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
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.
“‘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.
“Now, are we talking active, or latent?” asks one of the retirees a few seats down from me. He’s one of the few who frequent this place at a certain hour, seemingly everyday. Together they talk politics, the Chinese, and the land-value of what was leftover from the Native Americans. Having just wrapped up comparing their Tuesday crosswords, these old men now appear ready to tackle White Supremacy with everything they have.
This is why I come back. Well, that and the espresso that is dark, viscous, and reminiscent of that which is served over the counter in Italy: like cough medicine, and also without a smile.
How many things come full circle, for this time last year I was winding down from a month-long sabbatical overseas, in where I was given a slice of life that is lived well-beyond, but also contently far behind, our modern-day life in America. Conversely, it is there that I also presume the same silver-haired men in carefully arranged outfits to be having similar conversations over coffee.
When the chairman of their committee drops in, the tailored-suit and otter-cap fitting snug to his frame, an anecdote sticks out, causing me to lend a careful ear. He’s going on about the local university, how it’s going broke, but also how the other, just like it, is firmly bankrupt.
I told her that I loved her, and then I left town.