Strangers

When we came out of the bar in Iowa City, there were still twenty people on the other side of the street.  They were holding signs and chanting in front of the Old Capitol.  We had had nice cocktails at an upstairs bar.  We had participated in a round of applause for the bartender called for by someone we thought to be a regular, a guy I would later learn had actually never set foot in the bar before.  It was still light outside.IMG_1469

We looked, we didn’t look.  Someone said, “It’s so complicated,” and we looked and didn’t look, and people wondered what each other were thinking, who might feel sensitive about this, and we were tired and cheerful and going to dinner together and a little in love with each other and ourselves since we had brought our novels and no one cares about your novel, but these people did, they read part of it and talked to you about it– if for years you had vivid, poignant dreams every night and no one, ever, ever wanted to hear about them, but then, someone asked and actually wanted to know, it was like that.

I can only speak for myself but I was not in the mood to deal with world affairs, in fact, I was pretty pissed that the people of the middle east could not hold off on their insanity while I was on vacation, goddamnit.

They chanted and chanted.  We waited to cross the street, but I don’t know why.  It is a college town, and three-fourths empty in July.  I wanted to go.

After Iowa City, I stopped in Hannibal, Missouri.  I looked at the river.  It was too hot to look at it under the sun.  I walked up and down the road by the river and the train tracks, looking for a place that would sell me an apple.  They were all antique stores and ice cream shops and empty places.  I went into one tourist shop and they did have “fresh produce”: ears of corn and tomatoes.

I ate a sandwich and corn chips on the deck of a restaurant that was closed and a wasp floated in a corner.

I asked a couple to take my picture in front of one of the preserved buildings, Mark Twain’s dad’s law office.  The man took my picture.  He put his finger over part of the lens.  He asked me to take their photo. I did.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Russia,” he said.

“Oh, far from home.  How is your trip so far?”

“Good,” they said, and immediately walked away.  I wondered what they knew about Mark Twain.

I went into the gift shop and while I was looking around, a man told the woman at the counter that they were going to open the floodgates tomorrow, and I realized I didn’t know what that meant, that it was a real thing to do, open the floodgates.  I took a book and some stickers to the counter and the woman asked where I was from.

“Brooklyn,” I said.

“Oh,” she said.

“But I used to live in Kansas City, so I was nearby.”

“Oh,” she said.

I took my book to the coffeehouse down the street along the river, ordered a latte which came in a handmade mug.  I washed my hands in their bathroom, and the sink was handmade pottery, too, a shallow round bowl with blues and browns.  I opened my new book and read this:

The human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys– yet he has left it out of heaven!…From youth to middle age all men and all women prize copulation above all other pleasures combined, yet it is actually as I have said: it is not in their heaven; prayer takes its place.

I had to pee for a very long time of driving across Illinois, and pondered stopping and peeing in many, many cornfields and ditches, but finally came to a town barely big enough to have a gas station.  There were fifty motorcycles parked around it.  I rounded the corner to the bathroom and there were already six women in line.

The line for men was even longer, and a guy with patches on his leather vest that said Iraq, joked, “We knew that blonde lady would be coming in, and she really had to pee, so we all rushed in here and lined up.”

I asked where they were going.  He said they were on a ride to some memorial for someone who had died.  I was too shy to ask about this person who had died, but I liked that everyone there was in some informal community.

A little girl walked by, stood next to her mom, and the guy said, “You gotta get some on this wrist so you won’t fall over.”  He was pointing to her bracelets.  She didn’t say anything.  “You know, so they won’t be too heavy.”  The mom smiled and the girl didn’t say anything.  The girl walked away.

“Someday she’ll be like, what did he mean?” the mom said.

Eventually I got to pee and I thanked God that I had gotten to pee and didn’t buy anything at the Casey’s.  I just left.

 

 

 

Twain quote from Letters from the Earth, edited by Bernard DeVoto HarperPerennial, 1962.

Constitutional

Today I walked instead of driving. I’m a dedicated walker everywhere but at home.  I don’t feel like I’ve been someplace unless I’ve taken public transportation.  Subways are my favorite, trains come second, and I can occasionally be persuaded to take a bus.  I’m afraid of ending up in the wrong place on a bus, though.  Buses are the loose canons of public transportation.  We don’t have subways or trains in Kansas City, which is the thing that sucks the most about living here.  We do have buses, but they are dumber than boxes of rocks.

We have mansions, we have apartments, duplexes, houses falling in on themselves a little, houses beaming from careful attention.  Many of our buildings are octogenarians, or older.  I got a closer look at my favorite red brick Victorian mansion, and found one of a similar age (probably turn of the century) that had tall skinny apartment buildings grow up behind it.  Just like that book, The Little House.  Time goes on around you.  That’s a damn sad book.

A gaggle of kids was racing across a grassy lot.  When I was a kid, I didn’t know what an empty lot was.  Every space where I grew up was owned, accounted for, counted and taxed and civilized.  This lot probably had a falling-down condemned thing on it at one point, and now it has some nice scratchy grass.

As I approached, one of the littlest kids didn’t run with the others.  She stood on the sidewalk as I passed her, looking google-eyed at me, like she was thinking, That lady is so big!   I waved at her.  She stared.  She’s so big!  I gave her a wide berth, in case she had stranger danger fears, and turned around once I passed to wave again.  The same stare.

There is nothing in those Scientology windows except your own reflection.

On Main, there is an it’s cool you’re gay center, which I had heard about, but never noticed from driving by.  I stopped to look in a shop window and saw a guy behind me.  I turned around and looked him in the eyes and said, “Hey.”  He had paint splattered work pants and was clearly not on the same channel as most of us started walking along behind me, speaking to me in a voice slightly too low to be conversational.  Hey, we could get a beer.  Hey, just give me your number.  It was broad daylight, busy street, busy part of town, and he didn’t do anything that required me to assert myself, so I just kept walking.  I can only recall one time a man scared me in public.  Guy was grabby, clearly grabbier than I wanted him to be.  I fled to the bathroom, and I lost him.  Girls should have lessons in how to present themselves in public.  Not like the Girl Scout lessons I got, on walking like a lady, but looking like a bitch and talking like a bitch you shouldn’t mess with.

Past the Pizza Hut pizza factory, the delivery guy had just opened the door, and stood there with his charges.  I took a deep breath of pizza.  Corporate pizza, the exact same pizza you’ve always eaten and it tastes the same all over the country, the world.

I’m a big snob about local stuff and experiencing new places, but on my first trip overseas, a week alone in Paris, I remember seeing a Pizza Hut and thinking, Oh, thank you, Jesus, I just want to order something I understand and something I know I can eat.  I opened the door, and saw all they had were big pizzas.  All other issues aside, I couldn’t afford a big pizza.  I wanted to cry.  Went back to my hotel room to psych myself up for another venture out into the city, seeking food that wasn’t French.  French people aren’t vegetarian.

I passed the undertaker’s shop that got shut down for doing something terrible to dead bodies.  I guess it wasn’t terrible enough for me to remember, though.  And then I passed the most beautiful neon in the city, in the dry cleaner’s window.  Glowing mustard, ice green, bluebird.

Things weren’t so different.  More details.  My car is so low to the ground that my vantage point was similar.  And interacting with people on the street isn’t so weird this time of year.  In a convertible, you’ll look at people, occupy similar space.  And truth be told, I was moving only a little slower than in my car.  I’m a fast walker.

At the post office, I caught up to a guy who appeared to be tuned into channel normal, and planned to ask his help if Mr. Space Cadet became a problem.  But I didn’t have to.  I crossed the street, and Cadet kept going straight.  Onward.

That is why I moved to the city, though.  People having to deal with each other.  The threat of crackheads actually feels less dangerous to me than the threat of everyone sealed in separate houses screaming into pillows.  The city laughs at perfectionism.  The older it gets, the more the warts are out, and it helps me feel more comfortable showing mine.  Not that I got any warts today.  It wasn’t that interesting of a walk.

Fireflies

Told there would be a dance, I tried not to get too excited.  The crowd is mostly white, and writers are pathologically tangled in their heads.  Yet at the first sign of music, several white haired ladies are dancing all around like they’re at Woodstock.  Then more and more folks.  The DJ loves Stevie Wonder.  Gee.  I danced with him (the DJ, not Mr. Wonder)– he knew how to twirl, spool out and back, and narrated the process (let’s send you out, and then you do this), which was as odd as it was appropriate, in this town.

My main partner in crime was a woman from Argentina who was lusciously beautiful, simply dressed and robust and loosely postured, as we always imagine exotic, cultured women.  She was a short story person.  I had to write down my name so she would understand it.  “Ah, Lis, like from Aylissabet.”  Seeing us together, someone asked me, “Are you from Buenos Aires, too?”  Uh, not exactly.  One of my classmates teased me for chatting up the only black guy there.  I corrected (even better!): Egyptian guy.  I did not find out if Egyptians dance.  He pleaded injury.

A few of us chatted after DJ closed up the laptop.  I am old enough to contribute: classical musicians are really uptight.  Don’t try to be like them.  You can’t judge your own work.  And: you can’t worry about making yourself create something great, all you can do is keep yourself in shape, and churning things out, and do the best you can with what you are given.  You may not be given what Shakespeare was given, but that doesn’t mean your little work, or your mediocre book, won’t be critically important to someone else on the planet.  Lots of mediocre books, books somewhat clumsy in the writing or problematic or predictable of plot, are precious to me.  You just never know.

A younger writer brought up some of these issues, and it was again nice to see what I have learned, and how I’ve lived like I believe it.  Also: if you’re in the arts to feed your ego, you’ll only get more and more unhappy as time goes on.  If you’re in it to shave the ego down, you’ll get happier and happier.

We walked down to the river, and around and around, crossing and crossing, chatting easily.  There were four of us, two women, two men.  The younger couple split off to look for fireflies.  I hoped that he would kiss her.  I thought he might.  I walked back with the older guy–who is coupled anyway– so nothing was at stake.  We had a great talk, and the comfort I’ve gotten here from talking with so many people who are so much like me is almost, almost better than falling in love.  It’s less scary, that’s for sure, and almost as exciting.

Deleted Scenes

I’m storytelling on Sunday as part of America, Now and Here.  My yarn is about being abroad and mouthing off.  Because my time is so limited, I offer a few subplots that will, regretfully, be omitted:

When I was visiting London, I picked up this child.  I mean, I chatted up this guy, and it turned out he was about 19 1/2  (to my ancient 30), and he went to KU.  Me?  I learned to drink martinis at the Granada.  And the cousin I was visiting in London not only went to KU, he was in the middle of March madness, trying desperately to somehow watch all the games while overseas.  Of all the gin joints, right?

The boy was adorable.  And an English major.  I invited him to the party that I’ll discuss Sunday.  We snuggled up on the couch and he quoted long passages of Shelley.  I didn’t mind that.  I hope that as a young, poor college student, he appreciated access to unlimited Bombay Sapphire gin.  (We were in Britain, after all.)  He proceeded to get gleefully drunk, and then insist he would find his way back to his far-flung hotel alone, on foot, at 3 am.  Luckily, another departing guest volunteered to accompany him on the bus.

The other man I met in London was much too old.  I lined up for rush tickets to “The Tempest” one afternoon.  “The Tempest” is my favorite Shakespeare.  I had already seen Patrick Stuart (ya know, Captain Picard) in a different production of the same play on Broadway.  This is how spoiled I am!  That Broadway production was one of the most powerful pieces of theater I’ve ever seen.  Stuart doing the last speech of Prospero’s ripped me open.

Anyway, I’m lined up in this little theater.  The first time I’ve been in a London theater.  I’m imagining Dickens there.  There are two men in line ahead of me.  Since we’re there for hours, we start chatting.  The man old enough to be my father is a Shakespeare professor at some small British college.  He is charming, and we chatter on and on about Shakespeare and literature.  His son, who is my age, stands there silently and says nothing.  He clearly finds the idea of a Royal Shakespeare Company production to be only slightly less exciting than clipping his toenails.

We all scored tickets to the show eventually, and then I had barely had time to run to my cousin’s flat.  I absolutely would not go to the theater in regular old daytime attire.  I stopped, panting, in front of my cousin’s building, and the buzzer would not work.  My cousin was up there.  I could see him from the sidewalk.  I ducked into a cinematic red British phone booth, right across the street, and stared at the instructions.  I had one pound and a phone number with too many digits.  I managed it somehow, though, flew upstairs, threw on a lovely evening outfit, and ran back to the theater in heels.  Too young, too old– yes, every unhappy romantic encounter is unhappy in its own way.  But at least unhappiness makes better stories.

Storytelling is: Sunday, May 15, 6-9 pm, at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore, KCMO, 64108

http://kansascity.americanowandhere.org/full-kc-calendar/

Poetry

I remember phrases from childhood travels, not images or events.  Glass-bottomed boat.  Lion Country Safari.  Circus Circus. The musicality of the words meant more to me than the actual experiences.

All I remember about the glass-bottomed boat was my incredulousness.  How could a boat have a glass bottom?  I pictured a little motorboat with a slab of window for a bottom.  Wasn’t that dangerous?  Wouldn’t it break?  Couldn’t ladies shatter it with their high heels?

I don’t remember the actual boat, or the coral reef, down there in the Florida keys.  all I remember is those four syllables, and the fact that my dad went snorkling instead.  Snorkling.  What a word that was!  I couldn’t imagine what he was doing.  Dads did mysterious things, though.  My dad went to an office downtown most days, and I had no idea what he did there.  Snorkle.  Glass-bottomed boat.

We went to several outfits like Lion Country Safari.  We visited one in Florida, and one in Texas.  They strike me as ill-conceived now.  You stay in your car.  “Wild” animals wander around.  Giraffe, deer, maybe even ostrich.  The lions, my father insists, were actually in cages that you drove by.  I remember you could get your photo taken with a lion cub for an extra charge.  My parents disapproved of this on the grounds of both safety and thriftiness.  I did not get a picture. I just kept the name of the place, forever.  Lion Country Safari.

Circus Circus, I’m told, is still there.  I visited Las Vegas when I was three.  My grandmother paid for me to be made up as a clown.  I was only spoiled for my first few years, the ones I have the fewest memory of.  Afterward, I kept the red foam nose, with a sprinkling of glitter.  Sometimes I put it on my nose again.  You needed glue to hold it there, though, and I didn’t have that kind of glue at home.  You actually need souvenirs to remember trips when you are a child.  You actually will forget.  Circus Circus. I either saw, or thought I would see, trapeze artists in the atrium.  I’m not sure which.

We also visited Muir Woods.  We ate Chinese food in San Francisco, which I liked as a city name only second to Cincinnati.  You would think the Hearst Castle would impress more with its architecture than its name, but my world was made of words, not marble.

Stepping Stones

As I mentioned in our last episode, I was recently visited by a screeching demon of a panic attack, followed by days of anxious malaise– all less charming than Woody Allen movies might suggest.

One particularly nasty problem with a panic attack is that you feel isolated.  Of course, you are isolated, to an extent. It’s not like you can point to your hair on fire or your dangling limb or the gunman aiming at you and have someone say, Whoa, I get it, how scary! Which sucks because you truly, deeply, emotionally and physically feel like something that terrible is happening.

In between doses of kindness from friends (all much appreciated, friends), because I was out of town, I also met many strangers who kept me from going completely nuts.  Here are some of those people, with thanks for Thanksgiving.

1. Lady next to me on the plane.  I waited frantically for her to put her book down, and once she did, I cultivated our conversation like a prize orchid.  We talked about Orlando, Las Vegas, Asheville, and her work as a nurse.  “Well, when you work in a hospital, people dying is just part of the job,” she said cheerily.  What was there then to fear?  She and her husband played blackjack and craps in Vegas.  I could think of nothing less appealing than adding more risk to my life.  But, hey, whatever makes you happy.

2. The guy who drove my bags and me to my hotel room on the grounds of the huge resort.  He told me about his recent dental surgery, having half his teeth pulled and replaced with implants.  He apologized for sounding funny.  He was wearing a retainer.  He was worried about not being able to eat solid food at Thanksgiving, or at his 15-year-anniversary-of-employment dinner.  I felt a little less sorry for myself.  Just a measly single root canal can kick my ass.

3. My groupmates at the afternoon session of my conference, who encouraged me to play “the gay kid” in our skit about homophobia in the classroom.  This was because I was the only straight person in the group.  Pretty cute, I know.   I couldn’t concentrate on my own freaking out when I was the star!  I was representing all gay kids!  Strange but true.

4. My cab driver on the way to dinner.  We had a great talk about the cost of goat meat (he was from Pakistan), the horrors of Chicago weather, the astounding cost of plane tickets overseas, and how Americans would benefit from seeing other countries.  He told me he thought change was good, and he had no desire to ever return to Pakistan.  I needed that positive, forward thinking.

5. On the way to the airport, I sat next to a teacher from Detroit.  Teachers all size each other up by grade level and subject and suburban/rural/urban.  “Do you teach in the suburbs?” she asked me.  “No, I’m in the inner city.”  We were now good friends.  Inner city teachers are like a gang.  Just that tight, just that loyal.  We swapped stories, talked about why our schools worked.  Hers is going to have a ton of students added from other schools, and she was justifiably anxious about if they could maintain a high quality program.

Thanks again, you all did me good, although you probably didn’t know it.

Whaling

I had a boyfriend who refused to read “Bartleby the Scrivener.”  Over and over again he refused.  Some people get that.  Some people don’t.  I’m in a Melville mood lately.  Forgive me.

I was at Silver Dollar City last weekend.  The weather was perfect, and people were making things with their hands.  If I were to be relied upon to make things, the whole world would look like Bedrock.  I appreciate manual skills.

We stopped to visit the knife-maker, and the bead-stringer, both of whom are very familiar to my family. As we picked through the dangling tresses of her wares, the jewelry maker told us her dream was to travel to Lascaux, France, and see the ancient cave paintings.  Wouldn’t that be amazing?  Then I watched the knife guy hammer red-hot metal, casually stab a steel drum by way of demonstration, and lightheartedly insult Oklahomans.

Either because I had taken this neurological medication, or because I’ve had these mysterious chronic headaches messing with my brain, I would occasionally drift into thoughts of doom.  Like when I was watching cheerful people tromping through a song and dance number, I thought, Why do they bother?  Don’t they know how death makes everything meaningless? I have encountered these types of thoughts before, since I have a moody temperament, and knew that they were just thoughts, not directives.  The next day, this particular type of madness seemed to have passed.

I hadn’t seen the glass blowing since I was a kid, and I didn’t really see it this time, either.  I sat down on the floor because my feet hurt, and so I only caught a glimpse of the molten glob on the end of the lance, only for a second saw the man turning it to whirl it into a bowl.

I wasn’t sure, suddenly, how it all worked.  Was there sand in there?  They dumped a vat of sand inside there, and then pulled out glass?  Really?  After the demonstration ended, I walked up and looked into the furnace.  It’s just like when the Nazis take the lid off the Ark.  It was wonderful and terrible.

In the adjacent shop, I found a cobalt blue whale.  The chemical cobalt is the basis for vitamin B 12, which humans and whales, all mammals, require, and which the nurse injected me with last week, in the hopes of making me slightly healthier.  Adding cobalt, the glassblower explained, makes the glass blue.  My whale is cool and from the depths of the ocean, heavy and calm as eternity, and straight from the firey furnace.