Saturday, August 31, 2013

On a Sudden Gust of Hot, Whirling Wind

On a Sudden Gust of Hot, Whirling Wind

Memories frighten me. There is something alien and intrusive about memory. It is like a piece of shrapnel embedded in the flesh of the present. Bad memories are bad; the good ones worse. Happy memories measure the distance between then and now in inches and feet and miles of regret.

Let me clarify: this fear does not originate in the content of those memories – I have led an uneventful life, and nothing particularly dire has befallen me. My griefs (and joys also) have been mostly quotidian, moderate, readily assimilated into an orderly, normal-seeming life. But there is something of the icy clarity of three a.m. about many of my memories, an element that disturbs the imagination with a sense of failure and hapless regret.

I have always eschewed nostalgia. I don’t like looking at old pictures and avoid sentimental excursions into the past. For better or worse, I have always regarded myself as propelled into the future, someone blasted forward by the fuel of a past that is consumed entirely as it drives me into tomorrow. Imagined in this way, the memories of the past cease to exist. They are wholly consumed, burnt to ashes, in the furnace of the future. But, as I grow older, I sense that this view is naive and unsustainable: some residue, some deposit of the past always remains and it intrudes upon our lives in an unseemly way.

Regret and disappointment rule memory. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. If one lives for the future, then, the present is only an education for the day after tomorrow – a day that, of course, doesn’t really exist. As a young man, I imagined that I was training my genius, shaping it to my will, making my sensibility into a vehicle for wonderful achievements that I would venture, and accomplish, at some unknown time in the future. Necessarily, this perspective on the present moment – that it is mere tutelage for a glorious future – diminishes the present. This hour, this instant, was hollowed-out to build a future that I hoped would occur later, when I was grown and my education complete. Hence, my sense of disappointment in thinking about the past: there is always lurking in my memories the notion that I didn’t attend enough to what was current, to what was actually happening in the instant and that too much emotional and imaginative energy was invested in a future that never occurred. Regret, of course, arises from the sense that every memory represents an uncanny intersection between the path that I have taken and innumerable and other branching avenues and routes. What would have happened if I had come to that crossroads, met the devil there, and taken his counsel as to another road? At three in the morning, the hour of the wolf, the devil enters the mind, no longer as a tempter, but as the spirit that whispers: “You fool! Why didn’t you do otherwise?”

And, so, it was with some trepidation that I anticipated the Austin Artworks Festival. I knew that I would meet people that, perhaps, I had not encountered for many years. In the galleries of the old power-plant repurposed to show ceramics and paintings, memories might be revived that I would find disturbing. The past that I have always imagined as mere cinders and ash would appear before me, unavoidable and threatening, a presence embodied in certain encounters that I anticipated with a dull sense of fear. It is the return of the repressed, the door opening into a certain rooms that I have long forbidden to my imagination.

I came to Austin to practice law when I was 24. It was 1979 and I had spent almost all of my life in Minneapolis and its suburbs, a hundred miles to the north. Like most people in the Twin Cities, I didn’t even know where Austin was located – I confused the city with Albert Lea, a place more accessible to travelers from the Metro because stapled to the far end of a freeway that we used for our morning commute. Austin was somewhere else, looming like a dismal thundercloud over the flat horizon of the Iowa border.

Brad Zellar, now a well-known and much-lauded writer, was one of the people that I met during the first few years that I lived in Austin. Zellar had just graduated from High School and, I think, was making the first tentative steps into the general vicinity of the vocation that he has successfully followed during the last thirty years. I recall him as a young man, gifted and ambitious, plotting, as it were, his own special assault on the citadel. He had the courage to do something that I envied – he aimed to be a professional writer and was willing to endure hardship and uncertainty to pursue that goal. I was less courageous and tenacious – the practice of law paid my bills and, although I yearned to be a writer, I didn’t have the guts to invest myself in that enterprise in any irrevocable way. I always imagined my work as a lawyer as a retreat from what I really wanted to be. In that respect, of course, I misled myself – what you really want to be, you become. There are no thwarted existences: everyone grows into the form of life that he or she most secretly desires.

Zellar spoke about his recent work with the photographer, Alec Soth. He was avuncular and witty, speaking from a platform installed in an alcove under the great masonry heap of the power-plant. The niche in the red-brick edifice had been some kind of service-bay – metal pumps, compressor apparatus, hitches for big machines projected from the walls behind the platform from which Zellar made his remarks. He showed a number of slides from recent explorations with Soth: images of half-mad isolates, abandoned buildings, curious lodge rituals, eccentrics reposing on the frozen earth. Zellar told us that he had been anxious to escape Austin but that memories of his hometown informed much of his later work. His love for books and music had been nourished at the old Carnegie Library in town. And his recent quests, with Soth, across the country, were, in some ways, a search for this lost community, the guilelessness and naivety and uninformed optimism, that characterize people who live closely with one another in small cities spiked with church steeples and grain elevators standing proudly apart from one another on the great thunderstorm-scoured plains. This is another aspect of how memory works: we are forever seeking the idealized version of a childhood and youth that we couldn’t tolerate when, in fact, we were young. For Zellar growing up, Austin was a wasteland, a dull, mediocre and featureless place – in his speech, Zellar noted that he recalled several librarians but couldn’t remember any of his teachers. We flee places like this as uninspiring, but, later, spend much of our life trying to reconstitute the landscapes of our childhood – but improved by our imagination, with an additional ingredient of spirit and joy that seemed conspicuously lacking when we were younger. My father, a beatnik aficionado of jazz, fled the small central Nebraska village where he was raised. But he didn’t like big cities and spent much of his life gardening in his orchard, making his home into an idealized version of the parsonage where he lived with his father, a Lutheran pastor, and mother and sisters when he was a small boy in Albion, Nebraska. Some famous writers have made a career from recapturing youthful memories, not realistically, but idealized, all the dispiriting stupidity and monotony excised – Garrison Keillor is an example of a writer whose principal work represents a memory palace that is a refined, and beautified, version of an existence from which, as a young man, he fled in horror.

One of Zellar’s books is a collection of photographs called Suburban World – The Norling Photographs. This book is culturally significant in a number of ways. The visual style of the pictures presented in the volume is said to have been a decisive influence on the Coen brothers’ film, A Simple Man. In his remarks in the industrial porch to the Power Plant, Zellar explained how he had stumbled upon the treasure trove of photographs at the Bloomington Historical Society. The photo-horde was the life work of a man named Irwin Norling. After discovering the collection, Zellar tracked the old photographer down and met him in a nursing home shortly before he died. Suburban World is Zellar’s private Norling museum; he is Norling’s curator, apologist, and most perceptive patron. The photographs chronicle the growth of the south suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul, particularly Bloomington, and the pictures are astonishing in their diversity – they range from stark Weegee-style crime scenes and car-crashes through the gaucherie of parades, beauty contests, award’s ceremonies at VFW posts, as well as tawdry fancy-dress balls to portraits of sporting events and local big shots. Many of the pictures are inadvertently ironic: photographs taken for civic booster purposes and celebrating accomplishments that the camera’s supremely indifferent eye reveals as petty and unimpressive, curiously inert, a glossy and banal kingdom occupying the anteroom to oblivion.

As Roland Barthes has observed, all photographs have death as an implicit subject. The photographic shows us people and places that have ceased to exist. And, in fact, Zellar’s discovery of Norling’s pictures arose in a somewhat funereal context: he was searching for images of the old Bloomington strip, the 494 corridor as it once existed in the days of the outdoor stadium and the old ice arena. Zellar’s quest for pictures of something that had largely vanished brought him to the basement of the Bloomington Historical Society. Norling’s images embody a kind of Underworld, an Elysian field of silver-grey chemicals lingering as patterns of shadow and light in a cellar chamber – the stadium is gone and the ice arena at the edge of the city, out beyond the airport, no longer exists, but the pictures remain. Images write the epitaph for people and places that are gone.

And my own memories remain, as well, triggered by Zellar’s remarks and by perusing the book of images that he has edited. I went to elementary school in New Brighton, a working class suburb poised between north Minneapolis and St. Paul, but I attended High School, and lived for most of my college years in Eden Praire – in those days, the terminus of 494, the place where the south belt-line freeway petered-out in raspberry fields and gravel pits that were gradually devouring the old, morose dairy farms pitched among the steep wooded hills and the swamps. Eden Prairie had no main street, no commerce except for a gas station that sold groceries from a few shelves and its residents were scattered across the rolling countryside in small, tightly knotted suburban enclaves surrounded by stony fields cultivated by hillbilly truck-farmers. Southdale, a famous shopping mall in Edina, was fifteen minutes away by freeway that rose, like the headwaters of a mighty concrete river, from raw, oozing construction sites on the edge of the suburbs. We bought our groceries in Hopkins. Lake Minnetonka was to the north, its shoreline curiously ornate, mansions alternating with plantations of trailer houses and shacks beside the murky, green water, an ancient roller-coaster like a stack of kindling for some colossal bonfire quivering over a shallow, algae-draped bay. But to the east, there was all the specious glamor of the 494 strip, the Twin Cities’ “mini-Las Vegas” to use Zellar’s phrase and that was where the action was.

For me, I suppose, the 494 corridor will always linger as it was in 1972, the year I graduated from High School. That Fall, I would be 18 and could vote in the national election. I was a member of the local Republican party and, during the summer of my senior year, I canvassed the cul-de-sacs, hiking door-to-door collecting money for Richard Nixon. For some reason, I was a youth liaison to a local southwest-suburban Kiwanis club that met every Tuesday in a dank, subterranean banqueting hall, buried beneath the Radisson South. The men in the club were local lawyers and realtors, big men with square faces polished to a red sheen by their morning shave, with oblong heavy bodies and crumpled suits that smelled of nicotine, and we sat at round tables and sang songs like “Home on the Range” and the Gopher rouser and the Kiwanis congratulated me effusively on my plans to attend the University of Minnesota, debating among themselves prospects for the football season. The edges of the banquet room never seemed completely clean to me – it seemed that morsels of fallen food were lurking somewhere in the carpet -- and, although the big hotel tower overhead was brand-new, it had been built quickly, and negligently, the way the Soviets supposedly erected things, with cracked and mismatching pylons of prestressed concrete.

The Radisson South represented the City’s farthest outpost, a pale skyscraper looming over the freeway interchange between Normandale and 494. Dwarfed by the big slab of the hotel, there was a tiny ma-and-pa motor-court, at the edge of the parking lot, a place killed by the Radisson, and posthumously converted to a liquor store with a shop called Alaskan Fur operating from the motel’s former lobby. I suppose that the lawyers and realtors bought their mistresses mink stoles and muffs at Alaskan Fur and fortified their courage for their afternoon sexual trysts with bottles of booze that they smuggled across the parking lot and through the hotel lobby to their rooms. Across Normandale, also known as Highway 100, there was a Bridgeman’s ice-cream parlor, in those days a famous enterprise in Minnesota, and the orange roofs of a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, a color like a warning about a road-hazard to the cars roaring by on the freeway. A deep moat separated the Howard Johnson’s motel from the pygmy castle of a medieval-themed restaurant, stone turrets ranged along the nondescript frontage road behind the dike of the freeway levered up to pass over Highway 100. Tacked precariously to a shaggy hill beyond the freeway was a big J-shaped ski-jump, a place that no one knew how to reach and that, accordingly, was never used by anyone, even though it hovered nearby as a constant threat and admonition – this is adventure, the ski-jump seemed to proclaim, look upon me, mount my inaccessible and lofty heights and die.

Huge restaurants occupied terraces to the south of 494, the route to the gleaming utopia of the airport. The restaurants were too expensive for most people in Eden Prairie and we never visited them. Sometimes, we heard that boys took their dates to these restaurants on the eve of Senior Prom and, perhaps, once a year, someone would get to dine in one of those places on the special occasion of a fifieth birthday or retirement party. We thought that the restaurants were patronized by high-rollers from downtown, the kind of people who had season tickets to the Guthrie Theater or the Vikings, folks who could afford to eat at the Waikiki Room at the Hotel Nicollet or Charle’s CafĂ© Exceptional or, even, the Blue Horse in St. Paul. Perhaps, businessmen traveling on lavish expense accounts also took their customers to those places. The restaurants were windowless bunkers made from concrete block, one-story elongated sheds decorated with Tudor timbers representing Merry Olde England or nautically-themed complete with stubby cornice-lighthouses and tiny round portals on the doors. The waitresses wore costumes, pretending to be Dutch maidens or sailor’s whores or, in the Elizabethan-themed chop houses, lusty wenches. Near the intersection with I-35, there was an immense Chinese restaurant guarded by a forty-foot long fiber-glass dragon, a beast equipped with the face of a scowling Pekinese that spouted flames in orange gouts over the icy parking lot. Straight as an arrow, the freeway passed France Avenue where there was a towering outdoor movie theater, the huge screen encased in an elaborate frame like the fragment of a vast, broken wall at Babylon or Ninevah. Huddled under the big screen was a Perkin’s Cake and Steak place that seemed curiously beleagured – it had some sort of weird turret turned suspiciously toward the screen looming overhead dancing with monstrous figures of cowboys or spacemen. Southdale was beyond, moored among raspberry fields, a brick ziggurat flanked by glass towers.

Farther along the freeway, the traveler passed Southtown. There was a big movie palace in that Mall, it’s lobby plush with red velvet, toilets styled futuristically like something from The Jetson’s and strange terraces and plateaus buried in wall-to-wall carpet where sophisticated people could be imagined lounging, on display like precious objects in a museum, except that there were no sophisticates ever at that theater, only crowds of children, harried mothers, belligerent teenagers with long stringy hair. Then, the freeway skirted the sports complex, the big open-air stadium like a broken shell upturned among huge, barren steppes of parking lots, the hockey arena bluish white as a chunk of glacier calved from the rivers of ice that had once gouged down the hills and bluffs of Bloomington and made the place all one level. The Thunderbird Lodge was slung along the edge of the highway, an exotic mirage against the playa of parking lots either baking in the sun or dotted with buttes of jagged snow and ice scraped off the acres of winter-time asphalt. The carpets in the Thunderbird were patterned like Navajo rugs, similar to the sinister decor in the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining and there were ersatz Hopi sand paintings and headdresses and glass cases full of sulking, desecrated Kachina dolls. Then, the freeway turned north the river-bluff where planes were angling down out of the stormy skies, hanging big and bulbous over the lanes of moving traffic, descending on a flight-path marked by corridors of ruby-red lights. In those days, the freeways were much greater than the traffic on them, empty and impossibly swift and you changed lanes as if you were dancing on a ballroom floor and the road catapulted you irresistably toward the airport – it was all one breathless rush of motion and neon, a gaudy spectacle that lifted the heart into the sky where the jets were ceaselessly rising and falling.

This is what I remember now. And, something else, as well: a night in the spring of 1972, before I graduated from High School when my picture was taken for a local newspaper. For reasons that are now unclear to me, an American Legion Post located in Hopkins bestowed an award on me – something like Young Citizen of the Year. I wasn’t alone. I think there were half-dozen other senior boys, students from other west suburban high schools receiving this honor.

The award ceremony took place in the airless, lightless core of the Legion Post, a dimly lit bunker designed, it seemed, to withstand heavy bombing with its fortified front door opening onto Main Street, the back exit swinging out into a tiny cheerless parking lot edged by garbage bins. The place was mainly an arena for heroic drinking – the old soldiers had faces like swollen over-ripe fruit. We genuflected before a flag, recited the pledge of allegiance, and after a dinner of chicken on rice pilaf amidst a scattering of spring vegetables, the Young Citizen medallions were distributed. I know I stood briefly at the podium and, even, spoke a few words, but I have no idea what I said.

The room smelled of spilt beer and mildew and the carpet underfoot felt slick with grease. Columns of smoke rose from the tables where the old soldiers had made their bivouac. Unseen women laughed loudly in the adjacent bar and I suppose a TV set in that tavern intoned sotto voce sports statistics and advertising.. Clutching my medallion and certificate, I stood in the corner of the hall on a small riser, where polka bands played at weekend dances. The Legion commander approached and shook my hand. The smoky air jerked bright white with flashbulbs illumining the scene. Irwin Norling, the photographer posthumously published in Brad Zellar’s book was undoubtedly in the room, snapping my picture.

One of the newspaper photographers wanted a group shot. The 1972 recipients of the Young Citizen of the Year award crowded together on the band riser. Grinning, the Post Commander stood among us. We were all wearing ill-fitting suits and ties, dressed as if for a funeral. Several of the young men were talking to one another. “It’s really an honor,” one of the boys said. “Yes,” the other boy replied, “probably the greatest night of my whole life.” “Mine too,” another boy said. The Commander corrected them: “What about the night of your wedding?” he asked. “Well, I’m sure that will be memorable too,” a Young Citizen said. I agreed with that sentiment.

I wonder what has become of the medal and the award certificate inscribed on parchment paper suitable for framing.

The Spring evening was already stretching itself out, lissome, moist and languid against the dark alleyway and the gloomy back-doors to the Main Street businesses. The remnants of sunset, watery pale green suffused with derelict orangish-yellow light, decorated the western sky. I remember that the parking lot behind the Legion Post was strangely soft underfoot, the spaces between cars surfaced with thousands of asphalt shingles all crushed into a pillowy, yielding carpet.

I don’t think they make parking lots that way anymore.

A few hours before I heard Brad Zellar speak about his recent projects, I sat in the sunlight at the Artworks festival listening to J Keyser and his band. J Keyser was once my brother-in-law, although the marriage which made us “in-laws” ended half a lifetime ago. Keyser played acoustic guitar into a microphone and sang, accompanied by three other musicians. The band stood under the hot aluminum awning of the Austin Park and Rec stage, a platform mounted on the chassis of semi-trailer. Behind them, the Power Plant rose in great piers of brick, a palisade of corrugated steel walls atop the masonry that soared upward toward the pillar of the great smoke-stack. A skirt of fabric the color of red velvet underlined the stage and the warm, humid wind stirred there, making the bunting ripple and writhe like a living thing.

A third of a century ago, I walked into a bar kitty-corner to the Courthouse in Austin and saw J Keyser standing on a stage made from plywood painted black and shoved against the corner of the saloon. Keyser was playing guitar and singing alongside a young woman who held a fiddle against her hip, leaning toward a microphone and harmonizing with him. For some reason, Keyser looked familiar to me – in his black Stetson hat, he seemed to have come from a dream that I couldn’t quite recall. In those days, public radio didn’t reach Austin. People in town had never heard of Garrison Keillor or the Prairie Home Companion show. But, when the musicians took a break in the saloon, I approached the stage and shook hands with my future brother-in-law. I said: “Your band sounds a lot like the music that you hear on Garrison Keillor’s radio show.” Keyser thanked me. I told him that I admired his musical work. He was gracious and we talked for awhile. Keyser told me that he was studying Plato with some friends and invited me to his home for these discussions. Later, I married the sister of his girlfriend. All of this was a long, long time ago.

At the Artworks festival, Keyser turned toward the middle-aged woman playing fiddle at his side. He leaned into the microphone to sing harmony with her and she tapped her foot, holding the violin against her hip. In that instant, a third of a century materialized like an apparition, a presence that briefly held the stage, somehow both real and unreal. Keyser said: “It’s been thirty years.” He nodded, his black Stetson hat dipping toward the woman. “Thirty years but it passed like nothing at all.”

Flanking Keyser was a man who had played electric guitar in his bands in the early eighties, Mark C–. Mark looked like a character actor from an old-time Western – haggard and gaunt from too much range-riding, his hair gone white. Mark’s wife, Paulette stood at the other end of the stage, clutching a mandolin to her belly but not playing. She had a spiral notebook with photocopies of lyrics folded into its pages and she sometimes rummaged among those pages. Strangely, Paulette had not aged at all – she was slender and her pale kewpie-doll, Betty Boop-shaped face was unlined. Mark C– had found religion and he kept shouting: “Praise Jesus!” and, sometimes, Paulette lifted her right hand into the air, holding it up like a white flag. Perhaps, this gesture meant that she was praying.

The band played some old gospel tunes and, then, a couple songs by J Keyser.

Just before the end of the set, Paulette took a tambourine from atop a speaker and stuck it against her thigh and the woman with the fiddle was playing and J Keyser was singing and Mark C– had lifted his ruined, handsome face up to shine in the sun. The spiral notebook slipped from Paulette’s hand and the lyrics fluttered from within its pages and, suddenly, a gust of hot wind caught the white sheets of paper, whirling them around and around like a flock of doves. The papers swooped down and, then, were flung upward in a chimney of hot air, lyrics spouting up above the stage and, then, sailing far away over the parking lot.

It was beautiful and heartbreaking and all over in an instant.

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