as they ask
For there was
someone to see
or some place
by this time
as they ask
For there was
someone to see
or some place
by this time
Clocks are off, again.
Analog, a burden.
Just when the body
was beginning to adjust;
as if the hour
I often find it difficult
to answer their question
of, where do you live?
when this here
is just existing.
He started speaking to me once he got settled into the Crow‟s Nest. Perched in a seat just below mine, after folding the black plastic garbage bag in neat lines along his lap, the old man turned to face me. I was listening to music, and had to take out my earphones and ask him to repeat the question.
“Would you like one?” he gave a smile and tugged proudly at the trash bag draped over his shoulders and chest. “I have extras.”
“I‟m fine,” I assured him.
“You know, it’ll be raining cats and dogs by tonight. They say about midnight, but that‟s really like nine o’clock.” He grinned. “That’s what ma’ bones are telling me.”
I looked out the bus window. The skies were dark and gray, covering the heads of skyscrapers like a wet wool blanket. Pellets were seen sinking along the adjacent windows and diluted the finites of passing faces on the street.
“Is that right?” I said, finally. “The forecast called for it to be a flip of the coin, whether it’ll pour.”
“Oh, it’ll dump all right. I‟m sure of it. You don‟t need technology to tell you that. Don’t own a single piece of it. Once telephones got to be the size of bricks, I said no, thank you. We don’t need those to communicate. Because you can communicate telepathically with anyone. Like right now, my partner knows where I am. I can wave and say hi. That’s how we used to do it.” The man winked. Around his eyes were lines of time, sunken into the skin.
“Now that’s something,” I replied. “You raise a good point, though. Things have become rather complicated these days, because of all the advanced technology.”
“Yes, they have. And things started to really speed up right after I got back from the war. Nam, that is.” He took a deep breath. “Boy, I remember seeing the skies turn ice white. Like the color of that SUV over there.” He pointed out the window to the passing traffic and grinned. “It was so bright that you could read a book in the middle of the night. They were dropping all that Agent Orange from helicopters. It came pouring out of these cauldrons; big cauldrons that were suspended by chains. It covered everything like molasses, and then incinerated it all so that nothing would ever grow there again. We didn’t know what it was, we had no idea.” For a moment the fellow chuckled, but then his face grew serious.
“There was a day after I got back when I was going about my business in the garden, and all of a sudden I fell flat on my face. A year and a half later I woke up, and I had to learn how to walk and talk all over again. Goo-goo ga-ga.”
He chuckled again as he fumbled with his ensemble, carefully folding the plastic bag in neat creased lines. “My mother told me not to go,” he went on, looking up at me with a childish grin. “Like hell, I was going. But, see! I had to eat crow when I came back.” The old man laughed. “It’s not so bad, though, once you get through the first few bites.”
THE ONE AND ONLY: BUTTE, AMERICA
“They’re more anchors than land makers,” says one of the men; he is a drifter, or so it seems by the way he carries himself.
This here is Butte, America, as they so aptly dub the old mining town in south-west Montana. Butte was, after all, one of the hottest spots in all of America, rich with minerals and oozing with opportunities to aid the folks in pioneering our historic western expansion.
It was around the late 1800’s when Butte really began to boom. First, the word of gold and silver brought an influx of cultures from every cardinal direction; it was the copper, though, that made them stay, turning this town into one of the most prosperous cities west of the Mississippi River – between Chicago and San Fransisco, it quickly became the largest. Butte, as it so happens, also became one of the first cities to receive running electricity, just a couple years after New York City. Given copper’s high conductivity properties, this small town was a big point of pride for the entire United States. For nearly a century, folks flocked here, filled with promise and hope for a better future.
But lest one forgets the present time – a sunny, but brisk day amidst the dog-days of summer, year 2021 – the flavor of this town is not lost, nor is its history.
In fact, this man – whom later introduces himself as Frank, to a pair of strangers as they wait in life for their coffee – and the way he speaks of others just like him, merely reflects the dichotomy of the town. There is only one Butte, America, and it is unique in many ways; in some, it is visibly striving for progress; but, in others, Butte appears passive to the thought of being stuck in a realm of antiquity. All of which is edified by the many abandoned buildings which boast an aesthetic of careful craftsmanship from a time in our history when such a thing was emphasized; there is an overwhelming amount of detail to be found in the many archways and windowsills of the now-empty banks and bread shops. These were, at one point, some of the tallest buildings in the entire country, designed for the rich folks and working class to cohabit as they created one of the wealthiest communities in the west.
Butte, was, in fact, widely regarded as ‘The Richest Hill On Earth’. As such, while walking the streets, one does not have to think long and hard about what sorts of characters and activities occupied such places, especially with the reputation that its transient community and vibrant nightlife maintained, for more than a few decades.
But for as much has changed around here, some of the most concrete truths remain the same.
Since we are creatures of habit, it is of little surprise what brought me in their company, on this fine Saturday morning; it is the only place of its kind that is open at this hour – a small coffee house that doubles as an art studio and gallery.
This is just another habit, as well, for Frank, who speaks of others on first name basis, with the timid barista, a young girl whom is still abashed over having to kick out a grown fellow – someone they both happen to know – but moments prior.
“Oh, are you talking about Sam?” Frank asks her.
“Sure, I think that’s his name,” she replies. “He was yelling, a lot. For no reason, too. I told him twice to calm down – before I finally had to tell him to leave.”
“Yeah, that’s Sam,” smiles Frank. “He yells a lot when he wakes up.”
As I remain seated, in a far corner of the cafe, turning page after page of a Calvino classic, I feel a slight deal of remorse; remorse for this barista, yes. But also for myself, for not having the heart to tell her that this same fellow – Sam – is sound asleep on one of the sofas in back, hidden but perpendicular to both the studio and a series of lounge chairs set up as a quiet place to read.
But at last, another poor soul in passing speaks up, some moments later, and gives up Sam; the barista scurries out, only to return a few minutes later, visibly distraught.
While she is away, a line forms at the counter, where two older men converse in casual rhetoric; it is as if they have known one another for years. One of the men has a son in high school, standing six-feet-five, and weighing in at 350 pounds. He plays on the offensive line for the local football team. Tonight, they’re going head to head with one of their bitter rivals.
“Where’s he going?” asks the other man.
“Not sure,” says the father. “He wants badly to be offered by the U. But, he might have to settle on Western.”
“Hm,” grunts the other man. “Should be a game. Heard them boys have some real prospects. A couple are even next level.”
“They sure do. That quarterback can sling it all over the yard. Those scouts have his number alright,” says the father. “Now, what about you? Have you been to any games yet?”
“A few, yeah. I actually planned to go tonight. In fact, I used to play there myself. So, I show up from time to time to catch a game,” replies the other man. “Part of that is pride. The other part is ego.”
Once the crowd thins, it is just the barista and I left in the shop. I later step out to use the bathroom. Before me, spread out on a small table that has been set up adjacent the art studio, are two men. One of them is Frank, the other is the fellow he came into the cafe with earlier. They wear similar attire – baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirts, each with a few sets of holes in them – and carry themselves in an accordingly indolent fashion. At first glance, I even catch sight of the smudges of dirt that underscore the one, unnamed fellow’s eyes. Those eyes, moreover, are fervent; for he and Frank are exchanging thoughts over the sketchbook that is spread out on the table. Frank is explaining his process; the other fellow nods occasionally, listening intently.
Deciding that I am not ready to retire from the spot – for, it is one of the few of its kind in town, and I have grown quite comfortable frequenting it on my occasional jaunts through Butte – I return to the cafe, collect my belongings, and then bury myself in a plush, suede arm-chair that sits before two large bookcases, stocked with subjects that span from art theory to introspection. Fitzgerald, and one of his short-story collections is quick to catch my eye; I settle in, content.
But a pair of patrons soon discover me, as they peruse the space, seemingly for the first time, linked in arms. One of them immediately sparks up conversation. Her name is Tracy. Her companion, a tall, stocky fellow, meanwhile disbands himself and begins to stroll away, towards the gallery.
I find out that Tracy is from here, a Butte native. She, along with the man, have seen a lot change, explains Tracy. It sure isn’t how she remembers it, growing up. Even so, Tracy says she didn’t even know such a space existed – this secluded cove stocked with literature and periodicals. Rather, she frequents the used-bookstore down the street, and goes on to gush over the expansiveness of their free-section.
“They put them out in a cart, on the street,” says Tracy. “Cuz, I can’t afford to shop at that other one, up the way.”
“I know what you mean,” I reply. “I like to support local businesses, but those new books can really add up. A buddy and I went in there last time, and spent almost $100 between the two of us.”
Tracy whistles, flashing a grin. “Yeah, I’ll stick to my bookstore. Now, say, do you think they’ll mind if I swap one of these out with one of mine?”
I shrug. “Don’t see why not. I thought of doing the same-“
Suddenly there’s a crash. It sounds like a chair has just hit the ground; next, we hear the sound of shuffling feet and muffled voices. The clamor startles Tracy, causing her to turn a foot and walk quickly to the corner of the cove. She peaks her head around, while I sit and watch her, watching the action unfold. What can be made out as tense, curse words are exchanged between Frank and his friend. They grow more excitable and enraged by the second. The fellow challenges Frank to a fight, right there on the spot.
“Bring it,” Frank beckons. “I’ll take you right here, right now, punk.”
“You don’t have the guts. Take your shot!”
“You don’t know me! I’ll take you down!”
“Sit down, fool!”
They go back and forth like this, for some time. Tracy turns to me, awestricken but unabashedly amused. Peculiar, I think to myself, for these two men were, less than an hour ago, prattling on to the poor barista about how they were so noble – at any point, even ready to step in when such senseless confrontations arose. Sam, in particular, was the subject of this discussion.
“If that sort of thing ever happens again, I’ll gladly step in,” I remember Frank saying to the barista. The propensity to do the right thing, however, had at some point inexplicably escaped this man, as evinced by his readiness to put an end to the fellow whom he, just moments prior, had professed a desire to partner with for his next art project.
Since I see these two men, Frank and the squalid fellow, squatting together, some two hours later, on a soiled city curb, watching the day go by, I can safely assume that they made up, without acting upon their vile outbursts for one another; they even share the same 40oz beer, smiling at each passerby. Seeing them again, another couple hours after that, albeit on a different corner but with a fresh forty, epitomizes that timeless vortex which tethers itself to the name, Butte, America, and accordingly evokes one simple question: where the fuck am I?
As I continue to board one bus after another, I can’t tell if they’re running free of charge to let people back into the city, or allow them get the hell out.
Another peculiarity on my way through town is the pristine condition of the power company’s building, particularly its large, sheet glass windows. Each one perfectly intact. No caution tape or not a single beam of wood blocking the door. Even the slightest knick, I surely would have thought.
But, no? Nothing?
Let it pass. There are bigger fish to fry.
For one, the fifteen board members who have stake in this ‘reliability council’. Yet, those same members are not even required to live in the state of Texas in order to make executive decisions on it. One lives in Canada.
Let that one marinate. Lest they resign, which seems only necessary, we will sit in front of now-working televisions, waiting for someone to step up to the podium; until then, pour me another.
The sun has fully set over campus. It is dark now, aside from a few sporadic street lights. The air has grown colder, though the absence of wind renders us light on our feet as we continue to make progress on the beer supply. If not for Josh’s absolute – and otherwise inexplicable – disregard for one of his back molars, our consumption would be reduced to only cans; alas, the cold bottles are a fun alternative, even if their contents are a few months out of date. He continues cracking them, one by one, laughing as he hands me a fresh, cold beer. A certain street is reached, and then everything goes dark. An echo of laughter, jubilant teens in their towers as they turn the occasion into a party, putting on hold any notion of an ongoing global pandemic. It’s hard to blame them, these adolescents with ample endowments and not a care in the world, as they look past us, and our earnest attempts at simple conversation.
Hey, how’s it goin’? we ask one or two, on occasion.
Eh, fine. And you?
Oh, just fine. Thank you.
My parents, too, always told me not to talk to strangers. But since reality had suddenly been flipped upside down, that sentiment could understandably be shed, no? For, who knew what any of this all meant, anyway? Or, better yet, who knew what was coming?
It is quite the social experiment, in a strange, oblong sort of way, as we keep our hearts out on our sleeves. What if someone would have lent a hand, or even the simple suggestion of such, even without the intent of following through? Surely we would have replied with, hey man, have a beer. But, to that, we only had our own supply to consume in a timely manner. After all, the beer is only growing warmer with every block amassed.
As our navigation is nullified by a dying phone – as it turns out, new batteries have a hard time keeping up in frigid temperatures – we are left to rely on the remembrance of certain streets, and which ones cut off without any notice. I have been to Steve’s a thousand times before, but not under these conditions. There’s a point we reach, right at the top of the hill, where MLK Blvd dips down into Lamar Avenue, and all that we see are the impressions of light from an oncoming line of traffic. Nearly a dozen headlights beam brightly, their horns heaving after having been stalled by one single car, midway up the hill, which is now stuck. The driver has gotten out and is dressing the area around her tires with kitty litter. It is only imminent that the rest will follow, unless they are able to unstick themselves from the sudden slabs of ice that have formed under their tires in the time that they were stationary, waiting for her to get unstuck.
Absolutely absurd – this is insanity, I say to Josh. We have to turn around, even if it means trying a few more dead-ends until we find the right street that will take us straight through to Steve’s.
After some time – at least, an hour after our quoted arrival time – we show up at Steve’s place: a quaint duplex at the end of a dead-end street. There’s something eery, yet quite pacifying, about how the skyline sits, streaming itself through shreds of barren trees on the edge of the street. When Steve answers the phone, I ask where we could park the wheels.
What wheels? Did y’all ride scooters? he naively quips.
Not exactly, I retort. So he tells us to find the back door, where we are to unload all the groceries in one swift effort, saving as much internal heat of the house as we can.
Hurry up and get in, he urges, as we stumble inside. Inside the building it is significantly warmer, much more than our own apartment that we left during the daylight hours. Certain items are to be stored in certain places, others are busted out and broken down for immediate consumption.
What about the cart?
We can return that later for you, Steve says, brushing off the notion of any inconvenience it might pose, when the world is turned right back up, and the sun is shining endlessly upon the hilly streets of his quiet suburban neighborhood.
Steam is rising from the many pots, placed precariously throughout the apartment, giving off the faint glimmer of hope as we hear the gas stove click and ignite what will be a surprisingly voluptuous spread for dinner. Simply relieved, Josh and I are, to receive respite amidst this sidewinding experiment of sudden survival mode. The two of them – Steve and his partner – at least appear partially equipped for the conditions, and proceed with offering all sorts of coping mechanisms.
How about some chocolate?
Sure. Why not? I’m not driving.
Soon, it all melts away. However, sleeping with all of your belongings huddled by your side, as your breath can be seen beating back against the air, is a rather unenviable way to be ushered back into the sober hours of the day, when the song of birds accompanies the strong sunlight that comes in through the slotted blinds. Everything suddenly comes rushing back.
Where the hell are we? And who is that, sleeping in a ball on the love-seat above me?
All of the air in the mattress I have been sleeping on has been usurped by a small, unidentifiable hole, forcing me to roll around on the floor, searching for but a few spots of support as I grapple with what is to come. Josh and I still need to get home, and in a timely manner, at that.
As I wait for Josh to stir, I decide to pull from one of Steve’s shelves an old book of mine, one that I had long forgotten about, and bid farewell to without actually saying goodbye to anything else around it; but, that is for another day. Peeling back its pages, moreover, is quite pacifying, as I sit in the throws of his lush, suede arm chair, overlooking the odd arrangement of the living room, while Josh soundly snores. In no time, he, too, is abrupt to wake; shaken by the sensation of frigid temperatures in an enclosed building. His eyes flicker, and he’s soon to realize how the set of circumstances bestowed upon us are so far flung from a dream. If given the blessing to keep sleeping, surely he would. But his boss beckons, and he is summoned home, to at least give the obligation a solid, earnest attempt, despite the conditions.
All the while, the rest of the house sleeps. We know we can be quiet enough, so as not to disturb Steve and his girlfriend from their sleep schedule. A swift effort is made to relocate and repack all of our perishable belongings – plus a few bottled beers, just in case the stores remain closed for the day – before hitting the road. But, one similarly aloof effort is given on the door, only to discover how the stark, unnatural contrast in conditions – internal moisture and frigid external temperatures – have sealed the sliding glass door shut.
Are we stuck here? Josh and I laugh, looking at one another with large eyes and addled expressions. Surely, if I am to attempt, and fail to open the door, instead cracking it down its center, that my five-years of friendship with Steve might come to a sudden halt. When he swoops into the room, some fifteen minutes later, Steve snickers at the thought, but fails to disagree.
Trekking downhill, as the sun seeps its way out of the clouds, and splits over the town, things don’t seem so bad. Our feet feel lighter and, despite the constant struggle to find solid ground, the roads are nearly entirely void of traffic – foot, or the like. We see remnants from the night before: stacks of cars, spun in odd directions across the road, and snuggled up to snowbanks that have now become ice blocks, as well as empty beer cans and tattered rolls of yellow caution tape.
Is this a vacated crime scene, or a simple call for help that went unanswered?
Many looks are sent our way – even a few earnest inquires – especially over our heavy, brown grocery bags, as we descend from the direction of the nearest store. One grizzled fellow even appears ready to fight, and his truculence lingers long after he staggers off in the opposite direction, visibly disappointed to learn that our goods only came from the night before. Apocalyptic, almost, in ways, how the world around us feels empty, stripped down, and sundered by the elements. Elements which, no less, bare no resemblance to what is to be expected on any given day of the year, in the sunny city of Austin, TX.
We fail, moreover, to consider what this what will do to the foliage: each of those palm trees which sway with the wind now seem stale as they stand, slathered in snow, showing especially stark against the sky blue aperture overtaking the town. Josh elects that we take the long way home, for it is assumed that the foot traffic will be sparse, and scenery lush. Along the river banks, steam flows fluidly, gradually rising to uncover the small tropes of turtles taking a breath before dipping themselves back into the icy ballad, which would otherwise be brimming with canoes and kayaks. Birds swoop and skim the surface, and for a few fleeting moments it feels as if humans were not meant for this terroir, after all.
Returning to the apartment, Josh and I graze over our groceries: it is enough, for now. Yet, gradually reinforced is the chilling notion that acquiring said goods was a mere stroke of dumb, intoxicated luck. Luck which, no less, feels to be waning with each hour that passes, the people on the news predicting more precipitation for the days to come.
“‘K Billy’s super sounds of the 70’s weekend just keeps on comin’ with this little diddy…’”
A familiar tune blares from the rectangular record player which sits atop a massive collection of vinyl in Lorenzo’s living room. His keen sense of American style and flare is steeped in the mounting references to pop culture; he has a real appreciation for our classics. For Philipp and I it feels like home, as the sound of stale hash being ground into rigid paper and the sensation of cheap beer foam meeting the lips are mere reminders of our better days; all of this is a retribution for a broken line of communication, though none of it seems entirely necessary. Relieved, we are, to simply recline on the leather sofa and hold a full conversation in English, with he and his mate, Edoardo. Their interest in our intent of travel, however, quickly shifts toward explaining the significance of the island, and how the rest of Italy pales in comparison.
Sicily’s original flag, predating the Italian occupation of 1861, hangs sideways from the largest wall in the room, and these two young men contextualize its placement with the specifics of the island’s deceivingly long struggle for independence. To them, 1861 was the last year that the island was truly free. But to Lorenzo, being Sicilian is vastly different from being Italian, so they are always free.
“This is Sicily, this is not Italy,” he affirms, to which Edoardo nods. Edoardo is of Roman descent, but Lorenzo says they are able to get along anyway. As Lorenzo paces the room, the glint in his eye is strong in its thirst for venture; an iconoclast at heart, it seems only appropriate that his infatuation with American freewill remains well at hand.
“So, what should we do tonight?” asks Philipp. “We’re hungry. What is unique to Palermo?”
Edoardo, nodding again in agreement, adds enthusiastically, “Ah, yes, the spleen sandwiches.”
Repeating his answer with a grimace, Philipp and I turn to one another.
“Yes, that is our peasant food. It is, eh, part of Palermo, our history,” Lorenzo says. “I will text you the name of where they are best.”
We return after having consumed enough spleen for one to want in a lifetime, and both Philipp and I are reminded in our sleep of the feeble-minded mistake to indulge without something so stiff as a beer to wash down the rubbery chits of greased meat.
Soon it is apparent why this dot on the radar is revered by the French, Dutch, and Germans as an ideal slice of the slow life. Its sea is laden with cascading colors of sapphire blue and white ivory, each embedded in the rhythm of the tide; its knockout moons hold strong as guiding forces of the rotational tilt, as if it all began and ended here. Yet, no greater force is the contemplation that occurs at the skirts of a cosmic wonder such as Mt. Etna, where the discards of cataclysm pit questions of life against death. This is where man comes to quantify small decisions and conquer his ghosts; a realm of complete isolation seeming all but romantic with the right view.
Surround yourself with the strong willed, those who don’t know how to say no and demand a reason for everything. Do not allow for small details to turn into dead-ends. Most importantly, though: hang on for the ride.
Hiccuping down the spiraling street walls of Mount Pellegrino, aided by half-toned headlights and the intense focus of Lorenzo, our small vehicle dodges and weaves through a mess of low-swung brush and eroded manholes with a seeming grace.
“The mountain, it is falling down,” he says, with a grin. “It is fucking dangerous. They have closed the road because it is falling.”
“Closed?” Philipp retorts, in a rip of laughter; for, this stolen right of passage into the depths of a decrepit maze epitomizes his idea of a cheap thrill.
“Yes, it has been falling for some time now,” Lorenzo replies. “The mountain, its history, it speaks if you listen.”
Steadily the air around us envelops the car into a veil of night, and challenged are the dim, exhausted headlights at each tight corner. Branches overhead tickle the open window of our rooftop, and yet there is stillness on the road; our vessel feels isolated in its wholeness, as if the moment were being preserved for us, and us alone. Upon reaching the grounding lights of a colorful cityscape, Mondello – bold in all of its revelry – there is a sense of relief, but on its trail is the subtlety of remorse.
Unescapable, still, is the wrath of foddered consumables as the disconnect is made from Milan and our journey begun to Naples – a city where gold links, silver chains, crowned hats and premiere purse labels clutter every portable table top, ultimately toeing the line of intrusive as we waltz over the city’s unleveled streets of broken brick. Is this not the throw-away culture we longed to escape by vaulting across the Atlantic? An ode to their way of life, rather, this inherently serpentine servitude to sell, sell, sell, is exhaustive in its unrelenting draw of the senses and, in turn, combats the natural beauty of a city that once housed one of the great Kingdoms of the world. Napoli, in no short order, has a way of closing itself in on you; be it the narrow alleyways in between massive brick installments, or the everlasting strip of commercial goods and the bevy of bakeries and banks for one’s moral and material deposits; yet, the greatest thrill comes in watching the parade of cars storm the dotted lanes that serve as the main arteries to the city. On these streets, scooters reign supreme: slithering elusively, they’re commandeered by small children, rambunctious teenagers, and bearded men who take successive, sharp turns at 90 degree angles, against and then with the flow of traffic, just to shave off a few seconds of their commute. A steady Vaffanculo! echoes down alleyways.