OM…AHA! is a continuation of Good Morning, Wednesday, and the process of finding the magic in the mundane. They are the meditations, realizations and observations from this new state of mine . . . Nebraska.

 

 

September 21th, 2021

 

Our relationship almost ended before we arrived. One moment we were in complete understanding on the I-70 writing a new contract for our union, and the next it became fissured in a fit of fatigue somewhere in St. George, Utah. Now I’m sitting at the rooftop lounge of the Ace hotel in downtown Los Angeles with a Mezcal Negroni in front of me wondering how I draw a conclusion from the whirling cacophony of dirt and drag and drama of the last few days . . . Maybe it’s best I start from the beginning and see where we end up.

Guff and I left Omaha Thursday morning before the sun ascended over the eastern rim of the Earth. She slept in the back while I listened to the humming music of the highway and by two in the afternoon we were already in Denver, the verdant islands of western Nebraska amidst corn and soy bean fields far behind us. A friend of hers was getting married on a ranch in Altadena on Saturday and she would be shooting the wedding. I was tagging along to act as her second behind the lens. Our plan was to stay with my parents Friday night before heading to Zorthian Ranch at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountain range. There was no time to break up the drive so we pressed on into the Rockies all green and gold from Aspens with ruddy and rosette rock on its western slope. It was my first time crossing these magnificent mountains so I took a couple rips of a joint to celebrate the occasion and wondered how miserable it must have been for the earlier settlers heading west, or the miners in search of a piece of gold during the harsh winters.

As my mind went to work in such a stoney state I held my hand out the window and felt the wind whip between my fingertips. I felt the tingling of air under my nails as my hand soared up and down.

“I never want to stop playing with the wind,” I told Guff. She agreed.

When we reached the long tunnel that cuts through the rock of the mountain and played her game of holding our breath in an attempt to make it the whole two and a half minutes of the thing. It took me three attempts to fill my lungs and I couldn’t believe that she had done it before. And before long we were coming down the mountain, the light now swinging in front of us and dropping fast.

Western Colorado is one long slide down the mountainside. It goes down down down until you reach the Utah border and then further down towards the Virgin River Gorge before flattening out near the lights of Las Vegas and the Mojave desert beyond. And as we headed down we looked ahead, renegotiating the contract of our relationship. She wanted to know what I was looking for. How did I picture the perfect partner for myself. What was it that made me find fault in her being. This is something we had never really done before. Relationships are a fragile thing held together by a symmetry of words and behaviors, some not even in our control. We do our best, though, creating our character out of experiences in the hopes that our partner can stay in the same lane and signal when they plan on changing position. There had been a lot of weight from the road before we settled in Omaha, and the act of choosing and being chosen had been a constant struggle for us. It was only until recently that I had realized that my indecision was causing much emotional discord in our relationship. Not that she wasn’t enough or that I wanted something, or someone, else. Not at all. It was the simple fact that I had not chosen her. This choosing alone would give her a feeling of safety. By being open with her and inclusive with my thoughts it would give her a sense security. And as we headed further down the mountain it was apparent we had not had the conversation about the direction of our relationship. Let alone our own individual projections of such a thing.

I listened as she asked vulnerable and challenging questions. I did my best to stay open in the conversation without my ego having to feel attacked or lacking in any way. I listened with an intent on understanding. Without this how could we move forward or further in our relationship. If we could not dream together a future in which both of us are a unit working in the direction of that union, then what was the point of being together. It’s scary to look within. To dig deep into my soul and find out what lies waiting there, what my past self pictured for my future, and how that might make my partner feel. Theological anthropology is the superhuman ability to see the direction of your life and align all actions and behaviors toward it. From what I’ve seen and understand, this rare zyzygy in the labyrinth of life occurs very little for most people. Maybe there is a lack of forethought. Maybe no imagination. I mean, it’s no easy task to believe in the destination of the mind. Let alone act upon it. And so we discussed these things. We looked at our expectations. We rolled around relationship in our hands. Looked it over. Discussed what my expectations were in a partner. I did my best to explain what feels right for me in my life and if it made sense for her to stick around. By the time we reached Utah my eyes were heavy and I was soon asleep in the back as Guff drove on into the night and what awaited us. When I awoke we were in St. George.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Then I saw it. The the red and yellow signage. It was Del Taco. I had mentioned how much I missed their dollar menu. It had been nearly eight months since I’d had it. When we pulled up the drive-thru line wrapped around the building and nearly twenty minutes later we had barely moved.

“I need to get water,” Guff told me. “I haven’t had a drink for over an hour . . . I’m sorry I can’t wait any longer for Del Taco on a twenty-five hour road trip.”

I couldn’t blame her. I quickly pulled out of the line and headed for a gas station.

“Are you upset?”

I was. And I told her so. I was disappointed and annoyed. But it wasn’t her fault. I made sure to tell her this. But she was already in her head about it, thinking I had blamed her and that it was her fault. This snow-balled into an argument and soon we were back at our old tricks of trigger and being triggered, of not sticking to our boundaries. By the time we past Vegas we had decided to go our own ways once we reached California. We couldn’t see eye to eye on the matter. We had our stories. We held our beliefs tight. And as the sun finally rose again we were coming into Riverside county through the Cajon Pass with a heavy fog blanketing our perceptions. We could hardly make heads or tells of the thing. She had no more trust in me. The conversation from the night before had faded as quickly as the day came on. I wish I could tell you word for word about what was said. I wish I could show you in words what had happened between us. And I probably could if her and I sat down and wrote it out line by line. Only it would do us no good. It would only confuse the matter even more. I’ve come to understand it does very little for a relationship to replay verbatim the contents of a misunderstanding. Rage has its truth. Fear too. What’s important realizing how the hurt person feels, to recognize they only want to be heard. That they matter. That they have a voice.

By the time we had worked the whole thing out we were in Lake Elsinore and the sun was already breaking up the thick grayness of the morning. Everything was clear. I found out in a text that my father had Covid and so we decided parked beside the lake and sleep in the back on the small foam pad with Millie-dog between us. I woke up in a sweat and climbed over the front seat and sat there staring at the lake and the Santa Ana mountains before me. A few fishermen were casting out their lines and waiting for a catch, only to throw the fish back. I could feel the weight of the day upon me. I had only slept a few hours in the last day or so and the long drive only added a heavier fatigue to the mind and body. Guff lifted her head and saw me sitting there.

“Are you coming back to cuddle?”

“No, it’s too hot to sleep. But get some rest.”

She rolled back over and closed her eyes.

I sat there and wondered how we get caught in this mess like a ball of snakes. What is it about us that causes us to go at each other with ferocity and anguish and pain. Our scars lay deeper than the skin. Our wounds lie in lineage without diagnosis. At one point in the dark morning, somewhere in the desert,  Guff had screamed into the empty space between us, “We’re so ugly! People are so ugly! We are so mean to each other! How can can we expect the world to get better when we’re so disgusting!” And I couldn’t disagree with her. I shook my head in silence knowing it’s a hard truth to swallow. The silent and shapeless world around us on the 15 was silent too. It knew. And as I sat there with the sun beginning to rise, feeling the heat coming on, I knew how messy it all was, how convoluted the past gets mixed up in the present and rips us apart. I also recognized that this person laying peacefully in the back of the Volvo with her dog was one of the purest humans I’ve ever met. That in her contains the whole world. What else could I need.

 

To be continued . . .

 

 

 

September 15th, 2021

 

The place is dark though well-lit. The light comes in through large windows facing Vinton Street and then dies out into a darker light that shines down from half-lit fluorescent lights tucked between ceiling tiles. The ceiling tiles bulge in odd places from years of water damage and hang as if on the verge of collapse like large saltine crackers that have been soaked-through and dried-out and left to crumble at the slightest touch. Below them a darkness rises up from the dark wood floor stained through with glue and cigarette ash and the trails of worn-out souls. And the darkness covers the walls, too, in rows of old books rebound and forgotten, the dust that covers them older than your grandfathers pocket lint. Between are the pages sewn across three generations toward their own possible finality. The first time I entered the place I took a shot of tequila and didn’t come back for nearly a month.

It was early April when I first called Capitol Bindery. The sun finally warmed and had some effect on the white landscape, revealing a floor of punctured asphalt and fractured concrete. I called looking for a smyth machine to sew A WE THING. I wanted the book to have that same quality of earlier children’s books, back before they started using glue to bind the signatures together instead of thread. Kevin Brown answered and then turned me away. He didn’t have what I was looking for. Or so I thought. It was only after a night out at Second Friday that I began to frequent the place. I remember standing among the semi-circle of chairs near the front door. I could hear the voices around me as I stared past the sounds out over the long stretch of this bibliodashery and began to write in my mind my curiosities and wonder. There were stacks of books covering the long tables and large rolls of material stacked at the far end—leather and buckram and all sorts of paper cut from the same tree but with different teeth—and there were large drawers of typefaces and patterned dies scattered about the place, many of them strewn about the three hot foil stampers that spelled out in anagrams a secret language bought from old binderies or from Morris Dolgoff himself whom Kevin’s grandfather bought the bindery from when he returned to Omaha after the Korean War. In my eyes the colors of the bindery became grey and brown and green with its yellow light and strange hues of possibility brought forth by my own hands into tangible objects to be held and read and shared. The mystery and magic consumed me.

Months later I came back to see what I could make of the place.

“I’m a terrible teacher,” Kevin told me as his hands disagreed.

I watched his trembling hands like someone with dementia who sits down at a piano and begins to play the delicate and somber songs of Chopin or Bill Evans. They became articulate and purposeful while always with a cigarette between two fingers, the small grey rivulet of smoke ascending upward. I watched those hands strip book blocks from their tattered covers and place them in a press for their spines to be scraped clean of old glue and mousseline, right down to the pages, and then those hands weaved needle and thread between torn signatures of the classics or old family bibles. Oh the bibles! how they come in droves! Stacks and stacks of them in Spanish and English with little written notes in the margins to be preserved as if great-grandmother’s rosary were in there somewhere with a thousand worries and prayers, and all them falling apart at the seams and they bring them here for salvation as if the death of the book itself would erase all of Genesis through Ecclesiastes. In the beginning was the Word that withers in time and then grows again upon the page! And I watched as the old bookbinder breathed new life into them. They are resurrected by his hands. He then turns to me when they’re completed and says, “I better be getting some fucking bonus points for fixing all these damn bibles,” and laughs easy. The oversew machine hums in contemplation. I nod in agreement with the old master knowing that’s not how it works. He knows too. And when the books and bibles are sewn tight with new end-sheets and the spine is glued to new branded material, it is returned to the owner like a newborn baby washed clean, containing all the wisdom written in its pages.

The bindery isn’t always like this. Most days are monotonous with the tearing of guts from scientific journals to be bound and catalogued year after year. Or investment reports foil stamped at the end of the month to be passed around oblong tables at board meetings and then later tossed in the trash come the following month. Most jobs are to keep the doors open, leaving potential hanging around like an old winter coat in California. Imagination yawns. Stretches out. Lays with the dust. Gets swept up in monthly bills and conversations with John from two doors down whose talk is guttural and dry like Noam Chomsky. Kevin takes a smoke break between cigarettes. Makes more coffee. Changes the music from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Rob Thomas. I take a seat at the front and watch the world go by including the drunk from Louis M’s Burger Lust at ten in the morning. I think of all the small movements between the major works of my life and realize where I have grasped and been grasped at. Shaken around. Rattled for good measure. I come to the conclusion that this is one where I’ve been grasped while grasping in a strange arm wrestling match with God or the universe or whatever is you want to call it. I recognize the opportunity like an unlocked door. There is something hidden in the place. Something forgotten. And sometimes I can find hints of it snooping around, lifting up stacks of binders board or behind the cobwebs of oddities and relics in the corners of the bindery’s past. I find glimpses among the large cutter and foil stampers. Between conversations with Joe, that old Italian from Rhode Island with all of New England coming out of the side of his mouth. Joe who went to Boys Town and played Defensive Back and could lift 225, “no problem.” Joe now fragile with cancer and thin red beard and smiling eyes who talks of old movies and says, “I love them old westerns, man. Ha ha. Oh man, the way they’d hang your ass for stealing a horse. Ha! Wow. They’d fucking hang your ass for just that. Boom. Dead. Ha ha. Oh yea, man. I love that shit,” as he blows grey smoke about the place. I find it here and there when John has gone away or the customers stop coming in and there’s nothing else to do. I find it there between the dark wood floor and dim lighting and the humming doldrums of the mundane, right there in the middle of all the paper products and their possibilities.

Capitol Bindery is the story of hands and razor knives and glue. It is the story of needle and thread and the heritage of literature lovers. It is the story of creation and rebirth on the lower level of a two-story building that hugs the outside edge as Vinton curves east towards Iowa. It is dead ahead on the long stretch once you’ve rounded the bend at Vinton Street apartments, past El Queztal Market and International Bakery, where the street begins to grow dark in sepia tones and the air smells sweet like corn. Not the corn of Nebraska, but the maize of Sinaloa or perhaps Tamaulipas and Veracruz. And you can imagine it there as it stood long ago along a dirt road with the old street lanterns dimly lit in the night, like someplace like Winesburg, Ohio, when the inhabitants were Polish and Irish and of Eastern European descent with the coming of the Union Stockyard. And as I write this now on Fowler Avenue, as the bells from St. James Catholic Church off  90th street clamor in the soft daylight of a Tuesday afternoon, I can see that the future of the Bindery will be one without bibles and reports stamped for approval. I’ve seen it after I’ve scraped a line of that thick dust with my fingernail. And what lies beneath it are the proverbs of imagination and potential written by those who can dream up something holy new, who can sew the signatures of their minds and bind them for all the world to read. And it will be waiting there for them once they can see it for themselves. I will be too. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Amen.

 

 

 

September 8th, 2021

 

I was going to tell you everything. How it all happened. I was going to tell you how I came to Omaha, about Guff and the road and how we came to be . . . I really was.

I was going to tell you about Jazz Night and our Wednesday coffee dates over FaceTime. I was going to tell you how I bought the van named Modestine with her encouragement and inspiration and I was going to tell you about the long days up to my elbows in grease with her on my mind. I was going to tell you how I cut my lease and sold off most of my belongings including my records to a friend of hers. I was going to tell you about the challenges I faced to make the thing work, how two mechanics told me to dump the old Dodge Brougham and try something newer, that it would cost too much to get it going. I was going to tell you about how I almost gave up on the whole thing, how it became too much at one point and I was just going sell the van and be done with it and find some other way to get to her. I was going to tell you about the pastor on the dirt road by San Tropez, CA who prayed for my journey ahead and about Brian, my bipolar storage neighbor, who drew a smiley face on the back window of my car and how that symbol later became a good omen in the search for an answer to a mechanical conundrum. I was going to tell you about it, how the guy behind the counter gave me the remedy for fixing a seal leak on the transmission after days with no progress and then setting a whole new line of obstacles in motion including rewiring all the electrical in the van and adding a new AC unit. I was going to tell you how the van finally passed a smog test—because the attendant told me “Oh we’ll make it pass no matter what.” meaning I pay him an extra hundred to make it pass— and that got the tags up-to-date so I could hit the road at last, almost a month and a half after the idea formulated. I was going to tell you about how the events of my life at that time aligned with the constellation of my pursuit and then I was off down the open road.

I was going to tell you about how I broke down in every state to get to Guff. First in Mammoth and then Bend, Seattle, Boise, Laramie, changing my oil pan gasket or starter or dealing with vapor lock. I was going to tell you how I’d driven straight through from Cheyenne, eight hours on the 80 like a slug because it was Wednesday, our day, and I wanted to spend the rest of it with her. I was going to tell you about the little brick house on 44th and Pierce and how the scene played out exactly as my mind had seen it. Her running out of the house in bare feet and jean shorts, the air thick with moisture. I was going to tell you how she opened the door and flew onto my lap, legs curled over mine sideways, and how we kissed right there under the tree. I was going to tell you about the lightening bugs in the alley as the night came on and how we held hands with the coming darkness. I was going to tell about the tears and us laying there in bed, our eyes laughing like little kids. How we made love in the morning and just held each other for hours. I was going to tell you how she, in a fit of joy, jumped up and flung open the blinds in one fluid motion, her arms outstretched as if to hug the light and hold it and I laying there still in bed bathing in the warm stuff now washing over us both. I was going to tell you about her love for sharing and how she has a million ideas rolling around in her head at all times. It’s true. I was going to tell you about it. I was going to tell you about how she showed me Carter Lake where she used to live with the girl in and out of jail, the small house that looked like it was falling apart and how it faced the sunsets and how she wanted to buy that little house because of the lake and the grass and how we sat in that grass and talked about her mom and dad now gone and I was going to tell you about the keychain she gave me in her room that says home is not a place, but you are home which made me feel like I was and still am.

I was going to tell you how our first date lasted nearly eight months and how Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Be to Be Free played around and through us as we pointed north towards South Dakota. I was going to tell about how we fought in Kennebec and then Big Horn National Park, how we fought in Billings and later in Minneapolis. I was going to tell you how we fought in St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Montepelier, New York, Boston, D.C., Richmond, Myrtle Beach and I was going to tell you about how in a fit of rage I almost sent her back to Omaha from Dallas, alone, and how it was raining at the airport, a mist of clouds and cold air, and how I ran after her in the Enterprise and pulled her out of line before she left for good because I could not picture my life without her, but she was already waiting for me to come after her. I was going to tell you how after every fight something beautiful happened like a sunrise party on the Mississippi or a sunset over Niagara or meeting our road Uncle Joe the old poet from Milwaukee with crazy white hair and crooked glasses or Jermo from Billings that grizzly bear with a voice like he’s gargling crackerjacks who shot his 9mm at the moon high on a mushroom trip. And I was going to tell you how she shows me that understanding is like a fine tuned instrument playing beautiful notes of harmony through the anatomy of our union. And I was going to tell you about the drive back to California and Christmas with my family and how they all loved her so much and how we looked for a place to call our home and how we settled on Omaha because of the trees and the people and the opportunities to make a house a home, and how we piled everything I owned into Modestine and how the drive shaft dropped out twice on the way here, once during a snow storm in Prescott, AZ and the other just outside Lincoln so close to our new home and how we waited there in twenty degree weather, screaming at AAA over the phone after 4 hours of waiting and waiting, going nowhere, our bodies shivering, only to finally have a driver come out and move us in on the back of his truck and then he not being able to get the van lowered off the bed because the van was too large and rear end sat like a large dog with bad hips, the thing scraping the new driveway, grinding metal against concrete.

Yea I was going to tell you all about it. I was going to tell you about the sad times and the mad times and the times we laughed our heads off. I was going to tell you how I continue to trip over my triggers while my childhood trauma wears my current face like a mask when all I want is to have my best friend without pushing her away out of fear. I was going to tell you it was her all along, how she is the reason I’ve come to Omaha and why after thirty-seven states and 15,000 miles I’m still working through it all. She, who loves with abandon and speaks her truths and shares all the millions of thoughts swirling around her head, the one who sees it all so clearly and feels it all so deeply and knowing more than anyone that if we can solve the mysteries in ourselves then all the world could be healed. She, the one who says “yes” to living, playing all the time in dreams and bringing them into reality. I was going to tell you about it, and about her wanting to feel safe and good and happy by being open and inclusive and sharing and talking it out until we’re blue in the face. I was going to tell you about her love for tiny things and bananas and Millie-dog. I was going to tell you about it. I was. I really was.

I was going to tell you about it all, and maybe some day I will.

 

 

 

September 1st, 2021

 

I was driving east on Cuming when it happened. How and from where, god only knows. But it emerged or manifested out of thin air or chemical reaction as I changed lanes, speeding past the slow car hesitating to merge because of the construction in front of Amateur Coffee. Images gave rise to sentences and then I was writing the thing out in my mind heading south on the 480. It was a hallucination, really. An ethereal reality simultaneously playing out right along with this one where your  thumb currently swipes up on the screen in your hand…And just as tangible.

How can it not be. Is it not happening at this very moment as my fingers go to work on the keys? Am I not bringing thought into being before your very eyes much like my fifty mile-an-hour daydream? Can you see it? What was not, is. Maybe not verbatim. But it’s no easy thing getting phantasmagoria down word for word.

The lush landscape around me mixed with the desert of my past like water and oil as I roiled in the soup signaling for a right turn onto the freeway. The scenes faded as I checked my mirrors, accelerating into the flow of cars, only for them to reemerge as a comparison between drivers from the two places, bringing me back to the origin of the thought.

There’s a lacksadaisical attitude to the average Nebraskan driver, especially when it comes to lane changes. There’s an inability to zipper properly as a lane dies out. Especially on 72nd just south of the 80 where the dullards of Ralston, suffering from myopia, drone their lives out in the banality of suburban life. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this sort of behavior. It’s found in most places, in fact. It’s a haphazardness, as if no one else exists in all the world. A yawning stretch of passivity. Omaha is less condensed. I’ll give it that. There are far less commuters than Orange County and LA. I can drive circles around this city without ever seeing a line of red lights stacked up for miles on end like a big red slug snail-trailing along the roads and highways. But then again my perception of relativity differs from that of the locale. A fifteen minute drive is a breeze, making thirty a quick trip there and back again. No biggie. No whoop. There’s plenty of open road to go around.

There’s also the obvious difference in climate. While California is dry and arid, Omaha’s air is thick with moisture. Some days it feels like a hot wet scarf is smothering my face. But like the old Midwestern proverb, if you don’t like the weather, stick around. It’ll change. Which is true. And for that I’m thankful. I like variety. A little of this. A little of that. It keeps me guessing. There’s enough monotony in the everyday life. Like tying shoes laces together or hearing the grocery store clerk ask, “Did you find everything alright today?” To which I want to reply, “I have not found my way to Calabria!” (Which is the land of my ancestors) “Nor have I found a way to bottle all the joy contained in bellyaching laughter to use when I’m feeling down!” Only, I reply, “I did.” And move along. At least Nature knows what’s good for the soul…V…A…R…I…E…T…Y…In case you needed me to spell it out for you. I know I need that sometimes. Someone to spell it out for me. Ask Guff. She’ll tell you. I can be a child. I can be ignorant of what I do not know. Loose my cool in a fit of rage because I don’t understand…Isn’t that weird? To not know something you don’t know. Makes me think of this seminar I attended once and the speaker drew a pie on a whiteboard with slices cut out of it. An eighth of the pie represented what we know and another eighth represented what we don’t know. The third and largest slice of the pie was what we don’t know that we don’t know. Like a blind spot in our perception because of belief or ideology or idiosyncrasy. It is the human-like quality to be our own blockade because of who we are. Not who we can be. I recognize this in myself. I get in the way of opportunity, possibility, connectivity. All because of some interpretation I’ve come to wear around. This mask. This armored suit. This accumulation of past stories, emotions, behaviors. Sometimes they’re not even mine. They’re my parents’. Or that of my parents parents. And who knows how far down the line that goes. Now take that and apply it to everyone. Including the pope. And the president!…That’s the world we live in. Put that in your pipe and snort it.

Now back to Omaha. It’s green. Incredibly green. And then red and orange and yellow and brown with the ground frosted with snow and the sky grey and the air cold and by the time February comes around everyone has had enough of Winter and putting on three layers of clothing just to grab the mail. Spring is a tease not wanting to flash us it’s green things…I get it…I moved here in February. It was negative thirty-five the week I got here. Froze my balls off. Though for me it was only the beginning of Winter. I shoveled the driveway and felt the cold nip at my face and at my hands and in my bones as I drove around on twenty-degree days to pick up furniture with Guff for our new home and enjoyed every bit of it. California, unlike Nebraska, only has one season. The air like a frying pan over an open flame. Its saving grace being a giant bathtub of salt water undulating along the coastline. I like it here. It’s uncouth. With its fractured asphalt and the way dilapidated neighborhoods bleed into brick and manicured lawns. No stucco or rock gardens. And there’s not a single gated community with the false promise of security (If there is I haven’t noticed). Not to say I prefer crime and decay. But I like to know it’s there. It’s a good reminder to know a poop-skid is smeared across the sidewalk just around the corner to keep you on your toes.

By the time I pulled off the freeway at Martha I had gotten most of this down….Sort of…Like I said, the words emerged as scenes. This is only an interpretation. By that time my mind had moved on to the people I’ve met and their good-naturedness and the sense of community and support they give here in Omaha, and I began to think of Capitol Bindery and Kevin, always with a cigarette in his mouth moving about the place, starting a task and then forgetting about it as soon as a customer comes in or Joe the old Italian from Rhode Island, them talking about politics or crazy Eddy across the street or old actresses like Sophia Loren or Maureen O’hara and I thought about how perfect things align sometimes and then it doesn’t, when, just then, a young man driving a large lawnmower with no shirt and a baseball cap came barreling down the hill towards oncoming traffic, swerved left at the light and cut up past the car to my right onto the freeway exit I had just come down. I turned my head as far as it would go until I could no longer see him. When the light turned green I made a left with the rest of them towards 24th, then made a right towards Vinton. I parked in front of the bindery. Got out. Went in the place. I drank black coffee and scraped the spines of old books. Sewed on new end-sheets. Glued them. Drank more black coffee. Talked shop with the boys. Then I came home and it wasn’t until much later that I remembered any of this.

 

 

 

August 25th, 2021

 

I’ve always been a late bloomer. I begin things when others are already on their way out. From career plan right down to growing hair on my undercarriage. Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest of four children. Maybe my broad view of the playing field caused me to deviate from the proper path. Perhaps I was born on the off-beat as a disturbance to the regular flow of rhythm. In essence, I am a syncopation. 

So why am I telling you this? Well, for starters, consider the day I’m starting this column. It’s August 25th, the nearing death of the month. The decay of Summer. You can almost feel Autumn creeping in your bones. Under normal circumstances, a well thought out marketing campaign would strategize. It would draw statistics for the most effective way to capture the attention of an audience in order to push a certain product and drive sales. There would be preparation. A release date. Anticipation would follow a linear path drawn towards the finality of the thing. This was not my course of action in providing a space to vomit my observations. The idea struck me and my mind went to work, my body obediently following in toe. Time has no hold on inspiration. It matters not what day it is, what month, year. Only that it has happened. An ethos watered by the soul. It flowered outward from my innermost being without regard for any external limitations. This is probably why I’ve always been drawn to people living in a similar vein. In literature I always respected those authors who lived a long and quarrelsome life before finally finding their vocation with the written word, the ones who fought through the mundane in order to make a place for themselves in the world. I like the Beats. Bukowski. Mooney. I like the outcasts. The freaks. Weirdos. Those who have chosen to bend reality to their will and separate themselves from the common clay. There is no doubt this is why I was drawn to the Greasy Butt gang and participated in their annual Tour de Franzia.

It was Sunday. The holy day of hangovers. The last attempt at recovery before the long week ahead. Guff and I were entertaining her childhood friend from California and I woke up foggy from a long night of drinking and dancing at Capitol Gallery down on Vinton. I could barely read the newspaper. I remember bits of an article on the futility of colonization. Mainly a quote by Charles de Gaulle warning Kennedy that any attempt at invading Vietnam and establishing diplomacy wouldn’t last for long. It was a lesson De Gaulle learned from Algiers and a premonition for the outcome of the war in Afghanistan . . . That’s as much as I picked up before putting down the paper. The coffee had little effect so I turned to beer to get greased for what was to come.

The three of us arrived at O’Leaver’s a little after 5:30 in the afternoon. A congregation of bikes already lined the railing around the front patio. We entered the bar. A few of the Butts were standing at the counter, waiting for another can of fuel before heading out back. I ordered a Red Stripe and followed their lead. The sun was still high in the late afternoon and the blue sky breathed easy. The Greasy Butt gang were sucking down Hamm’s and shoveling burgers and wings into their mouths at the far end of the place, a colorful array of personalities, ranging in a wide display of extroversion and individuality. Each one of them a world and a megaphone and a delight, their appearances a mixture of fishnets and spandex, braids, cycling caps, glittered nail polish, sandals and tattoos. The boisterous bunch welcomed us and we sucked down a couple more before the ride began.

“Ride the night! Question the morning!”

“Yea, you bunch of dumpster sluts!”

And then we were off.

The Tour de Franzia is as serious as the Tour de France without the competitive edge, and the only accolade that means anything is that you were part of it, that you road the fractured route with your chain and gullet greased, your saddle situated against your grundle, and your legs pumping with abandon, cutting up into the neighborhoods, down alleys, and around downtown to the likes of Willie Nelson and Doo-wop hits with pit stops at parks and bars before the long slurred ride back to Benson. When it comes to the ride there are few rules, but the most important is simple: Good vibes only! It’s about camaraderie and love and a damn good time without inhibitions and embarrassment.

Between the bars there’s the bladder of cheap white Zinfandel, and the art of “the slap” of the thing. It’s a ritual, really, much like sacrificing to a sun God, or losing your virginity. Style matters. The weirder, the better. Each approach to the slap is an extension of personality. There’s intensity. Combination. Perhaps a lick of the fingers. The double wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Then, of course, the pour. Head tilted back, assuming the position. The grape nectar splashing from mouth to chest and then mixing with sweat. The Greasy Butts howl. Hoot. Crow! They breathe it in. Exhale. Guffaw and quaff some more of the refreshing wine. If it’s one thing I learned, it’s that no amount of Ajax could possibly clean the grease off the seats of these fun-loving freaks. Heed the Greasy Butt gang’s call and you will find yourself hanging upside-down from the chainlink pedestrian bridge on 42nd and Grover, the black nozzle pouring out the clear pink juice into your mouth, then singing Deana Carter with attitude or Poison by Bev Biv Devoe at the Grover Inn. And when the decrepit karaoke host sings “I’m a weirdo, what the hell am I doing here!” You’ll be singing with him at top of your lungs only to soon find yourself back in the saddle pointed north on Field Club Trail as the night comes on, the shadows retreating into the dark foliage from the flashing of the bike lights, then finishing off the final remnants of the bladder behind Ponderosa before flying down the new bike lanes on Harney (now kiboshed by the city), weaving between the cones with the rare cool air, feeling infinite, headed to the Green Room for one more beer before last call shots of tequila at Cali bar.

After six hours the fifteen miles feels like thirty and in the morning there is only confusion and wonder as you crack another beer on a Monday, intoxicated by the purity of this clan that seems to get in your blood, never wanting the fun to end . . . Ride on, you slanted beings of light. Ride on.

 

*Remember to drink plenty of water.

.

 

The place is dark though well-lit. The light comes in through large windows facing Vinton Street and then dies out into a darker light that shines down from half-lit fluorescent lights tucked between ceiling tiles. The ceiling tiles bulge in odd places from years of water damage and hang as if on the verge of collapse like large saltine crackers that have been soaked-through and dried-out and left to crumble at the slightest touch. Below them a darkness rises up from the dark wood floor stained through with glue and cigarette ash and the trails of worn-out souls. And the darkness covers the walls, too, in rows of old books rebound and forgotten, the dust that covers them older than your grandfathers pocket lint. Between are the pages sewn across three generations toward their own possible finality. The first time I entered the place I took a shot of tequila and didn’t come back for nearly a month.

It was early April when I first called Capitol Bindery. The sun finally warmed and had some effect on the white landscape, revealing a floor of punctured asphalt and fractured concrete. I called looking for a smyth machine to sew A WE THING. I wanted the book to have that same quality of earlier children’s books, back before they started using glue to bind the signatures together instead of thread. Kevin Brown answered and then turned me away. He didn’t have what I was looking for. Or so I thought. It was only after a night out at Second Friday that I began to frequent the place. I remember standing among the semi-circle of chairs near the front door. I could hear the voices around me as I stared past the sounds out over the long stretch of this bibliodashery and began to write in my mind my curiosities and wonder. There were stacks of books covering the long tables and large rolls of material stacked at the far end—leather and buckram and all sorts of paper cut from the same tree but with different teeth—and there were large drawers of typefaces and patterned dies scattered about the place, many of them strewn about the three hot foil stampers that spelled out in anagrams a secret language bought from old binderies or from Morris Dolgoff himself whom Kevin’s grandfather bought the bindery from when he returned to Omaha after the Korean War. In my eyes the colors of the bindery became grey and brown and green with its yellow light and strange hues of possibility brought forth by my own hands into tangible objects to be held and read and shared. The mystery and magic consumed me.

Months later I came back to see what I could make of the place.

“I’m a terrible teacher,” Kevin told me as his hands disagreed.

I watched his trembling hands like someone with dementia who sits down at a piano and begins to play the delicate and somber songs of Chopin or Bill Evans. They became articulate and purposeful while always with a cigarette between two fingers, the small grey rivulet of smoke ascending upward. I watched those hands strip book blocks from their tattered covers and place them in a press for their spines to be scraped clean of old glue and mousseline, right down to the pages, and then those hands weaved needle and thread between torn signatures of the classics or old family bibles. Oh the bibles! how they come in droves! Stacks and stacks of them in Spanish and English with little written notes in the margins to be preserved as if great-grandmother’s rosary were in there somewhere with a thousand worries and prayers, and all them falling apart at the seams and they bring them here for salvation as if the death of the book itself would erase all of Genesis through Ecclesiastes. In the beginning was the Word that withers in time and then grows again upon the page! And I watched as the old bookbinder breathed new life into them. They are resurrected by his hands. He then turns to me when they’re completed and says, “I better be getting some fucking bonus points for fixing all these damn bibles,” and laughs easy. The oversew machine hums in contemplation. I nod in agreement with the old master knowing that’s not how it works. He knows too. And when the books and bibles are sewn tight with new end-sheets and the spine is glued to new branded material, it is returned to the owner like a newborn baby washed clean, containing all the wisdom written in its pages.

The bindery isn’t always like this. Most days are monotonous with the tearing of guts from scientific journals to be bound and catalogued year after year. Or investment reports foil stamped at the end of the month to be passed around oblong tables at board meetings and then later tossed in the trash come the following month. Most jobs are to keep the doors open, leaving potential hanging around like an old winter coat in California. Imagination yawns. Stretches out. Lays with the dust. Gets swept up in monthly bills and conversations with John from two doors down whose talk is guttural and dry like Noam Chomsky. Kevin takes a smoke break between cigarettes. Makes more coffee. Changes the music from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Rob Thomas. I take a seat at the front and watch the world go by including the drunk from Louis M’s Burger Lust at ten in the morning. I think of all the small movements between the major works of my life and realize where I have grasped and been grasped at. Shaken around. Rattled for good measure. I come to the conclusion that this is one where I’ve been grasped while grasping in a strange arm wrestling match with God or the universe or whatever is you want to call it. I recognize the opportunity like an unlocked door. There is something hidden in the place. Something forgotten. And sometimes I can find hints of it snooping around, lifting up stacks of binders board or behind the cobwebs of oddities and relics in the corners of the bindery’s past. I find glimpses among the large cutter and foil stampers. Between conversations with Joe, that old Italian from Rhode Island with all of New England coming out of the side of his mouth. Joe who went to Boys Town and played Defensive Back and could lift 225, “no problem.” Joe now fragile with cancer and thin red beard and smiling eyes who talks of old movies and says, “I love them old westerns, man. Ha ha. Oh man, the way they’d hang your ass for stealing a horse. Ha! Wow. They’d fucking hang your ass for just that. Boom. Dead. Ha ha. Oh yea, man. I love that shit,” as he blows grey smoke about the place. I find it here and there when John has gone away or the customers stop coming in and there’s nothing else to do. I find it there between the dark wood floor and dim lighting and the humming doldrums of the mundane, right there in the middle of all the paper products and their possibilities.

Capitol Bindery is the story of hands and razor knives and glue. It is the story of needle and thread and the heritage of literature lovers. It is the story of creation and rebirth on the lower level of a two-story building that hugs the outside edge as Vinton curves east towards Iowa. It is dead ahead on the long stretch once you’ve rounded the bend at Vinton Street apartments, past El Queztal Market and International Bakery, where the street begins to grow dark in sepia tones and the air smells sweet like corn. Not the corn of Nebraska, but the maize of Sinaloa or perhaps Tamaulipas and Veracruz. And you can imagine it there as it stood long ago along a dirt road with the old street lanterns dimly lit in the night, like someplace like Winesburg, Ohio, when the inhabitants were Polish and Irish and of Eastern European descent with the coming of the Union Stockyard. And as I write this now on Fowler Avenue, as the bells from St. James Catholic Church off  90th street clamor in the soft daylight of a Tuesday afternoon, I can see that the future of the Bindery will be one without bibles and reports stamped for approval. I’ve seen it. I’ve scraped a line of that thick dust with my fingernail and seen what lies waiting beneath the bare bones of the place. And it will exist only for the proverbs of imagination and potential written by those who can dream up something holy new, who can sew the signatures of their minds and bind them for all the world to read. And it will be waiting there for them once they can see it for themselves. I will be too. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Amen.