel that things have taken an unjust and slightly repulsive turn.

Tom Poston! No. Tom Dichenhary. No.

The Mansfield movie also nailed the 50s version of va-va-va-voomism: in one scene Ms. Jayne sashays away, hips twitching so broadly it takes 70mm film to capture the entire tableau; her waist is the size of Kate Moss’ wrist. Back then, guys panted and hooted. Nowadays a fellow wonders: where did she keep her intestines? Perhaps they removed them before they shot the scene, and put them back when they were done.


Warm day, mostly; clouds would roll in and the temp would fall, but the sun had weight and heft. But you can tell fall’s en route - when the sun goes away, the temperature plummets; it’s just like bugs and mice swarming into a room when the light’s turned off. But there are still six days left of technical summer, and 92% of everything is still green. Work was, well, work; wrote two computer pieces for a weekly Strib total of six pieces, so, hoorah for me, I guess. Ran errands on the way home, and as I was walking up the steps I realized I was carrying two computer magazines, three CD-ROMS of demos and programs, one sack of Taco Bell delights, a fifth of Smirnoff and a pound of coffee. Damn! I thought. I’m set.

Ate. Napped, and napped sternly. Up and out with Jasper, exploring the neighborhood. I wore a jacket: a first for this fall. Found many interesting things in the pockets - a checkbook, linty Certs, a parking ramp stub from Rochester MN dated 1997; a business card from a speech I gave last year, a dime, and a glassine envelope of crack. (Just kidding about the business card.) We met a few friends on the walk, harassed squirrels, walked on the stone wall along the creek. Half the people I saw wore jackets; the other half were joggers in shorts. It’s that time of year.

Tonight: accomplished little of importance. Not even this.

Tom EWELL!

Would the fellow who said hello on the street Wednesday night drop me a line and tell me who you are, exactly? I’m sure we’ve met, and I apologize for putting on the public howdy-there-pardner face. I was waiting for the light to change, thinking about what I’ddo when I got back to the office, what supper should be (Turkey burgers? Roast turkey with gravy? Ground turkey with Bold Manwich sauce?) when this cheerful fellow says hello, and adds: love the Bleat.

It's amusing: in high school, I would have pitched a twitching fit if my parents had DARED read my journal, and now I’ve willingly engaged in a process that results in strangers walking up to me on the street and telling me they enjoy reading my diary. (If he was a stranger. Like I said, I was distracted.) So, whoever you are: sorry I looked confused and genially insincere.

It’s been a confused week, really. Just a blur. Last week’s Fargo trip set the clocks to late November, what with the cold cold weather and the usual fall associations of home and Thanksgiving. So I went back to the Sober Uniform at work, shedding shorts and T-shirts for dress shirts, good pants, sharp ties. But then I step outside and the sun’s hot & strong. Even now at eleven PM the crickets are cheeping with a pace appropriate for a late summer elegy. It’s still summer, technically, and I shifted to fall too fast. For tomorrow I’ve laid out green clothes. Spring hues.

It’ll probably snow.

Watched the first 45 minutes of American Graffiti last night - blurry, faded, scratchy. I don’t think I’ve seen the movie since it came out; made me want to see it again. I can understand why the execs were nervous, since there’s very little in the first half of the film that indicates any sort of drama will be found in the second half. Oh, it sets up a variety of stories - will the proto-Fonz find Harrison Solo and beat him in drag race? Will Duddy Kravitz go to college? Will Opie do . . . whatever he’s wondering whether or not he’ll do? Will Wolfman Jack ever shut up? Will C. Thomas Nerdface score? In retrospect, it shouldn’t be a compelling film; the camera work is flat, the editing workmanlike, the script utterly competent. But it all works, and it works very well. Maybe because the world it portrayed was new to contemporary eyes at the time. . Maybe because every subsequent movie and TV show about the era has been bright flat crap. There are a few exceptions: before American Graffiti, TNT played one of my favorites: “Peggy Sue Got Married.” That film’s been slapped down by every right-thinking critic, but I just love it; then again, I love the first “Back to the Future,” too. Each has a moment that just gets to me - in BTTF, it’s when Marty looks at the town square, and sees what it looked like the era before the malls; in Peggy Sue, it’s the scene where Peggy picks up the phone and finds her long-dead Grandmother on the other end. If I’ve had so much as one sip of scotch within a 24 hour period, I blubber at that moment. And both films feature a nice long tracking shot of an urban street lined with brawny polished Detroit iron. I wouldn’t want to live there, but I’d give 3 fingers, several toes and a good foot of intestines to visit. Although I'd prefer a more ordinary means of exchange.

Anyway. Graffiti was full of good performances - that’s what made the movie shine; the actors brought a level of emotion & engagement that Lucas, judging from subsequent work, is incapable of imagining. I was just glad that only Harrison Ford was chosen for the Star Wars movie. Imagine Richard Dreyfuss as an Imperial Officer, or Mackenzie Phillips as Leia.
(Shudder.)

Well. Thursday: a column, a radio oratory. I did a story about the Pillsbury Doughboy on the BBC tonight, not realizing that they don’t have the Doughboy in England. Upon learning this fact, I announced that my tale was bound to fall flat on its face, but then I launched into the story with immoderate enthusiasm. It was a retelling of today’s search to find the truth about the change in hue in the Doughboy. (He’s browner than usual in the new commercials.)

This is my life: chasing down PR flaks to get a quote about Doughboy hues because I noted, at 2:17 AM, a duskier Doughboy. Lucky me, though: because I work for a newspaper, they’ll return my calls and answer my pointless questions. Power! Hah!

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