far too much writing, far too many photos

Can you believe how I went on about coal in that last entry? Must not be enough going on in this little life of mine.

It’s 11:30 on a classically beautiful September morning. The first Saturday a.m. of September 2002. I’ve been up since just after seven working around the house. When I pulled myself out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen, the temperature outside stood at 40 degrees. Since then it has eased itself confidently up to 76 and continues climbing. There’s been little rain in recent weeks, so the ground is dry, the grass sparse in spots, but the insects that carry on their lives in the grass and bushes are in full voice, singing twenty-four hours a day. Clothes hang on the line that stretches from the barn to the utility pole out in the yard, billowing slightly in the occasional breeze.

Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me plays on the radio in the living room, a show that just seems to get funnier with the passing weeks (either that or I’m getting much easier to please). Radio: one of the few things about life in the States that I missed during my time in Madrid — specifically, a few NPR shows (WWDTM, Car Talk, Only A Game, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, now and then A Prairie Home Companion or Fresh Air), along with the general output of a few college stations from the Boston area. Humor, a wide range of music, no commercials. Not that Madrid lacks radio. On the contrary, cruise the dial there, you’ll find a loud, lively overabundance of music, etc., but only a few outlets held my interest – one unpredictable college station right down at the bottom of the dial; Radio 3 (a government station playing a broad, progressive spectrum of music); Radio 5 (a government all-news station, great for language practice); an eccentric, wide-ranging station at 100.4 FM, owned and run by El Circulo de Bellas Artes, an arts organization which owns a large, beautiful building in the center of the city. That edifice houses one of the most beautiful cafés I’ve ever seen, much less spent time in, a large, sweeping space with high ceilings and high windows looking out on la Calle de Alcalá, right where Gran Vía branches off and stretches away toward Callao and La Plaza de España. Lots of motion and activity passing by, loads to watch.

There is also -– one last Madrid radio note -– a strange station that calls itself Radio Olé, whose programming consists of a bizarre mix of fascinating, flamenco-based Spanish music and treacly, sentimental Spanish pop warblings (heavy on the syrupy violins). I’ve never heard anything quite like it.

In a short while, I’m going to be stuffing my bike into the back of my car and heading off to do some back-country riding on a long dirt trail that cuts through miles of largely untraveled country, about fifteen minutes from here. The trail used to be the bed of a local branch railroad which went out of service 40 or 50 years back. At some point the tracks were pulled up, the bed began a new life as a back-country track, a route now used by bicyclists, folks out for an easy hike, and the occasional car, truck or ATV. Easy passage through some truly beautiful, mostly empty country, beginning in the town of Marshfield and stretching away for miles and miles, through the Groton State Forest, just down from a small mountain called Owl’s Head. This will be second attempt to give my bicycling muscles some exercise in the last week, the first attempt having been foiled by what I’ll call technical difficulties, meaning I loaded the bike into the car with the lock still on the front wheel but neglected to bring the key. (Bugger.)

I went riding at this same spot one weekend in May a couple of years back when friends (Steve & Naomi) were up for a weekend. Steve drove us there, our bikes standing at attention on his rooftop rack. We parked by a teeny hunting shack in as beautiful and green a location as you could ask for. After an hour or two of biking fun, we returned to the car, began loading the bikes back up on the rack, at which time clouds of ravenous mosquitoes and blackflies began an assault of such intensity that I finally stopped helping with the racking work to take on the role of arm-flailing bug killer as S&N attempted to finish with the bikes. My bug-slapping frenzy had little effect on the overall blood loss, and the drive home featured continued bug slaughter as numerous winged plasma-sippers managed to find their way into the car before we took off. One more nice thing about bike riding: you’re generally moving too quickly to become fast food for the insect world.

But enough blabber.


Two tons of coal were delivered today. Two tons. Sure sounds like a heap o’ coal. And it is, though not quite as mammoth a mound as the phrase ‘two tons’ conjures up in the imagination.

I moved into this house three years ago this last July, knowing I didn’t want to pay heating bills to the local oil company throughout the long northern Vermont winter. The hunt for alternative heating possibilities began almost immediately, my primary focus being wood heat. I snooped around shops that dealt in woodstoves, finding nothing that felt right. Until I found myself checking out a coal stove in a Montpelier store. The demo model was on sale, as I talked to one of the sales people — a grizzled old guy who heated his home with coal — it sounded more and more intriguing. Contrary to the image I’d always had of the great London fogs of the early 20th century, a chronic phenomenon fed in part by the widespread use of coal for heat, this guy told me that anthracite, harder than bituminous, burned as cleanly as wood. I took a bit of time to do online research which seemed to back up his claims, before I knew it, I’d purchased the stove and they were dragging the bugger into my basement.

It’s a whole different thing from wood, this heating with coal. Takes a bit of time to get the stove cranking, but once a load has established itself, it burns with a concentrated intensity that produces strong, sustained heat, hours and hours and hours worth. During my three years living in Seattle, I heated my little house on the east side of Capitol Hill with a woodstove, a Fisher model that I installed in the living room, feeding it scraps from construction sites. That house literally had no insulation — heat filled the rooms then seeped right through the walls and windows, escaping to the great outdoors with little hindrance. My Vermont house is insulated and reasonably tight, as it needs to be out here in the sub-arctic hills, but it’s twice the size of the house in Seattle. I have to shut the door to the two big rooms at the far end of the house to keep the temperature in the rest of the living space comfy, and then it stays authentically comfy, often coasting up into the mid to high 70s.

But I blabber. I heat with coal.

That first winter was an experience. Dealing with the stove felt at times like a genuine chore, but it churned out heat and burned cleanly, both inside the house (no dust) and in the chimney (no build-up, as opposed to wood’s creosote accumulation). The next year I was in Madrid, and after some initial struggles, Kit, the woman staying here, got the routine down and came to love warm house/lack of oil bills. (Two tons of coal lasts most of the winter — cost: less than $400.) I wound up in Madrid for most of last year as well, and in that time the coal distributor here changed the type of coal they sold, exchanging a clean product for a dirty, dusty one. Trying to keep the living space dust-free drove Kit crazy, she complained about it, loudly and frequently. My experience had been different, I didn’t know what to say. When I returned from Madrid this last April and found myself in the Winter That Wouldn’t Go Away [see journal entries from April and May], I experienced the dust for myself. So that when I called the coal company in June to begin the process of buying two tons’ worth for this coming winter, I let the guy know I needed a cleaner product.

Weeks later -– today -– the coal company truck shows up with the new stuff, manned by the owner and his helper. The guy who runs the company is a major talker, a beefy guy with a gut that hangs over his belt, thick longish hair on the sides of his head and a thinner, wispier display up top. The kind of talker who gets going to the point where you find yourself saying, “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Sure. Uh-huh,” with little room to contribute anything more. Not a bad guy at all, but a world-class talker who builds up a head of steam in no time flat.

They back the truck up to the garage, set up a long, heavy-duty motorized conveyer mechanism, extend a ramp from the truck down to the conveyer. The bed of the truck slowly angles up, coal begins pouring into the conveyer, then to the rear of the garage. Myself and the owner’s helper stand by the coal, spreading it out with shovels as it flies into the pile. It’s a loud process -– genuinely, eardrum-assaultingly loud, and once the load has all found its way to the rear of the garage and the conveyer is shut off, the sudden quiet is startling.

The owner of the company and I went back and forth during the summer about the question of cleaning up the product, and he’s now experimenting with oiling the coal prior to delivery. It already gets washed, pre-delivery, in an attempt to cut down on dust -– they’re now also pouring a solution of thin, light oil on it. I’ll be curious to see the result.

When the truck finally rolled off down the hill, it seemed to signal the first, distant steps of the approaching cold season.

The day: beautiful, with brilliant September sunshine and a chilly, gusty wind, leaving me warm at some moments, cold at others. The slow shift to autumn is well underway -– seasonal neighbors are migrating south for the winter. My uphill neighbors are gone -– the wife and daughter, anyway. The husband, Howard, will be bolting this Sunday. Folks will come up for the colors, and then life up here will gear down for the return of winter. The weather forecasters sent out mixed messages about tonight, some predicting a touch of frost, others talking about temperatures in the 40’s. Felt simpler to bring some cold-sensitive potted plants into the kitchen for the night, just in case, so that’s what I’ve done. Tomorrow they’ll go back out to the stoop.

Though the robins are long gone, a few songbirds still linger, and late this afternoon I heard one of the local hummingbirds making the rounds between the impatiens plant hanging off to one side of the back door and the hummingbird feeder that hides in the lilac bushes. They’ll probably be out of here soon, off to kinder winter climes.

Not a bad thought, that.

[continued from previous entry]

So we’re walking, passing a storefront that used to house a restaurant called Souper Salad where, in the late 80’s, I ate now and then with friends; then a building I worked in for around 13 months during the mid-80s; then a basement sub shop I frequented during those 13 months; then a row of brick townhouse-type buildings that used to include a shop which dealt solely in wind-up toys, a place that brought some sunshine into my life in that decade; then what used to be the Harvard Book Store Café; then a Greek restaurant I used to frequent with friends (Steve’s -– good food, and still there despite soaring Newbury Street rents). Then what used to be the Trident Bookstore Café, where Bill once saw Peter Falk, in town doing a show. Then J.P. Licks, where we stopped for refreshment. A funky shop with a strange, free-form counter which always reminds me of the work of Simon Rodia. Good ice cream, too. In fact, I discovered that they’ve come up with a version to my favorite ice cream, Cherry Garcia, called Cherry Garciaparra in homage to the Red Sox shortstop of the same last name. I ordered a bowl, it was extremely acceptable.

Through all this, as I pointed at different places and spewed memories, a bit amazed at how they all seemed to be crowding in on that particular afternoon, Bill stayed with it, with easy, tolerant grace. Labor Day weekend is traditionally the time when the college students arrive in Boston/Cambridge, the abundance of students and moving trucks/vans prompting Bill to reminisce about the Labor Day weekend he himself arrived in Boston -– not a student, startled to find the city flooded with them and unable to obtain housing because of that flood. Welcome to Bahston.

We sat on the large sidewalk apron to one side of J.P. Licks, often a hangout for pierced, tattooed, baggy-clothed skateboarders or pierced, tattooed, leather-clad, technicolor-coiffed punksters, talking about, er, vaguely metaphysical matters, if I remember correctly. The continuing sidewalk people-parade provided scenery and diversion while the afternoon sun drifted further and further to the west, its light looking mighty autumnal, both in color and angle as it settled slowly toward the horizon. Bill suggested we head Cambridge way, I suggested the most direct route: a walk down Mass. Ave, across the Mass. Ave. bridge (also called the Harvard bridge for reasons I don’t understand, it not being anywhere near Harvard) and into Central Square, where my car waited.

Which we did, more memories accosting me as we sauntered (i.e., a basement Indian restaurant on Mass. Ave. where I once ate with friends and we discovered a cockroach trapped beneath our table’s glass top). The Mass. Ave./Harvard bridge extends from Back Bay to M.I.T. across the Charles River, a small, friendly waterway for most of its winding length, spreading itself wide as it approaches its basin. It’s a long, wide-sidewalked, well-traveled bridge which underwent a slow rebuilding during the 80’s, a process that kept one or two of the four lanes out of service at all times -– hellish for automobile traffic, but providing generous, ever-changing expanses of bike lane. My main mode of transport through much of the 80’s was a five-speed bicycle, I rode into Boston across both the Mass. Ave. Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge thousands of times.

At some point in past years, before my arrival in Cambridge in Feb. of ‘82, some M.I.T. frat guys commandeered another student named Smoot, laying him repeatedly along the walkway, painting a line every ten lengths, thereby measuring the length of the bridge in Smoots. The lines remain, each one accompanied by a legend denoting the number of Smoots they measure. After hundreds of viewings this stuff is old hat, though it makes me smile virtually every time I bike or walk across the bridge. This time, though, as B. and I approached the 120 Smoots line, we saw another line close by, three or four feet Bostonward, accompanied by the legend “Rebecca’s Smoot – 123,” provoking a major double-take from me. Smoots I’m familiar with. Rebecca’s Smoot — this is a relatively recent addition to the show.

The pranksters at M.I.T have been guilty of impressive bouts of entertainment, such as the night they managed to round up an M.I.T. campus police car, hoisting it to the top of the Great Dome, complete with a dummy in a police uniform sitting at the wheel. A genuine feat of engineering, done under cover of darkness with superhuman stealth, the prank undetected until the next day.

The walk terminated in Central Square — a major concentration point of ethnic restaurants — with a dinner of Indian food, followed by coffee at the 1369 Coffee House. When I got back to the apartment, Woody was just heading out. I turned on the tube, finding nothing much until I stumbled across a showing of This Is Spinal Tap, which led directly into a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dammit, Janet! That took care of the rest of the evening. Though I noticed with disappointment that this version of the film ended without the reprise of the “Time Warp/Sweet Transvestite.” A major misstep, in my humble, ignorant opinion.

Next day: drove home via Kittery, Maine (outlet stores) and Warner, New Hampshire, (a long, leisurely visit with friends). During the stretch between those two points, I came across the first major display I’ve seen of autumn color, a stand of trees alongside a turnoff from I-89. Since that sighting, I’ve witnessed more and more — still minimal, but that’ll change. One of the trees along the northern boundary of this property, near the road, now sports leaves turning orange and red down one side, something that hadn’t begun when I left for Cambridge on Thursday. A drive into Montpelier today brought more of the same.

It’s September. The sun is lower in the sky, coming up later, going down earlier. Native apples have appeared at local produce stands. The nights are chilly, the air crisp. Many songbirds have already headed south, I expect the goldfinches now making pigs of themselves at my feeders (so much for the expression ‘when pigs fly’) will be on their way any day now. I’ve got a delivery of coal coming tomorrow, a sure sign the days are streaming toward colder times like the mythic lemmings over a cliff. It’ll soon be the season for the scent of wood smoke in autumn air, for down vests, for breath turning into mist. It’s all beautiful, but I would love more summer. Maybe the warm weather gods will bless us in the coming weeks.

Time will tell.

Late this last Saturday afternoon -– picking up more or less where the most recent entry ended -– I rendezvoused with my friend Bill at Government Center Plaza in Boston, a strange, sprawling urban landscape of brick and poured concrete. Not exactly a friendly expanse of real estate, not one that encourages folks to settle down, enjoy the sun, maybe toss around a frisbee. It’s a major point of transit, however, situated between Quincy Market, Courthouse Square and the intersection of Cambridge, Tremont and Court Streets, containing the Government Station T stop and City Hall, a strange, massive, poured-concrete, er, thingie.

We hooked up just before four o’clock on a breezy, sunlit afternoon, the air feeling cool, the light looking the way it does as August gives way to September and the New England autumn. Bill suggested a jaunt down Newbury Street way, leading us to head along Tremont Street to the Common where we cut through to the Public Gardens and the near end of our destination. I can’t explain exactly why, but this visit had the feel of a valedictory tour kind of thing, a sensation that peaked during my hours in Bill’s company, when I found myself inundated with 20 years worth of memories seemingly everywhere we went. There are those in the current world of physics who posit that each passing moment spins off an endless array of alternate or probable realities and, beyond that, that linear time is a construct that doesn’t actually exist, is solely a function of these physical mechanisms of ours which are wired to experience existence in linear fashion. All there is, if one accepts this line of thinking, is the present moment, and everything that we perceive and consider to be past or future is actually unfolding simultaneously, in infinite variation.

So I’m ambling through Boston, being bombarded with memories of past moments. Of people who passed through my life (friends, lovers, acquaintances both brief and longer-term), of past situations and happenings, both routine and extraordinary, and I swear it began to seem like I could feel the vivid closeness of other moments in time around me, vivid and vital enough that I could believe they were truly taking place, that if I could just adjust my frequency in the matrix of existence I’d be able to slip into them, watch them unreel around me.

Blah blah blah.

I hadn’t been on Newbury Street in some time, two or three years minimum — felt mighty interesting to be walking along its sidewalks with all this memory hooha going on. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, no less, crowds of people out shopping, walking, enjoying the afternoon, sitting at wildly overpriced sidewalk cafes watching the passing throngs watch them as they milled past.

[Continued in next entry]

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