Sunday, February 22, 2015

Diary: An Excursion



Visiting hours at the hospital where my son is confined are from 6:00 to 7:00 pm. When I come to see him, I park my car in a cold, icy lot that is almost completely empty, a desolate concrete steppe illumined by overhead lamps that show shapes and the outlines of things but which denude objects of their colors. There is no attendant at the front door to the hospital although a woman sits at round desk near the entry. She nods to me. There is a woman’s magazine on a small round table and bottle of hand-sanitizer. My route through the hospital leads me past the lounge with its sepulchral black grand piano, the glass case showing photographs of the doctors and health-care providers, at least half of them of Indian origin, and the cafeteria with its sour institutional smell and nurses with long, straight hair unraveled over meal-time sitting in cubicles over their food and cell-phones.

You have to ring a buzzer and show your profile to a lens in a glass blister on the wall to be buzzed into the unit where my son is confined. Between two locked doors, there are lockers where the visitor deposits his coat and wallet and the pens and pencils from his breast-pocket and his car-keys. Exactly what you are supposed to put in the lockers is unclear to me and the rules and protocol for gaining admission to the Ward are uncertain, never actually expressed, and, so, I don’t know what can be legitimately brought into the closed unit and what might constitute contraband. It doesn’t matter – everything that I bring for my son, he rejects and its ends up in storage or donated to the other patients.

In the Ward, there is a central nursing station and two corridors separated by another locked door, although this is typically propped open when I come to visit. The rooms and hallways are entirely featureless. The windows look out over more parking lot, as cold and desolate as the place that I traversed to enter the hospital, the target on the asphalt where the Mayo One emergency helicopter lands, and the slaughterhouse with its turrets of steam and vapor standing in the floodplain opposite the frozen mill-pond. There is a big canister of decaffeinated coffee in a small room with cafeteria tables and an easel bearing a three-foot tall flip-pad on which someone has written "Have a Wonderful Day!" in elaborate calligraphic letters.

There are no pictures on the wall in the room where my son is lying in his bed. There are no books on the little table beside his bed, merely two pair of ear-plugs made of soft yellow and red rubber. My son is wearing socks and green pajamas. He looks very thin and his wrists are bony. He has been in this place for sixty days and there is no end in sight to his confinement. During that sixty days, he has exercised by doing push-ups in his room and run on a slightly inclined treadmill. There are a few small weights, but he has not lifted them. He has not felt the sun on his face or the breeze blowing across the frozen fields for two months.

What has happened to my son is indecent, a terrible travesty that seems a kind of grotesque caricature of hospitalization. The nurses are scrupulously indifferent. No one cares. Even my son has ceased to care. Time is measured by dinner menus or variation in the crafts offered for the diversion of the patients –it doesn’t matter whether it is a Monday or a Wednesday or a Sunday. No one gets better. No one improves. Nothing is accomplished. Time passes and nothing is accomplished.



My wife is a loyal person. So long as her son is confined to the hospital, she contrives her days and nights to be a joyless and solitary as possible. She believes that if she suffers sufficiently somehow her son will be saved.

I am far less loyal and more devoted to my own pleasures. An opportunity arose for me to attend a seminar in Minneapolis and so I signed up for the program and decided to travel to the big city on the afternoon preceding the continuing legal education. It was my plan to see a movie, enjoy a nice meal, and, even, have a few drinks. I had an image of myself with a German book that I am reading, the volume Dezember by Alexander Kluge illustrated with photographs of a snowy forest by Gerhard Richter. I thought that I would find a cozy bar somewhere, sit at a booth by myself, and sip a mixed drink while reading my book, while marking its margins, while looking up unfamiliar words in my Cassel’s dictionary. In that way, I would occupy a solitary hour before finding my way to my motel room where I might watch an hour of TV or read a book revew that I had brought with me in my briefcase. I would be alone and happy and well-fed and the drinks would fill me with a pleasant satisfaction without really making me drunk and, on the car radio, there would be something wonderful to hear. I would rest comfortably throughout the night, wearing my warm sweat-pants that I had carefully packed, and all would be well.



I drove to Owatonna on the freeway after departing my office in flurry of last-minute emails and phone calls. I had been too busy to eat lunch and so I stopped at the Bridge Street exit to get a sandwich at Burger King. The hamburger, devoured as I drove, was excellent – it had the faint smoky taste that characterizes Burger King hamburger patties, a flavor unique to that franchise. The highway was straight and fast and no one was driving at a speed less that 85 miles an hour. I zoomed past the jet planes impaled like a bouquet of flowers on steel towers at the Owatonna airport, passed the earthmovers and bulldozers on their pedestals at Richie Brothers, and, then, shot through the big valleys by the Northfield exit where the swamps are gouged with long drainage ditches that form arrows and ciphers in the wetlands and the little hillocks are noble with stands of old trees.

In the city, I found myself in the wrong lane and ended up exiting Crosstown 62 on Penn Avenue. I drove through the residential neighborhoods to 50th and, then, turned west. I had a vague memory of walking in this neighborhood once, bereft and solitary, mourning a lost love, I think, a half-day hike whose beginning I couldn’t recall and whose end was similarly lost to my memory. I was somewhere south of Lake Harriet, I thought, and I recalled traversing these blocks as well in the middle of the night in the winter-time, bound for a home that seemed impossibly distant. Could this have even happened? A memory of trudging over snow and ice for many long miles afflicted me, but I couldn’t exactly recall the circumstances of that walk.

A few blocks to the west of France and 50th, I looked down side-streets that also seemed familiar to me. Thirty-three years ago, I had a girlfriend who had left Austin to live in Minneapolis. She was an LPN and had moved to the city to be with one of my buddies who had stolen her away from me. My buddy abandoned her and, after this happened, she called and wanted me to see her. I was told to meet her in the vicinity of the Edina Theater where she was staying at a girlfriend’s house. This friend, a young woman, was also a nurse who worked at the nursing home where my girlfriend was employed. The young woman was staying at her boyfriend’s house that evening and so we had her apartment to ourselves. We slept in her bed. On the wall above the fragrant-smelling bed, there were black and white pictures of a little boy with a huge white skull, an enormous head that seemed to crush his tiny face beneath it’s weight. My girlfriend told me that the pictures showed her friend’s brother who had suffered from hydrocephalus and died a dozen years earlier.

I parked my car in the ramp behind the Byerly’s at 50th and France and walked down the alley between the buildings to the front of the Edina Theater. The alley had been strewn with salt that had a turquoise and aquamarine tint, just a trace of color on the grey-brown concrete. In the theater, I saw the kind of people for whom I have contempt – well-dressed grandmotherly ladies discussing their plane tickets for flights to southern California and Florida on the morrow, delicate gay intellectuals retired from teaching positions and wearing berets over their pink and neatly groomed faces, lonely old men who had developed a cinema habit forty years ago when they were in college and still attended the movies twice or three times a week. I bought my ticket, used the toilet, and, of course, I am not so blind as to imagine that I was different in any significant way from these other men and women who comprised the audience for the European art film that I attended, Two Days, One Night directed by the Dardennes brothers.

Our pleasures are as habitual as our miseries.



After the movie, I went outside. It was dark and cold and I had a moment of panic, not finding my car where I expected it to be. The wind was chilly and it invaded the cold, barren concrete ledges of the parking ramp and, for a moment, I felt very discouraged, as if, in fact, I was hiking in the middle of the night, moving along the empty streets, like a ghost, and passing the houses all completely dark and locked against me and not knowing where I was going. But, then, I found the car and made its taillights wink with my key and, because it was only 6:20 pm, I thought that the traffic on the freeways would probably be difficult and so I decided to drive to nearby bookstore and kill some time there, rummaging among the second-hand volumes.

I drove west to 100 and, then, took the highway north to Excelsior, the intersection where the old Anchor Inn had once been located, one of my father’s favorite places because of its 50 foot salad bar. The Anchor Inn is gone now but there is an ancient strip mall along the south side of Excelsior and this is the location of Half-Price Books, a store that I like to browse. I went into the bookstore and first checked the art books to see if there was anything interesting in that selection. A man came into the niche where I was perusing the picture books and he was breathing hard, a sort of faint gurgle in his thorax, and this was aesthetically unpleasing to me, not at all appropriate to the book about Tiepolo that I held in order to turn the colorful pages, and so I withdrew from that particular dead-end aisle and went to look at the archaeology books where I found a wonderful volume about the Mayan concept of the ocean and the waters of the world, another dead end aisle to which the man with bronchial ailment pursued me. I carried the Mayan book away under my arm, checking next the philosophy section, then, the poetry books and finally memoirs and essays, the man with the rachitic breathing always only a few steps behind me, before paying $13.37 for the catalogue of the Mayan archaeological exhibition.

I dreaded the cold outside but it was bearable, I suppose, and this time I found my car without difficulty. The weather was supposed to moderate, but I had detected no relaxation in the iron grip of the cold on the sky and earth. I must be getting older and querulous because I was afraid of the fast traffic on 394 and skeptical that I would be able to navigate it safely, but the roads were not crowded and I had no difficulty making the corner by the Walker Art Center and shooting through the Lowry Tunnel to take I-94 over the frozen river to the Huron exit on the East Bank of the University of Minnesota. I had reserved a room for the night at the Days Inn on University Avenue, a motel mostly used by poor folks bringing their children to the U of M hospitals. Sometimes, I saw athletes in the motel, huge black men who had the ease and grace of All-Conference football or basketball players, but the sick and the poor seemed to predominate in that place. The lobby of the motel, smoke-free for more than five years, still stinks of cigarettes – or, perhaps, there was a once a fire in that place and the stain of the burning in fabrics and air has never wholly departed.


To the desk clerk, I was "Todd." At first, I thought he was calling me "John" and that, because he was Chinese, his pronunciation was idiosyncratic and, therefore, had turned me from "John" into "Todd". But, increasingly, as we spoke, I perceived that the clerk’s English was every bit as good as mine and that, for some reason, he thought that I was "Todd" and persisted in calling me by that name. Finally, he asked for some identification and I showed my driver’s license to him and he said: "So you are not Todd?" using an accusatory tone of voice as if I had misled him. "No, I am John," I said. He told me that he had no reservation for me and that, perhaps, I would be turned away from the motel. I protested that I had made a room reservation that morning and he looked again and, then, smiled and said: "Oh, here it is. Of course, you are not Todd, you are John." "I am John," I assured him. He squinted at me skeptically. "What will happen to poor Todd?" I asked. "Oh, he’s not expected here until March, mid-March," the clerk told me. He handed me an orange band of paper to put on the dashboard of my car so that it would not be towed from the hotel parking lot. I carried my duffel bag and a valise with some books, including now the Mayan volume and Dezember by Kluge with its icily abstract photographs by Gerhard Richter, to the elevator. It took an immensely long time for the elevator to arrive and it seemed to fall down the elevator shaft clanking mournfully like Marley’s ghost. I took the elevator, the little box also stinking of cigarettes, to the third floor, and the floor underneath me trembled and I heard the chains rattling as the elevator in which I stood was grappled upward, hoisted as if from the bottom of the sea.

After putting my things in my room, I went to the elevator and tried to summon it with the down button but nothing happened. A woman emerged at the end of the hall and told me that the elevator was broken and so I hurried down a cold stairwell, went outside to put the orange band on my dashboard, and, then, hurried to the backdoor of the motel. I was not wearing my winter coat since I had intended to be outside for only a few moments. But the back door of the hotel required a room key to open and admit me into the rear of the lobby and, although I was certain that I had brought my key-card with me, I couldn’t locate it and the wind was blowing, hissing across the midden-heaps of snow and ice scraped off the roads and parking lots and piled behind the motel and, to the north, the big sierra of grain elevators was split here and there, passes between the towering columnar silos through which the gale poured with an endless sullen fury and I felt my fingers becoming numb and the cold settling into my torso and groin. I turned around and saw that a van full of heavy Ojibway Indians had pulled next to my car. The Ojibway were coming from their vehicle, shoving a sick girl, the only slender person among them, in a wheel chair over the ice plated on the parking lot, and they were laughing with one another, carrying paper bags and coolers – I saw the license plate of the Leech Lake Band on the van and surmised that the Indians had come from Bemidji and environs because the little girl was ill and scheduled for treatment at the U of M children’s hospital, and the tribe, approached six or seven of them, and still I couldn’t get the door open, but no worries, one of the fat Indians, a big man with a cheerful moon-face, was holding his key-card in front of him and, when I stepped aside, he opened the door and the Indians entered and I followed them, wondering: "How are they going to get the sick girl upstairs?" But, perhaps, they were on the ground floor because as I passed by the desk clerk I didn’t hear any discussion about this problem, the Indians gathered together in a tight group to whisper about something as I walked through the lobby and out the front door to the Chinese restaurant located at the other end of the parking lot.



For some reason, the Chinese restaurant was crowded and, when I asked for a table for one, the host looked at me skeptically, but, then, said: "Yes, yes, I have just had a table will be five minutes." I went to the bar and stood for awhile, ignored by the people there, until, at last, a Chinese girl noticed me, and reluctantly, it seemed, asked what I wanted. "Can I have a martini?" I said. "I don’t know how to make a martini," the girl replied. "There are many types anyway." "I know," I said. The girl said that if I would wait she would find someone who knew how to make a martini. A college kid came and asked me what I wanted in the martini and I said that it should be made with vodka and he then asked what kind of vodka and I said it doesn’t matter to me, not at all. "Okay," the kid said and, at that moment, a waiter came and tapped my wrist and said that my table was ready for me.

Before my son became ill, I sometimes had supper with him in this Chinese restaurant and the food was reliably good and, surprisingly, authentic, I thought – almost all of the other customers were Chinese it seemed. Once, I had ordered a dish made from pork belly and it was the most rich and wonderful thing that I have ever eaten, meat something like uncooked bacon, slippery and sweet served in a mild chili sauce. I told my son that there had to be a consequence of eating something so excellent and, indeed, for several days after consuming that meal my bowels were radically unsettled. The martini was brought to the table and it was yellowish with a mummified olive as hard as a stone sunk in the center of the glass. The vodka was warm and went to a place immediately behind my eyeballs where it set to work tightening certain screw mechanisms. Just the smell of the warm vodka made me feel nauseated. But I’m diligent and have been taught to eat what I order and so I swallowed the drink although it didn’t seem to settle right in my stomach.

I ordered a pork hock in sweet chili sauce. The pig’s foot came in huge basin-like bowl and was swimming in a red sauce the consistency of salsa. The pig’s knuckles had fallen from the bone and were floating in the soup-like sauce in a knot of white cartilage. The meat on the hock was superb, faintly flavored with ammonia and pig manure, and the pig’s foot was draped in pale strips of cream-colored fat. It was almost too rich to eat, the sort of meal over which you swoon and hallucinate. I swallowed great gobbets of creamy fat dowsed in the chili sauce and expected that there would be awful consequences from devouring something of this sort. After I had dissected the pork hock, I poured the remaining chili sauce over my sticky rice and ate that as well.

When the young waiter delivered my check to the table, he said: "Happy New Year!" Only then, I realized that it was the Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, a celebration that explained the crowds of happy people in the restaurant and the fact that now, at nine-o’clock, more Chinese students were coming through the door, crowds of them in their heavy winter coats, waiting in line for tables, or bellied up to the bar where they were drinking various kinds of Chinese beer. Outside, it was terribly cold and I began to shiver and overhead, I saw the moon as a sliver in the sky abiding above a single brilliantly lit planet, a wanderer in the sky holding up a torch almost as bright as the fragment of moon showing over the campus and the big hulking buildings in the dark.



I climbed the stairwell to my hotel room and put on my sweat pants and tried to read. But I was terribly tired, so tired that it seemed as if I had been betrayed by my blood, that the blood circulating in my body was not properly oxygenated and, therefore, not restorative and so my mind refused to translate the German words on the page and I felt terribly depressed and lonely. I threw myself in bed but couldn’t sleep. Finally, I drifted off, but, then, was afflicted by cheerless dreams – I was young and a girl that I loved had canceled our relationship and I was walking somewhere, in transit from a place that I didn’t recall having left to another place, an address where likely I would not be welcome, and it was the middle of the night and I knew that I had to cross an entire city, miles and miles of sleeping suburbs and bridges over freeways where even the traffic had gone away to rest for a few hours and that I would still be marching along this path until it was dawn and beyond dawn and, then, I was walking on some railroad tracks along a river, a big river that was blue between blue bluffs, and I came to a tall structure that had once been a mill, a grist mill of some sort and I found that the mill was between me and the route that I had take to my destination and so it was necessary to find hand-holds and toe-holds in the mill’s walls so that I could scale that structure and continue on my way. Then, I woke up and found that my legs, particularly, the calves of both legs, were sore, exhausted, stiff as if, in fact I had spent every moment, asleep walking at high speed over rough and uncertain terrain.



I felt as if I were hungover. At the seminar, I was queasy and unsteady on my feet. Snow had fallen and the streets in the city were clogged and it took me 30 minutes to travel four blocks after I crossed the 3rd Street bridge from the East Bank of the river. The seminar was dull and I wished that I could go somewhere and lie down for a few hours. I put a bagel in my pocket and picked it apart as the speakers discussed latest trends in the law associated with Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist claims. Two cases in which I was involved recently were the subject of much discussion and the seminar speakers mischaracterized those decisions and pronounced falsely upon them and, then, when one of the presenters asked if any of us had any knowledge or experience with the issues presented by those cases, celebrated motion proceedings that I had, in fact, argued, and that were now under appeal to the State Supreme Court, I didn’t raise my hand because it seemed futile to discuss what I knew and understood with others whose interest in the issue was only academic and, therefore, fraudulent in some respect. At noon, I walked in the skyway to the Wells Fargo Bank Building and stood in the lobby, a place that is like a vast sandstone mausoleum, all fluted, featureless walls rising over a crypt-like interior. In glass cases, like reliquiaries embedded in the walls, there were artifacts of modernism – sleek typewriters with Bauhaus imprimatur, a toaster that could heat four pieces of bread, elegant-looking phones and clocks and radios. I went into an Arby’s to have a sandwich but the crowd was too great, people loudly shouting across the room, and my head hurt and the three ounces of vodka from the previous night still seemed to be tightening screw mechanisms in the chambers behind my eyeballs, little cells closing like the torture room in "The Pit and Pendulum" except these cells were somehow part of my sinuses. I went to a Chinese place called the Bamboo Hut and ate a plate of chicken thighs cooked in sweet chili sauce and my bowels were wet and tremulous.



I left the seminar after a speech by an accident reconstructionist named Ken Drevnick. I know Mr. Drevnick, a policeman retired from 20 years service with the State Highway Patrol. Once I met with him in Woodbury and bought some opinions from him and I respected Drevnick as a man of integrity and wisdom. He spoke to me like a former soldier – I supposed he had been in the Marine Corps – and he had tattoos in his biceps.

I went into the lobby of the CLE center as Drevnick was answering questions in the auditorium. I looked at my cell-phone to see what had been happening at my law office during the period of my absence. Drevnick came out of the seminar and his wife, who had come to see him speak, went into the ladies’ room, and the expert witness, looking a bit uncomfortable in his suit and tie, gazed over in my direction. Our eyes met and so I knew that I had to go to see him and shake his hand. I told Mr. Drevnick that he had done a wonderful job with his presentation, something that I meant sincerely, and he asked me how things were going in Austin. This is the question that I always encounter when I travel. "Okay," I said. "Okay, things are going okay."


On the road home, the landscape was like an engraving made by a steel-tipped burin. All of the color and light had drained from the world.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Hometown: The Hell Project


In a room adjacent to a Mexican restaurant, 15 Lutherans have gathered to disprove the existence of Hell. They sit at three round tables that have been shoved together to create a triangle of intersecting formica tables. The triangle made from round tables, perhaps, has some significance; maybe this form is a cabbalistic emblem, although I am unable to tell you what it means.

The Mexican restaurant is called 1910 after the year that the Mexican civil war began and it is a dark space decorated with mural-sized pictures of armored trains inching across trestle bridges, wild horsemen in clouds of dust wearing sombreros, somber-looking child-soldiers with bandoliers strapped across their skinny chests, and barricades guarded by armed campesinos, peasant men and women with carbines and machetes. The photographs have a sobering effect. It’s hard to get drunk on margaritas and tequila in this gloomy tavern decorated with images of an ancient war.

A waiter comes from within the tavern and takes drink orders from the Lutherans. They favor Dos Equis and Corona. Sometimes, I order a shot of tequila – alcohol makes it easier to study Hell with the attention that it deserves. Later, the same waiter will come and take food orders – most of the Lutherans will have fish tacos served with a Caribbean-style coleslaw. The Lutherans meet from 6:00 to 7:30 pm. and, after their discussion, they will adjourn to the dim tavern, lit mostly it seems by a TV broadcasting a soccer game played by brightly uniformed men on an emerald green field. In the tavern, the Lutherans will form an orderly queue to pay their food and bar bills before departing into the cold and windy night.

1910 is located in a corner of the old Terp Ballroom, so-named because of the Greek muse of dance. Terpsichore. The Terp Ballroom is a sprawling, cavernous building, its roof blistered up to form a shallow dome above the place where the big bands once played and the crowds of meatpackers danced. It is too close to the river, occupying a low terrace below the dam that leaks the water from the big shallow lagoon constructed to provide for the power plant and the slaughterhouse. Periodically, the river floods and muddy water inundates the parking lots and is wicked-up into the Terp Ballroom. Accordingly, the stagnant air in the old structure is stained with the mildew of a dozen floods, a dense scent of decay and mold that hangs in the air above the three circular tables pushed together and the Lutherans around them.

It is dark in the place where the Hell Project is underway, even darker than in the gloomy bar with the war murals. In sconces along the walls, there are dim bulbs shaped vaguely like pale, yellowish flames and the Lutherans are meeting in a corridor between the tavern’s kitchen and the grand ballroom, a black vaulted space set up this time of year – it is February – for in-door soccer leagues that play on the weekends under the high ceiling and the old bandstand on the stage overlooking the elaborately contrived wooden floor, polished blonde staves of wood inlaid to create a mirror-smooth surface. Nets surround the floor and the goals are set up at opposite ends of the big room, folding tables and chairs pushed against the concrete walls decorated with tile and the remnants of old mirrors.

Not only is it dark where the Lutherans are debating Hell. It is also cold. The corridor leads to the long-abandoned and cell-like ticket-booth between two doors that open onto the street – the Salvation Army is across the road and the Senior Citizen Center. The ballroom is too large to be thoroughly heated in this weather of ice and snow and so the Lutherans peer through the gloom at their Bibles and the textbook about Hell that they are reading and they shiver in their heavy winter coats and when the cold beer arrives they taste it with a grimace: it is pouring cold into cold.


As I walked my dog, I came upon a neon-green flyer stapled to a utility pole at the intersection of 8th Street and 9th Avenue, SE. The flyer was an offer to reward the person who returned a lost cat to its owner. The cat was shown on the flyer, a handsome animal with an intelligent, thoughtful look, a tabby with lustrous fur patterned white and fifty shades of grey. Cats are photogenic. It is much easier to take a good picture of a cat than it is to photograph a dog. There are two reasons for this: first, cats are wild animals, complete in themselves, and, only, incidentally pets – a cat is a monad, as sharp and precise as a billiard ball, a sly, malicious hunter and an agent in its world. By contrast, dogs are always somewhat half-formed and incomplete – they await the presence of their master to become fully animate. Accordingly, photographs of dogs often reveal them as inchoate, lumpy, unformed creatures – even the great Rin-Tin-Tin in his silent films sometimes threatens to decay into a ghostly, shapeless shadow. Second, cats embody the souls of the human dead. By some obscure process, a cat represents a transmogrified human being. Therefore, the savage genius that stares out from a cat’s eyes is always human to some extent.

The lost cat was named – you can guess it! – "Bandit." He is male and was last seen on the 1300 block of 8th Street SE. If you find "Bandit" and restore him to his home, you will receive a monetary reward – at least this is what the flyer assured me.

Of course, it is illegal to staple flyers to public utility poles. I am the City Attorney and so, perhaps, I should report this infraction to the police. But... who know? Maybe if the flyer is kept in place for a few more days, Bandit will be restored to his owners. My dog sniffed the base of the pole, apparently used as a pissoir by local pooches. I gazed up and down the street but there was no sign of Bandit.



After the big bands became extinct, the Terp ballroom was closed. For a long time, it was vacant, moldering on the edge of the river. Sometimes, the place was opened briefly for special events and its faded glamor, the beautiful floor and the once-elegant trappings of the ballroom, invested activities undertaken there with a faintly sinister, decadent allure. About thirty years ago, the Austin chapter of Golden Gloves conducted a tournament in the Terp and the public was invited. I attended with my friend, the plumber and scholar Jimmy M— and a woman who lived as a tenant in his farmhouse, Jane S–, also known as "Rocket."

The boxing matches were scheduled for a Sunday afternoon and I was skeptical about the exhibition. Why would I want to see teenage amateur fighters punch at one another? But to my surprise, the big ballroom was packed and drinks were being sold, priced at club prices – that is a a whiskey shot to mix with coke or seven-up for $1.25 or tap beer at 75 cents for a 16 ounce cup, the charges one might pay at a private club like the Elks or the Moose Lodge. Jimmy M— knew the drill -- his father had been a prize-fighter among other things – and he brought with him a paper bag with liter bottles of mix. Girls showing lots of cleavage were selling cheap cigars and the ballroom was clouded with noisome blue and purplish smoke that rose to form a kind of tabernacle above the boxing ring in the middle of the hall. No one was paying any attention to how much people drank; after all, most of the cops in the town were in the hall staggering drunk themselves as well as the mayor and half the city council members.

The Golden Gloves fighters were scrawny little kids from the East Side of town, the part of the city where the meatpacking rank-and-file lived in the shadow of the slaughterhouse, and they were valiant, if incompetent, fighters. None of the child fighters had any idea as to how to mount a defense and so they simply flailed away at each other’s faces, landing punch after punch until the ring was awash in blood. The blows to nose and eyes maddened the amateur fighters and they swung their fists in rage at one another and slipped and skidded in the blood underfoot. Other little kids with black eyes and split lips and nose leaking mucousy blood sat sprawled under the ring, showered periodically with more blood from the fighters on display, and the boys awaiting their turn, the bantam gladiators, stood along the wall, where once girls had lounged decorously waiting to be asked to dance, shadowboxing and hopping up and down nervously. The average age of the fighters was about 13, although some of the boys were as old as 15 and others as young as nine. It was the most savage and degrading spectacle that I have ever witnessed and as fascinating as a fatal car wreck on the state highway, something that once seen can not be unseen, a dismal festival of blind, inept violence and drunkenness.

We were loaded. Jane S– , who was a part-time prostitute, kept demanding more whisky, a drink that she called "Rocket Fuel." Everyone was shouting and bellowing at the baby fighters and the kids stumbled back and forth walloping one another in the eyes and chins and, between bouts, people came out with mops to wipe the gore away. The crowd’s blood lust was aroused. After the show, I saw people fighting in the parking lot, men and women lunging at one another, some combatants knocked-out and lying in the gutter, the chrome on cars crunching as vehicles smashed into one another triggering more fisticuffs in the icy parking lot. At the bridge up river, some drunks were teetering perilously on the guardrails, balanced above the river where bluish and lethal ice floes were floating. Across the river on the east side, in the alleyways around the old Catholic church, gangs were squared-off against one another and you could hear people hooting and hollering in the darkness, mirthless cries that were supposed to sound like laughter but that were instead simply taunts and provocations. Broken glass was everywhere.

As I stood on the street corner, someone told me that, although the Golden Gloves bouts were awful and degrading, it was nothing like Doc K–‘s "ball feast." Doc K– was a large-animal veterinarian and each February, around Valentine’s Day, he hosted a customer appreciation banquet for the swine and cattle farmers that comprised his clientele. Doc K– kept the testicles that he lopped from the animals owned by his farmer-clients and he froze them en masse so that they could be thawed each February for the big "ball feast." The testicles were fried in batter and served with cole slaw and potato salad washed down with vodka and brandy and whisky or, if you preferred, free beer. Prostitutes were imported from Milwaukee to dance and work the crowd and no respectable women were allowed anywhere near the function. Doc K– rented the Terp ballroom for the annual party and people who had the pleasure of participating in the banquet said that it was like nothing that they had ever experienced, that it was a combination orgy and drunken feast with illiterate swineherds savaging one another over indifferent Black prostitutes in the toilets and parking lot, always one or two knifings, it was said, as well as a couple of fights with combatants wielding broken broken beer bottles and the half-naked girls wandering around with huge green fans of twenty-dollar bills in their g-strings.

Later, an evangelical church rented the place and renamed the Terp the Vineyard. The evangelical Christians erected three huge crosses in the vacant lot next to the ballroom where the old bowling alley had been torn down after a flood destroyed the building. The crosses remain in that lot, now proscribed any further development, because it lies on the city’s flood plain, big splintery specters painted dark black to signify Jesus’ suffering and death. The evangelicals were led by a charismatic pastor who cast out demons and healed the sick and, sometimes, people in the congregation babbled in tongues. I knew one of the parishioners, a fat, balding man with a pear-shaped figure who had once been a woman before his sex change. The fat man was bitter because no one accepted him as either a man or a woman. He prayed to be saved, but, instead, told me that a demon had entered him and spoke from his belly and, although the devil was periodically cast out of his bowels, the evil spirit always returned. A few years before the Vineyard closed its doors, the fat man killed himself.

Then, the Mexicans bought the place and used the ballroom for their southern Minnesota indoor soccer league and there was a tax service in one of the side rooms of the big structure, Merida Tax that catered to immigrants, and, later, several resourceful young men established a restaurant 1910 in the building.



My friend killed himself the morning before Valentine’s Day. The Catholic priest concluded that the suicidal act was committed as a result of illness that had disordered my friend’s mind and so he was buried in consecrated ground near the big cross where an alabaster Jesus hung above the graves.

In fine weather, my friend used to come and talk to me while I sat on the front porch reading. Four or five months after his death, a large tom-cat appeared beside me on my front porch. I had never seen the animal before and it wore no collar. The cat was beautifully marked and had piercing tourmaline eyes. The animal wanted to sit beside me on the porch and rubbed itself affectionately against my legs. Everyone in the neighborhood liked the cat and so people put out food and milk for him. The cat was remarkably gentle and friendly. In the Fall, we were concerned about the cat’s well-being. The widow of the man who had died had been feeding the cat and, sometimes, in cold or wet weather, sheltering it in her basement. One day, the dead man’s mother, who lived on a farm in Nebraska, came to town. She took the cat with her back to the farm where it probable still lives.



Students of Hell find themselves very quickly immersed in deep and icy waters that are uncharted and obscure. The Bible is mostly silent on the subject of Hell. Generally, Jesus speaks of Hell in terms of destruction by fire, that is, as a force that does not torment so much as it destroys and purifies. There is really no scriptural evidence for the notion of Hell as a physical place where souls are eternally tormented.

Theology abhors a vacuum and clever men have debated the concept of Hell from the time of Origen, who thought that all men would be ultimately saved, until the present. Implicated in the study of Hell is the notion of the Manichean heresy that animates the apocalyptic books of the Bible, enigmatic phrases in the Pseudepigraphia – what does it mean the Jesus preached to the dead as noted in First Timothy? Who are the antediluvians bound by chains in deepest darkness referenced in Jude? Are they the Nehillam? Are souls mortal? How can a soul exist without the living blood since as Leviticus 17:11 tells us the "life is in the blood?" What was Jesus doing on Holy Saturday? Was He harrowing Hell as some medieval scholastics thought? Or was He suffering with the damned in Hell as John Calvin believed? Do souls sleep during the thousand year reign of the Anti-Christ? Where do they await the final judgment?

We know nothing of Hell. The Bible tells us what heaven is like. The Holy City of Jerusalem is there in a place where the sea has ceased to be. The Holy City has walls built of sapphire, agate, onyx, carnelian, beryl, topaz and, of course, the hardest of all substances, jasper, a stone that is adamantine. "There will be no more night" and the inhabitants of the heavenly city will need neither lamp nor sun for the Lord God will be their light and they shall bathe in the river of the water of life that flows perpetually from the altar of the Lamb that sits before the throne of God.

In the end, the Lutherans engaged in the Hell project concluded that there was no such place. I don’t know if the missing cat has yet been found.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

On "Going Fantee"





Around the year 1900, literate Englishmen expressed anxieties about their empire in the expression "going Fantee." To "go Fantee" meant a "lapse from a later and higher to an earlier and lower state" -- at least as defined by an anonymous 1897 entry in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The essay which I have quoted provides an example to make this clear: a Christian convert in Africa who reverts to "superstition and cannibalism" is said to have "gone Fantee." The Spectator, an English periodical, in an essay published December 1, 1900 remarks:

The civilising of the dark races, of which work so much now falls to the lot of the Englishmen, would be an easier as well as more satisfactory task if it were certain that they would always stay civilized.
The essay, entitled "Going Fantee," tells its readers about a certain "Zulu girl" who was taught speak and write Dutch perfectly, could play the accordion, and studied her Bible with great assiduity. This young woman sang in the "sweetest voice" and had the "prettiest manners possible." However, upon returning to the bush, the young woman reverted to savagery, broke the leg of her sister in a brawl over some trinkets using the skull of an ox as a bludgeon, and appearing before her former benefactors, "clad in an old sack and with necklace of wild animals’ teeth" proudly announced that "she had just been married with cows" – meaning, I think, that a bride-price had been paid for her in cattle.

The two sources that I have cited, although disturbing in their diction, are more nuanced than their overtly racist theme suggests. In "Going Fantee," the writer observes that it took hundreds of years to convert "Anglo-saxon(s) or Wend(s) or Hun(s)" into Christian gentlemen and that those hoping the civilize the "dark races" must "be patient for generations." The author of the note in the Journal of the American Medical Association, after some preliminary remarks about Africa and India, then, uses the phrase "going fantee" to describe white men who backslide into bad habits: for instance, a drunkard who has remained sober for many years and, then, relapses might be said to have "gone Fantee."

And, indeed, the earliest applications of the phrase "going Fantee" were in connection with white men who abandoned their European customs to adopt native mores. Kipling uses the phrase in exactly that meaning in a short story in 1888, describing a white man "who was always going Fantee..." Although Joseph Conrad doesn’t use the term, The Heart of Darkness is about a white man, Mr. Kurtz, who "goes Fantee." In this connection, it is well to note that Conrad’s novella was published in 1902 – around the time of the two citations with which I have initiated this essay. A central anxiety intrinsic to the colonialist enterprise was that the natives encountered by their white benefactors would corrupt Europeans, exploiting some "heart of darkness," apparently, existing in all human beings, to cause them to adopt savage beliefs and customs. A white man in the tropics was always in danger of "going Fantee."

The phrase "going Fantee" seems to refer to the "Fante" language, a tongue spoken by tribal people in the region of Ghana. (Kofi Annan’s native language was Fante.) Some researchers believe that the expression was originally a term of derogation applied to educated Africans and creoles living near Lagos who rejected European colonialist policies. In Brazil, the African diaspora, largely slaves from the west coast of Africa, celebrated annually something called the "Fanti Festival." In 1880, a number of these Brazilian Africans returned to Lagos island. In Lagos, the educated Brazilian Africans made common cause with the freed slaves who had founded Freetown in what is now Sierra Leone. When these educated Africans and freed slaves had the temerity to challenge British colonial rule, they were denounced for having "gone Fantee" – that is, reverted to their savage state as evidenced by their political opposition to European civilization.

In a curious development, the Brazilian ex-slaves who returned to Lagos contributed to a renaissance of Yoruba culture. The Yoruba had been a powerful and highly developed city-state civilization located in what is present-day Nigeria and Togo, with Yoruba-speaking colonies in Ghana and other locations around the Bight of Benin. This part of Africa was called the "Slave Coast" because the Yoruba economy was itself based on slave-trading. Yoruba-speaking princes dominated the area in the 12th century, building fortified palaces and trading with the Saharan Africans to their northeast. The Atlantic slave-trade wrecked the Yoruban principalities, already in decline in the 17th century. The return to Ghana and Nigeria of freed slaves, however, revitalized the region. Bibles were published in Yoruba, newspapers and other books were published in that languge, and an intellectual elite sought to restore Yoruba culture to its former prestige. This renascent culture in Lagos was neither completely European nor African – rather, it was a synthesis of the two civilizations and, therefore, disturbing to colonial authorities. The returning Brazilian and American slaves was said to have "gone Fantee" – that is, reverted to pagan customs and traditions.

The most remarkable example of someone "going Fantee" is that of Susanne Wenger also known as Adunni Olurissa. This Austrian woman re-established the Yoruba religion as integral to Nigerian culture and society. In effect, Wenger restored to east Africa something that it was on the verge of losing forever. It is curious that the foremost Yoruba priestess in 20th century Africa was a woman born in Graz, Austria to Swiss-Austrian parents.

Susanne Wenger was born in 1915 into an intellectual, politically liberal family. She was interested in art and attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna as a student, associating with avant-garde elements in the contemporary art scene during the thirties. Wenger opposed Hitler’s

Anschluss with Austria and, according to her biographer, ging nach dem Einmarsch deutscher Truppen in die innere Emigration – that is, "after German troops marched into Austria, she embarked on an ‘inner emigration’." "Inner emigration" is a phrase used in German to express that a person had radically disengaged with the ruling Nazi regime. Although the details are unclear, Wenger seems to have sheltered enemies of the regime and, even, assisted them in reaching Switzerland. Wenger was partially protected against reprisal because of her dual citizenship – she was part Swiss and Switzerland, of course, was a neutral country during the War.

After the war, Wenger was active in re-establishing the arts in the rubble of Vienna. With Communist backing, she edited and published an arts newsletter called PLAN, a periodical that focused on the works of artists whose work had been declared "entartet" ("degenerate") by the Nazi censors. When PLAN folded in 1948, Wenger dedicated herself to work with a communist children’s periodical, Unsere Zeitung ("Our Magazine"). During this period, Wenger traveled to Italy and Switzerland where she sent letters back to the magazine that were published as journalism from its foreign correspondent. Wenger illustrated articles and stories that appeared in UZ – her pictures are slightly sinister, macabre, and drawn in a nervous, spidery style that resembles that sketches of Alfred Kubin and, to a lesser extent, Odilon Redon. Some critics have wondered how the child-readers of UZ responded to these frightening cartoon-like pictures, particularly in light of the recent trauma that subscribers had suffered during the war. (Probably, the children were indifferent – parents subscribe to magazines for their children and the concerns and subject matter of those periodicals reflect the predilections of the adults not the children.)

In 1949, Susanne Wenger lived in Paris where she became acquainted with the linguist Ulii Beier. Wenger married Beier and traveled with him to Nigeria in 1950 when her husband was engaged to teach English literature to African students as part of an exchange program. Photographs of her taken at this time show a woman with a prominent nose and enormous sad eyes, the eyes of a Kaethe Koellwitz madonna; she has thin lips and her hair is styled in a practical Bauhaus bob. By this time, Wenger was seriously ill, suffering from chronic respiratory problems diagnosed as tuberculosis. She was only 35.

In Lagos, Wenger’s tuberculosis worsened. She was treated by European-trained physicians who determined that her case was hopeless. In desperation, Wenger turned to a traditional Yoruba healer, a so-called Babalawo witch-doctor. According to the legend, Wenger was healed by the Babalawo, gradually recovering her health and, then, her creativity. From that point forward, Susanne Wenger was an adherent to the Yoruba belief system, studied the religion’s tenets, and, ultimately, became a leading priestess in the faith. Although she periodically returned briefly to Europe and Austria, Wenger spent the rest of her long life in Nigeria among the Yoruba people.

In the fifties, Wenger found that the Yoruba religion was in a state of decay. Practitioners of the faith were demoralized and its priests and priestesses rejected in favor of Christian missionaries. Yoruba is a religion integrally associated with the Yoruba people – indeed, the belief system, the tribal culture, and the language all form an indistinguishable whole. The religion is animistic and involves belief in reincarnation within blood-lines. The aim of human life is to achieve joy by prayer-communion with the divine, each person seeking to achieve his or her unique and transcendent spiritual destiny. Yoruba beliefs involve many gods, goddesses, as well as lesser spirits and some of the faith’s rites were celebrated in sacred groves. In the mid-fifties, these groves were largely abandoned and had been desecrated by hunting, logging, and trapping in the sacred forests. The most important sacred grove in Nigeria was near the city of Osunogbo, an ancient old-growth forest towering over the Osun River. Yoruba, like most religions is syncretic – by the middle of the 20th century, it had absorbed certain aspects of Christianity and one of its principal gods, Osun, was affiliated with both the river, the trees growing around the stream, and John the Baptist, another religious figure associated with flowing water. (John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the sacred River Jordan.) Wenger was appalled to find the sacred grove on the Osun River shattered, many of its trees cut down, and, in fact, threatened by development in the adjacent city. So the Austrian-Nigerian high-priestess devoted her life to saving the sacred grove on the Osun River, establishing it as a holy place apart from the rest of the terrain, and decorating the forest with objects of art.

By the year 2005, Wenger’s work at the sacred grove in Osunogbo was recognized by UNESCO as a culturally significant place worthy of international protection. Before Wenger’s intervention, most Yoruba altars and ritual objects were small, readily portable, and, therefore, easily stolen. The Yoruba produce carvers and woodworkers of magisterial genius and their work is highly collectible. Indeed, Wenger’s husband, Ulii Beier, whom she divorced a few years after arriving in Nigeria, was a major collector of Yoruba and other tribal art, and, with his second wife, established one of Europe’s major museums devoted to African art and culture, the Iwalewa-Haus in Bayreuth, Germany. Presumably, Beier, and collectors like him, were part of the threat eating away at the fabric of Yoruba faith – no sooner did an artisan carve a totem or an idol than some other enterprising Nigerian snatched the work for sale to European galleries. Wenger put an end to this practice by a simple measure: she constructed Yoruba images on a monumental scale, idols as large as houses made from reinforced concrete or sculpted from enormous logs. These works, created in the sacred grove at the Osun river, were site-specific in the most dramatic way, expressions of the holy spirits animating the green and shadowy grove far too large to be carted away. Over the years, Wenger supervised the construction of high walls around the sacred grove, limited access to the holy place by restricting entry to a single, small and crooked gate, clearly designed to keep art thieves from purloining the holy sculptures inside the enclosure.

In effect, Wenger’s efforts renewed the Yoruba faith, won it credibility and adherents, and established the work of Yoruba artists as significant and highly prized commodities in European and New York art galleries. Wenger, who was known simply as "Mama," in Osunogbo where she lived, adopted more than a dozen local orphans and raised them in a sort of commune. Her eldest adopted daughter, Nike Okundaye is Nigeria’s most well-known contemporary painter and operates lucrative galleries both in Europe and Lagos. For Wenger, it is apparent that there was no distinction between high art, the sort of Art Brut that she had championed as a young woman in Vienna, and the sacred sculpture in the holy grove at Osunogbo. Further, under Wenger’s guidance, ancient Yoruba festivals that had long been abandoned were revived. Wenger was instrumental in establishing the Osunogbo pilgrimage, an eight-day festival that involves massive and terrifying fire rituals as well enormous processions from the center of the city to the sacred grove. In the last decade, millions of people from all around the world have participated in this festival – in effect, through Wenger’s efforts, Yoruba has become a world-religion with faithful living in all major communities of the East African diaspora. Of course, there is some question as to whether Susanne Wenger’s version of Yoruba is truly authentic – was the sacred grove on the Osun River central to Yoruba faith before Wenger adopted it as a massive art project? After all, the German-speaking people are also forest-folk and, once, worshiped in sacred groves. (We have Christmas trees in our homes as evidence of this ancient Teutonic religion.) Certainly, the Osunogbo festival seems primarily to be a celebration devised by Wenger and her supporters as well as the city fathers (and civic boosters) of the town where the event occurs. But religions evolve and Yoruba has revived and is significant in the lives of many millions of people, at least, in part through the efforts of this Swiss-Austrian artist.

What is the Wenger’s Sacred Grove like? Photographs of the Grove show bug-eyed monoliths scattered among enormous, shaggy trees. The river is unprepossessing, a turbid, elongated lagoon overhung by vines. The appearance of the place is midway between a modernist sculpture garden in the shadow of an urban museum and a concrete Eden built by an eccentric, outsider artist. Irregularly sculpted huts contain altars and there are pitchers of goat blood amid garlands of flowers and fresh fruit on the stone thresholds to the shrines. Votive offerings dangle from trees and the shadows hold strange apparitions: man-sized pillars with stubby, flipper-like arms, spirit-forms wearing mantis-masks or displaying blunt knuckle-shaped horns. Many of the structures take the disarming form of female genitalia. Worshipers enter the enclosure of the Sacred Grove through a grotto of vulvar folds and wrinkles equipped with a clitoral protuberance above the entry. What the place would be like in the humid heat and crush of a Yoruba procession of masked priests and priestesses, stilt-walkers, and whirling worshipers complete with drums and cymbals and clouds of incense is hard to imagine. Certainly, on the evidence of film that I have seen, the Grove seems more than a bit menacing, uncanny, astonishing.

Susanne Wenger died in 2009 at the age of 94. On the morning of her death, Wenger rose early and went to the grove to bathe in the holy river. She ate some fruit and, then, asked that a piece of paper be brought to her. She wrote some lines on the paper and, then, died. According to her wishes, her body was washed again, wrapped in a shroud, and buried that afternoon without elaborate rituals or any funeral procession. Her mourners did not report what she wrote on the sheet of paper. Her words were written in German and there was no one to translate them.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Hometown: The Crow Returns

The Crow returns

In the southeast quadrant of Austin, residential blocks are bisected by alleyways. The alleys are lined by garages and sheds in the backyards of houses that face away to the avenues where there are curbs and sidewalks and canopies of trees. Snowplows have scuffed the alleys which are only infrequently repaired and their asphalt surfaces are buckled and scabbed with fractures. The garages lining the alley lanes are small and their doors are usually open in all weather to dark interiors crowded with discarded furniture, old power-tools, outboard motors and malevolent-looking snow blowers. The backyards between the garages are small, sometimes indifferently fenced with crumbling lathe or boards; in other places, particularly where there are savage and rambunctious dogs, the tattered lawns behind the houses are more efficiently fenced with wire and metal posts. Basketball backboards hang overhead like full moons and there are odd bundles and bouquets of wire and cable dangling from soffits or suspended under satellite dishes, trees clotted with squirrel nests, curious excavations in the grass and half-finished treehouses built for children who are now married and living in Minneapolis with children of their own, skeletal swing sets standing over ruined sandboxes and big plastic garbage bins surrounded by heaps of fallen twigs and brush cut with chainsaws to be piled against garage walls for pick-up that never occurs. In some places, there is evidence of obsessive pursuits: dismantled classic cars with fins and chrome grill like a shark’s grin, buckets used to grow tiny saplings, greenhouses wrapped in tattered plastic that hisses and wiggles in the wind, rock gardens, cement monuments encrusted with strangely colorful gravel like half-made tombstones, little fountains recycling the same yellowish water over and over again, a bubbling noise in the ragged shrubs, fiber-glass boats and canoes propped on sawhorses under clotheslines. The alleyways are mostly regular, a grid inserted within and inside the grid of streets, but there are odd exceptions, hard to remember deviations from the pattern – a sudden turn in an alley that is otherwise straight for ten blocks, or a dead-end where a ring of shabby garages encircles a claustrophobic cul-de-sac under a big, filthy-looking tree shedding branches and acorns and all sorts of other debris into the place where the narrow lane simply comes to an end...

A few days ago, I was walking my dog along an alley four blocks from my house, a place that I have traversed hundreds of times. The sun was setting and I saw a glint of light overhead, beyond the garages and backyard fences that I was passing. In the very center of the block, landlocked and isolated from the surrounding streets, a large building soared upward. The building had stained-glass windows and was two stories high with a sort of cloister-walk or arcade around its perimeter. At first, I imagined the structure to be a church of some sort or a hermitage – its arches looked vaguely gothic and the high curving windows locked in lead frames were pointed. How was it that I had never noticed this building before? And what was it doing in the very center of the residential properties, surrounded by them on all sides, apparently inaccessible by sidewalk or street? I was vexed with a sense of worry about the structure. Were there other outstanding monuments among the alleys that I had missed?

A week ago, I ventured down the snowy alley in the twilight. Ahead of me, I heard cans rattling together. The dog paused and looked down the lane to where a man was probing a garbage can with a pointed stick. The man had a long white beard and his head and throat were bare despite the cold weather – it was a few degrees below zero and everything was locked in ice and frost. The man didn’t look up at me as I passed and I knew enough to be circumspect about calling out to him. He was large and his back massive in the shabby coat that fell from his broad shoulders down as far the middle of his calves, a kind of Michaelangelesque- giant, and I saw that the man’s hair was a grey tangle, the wreckage of dreadlocks that were in disarray, unknotting themselves, spreading in alluvial fans over his bull-neck and upper back. It was the Crow, back from the penitentiary where he had been sent, perhaps, eighteen months ago, and he was rummaging, as was often his custom, in the garbage for aluminum cans to salvage. As I passed him, I suppose, he fixed me with his eye, his gaze like that of the Ancient Mariner, but I was careful to turn away from him and not be transfixed.

Loren "Crow" B– is a man in his sixties. He was briefly famous in the late nineteen-eighties when he was accused of placing bombs that destroyed the homes of two local Judges. The Crow, a well-known eccentric in my town, was tried for the bombings in Federal District Court in St. Paul and acquitted, although he was convicted of making terroristic threats to the County Attorney and various officers and directors of the Hormel Foods corporation and other local authorities including the chief of police, professors at the Community College, and the Federal Judge who presided over the bombing case herself, Judge Diana Murphy. Crow was sentenced to several years in Federal Prison but from his cell he launched a thousand more poison pen letters, threatening all sorts of people with all kinds of picturesque havoc, and this led the additional charges, and more court proceedings, and, ultimately, he spent more than ten years behind bars. A few years after the millenium, the Crow came back to town, older, but, apparently, not wiser. A fan of girl’s basketball, he attended games at the Austin High School gymnasium, much to the consternation of the parents of the female high school athletes that he admired. Ultimately, the Crow conceived an affection for one of the girl basketball players and tried to give her a bicycle as a gift. He accompanied the gift with protestations of love and affection and said that he hoped that the teenage girl would consider marrying him. A restraining order was sought and issued, but, of course, the Crow disobeyed that order and so was arrested and tried again, this time for violating a court order, that is, for contempt of court, and he was sentenced to prison once more – this time for four or five years. Everyone predicted that Crow would die in custody because, of course, his habit was to protest his imprisonment by writing hair-raising letters implying that if he were not promptly released someone’s house just might blow up or that some local gendarme or probation officer might be found bleeding in a gutter with his testicles removed, the same sort of threats that had cost the Crow more than ten years of his life a half-decade earlier.

Perhaps, the Crow had been forced to swallow medication that hampered his letter-writing skills, or, maybe, with onset of his dotage, he grasped that there was no point in continuing his crusade from his tiny prison cell if the screeds that he penned-there would merely earn him more hard-time, something, certainly, had happened, some change of heart had been navigated for here he was, standing in the alley, released from prison, big as life – yes, there he was indisputably present, a few yards from my dog who was straining her leash, Loren "Crow" B--- , picking through the rubbish to salvage cans that he could sell for a few cents apiece, a couple of pheasant feathers entangled in his hair, his face red and wind-burned, glowing slighting in the twilight, some bones dangling from his throat.

Now there are many things that I could tell you about the Crow. I am fascinated by him and once drove to Chicago to spend a long, exhausting day reading the transcripts of his trial in Federal Court. I have read the testimony that Crow gave at the climax of that trial when he faced-down the prosecutor and declared his innocence and I have studied Judge Diana Murphy’s remarks when she sentenced him and her oblique praise for the Crow as a man of implacable principles, a First Amendment purist, she declared, and "a most unusual man." I could write a book about the Crow and have a notebook full of handwritten notes about his trial and I knew both judges whose houses were shattered by midnight explosions, knew them well enough to have discussed their reactions to the Crow’s acquittal on the bombing threats with each of them. I have a hundred pages of notes, trial documents, the decision of the Trial Judge as printed in the Federal Reporter and, indeed, I have sometimes delivered speeches on the famous trial, a case of terrorism in our own hometown, an hour-long talk that I gave to the Freemasons in their Masonic Lodge, edited to 45 minutes for the Lions Club at the cafeteria of the Senior Citizen Center where they meet weekly. I could write four-hundred pages on this subject but this is neither the time nor the place.

But I will remark on the fact that one afternoon, during the few years between Crow’s imprisonments, I saw him wandering down the alleyway, carrying a burlap sack (he was supposed to have used a burlap sack to transport the bombs to the houses that were blasted apart), shuffling over the fractured asphalt and leaning a little on a staff that he used to stab and sort the garbage that he was collecting. It was a sunny day and I felt generous and my garage was full of pop cans that I had salvaged and kept there in big black plastic bags, crumpled aluminum cans that attracted wasps and bees, the sugary fluid oozing out of them to the delight of the ants as well, who trekked in and out of my garage to harvest the dextrose and glucose from the fluid spilled out in the bags and making the floor of my garage sticky. I called out to Crow: "Loren," I said. "I have some cans here if you want them." He grimaced and showed me his teeth flashing in his great white and prophetic beard – "Why would I want those cans?" I said: "I thought you salvaged them for money." "Oh no," the Crow said, his eyes glinting for an instant as if with a spark of anger: "I’m picking up the cans that people have left in alleyway. I don’t like to see litter on the landscape. So I’m policing the alleyway." "Oh, I see," I said. Crow shrugged and continued down the alley and I heard the freight in his burlap bag clinking a little as he walked.

And I will remark that in the weeks before Crow appeared in the alleyways near my house, I saw vast clouds of crows, the feathered, flying kind, black against the grey sky, playing over the alleys. The crows shrieked and cackled and more and more of them were recruited to participate in something that looked like sport to my eyes, an aerial game of Quidditch, the birds whirling in vortices over a huge pyramidal evergreen tree, swooping and darting, unimaginably swift, spiraling up into the cold winter heavens like plumes of black smoke.

And I will remark that when I hike the alleys after dark with my dog on the leash, the motion detectors flip on spotlights mounted on garage fascia on to illumine the gloomy alley. The light flares around me in a way that is faintly glamorous and, then, as I walk farther along my transit of the alley, the light switches off and all is darkness again. And I will remark that only the other day, I saw a narrow driveway penetrating into the center of the block, a driveway separate and apart from the alley that I was walking and at the end of the driveway I could see that the landowner had built behind his house a tall, cathedral-shaped garage with pointed arches and windows with stained glass and, of course, this caused me to wonder why the man’s garage was so much nicer and more ornate than his house. I couldn’t answer that question. There are puzzles all around us.