Here we are at the end of March, and I am thinking about December. Well, not really December. I am thinking about town and how I sometimes go there to write.
Town can be a location and an idea. In the movie Pale Rider after Spider Conway finds an enormous gold nugget, he tells his two sons to get the wagon ready, “they’re goin’ to town.” The boys are ecstatic. They look at each other in near disbelief, repeating, as if grasping for reality, “We’re goin’ to town! We’re goin’ to town!” Town, in this case, is an event. In the movie, Jeremiah Johnson, after Jeremiah re-unites with Del Gue, Jeremiah is attacked by a Crow warrior. Jeremiah survives the attack, but Del is shaken and concerned for his friend. He says to Jeremiah, “Maybe…maybe you best go to a town and get out of these mountains.” Jeremiah responds, “I’ve been to a town, Del.” For Jeremiah, town marks the end of something. Ultimately, town marks the end of something for Spider Conway and his sons, as well, given that Spider is ruthlessly gunned downed by Marshall Stockburn and his six deputies. His sons, in turn, must bear their daddy’s pelted body back to the mining camp.
I suppose not a lot good happens in Westerns when folks go to town. I realize in many Westerns town is where the doctor resides, the love of someone’s life tends a garden, and a shave, haircut, steak dinner, and hotel room will cost 7 cents. But really, aren’t all the individuals we cheer for in Western waiting to leave town? Aren’t our heroes waiting to leave town? Think about Odysseus. Well and good that Odysseus sails back to Ithaca after 20 years of war and wandering, escaping the various seductions of goddesses from Turkey to Spain, helps Telemachus overcome his insecurities, kills 108 suitors, eats a big meal, beds Penelope and wakes up comparatively happy, yet he still has to go on. Odysseus, we should recognize, is the huckleberry of huckleberries.
Me, I’m going to town to find a place to write, to have a change of scenery.
Growing up in Moab, we saw people who either lived in or were rumored to live in La Sal. Those of us who considered such things usually saw these La Sal folks in City Market or Walker Drug, or out on the highway, driving in one direction or another. I watched these rumored La Salites with a kind of curiosity and envy. Curiosity, because I had no idea who any of them were, and envy, because I sensed they would be the last of the country people. Moab, we knew, would be lost.
I rode with Jerry Ward years ago in the direction of La Sal when Jerry spotted a vehicle of someone he knew who lived in La Sal. They were heading towards Moab.
Jerry said to me, “You see that car that passed by a little ways ago?”
“I saw it.”
“The person driving that rig lives in La Sal.”
Jerry focused hard on the road. He nodded at whatever he was thinking.
I tried to holdout. Silence, silence, silence, silence, “Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t mind living in La Sal.”
“No point in coming to town everyday if you live in La Sal,” his eyes kept steady on the road, “if you want to drive to town every day then you might as well live in town, you know what I mean?”
“I guess so.”
“You either live in town or you live in La Sal.” He glanced out of the window and shook his head, “Shouldn’t do both.”
There was the lesson, the philosophy—the division between living in town and living in the country needed to be firm.
These days, for me to go to town and find somewhere to write requires calculations. There are bus schedules to consider, as well as chores, obligations and whatever else needs doing. I could go to the library, as I sometimes do, but there are so many other words and people there. People from other countries come into the library to read or to get warm or to ask questions. Some of them play chess on boards left on the small tables between Fantasy and DVD’s. There are cozy chairs set close to the tables for easy play. People find each other in the library. They find nationalities. Ethiopians speak with other Ethiopians. Sundanese speak with Sundanese. Kurds speak with Kurds. Folks from the U.S., I am told, speak with other folks from the U.S.. Long time locals and lifers are here, too, waiting to meet friends or simply waiting to wait. There are older people, usually older people, sitting in the area where there are tables, a coffee machine, and a sink for public use. The old people tend to sit in pairs or alone. Those alone tend to read the papers. Those in pairs tell each other stories. They nod at what is familiar and shrug at what cannot be changed. When one or both are ready to leave, inevitably one will glance into an empty paper cup of what minutes before had held coffee and tap the cup on the table. They are better, though. A little more life has been shared and given. I have never witnessed anyone chastised for noise in our library. On the fourth floor, for instance, the hum of voices, the chatter of children and papers being picked up and put down and chairs scraping over the floors are not unlike those voices emanating from the books. They are full of voices, these books. There are those we have read and those we have not read. We pick them up again. We read lines that we have loved: Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns/ driven time and again off course, once he had the plundered/ the hallowed heights of Troy—or this one—Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness/Thou foster child of silence and slow time.
We read lines from stories and poems that we should have read or should have read more carefully:
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
–Introibo ad altare Dei“
My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
Upon the breathless starlit air,
Upon the star that marks the hidden pole;
Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done:
Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?
Eventually, I must put the books down, having read too much and written too little. My head, I will discover, is cluttered with real and imagined places, with words I will never write, with fictions and the fragrance of sun warmed flowers so close that I turn my head to look. But I must search for another place where I can hope to write.
Coffee is ubiquitous in town. The question is seldom about coffee, as such, but where to drink coffee. There is a place in town that makes a rich latte with oat milk, but to drink a latte in this establishment, is to drink in a likely crowded room, one of bright lights and the sterile décor of plastic chairs and perfectly white tabletops. There is another café with dark wooden interiors, a plush sofa and candles and prints of great jazz musicians on the walls, and yet, the coffee is okay, a little thin tasting, a little unpracticed. The place I enjoy most to drink coffee, and to write when I write in town, is agreeable until 11:00. After 11:00, the place begins to fill with the prettiest of the pretty locals, all well-polished and brushed, and naturally distracting. Prior to that, however, I can write in a half-dark, uncrowded corner at the back of the café. The usual morning playlist is jazz standards. And in that time between low lights and crowds, there is a sense of living some place remote and a sense that at any moment something unflinchingly magical will happen outside the front window, a moment first perceived in the heart and ends, if it ends, with a mind somewhere between conviction and surprise saying, “of course that has happened.”
Back in December, I started going to the port to drink coffee and to write. December is a good month for writing, a good month for coffee, too. Even in this time of COVID, people come and go. Some folks catch ferries back to their islands. Some folks arrive from villages along the mainland. Most people who come to the port are travelers, and all travelers carry stories with them, like keys or crumpled receipts or words someone else has scribbled on paper. A few of their stories we have heard in other ports and terminals and stations. Other travelers will keep their stories secret. We are interested in those individuals whom we believe keep such stories and secrets. We might study them, as we pretend to read or search for a serviette or where to get a drink of water. We might convince ourselves that they are unaware of us, but it doesn’t matter. We will only imagine the stories they will not tell us.
The melancholy of a waiting area or neglected corridor or coffee shop where 4 or 5 patrons sit can enkindle our perceptions. We watch those who sit together, as some of them lean closer to talk or talk by looking away, looking out of the windows or watching people pass or glancing again at the coffee counter where there are trays of rosin boller, weinerbrød, croissants, and serinakaker. Lena has already made coffee for them, though they are not likely to know her name. She is attractive and efficient but a bit bored on slow days, which has been nearly every day in this time of COVID. She also works at the town branch of this coffee shop, which, she tells me, is busier and time passes more quickly there. Here in the port, she says, it is rarely busy. “What do you do when it is quiet?” She shrugs “I read. I answer my phone.” She hesitates. “Sometimes I daydream.” She blushes.
We are aware of so much when we travel. We are going someplace new, either with regret or elation, and every place is new before our arrival. We are on an adventure. Yet there is also absence. Then again, this is the Christmas season I am remembering. There are young women wearing Santa hats and grandmothers carrying tote bags brimmed with presents. There are men traveling alone with duffle bags. They sit beside the big windows and stare out at the sea. On the intercom, a harmless version of “White Christmas” cycles through the predictable Christmas set.
Here we all are, December 18th, the couple sitting across from each other in the booth, the few grandmothers, the one or two lone men, the Santa hat women, and me—this middle age, balding, undistinguished man writing at a side counter where no one thinks to look for another person. In between sketching a few sentences, I am reading an article about Wassily Kandinsky, realizing we are all participating in this comedy of strangers. I can no longer hear or think the word “comedy” without thinking of my dad. Dad, who in addition to his final request that all of us sing the hokey-pokey around his coffin, asked also that we carve upon his gravestone Comedia finite est! The comedy is over. These were once believed to have been Beethoven’s last words. Although, his last words are currently said to be, “Pity, pity, too late.” It is thought Beethoven said these words in response to his receiving 12 bottles of wine from his publisher. “Pity, pity, too late” may speak more to our condition than Comedia finite est!, but I’ll need to check with Dad about that.
December 18th and a bus ride to town. The port and travelers. “White Christmas” and my father. Wassily Kandinsky and Beethoven. Comedia finite est! and “Pity, pity, it’s too late.” I recall that December 17th, is Beethoven’s birthday, and Kandinsky said of Beethoven, “Even those who are nearest to him in sympathy do not understand him.” All these tiny threads of history and memory and this one moment crossed, right here, in the port of this city an hour bus ride from where I live. This on a day when I needed a place outside of my usual windows to write.
But why think of these things now? Why March? There is a pile of snow up past my knees that needs shoveling. There are streaks of sunlight on the sea, and behind me, the dishes in the sink need scrubbing. The mountains turn a pale salmon color, and the beds upstairs need to be made. Tomorrow is trash day, and yesterday two reindeer on the road caused four vehicles to stop. The herder waved to us as we passed.