Sunday, October 28, 2012

Gus's Cold


On Sunday afternoon, he felt a tickle and then a scratch in the back of his throat.  By Monday morning it had grown into a cold.  He woke up coughing and sniffling, and couldn't breathe through his nose until the second cup of coffee.  He told himself that he didn't feel all that bad, that it was only a cold, and he could work this off.  His plan was to go to the cabinet shop and split wood today, and that is what he intended to do.

He took his time with breakfast, and with getting dressed.  He dressed in layers, putting on his faded and worn work trousers, a cotton tee shirt, a flannel shirt, a hooded sweatshirt and a frayed green work coat.  His shoe lace snapped in two as he tightened up his work boots.  He coughed and grumbled while he knotted it together and walked out the door.

The starter on the truck had been giving him trouble over the last couple of months.  This morning it buzzed for a moment before it finally kicked in and groaned, laboriously turning the engine over.  After the engine started, he waited a minute, letting it run in neutral to warm up the transmission so it would shift easier.  Then he eased out of the driveway and down the alley and out of town.

The shop was twelve miles from town, down in a sheltered valley.  The wind was blowing hard, and rocked the little truck as he drove down the road, and then turned off onto a meandering side road that led up onto a ridge.  There was a woman he knew who lived there, up the road from the workshop.  She had told him that she had a bucket full of splitting wedges that he could borrow.  He stopped at her house to pick them up.  She asked if she could help with splitting wood.

"If you want to."
"Yeah, I do," she said.  "It's a good day to split wood."

He agreed, and waited while she slipped her boots on.  She was only a few inches shorter than him, and in her heavy tan work coat appeared more muscular than him.  He followed her out to the shed where he picked up the bucket of wedges and she took her axe and splitting maul, one in each hand, and put them in the truck.

They drove down into the valley where the workshop was.  The cut maple was piled in a jumbled heap behind the workshop.  The pieces ranged in size from a foot across to some broad enough to turn into a dinner table.  He rolled a large one out for a splitting platform.  Then he rolled another on top of it.  She began tugging another out and started rolling it up the slope.

"I want to work up here," she said.  "The sun is shining up here.  It feels good."
"It's more steps."
"I don't care.  That's where I want to work."
"That's fine."  His voice sounded gruff to him, made harsh by his clogged sinuses and raw throat.  He smiled so that she knew it was okay, that she didn't need any more reason than that.  She didn't seem to notice either way.  She went to work on her stump while the wind roared over their heads, bending the tops of the trees that were further up the hill.  Down here there was scarcely a breeze.  If the wind changed, he knew, it might come sluicing up the valley, harder and harder as the valley narrowed.  He had felt it like that before, pushing the snow into waves of drifts.

He started swinging into the wood, driving the maul as hard as he could so that it would split across the center.  After a few swings, he pushed a steel wedge into the groove he had started.  Then he turned his maul around and began driving the wedge in, swinging steadily.  The wedge drove deeper while the ringing of steel on steel was joined by the ripping of wood fibers.  The wedge dropped suddenly as the slab split in two.  He looked up at the woman.  She had taken off her coat, and was busy driving her maul into a slab, slicing off smaller pieces for kindling.  He saw that even with her coat off, her arms looked strong.  She handled the maul easily.  He took off his coat as well, and started breaking the wood into stove-sized chunks.

He grew warm as he worked.  He could feel and smell the sweat on his body, even through the hooded coat and under the flannel.  He took off the hooded coat and continued working, splitting the stumps into ever smaller pieces and throwing them onto a pile to be moved when he grew tired of swinging the maul.  He felt good.  His breathing was easy now, and his head was clear.  He glanced up and saw that the woman was now in her tee-shirt.  She had disappeared into the woods once while he worked.  She was back five minutes later.  Another time he had heard her clearing her nostrils noisily onto the ground.  Both times he had kept working, concentrating on making sure that each blow of the maul landed where the last one did.  He didn't want to miss one and have the woman see.

He stripped down to his tee shirt and rolled another log onto the stump.  The maul only dented it, and bounced back.  He swung three or four more times before it sunk in.  He put a wedge in, and realized the woman was standing there, watching.

"That's a tough one," she said.
"It sure is."
"I can pile this stuff up if you want.  I'm tired of swinging the axe."
He was surprised.  When he had looked up, she seemed as if she could do it all day.
"Sure, that's fine.  I'll just keep on here then."  He opened his water jug and drank deeply.
"I didn't bring any water," she said, and reached for his jug.
"I have a cold."  She shrugged and took it from him anyway.  She drank greedily, and spilled some across her shirt.
"You can't drink it if it's on your shirt," he said.
"Yeah, I should be more careful."
She loaded some wood into her arms and carried it to the stack alongside the shop.  He went back to swinging the maul again, finishing the log and pushing it to one side.  The woman was already back, pulling one of the unsplit pieces from the pile.  On its end it was more than half as tall as she was. He guessed it was over a hundred pounds of wood.  She wrestled it over to his chopping block, alternately rolling and dragging it.  He helped her to place it on the center of the block.  It hung over the edge at either end.
"Thanks a lot," he said.  She smiled and carried away more of the split wood.

The wind was still loud overhead, but down in the little valley there was only a breeze, enough to dry the sweat on his shirt as he worked.  He swung the maul again, enjoying the heft of the head through the handle, the flexing of muscles in his wrists and biceps, in his shoulders and across his back.  He enjoyed the sound of the wood fibers splitting as the blade clove it through the middle.  He hadn't expected this one to split so easily.  He separated the two halves and split them in half, then halved again.  He was happy to feel his lungs clear, and to feel the air filling his lungs.  He felt good.  He felt strong.  He finished the log and started on another while the woman cleared away all that he had split.

They worked through the morning, until he was quivering and thirsty and the water had run out.  She told him that they could have soup at her house.  They loaded the tools and drove back up the hill.  The fire in her big cook stove was low, but it was still warm, and didn't take long to build back up.  She went to her refrigerator and pulled out ground beef and vegetables.
"I'll haul in some more wood if you want to chop this stuff up," she said.
He hadn't expected to help cook, but picked up a knife and went to work dicing onions, carrots, garlic and parsley.  His wrist holding the knife felt weak after swinging the maul.  His eyes began to feel heavy while he worked.  He finished chopping the vegetables, then seasoned the meat and browned it while she added more wood to the stove.
"Let's cook over the fire and shut the range off," she said.
"Okay, good."
"Are you okay with cooking on a wood range?"
"Sure."
He set the pot onto the flat black stove top, over the hottest part.  The meat started sizzling again, almost immediately.  They added the onions, then the other vegetables and broth and let it simmer off to the side, on the cooler part of the stove.  Halfway through the cooking, he noticed his lungs getting full again, and his head swelling.  By the time he slid the pot to one side, he felt drowsy and tired.  When he had first started cooking, the house smelled good.  Now he didn't smell anything.  His head started to hurt, and he told the woman.
"I thought you were looking a little peaked.  Sit down, I can finish."
She dished up the soup and they ate it with bread and butter.  He had been hungry earlier, but now was only able to eat one bowlful of soup.  His skin felt papery and dry.  He wished he would sweat again just to feel moisture.  When he opened his mouth to eat or speak, it seemed that he should hear the crinkling and rustling of his skin.
"I think I'm done for the day," he said.
"I figured as much."
"I'm going home, I guess."
"You go right ahead."
"Had a good morning," he said.  "That's a good pile of wood."
"Yeah.  It was a good morning."
At the door he stopped and said," I'm taking tomorrow off, I think."  He had told her that he would run new drain pipes for her kitchen sink.  Now it seemed like a Herculean task.
"That's fine," she said.  "I bet I won't see you for a couple of days."
"We'll see."
"Yah.  Don't push it."  She smiled and closed the door after him.  Out here the wind was blowing through his coat and whistling through the bare branches of the huge willow that stood along the driveway.  He shivered a little and climbed into his truck.  Even though the wind was sharp and cold, the sun was bright, and the cab was warm.  He turned the key and the truck groaned slowly over, then caught and started.  He put it into gear and pulled out of the driveway and down the gravel road, driving slowly until he reached the pavement.  His eyes felt puffy and tired, and his face felt as if it were filled with thick glue.  He forced himself to stay awake for the fifteen minutes that it took to drive home.  Once there, he climbed up the stairs and took a long hot shower, then put on some baggy clothes.

And he did nothing else but lie on the couch and watch simple movies all the rest of the day and into the night.

What??  You think Gus is gonna review food when he felt like this?  But it's okay, he's better now.  He even crawled under his truck and replaced the starter so he doesn't have to park on a hill any more.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Birds and Bees and the Trempealeau Hotel

And can this really be the end of September?  I guess that's a common enough complaint, or exclamation.  We all wonder where the time went, how it got to be so late.  Gus often wonders this at closing time when he's just not ready to go home yet.  Often, that's just when everyone else wants Gus to go home.  But I shall not visit that scene today.

This past winter, I told of my search for canoe building materials in St. Paul, MN.  Well, a month or so ago, Gus finished his canoe!  Yes indeed, and he even chose a name for it, but I'm gonna keep that to myself for now.  I don't know why.  But here's the thing.  Ol' Gus put a lot of worry into building this craft.  Probably more worry than work went into it, to tell the truth.  There were periods of staring at it and wondering if this or that strip was the right one, or wondering why there was a small  gap in a joint where there was none the day before.  And there were times of famine, where Gus just couldn't scrape up the cash for epoxy or fiberglass.  Those were tough times, my friends (he intoned dramatically).  They were times of despair and self-doubt.  But you know, seriously, I've never wanted much, but my own canoe is one thing I've wanted for a long, long time.  Okay, I'll be honest and say that I'd really like my own sailboat as well, but Gus ain't a-gonna hold his breath on that one.

So, all that said, the canoe is finished, out of the shop to make way for other projects, and safely lodged in the shed out back.  It's been in some of the local ponds and a river.  And a few weekends ago I put it into the Deep River, the Ol' Man River, the Mississippi.

So on Sunday I woke at 4:30.  I had set my alarm for six, but didn't need it.  I got up and made coffee and then checked the weather.  I figured that if I made coffee first, I wouldn't change my mind.  The weather report was good, with breezes and a sunny sky.  I sucked down the first cup, then told the lady friend, P, that we were going canoeing.

One hour and a pot of coffee later we were on the road with the canoe resting securely on the roof of the old Toyota pickup.  The sun was up and the skies were clear.  There's something about the prow a canoe hanging over the hood of a truck that just feels right to Gus.  It just says, "We're going somewhere!"  Maybe other folks don't see it that way.  I hope they have something else that feels just as right.

It's about an hour and a half to Trempealeau State Park.  We pulled into the lot and parked and had the canoe in the water in less than ten minutes, including a quick run to the outhouses.  Another five and we had paddled out onto the rolling expanse of the Mississippi River.  There was only one other craft out there, a fishing boat anchored in the lee of the riverbank.  We took the canoe straight across the channel to an island, at which point we realized that we were both hungry and overheated already.  But we had food, and were overdressed, and were able to take care of both problems before we took off up the river.

It feels good to be in a canoe.  And that's really what this is about.  Gus could go on and on about the scenery and stuff.  And there was scenery, beautiful scenery.  The bluffs are tall and the islands are tree-covered.  And there are birds, and birds, and more birds.  There is also the sound of the highway a half mile away.  But for Gus it's all about the canoe, about pushing the paddle through the water so that the canoe moves forward.  It's about knowing how to turn, and how to stop.  It's about being one with the canoe, about reading the river, seeing the water ripple over stumps just below the surface, and steering your way around it.  It's about keeping it pointed where you want to go, no matter how the wind blows or the current turns.  And then there's the feeling in your shoulders and your back as you push through the water.  There's the entire physicality of the canoeing experience that, when coupled with just being outdoors with the river and the wildlife, can't be replicated.  It feels good to be in a canoe.

When I finished building the canoe this spring, I had to end with a fiberglass and epoxy coating.  I had some trouble with that, ending up with some bubbles and a few wrinkles and other blemishes.  So the first time I showed it to someone, I felt like I had to apologize for that.  But as I'm in the water more and more, the blemishes seem to disappear.  This is especially true when the currents get tricky and I'm able to handle it almost alone.  The canoe dances across the water almost joyfully.  But perhaps Gus is projecting.

We did have a good trip on the river.  We stopped for lunch on an island beach.  We had sardines and crackers and fruit while we watched the river go by.  It's pretty cool to watch the water swiftly flowing past.  Then we pushed on up the river, past the silver maples filled with black cormorants that dropped almost to the water before gliding across to the other shore.  We found a channel that cut through the island and followed that into a shallow channel that opened up as far down the river as we could see.  Halfway back to Trempealeau we encountered a flock of pelicans, right before a mad hornet settled on Gus's neck and stung.  And stung.  I could feel the poison shooting in, like liquid fire.  So I killed that hornet, right there on the spot.  My goodness but Gus was angry!  I did some cussing for a while, but there was nothing for it.  P worried that I might have developed a bee allergy over the last couple of years, but that wasn't the case.  P often worries needlessly.  But the sting was just a painful annoyance, like the Republican party, and we soldiered on.

I noticed at some point that I was doing all the work.  I mean, the canoe became hard to handle, slow to respond.  And I watched my paddling companion for a little while and noticed that her paddle was only settling into the water and gliding back of its own accord.  We call that "dip stroking."  I suggested that I could use a little help.  Even though we were heading down river, the headwind was more than making up for the current.  P dug in and concentrated on helping, and it made all the difference.  I did have to remind her a few more times along the way, but by the time we reached the park channel, we were both pretty tired.  Our drinking water was almost gone, as were the snacks.

Gus could really feel the weariness hit when we pulled in at the dock.  We both climbed out and walked around a little.  I eyed the canoe, thinking that it was going to take a great effort to pick it up.  While we walked around, someone pulled up to launch their fishing boat.  The man got out of his truck and walked over, looking at my canoe.  "That's a really nice-looking canoe!" he said.  I thanked him.  He admired it for a bit.  The bottom was covered with sand and grit, so it was hard to see the blemishes that I had lost sleep over.   I finally told him that I had built it, and he was properly impressed.  We talked a little more, then he went back to launching his boat and I found the strength to lift the canoe onto my shoulders and carry it across the lot to my truck.  I felt pretty good.

So of course we were hungry.  P likes the Trempealeau Hotel in downtown Trempealeau.  It is a very popular spot, and it's the home of the Walnut Burger.  But to tell the truth, I've been in there a few times and never really felt comfortable.  Oh, it's all nice and clean, with screened-in dining rooms and a nice bar.  There's a lovely view of the river, and the bluffs beyond if you're seated in the right place.  But there's just something indifferent about the service.  And today was no exception, even though it wasn't busy there.  We got there at about 3:30 in the afternoon, and there were some people, but plenty of open tables.  We were shown ours, ordered water and coffee and then looked at the menus.  I ordered the blackened catfish, P ordered the walnut burger.  And the waitress was cheerfully indifferent.  And then, just before our food arrived, in walked Gus's ex-employer from when he was cooking part time.  She came in with her boyfriend and another couple, and sat down right next to us before she saw us.  That was quite a nice surprise, but still seemed a little awkward, though I can't quite put my finger on it.  We chatted a little bit, but it just seemed stiff.  But my leaving that place of employment had been a bit awkward.  I think she had hoped I'd stay longer, and I feel kind of bad about that.  And that, as they say, is for another day.  Still, it was good to visit with them.  Our food came, and it was fine.  No, Gus can't complain about the food there.  It's always good.  It's just not great. Perhaps "uninspired" is the word I want.  And the service was, again, indifferent.  I have had the same experience when I was working in this town for a week or so a year ago.  I would come in and sit at the bar and try to look friendly, try to strike up a friendly howdy-do with the bartender, and it inevitably fell flat.

That same couple of weeks though, Gus spent a few happy hours at the Hungry Point down on Lake Road on the edge of Trempealeau.  Every visit there was friendly.  The bartenders were amiable, and I had a fun time just chatting it up, mostly listening to the patrons.  Yup, Gus will have to go back there some time. But back at the Trempealeau Hotel, it took a long time to get a coffee refill, and to get our bill.  When we finally stood up to go, we both felt bone-weary.  It was a good tired though.  And when we finally got home and unloaded, and Gus got all cleaned up and relaxed into his easy chair, he could still feel the river's current rolling under him.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The "Big Bad Beezer Burger," and Other Challenges

I'll tell ya right now, I wrote most of this while I sat at Beezer's with my lady friend, drinking a few beers at the end of the day.  That's Beezer's on the edge of Hillsboro, Wisconsin.  I stop in here a couple of times a month, or a couple of times a week, depending on my work location.  (Gus do get around, don'cha know?)  They have a pretty good selection of beers, and the waitstaff is always top-notch and cheerful.  There are a few too  many televisions there, but often the sound is turned down so that if you sit quietly you can listen to the locals.  After a few beers, you can even join them!

The food is...well...I don't know what to say.  See, I kind of like hanging out there.  It's cheerful and friendly, and the beer selection works for me.  But the food, well, it's just okay.  It's bar/restaurant fare with little imagination or inspiration behind it.  My friend protests to me, because she likes the place too, that "their thin crust pizza is decent!"  Well, that's fine.  And there is also, for those who have nothing left to live for, the two-pound "Big Bad Beezer Burger Challenge," complete with a side of potatoes and coleslaw.  If you eat the entire thing, by yourself, with all the fixins, in under 30 minutes, you get a free tee-shirt.  There is no mention of whether or not the meal is free as well, but I'll leave that for someone else to find out.

So, hello, and good day, and I hope everyone is doing great today!  Yes, I really do.  Ol' Gus, he feels best when everyone is happy.  What else is there to live for?

Today is supposed to be the last day of this heat wave.
Today the temperature is supposed to hit 103 degrees.
Today the heat index is going to be 108 degrees.

And today I picked up my mother from the assisted living center to drive her to a memory care center, a place that takes care of folks with Alzheimer's.

This has been a while coming.  The director at her home warned me of it a while back, though I knew it was inevitable.  Then a week ago came the news, that we needed to have her moved inside of a couple of weeks.  We did a little shopping, but settled on the place in Hillsboro.  But all of that is just background.  Today is when I took her there, from Reedsburg to Hillsboro, a distance of about 24 miles.

I drove over early, while it was still cool.  I got there at about 8:30 and went into the dining room.  There weren't a lot a people there.  I had expected more at the breakfast tables.  The people at Mom's table seemed happy to see me.  One old guy tried to take the coffee cake that a gal in the kitchen had given me.  But he was just kidding around.

Mom was in a cheerful mood, and so were her three table mates, so I knew that Mom hadn't been told yet that she was being moved away from them.  Or if she had been told, she had already forgotten.  I sat with them and listened to their joshing, and was able to join in from time to time.  They were laughing at a little couplet that Mom had told them, one that I vaguely remembered.

"Oh my darling sweet potato
Don't you carrot all for me?"

And so on, I don't remember it.  But one of the kitchen workers promptly sat with us and wrote it down, telling me how much she enjoyed hearing things like that from my mom.  I was only halfway enjoying this, not forgetting why I was there.  I had been awake since four-thirty this morning, and was jumpy and nervous.

Linda, the supervisor, came up the hall.  She beckoned to Mom and me.  As Mom made her slow way out of her chair, Linda quietly said to me, "I've decided that I'll tell her, in her room.  That way she won't think you're the bad guy."  I squeezed her shoulder, touched almost to tears in my keyed-up state of mind.  Any kind words could easily pushed me that little bit further.

Back in Mom's room, Linda had her sit down in her easy chair, while Linda carried a chair over beside her.  Mom was still cheerful and unaware of any problems, thinking that this was going to be a pleasant chat.  Linda sat down in front of her, face-to-face, and said, "Rosemary..."

I honestly don't recall what she said after that.  But Mom sat there and cheerfully nodded and agreed, as if she were being told that she was moving down the hall.  And even when Linda and I got up to gather a few clothes and things together for the day, she didn't really seem to comprehend what was going on.

"Are you sure there's nothing I can do to help?" she asked once.  Another time she said, "Boy, I'm sure glad you're doing all the work!"

We loaded up a small cart, and Linda said, "I'll go down the hall and get Ellie.  She'll want to know you're leaving."
"Okay," said Mom.  "I'll be here."
I let her know that I was taking stuff out to the car.  "I'll be right back," I emphasized.  Those words have become very important to Mom.  "I'll be right back!"

When I returned, I stopped just outside of her door.  Ellie was inside, talking.  "Well, you certainly have been such a good friend," I heard her say.  "I sure have enjoyed your company."  I waited a moment, then walked in.

Linda looked up at me.  She was smiling, but her eyes were sad and teary behind her glasses.  "Oh, here's Gus!" she said, and jumped up.  "Let's get started down the hall."  She helped Mom up and handed her her walking cane.  Ellie followed in her walker, with Linda right behind.  I walked in front, glancing back from time to time while we moved oh so slowly down the carpeted hall.

"Well," said Ellie.  "You won't be too far away, will you?"
"No, I'll just be down the road," said Mom, though really she was just agreeing with anything anyone said.  And then as they shuffled along down that long hallway, Mom started singing softly:

"Show me the way to go home, boys.
I'm tired and I want to go to bed,"

Then Ellie joined in:

"I had a little drink about an hour ago
And it went right to my head..."

They finished that one together.  Then after another shuffling step or two, Mom started again.

"Oh, we ain't got a barrel of money.
Maybe we're ragged and funny!
But we'll travel along,
Singing a song,
Side
by
side."

They were singing to themselves, to each other, to Linda and me, singing softly and in time to their slow halting steps down the quiet hallway.  I wanted to turn to look at them both, but knew that I couldn't.  I knew that I was taking my mother away from her little apple-cheeked, cheerful friend, and that this was the last song that they would sing together under this roof.

Linda and Ellie hugged me before I got into the car.  Linda's cheeks were wet.  Ellie smiled hopefully at me, but her eyes seemed to somewhere else, on the houses and trees and the hot, hot sky.  Mom was intent on fastening her seatbelt, and on looking out of the windshield.  She waved absently at them as they called their good-byes.

Gus wonders about brain disease.  What goes on in there?  Is there a part that is rational, but kept down while the rest of the brain puts up road blocks, barriers that keep it from being heard?  Or is there nothing mysterious about it, just the brain shutting down?  I don't know, and I'm sure that others have thought of that too.

With only Mom and me in the car, Mom seemed to realize at last what was happening.  "Why would Linda think she had to do this?" she asked.
"Well, she was worried about you."
"Why?"
"Well, you've been forgetting a lot of things, and walking around at night.  She's afraid that something might happen to you when she's not there."
"I haven't been doing that!  I don't remember doing that!"
"I know you don't," I told her.

It's only twenty-four miles to Hillsboro from Reedsburg, but the conversation ran in that circle the entire way, with Mom forgetting that she had just asked the same questions.  She vaguely recognized the County Market as the former Piggly Wiggly.  And when we pulled up in front of her new residence, she said, "Well, I guess we'll look it over."

We were greeted at the door.  The girl there knew who we were, and took us down the hallway to Mom's room.  It was, of course, a slow walk.  Along the way, the girl stopped to inform and old guy, Leo, that he was in the wrong room.  Then we reached Mom's room, and the girl opened the door.

The room that Mom had just moved out of was not exactly large.  But this one is smaller still.  Mom stood there and looked at it uncertainly.  The girl offered to show it to her.  "I'll get your stuff out of the car," I said.  "I'll be right back."

When I came back, the girl left us alone.  Mom sat down on the edge of the bed and started to cry.  "What's wrong with me?" she sobbed.  "I shouldn't be here.  I'm not supposed to be here!"  I brought her a box of tissues.  I sat down beside her.  I held her and told her, "I know, Mom.  I know."

I stayed with her for an hour while her mood swung from dark to not so dark to hungry, and then to a state where she was ready to be shown around a little more.  I fetched the supervisor, who began to give Mom the tour.

The daughter of one of the nurses had just had a baby, and she brought it in about then.  Mom was immediately drawn to it.  The mother let Mom touch the baby, let the baby wrap its tiny fist around Mom's finger while Mom cooed at it, and made faces.  I'm pretty sure I saw the baby smile.

I was suddenly forgotten, left outside of the tunnel of her attention, like an abstract thought, like Linda and Ellie had been forgotten.  The supervisor nodded at me and whispered that this might be a good time to leave, if I thought I needed to.  But for a moment I forgot whatever could be so important as what I was seeing here.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

Supper Club, Country Club, and Learning to Drive.

So, here's the thing.  The thing is, it's kind of pointless to visit the Valley Inn supper club just outside of Elroy.  I mean, don't even bother.  This place used to be the showplace eating establishment of Juneau county, years and years ago.  It was built, according to my Pa, by ol' Art Overgaard, who owned the rock quarry a couple of miles outside of town.  He wanted a place for fine dining, and he had the money, and he built it, and people came.  The food was good, the decor was pleasant, with a dark and quiet bar/lounge area.  It was a professional-type joint.

But now?  Well, the outside still looks much the same, except that the old sign that had the longhorn motif is gone.  To his credit, the current owner did try to save it.  But a windstorm tore it up when some work was being done.  But ya know, that's about all the credit I'm gonna give.  The inside of that place has been shoddily and tackily remodeled.  The lounge is too bright and has too many big and loud televisions.  And ya'll know how Gus feels about the teevee.  Remember those stories about Elvis shooting out his television screen?  He wasn't crazy.

So anyway, the lounge.  I don't know, it just doesn't have the feel of a lounge, of a dimly-lit place to have a quiet drink and to socialize a little.  The dining room, well, that's fine, I won't rip on the decor there.  It's mostly windows anyway.  But the food?  All that comes to mind is, "Meh."  It's mostly from out of a box, dropped onto the griddle or into the fryer.  And speaking of fryers, who ever decided that it was okay to prepare fried potatoes in the deep fryer?  I've seen that a few times too many, and the Valley Inn is no exception.  And it's a sad thing for Gus to hear people looking at the menu while they sit at the bar and exclaiming, (for instance) "Oh, the shrimp dinner is really good here!"  Well, look, it's the same shrimp dinner that a million other bars serve, pre-breaded, pre-cooked, then portioned and frozen so that all you have to do is drop it into the fryer.  It's not anything special!  They're praising food that has never been touched by human hands!  Why have people become so uncaring about what they eat?  I just don't get it, but there it is.  Folks are happy if you give them a lot, no matter what the quality is.  So, once again, I wouldn't bother going there if I were you.  And if you do, just go without any great expectations.

So, I'm gonna leave the Valley Inn and head on up the country, way up on a hillside past Overgaard's quarry to Babe's Country Club.  At first glance this might seem like an ironic name for this unassuming little place.  But it was started, according to the bartender, with every intention of becoming a country club/resort.  The original owner bought up as much land around there as he could and then built a bar.  His intention was to also dam up the creek and have a lake just below.  But alas, one man would not sell, and so the lake never happened.  And so Babe's never got beyond the tavern stage.

The first time I ever heard of Babe's was when I was just learning to drive.  Dad and I went out in his old '63 Mercury Comet one evening.  He wanted me to learn to drive a manual transmission.  The Comet had the old three-on-the-tree shifter, up on the steering column.  The car was rusting and underpowered, with a little 170 engine under the hood.  We backed out of the driveway and ended facing uphill.  It took me about five tries to get that car moving forward, and then I was gunning it and kicking up dust on that old gravel road.  I eased up and shifted clumsily.  The car jerked and faltered, but we were on the level and were able to keep some momentum.  "We'll have to work on that," said Dad.  "Let's just keep on up to the four corners."

Everyone in high school knew about the four corners.  That's where parties happened, mostly underage and after bar time.  We didn't live far from there, but I'd never gone to any doings.  I was pretty sure that if I did, I'd get beat up.  When I look back on it now, I'm pretty sure that was an irrational fear.

I drove up the the intersection, and Dad said, "Turn right here, and we'll head on down this road.  Don't forget to downshift when you turn."  I tried to drop it into first, but the old Comet didn't have a synchronized first gear and only made a lot of grinding noise when I tried.  "Second is fine," said Dad.  And it was, once the car finished stalling out.  Here Overgaard road wound through the close forest for a couple of miles.  On the left were momentary flashes of open farmland seen briefly through the trees.  To the right was only dark woods as far as I could see.  The gravel of the road clattered off the tires and against the wheel wells.  Dust trickled into the car through the rotted old chassis.  If you drove on any of these roads in this car for very long, you would be feeling the grit of the roads between your teeth.  On a hot day it would stick to your skin in a fine coating of dust.

Dad guided me along these roads for some miles, telling me when to turn, and when to slow down.  We turned onto the highway and followed that for a while.  Then we turned up another narrow gravel road to another intersection, up another hill past a small farm where a herd of about twenty cows were just being let out of the barn.  Then we suddenly plunging into another wooded area.  After a mile, Dad said, "Now up ahead it opens up.  And it's the real purty view."  I seldom heard Dad comment on aesthetics, and the word, "pretty" didn't come easily to him.

Sure enough, the woods ended suddenly, opening up to a broad open vista of rolling hills and farms as far as we could see.  The sun, getting low in the west, shone on a small cemetery beside the road overlooking the valley.  "Wow," I said.  "That is nice."
"Yep.  Take a left at this stop sign."
We followed that road along the hillside until we came to an old red barn that sat beside the road.  There was a lit "Old Style" sign attached to the barn, and a long driveway the led down the hill.  "Turn down here," said Dad.

We pulled up to a long one-story building that looked more like a house than a tavern.  I don't think there was even a beer sign in the window, only a neon "Open" sign.  I followed Dad inside.  The bar was dim and quiet, and the bartender was the only other person there in the middle of the week.  He recognized Dad, and we sat down.  I had a Mountain Dew (jeeze, did I really drink that stuff?) and Dad had a Pabst.  He and the bartender talked, I don't remember what about.  I know he mentioned that he was, "...teaching the boy to drive," but to tell the truth, that's about it.  I was busy looking around at the dim dancing area, with the booths lining the far wall, and reading the silly little signs posted behind the bar, things like, "I woke up grumpy this morning.  I should have let her sleep."  We stayed long enough to finish our drinks and head back home.

That was almost forty years ago.  I still stop at Babe's now and then, and, except for the first names of the customers, it hasn't changed much at all.  They don't serve food there, only drinks and snacks.  The only television is a small one up in the corner on the wall.  The booths are still there, the silly signs behind the bar are still there.  Babe's looks the same as it did, I'm guessing, when Babe built it back in the sixties.  It's a good place to sit and relax and have a Pabst or an Old Style, maybe a frozen pizza or some chips.  On weekends it gets pretty rowdy sometimes.  Halloween can be especially eye-opening there.  Yes indeed.  But for the most part it's pretty mellow.  Old farmers still come in to discuss the price of corn or what's wrong with the world today, and more often than not they seem to know what they're talking about.  And in the evening, after a quiet couple of beers, you can walk outside to the sound of the night birds in the woods and the distant lowing of cows and look out over the deep valley and imagine that the tops of the trees there are the lake that Babe dreamed of when he built his country club.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Corner Pub Saved My Life



Does Gus even want to talk about the two-hour ride with his mother to Lacrosse and back?  Well, no.  But I’ll do it anyway.  The trip up wasn’t as terrible as I had anticipated.  The conversation was circular.
           “Where are we going again?”
            “To Lacrosse.”
            “Why are we going there?”
            “For a checkup.”
            “Boy, it sure is a long way.”
            “Yep, it sure is.”
            And then repeat every ten minutes.

There’s an old oak tree along Interstate 90 between Sparta and Lacrosse.  That oak tree always catches my eye any time I drive up there.  It sits alone on a small hill, sturdy and gnarled, surviving the storms and the seasons for many years.  I imagine it’s been there since long before this road was built, when all of the traffic was on Highway 16, a mile away across the valley.  I like that old tree.  This day, with the light blowing snow, the tree looked ghostly gray and distant.  I had a brief feeling of being out of sync with this time, of not quite being in touch with the world of high-speed interstates.  Then it was gone.

The testing was a hard and bad time, the worst Gus has seen in two (that long?  Yep, I guess so) years of testing.  She couldn’t follow simple directions, trying to add strings of numbers instead of just repeating them back.  Halfway through she was crying in frustration.  The doctor was a kind woman, and patient and gentle.  She somehow had Mom laughing again, though still teary-eyed by the time it was done.

When we were leaving it was raining.  I had her wait by the door while I ran to get the car.  And I did run.  It is feeling less and less like a safe thing to ask her to wait for any length of time.  But she was still there when I pulled up.  She didn’t recognize the car.

We drove over to the food co-op for lunch.  They have a cafĂ© there, a really nice one, upstairs.  Mom likes it because you can look over the balcony at the store below, at the colorful produce aisles and other displays.  I ordered for her and I think I did a good job of it.  She ate it all without complaining.  And then we headed back to Reedsburg.

The ride wasn’t too bad at first, except for some brooding about the testing.  But as the road rolled away behind us, she became more and more restless.  The ride was taking too long.  The weather was bad.  We should be home.  Where are we staying tonight?  Does Dad know?  Why aren’t we going home?

I fielded these questions as well as I could, but by the time we got to her residence she was awfully contentious.  I told her that we could at least go in and use the bathroom.  That got her attention.  Making sure there is a bathroom nearby is getting to be more and more important to her.  As soon as we got in there, she knew where she was.  She even forgot the last couple of miles of wondering where I was taking her.  She started talking to a couple of residents and forgot that Gus was there.  This was both a relief and very, very saddening.  I said my good-byes, and she answered in a distracted way.

Gus is not ashamed to say that he drove, he fled, to the Corner Pub.  It’s kitty-corner from the four-plex theater, on the corner of Main Street and North Webb Avenue in Reedsburg.  The owner, Pete, brews his own beer there, and does a good job of it.

I parked the car and got out and suddenly felt just how drained I was.  My feet were dragging and I was slouching.  I stopped and stretched a moment, straightening my spine.  I practiced smiling.  It’s not as easy as it sounds.  Gus has heard that it takes only 17 muscles to smile, and 42 to frown.  That’s a lot of muscles fighting the smile.  I decided to not look at it that way.  I smiled and went in and ordered a porter. 

That porter was dark as ebony, with a thick chocolaty head that one could eat with a spoon.  It had a dark dry malty sweetness and, Oh, that first long swallow went down very nicely.  I sat back and looked around.  The booths along the far wall were filled with older folks lingering over their late lunches.  There was only one other person at the bar, a guy in his mid-sixties, I’d guess.  He was sitting at the other end of the bar from me, but as soon as I glanced at him he waved and started hollering over at me.

“I got my voting done early!” he said.  “I tell ya, that whole ‘voter ID’ bill is a crock if I ever saw one!”  I said yes it is.  All he needed was an opening.  “Boy, that recall is really something, isn’t it?”
I agreed with him.  His voice carried pretty well, and a few people looked over at us.
“Yeah, that Scott Walker, he thought he could walk all over people.  He’s got another think coming!”
I didn’t disagree, but more people were looking at us.
“Yep, a million signatures is a lot to argue with.  Why, there’s folks that voted Republican signing to get him outta office.  Where are you from?”
I told him.
“Oh, my boy just bought a house there, right by the library.”
I knew the house, right across the street from me.  And I realized that I had met this man’s wife a month ago when I signed the petition to recall the governor.
“Well, how about that,” the man shouted.  “Sure is a small world, isn’t it?”  It sure is.

 The waitress carried a basket of French fries to a table across the room.  The man watched her and then said, “You know, I used to work at the McDonald’s in Madison, back when they made their own fries.”
Is that right?  They made their own fries?
“Yep.  I was the manager there, down on Park street.  We got in bags of potatoes, and had a peeler there, a mechanical peeler.  And then we’d run ‘em through the slicer, parboil ‘em for three and a half minutes, then drain em.  And they’d be all ready for the fryer.  I didn’t live in Madison though.  I lived in Mount Horeb.  And I used to rent this camper from a guy who owned a gas station just up the street from the McDonald’s.  He let me use his bathroom to wash up in, and I’d help out at the gas station if he needed it.  It was more of a service station, so he’d need someone at the till now and then.  Yep, it was a pretty good arrangement.”  He had some papers and clipboard in front of him.  He shuffled the papers, clipped them in the board and stood up.  “Well, I guess I’d better get going.”

After he was gone, M came over.
“He’s our local Concerned Citizen.  I hope he didn’t bother you.”
“No, not really.  Just a little loud is all.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Oh, that was nothing.  It’s a good thing the other Concerned Citizen wasn’t here.  Let’s get you another beer.”

That was back in February.  It’s now the end of March.  The snow is gone, and the ground is dry.  Since that time, Gus has not earned enough to put fuel in his little pickup truck, let alone food in his belly.  The only thing that keeps Gus out of the poorhouse for now is feeding his increasingly mad elderly neighbor, and driving her to various appointments.  That is the way of it sometimes.  On Monday Gus dug up a garden and trimmed branches for some beer money.  In the meantime, the calls from Mom have gotten more frequent.  And that’s not a big deal, for the most part.  If Gus has a joke book beside the phone it helps a lot.

But then there was Tuesday’s visit, when I asked her if she wanted to go for ice cream.  She thought that sounded like a good idea.  We drove downtown, about a five minute drive.  The ice cream was very good, and perhaps Gus had a little too much of it.  But it was the Zanzibar Chocolate!!  Mom had the mint chocolate chip.   She said she liked it.  But she was very restless about getting moving.  “We have a long way to go,” she said.  Uh-oh.

On the way back through town she told me that if I saw a rest area, we should maybe stop.  “Well, we’ll be at your place in just a few minutes,” I said.
“Oh.  But then we’re going home, right?”  Gus had no idea at all how to answer this.  He pointed out some pretty houses and drove faster.  He said, “Look, I have a harmonica!”  I keep a harmonica in my ash tray.  I played “Oh, Suzanna!” over the space of a couple of blocks.  Mom laughed.  And then I saw her residence on the horizon.  “Here we are,” I said.
“Where’s this?”
“It’s where you live.”
“Oh.”
“There’s a bathroom you can use here.”
“Oh, good.”  I pulled up to the door to let her out.  “I’ll park and be right in,” I said.

There was a small musical group setting up in the public area of the retirement home.  It appeared to be a 40-ish woman and three teen-aged girls, ranging from about twelve to fifteen.  I walked down to her room, and she was looking around for what she should pack.
Oh, man.
I said, “Well, there’s some music getting ready to play.  I’d like to listen.”
“Okay,” she said.  We went back down the hall and took a seat.  Attendants brought more and more people out until the open area was filled.  Mom introduced me to the same people I meet almost every week.  Some of them remembered me, others didn’t.

The music started up, and I was amazed to hear these kids cranking out “Orange Blossom Special.”  The oldest girl stepped up to the mic and just belted out the first verse.  Her sister followed with a fiddle solo, they sang another verse, then the youngest did a solo on the mandolin.  She played with a look of fierce concentration, while her glasses kept sliding down her nose, and Gus found himself smiling.  Later on, this same kid took out the spoons and played as if she’d been born with them in her hands, slapping out a rhythm that clattered like shining silver droplets of dancing bright sunlight across all of the people and down the halls.  Uncle Gus wanted to laugh out loud at the sound.

The group took a break after a while.  I walked with Mom back to her room and explained to her that I had to leave.
“But where am I going to stay tonight?”
“Well, this is where you live now.”
“I know.  But…this isn’t really.”
“No.  I know.  And I’m not even going to pretend I have an answer.”
“Yeah.”
There didn’t seem to be anything to say.  We walked together back down the hall to where they were getting ready to start again.  I told Mom that I was going to take off now, and she had suddenly forgotten I was there again.  She said, distractedly, “Okay.  See you,” and then started talking to someone.

Gus fled back to Pete’s Corner Pub.  Things were quiet in there.  M was tending bar.  I asked her how her day had been.  “Hot and greasy,” she said.
“That sounds very sexy,” said Gus.  Sometimes Gus doesn’t think first.
“This is as sexy as it gets these days, honey,” she said.  “Visiting your mom?”  It seems that’s the only time I get to Reedsburg these days.
“Yep.”
“Well, here, you'd better try this.  Freshly tapped.”  She filled a glass with Bourbon Scotch Ale without asking what I wanted.  It poured almost nut-brown, with a tan head, and when I took a long pull on it I could taste a mild sweetness and a hint of bourbon fragrance.  “Oh, man.” I said.
“Nice, huh?  I’d have one, but I O.D.’d on it already.  And now it’s four o’clock.  I’m done.”  She waved at the other waitress.  “I’m done!” she said.  She started mixing up a margarita.  “I have to meet my husband, and my daughter, and her kids, at Pizza Hut.  I hate Pizza Hut!”  She raised her glass to me, and then downed it in a couple of minutes.  “Oh, mommy needed that!”  She started mixing another.  “Oh, it’s okay.  This one’s only a single.”  She took a sip.  “Mmm-hm.  Mommy will be there soon.  Let me buy you another before I run.”  My glass was still half-full, but it was too late.  She set another beside it and drank her glass dry before she ran out the door.

That was two days ago.  Mom called again last night, not remembering why.  But I told her about my work day (digging more garden, cutting more branches, setting up a bird house) and the story about M slamming her margaritas before she had dinner with her family.  That all worked out fine by the time we hung up. 

Today I drove the neighbor on some errands.  When I got home I saw that Mom called.  Again.  I haven’t called back yet.  And it looks like rain on the way.  That seems like a good thing.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Nowhere, man.

So here it is, the thirtieth of January, and Gus has not been any more than twenty miles from home since he left The Cities.  I have gotten a lot of walking in, all of it down in the frozen-over wetlands outside of town.  They've been good hikes, and they help me to feel better about being so isolated.  I think I mentioned before that Gus needs people.  Yes, he does.  But as I said, the hikes have been good.  The dog and I are able to walk across the frozen beaver ponds and the marshes that we would normally sink into.  The beavers have been very busy along the river, and have left behind fields of stumps everywhere.  We haven't had much snow this winter.  In fact, all told, I think there are about six inches of it out there right now.  Nor has it been very cold.  The small ponds have been frozen over, but the river is still open.

We went out one afternoon while the snow was falling heavily.  We crossed two ponds and then reached the river where we stopped and looked around.  There was no wind, and the falling snow was so thick that it muffled the sound of the distant highway.  The snowflakes falling on the dry marsh grass was louder than the faint hiss of cars.

Another afternoon we were hiking along a well-packed track and I noticed a spindly winged insect walking on top of the snow in the sunshine.  Further along was another one, flying, and it was so light and delicate that it was caught up in the wake of my passing by.

Gus did get away for an hour or so to a town about fifteen miles from here.  There were errands to be run, and cat food to be purchased.  Oh, and there was a six-pack of a really nice porter to be purchased.  I have told myself that I can not open one until this posting is complete.  Cruel Gus.  And on the way out of town I decided to stop in for a beer.

And here is where I run into difficulty.  The thing is, I go to certain drinking establishments that I would just as soon keep anonymous, unless I'm going to write a review of them.  And in this instance I am not.  It's a hangout for me.  My friend J and I stop in for a few beers and bar food and to unwind.  ("But Gus," you say.  "What do you have to unwind from?  Your life is idyllic!"  Well, yes, it seems that way on the outside.  But nobody knows Gus's inner turmoils.  Oh, the pain!  The pain of being Gus.)  So yes, we unwind.  Sometimes we mock, sometimes we commiserate.  Sometimes we fall down if we're there too long.  But those times are few and far between.

The place was quiet, except for one guy lecturing another about how to make cheesy cauliflower.  "See, the trick is to not cook the cauliflower all the way through.  You cook it until it's still crunchy, but really hot, and then pour the melted Velveeta over it.  I usually go through a whole brick of it."  "A whole brick?"  "Well, yeah, or it won't be cheesy enough!"  I sat down the bar a ways before any other recipes got burned into my brain.  The guys voice carried though, and his friend seldom had a chance to respond as he jumped from topic to topic, an expert on all of them.  They were both drinking Lite beer.

I had thought the stool beside mine was unoccupied.  There was an empty glass on the bar, and nothing else.  The barmaid came over and muttered something along the lines of maybe I want to sit at a different stool.  Before that had a chance to sink in, the door of the ladies room opened and a slightly drunk woman came out.  She was not bad-looking, but very skinny, with, I'm sure, augmented breasts.  Not that Gus pays attention to those things, except as details in the picture.  Her hair was straight and blonde, and her pants were awfully tight.  The two men turned and watched her.  She seemed more drunk as she got closer and pulled up the stool next to mine.  The barmaid was pulling a mug of beer for me, and gave me grimace of sympathy.  She set the beer in front of me and started to walk away, but the girl stopped her.
"Hey, I'll have another one of those...drinks."
"You sure?  I thought you were done?"
"Nooo!  I'm walking home anyway, okay?"
The barmaid shrugged and mixed a gin and tonic and set it in front of her.

I get along pretty well with this bartender.  We used to compare notes about driving our parents to their appointments.  Oddly, our fathers died within a few weeks of each other.  I remember walking in there a month after and asking her how things were going.  She said, "Well, my father died."  I told her mine too, which seemed like an awfully dumb thing to say, but I didn't know what else to say, and we ended up telling funeral stories.  We both made an effort to keep the stories light, in spite of how we both felt.  It was comforting in an odd sort of way, and I always hoped that it was for her too.

The drunk girl looked at me in the backbar mirror.  "I'm getting a divorce," she slurred.  I saw the barmaid cringe.
"Well," I said.  "Um...is that a good thing?"
"Yeah, it's about time.  All the time he thinks I'm off...effing someone, and I'm not."
"No?"
"No!  I'm not like that!"  The barmaid smiled to herself at this.  She was putting away glasses behind the bar.  She looked across the bar at the back door, then over to the front. Something about her looking seemed furtive.  The girl sitting beside me did the same thing, though not as smoothly.  She had to turn on her stool, focus on one door, then the other.  Without meaning to, we were suddenly eye-to-eye.  Well, one eye.  Her left eye turned in suddenly toward her nose.  "Shit," she said.  With an effort the eye seemed to pull back.  It was disconcerting.  We both turned back to face the back bar.

"Yep, he was always checking on me.  Won't let me do anything.  Always picking fights with anyone I talk to..."  I glanced at the barmaid.  She was nodding in the affirmative.
"Well, that's not good," I said.
"Do you do that to your girlfriend?"
"No."
She was suddenly leaning in closer to me, breathing gin in my face.  The barmaid looked a little panicked and looked at the doors again.  The girl next to me glanced as well, then slowly focused back to me.
"You're expecting him, aren't you?" I said.
It took her a long time of thinking before she finally said, "Well, no, I don't think so."  But it didn't matter to me one way or the other.  I told her, "You know, I think I'm gonna go down there and get some popcorn.  I'm waiting for someone anyway."
I got halfway down the bar when the front door opened.  I jumped a little, but took the nearest stool and acted nonchalant.  But the person who came in didn't seem to know the girl, and sat down a few stools away from her.  He had his beer in front of him, and was looking at the bar menu when the blonde girl leaned across toward him, looked quickly at both doors, then said, "I'm getting a divorce!"

Friday, January 13, 2012

Buster's

Uncle Gus finally made it out to an actual night spot last night.  It was a tough struggle, an internal struggle.  I had promised myself that I'd treat myself if I finished a certain project, a written project.  Well, I did, though I'm not completely happy with it.  It will need rethinking and editing.  But it is finished.  Does that count?

I pondered this while I cooked some dinner (when did I start calling that meal, "dinner"?  It was always "supper" when I was growing up, and "dinner" was synonymous with "lunch."  Only rich folks called it "dinner.") and then took a shower.  Gus hadn't shaved in a couple of days, and was looking homeless, which really I am only a short step away from that condition.  (Why do I keep wanting to refer to myself in the third person?  Is it because of being cooped up with two dogs?  Alone in a city filled with people, and so I've had to become my own companion?  Uncle Gus just ain't certain.  But rest assured, there will be no volleyball with a face scrawled on it in Gus's future!)  So, all the parenthetical comments aside, I got cleaned up, shaved, and found some decent clothes to wear.  It's not a healthy thing to live in solitude, not for Gus anyway.

The dogs were looking at me, knowing full well that something was up.  I told them to behave.  Of course, they weren't going to behave on their own.  I had to put dining room chairs on the couch, close doors to rooms they didn't need to be in, raise the window blinds so that doggy noses didn't wreck the slats, make certain there was no food on the counter, or even a dirty plate, and make certain that dogs could not get to the garbage.  Having done these things, Gus ventured out into the steadily colder and very windy evening.  And walked almost a half a block before he came back for the keys to the minivan.

I parked a block away from Buster's so that nobody could see the minivan.  Not that it's anything to be ashamed of.  Beggars should not be choosers.  But still...

Buster's was busy.  I had thought that on a Wednesday evening things would be fairly quiet.  But this was not the case.  If I had been there to eat, there would have been a wait for a table.  As it was, I was allowed to pull up a stool at the bar.

I should say right now that I've eaten at Buster's before.  I've never had a bad experience there.  Their fries, their burgers, even trout on cedar slab, they're all amazing.  But that's back in the day when Gus wasn't on such a tight budget.  Oh, those were the days, of hanging sheet rock all day and then stopping in hungry and thirsty, and being able to just toss a couple of bills out on the bar and say, "Feed me!"

Anybody who knows me knows that I like to sit at a counter.  I like to be able to watch the action behind the bar, or the counter, to watch the people rushing back and forth, and gracefully keeping out of each others way..  It's a magical thing, this dance they do around one another, keeping orders in their heads.  There seems to be a sort of Zen to it, a certain state of mind.   And that's what was going on tonight.  From where I sat, I could see four people cooking.  There were two who were working the grill and the fryers behind the bar.  And there were two more working in the kitchen.  The bartender was right there with a beer list, which was easier to look at than the twenty-odd taps that lined the back bar.  I ordered a stout from Bell's.  Oh, man, that was a good choice.  It had a nice thick brown head on it, one I could have spooned and eaten.  This beer had a lightly smokey flavor to it that worked pretty well with the chilly wind outside.

There was a guy sitting next to me who seemed to be hitting on a girl, and she didn't seem to mind.  They went back and forth for a while as he tried to convince her that she could even move in to his building, there was a vacant room.  "It even has its own bathroom," he said.  It didn't seem to work.  But the conversation stayed light, and they seemed to part as friends when it was time for her to go.  He wandered out a little later, after she drove away.

I decided, even though I had eaten, that I should at least have a snack.  I ordered some onion rings.  And you know how in most places they just grab a bag of frozen onion rings and dump some into the fryer?  And then they serve them up, and people eat them and say, "Oh, they have good onion rings here!"?  Not at Busters.  This guy opened up a container of sliced onions and another container of batter, and dipped those rings in the batter and then into the fryer.  When they came out a minute later, they were gorgeous, a perfect golden brown.  The coating was crispy, the onions were sweet.  They have good onion rings here!

The grill was busy, with burgers and steaks and sliced beef all sizzling away.  The cook stood there, sliding his stainless steel spatulas across the cook top, scraping the fat into the little trough at the front, turning the meat, and dropping toppings onto the burgers.  At the same time he kept the fryers full of freshly sliced French fries, sweet potato fries, and more onion rings.  His movements were smooth, and unhurried, but he got everything out quickly.  It was a pleasure to watch.

A couple of women took up the stools that the couple beside me had just vacated.  The one closest to me was an older, kind of frail-looking gal.  Her companion was white-haired, but robust.  She sat down and asked me what I was drinking.  I didn't realize that she was talking to me at first.  But then I woke up.  "Ummm..." I said.  "I don't remember."  She laughed heartily.  Her companion seemed a little confused.  I got the feeling that she wasn't accustomed to taverns, as if the other person was kind of attending to her, showing her something new.  I suddenly remembered that I was having the stout, and I told her.  She decided that it sounded good, and went back to helping her friend choose a drink.  Her friend ordered root beer.

And the entire time I was sitting there, watching all of the activity going on around me, I was thinking, "I should ask them if I can hang with them while I have a second beer.  We could just talk about stuff, ask each other questions, etc.  But I didn't.  I should have.  I don't see how it could be a bad thing.  Do other people have that same...well, impulse?  Or is it a yearning, to just say hi, just for the conversation, to find out about a total stranger or to only connect?

I ended up finishing up my beer and my onion rings and heading back out into the cold.  I looked back as I put on my coat and saw that my space had already been cleared, and the two women had picked up their menus to see what looked good.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Random Search

As you might remember, Gus is house/dog sitting this week, up in the big city of Minneapolis.  This is a fine thing, a change of scenery is good.  As I may have mentioned, some real work would be cool.  But this will do for now.  I mentioned that there was a full supply of liquor here.  Well, sadly, I've barely touched it.  I had expected to down a few bottles of wine by this time, but so far managed to finish only one since Saturday.  And I haven't opened a single beer.  What is wrong with Gus?  Normally he'd be hungover or something right now.  But no, it's these dogs always keeping me busy.  Or perhaps it's "maturity"?  I don't know.  I'd rather not think about that one.

So yesterday I decided that I was going to go to the canoe builder's supply store in St. Paul. Did I mention that I'd been building a canoe?  Yes, I've got one all stripped out in a relative's workshop.  And that's as far as Uncle Gus got before he ran out of cash.  You know what I tell people about that?  I tell them, "Yah, when I have the money, I don't have the time.  And when I have the time, I don't have the money."  And that's just the way it was with this canoe project, this Labor of Love that I had expected to have finished and floating by this past summer.  But no, the work dried up before I was able to purchase the fiberglass and epoxy.  I worked off and on during the summer, sometimes for a couple of weeks at a stretch.  But it was always just enough to catch back up, never enough to get ahead.  But seriously, that's just the way it goes sometimes.  I've worked in cubicles, I've worked in factories.  I miss the regular paycheck, but still feel bad for those who are trapped in that treadmill lifestyle choice.

I went on the internet and got the location and directions for Northwest Canoe, and wrote it all down.  The store is in a big warehouse building in downtown St. Paul, according to the website.  Then I took off from here.  I took the road that follows the Mississippi to St. Paul.  It was a nice quiet drive, much easier, and probably closer, than if I'd taken the interstate.  I drove along and then got to downtown St. Paul and reached over for my directions and they weren't there!  And in my mind's eye, I could see them, right beside the door where I had set them down while I put my gloves on.  Sheesh!

I picked an exit at random, and drove up through the older part of town, where the warehouses tower huge and blocky over the streets.  These old buildings cover a city block.  They're made of brick and stone.  They cast shadows over the streets.  None of them seem to be warehouses any longer.  They've all been converted into stores, and fancy loft-type apartments with doormen and security.

I thought, maybe I can find this place.  Maybe if I just take my time and drive around I'll come upon it.  Yes, that's pretty naive, I know.  Sometimes I'm a naive and trusting soul.  So I drove down one-way streets, then up others, winding around and getting lost, then finding my way again.  There were streets being worked on, so there were detours that took me way out of the way, and I'd have to drive and drive until I found a place to turn and double back.  And I'd have to say that the good part of this was that there was nobody with me saying, "Turn here!  Turn there!"  I was able to get lost and then found all on my own with no worries about anyone getting exasperated with me.  Not all who wander are lost.  And I went on like this for about a half an hour, winding my way along the shaded streets and the traffic.

I finally decided to stop and walk around.  I pulled into a short street that ran along a big red brick warehouse that filled a city block.  It was quite tall, and quite old.  I saw an open parking space and pulled in.  Then I put money in the meter and went for a stroll.  I walked quite a few blocks from there, past coffee shops and taverns, fancy restaurants, and dive cafes.  All without any luck.  I finally decided to go back to where I parked and put some more quarters in and go into the coffee shop that was on the first floor of that big red warehouse.  I knew they'd have wi-fi, and I could use my iPod to figure out where I was.  I went in and was about to order some food so they'd let me stay there.  I thought I could order a bowl of soup and chunk of bread and just relax for a bit.  But at the last second I told the gal at the counter that I was lost.  And she was really nice, and asked me where I wanted to be.  And I took a long shot and said, "Well, I heard there was this canoe builder in St. Paul."  I mean, why would some chick in a coffee shop know anything about a small canoe building shop?

But she did!  She said, "Oh, that's downstairs, at the other corner of this building."  What???  You mean I walked around town for almost an hour and it was right here?  And so it was, right around the corner from where I had parked.  A few short steps.  I was there all along.  It just amazes me how that can happen sometimes.

I walked around the building and down a short alley, and there was a big garage door with the name of the business.  I didn't see a regular door, but there was a sign on the garage door that said, "Forget Minnesota Nice.  Don't knock.  Just raise the garage door and come in!"  Okay.  So I did.  And there was dog standing there, pushing his nose into my crotch and wagging his tail happily.  Nice doggy.  I heard someone call him, and he trotted off.  His work was done.  I pulled the door back down behind me.

There were two guys working there, a guy in his mid-to-late fifties, and a guy about thirty.  That was it.  There were two canoes being repaired, from the looks of them, and one canoe just being built.  The forms were set up and there were a few strips resting on it, ready to be placed.  And the older guy dropped everything to help me out and answer all of my questions.  I explained how far I had progressed on my canoe, even to the point of telling him that money was the main reason I had stopped.  And you know what he said?  This guy said the same thing I often say, and just now mentioned at the top of this page;  "When you have the time, you don't have the money.  And when you have the money, you don't have the time.  Yeah, I know how that goes!"

I told him that, money aside, I was really nervous about the fiberglassing part of this project.  He walked me through the fiberglass procedure better than any book I've read about it.  He even drew a diagram of how to apply fiberglass cloth to the canoe.  Then he explained that I could buy enough this week to do the outside, then order the rest in a couple of weeks if that would make it easier financially.  He figured out how much I'd need this week if I did it that way.  I tell you what, it's good to meet people like that. 


So I'm going back there later this week to pick up enough to seal the outside of my canoe.  Unless someone magically dumps a couple hundred into my checking.  And then I'm going back up to that cafe where I was kindly given directions, and I'll have myself a bowl of hot soup, and some coffee, and watch the cars and the people and I'll plan for the day when I can feel the canoe finally sliding over the open water.  I know it will be good.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Angry Catfish

Uncle Gus is in Minneapolis this week, for a whole week!  Why?  Because I got this sweet house/dog sitting gig, that's why.

Okay, I know, that is just so pathetic.  Yes, it is a house sitting gig, but to tell the truth I'd rather be working.  I like to work.  Heck, if you give me a shovel and ask me to dig a ditch, I'm happy.  Well, so long as I'm getting paid.  But I'll tell ya the truth, things are pretty slow right now, and I had the week free.  Well, I actually have the month free.  How sad is that?  So when I was asked if I could stay for a week in a house stocked with food and liquor, I decided to not turn it down.  I also get cash!  And I do have a review of Gus's Trip Up the River to here, but this one couldn't wait.

Today, after I dropped the homeowners off at the train station, I hiked over to the Angry Catfish coffee shop/bicycle shop (4208 28th Ave. S).  The coffee was fine, but the people working behind the counter were just useless hipsters.

"Hi, I'll have a 12 oz coffee for here please," I said to the guy behind the counter.  He was a young guy, trying to grow a beard.  But so far it just looked like patches of dirt on his face.  And really, that ain't a nice thing to say.  I might even be exaggerating, I'll admit it.  So what?  It was a bad experience.  Okay, forget I said anything about his beard.  My dad used to say, the first time I tried to grow a beard, "Huh.  Put some cream on that and I bet the cat could lick those whiskers off."  Pretty funny guy, my dad was.

Where was I?  Oh, the barista guy.

"What kind of coffee?" he asked.
"Whatever's darkest." 
"They're all light roasts."
What-ever!  What's the point in having a choice if they're all the same roast.  I mean, sure one might have come from Kenya, one from Ethiopia, another from your ass!  So why don't you have roast choices?  I didn't say this, though I really wanted to.  Instead I told him to "Give me the Ethiopian."
Then he took my money, I put a buck in the jar, and he wandered off.  At least that's how it looked to my untrained and uncivilized and un-hip eye.  I stood and waited, and waited while they did some stuff back there around the sink area, and I finally said, "Hey!" to this one chick who was walking around back there.  She looked at me.  "Hey, I don't want to sound ignorant or anything," I said.  And I stuck with Uncle Gusford's Rule of Politeness ("Always be polite.") "But do you have any mugs for my coffee?  Where do I get it?"
"Oh, we're brewing it back here, we brew it fresh and then we'll call you."

And that was fine, but it took her a long time for her to get the words out, as if she was hoping I'd stop her in mid-sentence so she wouldn't have to continue with the painful Sisyphean task of "speaking."  Maybe texting her reply would have been easier.  A smile would have been nice too.

But ya know what's funny?  Every coffee shop, like every tavern, has its own personality.  Some coffee shops are so warm and inviting, and the people are so nice that you want to take them home.  And it's genuine.  But others are cold.  And it's not just one person in the shop, but all of them, cut from the same cloth of cold indifference.  Here's your coffee, please leave me alone, I can't believe you didn't tip.  And really, that's how I felt about this place.

But, like I said, the coffee was good, very good, and very strong.  I like that in a coffee.

What else did I see?  Well, I was sitting at a counter in the window, and there was a lot of foot traffic in that neighborhood.  There's a bar next door to the coffee shop.  Buster's.  It's a freakin' nice place with really good food and lots of good beer choices.  There is also a row of booths that are nice and private, where you can sit and have some beers and not be seen by anyone.  I like that too.  There is nothing bad in that bar, except for too many teevees.  And it's a Saturday, so it's really busy there.  I didn't bother going, probably won't tonight.  It'll be elbow to elbow.  Anyway, there were lots of folks coming and going from there.  I saw a working-class guy and what looked like his pre-teen aged son coming out to his truck, an older Chevy half-ton pickup, in which a puppy waited.  The guy took forever to get out of his parking space, as if he couldn't judge any distances ahead of behind him.  He'd move an inch, turn the wheel, back up an inch, turn the wheel, over and over until he got out.  It was awful to watch.  I thought guys who wore Carhartt clothing knew how to drive.  And then after he left, an expensive-looking car pulled up with two women in it, younger women.  And that gal tried and failed miserably to park there.  She finally saw a triple-car space open up further down the street and drove as quickly as she could to that.  She did manage to park there, but it was still crooked.  And the whole thing is, this is the 21st century, isn't it?  I mean, the human race has been driving cars for a hundred years!  And there are people out there who still don't know how to drive!!  What's up with that?  What happened to "evolution?"  I guess you don't die from not knowing how to parallel park, so they keep reproducing.  Darwin is only relevant in the wild.

I also saw, as I walked along the residential neighborhood streets to the coffee shop, a big tree branch that had been mounted on a steep-banked yard as a landscaping ornament.  I had helped to carry it up there over a year ago when I just happened to be walking by and saw two guys trying to get this big awkward four-legged branch off of a trailer.  The one guy had seen it broken from a tree and picked it up to surprise his wife because she likes landscaping.  Anyway, it was last year that I was walking by and offered to help, and the branch is still there, so his wife must have liked it.  It looks like some sort of creature, but it's really cool.  I'm glad my work wasn't for nothing.  The more I think about it, the more I like the idea that something creative that I helped with is still there.  And perhaps that guy thinks from time to time about the stranger who came walking by one drizzling day and helped him and his friend carry a branch, and then moved on.  I know, that's hopelessly romantic (just as "hopelessly romantic" is hopelessly cliche) but there ya go.