This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, March 11, 2007

My Western Swing

THIS PAST WEEKEND I had the honor of being invited to Heath, Massachusetts, Northhampton, Massachusetts, and Brattleboro, Vermont-- two of which I had been to before in some hazy, distant, unremembered past, and one of which I had never heard of-- all of them were 'out that a-way,' and please do recall the South Boston geographic predeliction of seeing East Boston right across 'the ha-bah' all one's life, and yet never visiting that locale as, well, 'what's ovuh there anyways?'
Unlike 'Eastie,' one cannot see the town of Heath, Massachusetts, from South Boston, although perhaps Janet Birchfield in her weather tower might; or, I should say, one can only see it with the mind's eye, or if one, like Petey in Map of the Harbor Islands, is particularly deeply-sighted-- maybe there is an alley somewhere in South Boston that shows not only Petey's stars, but, looking to the west, a cluttered, clattered foreground, an urban miasma, a suburban waste, and then, at last, row after row of ridges at the westward, slanting, rising oblong and wonderfully asymmetrical above one until they become hills, then mountains, with valleys between, noisy with rushing, urgent, frigid water hurrying over black stone.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, as my late father would have said. The weekend began with a delightful drive out to Northhampton, "Where the Mountains are strong and so are the woman," according to the most popular coffee mugs. Friday afternoon was a perfect day for motoring, sunny, dry, and pleasant, although Fionn did not cooperate in that he had refused to do his poopsters earlier in the day and really didn't have to do them, apparently, until we got onto the Massachusetts Turnpike, where he began squirming, squealing, and having, alas, doggy gas. We took the direct way out, concerned somewhat with time, which was the Mass Pike to I-91 and then up I-91 to Northhampton. Typically, I had forgotten the directions at home, but cities as large as Northhampton are fairly easy to find, certainly more so that a wad of paper containing directions to said city, and I remembered from having casually perused the directions that the book store we were reporting to was on either a Crafts Street or a Croft Street. Unlike Boston, people are quite friendly in Northhampton and offer directions quite readily-- they also stop if you're waiting to cross the street, another unusual trait. Alas, I had spilled a rather copious amount of apple juice between my legs just before getting out of the car, and had felt with some chagrin the liquid spreading everywhere, mostly downward. Thus I had a wet bum, a phenomenon that isn't especially comfortable, whether one is in Boston or Northhampton, and a very large, wet stain occupying the greater part of the back of the seat of my chinos. So, when we found Pride and Joy Bookstore, run by Mark Carmien, proprietor and ably assisted by Amy (I think-- or Mehgan) my first request was that we find a store where I could find a quick substitute for the soaked stained pants I was wearing. Mark left the shop under Amy's care and took us out and about, and it was a nice, if unusual, way to get a quick tour of that wonderful city: an old mill-ish (if not mill) town in the semi-hinterlands that has been lucky enough, due probably to its proximity to colleges and its diverse demographic, to have not gone the way of Waterbury, CN, and other old grand cities of that ilk, i.e., to hell in an outsourced handbasket, while the Federal Government watches these cities rot on the vine.

I was impresed that Mark said hello to so many people that he knew, and vice-versa-- it's a real community there, with lots of stuff happening in the vibrant and active art scene-- movie houses, play houses, readings, music, etc. And really gorgeous civic architecture, which is such a telling barometer of how people regarded what used to be called 'the common weal' back in the day, when building a stunning and inspiring Italian Renaissance Revival Courthouse, Playhouse, School, Library or Museum seemed like a good idea of what to do with taxpayers' money. Mark spared no time or annoyance in helping us try to find a new pair of pants-- we tried a few different stores-- a fussy, almost South Endish men's store with $80 dungarees, blonde harward floors, cute twink clerk (but sans attitude) and killer sound-system; an outdoor equipage place, then another; and a really wonderful warren of a store that carried everything from first pressed extra virgin olive oil, aloe vera lotion, power bars and boots to underwear and cereal.

By this time my pants were more or less dry, so I forgot about that and got a few power bars instead. By this time it was the moment to meet the folks we were having dinner with, and Mark very kindly treated Chris and I, and we were joined by his partner; Dave from Heath, who had been instrumental in setting up the weekend; and their friends, about eight or ten of us all told. We went to this very lively, two story, Aspen-like affair called The Brewery off a sidestreet, and the food was really wonderful, as was the conversation. There I learned that Dave's place (Benson Place, as it is called, atop Burnt Hill in Heath) was cheek to jowl with anicent megaliths that, reportedly, have been carbon dated at thousands and thousands of years old. Some of the accompanying walls and ridges leading up to this mountain-top shrine are on Dave's property, while the hill top standing stones themselves are on the next farm over, where the new owners don't allow the easy public access to the site that the previous owners did. We left the restaurant only minutes before 8, then, while I got Fionn back from the car, everyone hustled back to the bookstore.

It was a very nice and wonderfully welcoming, friendly crowd, all male, with a mixed age demographic. I read the title story from Now Batting for Boston (an admittedly heavy choice) then after a pause read some from Chapter Two of Map of the Harbor Islands. There was a great and lively discussion afterwards about a number of things, most of which I forget now as I was very tired, after having battled the flu for like ten days. Funny to say there was an old teammate of mine from my days at the Beantown Softball League (the gay softball league in Boston) named Michael who now lives in Springfield, MA with his partner. A lot of the folks there that evening had not heard of me or my work before, so that's always a good thing to expose new people to my work. The reading kind of recovened at one of the neighborhood bars, but I was too tired for that at this point. But a wonderful evening was had by all.

The ride out to Heath the next day was fraught with many sidelines and diversions-- as the wonderful saying has it, 'The good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.' Once again Fionn did not cooperate in the 'morning business' department and so we had to stop at some rest place somewhere in mid-Massachusetts-- the rest place had a little gift shop and therein were lots of interesting books about local history (especially Johnny Appleseed). I bought two copies of the most beautiful post card I had ever seen, a picture of the Green Heron, one of more wondrous native birds that I have had the pleasure of seeing, once down the Mystic River, and once down the Charles very late at night. Our stomachs were grumbling at some point so, taking Dave's advice (we were heading out to his mountain place in Heath) we sought out the well-known 'People's Pint' in Greenfield, Massachusetts, after having been welcomed by much signage into the Pioneer Valley. Greenfield is a very interesting place-- again, one of those old, wonderful cities like Waterbury (but not nearly as big) that hasn't quite been saved a la Northhampton but at the same time has not quite gone down the tubes like Waterbury. One can see it, in the future, becoming a kind of Northhampton, as we saw lots of VERY colorfully dressed young people, and there are two Thai restaurants in town (though that isn't quite the anamoly and funk barometer it once was) as well as a great old theatre and beautiful old architecture-- but too many closed up buildings as well. We were instantly attracted to W I L S O N 'S, a big-whomping department store on the main drag occupying four floors, the kind of wonderful old department store that every city in America once had, before the days of K-Mart and Wal-Mart-- like the old Grover Cronin's (for example) in Waltham, and 10,000 others that one could name. It really was like going back into time--well-dressed, tersely-polite salespeople, a cosmetic counter staffed by the local painted ladies, elevators, a directory telling you what was on each floor, a dinging intercom system. I wonder how they have managed to stay in business-- but am glad they have. I bought a Saint Patrick's Day card there for my nephew Will Malachy, and would have liked to have bought more, if only to do my part, as it were. The bags say, "In Greenfield, It's Wilson's." You would expect them to say nothing else. Then we had lunch at one of the Thai places, as we discovered, to our chagrin, that the very funky-looking People's Pint did not open until four. And the Cookie Factory, and another bakery, weren't open at all, which was weird. Then it was back onto Route 2 for fourteen more very mountainous, ciruitious, bridge-over-mad-mountain-river miles (or something) until we passed Shelburne Falls and found a street called, I think, Avery. Immediately we were thrust into Forest (not just woods) and began going up-- and up-- and up, while the road turned to gravel and the trees grew taller, and thicker, and more anthropomorphic, and came almost, it seemed, into the middle of the road. The abodes were somewhat very few and far between and seemed, somehow, ominous, as if anything could happen there so far from hearing a human cry for help-- but the writer's imagination, a friend when one is writing, is not always a a friend when one is traveling. I felt like Frodo when Strider took him and the other hobbits 'into the wild.' Following Yogi Berra's sage advice, when we came to a fork in the road we took it, by which I mean to say we took the wrong one, and then really started climbing up-- after several miles we realized we had gone wrong, so we turned around (the views were amazing) and went back to our fork. More miles of woods and then more, then up again-- but now we saw a sign for 'Benson Place, Wild, Unsprayed Blueberries at the end of the road,' and knew we were on the right track.
I'm going to post this first half now, as I'm afraid I'll lose it if I don't.


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