An Artistic Movement

I don’t spend a lot of time sitting in coffee shops or bars, but what’s wonderful about both is that you can blatantly eavesdrop in either. You buy your mug or glass, and that is the ticket that reserves you a seat at a corner table. You place your ticket on the table and take one sip and magically your seat is reserved. No one can budge you. Then you hold your notebook at an oblique angle so no one can see inside, and you write in your most illegible scrawl, just in case, and you begin to record the intimate, embarrassing words of perfect strangers. No one seems to mind or even notice. It’s the same whether you are in a bar, a coffee shop, or a McDonalds. The only difference between venues that I have been able to discover is the acceptable vocabulary for the male reproductive organ and how it may be used in context.

“I’m teaching a class about the history of the white, artistic, penis-dominated culture that existed in Paris between the world wars.”

Not something you often hear in bars.

I’m in a coffee shop this morning. The difficulty with these university people is that you can never tell from age, dress, habit, or language, who is a teacher and who is a student. I had three of them sitting at the table next to me, and one man was holding forth. Someone had asked him whether it was possible to be part of an artistic movement.

“Well, certainly not in Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne is a corpse. That’s why artists went to places like Paris.”

“To be with other artists?”

“Certainly to be with other artists. But also, to be in Paris. I mean, nothing ever happens here. People hole up and there’s no life. Christ, I was in Cairo and I walked out of my apartment one day, and there was a dead donkey, lying right there in the gutter. I mean, Christ, I walk out of my home and nearly step onto a … Dead  … Donkey! Nothing like that ever happens here. You can’t have an artistic movement in Fort Wayne.”

The wonderful thing about eavesdropping in coffee shops is you sit there totally open to everything until your mind fixates on something and starts to become judgmental. You plant a seed and it grows and you water it with thoughts, impressions, and prejudices. And you wait. Will it be a weed, a flower, a nourishing vegetable?

This morning I planted the question of whether the pedant was right about Fort Wayne. There was certainly Truth in what he said. One does not generally find dead donkeys outside One’s apartment here, even if One is the second coming of Our Savior. And there is a certain bland normality that doesn’t change day to day. People definitely hole up. At least in the winter they do.

I thought about this while I walked the half mile home from the coffee shop, rubbing my burnt tongue gingerly on the roof of my mouth. Too old to learn from mistakes, I always order something very hot, and drink it too quickly. My way home was slowed by the crusting mounds of last weeks snow heaved off the roads by the snow plows and covering the sidewalks two feet deep. Someone before had walked this path, and someone else had followed their footsteps, and so on, so that by the time I came along, each footprint was size fifteen and my leg dropped through the crust to the knee.

I thought about Cairo, home of the dead donkey, and the thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. I have never been to Cairo, though, technically, I have spent some time in Egypt. It was a trip to Israel, and we visited the mountain which is thought to be Mount Sinai. This was back when the peace treaty with Egypt had been signed and much of the Sinai desert, including this mountain, had been returned to Egypt. It was there I saw my first working camel and glass bottles with “Coca-Cola” written on the outside in Arabic. We were invited into the tent of Bedouins where we drank their bitter, unfiltered coffee followed by a glass of sugar with a little tea added for wetness. It was Rather Different from Fort Wayne.

And then the seed erupted and bloomed. An image came to me, a very strong image. An Egyptian woman visiting Fort Wayne. She finds she can walk about without a burqa and no one stares at her. Or more likely, she keeps her head covered like everyone else here because its friggin’ five degrees today, but no one cares whether she does or she doesn’t. She can speak her mind, and not only don’t they throw stones at her, but people stop to listen, and maybe even encourage her thinking, and to them, it’s no big deal. Then one day, she walks outside her apartment and there is no dead donkey. It smells nice. She sees a towering, ancient, leaf-less oak with a pile of oak leaves stuffed in a fork of the branches and out pops a bristle brush tail of a squirrel. But that’s nothing compared to the paved and curbed road – it seems everyone’s road is paved and curbed here. Today the entire road is covered in a white powder up to her calves.

She pulls off a glove and, without thinking, reaches down to touch it, because after months in this country, she is shedding her fears daily. She sticks her trembling, bare fingers in the powder and it is so cold, it burns. She brings it up to her face, surprised at how light and cottony it is. She inhales it and then prods a tongue into it. It begins to melt in her fingers like her first pistachio ice cream when she was six years old, but it isn’t sticky, and it tastes of fresh coldness without any sweetness, like eating winter air.

And she thinks to herself, Cairo was a corpse, everyone afraid to speak their minds and working like dogs from sun up to sun down. Here, I walk out of my apartment and (she probably would not say “Christ”) the world is covered in snow!

The Devil Plays Uno

In the cul-de-sac, I parked by a snow bunker the street plows had formed on someone’s lawn. The short daylight had faded an hour ago, and the street was lit up by an amber glow from nearby strip malls. I heard the faint thrum of traffic from the highway a mile away. The flat, midwestern landscape hid nothing. I took a deep breath of the chill air, and then got my violin from the trunk.

Playing fiddle is how I keep my sanity in the winter, and after a few years learning by the seat of my pants, I decided to take some classical violin lessons and see what I was capable of. But I was always a little out of sorts in my teacher’s neighborhood. It was a suburban development like so many others, and not unlike the ones I had grown up in, but I hadn’t lived in one for decades. A contractor leveled this patch of unimproved land outside the highway, and a weedy crop of two story houses, built of gypsum and pine and concrete, sprung up overnight with streets named after the few remaining trees left behind. At least, that’s how I imagined it happened, though it would have been ten or twenty years before I arrived to town. I didn’t blame the home owners. They needed a place to live, and there was a limited supply of drafty, expensive eighty year old homes on the market, so what alternative did they have? But the prefabness of the neighborhood, extended over acres and acres of what was once post-glacial woodlands depressed me along with the gun metal winter skies and the paranoid rhetoric of the local papers.

The studio was in a small room at the very front of her house. Through the picture window, I saw a young girl, maybe six, sitting in a small chair and holding a violin in her lap like a baby doll that she was not thinking about but instinctively knew not to let drop.

I was early. Outside on the stoop, I kicked the clinging snow off my shoes, and opened the front door. The house was typical of a young, new parents, the walls pressboard white, the floors a non-descript laminate, and the furniture serviceable, modern, and sparse. At the end of the short hall, Dad was in the kitchen in a suit and tie, washing dishes in the sink, with a toddler holding unsteadily to his leg. I was about to call hello, but the boy’s mouth opened and out came a scream that had been building up for a good ten seconds before I had walked in the door. Dad knelt down and said comforting, apologetic words; he must have dropped something on the boy’s head. I decided to not disturb them.

There was no coat rack, closet, or wall hooks in the hallway, but there was a carpet remnant to keep the slush from spreading. I put my shoes on it next to a pair of Sorrels and, folding my coat and hat, laid them neatly on top. To my left, through the closed door of the studio, I heard the slow, creaky notes of a scale being dragged unwillingly out of a student violin with a student bow. Inwardly I winced, remembering those days and wishing they were farther behind me. I slipped into the living room on the right, thinking to take out my fiddle and warm up, run through  some scales, wondering if that would be too disturbing, when I noticed two people in the living room.

A father and young daughter were sitting on the floor playing cards. The girl was quiet and watchful, waiting for her pink, clean-shaven father to take his turn. It must have been her older sister next door who was pulling out notes like bad teeth. I didn’t know the father, but I recognized the girl right away from my last lesson. I was unlikely to forget her.

Dad smiled and said hello to me, in the friendly, chattering way of young parents who have spent far too much too much time reading popup books and listening to repetitive, electronic, learning toys. He was quite ready to let the game hang for two, five, even ten minutes just to have an adult conversation, sweet manna in the desert of parenting preschoolers. He chatted. He told me about Uno, the game they were playing, about how the manufacturer redesigned the game and made it much worse, and how he had been looking for the original set to buy, and finally they re-introduced it, and Target was selling them for a dollar, and he bought three sets, one for them, one for grandpa, and an extra set, just in case. He spoke to me and to his daughter, but the girl said nothing. She just looked up at her father, patiently waiting, and since I was looking at the girl, he noticed her waiting and played his turn. When he paused, I introduced myself, and he did likewise for himself and his daughter.

“Yes, I know Sophia,” I said. “I met her a couple of weeks ago. She was sitting in that chair in the corner, and she caught my eye, because when I looked at her, despite her innocent, cherubic face, there was something odd and almost sinister about her, and then I realized there was smoke rising up over her head from behind the chair.”

Dad’s eyes opened a little wider, “Oh, I heard about you! You’re the one who stopped the fire.”

“Well, I don’t know about a fire,” I said, warming to my little tale. “There was a little plastic lamp on the floor in the corner, shaped like a bowl, with a halogen bulb inside. I think it was under-lighting for their Christmas tree. The tree was already gone by then, but the lamp was still there. Something plastic inside was burning, maybe something had fallen off the tree. It gave off a tendril of smoke, and it didn’t smell very good. Sophia didn’t seem to notice, so rather than alarm her, I said, ‘Excuse me,’ and reached behind the chair and unplugged the lamp. Then I got Ellen. ‘Sorry to interrupt your lesson,’ I said, ‘but I think your house is on fire.’ Of course it wasn’t really, and when we came back, Sophia was still sitting in the chair, perfectly unperturbed, although the room stunk of burning plastic.”

At the sound of her name, Sophia gave me an attentive look, but when I didn’t say anything more, she turned back and played a card. Then her Dad put a card down and significantly left his finger pointing at it, “You have to pick up four cards now, sweetie,” he said. He repeated “four” while holding up as many fingers. Sophia picked up the first card from the deck.

“What does the name ‘Sophia’ mean?” I asked, while watching her drop the card carelessly on the floor inside her crossed legs.

Dad, was examining his cards. Without looking up, he answered, “Um, I don’t know, actually.”

“I feel like I ought to. It’s familiar.” Sophia looked at her Dad, and then picked up a second card and placed it  in her hand. “Oh, wait,” I said, “Philosophy, or rather philo-Sophia, isn’t that ‘love of learning’ or ‘love of wisdom?’ I think it means ‘wisdom.'”

Dad pulled a one-sided grin. “She’s certainly smart. She’s a wiz at Uno, and I have to think very carefully when I play against her. Of course, well … do you know how she used to play? Tell him, Sophia.” He looked at Sophia, who was studying her cards for the first time since I entered the room. “No? Well, she used to cheat.”

He said it fondly, proud of her precociousness, watching for my reaction.

“Was she any good?”

“At Uno?”

“No, at cheating.”

“Oh, yes, she was very good. She used to arrange the deck ahead of time, and hide a couple of cards in her lap, and if you weren’t looking, she would slip you a card that you didn’t want.” He chuckled at the memory of it. “But she doesn’t cheat anymore. She doesn’t need to. She’s too good even without cheating.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Sophia quietly pick up the card she had dropped earlier in her lap. Her Dad turned back to her, “Did you take your four cards, sweetie?”

She nodded yes, and Dad picked up a card. I said nothing, but shared a meaningful glance with Sophia. Had I known her better, I would have winked. When her sister appeared and I went in for my lesson, I realized I was in better spirits than I had been when I first arrived.