Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Frenchy's Eats

My latest play project is going to be one of the hardest I’ve ever attempted to write. If properly constructed with love and backed by historical facts, it might be a semi-autobiographical story of my parents, grandparents and me. On the other hand, it could also end up a confusing juxtaposition of parenting errors, misinformation, historical fiction and confusing storytelling. Right now, I’d give it a fifty-fifty chance of going in either direction.

It’s safe to say it will be different from any other play I’ve written. Right now, I’d describe it ‘experimental theater.’ That phrase rushed into my head about 3:00 am one morning as I tossed and turned and wondered out loud what the hell I was attempting to do with the confusing array of photos, phrases and jumbled stories that I’d been fed over the latter part of my mother’s life.

It began, innocently enough, with several old photographs my mother passed down to me years ago at a time and place long since forgotten. She had kept them in an old shoebox and wanted to give them to my sister and me so that we might have some pictures of her family farm and other images of her youth.

The photograph that grabbed my immediate attention was one of a small café on West Seventh Street leading into downtown Saint Paul. At the time, around 1944, it was a lower class, semi-rundown section of town that had long since seen its better days.

The story of ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ as it was passed down by my Mother to Marlene and me came out in drips and drabs, casual comments, thoughtful reflection and confusing contradictory stories. As best I can recollect the story it went something like this.

Arthur was a short order cook, just arrived in town, and working at the New Brighton Ammunitions plant. My mother had been a domestic worker who found the wages much better at the munitions factory. They met, they married and shortly afterwards, I was born. My sister was on the way when they decided to sub-lease the space of a closed café. It would be called ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ in honor of my father’s French Canadian heritage.

It was intended that my father would cook, my mother would bake and they might etch out a living even though they had two small children, me at two and Marlene at one, and a cheap apartment around (literally) the corner.

It only lasted six months. My mother’s best (vague) description was that my dad drank a lot of the profits away, the help was stealing food from under their noses and the hours were killing them both. So after six months they gave up and quit. Two years later, my father left town and we became homeless.

Now that photograph of ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ carries a whole new meaning to me.

So the play, as it is roughly outlined thus far, has a concurrent three-themed storyline in which the lives of my parents, my father’s parents and myself all intersect, cross over one another, and indirectly affect one other.

There are sub-themes of abandonment, spiritual devotion, loss of affection, careless love, and fierce determination to ‘rise above the raisin.’ It is raw, revealing and exposes many family sins and secrets that their keepers all thought they’d taken with them to their graves. Ancestry.com and my own research (Sharon’s really!) proved them wrong.

I have to see if I can fashion a story that tells a story, my story, in a manner that evokes compassion, understanding, and acceptance for what was.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Goin' Where the Southern Cross the Dog

A while back, I wrote a blog entitled: ‘The Boy She Left Behind.’ I explained how that phrase popped into my consciousness one day out of the blue. Its origin is less important than the mental picture it painted inside my head. The words and the images that it conjured up emitted a confusing cauldron of feelings and emotions. Words and phrases can do that sometimes especially to a writer who is always on the hunt for impactful vernacular tools to add to his arsenal.

Well, lightning struck a second time with another phrase I came across in a book about folk singers and folk songs. I realized I’ve had several blogs that have talked about the power behind words and phrases and how a writer can find meaning and imagery there. It’s like discovering new paint materials with which to create new works of art.

Two other blogs, ‘Vernacular warfare’ and ‘Phrases and stages’ covered the same topic. Words and phrases can cover a plethora of images. Sexual references like ‘wet’ and ‘hard’ paint a certain kind of picture. ‘Soft’ and ‘comforting’ paint another one entirely. The examples here can go on forever. They’re all part of the creative arsenal a writer uses to paint his story pictures in the minds of his readers.

But for me, it is the more iconic and historical phrases that I find the most fascinating. Folk music is the perfect conduit for painting these mental pictures. Down through the ages, based on some semblance of reality, words and phrases from folk songs have given us ‘Old Hannah,’ the Southern convicts name for the punishing sun. ‘Delia,’ the name given to a bad woman, a ‘rounder’ or a ‘gambler.’ Like ‘John Hardy’ she was based on real life characters who gained immortality through song. Old railroad songs seem to be some of the most prolific image-makers.

I read a book recently that was entitled: ‘Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and American Folk Outlaw Performance.’ The phrase I stumbled across that struck me like a bat against my brain was:  “Goin ‘where the Southern cross’ the Dog.”

The phrase refers to a railroad crossing in the Deep South well known to locals and outlaws alike. A great description of this phrase comes from Greg Johnson of the University of Mississippi. This southern state has a rich and fascinating treasure lore of blues history and background.

Mr. Johnson explains:

“Many early blues singers used variations on the phrase “going where the Southern cross the Dog.” The expression refers to the place in Moorhead, Mississippi, where the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley rail line intersected with the Southern rail line. Many southerners referred to the Yazoo and Mississippi line as the “Yellow Dog” or simply the “Dog” or “Dawg.” The first historical reference to blues lyrics mentions this phrase: when W. C. Handy wrote about first hearing the blues in 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler, he described a man playing guitar and repeating the phrase “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.” Handy later popularized the phrase in his “Yellow Dog Blues” (1914). Charley Patton sang the phrase in “Green River Blues” (1929), and Kokomo Arnold used it in “Long and Tall” (1937). Today, the Southern rail line is known as the Columbus and Greenville (C&G) Railway, and the Yazoo and Mississippi rail line has been moved eastward and consolidated by the Illinois Central.”

  • Written by Greg Johnson, University of Mississippi

In one of my latest plays entitled ‘Tangled Roots.’ I’ve tried to layer my storyline with bits and pieces of folk history. ‘Tangled Roots’ delves into the history of folk music and its enduring grip on the American populous.  Folk music is about real people and real events, weathered by the seasons, tarnish by current misconceptions and yet solid enough to be tested by the vagrancies of time.

Dapple skies of pink

Leaving LAX

Certain words and phrases can paint ‘dapple skies with marsh mellow clouds full of curious thoughts.’ Like the phrase: ‘leaving LAX,’ it’s a mystery, a question mark and a story all wrapped up in one evening sky.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Where Have All the Flowers Gone

Music has always played an important part of my life. From early pop tunes to the folk movement to the psychedelic Sixties, music painted pictures inside my head. In high school, it was the teen beat, heart throb, lost love affairs of innocent youth. In college, it was the folkie, hard travelin', songs of the open road.

One particular song defined the breakup of my college girlfriend and I. ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone’ continues to define that era and a poignant reminder of my wandering youth on a circuitous route to maturity. The song and that moment was an element in my life that was at once pleasant, impactful and created visceral memories to last a lifetime.

So when I thought about this past season in Palm Springs, the song title ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ just naturally popped into my head. This fall and winter was unlike any other we’ve encountered here in the desert. It was as dramatic and impactful as any drought that has plagued California over the years. Pardon the pun but it could best be described as a flowerless experience.

Instead of exercising at our local hotel, the Saguaro, it meant long walks along the berm or back into Oswalt Canyon.

Instead of weekly trips to the library, it meant buying our reading material from ‘Better World Books.’ Instead of a lot of entertaining, it meant intimate gatherings of a few folks on our back patio.

There were no trips to the coast, no evenings out with friends at local restaurants, no trips to the theater, no local events such as the International Film Festival or Modernism Week or Art Festivals to attend.

There were a few improvements around the house and some literary accomplishments.

My newest novel ’Playground for the Devil’ was finally completed, proofed and ready for printing.

Four new plays were rewritten and tightened up, creating a solid second draft for all of them. Another new play ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ is just beginning to take shape.

By late spring, Palm Springs was slowly starting to open up again. We weren’t comfortable going out to restaurants so it was wonderful to have Melanie and family here for Easter. We get to see the Colorado kiddos this summer.

Besides lemon picking each day, I took Brennan and Charlotte on a nature hike along the Henderson Trail. It was a great opportunity to introduce them to ‘the living desert.’ We explored budding plants, snake holes, moss on rocks and dormant plants.

Even with the vaccine making headway against the COVID-19 pandemic, I envision this upcoming summer will continue to be one of at least moderate isolation. I want to continue with my ‘coffee and chat’ sessions and expand the number of friends included in the group. I want to explore the Twin Cities with a new-found curiosity about the place where I was raised. There are several plays I want to market locally and find markets for ‘Playground for the Devil.’

Hopefully by next fall, the ‘flowers’ will have returned to Palm Springs and we can get back into the swing of things once again.