Maureen and I went treasure trawling on the banks of the Delaware. Low tide was at 4pm, so we hustled on down to see what the receding waters might spit up. Maureen is collecting beach glass (or in this case, bank glass) for jewelry and mobiles, and pottery shards to decorate stepping stones for her garden. I just like to help and to walk, bent to a 45-degree angle from the waist peering at the ground. I've begun collecting bits of slate worn smooth and razor thin by the water. Not sure to what end yet but the pieces look really cool. I'm sure to find something good to do with them.
In our treasure hunts we have stumbled on some intriguing finds bits of etched glass, patterned ceramics, broken insulators, and once, a battered old Breyers plastic horse (the Morgan), missing two feet and a tail but still recognizable. We've set him up in a bush along the bank a kind of broken diorama.
Around the turn of the century, one of the slight coves in the bank was named Banana Cove for the bushels of bananas that washed up from the Tioga Marine Terminal with the tides. Some PA produce company habitually dumped their bad bananas as the tide turned. Another vegetable to grace Riverton's shores were the tomatoes from the Campbell's factory downriver a local "red tide" when the Campbell's folk dumped their detritus.
The river has returned to a much cleaner state. I understand that the stripers and the shad run regularly again. And there hasn't been a "red tide" or a banana cove in my lifetime. But we do have a lot of glass and pottery bits, and crap that has been dumped and wandered our way.
Grossest find to date? Maureen found a dead deer once. I was glad to miss that one.
Most laugh potential? Either the broken Breyer horse or the large plastic scorpion.
Coolest find? A 5" fixing lure with plastic minnow and hooks intact.
Put your finger on what has made a difference in your life. Think about what you have done and the opportunities you've had. What made them unique or special or memorable. It's the people you've met the folks who have embraced you or rejected you and helped forge a change in you.
People agonize over choices and turning points in their lives. It seems to me that every day is a series of turning points every day you are faced with choices some simple and banal, others more complicated sometimes more insidious. A choice to open your mouth and speak or to remain silent an opportunity to try something new or go to a new place (or go home and vegetate) Every day affords the opportunity to meet someone new, learn something new, stumble over an insight into yourself or the world around you. With everyday drama and stakes like that who could be bored?
Visitors! Visitor to be precise. The much adored Jon Cavaluzzo from SF came a calling. That's what home is for. Entertaining. And my friends are the adornments of my home, to paraphrase some educated writer. Jon blew into town on a drizzly night. We drove to Burlington and had dinner at Café Gallery, then walked the historic district. There is a great graveyard with twisting paths and leaning trees and headstones worn thin and smooth. And Jon and I are always up for a graveyard stroll. Rather Addams-like. One of the things I love about Jon is his polymath mind there isn't a cranny unstuffed with information and opinion. Conversation only lags when we pause to admire the beams on a porch or the writing on an old tombstone. Other than that, I always feel like I could wrap myself in Jon's voice, and be engaged for hours.
October 1, 2004
Autumn snuck up on me. With the tail end of hurricane Jeanne dumping buckets of rain and the wind kicking up, the leaves are falling. I took a long walk along the river this evening and as I passed under a street light, a large round shadow drifted down toward me. It took a minute for me to recognize it as a leaf. It was a little eerie.
When you've lived in the city for a long time, you forget that sleepy small towns really do still exist. In my mind, everything had degenerated to crack dens, smash and grabs, and the occasional mugging. Here, its gangs of roving teenage boys riding their bikes really fast and maybe throwing the finger if they are real trouble makers. On my way home, I was walking by one of the gazillion churches in this town. A bad of kids were running up the street yelling, "watch out", "here he comes", "hide here". I thought they were running from the cops. Seems I'd stumbled upon a game of tag -- loping adolescents dodging around shrubs and cars to get to "base" before being tagged. I wanted to join in but I think they would have thought the old broad was weird.
Funny to think of yourself as appearing 'old' in their eyes. As far as I am concerned, I'm still a kid. And I COULD play tag if I could get a game going. Although, I notice that at a certain age you project a bit... worrying about twisting an ankle or aggravating some old injury. When you are 16 it never occurs to you to worry.
Its Just Wrong
Last weekend I went to an Oktoberfest. My first one unless there are leiderhosen and a jolly oompah pah band, what's the point? This one featured grown men in balloon animal hats and a stunning number of Jimmy Buffett tunes. America, what hast thou wrought?
I did meet some interesting folks though. So it was worth the incongruity. And perhaps that is another story for later...
The Work Thing
Had lunch with my boss today. Shades of the old days, I went into his office last week and said, "pick a day and lets have lunch." His response was a slightly fearful, "just us?"
It was time. Its been almost a year since I started. We've been in the throes of growing pains all along. After months, we finally got someone hired to cover the front desk so I could make some headway on infrastructure issues. Its been a comedy of errors and very frustrating at times but a challenge that wants to be met.
At least once a month Steve, my boss, says "Are you still happy here?" or "Are you getting ready to quit?" Its become an office ritual with new people. "Are you coming back again tomorrow?" I've never worked in a place that had such turnover. And its not that they are bad people or the work is so hard. I haven't quite figured it out yet a combination of things location, growing pains, and money maybe.
Anyway, no one I know (including my bosses) seem to have a handle on what I do. I am either an incredible scam artist or a stealth employee. It has always been hard to describe without going into a litany of things. It boils down to this I create infrastructure. I build the bones that a growing company needs to be big and strong. I am calcium, phosphorus and iron combined. More to the point, I advocate for and help build processes and structure where there was none. This covers whatever internal areas need structure, but I gravitate toward human resources, training and communcations. And its taken me this long in my career to be able to articulate it. (Thank you Bob Dell Isola for the initial hints.)
It's a great challenge to create a structure where there is only chaos and where the players aren't even sure they need anything more. To Steve's credit, he sees that somehitng is missing and he has the confidence in the people he hires to figure it out for him. He also has some odd quirks, like being bothered if the icons on your computer screen aren't in a neat line. That just makes it more interesting.
He asked me today if I enjoyed the job and when I alsed why, he cited that I had never really gone into what I do or how I feel about it here on line. SO Steven, this is for you. It's a limited pitch, but I can't get into my other musings and stories without exposing too much of my co-workers. Wouldn't be prudent.
And speaking of George Bush I hope you are all registered and ready to vote! Its time to dump this administration and usher in a new phase of kinder, gentler politics. Darth Cheney and that group of rabid neo-cons have got to be banished to some undisclosed location where they can be kept on remand until their political shelf life has expired.
The Last Gasp of Summer
I took a walk down by the river and sat on the bank for awhile Last week the Delaware was overflowing its banks, carrying logs, trash and debris downstream from the heavy rains up north. Tonight it was low tide with tiny lapping waves. Periodically some unseen thing boat, bird, wind -- would push the ripples into the shore where they'd slap happily on the rocks. I tried to hear the city noises but the crickets and frogs drowned them out. It was easy to imagine what Riverton's founding fathers must have heard sitting out under their big wraparound porches and watching the lights of the city flicker in the distance. It was countryside then. Now its small town America surrounded by suburban sprawl. But at night, if you close your eyes and ignore the freeway over in PA, it might be 1850 when the little waves slap the shore.
I've started making friends and meeting local folks. A few weeks back, my mom and I arrived at the local yacht club's end of season do -- a luau, complete with roasted pig. The setting was perfect. The tiny blue Victorian building sitting out on a pier jutting into the river a sunset, a band, a fleet of people in Hawaiian shirts. A frozen margarita machine. Of course, summer was in remission at that point. It was chilly and windy but we sucked it up, with the frozen margaritas. After trolling for friendly faces, or at least talkative ones, we settled onto a table. I was already rehearsing my "lets get out of here" speech.
After dinner, with nothing to lose, we struck up conversation with the four ladies sitting at our table. They did not seem friendly at first, but first impressions are your often your own phobias run wild. They ended up being fun and friendly and open to making acquaintances. Two men joined them eventually, and we expanded our tiny sphere. The band was loud so I spend most of my time chatting with the man next to me about travel and our favorite cities. He was in the reserves, so we talked a bit about the service and how nothing seemed as vital and interesting to him as his time in the service. He looked like Ken Olin (from 30 Something). A handsome guy and charming. Always beware the charming ones. Later in the evening, Maureen (ground zero for all that is social) took me aside to be sure that I knew he had a wife in Connecticut and that when he was on duty here at Fort Dix he did not consider himself married.
Which brings me to Maureen. Maureen Murray larger than life, embracer of life and hub of the evening chat. Maureen lives just around the corner from me in a big old house on Main Street. She keeps a porch club going. In the evenings, she lights the candles and sits out gathering neighbors and friends for passing chats and idle conversation. Having lived in this area all her life, she knows all the locals and their stories, so hanging out with Maureen is a lesson in town history and current events. In the 3 weeks since we've met, I have been introduced to new people, swapped plant cuttings, met a local woman who writes and paints, and been invited to an evening of hot tubbing. All kinds of future invitations loom to be in on the Treasure Day table at Maureen's, go to a "blue moon" party, stake out her prime corner for the Fourth of July parade; learn the card game O Hell and get into their monthly games its endless like Maureen's capacity for people. She's quite a find.
A wide grass promenade runs along the river. An unprepossessing shoebox of a bandshell glows pale orange in its anti bug light. The Delaware passes sleepily, sailboats skirting the embankment. Up river is the as-yet undeveloped Burlington Island. Downriver the Burlington-Bristol Bridge, a two-lane drawbridge that gives many commuters the willies.
Right here, at the glowing bandshell every Tuesday night all summer long, a crazy man puts on the Lawnchair Cinema. Tonight, it was Night of the Hunter, an American classic starring Robert Mitchum as a blood-chilling psychopath hunting 2 small children and a their doll. Its likely that I would sit out on an ice field to watch Night of the Hunter. Its been one of my favorites ever since I stumbled across it on a rainy Saturday afternoon, playing on channel 48 or 29 some UHF channel from years gone by pre-TIVO, pre-Blockbuster Films. Like the film Harvey, Night of the Hunter is shown infrequently on network tv and so remains a treat whenever it reappears from the vault. Dusk, on the riverbank promenade, is the perfect time and place to see this old friend of a film.
After unfolding my camp chair and spraying down with bug juice, I settled in to enjoy the evening and await our feature presentation. There was just a scattering of people. A young couple entwined on a blanket. A few older couples who probably saw the film in its first release. Three women discussing "the dorkus minorcus" they knew (??). A guy behind me who ran through the synopses of all 3 of the Hellraiser films, going into great detail about flayed victims who became disfigured demons, some going on to become recurring demons in the continuing, hair raising story.
I watched the boats, saw a bridge opening (always a thrill in a small town next to a big bridge), thought longingly of the ice cream parlor down the block. "Ummm" helps sponsor the lawn chair cinema. (So the least we can do is patronize them. Even if they weren't propping up the summer shows, they are one of the last places I can think of that serves wet walnuts on their sundaes. That should qualify them for a "best of".) Eventually, the sight we had all been waiting for, a long, red 1960s station wagon cruising up to the shoebox to unload equipment.
The "proprietor" was tall, wearing long rust shorts and a baseball cap. He was neither "dorkus minorcus" nor hipster extraordinaire. With his dark-framed glasses, strong voice and confident movie spiel, he seemed more like a professor or a hip salesman. He thanked everyone for joining in the fun. Made sure to tell us that by modern standards this film was not a kids film, more like a PG 13 no nudity, no profanity, no explicit violence just one normal looking, evil man persecuting children -- "one scccaaaarrry movie." After killing their mother, Mitchum sings this slow little bible school ditty as he stalks the children, "Leaning leaning leaning on the everlasting arm." The children escape downriver in a skiff, drifting with the current in a stagey, "please touch" museum setting frogs, lizards, bunnies and birds watching them slip by. But always we hear, whenever they stop for a moment to touch dry land, Mitchum's baritone "leaning leaning leaning on the everlasting arm." Its chilling and eerie and altogether satisfying, with good triumphing over evil.
I could kiss the organizer(s) for this wonderful way to spend a summer evening on the bank of the Delaware. Two more weeks of the series remain the Madness of Kign George and The 10,000 Fingers of Dr. T (the only live action Dr. Seuss film made with his involvement!)
Why I Like the Standard Tap
The floors are worn, showing the patina of time gone by of lives before. Everything, including the patrons, are unassuming. No posing, no raging hipsterism just folks hanging out having beer, grabbing a meal. Its feels like neighborhood people, not the bridge and tunnel crowd (except for me). I love the old rounded refrigerator behind the bar rigged up to dispense beer. You know that someone here is ingenious.
The colors are rich dark woods, wine walls, green walls old oddball pictures and paintings, a pressed tin ceiling. A good jukebox. It's a cleaner Zeitgeist without the motocross, in a more interesting building so its not really Zeitgeist at all (sigh). Standard Tap occupies an old corner building a two story ramble of rooms, cubbyholes, steps and staircases, and the odd closet converted to glass display case. The glass in the front door is barred by a series of linked pipes and faucets to create security grillwork. (Again, that ingenious one who made the refrig a tap.)
The beer, wine and food menus are short and sweet. Enough choice to be fun but not overwhelming. And what they serve tastes good. Noteworthy are the mussels in a spicy broth with tomato chunks and pepper flakes. They have a nice selection of local brews, though sitting and sipping beer in the gloaming, I long to see a few familiar Pacific Northwest labels Poppy Jasper, Anchor Steam, The Rogue brews.
Its not a kid bar. Patrons range in age from gray hairs to 20-somethings. This is a real local. With a good IPA in hand, I felt like I was back to SF waiting for Thomas to join me at Jack's on Guerrero, or enjoying the fleeting afternoon sun at Zeitgeist.
Aug 2 - Life Lessons
I have this "friend" from my old job. We are not close... without KPMG there is no opportunity to get together. We don't know all the intimate details of one anothers' lives but I respect him immensely. Although we do not see each other, I think of him often. He is a decent and thoughtful man. (As in full of thoughts.) The sort that you can rely on in a pinch. The kind of person you can wholeheartedly recommend without hesitation.
Recently, we were trading emails, catching up on where we are in our lives, sharing thoughts on challenges and new priorities, and he asked me what I felt I'd learned in Italy. Not in terms of language or recipes or the best route from Siena to Ravenna what I'd learned about life and, by extension I suppose, myself, in the process. He got me thinking. At first it seemed like an easy subject, but each thought led to another and before I knew it I was mired in a tar pit of philosophical musing.
It's taken me awhile to wade through and understand a bit more of it.
For me, Italy was about removing all the layers I'd piled on to my life peeling away the external things that I'd used to define myself and beginning again. Tabula rasa. Without work and corporate ambition without family and friends and all the external expectations without trends and fashions, and all the bells and whistles of my life. It's rather like writing. You can get so bogged down with words and ideas that you lose the thread of the story. It was time to turn to a blank page and start again, from the beginning.
What did I discover? That most of my day in the "real world" was taken up by other people's priorities primarily work priorities. It left so little energy for my "at home" life, that friends and family took a back seat to work. And my own aspirations and interests sat in the row behind them. Between the expectations of work and making enough time for friends, there was very little left over for self discovery for creative thought or creative work. Granted, much of the heavy expectations were my own pressure I put on myself to be perfect to perform to make sure that what I did on the job went beyond just getting the job done. That is what we are paid for by our type A employers but it's the timeframes that are debilitating.
Lesson #1: We Work Too Much
Once upon a time, there was a busy season and a slow season. Workloads ebbed and flowed. You worked your ass off for a while, and then had time to take a step back to plan for the next wave, or to consider alternatives and new ideas. Nowadays, the pace is such that there is precious little time to even deliver your work on time. In our race to be more efficient, more streamlined and ultimately more profitable, we have created a system that asks people to operate like machineryat a steady, constant, fast pace. I've heard all the rhetoric about work life balance and the importance of family life. In the 20 years I've been in the workforce, I have only been at one company that really worked that way. And they went bankrupt. Our culture does not really support balance.
Work is important. I'm extremely focused on my projects. I immerse myself. Even so, I feel a lapping of guilt around the edges like I could do better, I could be more focused I could be more efficient.
Truth be told, I could be if I was a machine. But I'm not. People, being organic creatures who work at different paces, with differing focus, do not think the same way, learn the same way, or react the same way. People need down time, time to empty their heads and let idle thoughts flow through. In those moments of quiet, big ideas, trenchant solutions and, dare I say it, moments of clarity, dawn.
I also feel guilty for not making better use of my "down" time to do the other things in my life the things that are important to me. I have this unreasonable expectation that I should be able to be moving forward, doing things, accomplishing things, every waking moment. Like a shark, keeping moving or perish.
If I ruled the world, not only would we have a reason to dress up regularly (forget about the town hall, how about the Town Ball?!), we would re-tool the working world. More time to plan, to ponder, to think to read those magazine articles that might spark creative thought. Fewer flat out work hours, and more vacation, that's my motto. I'm not joking in the least. In a perfect world, we would either have a slightly shorter workday (9-3) or a 4-day workweek. And a serious increase in standard vacation time. With no guilt or trouble associated with taking vacation. Ideally, I'd propose 4-6 weeks a year, combining vacation, sick time, and personal time into one big soup of time-out. That's it isn't it? Its not time off, its time out. Time to sit in the dug out and get your head out of the game so you can think about the game that is right in front of you.
You have to think outside of the box here we are programmed by our history and our culture to reject inefficiency, to revile laziness and sloth. That man lounging on the beach is a lay-a-bout. He might be coming up with a plan to make cold fusion a reality. Or he could be thinking about lunch. We don't know, but odds are he is not being productive in our estimation. We look at the world through green eyeshades. Instead of thinking that time off equates to inefficiency or that people who crave time off are lazy, we should consider what free time offers. It is a chance to re-charge an opportunity to clear your mind. And what rushes into that vacant space? More ideas more creative ideas.
Okay, there are lazy slug-a-beds in the world who will call in sick and say that their grandma died, forgetting that this is about the 4th grandma who has passed on. But that is not the norm for most people.
Granted, us worker bees have to do our part. Time off needs to be planned so that you don't disappear just as you are needed for a mission-critical system conversion. But if you plan, there are precious few projects that cannot be worked around time off. IF this was a perfect world Having done time in professional services, I know that clients and management do not always plan well or have reasonable expectations. But they should and reminding ourselves of the "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is not a bad thing. If you tell a client that so-and-so has vacation next month on the 10th, my expectation would be that they would respect that time. Because they would want you to respect their vacation on the Outer Banks with the family. If you run into a driven person who doesn't respect anyone's time off, they need to be sent to a realignment camp. (And if I ruled the world, there would be realignment camp.)
I've gone a bit far a field here but this is central to what I learned living abroad. The time you have for yourself is valuable. And if it is carved up 2 dozen ways to next Tuesday, you don't really have time to yourself. Life is short
Of the 168 hours in a week, fully one third are work hours. Almost another third is sleep time. That leaves 68 hours for the rest lets ballpark 5 hrs commuting, which takes us to 63. I'll estimate a stingy 2 1/2 hours a day for meals, x 7 is 20.5. So we're at 42.5 hours divided by 7 for family, friends, and making your dreams come true. A whopping 6 hours a day (averaged) to share amongst family, friends (including our omnipresent friend the TV) and our own thoughts and aspirations.
Lesson #2: TV is a huge time waster
In Italy, given that I was not fluent in Italian and that Italian TV is scarily bad, I did not watch much television. My Italian teacher pushed me to watch a bit so I could practice listening but mostly, nothing. What did I do instead? I read. I wrote. I developed plans and ideas for my employers and for myself. I spent time with friends and time sitting in the piazza sipping cappuccino or wine or beer, thinking and observing the world around me. Which in turn fueled my writing, my planning and my conversation.
There are a number of folks I know who would be lost without a television. They would have no idea how to fill their time. That's okay its natural at first. One must wean slowly from any addiction. If you stick with it, you find things to do. But you need to re-train yourself, and that takes time time to do nothing and time to think of things you'd rather do.
I know full well how enervating work can be. You put so much into it, juggling work and the personalities you work with and the oddball monkey wrenches that get thrown into your schedule. If you work on a computer all day, the last thing you want to do is come home and write/email/take on another project. Which is why you need less work. TV is a wonderful, blue eyed siren who is lovely to behold. You escape completely into a world that keeps your brain busy. But unchallenged. And after a day of work, we kind of crave the rest. But its an empty rest one that saps energy and neglects to replace it.
It must have taken me 3 or 4 months to get used to the extra time to stop expecting that I had to be busy and productive in that traditional business way. I kept making "to do" lists so I'd feel productive. Eventually though I found my rhythm. Only then did I reconnected with a number of activities that I always loved doing, but had not made the time for or had the chance for in San Francisco. I began writing every day (keeping this website). My guardian angel in Italy (Elizabeth Wholey) offered me the opportunity to garden for pay.
Lesson #3: I am Peaceful In the Countryside
Funny. I lived in a city for 18 years. Loved it loved the convenience of walking out the door. Of having my friends, good restaurants, movies, shopping all of life within walking distance in any direction. I enjoyed myself immensely, creating a little bubble that fit my needs. But I rarely felt the sense of peace and contentment I had living in the country. (A few times, but usually around something naturey the flocking parrots circling the Dolores Street palms at dusk, the waterfall of fog cascading over Twin Peaks) Being surrounded by living things -- woods and fields and wild creatures -- living with and reconnecting with the rhythms of seasons, slowly revealed that I am happiest surrounded by nature puttering in the big garden. The pace of the seasons, the passing of time and changing light and color spring becoming summer, flowers becoming fruit, leaves falling and trees rebudding. All of it makes me quietly happy. No more dancing too fast, trying to fit everything in and meet all expectations. Life in the hills made me content in a way that creating a solid training program or writing a concise memo does not. There is drive and adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment around work. I feel challenged I find puzzles and problems to solve. But at the core of it, its doesn't matter. You get sucked into the storm, the roller coaster of projects, clients and deadlines. But in the end its just furiously dancing feet that get nowhere. It would be funny and absurd, if it wasn't so serious. We take work too seriously.
I don't have an answer for this conundrum. We must work to live to pay the bills, to support ourselves and put food on the table. But if we were less driven, less focused on efficiency, less interested in moving forward, getting ahead, accomplishing more If we valued the quieter, more subtle things about ourselves and life around us If we were more thoughtful (as in full of thoughts) and understood the importance of doing nothing of letting the world rush by, sitting on a bench with your head out of the game for awhile Maybe we would stop cramming our lives into the leftover slivers, bits and pockets of hours remaining in the day. Shouldn't we live our lives in the fullness of the day? If we saw our lifetime as a journey and understood how many things there are to see and do and learn in our limited existence. If we saw work as a valuable piece of the puzzle, but just a piece with so many other pieces to try and fit before the buzzer sounds and its "papers and pencils down."
"Every heart beats true for the red white and blue"
My neighbor's grandson is riding up and down the street in his motorized big wheel singing "Grand Old Flag". In true kid fashion, he is mangling the words but sings strong and clear... at the top of his lungs.
July 10 - Sikh American Day in Burlington County.
My mother called with the news that the Sikh's were having a parade in Burlington City. Sikhs in Burlington? (Like the Bay Area "Cows in Berkeley?" ads 15 years ago.) Again, Sikhs in Burlington?
I was raised here. When I left, there were no Sikhs. Twenty years ago there were whites, blacks and "spics". Spic being short for Hispanic. It was a nasty, derogatory term used for anyone who wasn't white or black. If it wasn't clear what group you belonged in (because you had to be categorized) than you fell into the grey area known as "spic". Mostly, the Hispanic population was from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Mostly, people did not make any distinction between nationalities... color was the significant factor. Because it was easy. You don't have to think about who someone is or what their cultural, economic or educational experience might be. People are simply white, black or "other". Asians did not come into play. We'd heard about them, but they could have been a myth.
Now, in 2004 there are enough "others" to break into smaller groups and actually hold a Sikh American Day parade. The FIRST Annual Sikh American Day parade. Missing this was not an option.
Moving back here was something I never thought I would do. For me, the area was ossified. It would always be a homogenous, unsophisticated place where people were either black, white or other. To be brutally honest about my own prejudices, I felt like South Jersey was racist and red-neck... a little bit of the old south, north of the Mason-Dixon line. Philadelphia was not much better. The region was full of narrow minds, proud of the fact that they hadn't seen much beyond the tri-state area. A grand vacation was Florida. Why go to Paris or London or Moscow when you've been to Epcot? There is a perfectly good Venice in Vegas. And don't even bother with Asia, Africa or South America... "nothin' but spics and niggers and no decent food." Its nasty but its what I remember. And passing through periodically, after I moved away, didn't change my opinion.
(To be fair, now that I am older I can see that much of it is economic. If you are poor, Florida IS a grand vacation. And why would you torture yourself about seeing Europe -- a scary place where they don't speak English -- when you can convince yourself that Epcot is the same thing. Most of it is a lack of curiosity, but you can make an arguement that the lack itself is driven by economic limitations.)
Brought back by time and circumstance, I live here again. And things have changed. This greater mix of ethnicity and attitudes is a welcome surprise. Granted, its not San Francisco. The vociferous, activist attitudes the "fuck you, I have a right to be who I am" position has not taken root here. Alternative lifestyles and non-traditional perspectives do exist. I wouldn't call them hidden. There is more of a blind eye situation. If you don't leave your neighborhood, you won't see anything out of the ordinary. Maybe that typifies the Philadelphia area's provincial approach. Our neighborhood is good enough for us and we don't want it to change. Perhaps these incremental shifts in the area mean that more people have been leaving the neighborhood, even leaving the city and experiencing something beyond cheesesteaks and strombolis. Or the influx of "others" has tipped the balance of the neighborhoods.
"Others" moving into existing ethnic enclaves is touchy. Philadelphia is racially polarized -- segregated by choice. I work in a neighborhood that is staunchly white. There is a house I pass every day that flies the Confederate flag. Now you can bet that the folks inside are not sons and daughters of the confederacy. But given the fact that families of color who have tried to buy homes in this area have been quite literally burned out, you might understand my allusion to the Mason Dixon line.
But I digress. This is about a group of "others" who have reached critical mass. No longer a hidden community, they are ready to be seen and heard. And, fingers crossed, accepted.
The Sikh American Day Parade was set for 12:30 in the old colonial town of Burlington City. Mother and I donned our summer frocks, determined to support anything that hinted at multiculturalism. If no one came to see the Sikhs, there would not be a second annual parade. And maybe the Sikhs would feel unwelcome and my great desire to see more Indian, Pakistani and curry houses would be thwarted. Our plan was to watch the parade then have lunch at Curtin's Marina, a little burger and sandwich joint on the river. We did not anticipate any trouble parking... it didn't seem likely that the Sikhs would draw hundreds of people. We parked and walked over to High Street to find a good spot in the shade.
Window shopping our way down the street, we found a stoop to sit on for awhile. A group of about 8 Indian women sat on the curb across from us. Looking like an ad for the United colors of Bennetton, they sat in twos -- two in greens, two in reds, two in blues, a yellow and a pink, all arranged into a rainbow of chiffon pants and headscarves. Nonchalantly, I angled for a photo without making them feel like oddities. Frankly, eight women in beautiful, richly colored dresses of any sort are an oddity here. Hell, the Sikh American Day parade is an oddity. To date, our parades have been all red, white and blue with yellow ribbons.
So we chatted and we waited. And we waited. And waited. 12:30 1:00 1:30. What bad form to not start your first annual parade on time. If you screw up the first one, the next time people might not come. (Again, my dream of an Indian restaurant on every corner would be thwarted.) The sun was relentless and we'd run out of windows to peer into. So we opted to punt. It was a bust and after the waiting, any parade was bound to be anticlimactic. On the way back to the car I asked a policewoman if the event had been cancelled. "No, they are coming right now."
Where? As far as the eye could see and the ear could hear nothing but bird song and people muttering. But the lady with the walkie talkie said "Now", so we stopped. Peering into the street, off in the distance way down High street, I thought I saw flags. But they did not seem to be moving much. Five minutes later and they seemed to be at the intersection of Broad and High, about 3 blocks away. Again, they did not seem to be moving. We got to talking with the couple standing nearby, speculating as to why they were moving so slowly. The woman supposed it was the heat. "We'd all move slow if we were walking out in that heat." I hoped it might be a performance of some kind -- the Sikh equivalent to the Mummers. The image of a Sikh American String Band with serious men in bright turbans and feathered costumes really appealed to me, in all its unlikely absurdity. You could vaguely hear drumming and there were definitely flags. They inched closer. The parade seemed to stop every 20 feet for 5 or 6 minutes.
A phalanx of young Sikh-Americans preceded the parade, handing out color postcards explaining who and what the Sikhs are. Featuring a quote by a Sikh guru, "Recognize ye all human race as one," the card pictured children of many races. The text emphasized that Sikhs are monotheistic, believing in a creator and peace among men. (A nice strategic move to stress our common denominators.) It explained why Sikhs wear turbans. (As a sign of respect for God.) They did not mention that they were hurt by and tired of hearing phrases like towel head, camel jockey and rag head, though it probably comes up in conversation.
I was struck that this was a preemptive move, a clear plea -- look we are nice people, don't fear us, don't hurt us. We are not the Taliban.
I don't care what peole believe in -- one god or two; if they wear propeller beanies and pierce their lips; or if they worship voles. As long as they are tolerant and respectful of others, are civil and live by the laws of the land, everyone is welcome at my house. (That leaves Ashcroft, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush out in the street, since their actions promote intolerance, uncivil behavior, and a fast and loose approach to the law and generally accepted ethics.)
But none of that mattered because suddenly the Sikh's were here! A paintbox strip of sari clad women held the parade banner -- "Sikh American Day". Behind them, a cluster of turbaned men and three lines of tall, saffron-colored flags. Next, a pick up truck with a drummer wielding heavy, curved sticks and four turbaned men (seemingly there to keep the drummer company). Behind the drum truck came a big float carrying a golden domed temple. It became a blur of images -- 3 costumed men doing an elaborate, sweat producing sword dance; another clot of turbaned men walking with a the police chief, the fire chief and some serge suited Anglo dignitaries. Non-Sikh supporters peppered the crowd, wearing saffron head scarves or t-shirts. Another float with singers. A black pick up truck with a tiny old gray-bearded man waving from the passenger's seat.
Toward the end, another pickup truck loaded with young men, bottled water and sodas sidled along the curb. In all the parades I've seen, the bevies are for the marchers. In this parade the drinks were passed out to the watchers, along with little bags of nuts and coconut. As the parade wound down, one of the men passing out water leaned in to tell us that down by the river there was a big tent and lots of food, and that we were all welcome to join them for a lunch. The gesture was heartfelt -- so genuinely inclusive. It was heart-stoppingly sweet.
As an aside: This area is full of people who are not red-necked and racist. It is an educated area, Philadelphia having an impressive group of museums, theaters and institutes of higher learning. I would not want you leaving with the idea that everyone is an ugly caricature. Unfortunately, in every city, state and country, the ugly voices seem so much louder and more resonant. If only it were the other way.
South Jersey is full of little old gems -- tiny historical towns that have fallen on hard times. Small towns that were, at one time, long ago, burgeoning economic powerhouses. New Jersey was a leader in glassmaking, woodworking, iron smelting and other vital colonial industries. These former triumphs are long past, but many of the old colonial towns are scratching their way back.
Burlington City (a well-situated colonial burg) was a hub of activity and commerce up until the 50s (ish). With the changes in society -- our lust for more convenience, lower prices and more choice -- it, like many of the small river towns, shrank, losing business to the new highway corridor. As fast food and the proliferation of chain stores grew, the fortunes of the small town stores and services dwindled. Burlington, which can claim residents such as James Fenimore Cooper (the author) and Ulysses S Grant (the general), and at least one signer of the Declaration of Independence, became a struggling, blighted backwater.
When I was a kid there were still banks, pharmacies and a 5 & 10 store. When I graduated college, there was a thriving drug scene, scrawny prostitutes and few anemic shops. It beggared the imagination how these places stayed in business. But Burlington refused to roll over and die. They kept trying to revitalize. The bones of a great downtown were still there -- a wide main street ending at the river, lined by interesting old buildings. The colonial flavor was still there, in pockets. Burlington put money into brick sidewalks, new "period" lighting and a promenade along the riverbank. Its sets a nice stage. But how to attract business and keep it healthy? Its been a long, steady haul with two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back.
These days High Street has life. Slowly but surely, shop by shop, they are bringing in more and more interesting businesses. The anchor is Café Gallery. Facing the river, with lots of windows and light, subdued colors and interesting food, Café Gallery adds a bit of class to the neighborhood. Opened about 10 years ago, it was a bit revolutionary for this area. The restaurant acted as a gallery, displaying the work of local artists. Café Gallery also offered a more varied menu than we were used to. They served quiche. It sounds silly now, but then it was the sign that there was a new sheriff in town. Heretofore, the local standards were the diner, the coffee shop (diner lite), and the pizza/sub shack. Café Gallery had table linens, flowers on the tables, and a cocktail bar. Bars here have always been your basic shot and
beer joints. Cafe Gallery introduced polished brass, solid wood, and a clean mirror that reflected light, space and art. It was worlds away from what we were used to.
These days, Burlington offers an old fashioned ice cream shop with outdoor seating. The town maintains lush pots of flowers hanging from the lightposts and under the trees along the street. There are antique shops, hat shops, a snazzy mens' clothier, a framer, jewelers, florists... not all are upscale, hip spots offering the latest in design. Most are just solid local merchants catering to what the locals want... silk flowers and heavy gold chains. The point is that they are thriving and well kept. They have become the foundation that brings other interested shopkeepers and new ideas into the town.
One new place really caught my eye. A black iron coat tree draped with scarves and topped with a brilliant, melon colored straw hat called out to passersby. The sign on the building read "Virtu" in elegant, black script. Everything about this shop said "city". It looked hip and intriguing. Inside was a well laid out mix of new and vintage women's accessories -- jewelry, purses, scarves and hats. The kicker? Wonderful handmade hats. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed and tried them on, voicing our opinions and ladling compliments. These were light, malleable straw hats, many designed as topless packables, all with interesting shapes and good color. Most with buttons or hat pins or flowers attached. The owner, Marie, is a young woman whose family came from the area. She lived in NYC where she obviously absorbed the sophisticated, witty and artistic sensibilities around her. Thanks heavens she brought it back and opened Virtu. My mother eventually succumbed to the charms of a black and white straw hat with wide pleats around the band and no top. A large red flower was pinned just off center in the front. A stunning little chapeau, it was light without being fragile. Marie had a great selection -- from these small pleated hats, to wide brimmed Gatsby-esque sun hats, to a tall, elegant two toned green hat with a down-turned brim that bought Audrey Hepburn to mind. We peeked at her winter line, simple cloche styling in velours and felts. And we talked hats -- three women of three generations describing our vintage favorites and beloved styles. We left ,promising Marie that we would be back -- wearing hats.
Next to Virtu was a home décor shop called "Bits and Pieces". I was inclined to pass it by. The windows looked dark and I couldn't get a feel for what was being sold. But when the owner opened the door and assured us she was open... Well, always interested in what's in a store, we took her up on the offer to explore. Bits and Pieces turned out to be one of my favorite types of shops -- an eclectic mix of old furniture, glassware, linens and house decoration. They featured wing chairs and old china sets, beaded pillows, soaps, teal blue stemware and odd salt and pepper shakers. (I bought the mottled red glass strawberries S&Ps hanging on a "brass" stem.)
Across the way is Phillips furniture. Phillips should get special notice because they are tireless boosters for Burlington events and Burlington businesses. They post all the schedules and calendars, display baskets of flyers and business cards, generally acting as a one-stop shop for Burlington news.
The shop is a 3 story narrow colonial full of furniture and vintage house decoration. My mom has been checking them out for years. Dragging me there when I came back, I ended up with two old corner cupboards, a freshly reupholstered wing chair and a cute little oak half moon table (very 20s). The prices are really good and their selection is varied... glassware, basketry, pottery, lamps and all periods of furniture.
So Burlington looks like it is vying with Mount Holly (the county seat) as the hub of area activity. Let us hope it is a long and profitable rivalry that spurs each town to outdo the other.
June 29, 2004
Saw Fahrenheit 9/11 last weekend. Really enjoyed it... but then he is my kind of guy. Moore really knows how to make a point... to let people's words and actions hang them. A brief thought did flash through my head, that if a crazed right wing fanatic fueled by enough Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly rhetoric, got it into his head make a statement, attacking movie houses showing the film on debut weekend would be an effective way to get rid of the active, more vocal end of the left wing spectrum. The theater was packed mostly with "the choir as in "preaching to the choir."
But we made it through the screening unscathed, except for our fraught righteous indignation about the current administration and their destructive policies and scary justifications.
April 18 -- A Little River Town History
Riverton NJ -- a tiny town of shaded tree-lined streets and large houses with spacious wrap around porches and wide lawns. Founded in 1851 by ten wealthy Philadelphians, Riverton is the first planned residential community in America. Conceptualized as a sleepy summer village, the founders hired architect William Sloan to layout the town and design their summer getaways on the Delaware river. These men did not envision summer cottages with large families and retinues of servants, these homes are stone mansions with mansard roofs, carriage houses, cupolas, and tower rooms.
I live in the more modest section of town. Its likely that my area was built a bit later and may have been where the service personnel had there homes. Our houses are simple gothic farmhouses and other more modern designs. My house was built in the 1920s... a simple, two-story clapboard with a narrow front porch and a postage stamp lawn.
At the moment, living at 304 is like camping at an archeological dig -- folding camp chair, inflatable mattress, lamps with no shades and great old pottery lying all around. Most of my belongings are in storage in San Francisco. Buying the house was my priority move. Before interest rates rose and my chan ces of finding something affordable fell. Once you have the place, everything else falls into place. Goods can be shipped. Pets reclaimed... But until its all here, I live in a kind of echoing chaos. What little I have with me is heaped about waiting for storage. Instead of being out of sorts over the disorganization, I am rather enjoying it. Everything since leaving SF has prepared me for this... living in between, in short term situations without my usual complement of shoes, bags and hats. Its positively Spartan... for me. Maybe I'm less attached to order. Maybe I've become more adept at making a place feel like home with just a few key items (a picture, a few books, a handful of porcupine quills).
When my life arrives in the back of a semi, I'm sure there will be a readjustment period.
This move is just another stepping stone in the journey (into the garden). It sounds so New Age-y but its true. Every experience, every trial -- good or bad -- makes you who you are. It's all about how you approach the challenges. How you handle the bad stuff... adversity, chaos, and trouble.
I passed a well-dressed young professional on the street in town. He looked quite ordinary... khakis, blue shirt, striding along, talking on his cell phone. The snippet of conversation I caught as we passed was priceless in its incongruity. "And then she said she's stab me and keep me under the bed." That's it. No more. I longed to follow and ask who she was and what their relationship had been? Were they breaking up or was this a sort of titillating "guess how much I love you" situation?
American Culture versus Italian Culture
Girls the world over dress for high impact but in Italy its heightened... htighter, brighter, less is more... more cleavage, more leg. Artiface is natural, expected even. Note the Italian sunglasses -- huge and shiny. Nothing is understated. Versace and Miami Beach. High camp. American girls go for high impact but with a more natural spin. Italian ladies dye their hair vivid shades not found in nature. American women dye their hair but really want you to think they don't. We want full coverage, not full disclosure.
Italian boys dress... well, like Italian girls -- tight, bright and slight. Muscle shirts in colors that would mortify an American boy... fluorescent green and fuschia. American guys dress down. The average American boy is a symphony of neutrals khaki, denim, white, black and athletic shirt gray. I'm not talking about the b-boy, hip hop culture... though I have not noticed any fluorescent green there either. B-Boys flash a lot more color and a lot more gold than the average Jake or Patrick. Italian boys take it to the extreme with orange, red, green, stripes with polka dots and huge freakin' sunglasses. They display themselves like the girls do -- to attract all comers. Adults shift it slightly. The ladies still go for cleavage and color... in larger sizes. The men transform into serious Dapper Dons' with bespoke suits and Borsalino hats. Is it our Puritan background that dowdies us down? All black and khaki with an occasional blue or brown. Rare is the hat.
When I lived in Italy, I reveled in who I was -- extra 20 pounds and all. Though Italian girls are supermodel thin... should I say eating disorder thin?... all women are worthy of a pinch. To Italian men all women are beautiful. Their heads swivel in one direction, then the other, like oscillating fans. Italian men like spirit. American men seem more seduced by "the package" ... the fantasy form. Italian men are more rooted in the here and now -- she is here and now, all extra 20 lbs of her. Does that mean American women are all wound up in the fantasy as well? Yeah ... a romantic Cinderella dream. A totally unrealistic expectation of who "the prince" is. Its no wonder the guys are crazy too.
Mark Wholey wrote to me today. Its like a gift hearing from any of the Italian contingent. But Mark -- as conflicted as I was about him -- is always a treat. One of the things that made Umbria so special was the confluence of creativity. Not just the artists and creators, but the viewers, buyers and believers who were there to soak it in. We were the appreciators -- the folks who ran forward in wonder at how much beauty and thought was created.
Mark was a renaissance artist -- sculptor, painter, wood craftsman. I miss being around that all-over creativity.
Today, he sent me a poem he wrote about his workbench at Casa Ruspante. It evokes everything -- the house, the light and sounds of the valley... the feel of sound flowing up and down the fields... of living cheek by jowl with the noises of people miles up the hill.
Talking to Mark always brings me back to the piazza and frothy capuccini... to a steel teacup on the garden wall... the "firefly" overlooking the valley at Montone... tiled roofs and the three graces... and to his immense, insatiable wanting something more.
Life in full sense-around.
April 13, 2004
Today I walked into the closest thing that I have to a local -- the Plough -- and took myself by surprise. My only child-ness has given me strong self assurance but in this case, so much assurance that I laughed out loud.
I've only been here 6 or 8 times in the past few months... I always sit at a specific table. Its perfectly positioned -- tucked in a corner facing the main door at the hub where the stairs, the bar, the manager's office and the hall to the loo, all come together. It's the sweet spot of traffic. Everyone passes this table. THE place to watch the passing parade.
Arriving in the rain, swathed in leather and rose chenille, I stepped through the door and started straight over to the table I think of as "mine". From across the room I can see there is a glass of coke and an opened letter at my table. My table... Have I reserved it? Is there an understanding with the barmen? Have I carved my name into it somewhere? No, but I am comfortable there. It's my spot... my personal harmonic convergence where the stars align and I can write.
So. I approach and without a thought, without hesitation, take off my scarf and pile it on the table. I horse my thousand pound bag of books, notebooks and papers onto the stool. Home. The waitress lets me know that one of the owners is sitting there. I don't even flinch.
The burly guy returns as I peel off my black leather gloves, laying them purposefully on the
scarf. I smile. Without a word, he picks up his glass and moves to relocate. Slightly abashed by my own chutzpah, I offered a quick (if insincere) "please, I don't want to push you out of your own seat" but really, I already had. My entire arrival was a natural -- and definitive -- "Okay, I'm here now." My expectation was that the table would be there for me and it was. Burly man moved over to the bar and nursed his drink. Maybe he was being a perfect host, completely without ego. If I were an owner, would I have given ground so easily?
The Screaming Banshee
Sitting in the Plough always reminds me of my once upon dream to own an "Irish" bar. My friend Roslyn and I would wax on about our dream bar -- The Screaming Banshee. (The name begs for trouble, doesn't it?) It was to be dark, redolent of beer and hops. The ancient oak bar would have that special patina reserved for years of spilt beer polished by flannel shirts and woolen jumpers. The Banshee would be wild and loud, with an eclectic juke box playing everything from the Clash to Brian Ferry, The Stones to the Elvii (Presley and Costello) with a sprinkling of Neil Diamond and the Monkees. But our brainstorm -- the one we were so chuffed by -- was serving Screaming Banshee punch.
SB punch would be a wicked soup -- all the leavings from the bar's half empties, mixed with a shot of something strong to kill the germs, suitably garnished with a bar orange. It would be a drink for the hard core. Something to gag the lightweights.
Obviously, we discussed this extensively -- under the influence. The impracticality was never worth scrutiny. So what if the health department would never approve our recipe? Pussies.
Ah, well. I put aside my childish dream. Rozzie and I would have drunk up the profits anyway, or squandered them standing rounds for every pretty face at the bar. And after all these years, though the desire to own a bar has faded, I still long to design the logo and see the name Screaming Banshee emblazoned in blue and green neon.
The loan commitment is final. I guess I am really going to own a house. On April 16, I sit down with strangers to write the largest check of my life. Its scary and exhilarating. Anything could happen to wipe you out -- fire, flood, termites. Exhilarating because now I can indulge my deep desire to create a nest, from garden to attic. All mine I can paint the kitchen black and lime green if I want to. Or frame black light posters and stick sequins to the walls. Whatever moves me. I have 30 some years of ideas, drawings and plans to sift through.
Everyone needs a local, or its equivalent. Its about familiarity, a place to be comfortable. Be yourself. For some it's a bar. For others... Target.
For me, its definitely a bar. In a bar anything can happen chance meetings, change occurrences, chance conversations. It's the eye of the storm where you can anonymously observe people in those little moments between... when they are most themselves. In the crush of a bar you can catch the unguarded little moments -- split second glimpses, in between the playacting and the posing... a raised eyebrow, a little smile... of what people really feel and rarely betray.
I can think in a bar. The noise and chaos are like white noise, blurring out specific distractions. The stimuli and the energy inspire philosophical musings. And, with the right partner, great conversations.
When the Green Fairy Drives A Hummer
Why doesn't anyone serve absinthe anymore? Have we lost our spirit of adventure and romanticism? The poetry of the unknown? The Green Fairy (Ooooh, what a perfect name for a bar. The flip side of the Screaming Banshee.)
I suppose I should research absinthe before I embrace it. Perhaps it turns your bones to jelly. Or rots your teeth. Or creates a Mr. Hyde to one's Casper Milquetoast. My impression is that it conjures visions an altered, philosophic state. Some might call that madness. For me, its magic. Coleridge's opium induced poetry was seductive and expanding. Far better to have a country full of benighted Coleridges than smug Bush/Cheney/Ashcrofts. What a stick in the mud, downer of a nation all bogged down in paternalism and obfuscation. More musing rumination, less righteous indignation!
Sooooooo, I am buying a house. And I had to be coerced into it.
Maybe it's a psychological quirk. A little like saying, "I never liked him anyway" post-breakup. After the Jenkintown experience, nothing was quite right not quite good enough. I saw perfect houses in imperfect locations. Then perfect places with houses that had problems (like neighbors that kept slavering wild dogs and cars up on blocks.) I saw a number of places that were a hair's breadth from perfection, yet something always kept me from bidding from seriously entertaining the thought of them being mine.
Then, my NJ realtor took me to a house in Riverton. Riverton has always had this local cache as an "old money" town. Things being relative, that is compared to the depressed and devitalized working class towns surrounding it. Growing up, Riverton was something to be aspired to a town of wide, tree-lined streets and huge houses with wrap around porches. There is even a tiny dollhouse of a yacht club that pokes out onto the river.
It never seemed reasonable to expect to find a house in Riverton in my price range. Yet there it was. And on paper, pretty close to perfect 3 bedrooms, 3 story, yard, porch As I walked through, I was telling the realtor how cute it was while my inner voices were shutting it down. "It will go for well over asking price. There will be a bidding war. Its not on a ½ acre." With an Open House looming the next day, I said I'd think about it and went on obsessing about other towns. Other houses. Two days later, the NJ realtor called to tell me that there were no offers at the open house. Did I want to take a shot? My head was screaming 'NO' but I said, grudgingly, "Yeah alright I guess." My only real question was why is no one bidding on this
house? It seemed perfect. My realtor low balled the offer, with my blessing, and I went back to searching Pennsylvania for houses. Obviously, the seller would reject the offer. They had already dropped the sale price 20K. My coming in even further under would be an insult.
Two days later, while I'm honing my checklist and zeroing in on a handful of PA neighborhoods, the realtor calls back to say they have countered my offer. Now I'm pissed. Why can't these people just reject my offer and leave me to my fruitless search in Jenkintown. (Which has become my holy grail of neighborhoods.) The realtor suggests that if I come up a thousand dollars, the place will be mine. Again I hesitate. What do you mean mine? They will obviously change their minds or we'll discover an Indian burial ground in the basement.
Why was I being so recalcitrant so grudging about buying this house? I felt weepy about not buying through my PA realtor. She was the one who really listened and helped me refine my initial plan look everywhere, at everything to a more reasonable approach. She is the one who walked me through the process of searching and bidding to make it less daunting She is the one who encouraged me and drove me around and laughed with me about the HUD foreclosures, rehab properties and derelict shells that were in perfect locations. If I buy in Jersey, she gets zilch.
Feeling increasing disloyal to my kick ass PA realtor, I told the NJ realtor I'd get back to her. Everyone in my office and whomever I could contact by phone was subjected to my waffling and grilling. "If I raise my bid by $1,000 I can have this house," I blurted, thrusting the MLS listing and picture forward. "Looks perfect doesn't it?" Down the line I went, from one to the next, within earshot of one another, "Why don't I want to bid on it?" It has everything I say I want (except that ½ acre) Should I bid?" Some said yes. Others said no, that my social life would vaporize once I crossed the river into NJ. Most said, "If you are not thrilled by the place, don't do it." Not atypically, the negative reactions galvanized me. I called the realtor back after 2-3 hours of dithering and accepted the counter offer.
Then promptly became obsessed with the idea that the sellers would get a higher bid and drop me. Even today, after the agreement papers have been signed, the lawyer review completed and the loan is in process, there are lingering doubts that the house could be mine. I signed the papers with a distinct "soon to the gallows" attitude.
Paint chips have been gathered lists madetentative plans for decorating the house and creating garden spaces in the not ½ acre yard. My house inspection is tomorrow. The rediscovery of the
Indian burial ground looms. Last night I dreamt that when we arrived for the inspection, the house was considerably larger than I remembered. On the second floor where the 3 bedrooms should be, there was a huge great room and numerous stairways and corridors leading to little apartments and hidden gardens. More than half of it was falling apart. In fact, I fell through the floor at one point and was hanging on to a broken banister, twisting for a foothold. Regrouping unscathed on the first floor, which was exactly as I remembered it, I debated rejecting the house as unsound or grabbing it because it was such an interesting old pile.
I almost own a house. Almost. The loan could go wrong, the inspection could turn up a raft of nasty old house problems I could be completely paralyzed with the fear of responsibility. What if the roof leaks, or the furnace dies, or succumb to the lure of expensive patio furniture NOW before I have beds or a table? What if I really can't afford to own a house?
Evidently, all first time buyers do this the agonizing, the worrying the overspending. Why should I be calm and contained? It's a leap off a bridge. You fall and get hurt, or you land well. If money gets tight I can always set up a series of web cams, strip and start charging people to watch my life unfold minute by minute... Nude Neurotics in NJ.
The Snipe Hunting: A seemingly endless search for an elusive beast you begin to suspect does not exist. Note parallels to house hunting...
The day began in possibility and ended in tragedy. That is a purposely dramatic overstatement. (I could be a television headline writer, eh?) Its good to remind oneself that worse things happen every day. I could have lost an eye, or a friend, or my refrigerator box over a grate.
What I lost was the house bidding war. The perfect little Jenkintown property slipped through my fingers. The winners offered the same $$$ I did, but they brazenly declined the house inspection. Even I, queen of the blind eye, would never pass on a house inspection especially on a house over 125 years.
But I am disappointed. I wanted to believe it would go my way and I could begin planning my real life my home and garden plan... paint colors the logistics of shipping 2 storage units eastward. All the good stuff.
True, the property was not perfect. Certainly no where near as perfect as it has become in my mind over the last 2 days. And it is possible that an equal, or dare I say better, home is out there in my price range in my time frame. And pigs could fly. I've become attached to the idea of Jenkintown and that yard. More than the house, I think it was the town and the yard.
D-Day - March 7, 2004
D-Day. I met the realtor and we crafted a formal offer for the Jenkintown colonial. I did experience that momentary spark of doubt. Am I doing the right thing? Have a I rationalized this house? Do I just want to get it all over with? But it was momentary I lost no sleep, my stomach is calm there was no last minute stop payment on the deposit. And by tomorrow at the latest, I should know if I'm that much closer or if we keep looking. And I'm okay either way If I get the house great! My next big life adventure begins. If not, I keep sorting through properties and praying to fall in love with something before too long.
March 6, 2004
Went to the Flower Show with my mom. The Philadelphia Flower Show is the premiere flower
show in the US the oldest, the largest, the most prestigious horticultural event. Or so they say. All I know is that it's a lark a fantasy of flowers and floral design. With everything from re-created backyards complete with treehouses to a giant flower birthday cake to elaborate framed seascapes made of flower petals. Years ago I remember going with my mother and grandmother. The lingering memory was of grand fantasy of course, I am not the norm. I have always had great memories of the furniture displays at Strawbridges and the home appliance section at Sears. (My lifelong love of plastic replica food began the day I opened a Kenmore refrigerator freezer.)
March 5 - Home is Where the Heart is...
Homeowners always say that when you walk into the house you want, you know it. Suddenly all the tumblers fall into place and something clicks. That happened today. My realtor (blatant plug -- Donna Carabba at the Whitemarsh Century 21) showed me an old colonial twin house in the borough of Jenkintown.
I haven't looked at many houses to date. I've surfed the web ad nauseum, printed and perused lots of properties, but nothing I've seen has grabbed me. In fact my biggest worry in this house hunt process has been that I won't be able to find that special house in my price range. My many requirements and preferences, the stubborn attachment to "character", and an unswerving distaste for anything new or boxy, had me brooding that I was lost destined to be about $50K off my mark.
Twin homes have always left me somewhat cold. I have no trouble with neighbors, but I like it when they are down the path a bit. A half an acre is more my minimum comfort zone. And neighbors on 4 sides are nothing but a necessary evil. Best case, the neighbors on down the road, out of sight and you are surrounded by conservation land. Preferably with a creek running between you.
I'm also inconsistent in what neighborhood is best . I want the convenience of city life walking distance to transportation, interesting shops, and cafes, with the herd of deer and a flock of wild turkeys on the lawn. I want to live in a small, rural town that has a movie theater, cool shops and restaurants. On the surface this seems like a contradiction but I keep hoping for the best case that little miracle that resolved the conflict. That perfect Shangri-la that appears through the mists just long enough for me to buy. I want a reason to own a ride-a-mower.
Today, the mists parted and the sun shone briefly on a little house in Jenkintown, PA. The picture on the web was unprepossessing. A bland white twin house that give no hint of character, especially in the barren winter season. What I saw was a quiet, well kept street about 3 blocks from a charming downtown of cute boutiques, quiet cafes, restaurants and services. (Having a local shoemaker really means the world to me.) And all this in walking distance to a train station Granted, no deer or wild turkeys but everything else looked right.
The house had a front porch and a small front garden with well pruned roses and iris peeking through the dirt. Inside, the house unfolded slowly. The livingroom was large with the original wide plank floors the patina of the wood a rich warm caramel color that made me think of crackling fires and overstuffed chairs. There was a fireplace mantle, not quite sure if it's a working fireplace that is covered over or ornamental. The livingroom opens onto a very large kitchen the kind that easily takes a long wooden table. (Visions of dinner parties swam in my head.) There was a lot of light, nice radiator covers, solid banisters the character of older architecture. The house is about 130 years old. The kitchen floor is newer hardwood. There is a small bay window looking onto a wide, deep backyard. My issue with twins is usually that there is no yard to speak of bu this offers a decent sized lot. For the practical folks, add a garage and off street parking. For me, a potential studio/greenhouse and asphalt that could be taken up to increase garden space. Upstairs are three decently sized bedrooms and a large bath (with washer and dryer space). The third floor is partially finished unheated but spacious and light the perfect workspace or even future master bedroom.
In short, its an old house missing many of the amenities today's homebuyer looks for perfect for me. There is only one bathroom. There are the normal settling, wiring, leaking problems that come with an old house. But nothing (that I know of) points to major structural issues its all cosmetic, decorative stuff. Yeah, it needs s new furnace. The one in the basement could be shipped to the Smithsonian when it gives out. Its an old coal furnace turned oil furnace. The plus there? Its under home warranty for the year, its too cool to look at (I can see the old coal shute in the corner) and could be easily replaced with gas (as the house is hooked up for gas). Everything about the house said, I can live here. I understand what needs to be done and I'm comfortable. I was mentally stripping the wallpaper and comparing color swatches as we looked around.
So, I'm making an offer. The place is priced under market for that particular town. Jenkintown is an upscale borough with a mix of old stone mansions, Victorian singles and old twins on tree-lined streets. There would be no terrible compromise between tiny yard and affordable house, or house with no charm on more land or the dreaded postage stamp sized rooms with no yard. Its an overstatement yes, but I might as well live in a refrigerator box over a grate than not have a garden.
So, this time next week I could be a homeowner.
To celebrate and take my mind off waiting, I met Min in the city for dinner. It is the first Friday of the month, and that means the old town galleries are open late and people wander the streets to experience local artists. Our rendezvous was my choice, Plough and Stars. I met the manager a few weeks before and he was extremely hospitable and interesting a traveler, a chef a nice guy blah, blah, blah. I'd told him I would stop back in and too much time had passed since. So, Min and I met at the Plough, made quickee reservations and set out to stroll the galleries.
Philadelphia really has quite an interesting scene There is a hard edged east coast feel to it and there is a lot going on in the arts community. The galleries we dropped into ran the gamut in media and styled abstract oils to photography to layered multi-media. Lots of hipsters and
locals wandered from door to door. A puppeteer performed about mid-block. Strangely, there was nothing about it that felt contrived or forced. There was no Disney-fication of the art world not was there the overly-hip, trying to hard to be cool thing. The architecture downtown is lovely 250 year old narrow brick buildings of 3-4 stories, arched windows, carved detailing. With time and money, some of these buildings have become showplaces. Others still look tired and worn. Its an area of old industrial loft space and teeny colonial rowhomes. And everywhere there are restaurants, cafes and boutiques. If I were going to live in the city, I would be here.
At the Plough we were seated upstairs on the balcony. The restaurant is in an old bank building giving the room the grand feeling of turn of the century banks massive architecture, pillars, a fireplace. The food is good Its not Thomas Keller territory but they do interesting things well. I had a baked sea bass that had been covered in paper thin sliced of potato. Baked, they became crisp, golden fish scales. Dessert was a goat cheese tart that was very like a ricotta cheese cake -- velvety without being too rich or sweet. Served with poached pears in a port sauce, it was quite satisfying. Velvety in the mouth. Unfortunately, I cannot continue going there just to chat with the manager. There are far too many interesting restaurants and cafes in that area for me to commit all that time to one. I will either have to convince Mr. Riley to meet me on the outside world, or go in for drinks before dinner.
February 15, 2004
Leaving Italy was very difficult. Transitioning back into a regular American life was harder. Its been 7 months since I flew out of Fiumicino. I have a job. I have a roof over my head. And yesterday, I succeeded in getting on line with my old Toshiba computer to begin updating the website again.
The bumps in the road have been myriad. There have been interesting challenges (like buying my very first car) and hard adjustments (office work, for one thing). I told myself that I would approach life here the way I did in Italy -- with a fresh eye and an open mind. I've settled just outside the city of Philadelphia. Let's use "settled" loosely. I have been lucky enough to come into a couple of great house sitting gigs that are tiding me over until I actually "settle" into a house of my own. (Please pray, chant and daven that I have my own house by May.)
Since I have conquered my technological and logistical issues around internet access, I have no excuse to keep me from writing about my adventures here in the US... my life after Umbria.
I've already uploaded some stories recovered from my old computer. (Check Jan to May for some changes, with more to come over the next few weeks.) When my Toshiba crashed last February, the company I contacted to fix things told me that my hard drive had failed. No chance for recovering any data. That meant all my pictures and whatever journal stories were not loaded on the site, were wiped out. A distressing moment. The computer tech did not offer me my computer back after declaring it dead. Perhaps he had high hopes for resale of parts. I wrestled my Toshiba from his arms in the pathetic hope that a miracle would happen... sometime... later on. Maybe when Walt Disney is defrosted and Elvis re-enters the building.
As luck, or good karma, would have it, I got that miracle. A friend of mine on the west coast offered to look at the laptop when I got home. She resolved the problem in less than a week. There was no crashed hard drive, just some corrupted files that, once replaced, made everything fall back into place. My photos were recovered as well as a few stories from "the lost months".
Enjoy those, and I will keep working the last 11 months. For those of you who had been obsessively reading the adventures... a thousand thanks. I hope to provide you with a lot more material.