Productive Procrastination

So here I sit, at my favorite writing spot, productively procrastinating, writing in this blog. I am entrenched in my thesis work, and articles, papers, and books are strewn across the quarter sawn oak table at which I sit. As I was engrossed in my topic, writing with a speed only reserved for the manic, I had an epiphany, I have to urinate. Washing my hands, I thought about habits, all the strange habits we have, and then my mind drifted back to my writing.

I have a totem. Yes, that is right, a totem. I would not say that I am a superstitious man, but I like to hedge my bets, and if I think something is lucky, well, I will continue that practice. So I have a totem, and when I write, that object goes with me. You ask, well what is it? It is a marble. The smoothest, most perfectly round marble. It is like a beautiful gas giant floating in the universe, the ochre glass swirling around one pole, while at the opposite end of this glass planet, a glob of olive green coats the other. The equator is like white ceramic, pure as fresh driven snow. I don’t recall where or when I found this, but I remember the day I wrote a hundred pages in one sitting, with that marble in the coin pocket of my jeans, and from then on out, it comes with me to write.

Then there are omens, portents, jinxes, and I found mine. Now, I am not sure if this dull Russian ruble is bad luck, or the fact that I had purpose planned for it so long, and have not accomplished this goal, that bad luck has now attached to it. Either way, this coin is damned. I wore it in the same change pocket for weeks on end, not realizing it was there. Weeks of no inspiration, no writing, sitting, staring at a screen, white paper, pen grasped idly in hand, to no avail of any words. Like an idol that must be returned to ward off the demons loosed, I must affix this coin to the bottom of a glass at a bar I frequent–that has been the intended goal for this coin for over a year now. Maybe my mind knows that it is sheer procrastination sitting in my pocket, or maybe it is cursed. But either way the coin will make its way to its final resting place tonight.

Na Zdorovie!

A Feathered Phobia

Katrina frantically ran in front of the car, flailing her arms overhead as if fighting off a hostile swarm of bees. It was as if some unseen force was chasing her, pursuing her with the most malicious intent. Her screams resounded through the windows of my Cherokee, while some invisible, malevolent being assaulted her. I drove toward her through the parking lot, set atop the pink granite outcropping of rocks, which jut out into the tempestuous cold green waters of the Gulf of Maine, and she just ran away from me, down the middle of that old cracked road.

The water churned that day as it roiled against the barnacle covered ledges which stretched into the ocean, like fingers from the pinkest skinned hand. The ocean seemed at odds with the stony terra as if it tried to subdue it, bend it to its will, make it submit to the cold green deep. Frothy water shot from crevices running vertically to the ocean, as the force of waves caused spume to shoot high, like geysers of briny water issuing forth from deep within the granite. A cold breeze blew off the ocean, chilling us as we basked in the early autumn sun, as if all our worries flittered away, bit by bit, in that salted bitter air.

She ran fast, faster that I would have thought. I remember seeing her run down that road. She moved quick. My mind flashed as to why she would be running away screaming, but she did, and I could do nothing but move toward her. The firs and cedars stood on each side of the road, gnarled and wind-bent, as if they tried to reach out for her and grab her, to stop this manic episode.

We clambered across the rocks that day, leaping over deep and wide fractures in the granite ledge, the deep fissure descending to jagged boulders and cobbles below. Climbing across pink granite, we made our way to a Brobdingnagian boulder that leaned across the cliff face, creating a small cave inside. We entered this darkened hole feeling like explorers, only to come out on the other side seconds later , no danger or risk presented to us. Crossing a scree field which high tide would cover, we jumped across boulders as the water rushed in, tickling our toes, trying to devour our feet with its cold lips and frothy teeth. We made it to the other side dry, and we sat by the edge of the ocean, with our feet dangling over the edge of the sheer cliff, as water exploded below us in divine spectacle.

Seagulls flew by her as she ran, and her arms flailed around in a display of seizure activity. The grand-mal spasms of her arms were chaotic and discordant as she she ran down the road, her screams drifting in the air, seagulls flying around like bits of snow in a souvenir globe, shaken heartily by a five year old on vacation, never letting the white bits settle to the fake ground. I could do nothing but move toward her, my jeep sputtering as I idled the accelerator, barely moving down the road. I was concerned, yet puzzled by this whole event, and like a curious bystander who witnesses an event, I stared at her, my mind locked, only on this moment.

Katrina and I sat all afternoon gazing out upon the heaving ocean. We felt the rays of the sun beat down on our faces, as the chill wind of autumn cut through our clothes we enjoyed this simple pleasure of quietude. Eventually we climbed back over scree field and rock, and ventured back through our cave to the parking lot. We parted ways, as she went to the restroom and I retrieved the car. Moving the jeep to the restrooms, a flock of seagulls walked in front of me, slowly moving like a mass of plankton floating in the sea, only directed by the movement of the ways. They moved en masse and just sat there as I stopped, waiting for Katrina. She walked along the path to me, and stopped abruptly. A blood curdling scream shattered the illusion of beauty, and she ran the opposite way down the road away from me. Confused, I put the car in drive, and edged my way through the hundreds of seagulls sitting there, causing them to fly in the air, a flurry of feathers released during a pillow flight, the sky inundated by them.

She continued to run down the road with a furious speed I could not have sustained myself, and eventually sped up next to her on a straight stretch, pulling up next to her. She was screaming wildly, and babbling incoherent speech. It was as if some spectre, some furious intangible demon was on her heels, but nothing was there, nothing but air and the few seagulls still lingering in the air, hoping to find out the cause of this unreal episode. Stepping out, I calmed her down, and Katrina collapsed into my arms, sobbing and occasionally thrashing at me. She heaved violent cries, while sweat poured down her cheeks and mixed with the salty tears which cascaded down, like a faucet had been turned. She flopped into the passenger seat, and with still no explanation, we made our way down the road.

“Son of a bitch,” she muttered between breaths.

“Who, me?” I said.

“John….”

“What happened?”

“Seagulls. The seagulls. Just drive. Please, just drive.”

We drove in silence for the longest time, and after we were away from that place and she had settled down, I was informed of the problem. Katrina had a phobia, a legitimate phobia of birds. So as I drove to her, I kept pushing the seagulls her way. They swarmed around her like snow around a pine tree rooted in a blizzard, and all I did was corral them toward her, as I pushed them with my jeep. I laughed so hard when she told me this, when I realized what I had inadvertently done, I could not help myself but guffaw.

Needless to say, there were no more dates after that.

 

The Recluse

The man never left his apartment. I swear to you, he never left his apartment. I sat on the stoop that summer, drinking gin and tonics out of a mason jar, the squeezed lime languidly floating in the clear effervescent liquid. The ice rattled as I swirled the perspiring glass around, mixing the drink. The Domino’s pizza man would arrive, and knocking at his door, would flush out my prey, the skittish animal, only to be exposed a second, before scurrying back into his dark hole. It was interesting to watch this man as the heat pounded down on me, the sun circling high above and a listless wind barely twitching a leaf with its frail blow. I sat there, knowing it would be hours before the Chinese food delivery man would arrive, to feed him his nightly meal.

I noticed the first week living in my apartment that the man was a shut in. What first drew my attention to his apartment was the television that was constantly on. Now I don’t make it a habit of peeking into neighbors windows, but it drew my attention. His television was directly in line with the front window of his apartment, and with the blinds not up, but the slats opened, I noticed it was on 24/7 and on ESPN. I found this odd for a few reasons. First of all, have you ever been somewhere and ESPN was on the television, set as a neutral programing for people to watch. I admit it is a good choice. Not offensive, easy background noise, no politics, no debates, no guns or violence, I get it. But, what becomes torturous, what grates on me, is the constant sports update, which is not so much an update, as a 7 minute long repeat the whole day, on every 15 minutes. It is hellish, because hell is repetition. Another odd thing was the television was on, constantly, every day. Now I know it seems like a stretch, but there were many hours that I was up at odd times, and always noticed the electric glow beaming through those open slats. With all that ESPN watching, one must build up an appetite.

After a while I began to notice my neighbor’s eating habits. Always pizza at lunch. Always Chinese at night. Always delivered. I just assumed breakfast was leftovers or the meat from the frozen dead corpses in his basement freezer, I don’t know. All I know is, he ordered take out everyday I was there. It was like clockwork. The kind you could set your watch to. I began to wonder if these two establishments didn’t have standing orders to deliver. I can imagine, at these fast food restaurants, the employee taking his order, again, everyday, again. What must have gone through their minds, as they wrote down his order for the thousandth time? And the delivery driver, what did they think? They never seemed to linger long enough to have a conversation. You would think that constant repetition would build up something of a rapport between them, but money exchanged hands, and they were on their way in opposite directions.

It was as if the sun would kill him. As if the world would snatch him up and devour him whole. I don’t mock him, or pick on him, but curiosity gets the best of me, makes me wonder what kind of life did he lead. You see him, and become used to this. He becomes a regular, a frequent character in your mind, but you know nothing of him, so you begin to fill in the voids. Maybe he is a shut-in with a dramatic and heightened phobia of the world. That if he stepped foot outside he would crumple into a ball of fear and anxiety. Then you wonder, could it be he is in witness protection, and so afraid for his life, that he deems it better alive and inside, then outside and possibly dead. Or, maybe, he is such a sports fanatic, he is a famous sports blogger, who is obsessed with ESPN. So many other options swirl through your mind, but in the end you are left wondering, with no answer to the mystery. But then again, thank god for characters like him, to pass the time on a hot summer day with a gin and tonic in hand.

Bar Moscow

Think of the shittiest dive bar you have ever been to. Ok, do you have that image in your mind. Or better yet, maybe you are sitting there right now, belly up to the polyurethaned bar-top with a cheap shot of whisky in hand and a tall-neck Miller High Life, the champagne of beers. If this is the case, turn around, look at the walls stained with the excessive years of cigarette smoke, smoke which saturated those dark, wood panels, giving them the perfect, antiquated look you see today. Those walls, those disgusting walls, which you have come to call home, are riddled with cancer from all the second hand smoke they have absorbed over the years, like a sponge left in the sink, sitting in the moisture left behind, a stink emanating from that yellow porous rectangle. They will probably be given only a few years to live, as the black tar and ammonia oozes from their cracks. Ok, so now do you have your image? If you don’t, then go find a corner bar, the darker, the smokier, the cheaper, the better, and then you’ll have an idea. But in the meantime, for those of you who know of what I speak, good. Think of that place, and then know, you can’t even come close to Bar Moscow.

Hidden down a street in plain sight, sits the single pane of glass which allows a dull smoked light into  this lovely shit-hole bar. Wedged between two bars, one a pool hall and the other a night club, the thick, heavy, solid door of this establishment is adorned with no sign, and no indication of opening or closing hours. To walk by, well, one would do just that, walk by. Our first night in Helsinki we looked for it, and using the directions given to us, walked by, oblivious to Bar Moscow. We stared right at the bar, the single glass window, but we shrugged our shoulders, thinking we had the wrong address. It wasn’t until New Years Eve that we found the bar was there, and oh, what a bar.

Think back to the dive bar you were reminiscing about. That bar with the smoke stained walls, wood paneling, and the salty–usually female–bartender that has been working the joint for the last forty years, and looks about as smoke-stained and leathered from the formaldehyde in those cigarettes as the walls do. Yeah, that bar. You know, the bar where you order comfort food, but nothing is comforting about it three hours later. The food that, for some unknown, god forsaken reason, you still order, after so many stints of upset bowels–even though you won’t admit to yourself it was food poisoning, deep down you know its true– which each time you blamed on the popcorn you had at the last bar; wink, wink. Well, still not Bar Moscow.

We didn’t know what we were walking into, Tom, Abby, and I. We had found the bar at the spot we had previously walked past. Squashed between the two bars we noticed the door, and saw it, a small paper sign at the bottom left hand corner of a plate glass window reading “MOKCBA bAP.” We opened the door with hesitance, and entered into the drunk maelstrom of Bar Moscow. It was New Year’s Eve, the Finn’s on the street were already shitty drunk at 8 p.m., and we would be well on our way soon, with a bunch of Russian’s, who, by the way, the Finnish are not so keen on.

I can only imagine it is how a Russian Bar would have looked in the sixties and seventies under the communist regime. The blood red painted walls added a certain level of hideousness to the aesthetic decor, which was lit by two bare fluorsecent lights angled toward each other vertically on the wall. The rest of the bar was low lit with random lamps, and a few low wattage, recessed, overhead lights, which shone down from the black painted ceiling. I felt like I was in a whorehouse. The red room, the low dim lighting, the cheap tacky decor. I was waiting for Mother Russia to come out in leather clad bikini, whip in one hand, cigarette in the other, speaking in broken english accent, asking me if I like pain. Instead I settled for the drunk men who seemed drawn to us like flies, we being the strangers in this bar where everyone knows each other, but doesn’t show it.

Back to the bar you were thinking about. Ok, we have the smoke stained walls, the old bartender with her ratty, hacking cough. We have the shitty decor. Old signage that has been affixed to the wall for fifty years. Programs still adorning the bathroom walls from a time when your great grandfather would have been drinking there. Now you think about the people. The rummies, the drunks, the boozehounds. The guys and gals that live there. That are there at opening, and help the bartender flip the stools at the end of the evening. You have other bartenders on their way to work, who suck down two screwdrivers before their shift starts–you bump into them at the next bar down the line as they pour your drink, their nose red as Rudolf’s and the blood vessels on their cheeks starting to turn purple, the tell tale sign of an alcoholic. Without these characters, these bars are nothing. They exist because these patrons exist. And, so does Bar Moscow.

The Finn’s loathe Russians, so, why have a bar named Bar Moscow in Helsinki? The drunk Russian, Nicholai, reminisced about home with us. Plying him with shots of Zubrokow vodka, he told us about his life and the life of the bar. Nicholai sipped the vodka, slowly savoring the ice cold clear liquid, even shared one shot with us, each of us taking a small sip of the beautifully crafted, vanilla liquor. The owner wanted a bar he could drink in, without being bothered by a crowd, and what better way to keep Finn’s away, than by opening a Russian themed bar. The bar had customers, it was not empty, it wasn’t want for patrons, but the room–and I stress that, it is only one room big–was not full up, especially for New Year’s Eve. So we drank with Russians, in the most hated bar in Helsinki, and the least advertised. Nicholai explained to us that it is meant to look closed all the time. If people do not think it is open, they will stay out.

Your dive bar probably does not have the drunks they do. In fact, I can guarantee your smoke stained bar with the leathery bartender, the shitty decorations, the diarrhea inducing food, and the barflies, does not have these drunks. There are drunks, swaying back and forth, falling asleep on their beer, hand quivering as they put the cheap shot to their lips, having scrounged together pennies to buy the rotgut well liquor that only cost two dollars, and then, well, there are the drunks of Bar Moscow.

The patrons of Bar Moscow were well on there way. The small tables, which were sporadically placed across the room with no specific pattern, were surrounded by metal chairs with bright red vinyl cushions, while drunk Russian’s swayed from side to side atop these seats. At one point in the evening a patron well over served collapsed leaving the bar, taking with him shelves of knick knacks crashing to the floor with a cacophony of disaster. His crumpled form was left on the floor, until he popped up minutes later, like a marionette being picked up by some invisible puppeteer. No effort was made by the bartender to yell at him, help him, or berate him, it was as if nothing happened. All others in the bar just sat there and watched, then turned back to their respective conversations. This dark haired man with a tousled look stumbled out into the night with an ataxic gate, wandering into the cold of December.

The shitty corner bar, the one you have locked in your mind now, it has a feel, an aura, an atmosphere that is just there. This ambience is the culmination of all aspects from the bartender to the decorations, the patrons to the food, the drinks to the prices they charge and advertise. Now to each their own, so I cannot say Bar Moscow has a shittier atmosphere, but I can say, it was the oddest experience I have had at a bar.

Behind the bar sat a plate of stale sandwiches. Made with white bread, thinly stacked with lunch meats, these unappealing triangles being the only food one could order at the bar. Next to this plate sat a record player the size of a small pony, and across the front of this wood veneered box, was a dull green light emanating from the display of radio stations, like a ruler with hash marks of music. The Russian music boomed with a scratchy, tinny, sound from old burlap covered speakers, while throngs of men sang in high tenors and low baritones, laying a strong solid foundation to their national chants. The music was dated, spinning from the scratched vinyl, which was stacked on shelves behind the bar, relics from a cold war and Stalinist Reds. The bartender herself was squat and stout, with greying hair pulled back, a Babushka in her own right. Her gruff demeanor was not broken by anyone that night. And even though she new many of the patrons, no smile broke her stony facade, it was as if she was one of the millions of faceless masses exiled to Siberia. She spoke with a limited vocabulary, her speech terse and curt, smothered by a thick Russian accent, the few words she spoke you thought she was commanding action, like a drill instructor barking orders. But that still wasn’t the oddest thing.

So in your shitty corner bar, the one you love to visit, the one you call home, you have probably been there on New Year’s Eve. You have probably been there with all the familiar faces, although you may not know them personally, or be friends with, you know them, and it is somehow comforting for you. You are there to ring the New Year. The ball drops on the television and you watched Dick Clark there, wishing you a Happy New Year, feeling as if he was a fixture in your life. People sing, pat each other on the back, hug, total strangers, yet familiar faces, you all feel a common bond. In Bar Moscow, well, there is none of that.

They all stood up as the record player came to an abrupt halt. The three of us stared at each other, as we surveyed the room, watching the men and women hold their drinks up, as if saluting in anticipation of some important patron. Reluctantly standing, we followed suit, and the silence was shattered by men chanting in unison that issued forth from the jangling speakers. It was midnight, and patrons stood for the Russian national anthem. People in the bar sang, belting out the words, as if in some hypnotic trance, like Catholics unconsciously reciting prayers and creeds  in their bewitched monotone voices. In Bar Moscow, we ushered in the New Year of 2013 with thirty or more drunk Russian’s, belting out their old communist anthem. And tucked away on a side street, in this dive bar of Helsinki, this pariah of the city’s bars, we felt at home.

 

 

Inhibitions

How can you write if you cannot imagine something in all its horrifying, gruesome, most intimate details. No matter how taboo the topic, the writer must write about it without hesitation or reservation. If we censor our writing, so it is only appealing to the masses, then we limit ourselves and our ability to tell intricate stories. Our ability to live inside our characters, to feel their emotions, to breath as they do, is what makes the tragic hero, the despicable villain, the cheating husband, the buoyant teen. Without our ability to see as they do, feel as they feel, emote as they emote, we just have soul-less avatars filling prolix pages between two artfully constructed covers.

If the writer is inhibited, then their writing will be the same, and if the writer is embarrassed and holds back, this will show. Do not be reticent, instead write as foul mouthed as your character wants to be, allow your character to be who they are supposed to be, how you envision them in your head. I for one think back to all the books that were banned, and, well, I wouldn’t mind my work being put on the shelf, nestled next to those authors.

Shock troops of Gentrification

While the hipster seems to be the unwilling and unknowing shock troops for gentrification, their intent is not malicious or deceptive. It is with great admiration that I begin to write about hipsters, and hopefully those reading this will understand that the media tends to stereotype groups with a banality that borders on neuroses. And what we know of the hipster stereotype is far from any truth imaginable.

In Portland, Maine we  see the current process of gentrification, as it has been and is occurring in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and how it is changing the city. Now what is occurring in Portland is what Sharon Zukin describes in her book Naked City , discussing the urban environment, and what Richard Lloyd discusses in Neo-Bohemia as he analyzed the culture of Wicker Park Chicago in the eighties to the late nineties. What they both notice in their work is that post-industrial areas seem to attract a bohemian crowd, a group of like minded individuals who want to come together, and form communities, neighborhoods, where they can be around people who share similar traits and qualities. To be honest I find this normal, and in no way out of the ordinary. If you are a liberal who is anti-gun, pro-choice, and pro- immigration rights you don’t choose to move to Texas thinking there will be a plethora of individuals who will share you passion for your beliefs. Instead you find an area that suits your needs better.

These artists, bohemians, hipsters, how about just plain people, see the attraction, appeal, and even beauty of these post-industrial complexes and in renovating them, create a community which brings mass appeal to others. In doing so, they begin to renovate neighborhoods that would be untouched before, and unaccessible to the general public out of fear of crime and lack of public services. By doing what all other people do, enhance their own surroundings and try and find affordable housing, they create an area that is livable again out of a wasteland that would otherwise have crumbled and disappeared into oblivion, as time seeped into the cracked mortar between bricks, slowing cleaving the old dilapidated structures in two. In creating a livable environment though, unfortunately the vultures begin to buzz overhead, unbeknownst to these homesteading urban pioneers.

As the bricks are mended and storefronts fill up with boutiques, coffee houses, yoga studios, used bookstores, bars, and restaurants, this creates an inevitability which is unfortunate and out of the hands of these initial entrepreneurs. Rents begin to rise, more new stores fill in, and older bodega’s, corner bars, and other small businesses which once filled these storefronts, begin to disappear. As Zukin notes, this isn’t a bad thing, it is the beginning of a cycle, the genesis of a neighborhood. But, this is where gentrification occurs. It is not at the hands of the initial urban pioneers who cleaned the neighborhood, bringing in art galleries and coffee shops, but at the developers and real estate investment firms, that we begin to see the neighborhood’s landscape altered.

Eventually rents raise so high that the boutiques and coffee shops catering to hipsters, bohemians, and artists begin to disappear, replaced by chain stores. Not chains like Wal-mart or Target, these still would have no market here, but chains that are regionally based, usually within the city, or specific stores that cater to that lifestyle. In Williamsburg, clothing stores from Manhattan have opened chains within the neighborhood limits, and in Portland, Maine hotels and restaurants seem to be the commodity of investors in the Old Port.

As the process of gentrification goes into full swing, housing begins to change the landscape, and older homes are bought up and torn down for development of luxury apartments and condominiums. In Portland this is happening on the East End and Munjoy Hill, while in Williamsburg this is happening right on the waterfront where the old factories have been torn down to make way for luxury riverfront apartments. This is an unfortunate matter of fact that was not anticipated by these urban pioneers who sought to create their own neighborhoods, and bask in their own created environment. What has occurred is the area is now desirable, and people from outside want to live amongst the hip, the cool, the tres Brooklyn. This is the unfortunate side effect of these bohemian hipster neighborhoods.

Eventually rents raises so high that the original bohemians, artists, hipsters, urban pioneers, can no longer afford to live there, and must move out of the neighborhoods they helped create and design. And this opens the door for super gentrification, as Zukin calls it. But that is another conversation all together.