Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On the Corner of Fairview and Summit

Its strange how one street corner can so clearly define a person; caught between the intersection of middle class and poor. How one location can highlight specific milestones in a person’s life amid critical junctures of multiple careers verses a mundane existence.

I guess it all began on the corner of Fairview Avenue and Summit Avenue in Saint Paul around 1924. Just 18 years old, my Mother had left the family farm for the big city. With just a sixth grade education (because she had to stay home to feed the chickens-seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!) she ended up as a maid for ‘those rich people’  on Summit Avenue. Think ‘Upstairs, Downstairs or ‘Downton Abby’ without the accent. It was back in a time when the delineation between rich and poor was very clearly defined and enforced.

Fast forward many years to a home on Randolph Avenue (not that far away) where my mother, with the help of her brother, built her own home and my sister and I were raised. Then it became my neighborhood and upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that a lot of my life was defined, refined and affected by that neighborhood.

 There were some good memories back there. Bus rides downtown to St. Louis Grade School. Walking to Cretin High School. A paper route that netted me $70.00 a month which was enough to pay for Cretin and give me a start at St. Thomas College. Finally graduation and the beginning of my lost years’ and eventually focus and direction.


I discovered foreign films at the Grandview Theater while I was searching for myself. Beginning with the ‘Carry-On’ comedy series from Great Britain. Then French films with their candor in speech and skin, the Italian films that I could never understand, a few Australian films and finally back to the English films that probed the soot-covered grayer part of the life over there and in my own life. 

My first concrete recollection of Fairview Avenue and Summit Avenue was one of reflection amid the angst of an exaggerated demise of a fractured relationship. In retrospect, it was a long-time dying. I think she knew it was over between us long before doubts began to scratch at my brain. Even a trip back out east to mend fences fizzled and smoked but never flamed. It continued to linger on…at least in my mind. Until I finally got the call that inevitably ended with ‘but we can still be friends’ and that was about it.
The next day, I hitch-hiked to school and got as far as Fairview and Summit. I walked the rest of the way down Summit Avenue on that late winter sunny morning, humming a song I’d just heard on the radio, “Where have all the Flowers Gone” and in an instant the song created a memory implant that I still experience very clearly whenever I hear the song again.

For reasons I don’t really understand, that song became a wonderful standard for me to reflect upon the end of that part of my life and the wide open expanse of whatever might lie ahead. Of course, at the time I wasn’t so clear and focused and reflective. Instead I was feeling very sad and sorry for myself. Like Colleen in “Love in the A Shau” it was probably a smart move on her part but it hurt me a lot nevertheless. I love that song now not because of that incident but instead because of the memory it congers up of the bright sunlight reflecting off freshly fallen snow, the sound of my boots crunching on hard-packed ice and the self-induced bravado I filled my mind with to overcome the overwhelming sadness still lingering just beyond my consciousness. It worked and the song stuck.

Fast forward many years later, 16 to be exact, and I had investment properties just a half block away. After college, living in Europe for a while, a burgeoning career in television and starting up my own business, I took the next step. I’d always wanted to get involved in real estate. So with income from my business, I became a landlord.

 I should have taken better notes because the stories I could tell would either be regarded as pure fantasy or ‘Tales from the Crypt.’ I tried to do everything right and for the most part I was re-warded with wonderful folks to serve as their landlord. But with a large number of people moving in and out of my buildings over thirty years, there were always a few standouts.

The fellow who lived in the basement for more than 16 years. He collected recyclables and had most of his apartment space covered with black bags of pop cans, paper ware, etc. He slept on a couch because his bedroom wasn’t passable. Nowadays, he’d be considered a hoarder. I just saw him as a bit eccentric and a great conversationalist. Despite all trash bags of stuff, he never once had any problem with pests or other bothersome critters. Amazing.

The time I got a call at 3:00 am because part of the ceiling in the living room had just collapsed on a guest sleeping on a sofa there. It turned out that the ceilings in each unit had been anchored (years ago) by wire instead of being nailed to the ceiling supports. I had to vacate each unit over time and redo each one of those ceilings.

The time I got a call around midnight in the middle of winter because water was pouring into a tenant’s closet. It turned out that the drain pipe which exited the rain water off the roof had frozen and was blocked up. I got drenched as I pried the outside pipes apart so that the water could drain off the roof and not backup into the building as it was doing.

The list could go on but it really wasn’t any different from any other landlord in an older apartment building. There was the peeping tom I never could catch. The wonderful garden I planted for myself and the tenants. My kids made good money there helping me on weekends. Ax Man and Riding Shotgun with Peter Pan

I had another couple who never owned a car and just got around by their bicycles. They were way ahead of their time. The rest of us are just catching up to bicycle transportation now. We still exchange Christmas cards with those folks.

I had another tenant who delighted in doing all my yard work for several years because she liked to work outdoors. I bought the flowers and plantings and she did the rest.

I lost heat in the middle of one winter. It was twenty below outside. That phone call came at 3:00 in the morning and the furnace wasn’t going again until 9:00 the next morning. Made for some scary hours with the fear of pipes bursting all around me.

But, once again, I met some wonderful folks over the years, anyone of whom I’d love to see again. Well, almost every one of them?

The corner of Fairview and Summit became my starting point for my almost daily four mile runs. My route took me past the College of St. Catherine’s, down along the river boulevard, past the Monument and finally back past the College of St. Thomas.

Passing the College of St. Catherine’s always brought back a plethora of memories from visiting friends in the smoker and being all nervous around so many girls (women, really), to school dances (like I knew what I was doing), to getting my date back just before curfew. I can still remember the one time I saw her maroon ‘66 Chevy two-door hardtop parked on the street right after our breakup and ironically never knowing that my future wife was on campus at the same time.

The duplex on Randolph Avenue that was our first home right after marriage. I remember the crazy lady downstairs who was always listening to our footsteps and complaining. Taking care of my sister’s kid there and wondering what it would be like to have one of our own. We lasted for just over a year in that location before shipping off to another job in Chattanooga, Tennessee…but that’s another story. 

Summers were glorious on the river boulevard with their cooling breeze off the river and hordes of other runners, bikers, joggers, boarders, walkers and dog-handlers. Winters were a bear with the cold harsh wind blowing off the river and my slow methodically trudging through hard-packed ice and blowing snow. By the time I returned to my corner, I usually sported a walrus mustache and soaked layers of clothing. If I had stopped, I probably would have frozen in place. 

The Monument was where a lot of couples have consummated their friendship. Not me…I was never that brave or foolish. Although I’m told it’s still a great make-out place.

My college career began and ended at the College of St. Thomas over a six year period of time. I first started in the fall of 1961 and finally graduated in the spring of 1967. In between was two years struggling at CST then running out of money and transferring to the University of Minnesota which was an unmitigated disaster. Then the service and finally back to St. Thomas and finally graduation and off to Europe.

I’ve been in a number of foot races down Summit Ave over the years. Some went well, others not so much. My kids never understood why I was running if I was never going to win the race.

It was also the starting point for my training runs with Melanie for the Twin Cities Marathon. The first summer of training ended with an undiagnosed stress fracture that put me under for six weeks. No marathon that year. The second summer of training was shorted by a popliteal cyst which cut my training time down to sixteen weeks. That turned out to be the exact distance I ran in the marathon before ‘dying’ out there. A Life in Pictures. 

Now, long after the buildings have been sold and my marathons are a thing of the past (I think),  I still find myself occasionally on that corner, bicycle under foot and ready for another one of my long distance bike rides. 

I’ve paid my dues and I don’t have to go back there anymore. Yet it’s always a joy to be biking down the Avenue, letting the wind blow between my ears, thinking happy thoughts and humming that familiar refrain “Where have all the Flowers Gone” amid the beauty swirling all around me.

And in my memories.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My Posse

A strange thing happened between my last surrealistic escape from the Apaches and my traipsing back into the A Shau. I began to sell books, in fact, quite a few copies of “Apache Death Wind” according to Amazon. After less than two months in the marketplace, “Apache Death Wind” is now ranked in the top ten percent in terms of e-book sales for that western genre. Who knew?

I had never envisioned myself as a novelist of western genre but circumstances seem to be pushing me in that direction and I couldn’t be any happier. As I’ve mentioned before in my blogging, I wrote “Apache Death Wind” back in 1974. It took a year of typing (for those of you who can remember typewriters) and then making corrections and retyping those same pages over and over again. That labor-intensive, painful process continued for almost a year until the book was completed.

As my wife loves to remind me, I then ignored her advice to seek publication and instead shelved the book and promptly began to write a second western. A year later, around the end of 1975, that second western was finished and also promptly shelved.

It was only thirty plus years later that I dusted off my first western, read it again and decided to see if I could get it transferred from its typed pages to digital format. I got it transferred to a floppy disc (remember those?) and began rewriting, editing, adding character embellishments and plot twists. “Apache Death Wind” was the result and from the comments I’ve received, the book seems to have hit a cord of great interest with a lot of readers. A number of those buyers are from England and their comments are particularly interesting. I’ve also gotten four 5 star reviews.

Click here to visit the Apache Death Wind book page on Amazon

Another sign of serious interest in the storyline comes from the number of new ‘likes’ I’ve received to my Author page on Facebook. After many months of trying to attract folks to ‘like’ my page, I’ve now got satisfied readers ‘liking’ my site on a weekly basis. Their interest is sincere, in some cases passionate and always grateful for a wonderful trip back out west where men were cut from a different cloth and women might be soft of heart but never of character.

None of this might have happened if it wasn’t for my wonderful marketing collaborator, editor, blog poster and overall master of many things technical in the publishing world. It was Vida who convinced me to begin advertising on Facebook to a very targeted audience of western genre readers. We were both surprised to find that a sizeable audience for western genre exists in the U.K. We’ve been able to track our sales increase to the beginning of that advertising on Facebook. We started with a small ad on the side of the page then graduated to an ad in the news feed itself. It seems to be working wonders in terms of attracting my kind of reader to my novel.

So what to do next?

Even before “Apache Death Wind” was published, there was pressure building for a sequel. In this case, it was Michelle, another fine editor, book designer and collaborator, who felt the storyline begged to be continued in another book. I was reticent at first to do a sequel since I had always imagined the story ending as it had originally back in 1974. Fortunately, I listened to Michelle’s advice.

At first I was left pondering what might have happened to my two main characters, Jeb and Charlotte, if they weren’t together at the end of the first novel. Then ever so slowly, a new story started to emerge from the shadowy confines of my imagination. This new tale gradually began to morph into a story of love lost, a man bent on suicide and a new beginning gradually growing for the two main characters. Of course, circumstances bring them together again but not always in ways a reader might imagine.

The more I worked on a treatment for the sequel, the more excited I got about the characters and what happens to both of them after the end of “Apache Death Wind.”

As it is written right now, the sequel opens with Jeb sitting across from the cantina where two bandit brothers are holed up and waiting for the rest of their outlaw gang to return. Jeb, ever true to his word, is determined to eliminate the two brothers just as he had promised the villagers. At the end of the first chapter, Jeb arises and begins to walk toward the cantina, rifle in hand. It is a suicide mission but since he’s lost the love of his life, he doesn’t really care any longer.

Charlotte is established now in San Francisco. She has become very successful with her own tailoring business and has put her past life with Jeb behind her…or so she believes. Then she is approached by a lawyer with news that will change her life forever…

The plot gets even more complex after that.

Finally, a sequel to ADW had been outlined and although no time frame had been committed for its creation, I had a solid storyline in hand. But I still had ‘A Shau’ to republish and ‘Debris’ to rewrite and ‘Cobbler’ still waiting in the wings for another rewrite. I thought I had my writing projects clearly defined…

That is until another lone cowboy; a half-breed in this case, suddenly appeared on the proverbial horizon. Damn, I was back in the saddle again and I didn’t even see this one coming.

Despite my wife’s continuing insistence over the years that I go back to that second western written in 1975, I resisted because I remembered it just wasn’t very good. Then, not that long ago, out of curiosity more than anything else, I dusted off the old binder and began to read my second western. It’s entitled: “A Man of Two Tribes” although I expect that title will change over time. I sat down to read the story and was shocked to find myself totally engaged in the story line, characters, plot development and suspense. Much of it is good as it is written. I don’t expect a lot of rewriting and editing will be required.

 I couldn’t believe it. I had another western just waiting to be redeveloped and I hadn’t even considered it. If there’s a moral here, it’s to listen to what the women in my life have to say, they’re usually right.

Much like the first western, I’ve had those typed pages scanned into a word document and I’m now rewriting it in tandem with my work on ‘Debris.’ While there’s no firm publication date, it will come out before the sequel to ADW is finished.

There seems to be a growing audience for my western stories. I don’t want to disappoint them even if I hadn’t expected to strap back on my holster, saddle up my mare and head out for parts unknown. I can almost taste the dust and heat and lurking danger just around the next canyon.

I’m going to love playing cowboy again.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Return to La-La Land

It was supposed to be a mid-summer break from Midwestern reality. A return to the land of surf and traffic. Instead it became a world coated in soot and ash and a surreal exercise in ‘California Dreamin.’

It was snowing the day we arrived in Palm Springs. In fact, it had been snowing soot and ash for several days. Officials labeled the cause as the ‘mountain fire.’

At its height, there were over 3000 hotshots fighting the conflagration just over the mountains from Palm Springs. Local newscasters are all aflutter with hints of doom and gloom descending on this tony enclave of absentee owners. Admittedly, it was a little unsettling to watch the night flames moving high in the mountains above us like a surreal basket of glowing orange in a bowl of black. But realistically, it would be a stretch to say the fire was threatening our community. But, of course, there were television ratings to grow and it made for exciting, if not exaggerated, story-telling. The national news was even more distorted.

A friend wrote to ask if we were concerned about our home being consumed by the fire. I answered “not so much. We’re heading behind the Orange Curtain tomorrow.”

Now it’s 6:00 am on the main drag heading through town. We’ve left the desert and pasted through the Orange Curtain. I’m the only one up, meandering toward the main beach. There is little traffic and only a few public works folks picking up trash. This return to the ocean brings new meaning to the cliché ‘spending the night together.’ It’s a romantic return to my first sojourn to the Pacific Ocean in 1965. The beginning of a lifetime of romantic illusions of sea and surf and sin.

It’s the height of summer season along the West Coast with its art festivals, hordes of bronze bodies on surf boards and women showing more skin than they would ever dare show anyplace else on the planet. Traffic on the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) is unbelievable. It’s California at its best. A kind of cliché etched in stone by advertisers and every Midwesterners distraction from winter.

First there’s a necessary side track to Starbucks for my morning fix. The first thing I see is a well-endowed, rail thin, leggy blond hugging a tall, muscular surfer dude. They seem to be whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears. Only she’s old enough to be his mother. ..but they certainly seem to be very friendly.

Welcome to Laguna Beach.

Starting in the late 20’s, with the opening of a road to Laguna Beach, this town quickly became a thriving magnet for artists, musicians and other creative types. I’m told the difference between this town and Newport Beach, its neighboring community to the north, is that they don’t all cut their hair the same down here and the people aren’t plastic. The homes in Laguna Beach certainly aren’t the ticky-tacky million dollar stucco beauties that line the ridgelines and mountain sides of Newport.

In Laguna Beach, houses range from expansive mansions on top of the mountains to shacks lining the side streets (think ‘favela’ in Portuguese) to everything in-between. Outside of the business district, few of the streets have sidewalks. The houses come in all size, shapes and colors.

It’s mid-summer so we’re past ‘May gray’ and ‘June gloom.’ Yet it’s still overcast and hazy and a typical morning on the beach before the sun burns through the haze and heats up the place.

What I encounter is the early morning beach scene before the tourists, boarders, surfers and bogie-boarders begin their assault on the ocean. The air is thick with the smell of rotting seaweed which will soon be replaced by the odor of suntan lotion, beer and kid’s drinks filling the vacuum.  Thankfully, the air is still cool before the salty breeze leaves the skin sticky to the touch.

There is a group of homeless men gathered around a stone picnic table, some wrapped in their old army blankets. I assume they’ve just crawled out from wherever they were sleeping and now it’s time to gather in the park for morning BS and a cheap cup of coffee. Not far away is a prayer group of men, probably all in recovery.

I catch a glimpse of the legendary crazy old lady who is always dressed like a court jester and encourages people to take her picture. Then when they do, she screams obscenities at them.

A young man, dressed in all black and lugging two large satchels, walks by me mumbling to himself. He looks over at me but I don’t dare return his stare. Several men go by in long pants. Only tourists wear long pants even in the winter time.

The early morning beach worshippers are all there. Zen masters practicing their beliefs in the sand, dog walkers, beach runners, a volleyball game going on, someone searching for gold with his scooper and metal detector, a couple of kayakers older than my grandpa and trash pickup truck being stalked by seagulls. Even ‘Despicable Me’ was there in the form of a blimp.

Gradually the early morning crowd gives way to the daily onslaught of tourists and regulars.

It’s the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and all those other masterful painters of the California surf scene practicing their craft. An old man’s favorite fantasy.

Further up the coast, alongside the 405, sits a wonderful palace dedicated to the arts. Paid for by a man who reveled in his moniker as an old curmudgeon. J. Paul Getty, who at one time was the world’s richest man, has left a treasure for all to see.

Welcome to the Getty, a 750-acre mountaintop property in Brentwood, West Los Angeles. All of the buildings are clad in travertine, a type of limestone, with glass and metal in definitive con-trast to the rough stone. I’m not an art aficionado by any means but there were some wonderful pieces there.

Hollywood and Vine is at the epicenter for all things illusional, dream-like and typical Hollywood.

 ‘Sister Act’ was playing at the Pantages Theater and while it wasn’t as good as the movie, the stage production was great entertainment.

Before the play, there was even time for garage-sales in West Hollywood. Old habits die hard. Even on the West Coast, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure.

Finally a return to the desert. The fires are mostly out by now. The haze is gone and returning blue skies mean intense sun and growing heat. 110 in the shade is just a start. But it’s still nice to be back in the desert. It means coffee with friends in the early morning hours before the sun begins to bake the air and slow-burn any exposed skin.

During the summer, Palm Springs is like a city of lost souls. There were two sickly old men at Starbucks sharing their respective tales of illness and multiple hospital visits. A crippled, bent-over old man who got into a Steve McQueen (bullit) Mustang fastback and tore out of the McDonalds parking lot, going who knows where? Welcome to Palm Springs in the middle of summer.

Despite the heat, it’s good to be back home. I don’t own this town yet but my comfort level here is growing with each visit.

Then it’s back to the land of green grass, green plants and plenty of flowers. Cool evenings and lakes all around. Trail running and swatting flies, mountain biking while ducking branches, finishing up “A Shau” and getting to the core of “Debris.”

My trip to the land of milk and honey was brief, pleasant and a wonderful distraction from the necessary work at hand. Yet while I thought returning to Minnesota was a return to normalcy, it really wasn’t. Granted, it was a different environment, great friends and comfortable familiarity with the tried and true.

But my heart was still back at the beach, penning my observations and fantasizing about surfer dudes and California girls. Oh, the naïve life of a romantic…

I can’t wait to get back home again.