Gambler, No. 25 [The Roadwork]

“It is allowed that vocations and employments of least dignity are of the most apparent use; that the meanest artisan or manufacturer contributes more to the accommodation of life than the profound scholar and argumentative theorist; and that the public would suffer less present inconvenience from the banishment of philosophers than from the extinction of any common trade.” – Samuel Johnson

I

My head throbbed, and I woke, preparing coffee and food. I ate the meal, then prepared for the day, fitting my body into slacks, button-up, and sport-coat. My head throbbed; I gave the cat a kick, and left the Desert Schooner, the final days of calling it home, the final days of relying on a car to get to work. My head throbbed; I moped down the steps, weary and sick, and I told myself I’d teach and come right back. My heavy head suspended like a bobble on my body, eyes eyeing concrete slabs and cracks. My will forced my bobbing head to rise and find the car. “Just teach and come home,” I said to myself. “Just teach and – ” My eyelids shut themselves like large, lethargic, metal doors. I willed myself to blink. What I saw remained. “Not again,” I said. My sad soul sunk and I approached the vehicle as if sliding through sludge or slop. Tired, I eyed the back left tire. As if hoping to change the scenery, I removed my sun-glasses. But nothing changed. I glared disgustingly at another flat tire.

A woman passed and saw the tire. She smiled, and I wearily smiled back but cursed the car, not for the first time. That day, I did not teach. That day I called in sick. I drove my car cautiously, slowly to the gas station, filled up with air, roared to the tire shop, and listened to the diagnosis: “Looks like you’ve got a nail,” the man said. We could both hear the hiss of air leaving the tire. “Oh,” I replied. “Must be all this construction.” He looked me in the eye like a man who had heard this before, like a man who simply knew. He only had to say, “Yeah, man. Vegas roads,” and I knew exactly what he meant.

II 

Road construction in Vegas is unique. But let me first say that road construction reflects the town, generally, and so road construction in any town, or locale, is unique. As a point of reference, consider the road construction south of Des Moines, Iowa on Interstate 35. Now, one who has traveled the road frequently in the past fifteen years or so knows that a perpetual project is underway. What exactly they are fixing is not clear, but one knows they’re working hard. One knows this because it is occurring in Iowa, and if Iowans love to do anything, they love to work. They love to work so much, they will create work if there is none; they will break bridges to build them all over again. So the construction project in Iowa is different than the three or so projects on Interstate 40 between Tucumcari and Kingman. Cones are placed there more as monuments; the people travel west to visit national parks, or historical buildings, and so the road construction in many ways simply blends into the rest of the west’s milieu. It’s why there’s never anyone working. But the road construction project south of Des Moines is a living project. When this world fades away, when that eternal sunset scorches the plains and fields and all is made new, when all bodies burst from their graves, I know that a few good Iowans will rise and return to that very spot. In the twilight of time they will build a road; and they will work on it with the grace and vigor of men perfected in mind, body, and spirit.

In Kansas City roadwork takes on a whole different meaning. The Iowan – so long as he’s working – is really content filling the same pothole several times over. But the resident of Kansas City, the resident of Johnson County specifically, does not deal with trivialities. These men are all about bulldozing, building, expanding the possibilities of roads; these men tear up sidewalks, and lawns, and ditches, and dykes, all for new lanes; these men put up stoplights on a whim, build bridges in their sleep, alter intersections for fun. These men will not rest easy, will not sleep soundly, until they feel every lane, exit, and on-ramp is not just fixed but efficient, not just reconstructed but aesthetic, not just working but perfected. These men will thankfully be out of work in the new world.

III 

The Vegas roads are best observed close up, walking or biking. The walker notices generally – and the biker more so – the mounds of trash, debris, and clutter strewn throughout the streets. Nails, bags, boxes, bottles, boards, wood, cans, cardboard, glass, gloves, wrappers, tissues, shirts, shoes, socks, shorts, paper, food, and, occasionally, humans litter the streets and lanes and cul-de-sacs. When the wind whips itself into a frenzy the litter comes to life – a single Vegas lane looks like the Strip as bags and paper tussle about in the air and boxes and bottles battle below. The Vegas road reflects the Vegas men, whirling and twirling this-way-and-that. The road is a wild zoo on any average day. But on Construction Day, the road rumbles with the march of the war drum.

The cones conquer the town. They are more unruly than any mob, more authoritative than a tyrant. They march, not always uniformly, but they march. In fact, oftentimes, they march more like ants set on fire – down a lane, across the street, through a parking lot, blocking off drive-thru’s and driveways, so the cones march to their own beat. There is rarely, if ever, any warning. Cones creep up on cars quite suddenly. Roads will be silent, still, at rest in the twilight of day; mothers and fathers will put their children to bed, tucking them in and promising them a quick, painless ride to school the next day. Then, like a quiet crescendo, the cones come crashing down upon the streets as we sleep. Like mighty war jets letting men out in random parachutes, here and there and everywhere, so the cones descend upon us. The invasion affects all – drivers, bikers, walkers. A slew of men in cars are strewn across the streets to dodge the barricade of cones crowding it. A man flies down a side street to escape the onslaught, nearly taking out a biker, only to discover the cones have captured that road too. He takes another lane. Then another, sending pedestrians to the sidewalks. Then, just when he believes he’s free of the madness, he finds he’s trapped – cornered by cones. He makes a U-turn only to realize now that he’s led several of his comrades into the cage.

Road construction, I understand, is always an issue. No town is immune. But in other cities I’ve lived in, there was always hope in its purpose. I know now that it served a real purpose in Iowa. Why is that Iowan still filling that pothole? I ask. Why, he fills it because it’s his job; he loves to work, and at night he becomes Mr. Hyde and destroys his work so that he can come back to refill it in the morning. But now why is this laborer in Kansas City still working on this road? Why, he was told to fill a pothole and later decided to widen the lanes, make an exit ramp, and build a cinema. But when I ask why the Vegas cones sit there, glaring at me, marching back and forth as if I’m in a war camp, I am given no answers. No one here knows what they’re working on, why they’re working on it, or where they will begin working next. Sometimes cones pop up just for an afternoon; other times, cones are nearly cemented to their spot for months. Men work; but more often than not, when they are done working, the road is not only unimproved but worse. But a theory has been proposed. A local here has hinted at the horror happening on our streets. It is worse than the worst of nightmares, more terrible than the terror of death. For an English professor explained to me once that the road workers are actually not working on the roads at all; they are improving the wireless internet in the hotels. Well, I suppose this makes the most sense, for the roads, more often than not, are not fixed. This seems to make the most sense, for Vegas seems the perfect city to combine these two evils. I’ve held for some time now that the internet has come to destroy the world. Another wise man said the internal combustion engine came to destroy the world. This may just be their battle. Vegas may just be the town to end all towns; the war between the Devil and his demons has begun.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Painting: "Construction Work by the Lyric Cinema Seen from Midland Road, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire"
By Thomas Lay,
Oil on board, 1974

 

Trifler No. 18 [On Noticing]

“Wrong was easy; gravity helped it. / Right is difficult and long. / In choosing what is difficult / we are free, the mind too / making its little flight / out from the shadow into the clear / in time between work and sleep.”—Wendell Berry

I.
My friend was late. We planned chess in Grantchester but, when we saw the southern sky darken, settled for beer and talk at The Mill. I D-locked my bike to a fence, and stepped into the pub. It smelled of damp clothes and stale beer; the bar was shoulder-to-shoulder, three deep, and dripping with spills. Lanyarded summer school students gabbed and strewed floor space between tables with backpacks and rain jackets. Some woman with pink hair laughed uncontrollably in a corner. The noise had reached that level at which it begins to feed back into itself—when one yells because it is loud and when it is loud because one yells.

I had expected such an atmosphere. It is a rare evening that one can catch a downtown Cambridge pub sleepy or sparse or quiet or in need of business. They seethe with eaters and drinkers and talkers from dinner on. I have not yet grown strong or good enough to appreciate such raw, packed humanity, and after a half-hearted attempt to find a table, I slipped back outside where the sky was continuing to darken and froth.

The Mill sits on the edge of Fen Causeway—a web of paths through a marsh dotted with weeping willows and draining into Mill Pond. Punting tours begin here, and here the Cam is spliced in two by a series of drains and warrenous waterworks hemmed in by a knee-high brick wall. I meandered across the street, sat on this wall, zipped my rain jacket, and waited for the friend. Within five seconds, a great temptation came over me to pull my phone from my pocket and check e-mail or the radar. It is an old, red-eyed, honey-voiced temptation and one that has so embedded itself into fingers and hands and arms that, often, the physical act of giving in precedes the decision to do so. It is, perhaps, one of the great temptations of our time (if it is admissible to call ‘temptation’ what only a handful bother to resist) not to notice, not to preside over a place, not to entertain oneself with surrounding particulars and persons. And yet, this day, in a moment of grace, I did resist, placed my hand, which was half-way to my pocket, back at my side and gazed around, blinking.

Below, unwieldy punters weaved drunkenly across and along the river. The Mill’s two doors swarmed like a noon anthill. A sphere of white gnats hovered near my head, but not near enough to swat. Two women to my left fiddled with an unwilling umbrella and shot glances at the sky, which was, by now, black-grey. A large drop splashed on my arm. Not having my phone to think for me, I worked up a few thoughts of my own—nothing ornate. I thought of the near-saturate clouds above me, of the bricks below me, of our usual Grantchester pub, of its fireplace, of its beer, of its piping chili, of its chess board. I pulled up my hood and wondered how the manufacturer defined 'shower' in 'shower-proof'. Drops began spangling my jean knees, so I stood. Smokers outside The Mill leaned back against its brick. I debated a return to The Mill and voted for rain over ruckus. Then the sky broke. The two women—umbrella now out—endured for a minute and then trudged off across the marsh, heads together. Smokers tossed away cigarettes and re-entered the pub. I alone remained now.

Only then did I remember the gnats. I turned to see how they fared. The spectre-sphere remained, but large drops were cutting through it like bullets through a regiment, enveloping whole gnats, I supposed, and dashing them against the cobblestones below. The site had a kind of minimal heroism to it, and I continued to watch—knowing how it must end. It was not a pathetic sight or a sad sight, but I did feel a kind of childlike wonder, for I had never thought of what happened to gnats when it rained. And now I knew. It was all over in about twenty seconds. I returned my gaze to The Mill, squinting to see through the downpour, and in the doorway stood another raincoated man, waving.

II.
Yesterday was a day of sun and clear and calm and dissipating clouds, and as the evening approached, my wife and I set off to walk the now familiar loop around Jesus Green. The day was warm enough to leave some of its heat in the ground, and it radiated up and out from the sidewalk. Playing, eating, drinking, tossing, lying, running, barbecuing people strewed the lawn as we walked through the avenue of plane trees. The whole green luxuriated and seemed to move in slow motion through the heavy, still air. We turned south from the avenue and into the sun— orange-gold as it set, filtering through air and tree. Fat flies buzzed. Gnats swarmed. We had said very little—a comment here and there about our company the night before—but the beauty overwhelmed me, so I flung out my arms and said, “I mean to say, look at this.” 
“Yes,” she replied. Silence returned. Not yet feeling unburdened, I went on.
“Even the gnats look nice, black against the sun like that.”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said with real belief in her voice, “The rest is beautiful. Not the gnats.”
“I mean, as long as you’re not in among them,” I said, losing conviction and spotting another swarm near a horse chestnut. I had only mentioned it, I knew, because I was still thinking of those other gnats, keeping formation in a storm. I knew too that, in an aesthetic sense, she was right; a gnat is, at best, a tiny monster and, if the it has any artistic value, it is purely gothic. We dropped the gnats and took up the horse chestnut, remembering another night when its flowers were yellow and conical.* Our walk continued on toward the river along a row of houses at the southern edge of the lawn; we stopped twice, once to examine a hydrangea and again to squint at a flower we guessed was an African Lily. 

The sun slipped behind the trees. By now the river was on our left, and we looked to our right out across the green. There we saw the moon suspended in a cloudless sky just above All Saints steeple. “Look at that,” I said, overwhelmed again.
“So clear” she said. 
“So blue” said I. “What kind of a place have we found ourselves in, wife?”
 “I don’t know,” she said in equal wonder. We were now along the Cam and shifted our gaze that direction. We noticed summer mosses ghosting up from the murk of the river-bottom bent with the current, and two punts running alongside one another, sharing stories and cigarettes and some thick potation. We re-crossed the bridge and trudged up Carlyle, past the employment office and Helen's house, toward our red door. The walk ended in twilight.

And as darkness fell, the pedestrians passing on the sidewalk outside Corner House looked like blue, bodiless faces, lit only by cell phone backlights, and, every now and then, a hand waving away invisible bugs drawn to the light.

R. Eric Tippin
In the Sun
Alexandra Gardens, Cambridge
July 18, 2016

Image:
"Past and Present, No. 3"
Oil on Canvas - 1858
Tate Britain

*See, Trifler No. 10, in many ways the sister to this.

Gambler, No. 24 [The False Alarm]

It is the condition of our present state to see more than we can attain, the exactest vigilance and caution can never maintain a single day of unmingled innocence, much less can the utmost efforts of incorporated mind reach the summits of speculative virtue. – Samuel Johnson

I

Just this afternoon, I was minding my own business in the Jolly Mariner, reading some book, when I was rudely interrupted by a text. Now, every text, by definition, is an interruption. It is one human flinging a thought, or question, or command, often at random, at some unsuspecting victim millions of miles away. The worst is, of course, the automated text from some computer. Then, there is the text meant for another person, in which no context prepares us for the folly we read. I suppose if someone were to somehow combine these two misfortunes of modernism, the ill-applied automated text, he could create a great deal of chaos. But we must truly consider our society regarding these interruptions. In what other context do humans stop all of their daily toil to respond to such trivialities? If I was boiling water and preparing dinner one evening and one of these humans, without knocking, barged in and said, “It is seventy-seven and rainy here, how’s Vegas?” only to turn and leave, I might be likely to rush at him with the water for an answer.

That my generation is the laziest generation yet to walk the earth, none can deny. The character of my age is the man who says, “I want clean clothes, but I don’t want to wash my clothes,” or “I am sick of eating cardboard meals; but cooking is such toil!” And then he slouches in his sweaty shirt and chows down a frozen pizza as he binge watches a television show and feels sorry for himself. This man is all about ends. He has entered a world in which means and ends are completely divorced. He has entered a push-button society, a trigger happy populace, who believe bread and games should forever be at their finger tips. He knows nothing about how his food is produced – how the cow grazes, how it is slaughtered, what part he eats; daily pleasures like coffee come in twelve ounce shots, a simple snap and strike and you have a drink that, the further removed from preparation, the less it is understood. I would not be surprised to find that much of our frustration in life comes from a mindset that expects an end without a mean.

II

Like some slave I sauntered over to my phone to read the text. My heart leapt to my throat; I said a silent prayer. I’m almost starting to sense that our society is beginning to expect these texts. It’s occurring so frequently now, that when I saw the words “Active Shooter” and “UNLV Campus,” I was almost not surprised. That afternoon, like every other, I had planned on biking to the gym. So I waited a few minutes, and when the “all clear” was sent, I gathered my belongings and headed to campus.

Because I live in this country I am forced to think about guns, and as a good citizen, I suppose I ought to have an opinion. But, quite honestly, I do not. I do not, in the first place, think that a gun is intrinsically evil any more than an automobile is intrinsically evil; it is a mere tool. Like the automobile, it is not the gun that is the problem; it is the invention of the gun. Indeed, the world would be better without guns just as it would be without cars, televisions, computers, phones, and the internet. But if, say, we demolished all the automobiles in the world, I gather some idiot in Detroit would built a factory and start the madness all over again. The same is true for the gun. The whole matter is spiritual; the whole matter is a mindset. The first murder was done with hands. We call that barbaric but only because we have little, if any, imagination. It’s unlikely, but I suppose Cain may have crept up on his brother from behind; more than likely, he may have wrestled him to death. To wit, Cain did not snipe Abel like a coward from hundreds of feet away, or even creep up on him with a six-shooter, pulling a trigger an placing a bullet in his back. He did not set a land-mine and return to the fruit of the ground, drop a bomb from a plane, sit at his desktop and blow up his brother with a drone. His murder was more personal, but it also was, in a sense, more human. He stared his heinous act, and his dying brother, in the eyes.

As with murder, so with hunting. Let us consider hunting with a gun, or with a bow. One of these noble weapons is artistic, the other is rather more noise and efficiency. The first hunter who said to his fellow hunter-gatherers, “Enough of this toil. I could kill this deer much easier with a gun,” did not abandon the bow as much as his art. The first hunter who bowed his body to the American gods Ease, Comfort, and Efficiency may have decided that killing the deer with lead, gun powder, and a trigger would be so much easier than a stick, a bow, and a string. But if Ease and Efficiency are the mere ends to hunting, he may as well gather up all the deer into a large factory and march them down to the guillotine. He may as well tell future generations to line up, place a quarter into a slot, push a button, and watch the deer lose his head; he may as well do what all good advertisers do; that is, he may as well lie and call it hunting, or worse, call it art. The gun, like the guillotine, is a mere easier means to kill something; it requires holding steady and pulling a trigger. The archer uses his whole body. The archer uses his legs to balance, his upper-back muscles to lodge the arrow. He finagles it with fingers, pulling back with biceps and triceps and forearms, aiming with eyes, narrowing in on the target, and nearly creating music, or poetry, with his craft. The real solution to the gun issue is to teach men how to be human instead of machines, to replace guns with bows. Guns won’t go away; they may, though, very quickly be taken away. And if this is the case, I reckon at least one archer will rise from the dead.

III

I contemplated these ideas, not for the first time, as I rode to campus. A police car was just leaving. Speeding by, I overheard a group say the words “crises situations.” But, otherwise, the great organism that is the University of Nevada, Las Vegas seemed un-phased. Campus almost seemed too calm, as if we needed some protesters on Free Speech Walkway. Passing Lied Library, I observed nothing askew, and besides the fragmented conversation, all was as it should be. I gave the man my card and heard him coolly tell a couple “you should be fine – we’ve been given the go-ahead” as they left. I nearly started grilling him for information, but decided to play it cool with everyone else, a plan that typically backfires and singles me out.

While I lifted, I observed the usual gym characters: “Staff,” “Tattoo,” “Spaghetti Strap” (male), “Ex-military,” “Chicken Legs,” “Pony Tail,” “Diva,” “short shorts” (male), and “The Group.”* I almost oddly felt at home. I have little in common with most humans but that I am human. Like others, I have my faults and make mistakes, and I’m sure someone there, familiar with my routine, says to himself each day, “Looks like the Skeleton’s back.” But as I said, I felt at home with my fellow humans that afternoon. In that moment we were not individuals in my mind but a single unit of living, breathing creatures. It was good to be living, good to be a species. And that unity only brought out their individual quirks all the more. I noticed Pony Tail, untie his braid and let his hair flow; I noticed this because his flowing hair was attached to a human body. I observed Staff and Diva chat with great energy; I observed the distinctness of human conversation, that its harmony draws out the unique tones produced by throats, tongues, lips, and teeth and creates something like a melody. It is true; the mass murderer may take out an ideological or minority group. But he ultimately takes a life, an individual. It is no harm to the world that groups are demolished so much as individuals. And the mass murderer, in destroying individuals, destroys one of the most beautiful aspects of the world. For the individual transcends groups; the individual is a character, and I almost said he is a caricature. To wit, groups are grim shadows of individuals, stale and stagnate, more like blobs than souls; but the individual has his own special strengths, goodness, quirks, faults, and mistakes. Mistakes that are all too common. Mistakes that all men make. Even campus security officials fail tests. Even officials send out erroneous texts and false alarms.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Ave
Las Vegas, Nevada
July 6, 2016 

Painting: "A Good Day"
By Friedrich Voltz
Oil on canvas, 1875

______________________

*For a fuller, more comprehensive list, see R. Eric Tippin's, "Trifler No. 14."

 

The Lake Highway

“They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward.” --Isaiah 8:21 ESV

THE LAKE HIGHWAY

Paved with pebble and silt, obscured
by muck-cloud, I know it is there, but cannot see,
bent over a pontoon’s prow,
rinsing earthworm grime
from hook-bitten fingers.
Weed-tips wave
wispy, wraithlike, boughs
of a rent Hyperion imprisoned,
the woods of Limbo.

Under-bit bass lip,
pike’s frenzied maw,
walleye’s lucent eye shine—
road-weary with the chase
of minnow, leech, and lure.
What is their heaven
but an unsuspecting pass through sky,
body filleted away from the Fisherman’s prize?
My father once wondered to me:
What if you could levitate all fish in a lake,
if only for a moment?

To see them, scale luster and lengths
immobilized, I would wonder which
were to be caught and which
would swim in aimless float until,
buoyancy lost, fins limp, they’d sink—
be entombed in marlstone.

A lake’s destiny, they say, is rich farmland,
once lakebed is laid bare, vacated
long before by tributary.
We will measure the width of those aquatic roads
though we know where they lead,
and begin a plan for planting—
uniform rows spaced perfectly apart,
soil of unmatched fertility,
crops in abundance.  

Bryn Homuth
On a Wednesday morning off
July 13, 2016

Painting: Lake George
Artist: John Frederick Kensett
Oil on canvas, 1860

The Talent

 

“I’ll hide it.” The boy crammed
his hand in his coat and fingered
the coin, digging with dirty fingers
in the sooty soil, making a mound
with his palms and burying the gold
coin in the earth, just enough
to still feel the still drops
of the cloudy afternoon.

“It’s all you had.” The sage
with the scythe collared the boy
with his fingers; he scraped
the earth with spade and shovel,
mucking mud from the meadow,
making a mound round the corpse,
not deep – just enough to still
feel the still drops
of the darker clouds
of the dying day.

The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Friday, July 8, 201

Painting: "Boy Asleep"
By Louisa Eudes de Guimard,
Oil on canvas, 19th Century