Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Loft and Turf

For me, Elkin, while an odd bird, is incantatory. Like me, he's a New York/Missouri hybrid, and also like me, or me like him, he's absolutely hunky-dory with over-the-top. This, in pregnant parentheses, no less, from Stanley Elkin's 1991 novel (his late period)―The MacGuffin:

(“What's this all about?” Loft, the director of the airport, had asked. “A little slogan I thought up,” Druff said. “What? A slogan?” 'Change planes in our town and we'll show you a time'?” “Sure,” Druff told him, “if they had even a two-or three-hour layover we could pick them up in buses and show them around. No city in America has thought of this yet.” “There's such a thing as turf, Druff. You're the street man here. You of all people ought to know that.” So [Druff] took his case over Loft's head. “Look,” he'd argued to a chilly City Council, “what's the worst that can happen? That the bus has an accident and everyone in it is killed or maimed. Don't worry, it won't happen, we'll use only the most seasoned drivers. It won't happen, but even if, God forbid, it does, most of these people are covered by the credit cards they use to purchase their airplane tickets, by their travel agencies, by the bus company itself. I asked counsel to look into this and he assures me we're in the clear.” Going at his job in those mercantile rooms of yore as if City Hall were still a department store. He was a good old City Commissioner of Streets and only wanted to be a better one. Why not? Streets were roads, roads were what the Romans built, and he, Druff, was road man here, Imperial Commissioner of the Way to the Empire! So give me a little credit please, he'd thought. I understand about empire, why wouldn't I know about turf?)  

Photos by Steve Hull
This past First Friday I traveled a recently resurfaced country road―Highway OO―to one of the more interesting, candid and boundary-extending conversations I've experienced this year in Missouri. One almost hesitates to tell the truth about what happened for fear that some premise will be found to blow the candle out. Fredericktown is one of many small towns around here already undermined and gutted by empire and left to rot or cannibalize themselves. It’s a place where a tacit bargain's been struck: as long as the social security, welfare, unemployment, and other government assistance checks still trickle down, many people will remain fiercely and willfully ignorant, blaming “muslims” or “illegal aliens” for their own sure and steady downward spiral into the void where the center, the one that's most assuredly not holding, used to be.

But wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, The Loft is a pocket of tolerance, or a pothole of tolerance on the otherwise smoothed over road to extinction, in a place where a strict and punishing conformism is fiercely policed by volunteer bullies patrolling the local coffee shop, and law enforcement personnel cruising the desolate roads. One man I know tells of being routinely beaten as a boy for the crime of riding a skateboard, and decades later he’s still in the trenches. So one has to risk that which one has to risk.

Having listened to the definitions and etymology of loft we read aloud (some surprises there), after reading and discussing Richard Jones' poem The Loft, noting its theme of lies of omission, after reading selections from chapters 2 and 3 of Cooperative Village in which the protagonist is out touring the streets of her neighborhood accompanied by the corpse of her dead neighbor on a luggage cart, “showing her a time” as Mr. Elkin says, we talked to each other about the possibilities for the future. I heard someone say that we in America live in a culture of disrespect, and that that can change. I heard someone say that she urges parents to pick up their crying babies in the aisles of Walmart and that American children don't spend enough time embraced in loving arms. I heard someone express a fear that many people don't know basic survival skills―how to plant a seed, or fix a home-cooked meal. And in the course of the forthright conversation, a 14 year-old girl, a brilliant and serious girl who aspires to be a neuroscientist, declared herself as an atheist.

What happened next was truly marvelous. No one demanded to know who's been deceiving her. No one thumped a bible or screeched scripture about Satan into her angelic face. There was a moment of profound silence, some of it pained to be sure because believers were among us (one man told me the next day that he had gone blank when she said it, that he had to leave the room he was so hurt for her), but the rush to condemnation was stayed. And soon after someone said that maybe The Loft could save Fredericktown.

We talked about confronting the absentee-landlords and cycling the art currently exhibited in The Loft into the many empty storefronts on street level. One painter volunteered to have her piece, an oversized color-saturated landscape of pinnacles, moved to a vacant shop window. It was a hallelujah moment, like the fine artists were just waiting for the literary artist to replenish their vocabulary of hope and daring. One is giddy at the prospect of the bullies stopping and staring at the unlofted art, unleashing their ridicule at objects they can plainly see to be beautiful, well-formed, shaped with intelligence and care, until finally, they get it out of their systems.And then...?


  1. I must say the coffee house is question is a wonderful place, a wonderful and important meeting place. The owner is a fantastic individual who operates it a little profit and out of a sense of public duty and community devotion.

    Bill Knight

  2. Excellent news. Maybe we can help her in some way...?

  3. The entire conversation and discussion was profound in that it was so full of respect for all participating. And as was mentioned that evening, respect for other views on issues is not as common as one would hope it would be most of the time in Fredericktown. As was pointed out to me today, Frances, I think you acted as a mirror for our community. Helping us to see things as they really are. Thank you for that. Thank you for showing us that we ARE capable of respectful yet substantive discussions. And more, for showing us there is always hope as long as we can have those dicussions.

    Karen Whitener

  4. I'm honored and heartened to my core by your words. Thank you.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.