Friday, August 31, 2012

Just The Fire

You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and color which are more and more perfect. 
Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth. 
--Czeslaw Milosz, "Winter"

A short time ago I watched my dog Wendell creeping through the shadows at the park. He paused and listened to what he did not know was a train, the nice rhythm of the darkness coming down, the city murmuring at some safe distance. What was he hearing? Big water, perhaps, moving through someplace where another race of dogs lived with its secrets and old heroic stories.

I’m girding myself for the first plodding steps into September, the calendar rolling resolutely into the black teeth of winter. Soon enough the windows will be shut up and the house will smell like a wet blanket baking, heat limbering up in the old radiators. And out there somewhere, sprawled behind me in the vacuum of another August completing its free fall, are the embers of one of the most magical summers I can ever recall: I feel like I spent three months on my back in the cool grass, staring up into a sky that was intent on blasting off every star in its arsenal. From time to time there would be a brief pause in the fireworks and I’d be stunned by the appearance of a full moon –exactly like the one that’s hanging outside my window as I type these words. It was a summer with a first-rate soundtrack, and a fat scrapbook full of Kodachrome snapshots and painted postcards to remember it by.

There was sadness, too, enough to keep things in perspective and give the sweetness the punch of recognition and wonder that all sweetness deserves.

The wading pool in the park up the street has been drained now, and every morning and late afternoon the gaggle of neighborhood kids trudges to and from the school bus stop.

The cicadas are almost done; death, I suppose, is the Arizona they fly off to for the winter. They burn down entire villages every autumn and flee to angel dusks. Soon enough the shuddering ghost-keening of geese evacuating across the moon and disappearing into the clouds.

It was on a night like this, somewhere across the world and a long time ago, that I watched as a shirtless man leaned back and coughed fire into the fog. He would swish his canteen of gasoline and nudge with his boot the tin cup at his feet. "It costs money!" he shouted. "Don't just look!"

"How long can a man possibly breathe fire?" a bored Frenchman asked his date. "There must be other things as well. It is the same thing every night."

"Perhaps that is what gives it the power it has," the woman said. "The fact that there is nothing more, that this is all he has: just the fire, just the instant, repeated again and again. The poor man is clearly dying. Give him ten francs."

Tonight, though, I feel like I still have pockets full of that summer magic, and Wendell and I are fixing to go for a ramble and sprinkle some of that leftover fairy dust all over the neighborhood.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

These Things I Believe

That the light will last forever.

That a silent abracadabra is the appropriate blessing to be conferred on even the darkest new morning.

That a dog is both a lantern and a life preserver.

That John Wayne wore his pants pulled up too high for my taste.

That as an object of pure design a good baseball mitt is as beautiful as anything ever produced by an Italian.

That a dream deferred accrues interest.

That a goat is a more worthy subject for a tale than a donkey.

That a starving man can live for a long time on laughter and conversation.

That there is always a fish at the other end of the line.

That there is a bobber at the bottom of my throat.

That a man can be the ringmaster, walk the high wire, and both be and tame the lion.

That oblivion is a worthwhile destination.

That beetles are among the planet's most spectacular creations.

That impostors almost always wear the crown.

That the spirit of the living creatures is in the wheels.

That a heart cannot live by breaking.

That desire can cripple a man.

That soup is the perfect food.

That questions have answers.

That one can persist in asking questions, and survive the answers.

That all the moral blather in the world can be boiled down to two words: be careful.

That a meager body and feeble hands can save a life, can cradle a heart and keep it safe, and can communicate things the mind and mouth could never find the words to say.

That a heretic can speak the truth.

That a parrot can --and should-- be taught to recite poetry.

That love cannot survive without a soundtrack, and dancing.

That on the right night and the right road Little Willie John could drive you to your knees.

That George Herriman's Krazy Kat is as inspired as anything in literature.

That you should never stop expecting people to surprise you.

That all the big, ridiculous things are possible, are tangible, are true.

That there is magic in human hands.

That some form of magic is always at hand.

That this is a world without end.

That I’m right about some of these things, maybe even most of them.

Go ahead and tell me I’m not and see where it'll get you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Time Was

Time is a sputtering lantern, a bruised child, a gray, flat-faced man with fists of concrete and legs like pistons. He has it in for dogs, which is one of his many cruel and inexplicable character traits.

Misunderstood and misrepresented throughout history, gussied up and dumbed down, the snaggle-toothed bastard is frequently outfitted with wings he'd never wear let alone learn to use. He merely smirks at clocks and every other so-called timepiece man has ever devised --foolish abstractions, he'd tell you if ever he deigned to speak; wholly inadequate and far too orderly to ever approximate the real thing.

He is a stutterer, a creature of fits and starts and the long pauses of an unorthodox and not entirely competent chess player. He doesn't have a rational bone in his body, nor could he be said to have ever had a thoughtful moment. He's as impulsive and reckless and irrational as the day he was born in a maelstrom.

He's a cold, plodding motherfucker, methodically unpredictable, a mess maker, back breaker, teeth kicker, heart wrecker. A connoisseur of ruins and a ruthless collector of forgotten debts.

He doesn't heal. He doesn't mend. He doesn't forgive. He doesn't forget. He doesn't fly. He doesn't tell. He's got it in for dogs.

It's been said that he wiggled out from under the thumb of God centuries ago and has been a lone wolf ever since.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Family Plot

My family on both sides had been up there so long that I was raised to regard the place as a country our people had founded and could never leave. Oneida County. Our history - the history of the DeAngelis clan, the Noyes, Jervises, and Bryants - was everywhere. I’d heard the stories all my life, had seen all the documents and paperwork and photographs, had spent my childhood on an endless and relentlessly personal history tour that seemed to cover every nook and cranny of the county, and I still couldn’t keep much of it straight.

How, then, have I spent my life? Touring ruins, inhabiting ruins, extracting ruins, documenting and preserving ruins. Trodding in graveyards and listening to stories that my family has been telling - and living, and re-living - for two centuries. The first DeAngelis in Oneida County was a guy named Pascal C.J. DeAngelis, my great-great-etc. grandfather, who in 1798 received the deed for seven and a half acres that were set aside for the Public Square in Holland Patent, where the original DeAngelis family home was located on the banks of Willard’s Creek (in the seriously unlikely event you should ever visit, it was located where the Presbyterian church now stands). There were old family homes - on both my father’s and mother’s sides - all over the county. I grew up in a house built in 1869, 17 miles outside Utica and just up the road from the Baron von Steuben Memorial Park. Von Steuben was some character who trained Revolutionary soldiers, and Pascal C.J. DeAngelis was said to be a confidante of the fellow.

Another old relative of my father’s, William W. DeAngelis, made a fortune in New York City before returning to Holland Patent, where he set about to immortalize the Baron in any way possible. My mother was raised in Steuben Valley, north of Holland Patent. Her family included John B. Jervis, who was an engineer on the Erie Canal and a railroad builder. When I was a kid the Adirondack Railroad steam train would still occasionally huff through the county, and right through the Public Square in Holland Patent.

On the other side of my mother’s family was a man named J.H. Noyes, who founded the Oneida Colony of Perfectionists over in Sherrill. Relatives on both sides of my family purportedly took part in the siege of Fort Stanwix (over in what is now Rome but which was then Lynchville), at which it is said the American flag was raised for the first time in battle.

You see what I was up against? I had ancestors buried all over the fucking county, and my parents seemed to know where every one of them was, as well as the details of their lives and the circumstances of their deaths. My father always claims that our relatives named half the noteworthy stuff in Oneida County.

The Tug Hill Plateau? That was us. Tessel Hill, the highest point in the county? That was also us. Did we also name Hardscrabble Road? I once asked. My father gave it a moment of thought and then shook his head.

“No, no, I don’t believe so. We could have done better than that, I’m certain.”

I really could not have cared less, but it took me a long time to realize this. I’d been brainwashed, and all throughout my childhood the world was steadily being shrunk around me until it would all fit within the borders of Oneida County. This is our place, I was told. We are stewards, and there is no more noble calling. It didn’t help matters that I was the first recognized fuck-up in the DeAngelis family (my mother did have a sister who spent the last half of her life locked up in the Utica State Hospital, a fantastic and archetypal Greek Revival building that was like something out of a horror movie; I really used to love visiting there when I was a kid).

I was the first male member of my father’s family - or so I was regularly reminded - to be rejected by Hamilton College over in Clinton, and ended up at Mohawk Community College in Utica, where I racked up D’s and incompletes before dropping out. Through my mother’s brother-in-law, who was an Oneida County Commissioner, I got a job at the Oneida Silverware plant in Sherrill, but after I’d been there less than three years it closed for good.

My father tried to interest me in writing a family history, and I feigned enthusiasm for this idea as it allowed me to spend long stretches of time at the old DeAngelis cabin on Lake Ontario outside Oswego. My father would come over on the weekend bearing boxes of books, old newspapers, and all manner of genealogical documents, and I would go through the charade of allowing him to intone into a tape recorder for hours at a time, essentially rehashing all the old stories I’d heard a million times before.

When I’d get restless I’d just drive all over the family’s depressed kingdom. I’d go up and down Route 365 listening to music. I’d go to Rome and Utica and along the canal, taking pictures of the most moldering sites I could find (there were lots to choose from). I’d go to Fink Hollow, Stittville, Remsen, and Barneveld, and up to the Great Sacandaga Reservoir and over to the Oriskany Battlefield, a place I had actually always enjoyed. I liked all the Revolutionary War stories, but if you met my father, a fat, waddling asthmatic who was damn near blind and had never really worked a day in his life, you’d have a hard time picturing anybody who fought in that war and did great, brave things with their lives as anything but an accidental and almost imaginary relative, impossibly distant and long since estranged. Yet these were the indistinct ghosts he - and by extension me, all of us - spent his entire life in the company of. I had a sister in Utica, cousins all over the county, a few friends, a dog I loved. I was lucky, I guess, to live in a house full of books.

More and more often, as my father worried out loud about the progress of ‘the history,’ I would find myself at the Turning Stone Casino, run by the Oneida Indian nation, or what was left of it, and I would wander around there all night, occasionally playing the slots or blackjack, but mostly people watching and killing time. And inevitably I would emerge into the cool, swirling mist that would cloak the giant parking lot as the night, feeling its way back west, retreated from the morning.

And I would stand there in the parking lot of what was now the largest employer in Oneida County, and I would ask myself what I was doing there, and wonder why the hell I didn’t just leave once and for all.

I might stand there for a long time with those old questions pacing in my head, and I would invariably come up with the same answer: where in the world could I go? Sometimes, even, I’ll admit that I’d substitute a how for that where.

This was my home. All I had ever had were my people, and in one way or another all of us - rooted, entrenched, interred - were buried somewhere out there in the Oneida mist.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Alec Soth and I are winding down two weeks in upstate New York, where we've been producing another newspaper about --sort of-- the state of the country in the 21st century.

It's been a blast so far, and you can catch up and follow along here.

You can also pre-order the print version of upstate over at the Little Brown Mushroom site.

Any support of these projects is greatly appreciated, and will allow Alec and me to continue to ramble and produce the LBM Dispatch.

Thanks a million. I'll be back to my usual babble shortly.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

There's A Medication For Everything

When I was younger and could still occasionally get a good night's sleep, I used to routinely have dreams about the end of the world, and delighted in recounting these visions in great detail to my mother at the breakfast table. She eventually became so alarmed by the graphic particulars of my stories that she sent me to a psychiatrist, a serious man who refused to believe my contention that these dreams constituted not nightmares, but rather supreme entertainments.

Friday, August 10, 2012

True Enough

These days the downtrodden God-Bless-You boys work the stoplights at the 46th Street freeway ramps in shifts. There are, most days, guys at the ramps on both sides of the overpass, holding down every possible point of access to motorists. There's also always a gaggle of characters waiting on the sidelines, so to speak, sitting in the grass along the concrete freeway barrier or on the sidewalk just around the corner. It's like pick-up basketball for the homeless.

You tend to see the same characters every day. I suspect they all use each other's signs. "Stranded," one says, and nothing else. There's the standard, "Homeless. Please Help. God Bless." And: "Homeless Veteran. God Bless America."

I also saw this virtuous variant last week: "I'M JUST TRYING TO GET BACK ON MY FEET!"

"Three Children In Texas" seemed to strike an odd note, and I was uncertain whether the appropriate reaction was sympathy or scorn. I do feel sympathy, or rather compassion, for all of them, especially now that there seem to be more of them every day. My rule of thumb is that if one of them catches me at a red light I give him a buck. I know there are those who find this foolhardy and even irresponsible for all sorts of reasons, some of which I can understand.  Still, the recipients of my token offerings have always been unfailingly polite.

A couple days ago, in the rain, I saw a motorist hand one of them a pizza box through a car window, and yesterday, as I waited at the stoplight there was a guy who was holding an entirely blank piece of cardboard.

"What's your sign say?" I asked.

"You know what it says," he said, without the slightest hint of hostility. 

The man was, of course, absolutely right.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

All Those Lost Years

Remember when you imagined stars on the roof of your mouth and stood in the river in the rain, naked and mooing, your head and palms raised significantly (or so you imagined)? You desperately wanted something momentous to wash over you; to be claimed by something outside yourself, even as you were almost utterly incapable of feeling the presence of anything outside yourself.

I'm sure you have no idea now why you wrapped your feet in aluminum foil.

Still, how could you forget all that time you spent falling, those days when you just let it all go, your whole self, surprisingly heavy, a sinker dragging all the world's earnest bobbers right down with you? Twice, at least, you thought yourself done for and drowned, and in those moments there was just this vague glimpse of sadness mixed with regret, almost like the last fragments of an evaporating dream.

Remember the lights and the way everything smeared, blurred, and swerved away from you for a while? In the distance, sometimes, you imagined a fire tower, then a lighthouse, then a tiny chapel deep in the woods and dimly illuminated like a jack-o'-lantern, then finally a graveyard down a long gravel road somewhere in the country. The thin ones, your desperate companions reduced to nothing but haunted eyes and bones, they were so dangerous, and you were perhaps the most dangerous of all.

Can't you even remember anymore how you were saved? Isn't that one memory you should have held on to with --as some would say-- dear life?

Saturday, August 4, 2012


I've been thinking about purely private obsession, the grip of the wholly inexplicable. The claiming desire, some fascination --sometimes kink, sometimes compulsion-- that puts down roots in your young skull and stakes a permanent camp. Some ceaselessly hectoring curiosity that won't leave you alone, and ultimately defines you and how you'll spend (or waste) your time and what you'll want from your life.

It's a narrowing, and generally happens early. A grip your head puts you in from which it has no intention of releasing you. Childhood's cattle brand. You will love me always. You will follow me forever, and wherever I lead. You will serve me until the end of your days.

There are a million tiny and ridiculous ways a person can be sidetracked and carried away, from the narrowest path off the main trail to a pitiful, dribbling creek or the most destructive, raging cataract.

But in the end you become a hostage to who you are, to what you want, what fascinates you, what breaks you down, what holds you under; the sense you feel compelled to build, the truth you try so helplessly to construct, the who you ultimately and helplessly are.

So there, I guess, it is, the truth that sits across the room every night engaged in a staring contest with me: I am a hostage, locked up with the eight-year-old boy I once was.

I think I've finally decided I'm fine with that. I love that kid’s dreams.