Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 10 (Devin Johnston)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Johnston, Devin

Purchased online.

2001: I met Lori in March of 2001. We decided to move in together in July. We rented a huge apartment at 63 Ashland Avenue. It was probably the nicest apartment either of us ever lived in. It was the second floor of a big old Victorian painted deep forrest green with black and red trim. I remember the staircase had wallpaper from the 1940s which, if memory serves, depicted sylvan hunting scenes or something along those lines.

The door to the apartment opened into a very long corridor. To the right, the corridor ended in a massive double living room, divided by a pair of simple columns. You entered into a library area. We kept my books and CD's and the stereo there. We also had a groovy chaise longue that Lori had re-upholstered. There was a leaded glass window on one wall and a large bay on another. In the center of the room, just before the divide we had a circular wooden dining table in the bay-windowed alcove. The other half of the living room had a fireplace, television, two couches. French doors opened onto a little screened-in sun porch.

Directly across the hall from the front door was the door to our bedroom. The room had a built-in wooden wardrobe and a beautiful stained glass window that reflected a lovely pink light into the room in the morning. There were two more bedrooms off the corridor. Lori used the one next to our bedroom as a work area and I used the one opposite as my study. The corridor then took a sharp right and and then a sharp left and ended at the bathroom.

To the right of the bathroom we had a stunning dining room with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the back yard. We painted the walls a deep red that glowed so brightly at night it looked from the outside as if we had a red light on in the room. We bought a secondhand dining set made of a blonde wood. Opposite the dining room was a small kitchen las refurbished in the sixties.

The events of September 11 occurred not long after we moved in. I remember being awakened by a phone call from my part-time job at Just Buffalo. The first thing I heard when I woke was Cass Clarke's gravelly voice saying that someone had crashed a plane in to the World Trade Center and did I have the phone number of one of the writers that worked in our education program. I gave her the number, then went back to sleep.

A little while later, I woke up, made coffee, and was about to go into my office to work when I recalled that thing about the plane. I turned on the television to see Peter Jennings face. To the side I could see a cloud of smoke and then all of the sudden one of the towers began to collapse. At first, Jennings didn't notice. He just kept narrating as the tower fell to the ground and a cloud of debris rose into the air. For a second it didn't seem like it could be real because Peter Jennings hadn't said anything about it. And then he saw it and he said something like, O dear. And that was it. It was gone.

We lived happily in our Ashland abode for two years, during which time I made the decision not to write my dissertation and to take my current job at Just Buffalo. We decided to buy a house. We spent all of the spring of 2003 looking for one and eventually found a fancy-looking victorian in the Black Rock neighborhood of Buffalo, about two blocks from the firehouse where Robert Creeley and his family lived.

from Aversions


When talking to myself,
I take a tone I've learned

from you--not of boyish charm,
but probing and severe--

to say,
some things are clear
and some withdrawn from sight.

A cyclist is only such
while seated on a bike,

a sleeper while asleep.
These forms are only forms

fulfilled, as you are now
no more than this--a tone.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 9 (Ronald Johnson)

radi os
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Johnson, Ronald
radi os

Sent to me by the publisher.

1998: I moved into a second floor apartment in the back of a house at 39 College St. in Buffalo on August 1.

You entered the stairs on the side of the house and the door to the apartment opened into the kitchen. The kitchen had a classic Buffalo built-in pine breakfront that rose all the way to the ceiling, with glass-fronted upper cabinets, a countertop and wooden drawers below. I think there was even a flour bin. The floor was covered in old yellowish linoleum and an old porcelain one-piece sink with a dishwashing tray stood on one leg in the corner. I had just enough room to place a small table next to the window. Next to the refrigerator a wooden door opened to a small pantry and next to the stove a doorway led to a small, narrow corridor, with wood floors and wainscoting.

First door to the left off the hallway was to the bathroom, about which I remember nothing except it had a claw foot tub and a tiled floor. The hallway ended at two doors, the one to the left leading to the living room and the only heating source in the whole apartment, a very expensive gas wall unit (expensive to operate, that is). Dark blue wall paper with some kind of minimal, gold and white and pink flower pattern covered the walls. It was very dark.

The door to the right led to my bedroom/office. It too had been wallpapered in a pattern not unlike the cover of Ronald Johnson's book. I asked the landlord to paint over it before I moved in -- she obliged. I had a wooden platform queen bed inherited from a NY roommate. I bought a slightly damaged table at Pier 1 for almost nothing and used it for a desk -- I still use it.

I lived alone, but the downstairs apartment was occupied over the years by several poet friends, all of whom became de facto housemates -- Jonathan Skinner lived there for a year, followed for a summer by Aaron Skomra and Michelle Citrin and finally Chris Alexander, who continued living there for several years after I left.

The relationship I spoke of in the previous post ended in the middle of winter and I also got rejected by the PhD program at UB. For whatever reason, I decided to stay one more year to either get into the program or finish my MA. I did get in the second time around, thanks to Creeley and Bernstein and Howe, who all helped usher my application through the process, and I ended up staying in this apartment until 2001, when I met Lori and we shacked up together on Ashland Ave.

Too much formatting in radi os for me to work on it this morning. You can explore the work of Ronald Johnson starting here:


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 8 (Kent Johnson)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Johnson, Kent

Given to me by the publisher. I met Kent Johnson a few years back when he came to Buffalo. He gave a great reading over at Medaille College. He speaks excellent Spanish and we ended up having a long conversation in that language at the Founding Father's Pub in Buffalo. I remember he asked me why I haven't done very much translating. My only lame excuse was that I haven't really ever had a community of people around me for whom translation was a priority. Not much of an answer, I guess.

1997: I moved to Buffalo on August 1. Everything I owned fit into one rented Chrysler mini-van. I had met my roommate, a fellow graduate student, through the department. We had met up in Buffalo a month or so earlier and gone apartment hunting. I was in a state of delirium over not only the prices but the sizes of the apartments available in the Queen City. We found a place in Allentown, at 70 Cottage St., which was about the closest thing Buffalo seemed to have at the time to the East Village. It was a two bedroom with full dining and living rooms, a linen closet, a foyer, and a front porch -- for five hundred dollars a month. Not bad.

The apartment was on the first floor of a two apartment house. Nick Lawrence and Kristen Gasser were the upstairs tenants. Our landlord, Debora Ott, turned out to be the founder and director of Just Buffalo Literary Center.She soon told me that their literary curator, Ted Pearson, had recently left town and that they were looking for a new one. By the end of my first semester I started working there 10 hours a week. I even bought Debora's rust-colored Nissan Sentra once I realized that Buffalo was not an ideal place to live without a car.

Stepping up to the front porch, you entered into a small foyer. I kept a bookcase there, which I had purchased at a garage sale for $30 (I got ripped off, but to someone just transplanted from NYC it seemed like a bargain). The foyer led to the living room, where we had a Pier 1 couch and chair set bought by my roommate, plus a television and VCR. My roommate insisted on having cable. I told him I didn't watch TV, so he paid for it. Before long, I became a complete baseball addict. I think I watched every single game of the Yankees' glorious 1998 season, even after I moved to a new apartment that summer.

A wide entryway connected the living and dining rooms. The dining room had wood paneling that culminated in a plate rail at the top. It may also have had wood beams on the ceiling. I don't quite recall. The kitchen, modest, but adequate, was off the dining room. I think it was yellow, but I might be remembering the kitchen upstairs. The bedrooms stood opposite one another at the end of a short, narrow, wood-paneled corridor (old wood wainscoting, actually, not seventies paneling). One bedroom had a sun porch (his, not mine). Between the two doors a built-in linen cabinet and drawer measured the width of the corridor. Between the dining room and my bedroom on the right hand side was a bathroom.

It was a nice apartment and a not unpleasant year. At the time I found a girlfriend that I liked a lot and was enjoying being part of a vibrant poetry community, so I decided to apply for a PhD and stick around for another couple of years.

In the late spring Debora informed me that she was selling the house and that we'd have to vacate at the termination of the lease. I decided that I wanted to find my own place, and a I did: a modest one bedroom a block away that cost 350 dollars a month.

from Epigramititis

Robert Creeley

Once I slept at the house of
C.D. Wright and Forrest Gander.
Robert Creeley had just been there,
sleeping in the same bed in which I
was to lay, as they say. I asked my hosts
"to please not change the pillow
case, if that's OK."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

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Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 7 (James Weldon Johnson)

Complete Poems
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Johnson, James Weldon
Complete Poems

Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store. One of the things I miss about that place, as I have said before, is the breadth of their Penguin Classics section, which was organized by spine color and took up a whole aisle in the store. Everything was so cheap you could buy books just because at some point you might have made a mental note to yourself to read something, as I had with the poems of James Weldon Johnson. And then there they were, four dollars, all mine.

1995: At the end of 1994 all the volunteers moved from the apartment (actually, there were two -- one a floor below the other, but the one I lived in contained the shared space of the eating and living areas), into a newly built volunteer center, which fronted the campus of CMT #2, the newer of the two centers. A beauty salon that employed graduates of the center's beauty school and a furniture store that sold wood furniture built by craftsmen also trained by the center occupied the ground floor of this large modern looking building.

You entered the volunteer center on the side of the building that faced away from the street. The front door opened into a large, white foyer with 20 foot white walls and a white tiled floor. To the left, as I recall, was a grand staircase that led upstairs to, I think, some of the bedrooms -- my memory is a little vague on the layout. I mostly remember the staircase, which was made of wood. There were probably twenty bedrooms, each equipped with a small desk, a twin bed and full bath. We had much more privacy in the new residence, but were also more easily able to isolate ourselves, as I often did.

The main floor contained the kitchen, pantry, dining area, living room, library, TV room and several volunteer bedrooms down a long corridor that ran off the dining area. All the walls were bright white, all the floors covered in the same white tile as the foyer. The library, a round room open on one side, was the most memorable space in the building. It had built-in bookcases filled with books left behind by former volunteers. I remember there were lots of romance novels and old travel guides.

A typical night involved getting home from work around 8:00, then sitting down for a communal buffet dinner. I was still a pretty picky eater and I mostly just ate rice and beans, as the meat was often overcooked. After dinner, my friend J. and I often listened to music and washed dishes together. We followed this with cigarettes, beer (him, not me) and a game of chess. Then we'd off to our rooms to get ready for another twelve-hour day of teaching.

I stayed in Ecuador until July 18, 1995 -- I remember the date because my friend L, an Ecuadorian who had been adopted by the center when her mother died and her father ran away, turned eighteen that day. She decided on the spot to leave home and get a job with a friend. She came to the airport to say goodbye when I left. She ended up moving to the states and marrying one of my fellow volunteers. We are still friends today.

I flew home to Washington and lived with my parents in the basement of their newly purchased townhouse in Vienna until August, when my father gave me enough money to return to my apartment in NYC, which I'd been subletting to two friends who were both on their way to graduate school.

1995: I moved back to my old apartment on the sixth floor, rooming this time with one of my college friends who'd also been in Ecuador. The next two years were probably the worst two years of my life. I soon began a brief, intense and nearly fatal relationship with the woman I mentioned the other day. I guess my moving to Ecuador had finally impressed her enough to give me a shot. That lasted all of three months before it ended and I sank into a depression that would last in some form or other for the next five years.

It literally took me a year to start feeling I could leave the house, taste my food, enjoy the company of my friends, etc. Then, just as I felt I was starting to come back to life, my father suddenly died. I managed to keep busy and to keep the worst effects of the depression at bay. I began taking poetry workshops at the New School, one with Elaine Equi, the other with Eileen Myles. I started volunteering at the Segue Foundation, where I met lots of other young poets, many of whom are still friends. I went to lots of readings. All of this seemed to give me a sense of purpose, which culminated in my decision to go to graduate school.

I remember being really torn about leaving for Buffalo in August 1997. On the one hand, I felt I was just starting to get a sense of the poetry scene in NYC; on the other, I had an opportunity to go study with Charles Bernstein, Robert Creeley and Susan Howe. I really couldn't pass that up.

I sublet the apartment and off I went -- I planned to spend a year in Buffalo and return to NYC the following summer. That was thirteen years ago.

from Complete Poems

We To America

How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?

Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 6 (George Jean)

Jean, Georges
Writing: The Story of
Alphabets and Scripts

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books for a course with Charles Bernstein called, "Textual Conditions," my first class in graduate school. This might be the first book I read in graduate school. A pretty good place to start on a master's in English, I suppose.

Ok, where were we...

I lived in the sixth floor walk-up on 4th and B from 1992-1994, during which time I taught English at a Catholic High School for boys on the corner of 2nd and 2nd. I knew pretty early on that I was going to have to make a choice between teaching high school and writing. There was no way, emotionally or physically, that I could handle both. Teaching is way too stressful and leaves very little room for anything else. I also managed to get involved with trying to start a union, which eventually lost me my job. There came a moment when I realized this was going to happen, accepted it, and pushed a lot harder than I might have had I wanted to keep the job.

I spent the better part of my second year teaching trying to figure out what to do next. I wanted to learn another language, a skill I thought would help me become a better writer, so the idea took that I should go abroad. I started thinking about France. I took a French class at the New School. I also applied to graduate schools as a sort of fall back position. I got accepted to the University of Arizona for a PhD in English, and I got wait-listed at SUNY Buffalo. That seemed to be the range of my choices.

I had a friend, actually a torturously unrequited love is a more accurate description, who was that year teaching in Ecuador. Our relationship, which had now been going on for about five years, was such that we were often separated by great distances. After my first attempt to get the relationship going in college, I stopped talking to her. Then we began writing letters, then the flame was rekindled, then, once again, it was doused, and I cut off all contact. This cycle had repeated itself twice already by now and at this time we were in a rekindling phase of a third cycle (the third time being the charm, this kindling eventually lead to a conflagration, which eventually burned down the house once and for all -- but that's another story, which has been partially told elsewhere in this saga).

We began corresponding while she was in Ecuador. The flame was rekindled, I went to visit her, and suddenly I had another choice. I chose to become a volunteer teacher at a Catholic mission in South America. Naturally.

1994: I lived for the first three months in a large apartment with five or six other volunteers in a part of Quito called Cotocollao. I remember it had a heavy metal door that opened into a large living room/dining room area. It was big enough to seat twelve or so people at a long folding table. To the right a long buffet, on which the cook (yes, we had a cook) spread our dinner at the end of each twelve hour day of teaching, stood on a sort of dais against a picture window partially concealed, as were all the windows, by long, beige curtains.

Beyond the buffet was the kitchen and a large, well-stocked pantry pantry. I don't remember the details except that there were hundreds of boxes of milk and even more jars of peanut butter and jelly.

I remember the rooms all had dark floors. I can't recall if they were wood or tile or something else.

Next to the dining area, in the same room, was a living room area with an an old couch, several chairs, a television, a vcr and several bookcases filled with books and a small library of VHS tapes left behind by previous volunteers.

I was the first and only volunteer to live there for almost a month -- I arrived in Ecuador early in order to practice my Spanish a bit before being thrust into a classroom where I had to teach in that language. I used to hang out and smoke cigarettes in the evening with the cook, Norma. We'd talk about her family and my family in Spanish until it was time for her to leave, and then I'd usually watch a video or read or do grammar exercises late into the night.

I remember watching "Educating Rita" several times and getting all weepy when I watched it.

I think there may have been one bedroom directly off the living room area, then opposite that part of the room there was a step up to a kind landing around which the rest of the bedrooms were arrayed. I think there was only one bathroom for all of us, but I might be wrong.

Since I arrived first, I got to choose my room. I took the corner that looked out on a spectacular mountain peak in the distance. I was really sad to leave that room when we moved into the newly built volunteer center over the winter break.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 5.1 (Lisa Jarnot)

Night Scenes
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Jarnot, Lisa
Night Scenes

Sent as a review copy by the publisher.

1992: I graduated from college in the spring (officially, December 1991, but my parents wanted to see the diploma ceremony, so I obliged). I spent the summer looking for teaching jobs and an apartment. I had planned to live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as that seemed to be the place to which all my friends were moving. I very nearly rented a two bedroom apartment just off Flatbush Ave., but at the last minute decided to check out an ad I'd seen for an apartment in the East Village that was, remarkably, cheaper than the one in Park Slope.

The apartment was on the sixth floor of a six floor walk-up, an old tenement building on the corner of 4th St. and Ave. B. It had a brick facade with a little bit of fancy stone work around the windows and a typical New York cornice at the top. On the corner of the ground floor was an asian fish market. Next to the stairs they rented a space out to some aquarian cult, which had a purple and white sign on the front of the building.

The apartment had 4 rooms: two bedrooms, a living/dining/kitchenette, and a small bath. The landlord had advertised the rent at $850 a month. The neighborhood at the time was still a bit dicy. My next door neighbors were squatters. The building next door housed the largest heroin operation in the East Village, etc. But I couldn't pass up the opportunity to live in Manhattan.

I remember telling the landlord, a gentle man from Cambodia, that I'd write a check on the spot if he had a lease ready. He did. He even gave me $25 bucks a month off the rent. Ah, the good old days. I got a job around the same time a few blocks away teaching high school. I kept that apartment for the next 5 plus years until a moved to Buffalo. I think I had at different times five different roommates, a pair of subletters, three cats, and a large suitcase left by a squatter who'd been evicted that lived on my fire escape for a summer.

I remember the day I moved in my mother came to town and was helping with my things. We began piling them on the curb in front of the building, then carrying them up, piece by piece, five flights of stairs. I had no furniture besides a small bed and a small desk, just clothes and music and books and my acoustic guitar. At one point, when I had turned around, a little boy picked up my boombox and started running off with it. A man across the street yelled at him to stop and put it back. The boy hung his head and did as he was told. I felt like I was in a pretty good neighborhood.

from Night Scenes

Elegy for My Tomato Plants

Transcendant late night seeds
in fromt of the fireplace
there is a family of man,
and a family of you, plant,
tomato, lettuces, pit bull,
bull frog, coyote and the
moon, but who listens, and
who, awake, at the seed bed
rouses all the meaning of the
meeting of the seed inside
the dirt, of plow songs,
of car wheels, of fleabane,
of the aster and the shale,
regular in its regularity,
a weeping cherry tree,
a sound beside a pond

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 5 (Lisa Jarnot)

Black Dog Songs
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Jarnot, Lisa
Black Dog Songs

Sent to me as a review copy by the publisher. I used to write a lot of poetry reviews for artvoice, the local weekly, but they kind of got sick of all the poetry and started writing more about books of local and/or political interest. I used to love getting all those free books, especially the ones from Flood Editions, many of which contain excellent poetry, all of them impeccably designed.

In the summer of 1991 I stayed in the Bronx, living part of the summer on the eighth floor of the dorm I'd lived in during the school year and then towards the end of the summer moving into another university-owned off-campus apartment I was to work in again as an R.A. during my final year. Technically, I had only a semester left to finish, but I had no idea what my next step was going to be and was in no hurry to leave until I did. During the second semester I took graduate English classes to see if that held any interest for me.

My father got me a summer job working at Bronx Auto Rental on Fordham Road. I am pretty sure I was working for the Mafia. For instance, we had a bookmaker, Willie, a small, wiry Italian guy in a flat cap, about 60 years old, who came into the shop each day carrying a small spiral notebook and a pen, into which he wrote numbers chosen by each of the employees who wanted to place a bet on "the" numbers. Each person would choose a number and hand Willie the amount of money they wanted to bet. If someone "hit" the number Willie would show up in the morning next day with a wad of cash to pay out.

I recall one day a man came in who looked as if he could be nothing other than a hit man. He was middle aged, beefy, though not overly tall, hairy, tattooed all over with images that were, shall we say, of the india ink with a sewing needle variety, with a thick Bronx accent spoken through a cheesy, graying mustache. He told us the owner of the auto dealership of which we were a part had told him he could rent a car and that he would cover the cost. We asked for his driver's license, which he gladly handed over. We were required to make sure that no one had a moving violation on their record within the past year. Our computer sent the call directly to Albany, which would then send back a copy of the person's driving record.

Our friend the hitman had so many violations on his license that the computer actually told us he should not be allowed to drive. We pointed this out to him, saying it had to do with the insurance and that we'd need the owner's permission to allow him to rent a car. No problem, he said. We expected he'd return in ten minutes either with the owner himself or with some communication from the owner saying it was okay to rent him a car. Instead, he returned alone an hour later with a new, valid license, which we ran through the computer to discover it was not only legitimate, but completely clean. We rented him the car.

My other piece of excitement that summer came when one of our customers failed to return a car. He lived in Hunt's Point, which was at the time probably the most dangerous part of the Bronx. The manager gave me and another guy, John, the job of repossessing the car. John was a young, painfully thin Bronx local, owner of a major Napoleon complex, who spent most of the day goading myself and others with theatrically masculine taunts or regaling us with equally theatrical tales of his masculine prowess.

We drove down to Hunt's point and immediately located the car on a side street in front of a row house. Masculine John decided it was I who should take the car, while he courageously drove back to the office. I remembered the scene in Repo Man when all the sons of the old lady whose car Emilio Estevez come to repossess find him trying to start the car and proceed to give him a good beating with baseball bats and so forth. I stepped out of the car and before I'd even shut the door Masculine John drove off, leaving me standing there alone. I unlocked the door and got into the car, which was squeezed tightly between two other cars next to the curb. It took a good five turns back and forth, during which time sweat soaked through my work clothes and my heart pounded out a raucous Bo Diddley beat, before I was able to free the car from the spot and head back to the office, unharmed.

1991: In the fall I moved into a two-bedroom apartment at the corner of 186th and Belmont Ave. The building was brand new, two stories high, brick-fronted. I remember it had built-in slots for air-conditioning units that could be seen on the outside of the building. The apartment itself had hardwood floors, a living room/dining room and a decent sized kitchen. Once again, I had my own room, while my roommates, two strangers about whom I remember almost nothing, shared the other bedroom. We all shared a bathroom.

There was an Italian American social club on the corner, just for the young men in the neighborhood. Every time I walked past it I couldn't help feeling that all the people who complained that Spike Lee's depictions of NY Italian men were unfair caricatures had not a leg to stand on. Our little corner of Little Italy seemed to have sprung directly out of old Spike's imagination. All day long these young men, all of them wearing ostentatiously hideous and ridiculously expensive jogging suits, gold necklaces, and tennis shoes, would sit with their legs spread wide open around reversed barstools placed on the street outside the bar, gawking at women, taunting passersby, and generally making everyone within earshot miserable.

I used to buy my cigarettes at a little bodega run by a guy who'd been a policeman in Pinochet's Chile. He used to say that in Chile, unlike New York, there was order. No one would dare spit out their gum on a subway platform in Chile, he liked to say. I'll bet that was true.

from Black Dog Songs

Lisa Jarnot

When you grow up
you'll be able to write
poems and things will be
like they are now,
except there will be
more sardines, and all the
grilled cheese sandwiches
on white bread will move
away and it may still snow
on cold nights when the
dogs bark, wrestling in
the dark, but all the stars
are the same, and you
are the same, still wavering
in the hall light, unbridled
light nor dark.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 4 (William James)

Writings 1902-1910
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
James, William
Writings 1902-1910

Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store.

You may have noticed that the quality of the images I've been posting has been diminishing of late. I thought the quality of the camera was the problem -- or the poor lighting in the room. This morning the image quality looked particularly dark, pixelated, & blurry. I wiped the lens of the camera with my finger and voila -- a one hundred percent improvement. Sometimes genius is accidental.

1990: At summer's end I returned to school. I had applied to become an R.A. in the dorms. Because I'd stopped drinking and taking drugs, it seemed like an easy choice, especially since it meant free room and board AND a stipend.

My assignment was the eighth floor of an apartment building for upperclassmen near the southern gate of the campus. I had a two bedroom apartment shared with two roommates. One was the aforementioned friend with whom I'd gotten sober and the other was another friend from AA. The three of us formed part of a very small group of students that went to AA on campus once a week, and we'd become fast friends in the process.

The two of them shared a bedroom and I had my own. We also shared a living room and a kitchenette. The apartment had a great view facing southward. You could see all the way to the Twin Towers on a clear day. There was nothing memorable about the apartment itself. Like all the dorm rooms, it had heavy, blocky, wooden furniture, and a low grey carpet. The tension that had developed between myself and the one roommate diminished quickly due to a major increase in tension between himself and his new roommate. Sharing a room had a lot to do with it.

Being an R.A. was a relatively easy job. Once a week I had to sit through a meeting and a couple times a month I had to be "on duty," meaning I had to police all the dorm parties. I once broke up a party and wrote up a very large drunken football player who threatened me. He'd apparently had trouble before and told after this incident that another write-up and he'd be thrown out of school. Every time I saw the guy over the next year, he threatened me. A couple of times I had to be escorted out of local bars while the bartender held him inside so I could get out and go home. I remember he kept screaming that I'd ruined his senior year and that he was going to kill me. It wasn't a lot of fun.

I remember the elevator often broke and that I'd have to walk eight flights up the stairs to get home.

I remember when the Gulf War started a bunch of jocks surrounded the building and started shouting (not singing) the national anthem at the top of their lungs at 2 AM.

This was also the year that I tried to be a folk singer. I met a lot of friends who wrote songs and played guitar and there was a little coffee house on campus where they used to play. I tried my hand a few times at open mic and eventually started to perform pretty regularly. We had a small band of would-be Bob Dylans, some of whom (not myself) could actually write a decent song. No one really sang all that well.

I was also writing feverishly in my notebooks (I still didn't have my own computer). I published a few poems in the school literary magazine. That was sort of a thrill. I spent a lot of time writing short stories. I published one of those, also. I think it was the only short story I ever published -- and one of the few that I ever completed.

from The Varieties of Religious Experience

In my belief that a large acquaintance with particulars often makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas, however deep, I have loaded the lectures with concrete examples, and I have chosen these among the extremer expressions of the religious temperament. To some readers I may consequently seem, before they get beyond the middle of the book, to offer a caricature of the subject. Such convulsions of piety, they will say, are not sane. If, however, they will have the patience to read to the end, I believe that this unfavorable impression will disappear; for I there combine the religious impulses with other principles of common sense which serve as correctives of exaggeration, and allow the individual reader to draw as moderate conclusions as he will.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 3 (Lawrence James)

James, Lawrence
The Rise and Fall
of the British Empire

Purchased online. I am not sure I read this, but the little bookmark on page 19 tells me one of two things -- either I read nineteen pages and stopped or I read the whole thing and randomly stuck the bookmark on page 19. Likely the former. The book mark, by the way, is in the form of a white square paint color sample. The color is Ralph Lauren White Wash, River Rapids, WW16.

I moved back home for the last time in the summer of 1990. That summer is a bit of a blur now. I can't recall anything that distinguishes it from other summers. I think I worked for my father. Yes, I did. My father owned a small rental car company in Washington, D.C. and I think I and my AA roommate from school and also another friend from high school worked there that summer.

There was one major event that summer. My father's "righthand man" was a guy named Otis Mallory. He was about forty-five at the time and had started working for my father right out of rehab. He quickly gained my father's trust and moved from working in the garage to working in the office to eventually becoming the general manager of all three locations.

Otis knew how to handle all of my father's bluster with astonishing equanimity. More importantly for me, he knew how to bridge the communication gap between me and my father. We became very close over the two summers that we worked together.

I remember one day we received a phone call. A man with a heavy Asian accent called and asked for "Ota Molloy." I handed the phone to Otis, who got a big grin on his face when he heard the voice.

What? Who? Nah, there ain't no Ota Molloy here, he said. And he hung up.

A minute later, the phone rang again.

I told you there ain't no Ota fuckin' Molloy here. Now stop botherin' me. And he hung up again.

I think we laughed all afternoon until my father showed up and said he got an angry call from the same guy, saying he'd been stranded in one of our cars and needed us to pick him up in Baltimore. I started calling him Ota Molloy after that. It became something of an in-joke for me to answer the phone and when it was for him to say, Ota Molloy, it's for you.

And then one day I got a call from one of the other workers at about six in the morning. She said, Mike is your dad there. I said he'd already left. Otis died, she said. He had a heartache in the bathroom at home and he just died. I told him to stop eating all that McDonald's, she said. I could hear her crying on the other end. It was a real shock.

At his wake, my father and I were the only two white people present and I remember feeling out of place, likely because I'd never been the minority in a room like that before.

I remember going up to the coffin and staring at Otis' corpse. He always wore a Kangol flat cap, but now his hat was off and I could see he was bald, a fact I'd never known. I remember staring at his fingernails and thinking that somehow they looked different than when he was alive. The color had drained out from behind them.

Anyhow, whenever I need a nom de plume, I now use Ota Molloy in his honor.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.10 (Henry James)

James, Henry
Collected Stories 1898-1910

Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store.

Last of the Henry James Collection. Sigh. I am actually about a third of the way through The Golden Bowl at the moment, enjoying every minute of it.

I spent the summer of 1989 engaged in four activities: reading, writing, learning to play guitar and going to AA. I sometimes went with my father to meetings. Often we'd go to an old church in downtown Vienna where there were usually two different meetings going on at once. My father went to one and I went to the other.

I chose mine based on the fact that most of the participants were sober Hell's Angels and bikers from various other gangs. That seemed more real to me at the time than sitting around with a bunch of boring old suburban people. My father used to tease me about it on the way home.

By the end of summer I was reading voraciously and still trying to figure out how and what to write. My greatest difficulty was my attention span. Most of my time was spent teaching myself to stay focused over longer and longer periods of time. I would read one page of a book and then get drowsy.

My first instinct when this occurred was to do something else that wouldn't make me tired. I decided to try an experiment that proved very useful over time. When I got drowsy, I just went to sleep. When I woke, I'd start reading again. It was almost like developing a tolerance for a drug. Eventually I could read at long stretches without dozing. This felt important because even though I did read as a kid, I had basically abandoned books during high school and felt that I had a lot of catching up to do.

Learning to play guitar taught a similar kind of discipline -- the value of repetition. Doing the same thing over and over eventually produced results. This also applied to writing. I started writing in a little notebook, but as I mentioned yesterday this was an impediment for me. It wasn't until I was back at school that I had access to a computer and could practice the kind of extended writing that I wanted to.

1989: I moved into an apartment with two friends on 187th St. near Crotona Ave. We lived about a block from from the Bronx Zoo and on certain days you could hear the animals and on certain others you could smell them. A friend I'd made in Bronx AA meetings had turned me on to the apartment, which was in a small building with three apartments, one on each floor. A librarian lived on the top floor, we lived on the second, and the landlady lived on the first.

Our landlady was a widow in her seventies, kind of an alcoholic shut-in. Paying the rent was always an ordeal. If you could slip the check under the door, you were fine. If not, you'd be forced to sit through teary-eyed reminiscences of her dead husband in sitting room-cum-shrine to the dearly departed.

Our apartment had three bedrooms, a living room, a bath and a kitchen. You entered into a long hallway that split the apartment in two. Turning right led to the small living room. My bedroom was a small room closed off by, I think, french doors, from the living room. It looked out the front of the building onto 187th St. I believe the apartment was furnished, if I am not mistaken. I am almost sure that it was. I had a bed, a night table and a little desk near the window.

In the hallway another bedroom to the right faced the air shaft behind the building. Beyond the bedroom another door led to a bathroom. The hallway ended at the kitchen, which was large enough for a small table in the center. The third bedroom, largest of the three, was behind the kitchen, and looked out behind the building into the alley. Except for the lack of a bathroom, it could have been an apartment in and of itself. I think we paid 700 a month.

One of my roommates was the friend with whom I'd started going to AA. We'd known each other since high school and were very competitive with one another. As the year progressed things grew somewhat tense. It never erupted, as I recall, into anything that did permanent damage, but I remember odd little competitions occurring all the time.

I remember walking down the street and trying to alway remain a step ahead of him as we walked. He'd realize I was ahead and speed up. This would go on and on, in silence, until we'd reach our destination.

I remember he got into a lot of eighties self-help kind of stuff. Once I came home and found him laying in bed, arms across his chest like a corpse, listening to a tape playing sounds of cascading water in the background as a voice intoned: "Let the water wash your shame away..." I immediately took out my guitar and started playing as loudly as I could.

Amazingly, we are still in touch.

A lot of memories are cropping up now having to do with that year in my life, too many to write about in a single entry. As I've moved through this phase of the project, I feel keenly the way my memories associates themselves with places: houses, buildings, rooms, etc. I am already imagining an extension of this project which chronologically moves through all the school buildings, workplaces, etc. I've spent time in.

Onward, as they say.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.9 (Henry James)

James, Henry
Complete Stories 1892-1898

Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store.

I left my drug-dealing roommates and Northern Virginia behind in January of 1989. I should note that I did briefly participate in these illicit activities, but the anxiety and paranoia they produced far outweighed any pleasure derived from the monetary gain. These activities were also further evidence that I had completely lost control of myself. Just before I left I got fired from my job at the restaurant for missing work. I'd been out on a major binge the night before and somehow was incapable of getting to work by 4 in the afternoon.

I remember we had a big New Year's blowout at the townhouse, to which the aforementioned ex-girlfriend made the mistake of showing up. I spent most of the evening swilling champagne and accusing her of having another boyfriend.

Meanwhile, my father set out to help me move to the Bronx. The university housing people told him there were no dorm rooms available on campus, so I'd have to live off-campus. The school had recently started buying up properties in Little Italy, the mostly Italian neighborhood that formed much of the souther border of the campus. They gave me a shared room in a two-bedroom apartment on Arthur Ave.

My father, a native Brooklynite of Irish extraction who used to talk with great sentimentality about his youth in the city and with great animosity about racial, ethnic and religious groups that were not Irish Catholic, returned from apartment-hunting to tell me that Little Italy was "as close as you'll ever get to knowing what the neighborhood I grew up in was like." He then added, "Except they're all goddamn dagos." At least he was consistent -- he had it in for everyone.

1989: My apartment was on the first floor in a building next door to an Italian Bakery that made fresh bread every morning around six. It was a kind of heaven to wake up there. I had three apartment mates, one of whom share a room with me. I can't even remember his name. I only remember he had a Macintosh computer and that he let me use it. I mostly used it to play solitaire over and over. I still play repetitive games on the computer. Call it a compulsion.

More importantly, however, the use of his computer marked the beginning of my interest in writing. I had been told ever since I left high school that I was a good writer. My first paper from every one of my professors had elicited high marks of praise for the naturalness and ease of the writing, if not for the careless grammatical errors and failure to proofread and re-write after the first draft.

It was really the only thing I think I was ever naturally good at. But there was one problem. I hated to write. I am left handed and I have always found writing with a pen in a notebook awkward. My handwriting is childlike, if relatively legible (I print). My hand begins to hurt after a few paragraphs. And I was lazy by nature and hated to re-copy after revising, not so much the making corrections part, but the part about re-writing what I'd written to make it look neat.

The Macintosh changed all that. I discovered that writing on a computer allowed me to revise each mistake on the spot, without having to re-write the whole paper. Everything pretty much changed at that point. The idea of writing a five or ten or even a twenty page paper and later a poem or an essay or, on occasion, a story seemed downright pleasurable on that little machine.

Anyhow, I think I got along with the roommate. My two other apartment mates were football players. They were nice enough. I didn't see much of them and I never got to know them. I remember one night coming home to discover they had left the toaster oven on before passing out in their beds after a night of drinking. Had I come home and hour later the place would have burned to the ground. Two years later, one of them, Matt, died in a boating accident. I guess it capsized and he tired himself out swimming around to get everyone back to the turned over boat. By the time he got himself back, he had no strength to hold on and drowned. I remember reading about it in the school newspaper.

The apartment itself had a decent sized living room/kitchenette just inside the front door. All the walls were stark white and the ceilings must have been 11-12 feet high. It had zero character. I think we each had our own bathroom for two, but I could be wrong about that. All the furniture was made out of a heavy, blocky, seemingly indestructible wood. A long narrow corridor led to the two bedrooms. The one on the left belonged to the jocks, the one on the end to me and my roommate, whose name I can't remember. He was a transfer student who wanted immediately to transfer back to his old school (Boston College, I think) to be with his girlfriend. I think he did, too.

I don't recall anything else about the place itself. About a month or so after I arrived, things started to get crazy again. A thursday night concert in Manhattan at some place whose name I can't remember -- I think it had been Studio 54 in a previous life -- began a four or five day binge of which I remember very little, except waking up one afternoon at the dorm of a friend, whose first words upon waking were, "I really need to stop drinking and taking drugs."

I turned to him and said that I did too and was he serious. He said he was serious. I said if he was serious I knew how to get in touch with AA and we could go to a meeting that night (I had once previously tried to get sober as a teen, and my father, also an alcoholic, had been sober for 15 years at that point). He said he was serious. We called. We went to a meeting at a big old church on Park Avenue in Manhattan. We met a guy named J. He introduced us both to different men to sponsor us and, somewhat miraculously, that was that. Neither of us ever touched a drink or a drug again.

We started going to meetings everyday, some on campus with other students, some on Park Avenue, some in the Bronx. Our friend J. would meet up with us for meeting Marathons on Friday nights. We'd start at a meeting on Park Avenue at 8, then head to another in the West Village, across the street from Film Forum, at 10, then to another at midnight at Times Square. At 2 AM, we'd ride the 6 train back up to Bronx and wander, quietly amazed with ourselves, down Fordham Rd. We drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot of cigarettes.

At the end of the semester I moved back home with my parents for the summer, determined to figure out how to be writer.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.8 (Henry James)

James, Henry
Complete Stories 1884-1891

Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store.

I spent the summer of 1988 living back at my parents' home. I waited tables at Casa Maria and in the fall I moved into a townhouse in Burke, VA with one of my co-workers and his friend.

1988: Our townhouse was typical of the hundreds of thousands of townhouses that began springing up in Fairfax County, VA in the 80's. Near the mall where I worked, growth during that decade averaged something like ten new multi-story office complexes per year. By the time I'd graduated college, this suburban city had its own skyline. And all those worker-bees needed hives.

Ours was a beige end-unit. All were beige. All sided with vinyl siding. All with pitched, single-surface roofs. We had no garage, but there was plenty of parking. It was an enormous place to live for three college students. Walking up five concrete steps to the front door, one entered on the ground floor, which contained an eat-in kitchen, full dining room and a sunken living room, all carpeted in some kind of neutral, except for the--wait, I think there was another townhouse before that.

Gosh, I can remember we lived first in another townhouse, a brick one. Not an end unit. You entered into a foyer, with a small kitchen to the left, then a small dining room and sunken living room. Upstairs were two bedrooms and a master suite. We must have moved to the other later. Weird, I can't remember what happened. I had a girlfriend at the first one. She went away to school. When she came home for the holidays, she dumped me. When she dumped me, we were in the beige townhouse.

Ok, to continue with that...I think the kitchen had vinyl flooring. Upstairs were a bedroom and a master suite, blus a bathroom. One of my roommates kept a .45 under his mattress, which always made me uncomfortable. Once, I played a joke. I hid a bunch of our CD's and stereo equipment and pretended we had been robbed. (Side note: Both of my roommates were materialistic gear heads who eventually started dealing drugs so they could have better equipment.) Before I knew it he had that gun out and was pointing around every corner in anticipation of the crook still being there. I think that was the last practical joke I ever played.

This townhouse had a built-out basement with a TV room, bedroom, bathroom and laundry. I lived in the basement room. I only went to George Mason for about six weeks. I found the large state school with classes of 200 hundred plus people a bit too impersonal. My addictions, aided and abetted by my roommates and all my restaurant co-workers, were spinning out of control at that point. Things were bleak. I almost checked myself into re-hab when my father suggested maybe I needed another change of scenery.

I nearly returned to Wheeling, but then my soon-to-be ex suggested I transfer to Boston College to be near her. I said I thought the fact that I had dropped out of GM with a zero point GPA would hurt me in that regard. She said, "Do you have to tell them about GM?" I hadn't thought of that. I applied there and to Fairfield and to Fordham, all Jesuit schools, assuming my Jesuit background would help. I got into Fordham, rejected by the other two, which was just as well, given she broke up with me soon thereafter.

I moved to the Bronx in January, 1989.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.7 (Henry James)

James, Henry
Complete Stories 1874-1884

Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store.

I moved back to my parents' home at the end of March, 1997 and worked several jobs through the summer, first as a waiter at Lum's restaurant in Tyson's Corner Mall, Lum's became Summer's after a sale and I quit to work across the parking lot at Casa Maria Mexican Restaurant, where I would hold a job on and off for the next year-and-a-half.

1987: I moved into a dormitory at Wheeling College in the fall. My roommate was from New Jersey and kind of dull. I created tension from the get-go by smoking in the room -- I think I may have even smoked in front of his parents when they dropped him off. I was a terrible roommate. After many late nights of drinking, I'd come home and loudly plop into my bed, sometimes with a guest to help me disturb the peace and even, occasionally, with a woman. I think he hated me within a few weeks and the feeling was kind of mutual.

I remember little about the room. We had two single beds, to small, heavy wooden writing desks, a pair of large wardrobes with storage space above, and a pair dressers. I remember my roommate had terrible taste in pop music, which he proudly displayed in a casette tower on his desk.

At the first opportunity I moved out. There was no love lost.

1988: In January I moved in with another guy down the hall. The new room was identical to the first, except that the window was on the ground level, which made it easier to pursue what the RA's wrote up as "co-habitation" violations (it was a Catholic school, after all, ahem). If I had a visitor and someone knocked on the door, she could quickly sneak out the window while I coughed and pretended to put on clothes while shouting, "Be right there!"

My second roommate was a rich kid from the Main Line in Philly. His father had been an estate lawyer who'd got caught investing his clients' estates in things like steel just as it was going belly up in the U.S. He was serving a jail sentence at the time I shared a room with his son.

My year in Wheeling was a terrible one. My various addictions were starting to get the best of me. I felt alienated, unloved, out of place, confused, and downright miserable. The fact that drugs were so plentiful and so easily available did not help. I disappeared as often as I could afford it to go see Grateful Dead concerts which, oddly, felt a bit like home, perhaps because I didn't have to get to know anyone for too long. We could meet in the parking lot, go into the show, have a good time, then never see each other again after that night, leaving nothing but a pleasant memory behind.

Remarkably, I managed to keep a decent grade point average that year. I transferred to George Mason University for the fall semester.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.6 (Henry James)

James, Henry
Complete Stories 1864-1874

Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store (RIP). I bought the latter four volumes in the set first, then waited and waited and waited until finally this one showed up. I regret not having bought the novel anthologies when they were available. I've come to really enjoy reading LOA editions and would have welcomed reducing some shelf space in favor of the hardcover anthologies. Now that I've written about the paperbacks on my blog, I guess I can never get rid of them.

After we got evicted from our little A-Frame in Dillon, I was forced to borrow money from my father (I also got fired from my job -- as a dishwasher! -- because I missed several shifts) in order to move with two of my roommates into another apartment. I think we also skipped out on the rent and the utilities at the old place once they evicted us.

1987: We moved into a beautiful two-floor garden apartment in the "Orofino" apartment complex, which still exists -- I saw it from the highway when I was out there this past spring. Ours was on the second floor. The first floor was all open, except for the bathroom which stood to the left of the front door as you entered. To the right was a dining room and to the left an open kitchen with a sort of dry-bar surround countertop that divided it from the dining room on one side and the living room on the other. The living room stretched the length of half the floor and opened out onto a little balcony from which you could see the Rockies over the rooftops. We even had a wood burning stove. There was hairy shag carpeting everywhere, natch.

An open staircase rose up from the center to the second floor, where there were two beds, a bath, and a master bed and bath. I had a corner room over the side of the living room with the balcony. I slept in a sleeping bag on a mattress on the floor. It had a great view.

I think our rent was $350 per month combined. We even had use of a community Jacuzzi, and the man who supplied our good times lived in the next building. Ah, good times. They didn't last. In order to borrow the money from my father to make the move, he made me promise to be home by the end of March. He said he'd already sent in an application to Wheeling College in WV and that I would be entering in the fall.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.5 (Henry James)

The Golden Bowl
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
James, Henry
The Golden Bowl

Not sure where I purchased this. If I had to guess, I'd say Rust Belt Books. The inside flap says I paid $2.75. I violated my rule about not starting to read or reread the books under consideration the other day by picking this one up and becoming thoroughly engrossed. I remember trying to read this at some point and not getting very far. Henry James is one of those writers whose works seem to get better the older I get.

Back to the residences. In 1986 I graduated from high school and decided to take a year off. I really didn't want to go to college at all so this seemed like a way to ease into a life sans education. I decided to move out to the ski areas in Colorado. My father had twice taken the family on ski vacations there: once to Vail, the other time to Breckenridge. I really liked Breckenridge, so I chose that as my destination.

1986: Upon arrival, I stayed for a week in a bed and breakfast, where I made the acquaintance of my future roommates -- all five of them. We rented an A-Frame house in Dillon, CO, just over the Swan Mountain Road from Breckenridge. The house had a small front porch that led to the front door.

Most of the downstairs was comprised of a single room that contained a living room with a fireplace, a dining area, and an open kitchen. A short hallway in the rear led to two small bedrooms. A set of stairs ran upstairs to two small bedrooms with a bathroom in between. There may also have been a bath downstairs, but I am not quite sure.

Under the stairs a small crawlspace had been built to store wood and such. Shortly after we moved in, I discovered a large plastic kitchen bag filled with pot. There was so much it lasted the entire winter -- for five people!

My main memory of this house was that it was very cold. In order to keep warm, we decided to separate the fireplace from the rest of the house. We found an old hang glider under the front porch and we used one metal rod from a wing to hang the material across the living room, creating a makeshift divider between it and the rest of the downstairs. We spent many a night sleeping side by side in sleeping bags by the fire.

None of us had any money to pay for firewood, so we used to take turns at night wandering the neighborhood stealing it for warmth. My other memory is that the whole house was covered in a dark brown shag carpet -- the real long, disgusting kind. We eventually got evicted for having too many people in the house.

from The Golden Bowl

The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber. Brought up on the legend of the City to which the world paid tribute, he recognised in the present London much more than in contemporary Rome the real dimensions of such a case. If it was a question of an Imperium, he said to himself, and if one wished, as a Roman, to recover a little the sense of that, the place to do so was on London Bridge, or even, on a fine afternoon in May, at Hyde Park Corner. It was not indeed to either of those places that these grounds of his predilection, after all sufficiently vague, had, at the moment we are concerned with him, guided his steps; he had strayed, simply enough, into Bond Street, where his imagination, working at comparatively short range, caused him now and then to stop before a window in which objects massive and lumpish, in silver and gold, in the forms to which precious stones contribute, or in leather, steel, brass, applied to a hundred uses and abuses, were as tumbled together as if, in the insolence of the Empire, they had been the loot of far-off victories. The young man's movements, however, betrayed no consistency of attention--not even, for that matter, when one of his arrests had proceeded from possibilities in faces shaded, as they passed him on the pavement, by huge beribboned hats, or more delicately tinted still under the tense silk of parasols held at perverse angles in waiting victorias. And the Prince's undirected thought was not a little symptomatic, since, though the turn of the season had come and the flush of the streets begun to fade, the possibilities of faces, on the August afternoon, were still one of the notes of the scene. He was too restless--that was the fact--for any concentration, and the last idea that would just now have occurred to him in any connection was the idea of pursuit.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.4 (Henry James)

The American Scene
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
James, Henry
The American Scene

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books for a course in graduate school with Susan Howe. I remember we discussed a passage in which James declares his belief that the country club is that American invention in which can be seen the truest flowering of democracy. When I suggested aloud that this was an elitist position, Susan reacted as if I had insulted her uncle. I was never sure if she liked me after that.

Today I'll leave you with a few final images of the house in Vienna before we move on tomorrow. In addition to those parts of the house previously presented, there were also: a crawlspace attic, a garage, a back yard and front yard, a backyard patio and screened-in porch, and a creek.

The attic had one of those small, square, pop-up entries. Once up there, you could stand up straight, but you could only step on crossbeams, as no floor boards had been laid. My parents used it mainly as a place to hide Christmas presents.

We never used the garage for cars. It only held one. We used it to store bikes, a lawnmower, gardening tools, garbage cans, etc.

The front yard sloped down from the house toward the street. We had several oak trees, a dogwood, and a few hedges in beds in front of the house. I hated mowing the front yard because of the slope, because of all the trees I had to mow around, and because of the several stumps of trees my parents had cut down, which inevitably caught in the mower blades when I passed the mower over them, making a horrible cutting sound that sometimes cut off the motor completely.

Our back yard seemed huge because no fence separated it from our neighbors. The two combined created a long, flat open field, perfect for back yard football, soccer, etc. Our yard had two parellel oaks about twenty feet apart which often served as convenient end-zone markers. Behind the twin oaks, there was also a sort of small wooded area where we kept the hated wood-pile for winter stove burning. Later, my parents put in a pool and fenced off the yard.

Sliding doors in the family room opened onto a small concrete patio. Sliding doors in the dining room opened onto a wooden porch about eight feet off the ground. Later, this was replaced by a screened-in porch. We ate dinner out there often in summer.

Our back yard was separated from the large farm behind us by a small creek that fed into a drainage pipe. When we first moved there, I recall playing in the creekbed with my friend, K. K's father was the CIA guy who built out our basment. Before moving to Vienna, K. too had lived in California. We used to make up fake histories of our friendship that began with our having known each other out west. A few times it rained so hard that the creek looked like a roaring muddy river.

from The American Scene

The Country Club, for instance, as I have already had occasion to note, is everywhere a clear American felicity; a complete product of the social soil and air which alone have made it possible, and wearing whenever met that assured face of the full-blown flower and the proved proposition. These institutions speak so of American life as a success that they affected me at moments as crying aloud to be commemorated--since it is on American life only that they are founded, and since they render it, to my mind, the good office of making it keep all its graces and of having caused it to shed, by the same stroke, the elements that are contrary to these. Nothing is more suggestive than to recognize, each time, on the premises, the thing that "wouldn't do in Europe"--for a judgment of the reasons of its doing so well in the one hemisphere and so ill in the other promptly becomes illuminating. The illumination is one at which, had I space, I should have liked to light here a candle or two--partaking indeed by that character of a like baffled virtue in many another group of social phenomena. The Country Club testifies, in short, and gives its evidence, from the box, with the inimitable, invaluable accent of American authority. It becomes, for the restless analyst, one of the great garden-lamps in which the flame of Democracy burns whitest and steadiest and most floods the subject; taking its place thus on the positive side of a line which has its other side overscored with negatives. I may seem too much to brood upon it, but the interest of the American scene being, beyond any other, the show, on so immense a scale, of what Democracy, pushing and breaking the ice like an Arctic explorer, is making of things, any scrap that contributes to it wears a part of its dignity. To have been beforehand with the experiments, with several rather risky ones at least, and to have got on with these so beautifully while other rueful nations prowl, in the dusk, inquisitive but apprehensive, round the red windows of the laboratory, peeping, for the last news, between each other's shoulders--all this is, for the democratic force, to have stolen a march over no little of the ground, and to have gained time on such a scale as perhaps to make the belated of the earth, the critical group at the windows, still live to think of themselves as having too much wasted it.

There had been one--I mean a blest Country Club--in the neighbourhood of Boston (where indeed I believe (324) there were a dozen, at least as exemplary, out of my range); there had been another, quite marvellous, on the Hudson--one of a numerous array, probably, within an hour's run of New York; there had been a supreme specimen, supreme for a documentary worth, even at Charleston (I reserve to myself to explain in due course, and ah, in such an exquisite sense, my "even"). This had made for me, if you will, a short list, but it had made a long admonition, to which the embowered institution near Baltimore was to add a wonderful emphasis. An admonition of what? it will meanwhile be asked: to which the answer may perhaps, for the moment, not be more precipitate than by one's saying that with any feeling for American life you soon enough see. You see its most complete attestation of its believing in itself unlimitedly, and also of its being right about itself at more points than it is wrong. You see it apply its general theory of its nature and strength--much of this doubtless quite an unconscious one--with a completeness and a consistency that will strike you also (or that ought to) as constituting an unconscious heroism. You will see it accept in detail, with a sublime serenity, certain large social consequences--the consequences of the straight application, in the most delicate conditions, of the prime democratic idea. As this idea is that of an universal eligibility, so you see it, under the application, beautifully resist the strain. So you see, in a word, everything staked on the conception of the young Family as a clear social unit--which, when all is said and done, remains, roundabout you, the ubiquitous fact. The conception of the Family is, goodness knows, "European" enough; but the difference resides in its working on one side of the world in the vertical and on the other in the horizontal sense. If its identity in "Europe," that is, resides more especially in its perpendicular, its backward and forward extension, its ascent and descent of the long ladder of time, so it develops in the United States mainly by its lateral spread, as one may say; expressing itself thus rather by number than by name, and yet taking itself for granted, when one comes to compare, with an intensity to which mere virtue of name elsewhere scarce helps it. American manners, as they stand, register therefore the apotheosis of the Family--a truth for which they have by no means received due credit; and it is in the light of Country Clubs that all this becomes vivid. These organizations accept the Family as the social unit--accept its extension, its whole extension, through social space, and accept it as many times over as the question comes up: which is what one means by their sublime and successful consistency. No, if I may still insist, nothing anywhere accepts anything as the American Country Club accepts these whole extensions.

That is why I speak of it as accepting the universal eligibility. With no palpable result does the democratic idea, in the States, more bristle than with the view that the younger are "as good" as the elder; family life is in fact, as from child to parent, from sister to brother, from wife to husband, from employed to employer, the eminent field of the democratic demonstration. This then is the unit that, with its latent multiplications, the Country Club takes over--and it is easy to see how such units must multiply. This is the material to which it addresses, with such effect, the secret of its power. I may of course be asked what I mean by an eligibility that is "universal"; but it seems needless to remark that even the most inclusive social scheme must in a large community always stop somewhere.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.3 (Henry James)

The Ambassadors
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
James, Henry
The Ambassadors

I think I bought this at East Village Books, possibly at Seventh St. Books.

Sorry for going on hiatus without warning. We just spent a week in Wisconsin and Minnesota. I had every intention of blogging while away. I even took photos of enough books to get through nine days of travel. I even brought my laptop.

Being away, however, proved its own reward. I checked email and so forth, but wrote nor read not a word.

And it was good.

When we left off last week, I had just finished describing the lower floor of our home in Vienna, VA. I realized after the fact that my verb tenses were causing a little confusion, so I tried to correct the problem. I think from now on I'll try to stick to the past tense and skip the present tense portions of the narration.

I have one more occupied floor to cover -- the basement.

When we moved into the house in 1976, the basement was just that, an unfinished cement room that housed the heating unit and a drain for flooding. Our neighbor, who we later found out worked for the C.I.A., volunteered to build it out for the cost of materials and beer (which was not necessarily insignificant). He built it into a classic seventies rec room, replete with flat, dark brown wall-to-wall carpeting, light-colored wood-paneled walls, and a drop-tile ceiling.

At the bottom of a short flight of stairs leading from the living room, the basement was laid out in an inverted "C" that wrapped around a room built out as a kind of workshop. It was unfinished on the inside, with open walls and concrete floors. It contained all the machinery of the house plus shelves for storage and a workbench (rarely used, as no one in our family had skills of that kind). As a teenager, I often snuck into this room to smoke. I'd extinguish all of my cigarettes in the drain that caught the water runoff from the furnace. I am still amazed that this did not flood and spill my bloated butts all over the floor.

At the bottom of the stairs a storage closet stood to the left. A short passage to the right opened into a sort of den area with a strange storage closet built out from the wall to cover some pipes. On the spine of the "C" a long wall had two window wells, half-submerged beneath the earth. They looked out on the back yard. In the den area we had a couch and a TV that at some point got connected to various video game consoles -- Atari and, later, Commodore 64.

The top part of the "C" formed a game area. We had a ping-pong table. Later a pool table.

In addition to dumping my cigarette butts in the drain, I used to hide my wine and been bottles, empty or full, in the ceiling. I'd pop up one of the tiles and slide the bottles over to one side. This worked well, for the most part. One time, however, I popped a fresh ceiling tile because my old one was full of empty bottles. Several thousand dollars came fluttering out of the ceiling. I ran upstairs and showed it to my mother (after hiding my bottles elsewhere!).

Turned out my father hid the cash he brought home from his parking garage business up in the ceiling. He apparently did this to avoid paying taxes. The cash was used for household expenses, while the stuff that went into the bank paid for prep school and college for three kids. Pretty crafty, that guy!

from The Ambassadors

Strether's first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted. A telegram from him bespeaking a room "only if not noisy," reply paid, was produced for the enquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester rather than at Liverpool remained to that extent sound. The same secret principle, however, that had prompted Strether not absolutely to desire Waymarsh's presence at the dock, that had led him thus to postpone for a few hours his enjoyment of it, now operated to make him feel he could still wait without disappointment. They would dine together at the worst, and, with all respect to dear old Waymarsh--if not even, for that matter, to himself--there was little fear that in the sequel they shouldn't see enough of each other. The principle I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive--the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade's face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange for this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first "note," of Europe. Mixed with everything was the apprehension, already, on Strether's part, that it would, at best, throughout, prove the note of Europe in quite a sufficient degree.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.2 (Henry James)

James, Henry
Portrait of a Lady

Purchased at East Village Books in the spring or summer of 1997. I haven't read this since, but I would put it down as one of my all time favorite novels. I think I may have even gotten a little misty-eyed at the end. I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened.


Yesterday's portion of the tour of my childhood home concluded on the landing at the top of the stair, where we stood poised to step down again to the burnt orange porcelain tile floor of the foyer. Let's try it, shall we? It's about eight steps down, then a one hundred-eighty degree turn and another eight steps down into the family room.

To the right at the foot of the stair a door leads to the basement and on the wall to the right, another door reveals a large bedroom at the front of the house. Straight ahead the room opens into a family room. On the immediate left there's a door to a bathroom. If we follow that wall toward the back of the house, another door opens to a laundry room. On the rear wall a sliding glass door reveals the a concrete patio to the back yard. (I forgot to mention the other day that in the dining room, another sliding door led to a raised porch, which my parents eventually tore down and re-constricted as a screened-in back porch.) There's a small window next to the sliding glass door.

Orange shag carpet once again dominates the scene. The walls may be wood-panelled. I might be confusing this with the wood-panelling in the basement or the wood-panelling at some other house we lived in. Returning to the foot of the stair, facing forward into the room, we see the TV and bookcases filling the righthand wall. One large cabinet houses the television (and later a VCR). It is flanked on both sides by bookcases.

I can remember a copy of the complete 1978 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, off white and chocolate brown leather covers, gold embossed lettering.

On the far wall a brick fireplace rises up to a chimney. My father converted this into a wood-burning stove. He had read somewhere that such a stove could heat the whole house and save a lot of money. My father loved few things more than saving a few pennies.

I hated that wood burning stove. It became my job to operate it, which meant carrying to wood in from a pile in the back yard, starting a fire, then maintaining it throughout the evening without burning through too much wood. At night, before bed, I had to lower the fire enough that it would burn slowly through the night, creating the illusion that it heated the whole house, which it did not, especially not the part we slept in one story above.

I was very impatient with processes as a lad. I was always trying to find ways to get the fire started more quickly so I could move on to doing something else, like watching TV. I sometimes used lighter fluid to start fires more quickly. Once, when my parents were out, I couldn't find any lighter fluid so I used gasoline instead. I poured it from a can in the garage into a little drinking glass and carried it down to the stove. After lighting the kindling, I flung the gasoline into the stove, igniting with a slight booming sound a great ball of fire that, I soon realized, had spread to the glass in my hand.

I ran with the flaming object into the bathroom and threw it in the toilet, where it smashed and ignited with another boom into another ball of fire, which quickly consumed the soft-cushioned vinyl toilet seat and melted it to the porcelain. Luckily, I remembered something about using baking soda for grease fires, so I ran upstairs and found a box and poured it over the flaming bowl. Thankfully, the fire didn't spread.

I don't remember most of the furniture, but I do remember the couch. Three wide cushions long, with arms, its woven brown and off-white plaid bulk spread almost the entire width of the room. For many years it served as a divider of sorts. My mother left the space between the back of the couch and the sliding door open so she could fold and iron laundry.

I don't remember much about the laundry room, other than it was against the back of the house and was the size of a small bedroom.

My memory of the bathroom contains yellow and flowers, but I can't remember it very clearly.

The bedroom I mentioned earlier was originally my father's study. He had a large green desk made of heavy wood. I think it had been a physician's desk purchased secondhand. I remember it had a writing shelf that slid out like a drawer, with a chart bearing color images of different types of prescription capsules adhered to its surface. I think I just figured that out right now. It always puzzled me as a child.

The room faced the front of the house, and was half buried in the ground. You could climb out one of the four windows and be anywhere from six inces to two feet from the ground (the earth rose up an incline from left to right).

I moved down there as a teenager to get some privacy. My father had had a phone line installed when it was his study, so I got to have my own phone as a teen, which was something of a miracle. The easy access it provided to the outside world through the windows allowed me to skirt the draconian curfews my parents laid down. I'd come home at 11 PM, say hello, go downstairs to bed, wait half an hour, then climb out the window to rejoin my friends, who were often waiting in a car a block or so away. It was also handy for smoking, which I'd sneak out to do in the middle of the night.

When I'd had a bedroom on the second floor, I had to lean out to smoke and the smell often wafted back into the room. My solution at the time was to climb out the second floor window and balance myself by my toes on a piece of the siding I'd bent out just enough to stand on, then close the window in front of me and light up, holding myself by the sill to the front of the house. I am still amazed that no one ever called the police to say they'd seen a burglar attempting to climb through the second floor window.

My parents eventually allowed me to smoke outside. When they did, I'd just step out the sliding glass door for a cigarette on the back patio. There was something gloriously lonely about all that, like I was a man of the world who just needed some time to smoke and look at the stars and think about the future.

from The Portrait of a Lady

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you
partake of the tea or not--some people of course never do,--the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one's enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o'clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration and was the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.1 (Henry James)

The Europeans
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
James, Henry
The Europeans

I don't have a clue where I bought this. Not even a guess. The used sticker on the spine suggests it may have been at the UB bookstore, but I think I bought a total of three books there during graduate school. Or maybe it was somewhere else. I am trying to remember if I actually read this novel or if I bought it on the cheap with the intention to read it later. Hard to say.

We left off yesterday in the midst of my description of the house in Vienna. I believe we were standing in the foyer on the burnt orange porcelain tile floor, about to take the half-flight of stairs up to the second floor. The stairs, you may recall, were covered in orange shag carpet, and rose to a landing surrounded on three sides by white doors. Near the top of the stairs on the right the first door led to a linen closest.

Immediately adjacent to the closet, facing the front of the house, a door led to a bedroom with two windows, which belonged to my middle brother, Chris. I don't remember how it was decorated. A twin bed dominated the space. I would often hide underneath it while he brushed his teeth, waiting until he had shut off the light and started to doze off before leaping out from under the bed to scare him. He'd usually return the favor the next night.

Perpendicularly adjacent to that door, another door led to my bedroom. Two windows faced the front yard. Next to the door was the clothes closet with its two siding doors and just beyond that, tucked into the corner, my little writing desk. It was made of dark wood and had been built especially to fit into a corner. Pens and notebooks could be stored in its one large drawer. A small bookcase with two shelves rested on the surface of the desk with its back against the wall.

I can remember seeing my copy of Captains Courageous on the shelf, an illustration of a storm-tossed little boat on the blue cover, waiting for me to read it, which I tried to do several times, but never did. I can also remember carving my name into the desk with a pocket knife.

I rearranged my room fairly often. My bed moved several times, but the desk stayed where it was -- there was only one corner it could fit into because of the location of the windows and doors. For a time it sat against the same wall as the desk. Later I pushed it against the opposite wall. I had a painting of a sad clown on that wall throughout my childhood. I still get sad thinking about it. There's something very Dorian Gray about my relationship with that clown.

For a time during high school, I put the bed near the window so that I could lean out and smoke cigarettes in the middle of the night. I also hung one of those black-light posters of the grim reaper over my bed. One day, I came home from school to discover it had been removed. One of my mother's friends had been over during the day to play bridge or something and remarked that it was like I had Satan himself hanging over my bed. End of story.

Images of old merchant ships adorned the wallpaper, which was red and white and blue. I remember there were names like "Old Ironsides" and unfamiliar words like "frigate" that I used to stare at and wonder about. I don't think I looked them up until much later. The text of the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes did not come with the wallpaper:

Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

It must have been bicentennial wallpaper or something. It was 1976, after all.

Next to my room there was another door, which at one time led to a bedroom for my youngest brother. Later, when I moved to a room on the lower floor and my brother moved into my room, my parents knocked out the wall and extended the master bedroom into this one. I remember only that it was the smallest of the children's rooms and that it had one window that faced the house next door.

For some reason I just remembered a scene that occurred in that room when my mother found a couple of dirty photos my very young brother had hidden under the mattress. I remember getting a good grilling, but my innocence prevailed and eventually blame was directed firmly and accurately at the 12 year-old neighbor across the street, who had "loaned" my brother the offending material.

Next to that room another door led to the master bedroom, which faced the back of the house. It was a large room that became much larger when my parents expanded. A large, very heavy wooden wardrobe stood guard at the left wall near the door. On the wall facing the back of the house, a large double bed lay between two windows. It was flanked on both sides by heavy wooden end tables. My parents later traded the bed in for a water bed. A large, heavy, wooden vanity dresser with a huge mirror occupied the wall to the right of the bed. I remember my parents had a wax candle reproductions of Dürer's praying hands on a middle shelf, above a box in which she stored her jewelry.

Just past the wardrobe to the left another doorway lead through a dressing area with two large clothes closets that met in the corner. Another door to the left opened into the master bathroom.

I remember taking my father's shoeshine kit out of the closet along with all of his shoes and shining them for a quarter a pair. On "Mad Men" the other night, Don Draper took out a wooden shoeshine kit that was identical to my father's, which made me a feel little sad.

The last door on the landing, perpendicular and adjacent to my parents, opened to another small bathroom. I shared this with my two brothers. I don't remember the decor of the bathroom at all.

The landing itself was covered in the same orange shag. An iron railing kept us from easily falling down the stairs that led to the lower level. Several times a week my mother would make us all sit in a circle on the landing and pray before we went to bed. I remember the only time I did anything more than mouth the words was when my two-week old hamster had died of a cold after I'd forgotten to cover his cage. I felt very guilty.

from The Europeans

A narrow grave-yard in the heart of a bustling, indifferent city, seen from the windows of a gloomy-looking inn, is at no time an object of enlivening suggestion; and the spectacle is not at its best when the mouldy tombstones and funereal umbrage have received the ineffectual refreshment of a dull, moist snow-fall. If, while the air is thickened by this frosty drizzle, the calendar should happen to indicate that the blessed vernal season is already six weeks old, it will be admitted that no depressing influence is absent from the scene.

I love Henry James.