Thursday, February 19, 2009

54. In the late 70s I was running a food coop in Providence, called Kneecap Natural Foods. We had over 600 members at one point. The coop lasted about 7 years in all (I left after about 5). Around '79 we got some grants to build a solar greenhouse in Fox Point, on some land donated by Brown University. We had CETA kids & Brown student volunteers pitching in. It was a huge project (for us). The greenhouse was designed with the latest solar technology - & we built it in the shape of a "vesica", to some mystical dimensions out of John Michell's books. It took a full year to build, because after the CETA grant finished (which was a 1-summer program) it was all spare-time volunteer labor.

Two weeks after the grand opening (filmed for local TV news - lots of people there), we got a letter from Brown University. The greenhouse would have to be taken down, as they were selling the property to a developer. We put up a fuss - they eventually gave the food coop some money for our trouble. But one of the biggest regrets of my life is that I didn't put up a bigger fuss. We could have rallied the community, taken them to court... The truth was, I had already moved on. I was very busy with young family, 2 low-paying but very hectic jobs (VISTA volunteer, produce supplier for other coops)... I didn't have the strength to fight them.

That was the first "community solar greenhouse" built in Rhode Island. It lasted two weeks. (There's a little picture of the greenhouse, with me standing next to it, in the corner of the collage on the Spuyten Duyvil edition (2000) of Stubborn Grew.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

53. I had a number of goofy adventures during my "Jesus freak" days (early-mid 70s). The hairiest ones I've probably suppressed (in memory). But I remember once I was sitting in a McDonald's, in Providence, and was approached by a young devotee of one of those obscure "meditation" cults that were always scrounging the streets for converts back then. He invited me to a "retreat" (indoctrination) in upstate New York somewhere. I decided to go along for a lark - to infiltrate them (because I was very firm in my own faith at that point). I played along. I was taken in a car with 3-4 other young people on a drive upstate. Winter, very snowy & cold. At one point we were blindfolded so we couldn't see where we were going. I remember a sprawling, newish house, with a lot of land enclosed in a chain-link fence, sort of like an army base. I have a vague memory of sitting on a floor with a crowd of young people, submitting to seemingly endless mumbo-jumbo harangues by some sub-Leader or other. Food & sleep deprivation. When finally they let us toddle off to bed, I waited til just before dawn, & then snuck out. A very cold hitchhike back to Providence, but I was happy to have escaped.
52. I used to hitchhike a lot. Often up north, in the summer, where I worked with my brothers & friends on a cabin my father was building near the Canadian border. Once I was crossing a bridge on foot in the town of Cloquet (famous for its odorous paper mills, and a gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). It was windy on the bridge. I was wearing a backpack with all my poetry/fiction notebooks. Somehow - I don't remember how - I managed to drop the knapsack off the bridge, into the river. So much for my youthful masterworks.

Friday, February 13, 2009

51. I'm a camp counselor at a camp for disadvantaged kids, in Minneapolis. It's about 1967. I'm about 15. I'm extremely shy with the other counselors - it's like an illness, very stressful & depressing. I feel paranoid much of the time. I'm better with the kids. I'm sitting in a rowboat, at the oars, in the middle of the lake, with about 3-4 of them. One of the girls says to me, "You're Jewish, aren't you?" I say no, I'm not. She doesn't believe me - says, "You're name's Jewish. You look Jewish..." It's one of those days. The sun is beating down. I don't tell her that I'm sort of proud to be mistaken for a Jewish person. & I realize later that she's just curious, trying to interact.
45. I heard Jimi Hendrix play in Minneapolis, one very cold December, around 1970. I remember a very steep indoor auditorium, raucous crowd. Hendrix was subdued. I think this must have been one of his last concerts. I was already coming down with something, & felt ill the whole time. Starting the next day I had a very bad case of pneumonia.

46. When I was a little boy, I was infatuated with a girl my age, blonde Heidi Johnson. Heidi lived across the street with her big family, including blonde Holly Johnson, her near-twin sister. They were future cheerleaders, homecoming queens. Her dad was a burly chicken farmer. Her mother, Blanche, one day, accidentally ran over my baby brother Bill's leg with her station wagon. (Bill was playing in their driveway. I don't know where everybody else was.) Amazingly, Bill was unhurt.

Heidi & I both took piano lessons. We could hear each other practicing across the street. I used to play while imagining she was listening.

Once Heidi came to our back door & asked if I wanted to come out & play. I came to the door, & said no. I was too shy, or nervous. My mother looked at me & said, "Oh, Henry." (Somehow this memory stayed with me 50 years.)

47. My uncles George and Edward, my father's older brothers, fought in WW 2. They parachuted into France. Uncle George had a stash of German Army trophies which he kept in a basement closet. My father enlisted as soon as he was old enough, in the Navy (my father always did things differently from his older brothers Ed & George). But before he finished training, sailing around on Lake Superior, the war was over.

48. One of my favorite activities, as a youngster - perhaps my most favorite - was playing "Army". All the boys did in those days (late 1950s). Revolutionary War, Civil War, WW 2... we roamed the neighborhood with our toy rifles, going "pching! pching!" and rolling around in the yards, the bushes. Strategy, tactics. Hide & seek (that poem by Vallejo, about his little brother, playing hide & seek & never coming back...). Make-believe does something to the landscape. When you're in the middle of an intense battle, you see your surroundings more vividly, feel them more palpably. You see what you want to see, anyway... (now all that nonsense is online).

49. The first story I wrote (I must have been around six or seven?) - nonfiction - was about a walk I had taken with my friend Jamie and his older sister Mary, through the woods. Jamie got scared & ran home. I kept going with Mary. We came over a ridge & suddenly came upon a pastoral vista - big valley with cows in the distance. I was proud of myself - & I liked Mary, too. My very first prose brag, I guess.

50. We lived in a new suburb, among the remnants of old farms. There was a layer of older, somewhat dilapidated houses in our area, a little bit raised up on hillocks over the rest of us - there were three of these houses. Each one was owned by a member of the Bye family, who used to farm the area. The Byes themselves were remnants of an earlier time - rough & ready old farm folks. Their children & grandchildren messed around with old cars & machinery most of the time. A whole genre of myth & rumor circulated among the many children in the neighborhood, about the Byes. They were mean, they were scary, they kidnapped kids... etc.etc. All of it complete bunk, I believe. Their houses were set back behind trees. They maintained extensive vegetable gardens. The elder Bye home had a very old, quite large goldfish pond, made of crumbling dark concrete, hidden in the shade, still inhabited by goldfish. If you were brave, you accepted the dare of other kids, to go & look at the Byes' pond.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

44. My mother has made a lot of art over the years, in several forms (painting, etching, woodcuts, pottery...). When I was little she made me a small, pale blue & white wooden bathtub boat, with the name "Sophie" painted in black lettering on the bow. A prized possession. But when Petersburg poet Elena Shvarts visited Providence about 10 years ago, I gave it to her. (Boats are important in Petersburg culture & history.) I liked thinking about it in the window of her apt. It seemed like a symbol of our Russ.-Amer. poetry connection. Then, a few years later, there was a major fire. Her apartment was almost completely burned out. She lost books, manuscripts... her home, temporarily. & little "Sophie" was also consumed in the flames.

Monday, February 2, 2009

42. A reminiscence is an example of "official memory". Things one dredges up that one has recalled already many times before. Random, I suppose, is meant to help get around this - a watered-down, willed version of Proust's "involuntary memory". These notes of mine seem to illustrate a failure of memory, rather than an active sense... I mean, there are great swaths of abandoned times & experiences. Think of everything that happens in a single day.

43. I wrote a small book of anecdotes about our cat, Blackie, when I was about 12. When Blackie was run over by a car, I tore the manuscript into tiny pieces.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

36. On a trip to Europe one summer, when I was about 17, I took a train halfway across the southern end of France, missing several intended stops, because I was interested in a girl sitting nearby, but was too shy to say hello. I finally got off & retraced my route.

37. On the same trip, I got thrown out of a bar-cafe in Rome, because I misunderstood the payment system, & a very short & obstreperous waiter started getting in my face. (Fascinating, huh?)

38. I was on that trip, or part of it, with my longtime friend Tom, who died of AIDS about 20 yrs later. His mother was Scottish. She married her Canadian husband after seeing him get off the plane during WW II (he was in the Canadian air force, she was in the British army). She pointed him out to a friend as he descended from the aircraft, & said to her - "I'm going to marry that man." She was... Scottish. (His father, ironically - when you think of Tom's fate - became a prominent epidemiologist. A very kind, unassuming man. He had a hobby, building this concrete boat in his backyard - this is in Minnesota - that he planned to sail around the world. I don't think it ever left the backyard.)

39. I met Jerry Garcia in about 1975, at the famous music hall in San Francisco, as he was coming off stage. I asked him if he could help me get my guitar back, which had just been stolen by a member of his Hell's Angels entourage. He was friendly, but apologetic : "there's nothing I can do."

40. I read War and Peace while lying in a hammock in our front yard, one quiet summer in the mid-60s. This was before I came of draft age. When I did, I applied for C.O. status, on the shaky grounds that I didn't believe the Vietnam War was just. I also took the college deferment, & was never picked after that ran out. I was lucky, I guess. I don't know what I would do now, if I had to do it over again.

41. Once, early on in my "Jesus freak" days (mid-1970s), I was hitchiking somewhere through upstate New York or New Hampshire. I had less than 20 dollars to my name (I think I was on my way to NYC, where a high school friend was living). I remember it was a bright sunny day. I hadn't eaten much for a while. I remember coming to a ridge on the highway - quiet, nobody around - & looking out at the hills & just suddenly jumping & shouting for joy. It was just sheer gladness in being young & alive, I think - sort of "peaked" there, out of the blue.