Biking From Hannibal To Palmyra

I need to write the fourth and final installment of my Jail Tale series (it’ll be the best one!) but an experience I had today also needs to be written up.

When I was finally released from jail I was happy, as you can imagine.  To actually see the sky again!  Mundane issues preoccupied me, though; I wanted my’ keys and cash.  I got out at the same time as a reprobate druggie named Ray.  He got his personal stuff and a check for the amount of cash he had in his pocket when he was arrested.  My turn came and they gave me my checkbook and keys.

“Where’s my money?” I exclaimed.  They took $25.00 in cash from me when I was booked.

“Oh, the book-keeper went home.  Come back tomorrow.”

“It ain’t easy for me to get up here to Palmyra!”

“Well, that’s too bad.”

I was pissed off.  They took my cash and wanted me to jump through hoops to get it back.  A couple of days later I was talking with a man whose brother was interested in buying my albatross of a building, the place I lived in for four years.  I hit him up for a ride to Palmyra to get my cash.

We got to the jail and the man dimly visible behind the mirrored glass told me “Sorry! The book-keeper had to leave early; her father’s been sick lately.”

I’m as empathetic (probably more so) than the next guy, but I must confess I didn’t really care about the book-keeper’s father.

In the weeks since then I’ve had a series of difficult phone calls with the jail administrator.  Running the gauntlet of robot answerers isn’t fun for anyone.  I requested that they mail me the check.  This morning I called and was informed that they just couldn’t mail me a check.

I could have hit up a friend for a ride to Palmyra, but I would have felt obligated to put some gas in their vehicle’s tank, and it just irked me to think I would have to pay money to get what was owed to me.

This morning was another cool one, and after my last conversation with the jail administrator I decided to ride my bike up to Palmyra and get my money.  If I waited much longer I was afraid that they would invoke some rule like “Sorry, Mr. Ayers — after thirty days we get to keep the money!”  I wouldn’t put it past them.

I rode up Rt. 61 on this sunny but cool morning.  The main annoyances were the passage of noisy semis and the long uphill grades, some of which were over a mile long.  I had to dismount and walk up the last bit of a few of them.  It was about eleven or twelve miles from my doorstep to the jail.  I had to stop once to rest my legs and lungs.

It took me a little over an hour to get to the jail in Palmyra.  I walked in and faced a mirrored-glass counter.  I couldn’t see if anyone was in there.

“Anyone there?  I’m here to get my money.”

A disembodied voice from behind the glass said:

“Please step over to the next counter, sir.”

I did, and slid my driver’s license and receipt under the glass.

I waited awhile and a man stepped through a door and gave me a check.

“Where’s my driver’s license?”

“You never gave it to me!” said the functionary.

“I slid it under the glass just now!”

My heart sank.  When would this bureaucratic crap end?

I said “I slid it under the glass like the man told me to!”

The obscure figure said “Oh, maybe it fell under the desk.”

He got down on his hands and knees and groped under the desk.

“Oh, here it is!”

He gave me my license and I left quickly.  I don’t  like that place!

I cashed the check at the gas station next door and headed back to Hannibal.  As always, a long round-trip bike ride always seems like it’s uphill both ways — you remember the long uphill grades, but the downhill slopes pass by so quickly that only a brief impression remains.

Several times while riding I was shadowed by a bird overhead squawking at me.  I didn’t even bother to look up — I know the sound a red-winged blackbird makes when you intrude upon its nesting territory.

I must confess I had to walk the bike towards the end of a few of the long upwards grades.  I figured it was a lesser expenditure of energy and wasn’t all that much slower.  It was a relief to use a different set of muscles.

After riding twenty-two miles I was ready for a nap.  I’m not accustomed to riding such distances, but I had the satisfaction of getting my money back!

Larry

An Annoyingly Common Misusage

In journalism there is often a confusion of the two words pour and pore.  One pours liquid from a decanter — one pores over a hitherto secret document.  I see this all of the time, and sometimes wish I didn’t.  A contrived example: “He eagerly poured over the communique from headquarters.”  This mistake only works one way; no-one writes “The bartender pored more whiskey into the sot’s fingerprint-begrimed glass.”  Here’s an example from the Financial Times in a headline, no less:

Why does this mistake escape the editors and proofreaders?  Possibly because the error almost makes sense — I suppose one could imagine someone “pouring” their attention, if that attention is visualized as a metaphorical liquid; a bit of a stretch, but one which leads to errors in print.

When I first contemplated writing about this burning issue, which threatens Western civilization as we know it (just kidding!), the word solecism came to mind — but the word didn’t seem quite right.  I did a bit of desultory research and came across this quote which explains why that word isn’t apropos:

Samuel Johnson once wrote:

A barbarism may be in one word; a solecism must be of more.

Just some early-morning musings…

Larry

Park Bench Confab

This morning was another fine one, cool and sunny, with the sun shining obliquely from low in the southeastern sky. The sun gave just enough benign warmth to temper the coolness of the air.

I hadn’t intended to go on a walk just yet  — I’d just had my coffee and I was still barefoot.   I was trying to read an essay on the web, part of the daily harvest of essays and articles provided by that digital/cultural garden Arts and Letters Daily (http://www.aldaily.com).

Unfortunately Ubu the difficult dog, an Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix, was distracting me with her yips and barking every time someone passed the house, walking along the sidewalk.  I sighed.

“C’mon, Ubu, let’s go out on the porch for a while, okay?”

Ubu eagerly followed me to the front door.  I leashed her before we went out.  Once out on the porch I was struck by the sheer fineness of the morning.  I couldn’t help but walk down the sidewalk a ways, the dog by my side snuffling up mysterious odors from the grass bordering the cracked and misaligned slabs of concrete.

I felt that familiar sense of vulnerability which increased the farther I ventured from home with bare feet.  What if there was broken glass or sharp gravel?  The cool and humid atmosphere gradually effaced that trivial worry and we walked on.  He was speaking of a summer evening rather than a morning, but Henry Thoreau’s rhapsodic description of “imbibing delight through every pore” came to mind.

Before long the dog and I were in Central Park, with its diagonal sidewalks converging upon a central fountain.  We approached a park bench.  I greeted the two old men, one of them white and the other black, who were sitting side by side on the bench, each with a newspaper partially folded on his lap.  They were evidently discussing the news of the day, with the newspapers providing the seeds of conversation.

The white man was bald and looked to be in his seventies.  The black man was a bit younger and wore overalls; perched on the back of his head was one of those engineer caps which look as if they are sewn from old-fashioned blue-and-white-striped mattress ticking.

I didn’t stop, but as I passed by I heard an intriguing sentence fragment:

“…now three or four hundred years ago…”

What could they have been talking about?  I prefer not knowing — I delight in speculating about the context of that fragment.

Larry

Ubu Steps Out

Saturday was a beautiful day.  I was enjoying my new-found proximity to Hannibal’s riverfront, first riding my bike down to Central Park, where I talked and played music with eccentric troubadour Jake, then down to Main Street.

Jake told me that he was getting itchy feet and planned to head north on I-61.

“I’ve been in this town for two weeks and that’s a long time for me, Larry!  I’ve met some nice folks here, but the open road calls me.”

“So where are you headed?”

“North to I-80, I guess.  I might go east and I might go west.  I hope travelin’ with the kitten works out!  I’ve decided not to take the guitar with me, just the mandolin and my harmonicas.  I’m worried that I might break a mandolin string way out in the middle of nowhere, so in a while I’m headed up Broadway to Mr. Haug’s music store.  I’m hopin’ that he’ll trade me a set of strings for that guitar.”

“I imagine he will.  He could easily sell that guitar for twenty bucks, even with that crudely-repaired bridge.  Albert’s a good guy.”

I bade Jake adieu and pedaled on down to Main Street.  I was sorry that Jake was leaving town, as I had just met him.  There will be others, though, as Hannibal seems to be a magnet for eccentric drifters.

Down on Main St. I heard the distinctive sound of a sweet-toned soprano sax echoing from the storefronts.  I had an idea of who that might be!  For the past year a silver-haired British man has been living in Hannibal, a veteran of many a dance band years ago.  I parked my bike by the curb and spent some time listening to dulcet improvisations on classic standards from the thirties and forties, such as Django Reinhardt’s Nuages and Cole Porter’s Night and Day.  The sax player, Rex, was accompanied by another Larry, a retired Navy veteran playing a classical guitar.  Rex had written out chord charts which Larry followed assiduously, creating a rhythmic trellis for the sinuously baroque vines of Rex’s sweet playing.

I had been home twice during the course of my excursions, grabbing a bite to eat and using the bathroom.  The girls were conked out, not uncommon for them during the daytime, and Myrlene was secluded in a room upstairs, nursing a cough and trying to get some rest.  Each time I came into the house the dog Ubu exhibited such excitement, dashing around the living room and wanting attention, as if to say:

“I am s-o-o bored, Larry!  I’ve chewed and torn up anything I could find, gotten into the trash, and harassed the cats.  Let’s do something fun!”

I felt sorry for the six-month-old dog.  She gets plenty of loving from Myrlene and the girls, and I try to be nice to her (when she isn’t acting up), but she obviously needed to be taken outside.   Up until now I had felt that she wasn’t my dog, and that exercising her wasn’t my responsibility, but I couldn’t help but respond to her wordless entreaties.  Myrlene had said to me when I first moved in “I tried to take Ubu walking, but she just pulls too hard!”  I think  Myrlene might have tried one time some months ago.

“Okay, Ubu, let’s get a leash on you!” I said and off we went, walking down Center Street towards Central Park.  I was pleasantly surprised — the dog kept close to my side and picked up on the old dominance game between human and canine.  Perhaps because I’m the only male in the house, Ubu responds appropriately to my gruff “No” when she was tempted to bark at people or cars, or attempted to forge on ahead of me.  I think she was just so grateful to get away from the house and explore the invisible scent landscape that she was very anxious to please me.

Since that day I’ve taken Ubu out a couple times a day; her hyperactive tendencies seem to have been somewhat ameliorated and I can’t help but respond to her joy at being allowed to trot alongside me.  Perhaps I’ll be able to inveigle Myrlene or (more likely) Myrlene’s younger daughter Ronnie to spell me from time to time.  I won’t even bother to ask the older daughter Bobbie (“I’m 18 and I can do what I want!”), as she doesn’t do anything else around here.  I’ll be lucky if I can induce Bobbie to quit stubbing out cigarettes in her dishes!

Larry

Minor Street Mishap

After writing the previous post I got up from my chair and looked out at Dulany Street through the kitchen screen door.  Rain had been falling earlier and I was glad to see that it had quit, as I was wanting to get out and walk before the heat sets in.

I glimpsed a nine-year-old girl riding by.  She lives just up the street with her grandma and younger brother.  I’ve talked with her several times when I’ve been sitting on the front steps and she has ridden her bike down the sidewalk.

I was about to return to the computer when I heard a commotion out in the street and a child crying.  I was barefoot, but I walked down the steps to the street to see what had happened.

The girl’s little brother had been riding a scooter alongside her bike.  The boy had fallen over and scraped his knees.  His sister had laid her bike over and was trying to comfort him.   She picked him up and said “Let’s get you back to grandma’s, okay?”

The boy wailed “Nobody cares about me!”

As she walked back up the sidewalk the girl responded in soothing tones “Now you know I care about you — you’re my little brother, after all!”

While the two of them were gone I righted the bicycle and moved it and the scooter out of the street and up onto the sidewalk.

The girl returned without her brother.  I said “Want me to carry the scooter back so you can ride your bike?”

“Sure, that’d be great!”

As we proceeded up the sidewalk the girl said “My brother is such a little drama queen!  He’s acting like he can’t walk now, and he hardly got scraped up at all!”

“Ah, he’s just wantin’ some sympathy.”

We got to their house and I leaned the scooter up against the porch.  While the girl was thanking me her grandma peered out suspiciously from a lace-curtained window.

I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to write about this minor incident but for the girl’s use of the phrase “drama queen”.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a nine-year-old use the phrase before.  Now to do some research — when was that phrase first used?  I don’t think it’s all that old.

Addendum:  this quote from one of those “answer sites” seems to express the consensus about the term’s origins:

It’s my understanding that the word drama queen first started out as a reference to a gay person in drag (Drag Queen) getting angry. The word came into the general language when it was accepted by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a “new word” in 1996.

Larry

Jake and Shane

This afternoon I just had to get out of the house.  Myrlene, the mother here, and her younger daughter Ronnie were suffering from some obscure summer respiratory ailment and their coughing was getting on my nerves, as were the constant rumbling dialogs and phony laughter emanating from the TV in the next room.  I ate a spare lunch, did a load of laundry and one of dishes, and took a bath.  Such mundane tasks completed, I thought I’d walk down to Central Park, which is just a few blocks down the street.   I’ve been enjoying living closer to the riverfront.  You never know who you might meet!

There were few people in the park on such a hot afternoon, but I spotted someone sitting on the steps of the bandstand.  I angled obliquely in that direction, ready to blithely sheer off if the person wasn’t of interest to me (or vice-versa).   As I approached I recognized the guy.  He’s been hanging around Hannibal for the past couple of weeks, often playing a guitar and singing a song with his backpack by his side.  I’ve seen him on the bench in front of the Java Jive coffee-house.

I said to him “Hey, you’ve got a guitar, and is that a mandolin behind your pack there?  I’m a musician too!”

We exchange names — his is Jake.  Jake is a remarkably cheerful thirty-year-old guy from Texas who hitch-hiked to Hannibal.  He has short hair and  is wearing an old-fashioned-looking shirt;  his trousers are held up by suspenders. Jake apparently wishes he was living in the 19th century.   Ah, a Primitivist!  The educator and historian Jacques Barzun uses the term to refer to a recurring trend in American thought characterized by a tendency to think modern innovations, both technological and cultural, are deplorable, and that a return to the habits of a simpler previous era is to be desired.   Curmudgeons often are inspired by Primitivist ideas, and such ideas, I freely admit, have influenced me.

Jake romanticizes the ’70s, back when hitch-hiking was so easy.  Many of his musical idols, such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, were in their prime then.  And then there were the ’50s, and the ’60s…

He also deplores modern youths with their sedentary habits, constant cell phone usage, and the salacious way young girls dress these days.  Yup, a curmudgeon in training, alright!

I sat down on the step next to Jake and we exchanged stories for a time.  I asked him “Isn’t it hard to get rides these days?”

“Well, sometimes it takes a while, but it helps if you have a guitar with you and smile a lot.  It also helps to have something to do by the side of the road, like reading or playing music.”

I asked Jake “So where are you staying these days?”

He was evasive, as many transients are when asked that question.

“I have no trouble finding places to sleep outside.  I’ve spent one night in a house since I found this downtown area.  Man, when I hitched into Hannibal on I-61 I was let out by Hardy’s and I set off walking towards the river.  I kept thinking ‘Where’s the Hannibal I’ve read about!’  It’s quite a long walk from the interstate to the river!”

“Yeah, I’ve walked it several times.  For a small town Hannibal is kinda all spread out!”

I noticed a tuna-fish can next to Jake’s backpack containing a handful of cat kibble.  I thought “Surely the guy isn’t subsisting on cat food!”   I thought that it would be prudent not to ask.

Of course I had many more questions to ask Jake, but I’d just met him — I had a feeling that I’d be seeing him again around town.  Questions such as “What’s a 30-year-old Texas guy doing pursuing a career as a modern American troubadour?” and “What happened in your life which compelled you to take off wandering the country with a guitar?”

Then I noticed a man approaching the bandstand from the fountain in the center of the park.  A skinny guy who capered and danced as he walked while playing blues riffs on a harmonica.  His hair was not quite shoulder length.  He was wearing a black cowboy hat which was either glazed black or very dirty.

Jake said “Hey, here comes Shane!  He’s a real modern-day hobo.  He rides the rails all over and he and I have been writing songs together.  He’s cool.”

I got such a kick out of Shane.  He may be an ex-con and an occasional drunk, but he has stories to tell and songs to sing accompanied by a very dramatically humorous manner.  He reminds me of those theatrical grifters or ne’r-do-wells in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the Duke and the Dauphin. Shane has a gypsy-like penetrating glance.  I’d love to photograph the man but I have to be circumspect and get to know him better first; otherwise I’m sure he would resist my entreaties.

Shane’s behavior wasn’t a consciously-contrived act, I surmised.  He would punctuate his stories with interjections from his harmonica and talking blues rhymed riffs which reminded me of Pete Seeger, all the while assuming dramatic postures and executing brief dance moves.  He may have been a bit crazed, but I enjoy the company (up to a point) of people uninhibited by conventional social conventions.  If I want the norm I can go to McDonalds or suchlike places.

The three of us talked of favorite musicians of the storied past.  Both Jake and Shane idolize Hank Williams and before long they began singing such songs as “Honky-Tonkin'” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”.  They couldn’t remember all of the words, making up for that lack with sheer cheery brio.

Sitting off to one side of us on the bandstand steps was a thirtyish man with a small leashed dog.  He was just hanging out and listening to the conversation and music.  At one point he said to Jake “Hey, where’s your kitty?”

“Oh, he’s found a little cubby-hole in my pack — I think he’s afraid of your dog.”

So this guy was hitch-hiking with a kitten!  This explained the kibble in the tuna can. I was relieved.

I told Jake about my experience hitch-hiking with a kitten from San Francisco to Quincy way back in 1972.

“Man, that is just so cool!  I’ve met people hitchin’ with a dog many a time but you hardly ever meet anyone hitchin’ with a cat.  Where’d your kitten ride?”

“He just perched on the top of my backpack and looked over my shoulder.”

As we talked more people began bringing their dogs to the park.  A woman with three unleashed dachshunds lost control of her dogs when they saw the man’s dog on the bandstand steps.  Barking tumult ensued.

I went home for a while, then returned to the park with my tenor banjo,  its neck resting on my shoulder and the round body cantilevered behind.   Jake was fascinated as I showed him how to play the instrument and then introduced him to the concept of arpeggios as building blocks of tunes.  We tried various duo combinations — banjo with mandolin, mandolin with guitar, etc.  Jake sang a medley of John Denver songs such as Rocky Mountain High and Country Boy, songs which predated him.

By this time the man with the small dog had left and I was curious: I wanted to meet the traveling kitten.  I walked to the other side of the backpack and peered into the cubby-hole.  A small kitten, which looked to be eight weeks old, ventured forth and began lapping up water from a tuna-fish can.  The kitten was the spitting image of two cats I’ve owned, both named Quercus: black with white feet, breast, and tail-tip.

I asked Jake “When did you get this kitten?”

“Just a few days ago.  The girl who gave her to me lives right across the street in one of those apartments.  I’m kinda worried about how she will do on the road.”

“Oh, you’ll get along fine, once the two of you have bonded.  I got mine at a commune in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.  I was headed out of town, waiting for a ride, and the kitten was freaked out by the traffic noises and several times tried to escape.  My hands got all scratched up.  I finally got a ride with a Japanese wig salesman and my kitten vomited on his back seat.

The Japanese man was nice about the mishap and gave me some tissues with which I cleaned up the mess.  He said “Have you been to Chinatown yet?”

“No, I never got over there.”

“What?!  You can’t leave San Francisco without visiting Chinatown!”

Before leaving town the wig-salesman and I took a stroll through Chinatown and he pointed out the sights.”

By this time Shane had returned.  He said to Jake:

“Remember, be here 6:30 Monday morning!  We’re gonna go out on the river with my friend Helen and get us some catfish!  And then when we get back Helen’ll show you how to clean ’em.”

I asked Shane “Who’s Helen?”

“Oh, she’s one cool lady.  She pays me to go out fishin’ with her!  I tell her she don’t need to do that, I’d do it for free, but she insists.  Last time we went fishin’ I caught one of them suckers, the ones with the big ol’ lips — looks just like Mick Jagger!”

Shane proceeded to mimic how he had manipulated the sucker’s lips and made it appear to be singing a Rolling Stones song.   A very funny scene, but by this time I’d had my fill of socializing and music.  I walked away, saying “See you guys around!”

Larry

Down On Main Street

Thursday evening I was sitting on a wood-slatted iron bench in front of the Java Jive coffee-house down on Hannibal’s center of 19th-century quaintness, Main Street.  With my fiddle strapped to my back and a concertina in its case dangling from one handlebar I had ridden my bike the four blocks from my current residence up on Center Street.

Thursday evenings the six members of the band Ralugerri have been practicing and jamming in “the first coffee-house west of the Mississippi”.  I’m the fiddler of the group.   I knew that few band-members would be showing up that evening due to other commitments.

The weather was about as good as it gets this time of year — low humidity, temperature in the low eighties, and a light breeze which might have been putting on airs, so to  speak, and privately thinking “I’m a zephyr, by gosh!”.

Quite a few people were strolling up and down the sidewalk, many of them walking dogs.  While I waited I exchanged greetings with people I knew.  In Hannibal’s old riverfront section it’s always fun to “spot the tourists”.  A dead giveaway is a child wearing a goofily-fringed straw hat; local kids would never think of wearing such headgear.

A pair of young guys approached me.  They were probably 19 or 20 and one had large studs in his earlobes, the sort of studs which are progressively replaced by larger ones as the lobes stretch out — I’m always reminded of stories in old issues of National  Geographic with photos of African tribespeople.

One of the boys looked quizzically at my fiddle case.

“Whatcha got in there, anyway?”

I was briefly tempted to pull the guy’s leg, saying that I had a machine gun or a tangle of live snakes in that case, but I wasn’t in a full-blown teasing mood.

“It’s a fiddle.  I play in a band with several other folks.”

The other boy was regarding the small and cubical concertina case.

“What the hell’s in that case?”

“A concertina.  You know, like a squeezebox.”  I opened the case and took out the instrument.  It has a cherry-wood frame and black leather bellows.

“Man, is that ever weird!  So it’s kinda like a little accordion, huh?”

“Yeah, somethin’ like that.”

The first guy said “Y’know, it’s funny how almost nobody plays instruments anymore, like out on the porch or down at the park.  Everybody wants to stay inside in the air-conditioning.”

I said “Well, there’s Guitar Hero, but that ain’t quite the same, is it?”

Rob, the band’s percussionist, showed up with his bodhran and bones and sat down beside me on the bench.  We played several tunes together and as always I enjoyed hearing his sometimes-syncopated rhythmic backup as I gently teased new variations from old melodies.  Sidewalk strollers would stop and listen for a while, then walk on.  It was a pleasant evening interlude.

Larry

Back To West Virginia

It was 4:00 AM and I had unaccountably awakened.  I walked up Broadway, which was deserted at that early hour.  The air was cool and humid.  The automatic doors of the Abel’s Shell station silently glided open for me.  It’s the only downtown gas station open all night.

Not surprisingly, Scott was working the night shift.  He gets bored during the wee hours and he and I have often conversed.  Scott lives down in the depths of the ‘hood, somewhere on Spruce Street.  He doesn’t like the neighborhood but the house was a bargain, as properties in that area tend to be.

Scott and I chatted for a while, and I bought a copy of the coming day’s Hannibal Courier-Post.  The paper isn’t worth fifty cents, really — the coverage of Hannibal events is spotty at best and the paper really could use the services of a proof-reader.  I’ve seen misspellings in headlines!

I stepped out of the station and a scruffy-looking man approached me.  He seemed to be drunk.

“Hey, man, how do ya get to Rt. 61?”

I told him, and he said “I need to get to Interstate 64 headin’ east.”

“64 branches off from 61 way down by St. Louis.  Why do you need to get on I-64?”

“Oh, man, I’ve had a time of it tonight!  Me and the wife were campin’ up by Quincy and we got in a fight.  She kicked me out and she has the car and my wallet!  All I want to do is get back to West Virginai!”

“How’re you gonna get there?”  My curiosity was aroused.  Yet another piece of human flotsam drifting through Hannibal…

“I guess I’ll hitch-hike.”

“Well, good luck to you.  Hitchin’ ain’t as easy as it was thirty years ago.”

I walked back up Broadway, thinking about the man and his plight.  I could have pressed him for more details, but I felt I had heard enough of his story to reconstruct the sordid remainder!

Larry

Greek Myths, And A New Word

The influence of the Greek myths has declined during the past few decades, it seems.  Latin and Greek were once thought to be languages worthy of being taught in our schools, as essential components of a well-rounded education; I witnessed the dying phase of this idea.  When I was in high school Latin was still being taught, but only geeky intellectuals from wealthy families took the optional course.  Now young people aren’t being offered Latin or Greek, as education has assumed a utilitarian role as merely a preparation for the job market.

I didn’t take Latin in high school.  Nobody ever explained to me the possible benefits of learning  a dead language, the tongue of an ancient race which had an enormous influence on our culture.  Yeah, I’m a curmudgeon!

My first exposure to the corpus of Greek mythology was a Classics Illustrated comic book version of The Odyssey.  I still have vivid mental images from that pulpy effort to bring the old stories to young people; the cover is a classic attention-getter:

This past winter I enjoyed reading stories and tales from a Library of America edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short pieces.  Hawthorne was one of 19th-century America’s best prose stylists; as I dipped into the collection, reading such fine stories as “The Birthmark” and “The Intelligence Office”, I happened across the writer’s children’s story collection based upon Greek myths: “A Wonder Book For Boys and Girls”.

The familiar old myths are charmingly retold in the collection, although because the stories were intended for kids Hawthorne thoroughly bowdlerized and sometimes even sanforized the hoary old myths.  The sex and violence were lightly skimmed over or expurgated completely.  Hawthorne’s renditions whetted my appetite.  I recalled that I had somewhere a copy of Robert Calasso’s interpretation of the Greek myths, a 1993 volume entitled “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”.  Some years ago I had started the book but didn’t get very far.  It’s a dense and challenging book.

This time I became engrossed.  Calasso is a born storyteller, treminding me of another Italian author, Italo Calvino.

“The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” has no introduction.   The reader is plunged into a sea of interrelated stories.  Here’s the first one.  Notice how Calasso gives just enough descriptive detail to make the scene come alive:

“On a beach in Sidon a bull was aping a lover’s coo.  It was Zeus. He shuddered, the way he did when a gadfly got him.  But this time it was a sweet shuddering.  Eros was lifting a girl onto his back: Europa.  Then the white beast dived into the sea, his majestic body rising just far enough above the water to keep the girl from getting wet.  There were plenty of witnesses.  Triton answered the amorous bellowing with a burst on his conch.  Trembling, Europa hung onto one of the bull’s long horns.  Boreas spotted them too as they plowed through the waves.  Sly and jealous, he whistled when he saw the young breasts his breath had uncovered.  High above, Athena blushed at the sight of her father bestraddled by a girl.  An Achaean sailor saw them and gasped.  Could it be Tethys, eager to see the sky?  Or just some Nereid with clothes on her back for a change?  Or was it that trickster Poseidon carrying off another wench?

Europa, meantime, could see no end to this crazy sea crossing.  But she guessed what would happen to her when they hit land again.  And she shouted to wind and water: “Tell my father Europa has been carried off by a bull — my kidnapper, my sailor, my future bedmate, I imagine.  Please, give this necklace to my mother.”  She was going to call to Boreas too, ask him to lift her up on his wings, the way he’d done with his own bride, Oreithyia, from Athens.  But she bit her tongue: why swap one abductor for another?

But how did it all begin?  A group of girls were playing by the river, picking flowers.  Again and again such scenes were to prove irresistible to the gods.  Persephone was carried off “while playing with the girls with deep cleavages.”  She too had been gathering flowers: roses, crocuses, violets, irises, hyacinths, narcissi.  But mainly narcissi, “that wondrous, radiant flower, awesome to the sight of gods and mortals alike.”  Thalia was playing ball in a field of flowers on the mountainside when she was clutched by an eagle’s claws: Zeus again.  Creusa felt Apollo’s hands lock around her wrists as she bent to pick saffron on the slopes of the Athens Acropolis.  Europa and her friends were likewise gathering narcissi, violets, rose, thyme.”

Oh, I’m tired of typing.  Come back tomorrow and I’ll type out an example of Calasso’s attraction to perverse and obscene episodes from the Greek myths.  How’s that for a teaser?

Larry

Jail Tale, Part Three

Another jail vignette:

Inmates in a county jail may be outlaws, but many of them aren’t stupid.  They have time weighing heavy on their hands, and sometimes ingenious solutions to humiliating problems bear fruit and spread to neighboring cell-blocks.  Here’s an example which impressed me, and once again I reiterate my regret at not being allowed the use of a camera.

In D-Block the shower is located under the stairs to the balcony.  Three cells are upstairs and four down below.  The shower as it was originally installed was designed by some malicious soul.  There are two buttons which control the flow of hot and cold water; the harder the buttons are pushed the stronger the flow of water.  The humiliation comes from the impossibility of washing one’s self while both hands are occupied by pushing those buttons.

Human ingenuity comes to the rescue!  I’ve been in two cell blocks, and in each one someone had figured out a way of stringing shoe-laces in a mesh over the buttons.  An empty water-bottle or a sandal can be wedged under the network of laces and if you’re careful, the appropriate and preferred mix of hot and cold water can be set, and you can use your hands to apply soap and wash.  New inmates have to ask a veteran how to work the system.  Seeing how this worked just cheered me up and kept me from dwelling on the Kafkaesque aspects of my plight.  Franz would have loved it!