Tuesday, March 16, 2010

After a day at the writing factory

We just got off the day shift at our respective “writing factories,” two fellas trying the change the world one sentence at a time. Shaking off the ghosts of carpal tunnel, each nursing hangnails, each weather-beaten following a full day of search-and-rescue missions for misplaced modifiers, we duck inside the East Side Café like men used to do daily at this hour. Here’s where a fella can find relief, pretend he’s a character in a hard-boiled Philip Marlow novel, eat decent grub, drink himself silly if he chooses, and no one asks any questions.
"What a day," Danny says.
"What a day," I agree.
We order a round.
The sun just zipped the day to a close like a body bag. Winter has been dismantling itself, a fair maiden after an ugly night, her mascara running. All this snow mixed with mud, mixed with something green, maybe a desperate clump of grass, maybe an errant mitten, maybe a Marlowe-like metaphor that escapes me.
After months of mindless circling, those ski lifts up there at Bosquet now resemble something more organic than mechanic, like a crawling vine with dangling fruit. In the booth here, under orange light, with the Sox pre-season game on the muted tube in the background, I rub my eyes and Danny rubs his hands.
"Danny," I say, "is it true this place serves the best pizza in the county?"
"Truer than true," Danny says. And Danny doesn’t lie. He sometimes gets things horribly wrong, but he never lies. He grew up a mile away, here in the Lakewood section of Pittsfield, Mass., in the shadows of the former G.E. Here in Lakewood, old Italian-Americans like Danny’s father still grow a year’s worth of tomatoes in mattress-sized gardens, still shuffle down to the East Side Café at 5 p.m. and still don’t talk about those medals that were pinned to them during the horrors of World War II.
Danny, Pittsfield’s one-man mob scene, a blogger who has been causing this city’s leaders to spend their days and evenings nervously pressing the refresh button on their computers, knows most of the things that are good to know as well as the things that are best not to know. He even knows most of the things he says he doesn't know because it's best for you not know, as you may well imagine.
And that's why, with Danny, I try to keep the conversations culinary-, Red Sox-, and word-warrior in nature. We call that "subject-verb agreement."
“So is the crust thick or thin?”
"It's thin. It's greasy. It's good," he says.
"A big pizza, please," I tell the waitress.
"We don't serve pizza on Wednesdays," she tells us.
I turn to Danny. "You should have known that," I say.
"I did know that," he says.
Maybe he thought it best I come to know these things on my own. Or maybe a split infinitive knocked him cold earlier in the day. It's difficult to know. Things can get confusing in the Lakewood section of Pittsfield.
"Why don't you serve pizza on Wednesdays?" I want to ask the waitress, but then decide otherwise because I’m certain I know the answer: It's because they don't feel like it.
We both order the gnocchi with meatballs. We order another round. Though the gnocchi tastes nothing like the best pizza in the county, it's tasty.
Here in this working-class neighborhood that rings around the collar of the junk heap of G.E., we marvel at how working men of previous generations used to stop at bars like this each day on their way home from work. Till the dinner bell rang in their heads, they would toss darts and drink beer that tasted like the residue of slow combustion. Between work and home they led lives that thrashed about like Houdini in handcuffs.
“Jeez, I never do this,” I say.
“Who has the time?”
“Who has the money?”
“My wife would be really ticked off if this became a habit.”
“My boy would pretend he doesn’t know me; in fact, maybe he wouldn’t know me.”
For Danny and me, in contrast, ours is the trajectory of a yo-yo (of the Duncan variety, not the dopey variety). We rock the cradle. We walk the dog. We fling ourselves out in the morning then ricochet back home.
I rub my belly. Danny rubs his eyes. The waitress takes our plates away. As much as we're tempted to order another round and become part of the East Side décor, we live in different times. Plus, I’ve got to paint the bathroom trim, and he has to do something involving his wife’s internet connection.
So we leave, Danny and I — he knowing what the best pizza in the county tastes like, and me knowing how there are some things I’m not meant to know, including whether I would’ve been an excellent dart player back in the day.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Driven to interaction

Two years ago, when gas prices seemed magnetically attracted to $4 a gallon and even the most hard-boiled possessors of gun racks talked of melting their Ford F150s into plowshares, I proposed an experiment to my wife.

“How about I get rid of my car and go carless and see if it’s possible.”

Her response was something like, “Yeah, good idea, ya idiot.”


We live in a rural area. The choreography of child-rearing and employment preservation is heavily dependent upon internal-combustion-for-all. Yet, in the mysterious curvature of space-time – where every now and then the curlicue of irrational dreams falls upon fate that loiters like a rat – I am now in Month Five of not driving.

Here’s my report: Carlessness is possible. I’ve ridden shotgun beside many interesting people. I’ve logged many pleasant miles on my Merrells. And though I’m suddenly seeing rhythms in the world I hadn’t noticed before, in conversation I try hard to resist the temptation to downshift into the sort of intolerable, low-gear ponderings made famous by Verlyn Klinkenborg (that’s difficult, I must admit).

Though certainly you could say my proposed protest against fossil fuels was premeditated, that’s not how I found myself being motorless in a motorist world. I had a seizure in September that knocked me cold. By law, in Massachusetts, I cannot drive for six seizure-free months. So far – knock on a Dodge Woody – so good.

Klinkenborgish meditations on the slow life aren’t my only vice these days. But geez, what am I to do? Am I not to take note of the seasonally foreclosed upon robins’ nest atop a tree by the playground? Doggone it, when you’re no longer a card-carrying member of the forward-heaving herd, when you're no longer steering effortlessly upon the earth's surface, the world engulfs you as its own. Your five senses take five solemn oaths of engagement.

Crap. You see what I mean?

Klinkenborgish crap, Part II: You notice the intricate rhythms of the world like never before. The same tradesman with a coffee in his hand takes the same left-hand-turn at the same corner at the same time each weekday morning. The same high school student makes a dash for the bus with his coat unzipped, still chewing his breakfast. I could go on. The same guy in a blue Jeep passes me at the same time while shifting into second (he waved to me during Month One, now in Month Five no longer waves, probably out of respect for the fact we don't know each other). I’ve imposed a new syncopated beat in my own right, maybe the only one within miles coupled to these rhythms – me and the guy across town who got a DUI.

Judy, a neighbor, sometimes drives me to work. Her daughter serves in Iraq. Her son is sick like me. Her front porch is about to collapse due to dry rot. I never knew these things until I became her passenger.

Sally, who is usually going my way, sometimes drives me in the afternoons. She suffers from chronic headaches. She dreams of living in Miami. I never knew these things until I became her passenger.

My other new vice concerns emotions and marriage. I don’t wish to freak out my wife with the intolerable sappiness of Sappho, but I’ve come to understand the meaning of the most powerful words ever uttered by woman and man – to love each other “through sickness and in health.” Now in Month Five, she has yet to blink. Of course she hasn’t! But … but, still.

We were at Race Point at the tip of Cape Cod 10 years ago when we made our marriage vows. She was stunning in her grandmother’s wedding dress. I had mustered up as much handsomeness as was within my means. Sickness was not on our minds. Then this: A crash course in old age for me, a heaping load of new responsibilities for her, and a profound respect for that one particular vow whose implications were only theoretical at the time.

She’s the one who drives me the most – to get my haircut, to the community center, to the store. I'm a powerless passenger, my hands bookended between my knees like I'm eight-years old again. She drives too fast sometimes. I sometimes need to hang on to the door handle. I’ve learned to shut up about these things because of the other things. I've learned to shut up about the fact she can't bring herself to make it through a single sentence of Verlyn Klinkenborg without yawning. But who really cares?

I could now trace her profile while blindfolded. That's what's important.

Through internal combustion and eternal combustion, she drives me all the way to love.