An Air of Bad Ease

An air of bad ease descended upon the rooftop gathering as employees of Hotel Julian listened to Minerva explain her predicament, and, by process of detrimental reliance, their own. Commercial buildings, particularly those housing paying guests, were subject to strict codes designed to protect the public against construction dangers inherent in aging and disrepair of physical systems that might result in unforeseen and unexpected loss to property or life. The purpose of updated codes was to minimize the uncertainty of loss. While Minerva tried to focus on the cost of updating, including the interruption to business, which would probably put the employees out of work long enough they would have to find work elsewhere, Julian argued the building should qualify for state and national historical interest and preservation. Either way, Minerva countered, the costs would be a show stopper. But there might be preservation funds or grants available for which they could apply. But the project would require neighborhood support, and that was certainly uncertain. Besides, current guests could ill afford future rates required to sustain a renovated project. Would there come a new clientele? In this neighborhood? Did Julian want to participate in a gentrification project? Dour looks and quiet space filled the conversation, which was, for the most part, between Minerva and her son. Hotel Julian was, after all, a family owned business. And there was the problem of the tunnel, built under the public road without permit or any kind of engineering approval. The tunnel coming to light had afforded the inspectors no end of curiosity and enjoyment. At that, faces with frowns glowered in my direction. Prior renovations to the building, particularly the one of the late 1940s, adulterated its original character to a degree it would be difficult to argue its historical nature or value. And now an elevator would need to be installed. The fire escape ladders could no longer be used to access the rooftop for public tavern use. There wasn’t anything about the rooftop bar that met any kind of code, license, or fee requirement. Seamen had been berthing in the hotel since the late 1800s; surely that provided some proof of historical interest. There was no business plan. They had, in a sense, been stealing from the business, letting the building deteriorate from improper maintenance. They had let it go, much as a person aging might be prone to let their own body go, ignoring exercise, diet, health care. Not that they didn’t care for their body, or their mind, but that the maintenance and upkeep became too much to bear. The old building contained a history of stories few today cared about. Neighborhoods change, and they had simply gone with the flow, in part, though, responsible for the direction that flow had taken. They were not slumlords, but a low rent district had evolved over time in their surrounds. They had adapted. Minerva asked for suggestions and questions. What about turning the building into a maritime museum? Find a new owner, one willing to invest in the old. The air on the rooftop, rarely used during the day, the sun rising, warming, then heating the tar roof, became too hot without umbrellas, and Minerva adjourned the meeting without ceremony or decision. I stayed on the roof, still nursing my morning coffee, walking the perimeter, watching the yachts come and go down in the harbor, and saw a few sailors dressed in white pulling detail on a distant Navy Destroyer deck. I was thinking about what might come next, while the others climbed down to go to work. I felt at ease, even as I felt somewhat bad about that easy feeling that comes from an ability to both care and not to care when presented with a prospect designed for either.

“An Air of Bad Ease” is episode 41 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Modern Man in Search of a Sofa

It is 1985, and a corporate colleague tells me his grandfather and father had built the house he would come to grow up in just before World War II, having ordered it out of a Sears Catalog. The house was delivered as a kit, with plans, in parts, via rail to a nearby town, where it was then trucked to the lot where they put it together. Yes, “some assembly required.”

We were reading “In Search of Excellence” in the mid 80s, at all levels of the organization. But what many workers were actually in search of was a job with benefits that paid at least enough to buy a house for the fam and stuff to put in it, including sofa in the living room, pram in the entry, and car in the garage. For my part, I had recently come to realize the community college adjunct job I’d been working full time since the close of the 70s wasn’t going to produce such excellent results.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the Sears Catalog served a bit like today’s Amazon. But I searched Amazon this morning to see if I could buy a house online and have it delivered, and all I found were backyard sheds. Sears discontinued its catalog division in the early 1990s. It’s hard to stay close to the customer when the customer is constantly on the move. In any case, most corporations (and stores and shops) only affect concern for the customer; what they’re really after is a share of the customer’s wallet, or, in Amazon’s case, the whole wallet. But what happens when customers no longer pack wallets?

Or no longer want stuff, or at least, not so much stuff. Or still want some stuff, but different stuff. In other words, does Amazon sell souls? Or, as Jung put in his “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”: “No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity” (209).

There are, it is argued, certain efficiencies that promote the use of Amazon over the emotional expense of leaving one’s safe harbor for the voyage out to the mall or downtown or the shops of Hawthorne. Why should consumers feel shame about where or how or for what they shop? In any case, it appears most feel no shame. But is that because they are driven by unconscious desires, wants that may be manipulated by elevator music, trance inducing ads, or atavistic urges to covet one’s neighbor’s goods?

I don’t know, but it often seems shoppers are led to the market like the Eloi in “The Time Machine” are pulled to the Morlocks. In return for the seemingly safe setting the Morlocks have created, the Eloi serve themselves up as food to sustain the Morlockian system.

Notes on n+1’s “MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction”

"I'm going to New York City to become a famous writer!" "New York can be really tough on a cat."
“I’m going to New York City to become a famous writer!”
“New York can be really tough on a cat.”

The blogger is the busker of the writing world, sidewalk setup with pre-production to distribution in a snap, with or without an MFA or ever having set foot in Brooklyn, where it’s easy to mistake an NYC for a hipster, the new hepcat, but the character with a sign on a street corner, selling short stories, has got to be an MFA. Of course I bought one. It’s titled, “Sixteen short stories, and what do you get? Another day older and money in debt.” That’s it, the whole story, a study in minimalism.

n+1’sMFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction” sounds more highfalutin that it is. The eclectic collection of analytic and reflective pieces is very engaging: personal, down-to-earth, and sincere; witty, informative, and cantankerous. The stories of the aspiring writers though are often wrapped in disappointment, and don’t amount to good news for the latest whiz kids on their way to the big time.

The big time here is the coveted publishing contract and the freedom to write it suggests. But if the big time is part of the great American novel, the form is protean: movie stardom, big league baseball star, corporate head-honcho, founder of the next mega-church, on the cover of Rolling Stone. How does a relentless pursuit of excellence turn rancorous and begin to have a negative effect on the game, or the business, or the art? Subcultures are constantly being subsumed by the dominant, overarching culture, the umbrella over the barrel. The writers and scholars that appear in “MFA VS NYC” have big time stories to tell, and readers interested in the making of literature will find intriguing stuff on the ways the writing of fiction is taught or learned and the resulting fiction influenced and modified by the many players in the process: teachers, programs, agents, publishers, editors, publicists, booksellers, critics, readers.

People write for all kinds of reasons and purposes, usually to someone, and if the writing is sent off – the memo, the email, the love letter, the white paper, the blog post, the letter to the editor, the book proposal, the sign in a window, the graffiti on a train car, the busker’s song sang on the sidewalk – the writing is published. Just as often, no doubt, and just as well, probably, the writing is trashed or deleted, but whether the writing is read or heard or not, by whom or how, or how long it lives, is all another matter. Some writers write to themselves, diarists. Their work is published when it’s found. Writers often hold up a mirror to the culture, and if the mirror is cracked, the culture turns away. Writers, like the rest of us, all seem to have a particular picture of themselves, hardly ever the same picture others have of them. It’s the picture of ourselves we don’t recognize that might make for the best writing and reading. The pictures of writers and writing, of literature, that unfold in “MFA VS NYC” merge the ones the writers have with the ones their readers might have, bringing the whole affair into better focus.

99 Bottles Over the Wall

On the tabletop of the sea sat a few empty bottles
surrounded by the detritus of discussion.
No burning butts, though,
the bar under water, the talk polite,
as if no riptide of innuendo threatened to drown out the quip.

Paddling out is hard enough; now
how does the stranded entrepreneur get back to the strand,
having drifted so far out?
The question is rhetorical and impossible, an impassable bottle.

This great bottle business denial,
all in the business of passing bottles,
unable to pass on this impassability business.

Across the bar there is no mission statement:
free to wander and listen to the swimming voices, sailing and selling, tacking back and forth, bantering and bartering.
Eventually, all sink, subsumed or consumed,
bottled in the great Ocean of Business,
no need for pain or pleasure, fear or courage, emotions or metaphor, opinion or belief,
swallowed within the immense immortal impassable snorkel bottle.

The Business of Poetry

I’m in a meeting about meetings.
Someone is talking about needs:

“…Clear purpose…
…Keep to agenda…
…Stick to schedule…
…Out on time…
…Take notes…
…Dress code…”

I note, doodle, jot down words,
drop seeds of wild silly weeds
into the creamy hirsute carpet;
someday the seeds will sprout

…into poems…

the night janitor will sweep up.

The priest talks of the need for prayer in despair.
The scholar talks of the need to be read by peers.
The senator talks of the need for dough and polls.
The bag lady quietly appeals for a change of where.
The therapist theorizes the need of rest from care.
The bartender talks of the need for a road to hear.
The mother yells just wait until your father comes
home, until the evening comes when Dad disappears.

Who knows the source of this need from long ago,
the need for poems and to live like a fat soiled pig
sloughing off in a muddle puddle wallow of words,
but the meeting adjourns with predicable promises
of more to come, of more to come, of more to come,
and someone breaks an egg over the speaker’s head:
a detailed SWOT Analysis called for pastry and pie,
but the speaker is silent, not a word, about poetry.