Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Do you have any idea how
weird it was to tell myself  -
in the deepest middle of
distant Pennsylvania  -
that I was an artist, with
those intentions : writing,
painting. I knew I still felt
all that, but in two years
trying, nothing came. I
had boxed my way, solidly
and shut  -  which had been
my intention, yes  -  into
a container from which
only the hands-on and
the tangible could be
extracted, The 1970's had
already a vengeance  -  bad
sweaters and bad clothing
notwithstanding. The sort
of stuff you can't even look
at now, had, in the same way,
taken over my thoughts. I
had to work hard putting
all that behind me : New York
glimmer, misplaced and poorly
thought out things done, the
people and places left behind.
What might be going on there
now, at first, I had only a
glimmer. Distant and
dissipated. I didn't look
at a newspaper or a headline
for two years. It was only
slowly, with later forays to
Ithaca and Cornell, both
themselves still a steaming
cess-pot of rancor and
anger'd-violence over
art and politics, that I got
a feel for dipping a toe, and
then a foot, back into things.
It was so funny how no one,
family included, ever really
had asked about what I'd
been up to. The secret life
of Walter Mitty indeed. If
this had been 1867, and I
was some Civil War scoundrel
mustered out and escaping
into a monastically blistered
existence in my cabin in
the woods, wary of outsiders,
and watchful of everything,
I don't think it would have
felt any different. I was
miserably poor there for a
long second, and frankly,
it had all worked out well
enough that I often regretted
not having robbed a bank
while I was at it  -  since
I was hiding out anyway  -
and done it with 50 grand
of someone's payroll money
stashed in the barn.
I made what few friends I
needed to. Close to the cuff.
In some ways a born actor, I
simply 'became' whoever I
was with, as needed, to
perfectly meld and fit in.
Farmer. Hayseed. Yokel.
Whatever it took. I knew
it was play-acting, but it
had to work. It was really
pretty easy  -  except that
sometimes it got painful
too. Like at the supermarket  -
again  -  but not the one in
Elmira. This was the little
market in Troy, PA, where
Columbia Crossroads went
to get stuff. It was like a
densely packed six aisles;
almost a 'pretend' supermarket
for those days, but it worked.
Stuff was stacked everywhere;
cereals, juices, soups and the
rest. It always went fairly
easy. It often smelled like
farm  -  people had overalls
decked with manure, and
boots caked with farm slop.
The weird thing was, one of
the kids working there, a blond
girl, I knew from my schoolbus
driving had been doing some
extra-curricular work over at
the Troy Hotel some days,
instead of 'going to school' No
matter. I was in NO condition
to exploit the fact, nor to have
her begin blabbing about me,
so, and just because she worked
there, I either didn't shop there
or, when I did, it was all kept to
a minimum of 'Hi, Hello, How
are ya.' More trouble than
any of it could be worth. She
was like the prime exemplar of
some ideal, blond - blue eyed
Life Magazine cover innocence.
Perfect farm girl. My God, if
they ever knew. So much of the
world is surface; appearances.
Deception wide-angled and
coming around the bend.
I've been told the Elmira stuff
doesn't come over too well, there's
not a 'feel' for it. Well, I try. The
place was 'brown.' Let's begin
with that. A has-been brown made
from the leftovers of all those
jobs and manufacturing which 
had simply disappeared. Closed
up or fled to some other locale. 
Brown is perhaps the 'color' of
Earth. It's something an artist
will use to get across tough 
and ruddy points  -  the land,
the running of dirt paths and
rocks. It's a strong and a tough
color, with any number of
variants from umber to tan ,
but it never amounts to much.
It's a utility color. William
Blake used to squawk all
the time about Rembrandt,
how distasteful his work 
was, all that deep, dark; 
those endless browns. 'The 
color of dung', Blake would 
say. Understandable. A real
'fruitless' color. That was the
way of Elmira. Water Street, 
Walnut Street, Euclid and 
College Avenues. They each 
had their place and they 
each had a feel. But nothing
much went anywhere. They 
were dead-end places like 
people have dead-end jobs.
The language of Elmira, if
it was English, was of 
another dialect of English.
Down English. Another 
dead language just searching 
for some use. I think, in 
June '72, when Hurricane 
Agnes came through and 
just blasted the place to 
nothing, it was God's way 
of cleansing or wiping clean. 
Giving the place a bath 
for something new to arise.
There aren't that many real
ferocious hurricanes that
roll that far inland. They
usually beat up the coast, hit
the wall of land somewhere,
slamming in from east or 
southeast, and then just
dissipate headed west. This
one was different. Somehow 
it actually made it inland, and
with all its fury still howling.
even managed to climb upland.
And do its nasty work, it's 
clank and damage. That
seldom happens. It was 
remarkable. And even more 
remarkable was how it sat and
settled on Elmira and just
ripped it to shreds. There
was no real explanation.
Again, we were away that 
weekend or whatever 
days it was. Driving back
from the NYC area, first
the damn storm lifted and 
took my car's windshield 
wipers right away. That was
just as we entered PA, over 
the Water Gap Bridge. Big
mishap, but I got by, peeling
my eyes and finding a certain
speed that was ideal for 
streamlining the airflow 
so as to keep the least 
degree of water distortion in
my view. No wipers. Then we 
got over to the Susquehanna, 
somewhere, and were taken 
off the roadway, which was 
closed and flooded by that 
time, and instructed to drive this
little crap road to a Red Cross
Station that had been set up  - 
for people to wait out the storm.
Food, snacks, meals, coffee, 
TV, games, kids stuff. 
Everything but an orgy 
going on. Maybe 50 or 70
people, for as long as it took. 
We had my youngest sister 
with us too, Toni, about 12 
at the time  -  she was coming 
back to spend a week or 
two, some Summer-country
time with us, being finished 
now with school for the 
Summer. She got a real 
eyeful of fun, for sure. Water
and mud everywhere. Six feet
walls of slick, muddy water,
silt. However long it was, and
whenever the operable daylight
came and we got out of there
I can't recollect exactly. But
as we drove, slowly, along, rain
had reduced to mist and drizzle,
everything was dark and dreary 
yet, soaked. trees on their sides,
twisted over, bent and drooping.
People with chain saws cutting 
things off wires and buildings,
trying best to re-open roadways.
We did finally make it out 
towards Columbia Crossroads  
-  not knowing what to expect;
was our dirt road still there?
Was our hill still a hill? Were
the house and barn, massive 
and strong as they were, still
there, and in place? When 
we neared it all, it was dusk.
Everything was matted and
weighed down with water.
The tall grasses looked as if
helicopters or alien UFO's had
landed  -  flattened in weird
circular patterns. Yet, everything
was intact  -  no broken glass,
the house intact, waters in place,
the two ponds had not 'broken'
their banks and moved on. 
It was a God-like place, as 
I fell down in a sort of 
primitive prayer. I never 
wanted to leave there again. 
Added to all else, where 
before I was wounded 
and sore, now I felt 
wounded, beaten, and 
vulnerable. But successful 
too. That was a real gain.
Once, the next day or two, after
the Civil defense stuff began 
working and we'd re-stocked for
what we'd need, we made our way,
slowly, by car, to Elmira. The
 devastation along the way was
incredible  -  lowlands and riverside
stuff, just gone. Peoples' homes 
torn off their foundations. It seemed 
the poorer anyone had been, a form 
of reverse Divine justice (or
twisted humor) the worse they'd
gotten hit. Lost everything of what
little they'd had. Pets and animals.
Cars and basements. Possessions 
and clothing. The local streams
and rivers, along which they dwelt, 
had taken it upon themselves to,
with a certain fury, meander, find
different ways to flow from point
A to point B, or C or D. Everywhere,
new courses of water, trees buckled 
over, split, as if they'd been hit by God.
We got to Elmira, and it was still, 
more or less, Lake Elmira. The place
 I worked was gone, destroyed  -  all the 
machinery and printing equipment. (I 
would be without that job for well 
over a year). The fury of that storm
had ripped Elmira to another, as of
yet unknown, Kingdom Come. The
biggest, and most immediate problem
there, yes, truly, was coffins. One
or more of the old cemeteries  -  Civil 
War, 1900, those eras, had been
inundated and wiped, torn open, 
with coffins heaved, and floating 
around. Old, ancient crud, bones and
pieces, chunks of torn wood. The
dead had arisen. It was an
incredible sight, and gave an
entire new meaning to something
like 'Water Street'. The more
modern coffins, like boats, just
floating around. I couldn't figure
that out  -  realizing how I'd always
 thought coffins were also put into
concrete vaults in the ground. But,
anyway. If you judge a town by
its fast foods, Elmira was done.
Burger King, McDonalds, and the
rest, just big watery float-bowls.

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