i thank You God for this most
…amazing day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky;and for everything wich is natural, which is infinite which is yes
– e.e. cummings
Catherine, the hairdresser at Supercuts in Middletown asked what I was doing with a Chateau Fuente torpedo wrapped in cellophane in one hand and a paper bag full of freshly-picked pole beans in the other as she put the cape on me and cinched it at the neck. I said nothing much. There was a guy smoking a cigar in front of the post office and I told him that smells fantastic and he reached into his pocket and handed me one. I felt like I had just become a first-time father.
And then at lunch my buddy Emlen gave me the bag o’ beans from his backyard garden, and that launched a long discussion into the “no dig” movement, our salad days (when we were both green with experience), and what to do with varmints like rabbits–him fencing the vegetables in and the troublemakers out; me shooting and then eating them. And don’t even get me started on raccoons–those masked bastards used to trash the garden and then surplus-kill all my chickens.
We have chickens, Catherine said. You do? Yes, but we had to get rid of our rooster, because you have to have at least a dozen hens to keep them occupied or they start to hurt them. And we only had about eight chickens, so we’re going to get at least another six, and hopefully one will be another rooster. I said I saw the “pecking order” in real life, and it’s not pretty–bleeding hens, some even had their combs torn off by the monster cock we had. We called him Foghorn. And he would cock-a-doodle-do so LOUD, it was almost comical. And it would start at, like, 3 am.
She also had two goats, Bob and Marley, but they never bred, she said, because Bob was too short. I asked if even she goats had high standards, no pun intended, and she said no, Bob couldn’t reach the cookie jar, so-to-speak. She told me she kept trying to tell Marley to bend her knees a little, and she demonstrated this by squatting in the middle of the salon and laughing.
What kind of goats were they? Nigerian Dwarf goats, she said, but then added that they might not be–they could’ve been regular black dairy goat runts and the woman who sold them to her just said they were Nigerian Dwarfs to get a higher price. Catherine said they were both incredibly mischievous, and would butt her when she turned her back, and they would be smiling when she turned around to scold them.
She said goats have weird eyes–the pupils aren’t round. They’re like slits that go across horizontally. And the other strange thing is that goats don’t have upper teeth, only lower ones. She told me she was feeding Bob an apple one day and reached into his mouth and realized he didn’t have any top teeth. Maybe he lost them in a baa fight I suggested. I know, I know, that’s a sheep joke. I did some research on “goat dentition” and sure enough, they lack upper incisors, but do have a hard dental pad that serves in place of teeth.
The hairdresser next to me doing an old lady’s dye job chimed in that her neighbor had fainting goats. I had never heard of them, and at first thought she was pulling my leg. Catherine said, no, they’re real. Also known as the Tennessee wooden-leg goat or the “nervous goat,” they are characterized by myotonia congenital, a hereditary condition that causes them to stiffen and fall over when startled. Catherine said her friend had one, and when she’d go over to visit, she would just clap her hands and the goat would keel over like a cardboard cutout. They were becoming extinct because when they were lying on the ground, stiff as a board, they were easy prey and coyotes and wolves would just come by and eat them.
I cracked up. I never knew farming was such fun and games. Catherine said it’s not–her swarm of bees, which she had taken care of for the past five years, flew the coop this summer and she never saw them again. The whole swarm up and vanished. I asked her why. She didn’t know–she thinks it might be because the queen died and they went to find another one. Or maybe they didn’t like the queen and simply took off for greener pastures. She teared up a bit and said she felt really hurt for a while after she found out they left–she loved those bees.
I did a little research when I got home and bees leave a hive for only two reasons: swarming or absconding. Swarming is when the queen takes a portion of the hive with her and creates a new hive somewhere else. Absconding is when the bees completely abandon the hive and leave with the queen because of: a lack of forage, ant invasion, or too many mites.
All this in twenty or so minutes at Supercuts in Middletown, Rhode Island.
Plant your flag
On the way home I decided to stop in and see my buddy, Samantha, who has her own art gallery called KITSCH, and it’s a floor to ceiling palimpsest of accentuating and accumulated wow, pulverizing frills, Oscar Wilde gone wild–her trying to live up to its own blue blue china in a way. Not a flicker of irony in sight. It always reminds me of the I forget who said it, and I’m paraphrasing: Extremism, and parodies of extremism are virtually identical. It’s a riot of orchidacity, and she’s a sunshine miracle of positive energy and devil’s advocacy smack dab in the middle, usually on the floor, gluing, painting or collaging something bright onto something brighter.
I asked her what she was up to. She said she was going down to the Great Pacific garbage patch and declare it her own country. She was then going to fly to the U.N. and petition them to recognize it as a sovereign nation. I said she must be joking. She said she never joked about her work. I asked her how she was going to get there and she said she had a friend who had a sailboat. I asked her if she had ever sailed before, which I suppose under the circumstance was probably irrelevant.
Sure enough, the Pacific trash vortex is real, and contains about eighty thousand tons of plastic, swirled into the middle of the Southern Pacific gyre. It’s roughly the size of Texas, and even though it’s on this planet, it doesn’t feel like it. I love the stunning originality and huge ludicrousness of Sam’s dream – so many of us have forgotten rambunctiousness, the electric delight of youth, the wonderful wish to re-enchant the world.
The Third and Elm Press, owned and operated by my friend Ilse Nesbitt, had an “Open” sign hanging in the window when I walked by later that afternoon to go to Battery Park to watch the sunset, so I popped in. The shop is so old school and intact you’d think you stepped over the threshold back into 1960. The motto is a quote from Goethe:
“Whoever works joyfully and enjoys what has been done is fortunate.”
She was framing a wood block print and I asked her if her ears were ringing the other day. I was talking about her because an America woman, Anne, I met at a party had been born in Sapporo. I asked her why? Most Americans born after the war in Japan were either born in Tokyo or Yokohama, since that’s where the military and the diplomats lived. Her father was a businessman in Sapporo.
Ilse was German, and lived in The Land of the Rising Sun during the war because her father was a chemist working for a company in Minami, about halfway between Tokyo and Yokohama. She has told me so many fascinating stories about living in there during the war, some of which I’ve recounted in other monographs. She was telling me today that when the American guards outside of town would see the Japanese children coming up to them to ask for chocolate or cigarettes, they would say “hana moshi” which means “nose housecleaning” since they always had runny noses. The kids would run away.
I was leaning against “a great clattering rig of iron,” the 1897 Golding Platen Press that dominates her studio, and it’s a perfect example of the industrial revolution’s optimism and muscularity. I couldn’t help but notice it. She went into a story about Gutenberg and his Bible, and how it was not only revolutionary in concept, it’s absolutely perfect in execution. She said that he created a stunning masterpiece on this very first try, and no one has ever printed anything better.
She and her family were eventually shipped back by the Americans and she remembered her mother telling her that when she got to Germany she’d at least be able to read the street and shop signs. Japanese signs are sometimes written vertically, sometimes horizontally, sometimes read right to left, other times left to right, so she’d always been confused. At least when she got back home she wouldn’t have that problem her mother assured her.
Ilse also mentioned that her father could read and write Japanese fluently, since he was an engineer after all, and had learned it in school as a teenager. But when he started working in the factory, he couldn’t really speak it since he never had had any practice, so he communicated with his colleagues using a notebook and pen. He would write everything out, and they would write their answers back to him like he was deaf and mute.
The ship sailed into Bremerhaven late one night, and then they took a train to a small town outside of Frankfurt where the refugee camp was located. The compound was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and the front gate was flanked by two guard towers. The American sentries had machine guns. The entrance had a barbed wire barrier about 20 feet in front of it with a sign on it that said:
IF YOU CROSS THIS LINE YOU WILL BE SHOT.
Welcome home! Luckily she did cross the line and luckily she wasn’t shot.
Just then her cat came slowly down the stairs and scuffled around my feet. I forgot the name, but Ilse said she was 21 years old. The old feline threw up nonchalantly at my feet, and then sat down and looked at me. Ilse apologized and I told her not to worry. I grabbed a paper towel and bent down to pick it up. Ilse thanked me again and said she couldn't bend down because she didn't have any legs. As matter-of-fact as that.
I said "What? You don't have any legs?" She said she had lost them in a tram accident in some city in Germany after she had started university, or right around that time. I finished picking up the puke and threw the paper towel in the trash.
On my way home I was thinking that I'd probably known Ilse for almost three years, and she had never mentioned this before. Not a peep. I've met many, many people who will tell you that they're lactose intolerant or allergic to peanut butter, or are vegans or vegetarians or alcoholic or suffer from diverticulitis or some fashionable psychological condition within five minutes of meeting them. And then use whatever one or some of these in some weird intersectionality to virtue signal justification for their own shortcomings, bad behavior, failures, as well as the same for their spouses, children, oily same-party politicians, or anyone else who subscribes or will listen, forever. Ad nauseum.
I don't know Ilse that well, but I can imagine she not only never used the fact that she was a double amputee as an excuse for anything, ever. In fact I'm willing to bet she never even thought of doing so because she didn't think of herself as in any way crippled or entitled to any kind of special treatment. I'm sure the idea would be anathema to her.
The gas-lit sconces flanking the front door of the John Stevens house popped on and flickered as I headed home, and I just caught the sensational sunset over the Newport Bridge, like an iron salamander chasing the amazing day away from me.