Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rosie's Garden

I'd had the Yorkie a full week before a single “Puppy Lost” sign was posted on the community bulletin board at the Country Mart. I'd been checking daily because I really couldn't afford to care for a dog not yet housebroken—the tags, the shots, the chow, the gnawed slippers and ruined slobbered-upon sandals.

I pulled both staples out of the corkboard, accidentally removing a chunk of cork with my fingernails, and took the photocopied sign down to hold it under a brighter light; the better to scrutinize the color photograph above the description, telephone number with our 573 area code, and the caption: “Haf you scene my dog?” Not a day tripper from St. Louis touring the local wineries as I'd imagined in my primary scenario, too tanked up on slushy wine-a-ritas to realize her doggie hadn't hopped into the hatchback; I'd thought all sorts of things. Now I wondered—non-English speaker?

In the picture there were welts on Miranda's head between her ears, bright red ones that had healed under my care, squeezing the gel out of the aloe frond and applying it with a Q-tip, feeling her coat for ticks, chiggers, fleas (there were plenty of those), and I knew it was the very same dog. She was posed on a bale of hay, sleeping in the sun, a weathered red barn behind her. Could be anywhere: Highway D, Highway H, Highway Double O, or maybe out 32 a ways. Over yonder, as some of the locals might say.

I had named her Miranda from The Tempest because I'd found her cowering from a lightning storm in my garage; the dinged metal door's a hassle to raise and lower, so I leave it open unless we have a severe storm warning in the area; and there she was between the mulcher and my John Deere riding mower when I got home from work. At the first crash of thunder she had leapt into my arms and buried her little face in my neck, her wet nose poking under my collar, trying not to whimper. Innocence presuming protection. Lala it said her name was. Why not name her Missing A Good Long While or Gone A Whole Fucking Week, since that had been her destiny? I called the number, got a recording and left a message.

I had listened attentively to the outgoing message to discern what I could from the tone and timbre of the speaker's voice. Would I hear kindliness, a smiling voice, or a space cadet? (To lose a puppy! And one as loving, playful and sweet-tempered as Miranda.) But a penchant for passive neglect is undetectable to the ear, at least in such a perfunctory collection of words, at the tone, please leave a message. Maybe ever.

I tried as best I could to filter out the annoyance I was feeling toward this lackadaisical stranger, when I left my own number adding that I might have found her dog. My voice slanted italics on that might. Hours went by before she called back, evening into night; it was going on ten o'clock and, was I ever pissed off that she didn't have her phone on her hip, alert for a call on the first day the signs were posted, a full 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 days after her dog had gone missing? What is the matter with these people? What did I mean by that—these people—masters of dog? losers of dogs? narcissist lunatics?

I took down her address and directions, a few miles out of town, something about a creek and concrete culvert (my moat she had laughingly said) and told her she'd have her dog back in the morning; I could drop her off, unless she wanted to come get her now. No, the morning would be fine. Really? I would have exerted myself for you, I told this other woman's puppy; I would've hit the road in my pj's to get you back. Maybe she's crippled, suffers from night blindness; maybe there's a good reason, I softened, not wanting to perturb Miranda with my disgust.

We made the best of it, Miranda and I, our last night together. We tugged and tussled with a tassled throw pillow, I watched her ecstatically chew an old washcloth, we had extra treats; her, homemade dog biscuits I'd picked up at the Wednesday afternoon Farmer's Market at the VFW, and me a mookie bought there too. A mookie's basically an oversized oatmeal cookie, more scone than muffin, and once you have one, well...

I walked with her one last time down my gravel lane in the fizzling moonlight, both of us swiping at but not catching June bugs by the scores. Catch them for what? Though I'd been strict the whole week, this night I left my bedroom door ajar–private quarters, I had called out every time before she had yelped and scratched at the door, even in the middle of the night when she heard the toilet flush. But tonight we would snuggle, if you call her lying in the crook of my ankles, snuggling. Me, enjoying the scant weight of her, her warmth, breath, beating heart, giggling when she took to licking my toes while I wiggled and squirmed with abandon. It's not love yet, I thought (mistakenly), but another night of this toe-licking routine and it soon would be.

It was her first time in the car and I let her sit on my lap; it wouldn't be a long ride and the roads here are smooth, well-surfaced, straight, easy to travel. Not a crazy risk, to keep her so close. I saw the barn back from the road, the one in the picture, turned in the long driveway and thought, Miranda's home now, and I'm glad for her; but where am I? Where? Morning, the mistress of the house said as she approached the car, it was subtle but it sounded like mourning. Hi, I answered, wishing I were. This was going to be harder than I suspected.

Aiyee, LaLa, lalalalalalalala, puppy, baby, where did you go? To this nice lady's house for a visit? Now you come back to me; that's a good puppy dog. Come, do you have time for a Nescafé ? I'll show you my garden. You'll take whatever you want; I won't insult you with cash, unless you want cash. Do you? Rich bitch. No. Let's just get it over with. Miranda, poor thing, wasn't sure who to follow, whose feet to trod along under. Just go with her, I thought. Make the break. Go with the old lady, the craven one who cannot spell, the one who names you after a note, a syllable on the diatonic scale, third from last.

Flowers! I love flowers as you can see! We were in the midst of what they were calling on the news a Missouri flash drought, but soaker hoses were  irrigating her flower beds, row after row. Take what you want, my garden is your garden. It sounded like guard on in her pronunciation. En garde, I thought, my hand twitching, missing my rapier in its grip. 

The sprinkler was rotating, the cool droplets falling on the beds like a soft shower. These are my day lilies she said, improbably pointing to leafy red-stemmed vines. There are my nasturtium, another row exactly the same. I have tons of sunflowers, the birds eat the seeds—the chickadees, the whippoorwills. Is she blind, I wondered, putting on an act of sight? Unaware that all the beds contained but the same oily plant, more a weed to be precise, dangerous, unwanted?

If it's three, let it be, I called back to her, sprinting for my car, starting the engine and revving it for effect. Miranda, let's blow, I incanted under my breath because in America it would be wrong to say it out loud, the dog being her personal property. Let the puppy follow me home again anyway, I sang to the tune of a sea  shanty, haul away from the crazy lady who makes nosegays for her family, and tiaras for her pets, from her low bed of ivy, her very poison ivy. Mi-randa!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Body Blow

There's a rumor going around, and I hope with all my heart that it is just that—a rumor—that The Vault may be closing soon.

It's taking almost more discipline than I can muster, but I've assigned myself the unpleasant task of imagining my life this past year subtracted by The Vault. It's too big of a tally: the artistry, imagination, creativity and inspiration I would have missed out on, the friendships I might not have formed, the laughs, the dancing, delicious meals and local wine, and the enlivening sense that the world was coming to Farmington, the whole wide world, and that we were here to meet it and welcome it.

Would I have gone to the alternative secular nightlife options: bingo at the VFW, karaoke at Wild Buffalo Wings, bowling at the Family Fun Center, Trivia Night fundraisers for homeless vets (where the question of why we have such a category of human beings is never, ever addressed), or a half-dozen smoky bars where one gets to watch alleged grownups get wasted while listening to classic rock cover bands? Not on a dare.

I find myself thinking about that part in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed when Jared Diamond is relating the aftermath of the deforestation on Easter Island, an act of communal ecocide, and the subsequent descent into starvation, population crash, and cannibalism. Letting The Vault go without a fight is the functional equivalent of handing an axe to the guy who was all set to chop down the very last tree, after sharpening the blade.

Our motto here is Tradition and Progress: in which of these categories would The Vault failing be placed? Farmington, are you sure you want to intentionally chop down our tree? After all, it is the only one as far as the eye can see. As a matter of survival, wouldn't it be nice to continue to have the oxygen it gives off, the shade and fruit it provides, how it serves as a marker on the horizon distinguishing this place from all the area surrounding it?

What would a fight for the flourishing of The Vault look like, anyway? It would look like a party. We wouldn't even know we were fighting we'd be having such a good time. In the short-term it would mean prioritizing attendance at upcoming shows, having dinner there, bringing some friends you've been wanting to do something fun with for a while, packing the 87-seat house, and then doing it again, and again, until it's just what we do. 

It would mean a recognition that we are fighting so that the I's—Inertia, Ignorance and Indifference—don't triumph yet again over something that's sweet and real and wonderful. That these two native Southeast Missouri owners—Tim and Kerry Smith from Fredericktown—dreamt a beautiful dream and made it manifest. FOR US! They’ve given their all to keep the embers sparking, hoping the torch lights and stays lit. And why shouldn't it? It's a beautiful, blazing torch throwing fiery beams into the darkness, connecting our community with other heat-seekers all over the country in a constellation of alive, attentive, get-up-and-boogie listeners who rejoice, not regret, their lives.

It might mean a couple of generous souls in a position to help financially coming forth with a few no-strings checks to the owners. Such miraculous things do happen on occasion. A few years ago my friend Herb Leibowitz planned to cease publishing Parnassus, A Poetry Review, when it had become financially untenable. But after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal an “angel” came up with an anonymous gift of $50,000 to keep it going. I'm guessing that for The Vault the angel wings wouldn't have to be a third as costly as that.

And what would be gained exactly by keeping The Vault as a venue for live, original music viable? A place for a young musician like Gracie Minnis or stand-up comic Steve Hull, for example, to have the chance to see outside talent, as they develop their own performance skills. A place for local bands like Brokeneck or solo acts like Casey Reeves and Mike McClanahan to perform and build their fan bases. A vibrant social space where outsiders and newcomers, like me, can seek out the other creative people around town, the folks with enough on the ball to give the television a rest when some fantastic bands like The Blackberry Bushes, Rum Drum Ramblers, or Izzy and the Catastrophics are blowing through town on their way to New Orleans, Chicago or Portland.

If The Vault doesn't succeed it will likely be used as a warning with which to bludgeon other beautiful dreamers not even to try, not to risk. Oh yeah, well, they attempted that at The Vault and it didn't go over, so don't bother. And that would be a setback for all the enterprises that haven't yet come into being, a preemptive abortion of imaginative possibilities, idiosyncratic visions, individual (non-corporate) entrepreneurial expressions. It sends exactly the wrong message to young people who envision a modest livelihood in arts and culture here—nope, you have to leave the area if you wish to be successful. We'll just continue being known for our meth labs and prison industry, thank you very much; escapism and punishment, punishment, punishment is what we prefer to choose!

So here we are on Easter Island, the axe poised to fell the last tree. But instead of chopping, maybe we use the sharp edge of the blade to aerate the dirt around the roots so it can thrive? And then maybe we dig a new hole, making a space not far from this one for another sapling, and then another, until we have a scene going: a jazz club, a comedy club, a cinémathèque, a playhouse, a chamber orchestra, a string quartet, a community chorus, a bookstore, a bistro, a...___________, fill in the blank with your own beautiful dream.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Episode 210 (from Kissing Booth, a novel in episodes)

 “Is this Darcy? Darcy Preston from Budweiser Falls, Missouree?” the vaguely familiar voice bellowed into my ear.

"Yes. Yes it is. Who’s this?” I asked switching on my bedside lamp and seeing that it was almost midnight.

“It’s Merveene, Darcy. Merveene from Sunny’s calling long distance so I got to make this quick. Your dad’s real sick. You’d better come on home. That’s all I called to tell ya. Come on home and don’t dilly-daddle. You understand what I’m getting at?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be there tomorrow.”

“What? I can’t hear ya so good.”

I speak up. “Merveene, tell my dad I’m coming to see him. Tell him to wait for me. Please.”

“I’ll drive over in the morning. I’ll be there at first light to get the message to him. But you hurry.”

It was only after I hung up that I thought to ask why my mother hadn’t placed the call, but I already knew the answer. She didn’t want me there.

I called the airlines to make the flight arrangements and explained the urgency.

“Miss,” the reservationist said, “just so you’re aware, we have a bereavement fare. It cuts the cost in more than half.”

“I won’t be needing that,” I snapped.

I’d be on a 6:30 a.m. out of LaGuardia to Kansas City. I’d have a rent-a-car waiting for me and I’d drive like hell the two plus hours to get to the farm. Packing a bag, I stood in front of my closet for the longest time trying to decide if I should bring funeral clothes. Irrationally, I decided if I didn’t bring a dark suit, he wouldn’t die, so I didn’t, but he did anyway. It was just as well. My structured garments and New York tailoring would’ve stood out like a gangrenous thumb at his humble service.

“He’s weak,” my mother said opening the screen door for me. I’d been honking my arrival from a half a mile away. I rushed past her to his bedside. I held his hand and looked him all up and down to make sure he was really still here. When he opened his mouth to greet me, I saw he was missing a front tooth and his gums were bloodless and white. His toenails were so sharp and long they were poking holes through his socks, but his bedding and clothes were clean and his body didn’t smell, as I’d dreaded.

“Hi dad, Merveene tell you I’d be coming?”

 “Yes,” a voice not his own replied. He had a tray with some lemonade on it at bedside and I held his drink up with a straw so he could take a sip. “Your mom wouldn’t let her in, but she shouted it through the window screen.”  We both laughed a little. “I’ve been waiting. Say bye to my best girl. Now that you’re here, you look so pretty I think I’ll stay awhile.”

“Oh, dad. Thank you.” I kissed his hand and held it there to my lips. Being there in the room for two minutes I saw he was done rallying. “All the sweet memories I have of my life here are of you.”

He shook his head. “Wish I’d been able to give you more, do more for you.”

“Like what?”

“Better mother,” he hollered, or tried to anyway.

That one really made me laugh. “That’d been a neat trick.”

“I fixed it with a lawyer so she can’t sell the farm to anyone but you, and then only for a dollar. She’s provided for. When she dies the place is yours.”

“I’ve always loved this place.”

 “Liar. Might feel differently one day. It’ll be here for you. I want that.”


“You want anything?” he asked me. I felt it was a limitless question. I could’ve asked him for anything, anything I felt needed clearing up. But we were already clear. He’d held my hand crossing a busy, dangerous street, and let it go when we got to the other side. Deeply, we'd wished each other well, but the connective threads hung looser after that. That’s how we’d both needed it to be.

My eyes darted around the whitewashed room and then settled on the hand I was already holding. “Your watch.”

He nodded. And I took it off his wrist and put it on mine, the leather band still warm from his fevered arm.

“Darcy, I’m tired.”

“I understand. Mind if I sit here while you rest?”

He shook his head. I plumped his pillows and smoothed down his soft coverlet, letting my hand rest on his chest a moment to feel the miracle of his heart still beating. He closed his eyes. The sun, which had been streaming in both exposures went behind a cloud, and a shadow fell over his face, turning him from three-dimensional matter made of flesh, into a fading projection, the color of ash.

“Sleep, daddy. Get your rest. You worked hard.”

“That I did.”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Musicians Like Me

Rock guitarist, songwriter, and old school style showman Izzy Zaidman cast a big shadow at tonight's show at The Vault in Farmington, Missouri. I caught up with him after the wildly impressive double set of his eponymous 5-piece band, Izzy and the Catastrophics.

FM: Tell me please about your circle, the circle you form with your band onstage before the show. Chaos and creativity are happening in there, what else?

IZ: Biorhythms, we get on the same frequency. It's a scientific fact about electric impulses: in the circle we're touching, focusing. It's easier to “play tiger” to play better as a group. All the stuff I can't “tell” them as bandleader, the technical stuff of music, e.g., please don't fuck up the chorus. The circle I find helps the whole.

FM: Do you think about us in there, the audience?

IZ: Not directly. We take three deep breaths, we achieve harmonious energy; there's a pep talk, we fill up the space with positive spirit. I specifically make it not daunting, a light ritual.

FM: You have the musicians take turns calling the set. Why is it important to you that the show never be the same?

IZ:   The way I look at it, we're magicians, shamans. It has to come from the room: the smell, the height of the ceiling, the quality of the sound system, the audience, their demographics, the age differences. Whether they're drunk on a Saturday night and ready to rock, or it's a coffee shop where people don't know you. For that reason I want the band to have a large repertoire, that can be turned up, turned down. Show qua creative ritual, molded to fit the moment.

FM: What did you feel about us, tonight, here in Farmington, Missouri?

IZ: We've been talking about this place—The Vault—how it's not a bar; there's a real bohemian vibe in here. We're struck, age-wise, by the mix, how open-minded the audience is. Funny, the Midwest is kind of hit or miss: awesome surrounded by shit. This place is an oasis, cool, bohemian—it's not that common. There are others, like Saybrook, Illinois, for instance: it's an amazing town, their taste in music is deeply informed.

I want to be able to pull off a show even for those who don't know the music: but I have to say,  it's great when they do.

FM: Did you dumb it down for us, here in Farmington?

IZ: There was no need to dumb it down. I know this is isn't in your questions, but I mentioned it on stage. It was like 80% certain that I was going to have to cancel this stint of the tour—my sax and bass player bailed, canceled at the last minute. When I told Tim Smith he said, no way. He pulled out all the stops, put me in touch with musicians he knew. We persevered.

FM: Sounds like Tim shored you up in a big way.

IZ: Yes, he wasn't the only one, but he was one of the biggest proponents of continuing the tour. He looks at things not so much as a club owner but from the perspective of the fans, how disappointed they'd feel if we didn't make it. So the group you saw tonight came together. Musicians like me.

FM: Izzy, I don't mean to flatter, but clearly you are a man of abundant talent, you could do anything you wanted to do, so I have to ask: why music? Why this music?

IZ: I've been playing guitar a really long time, since I was 13. My dad's a guitar player. He teaches finger style at The New School. He's into early Ragtime, Bluegrass, Mississippi Delta blues. I dug all that too, and Chuck Berry, then metal and punk. I've been through many musical metamorphoses: honky-tonk, gypsy influences. I played with Wayne Hancock.

FM: Sorry, he hasn't played The Vault yet; should I know him?

IZ: Yes! Roots singer/songwriter. Legit, old school country. I was so proud of myself, a New Yorker going to Texas, getting that gig. When I left Austin, it was to start a band, a band where I can play all of it, all the music I love to play. I couldn't really see myself playing only one thing that was straight ahead down the line.

Obviously this band is an extension of me, my creative energy, the original rock 'n roll songs I've written that we perform. But the truth is, that we haven't stopped touring in three years, 200 to 250 gigs a year. It's all sculpted...by The Vault, the gigs in Texas, or Belgium. One song, I might play it before audiences 40 times before it's finished. I think of the process I'm involved in, and I haven't expressed this thought to anyone before, as the collective creator.

FM: The collective creator! Izzy, that's great. I know exactly what you mean; I feel that way about Written Word, Spoken Word, that it gives voice to others. I'm the one who writes it, but there's more to it than that—how it's shaped, what questions it seeks to answer.

Your performance style is wholehearted, the way you sing out, how the notes extend to the outer limits. Whole-bodied too—animated, alive! But I can't help noticing how you talk with your hands while you sing. Not your head, not your butt, or your crotch, but your hands. How did that evolve? Is it a tick of ethnicity? Is it to enhance communication, a kind of sign language with your audience?

IZ: I'll try and break it down for you. I'm half Jewish, a quarter Italian, and a quarter Irish, so, yeah, the Jewish-Italian three quarters could account for it. But I'm not thinking hands any more than any other part of my body when I'm acting out my original tunes.

I come from Washington Heights; it's a Dominican neighborhood now, mostly known for George Carlin, Christopher Walken, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Tiny Tim and--

FM: --Izzy Zaidman.

IZ: Yeah, thanks. In terms of others I'm mimicking: Carl Perkins, the way he moves, hip, bopping; also Bad Brains, they're my favorite band. And Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, Fats Waller.

FM: Speaking of Fats, my next question is...

IZ: Yes...?

FM: Who's your "Lulu?"

IZ: Hah! I don't have a Lulu. Or maybe I have a few Lulus stashed away.

FM: I know you're a writer of short stories, that you're interested in literature, so I'm particularly curious about the name you chose for your band Izzy and The Catastrophics, particularly its grammar. You took an adjective, one with multiple meanings, and morphed it into a noun.

IZ: It's intended in the planetary sense—hurricanes, tsunamis; all hugely chaotic, possibly damaging forces of nature. Except for their potentially negative consequences for humans and animals they're not necessarily a bad thing for the Earth, though certainly not happy and friendly events.

It has also in part to do with my internal philosophy, the wisdom in ripping things apart to shake things up.

FM: And you feel your original music is the most efficacious way for you to do that?

IZ: I enjoy it. It comes from somewhere before the age of reason. There are these genetic patterns. So yes, this volcano's gonna erupt.