Monday, January 26, 2009

Cowboy Finery

"I see you found the coolest place in Denver!" A doorman at my hotel was commenting on my shopping bag from Rockmount Ranch Wear. It's one of the oldest western apparel stores in the United States. Rockmount founder Jack Weil passed away last year, at the age of 107. He came in to work for four hours a day as recently as a couple of weeks before his death. Bills of sale are still handwritten and then skewered on an office spike, although Jack apparently learned to use a computer for managing inventory. There was one new-fangled thing he couldn't abide: barcodes. The staff said he lost a military contract because of it; nobody ever knew what he had against them.

Oldest working CEO Jack Weil dies at 107. [Link]

Rockmount Ranch Wear [Link]

Photo by bittermelon. Copyright Commons, some rights reserved.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday Music: Dead Kennedys

I'm in Denver this weekend, and had little time for musical exploration. I did go to El Chapultapec, a jazz club that was a hang-out of Neal Cassady. It appears to have changed little since the 1950s, which is admirable.

Here's the Dead Kennedys--maybe Jello Biafra's tribute to his home state of Colorado?

Saturday, January 24, 2009


The following was overheard in one trip on the 15 East Colfax Avenue bus in Denver.

Elderly woman (picking up her backpack): "Would you like to sit?"
Young guy: "Oh, yeah...thanks."
EW: "I live in a shelter."
YG: "Umm..hmmm"
EW: "Actually, I live in TWO shelters. They both wake me up at 7:00 in the morning, and then I go to the 'Y' and swim. You know why?"
YG: (shakes his head)
EW: "They are trying to put their sper-mat-a-ZO-a in me--while I'm SLEEPING! You have to exercise to EXPELLLL them!"
YG: (stares blankly into space)

She continued on like this for blocks.

Teenage boy, while stepping out the back door: "I hate faggots!" Someone replying, from the back of the bus: "@#!%*!"

A couple was sitting across the aisle and slightly behind me.

Man: "What's the Mexican national anthem?"
Woman: "I don't know, what is the Mexican national anthem?"
Man (singing): "Jose can you see..."
Man: "What do you call a Mexican guy who looks white?"
Woman: "Shhh! You're too loud."
Man: "El Paso." (laughs uproariously)

The get up to leave the bus and I get a good look at them. They both appear to be Hispanic.

I'm staying down the street from the beautiful old Union Station building. Photo by Phil Romans. Copyright Commons, some rights reserved.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday Music

Change. I was telling a younger friend about my memories of 1968. I was only 10 years old, but I knew what was going on. Every night, I prayed to Jesus that my brother wouldn't be drafted and sent to Vietnam. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Cities exploded--blocks and blocks of Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Baltimore and more burned during the riots that followed. In June, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The United States of America was coming apart at the seams. Culture wars raged, even within my own family. I remember my mother, watching a news report about feminists and saying, her voice clotted with anger, "What do these women want?"

I called my mom the night Barack Obama became the President-elect. She's seen a lot--the Great Depression ("I thought it would never end") and World War II. She also remembers well the northern version of Jim Crow. Some time in the 1950s, while collecting donations for a club, she stopped in a sandwich shop in our little Ohio town. An African American man walked in. He wasn't from around there, but route 41, which connected Cleveland to Columbus ran right through Main Street. The man wanted to buy some food for his wife and young daughter, who waited in the car. The shop owner refused to serve him. Could his little girl at least use the rest room? He was denied that courtesy, as well. My mom said she always regretted not offering to let his family stop at our home. She was a newcomer in town, and was afraid of how she would be viewed. I can't honestly say I would have done any different in that time, or that place.

"I never believed I would see this in my lifetime," she said, through tears of joy.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

CTA stories: Five-finger discount

This morning, I managed to hook the power cord of my laptop with my foot and drag it to the floor. The impact did a lot of damage; wires protruded from the back hinge, and the prong on the power cord was split. The girl at the Apple store didn't think it was worth saving. "It'll probably cost at least $750.00 to get it repaired. I mean, if it were me, I'd just get a new one." So, I did. "Seth," who looked too young to have a business card, will transfer the files from my trashed laptop. I had to stop at work to read my email and do this post. So, no music this Sunday. I will do whatever people used to do before there was an internet. I had this partially finished CTA story sitting around, so here ya go.

Although they only have engineers now, until mid-1990s every CTA train also carried a conductor. Conductors announced stops and delays, operated doors and were responsible for passenger safety. When I first moved to Chicago, a number of lurid crimes occurred on public transportation. The rape in broad daylight on a Loop platform. The stickup man on the afternoon west-bound who killed an Oak Park father of two. The young artist slashed across the throat with a razor. If I was traveling alone, I always got on the car with the conductor. It's safer to ride now, but I miss having conductors.

One of the Ravenswood line conductors livened his announcements with a little stage patter. I paraphrase: "Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Love Train. We are currently cruising at an altitude of 30 feet and at speeds between 15 and 25 miles per hour. Please relax and let us do the driving; however, do keep an eye on your purses and wallets, to prevent practitioners of the five-finger discount."

Pick-pocketing was common in the 80s, as was the related crime of chain snatching. Some of the older trains with no air-conditioning were still in commission. A mark wearing a gold chain would be sitting next to one of the open windows. The perp got off at the next stop, reached in and BAM! ripped the chain off and ran. It was nearly impossible for the victim to fight his way off the train and catch up.

I was picked once, when a man carrying what looked like his dry cleaning used it as a cover to unzip my backpack and remove a coin purse. I lost five dollars in tokens, a cheap lesson. A number of people on the platform saw it, but nobody confronted him. That was smart. Remember the young artist I mentioned earlier? He tried to stop a pickpocket from taking a another passenger's wallet. They could get aggressive if cornered.

One evening, a friend-I'll call him Danny-and I were waiting to get on the subway. Trains were delayed, and the platform was crowded. "Let 'em off first! Let 'em off," the conductor announced as everyone pushed toward the doors. One man held up the rest of us, shouting that his foot was trapped between the platform and the door. That was entirely believable, if you just fell off the turnip truck. The foot in the door bit was a distraction so his colleagues could get to work. A woman in front of us wore tight jeans, her wallet bulging out of the back pocket. A big guy in a trench coat sidled up, and delicately started to slide it out. Danny (who later said he had no idea why he did something this dumb) put his hand on the guy's arm. "Don't do it." The pickpocket looked amused. He put his arm around Danny's shoulder and said, in nearly a whisper, "If you do that again my friend, I'm gonna knock you out." He released Danny, and all three of us boarded the train. Terrified, we walked through several cars to get to the conductor. "Did them pickpockets get you?" she asked, shaking her head. Danny didn't want to file a police report; he figured the cops would just laugh at him, and he was probably right.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sunday Music: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Otherwise known as Will Oldham, this protean singer/songwriter/actor falls short of Kris Kristofferson only in helicopter-piloting experience. Oldham and Kristofferson even share the honor of having Johnny Cash record one of their songs. Will Oldham's earliest passion was acting. As a teenager from Louisville, Kentucky, he landed a part in John Sayle's film Matewan. He has continued acting in movies and television, albeit sporadically. Oldham's career as a singer/songwriter is more difficult to summarize. I have to admit not really giving him a listen until his most recent musical persona "BPB," as his fans abbreviate it. His compositions are firmly rooted in country and Appalachian folk tradition, but lyrics and arrangements can be quite trippy. The video above, for "Cursed Sleep," starts with Oldham dressed up as a giant pantomine falcon--yes, the bird. Harmless enough, but please give it one more listen with your eyes closed. It is a beautiful and affecting work.

Will Oldham (Wikipedia) [Link]

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

Billy Collins

Photo by seaworthy
Creative Commons-some rights reserved