“Calm in Their Diminishing”?

A Scene from the Series “Life After People”

This poem from the late Tony Hoagland (1953-2018) presupposes the earth in transition from human domination. It appeared in the November 5, 2018 issue of The New Yorker. I wonder how much this kind of thinking is related to a feeling that our noble experiment has failed under a storm of red MAGA hats.

Peaceful Transition

The wind comes down from the northwest, cold in September,
and flips over the neighbor’s trash receptacles.

The Halifax newspaper says that mansions are falling into the sea.
Storms are rising in the dark Pacific.

Pollution has infiltrated the food chain down to the jellyfish level.
The book I am reading is called “The End of the Ascent of Man.”

It says the time of human dominion is done,
but I am hoping it will be a peaceful transition.

It is one thing to think of buffalo on Divisadero Street,
of the Golden gate Bridge overgrown in a tangle of vine.

It is another to open the door of your own house to the waves.
I am hoping the humans will be calm in their diminishing.

That the forests grow back with patience, not rage;
I am hoping the flocks of geese increase their number only gradually.

Let it be like an amnesia we don’t even notice;
the hills forgetting the name of our kind. Then the sky.

Let the fish rearrange their green governments
as the rain spatters slant on their roof.

It is important that we expire.
It is a kind of work we have begun in order to complete.

Today out of he north the cold wind comes down,
and I go out to see

the neighbor’s trash bins have toppled in the drive
I see the unpicked grapes have turned to small sweet raisins on their vine.

I see the wren has found a way to make its little nest
inside the cactus thorn.

 

Images of a Grittier America

Burlesque Performers

In the photographs of Weegee (born Usher Fellig in Austrian Galicia in 1899), the streets are not paved with gold. They are occasionally paved with the bloody bodies of slain hoods. According to Edward Kosner writing in the New York Review of Books:

He snapped his mesmerizing photographs in a sweaty frenzy between seventy and eighty years ago. There are two haughty dowagers accosted by a shabbily dressed drunk woman at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera; children sleeping on a fire escape in a slum; a man arrested for cross-dressing grinning and baring his thigh in the back of a paddy wagon; a panoramic mob filling every inch of sand at Coney Island; an anguished mother in a black kerchief staring at the tenement fire in which her daughter and granddaughter are perishing. These familiar images were captured by an immigrant working in the depths of the Depression and wartime for a couple of dollars per newspaper shot.

Body of a Gunshot Victim Lying in the Street

Weegee’s pictures were shot with a Speed Graphic in high-contrast black and white. A few of his pictures show people celebrating, but most are somber pictures of a society peopled by floozies, cheap hoods, juvenile delinquents, and other victims. Through sheer persistence and bloody-mindedness, Weegee became something of a celebrity with his photographs. He took to calling himself Weegee the Genius and hoped to become a celebrity himself—and he was one, but always in a minor key.

A Thug (or Victim?) Being Hauled Off to the Police Station (or Hospital?)

Hollywood gave us one picture of life in America, but Weegee presented us with a grittier alternative America. The men wore suits, hats, and ties, but one had the feeling that was most of their wardrobe. Look at those faces peering through the car window in the above photo. These people will not be found in screwball comedies. They don’t have English butlers, and their wives are not dressed in the latest fashions from Paris.

 

Draining … Drained

I Felt Hurled Back into Childhood

When I was a child, I suffered intensely from allergies. My nose was frequently blocked, so that I had to breathe through my mouth, making me feel as if I had ingested a bucket of fine sand. My mother would boil up a big pot of water and add salt to it. She had me cover my head with a towel and bend forward to inhale the salty steam. Not that it did me any good.

For decades now, I have not had the experience of having my nasal air passages totally blocked … until this last week. I got a cold which in itself was not that bad, but as soon as I climbed into bed, my nasal passages shut down a la my youth. My doctor recommended something akin to my mother’s remedy: Shoot distilled water up my nose that contains powdered salt with sodium bicarbonate. This actually works, and I am finally able to sleep in bed again.

My cold was not that bad, but the long recovery is a pain. It seems as if I fill endless handkerchiefs with mucus that has the gluey texture of rubber cement. At the same time my cold began, my eyes started to water and itch again. I have spent the better part of a week draining in various ways—and that has tired me out big time. I attribute this illness to a cold snap that has hit Southern California right after I returned from Guatemala. It seems that the temperature has not climbed up to 70º Fahrenheit (21º Celsius) since the start of the month.

Eventually the temperature will rise and I will have drained out the last cubic centimeter of mucus as well as whatever is discharging from my eyes. Until that time I will just have to be patient.

 

A Gift from Our Father

Look Closely Lest You Be Fooled

This happened years ago while my brother and I were still in Cleveland. Our Dad had gone shopping at the West Side Market for various Hungarian provisions and came back with gifts for us. He had been approached by a street vendor who sold him two “hot” watches that had “fallen off a truck,” a Bulova and a Hamilton. Dan and I looked at the watches and laughed. The Bulova was actually a Bolivia; and the Hamilton, a Hormilton. I still have the Bolivia, which ceased working decades ago. It appears that the watch vendor had made a profit on the deal.

Although our father felt like a fool for buying counterfeit watches with a one-jewel movement that may function for upwards of two weeks, I cannot recall thye incident without once again feeling affection and a sense of loss. Alex Paris died in 1985 at the age of 74—which, coincidentally, is my present age. I think of him frequently and cannot look in a mirror without seeing his face looking back at me. I have been told I look more like my mother, but there is still a lot of Alex in me as well.

For an interesting old Popular Science article on counterfeit watches written back around the time my father found his bargain, click here.

 

Ruins in the Middle of a Banana Plantation

Bunches of Bananas Wrapped in Blue Plastic

In my last post about Guatemala, I wrote about road closures from a village protest. Once that cleared up (after about an hour and a half), we finally made our way to Route CA-9 which connected Zacapa to the Caribbean at Puerto Barrios. A bit past the halfway point, after having passed numerous eighteen-wheelers bearing the logos of Dole and Chiquita, we made it to the Maya ruins at Quiriguá. It was smack in the middle of a banana plantation, much like the one illustrated above.

While still on the plant, the bunches of bananas were all wrapped in blue plastic. This was a Guatemalan invention (since practiced worldwide) which help protect the fruit from insects and keep it at a sustainably high temperature.

Isolated Stelae Protected with Thatched Roofs

What made Quiriguá so interesting were the giant stelae commemorating the rules of various kings. These are the largest of any Maya site in Mesoamerica. Unfortunately, many of them are badly weathered, more so than at Copán, where the stone is more resistant to the tropical rain. There are buildings and ball courts at Quiriguá, but these are no match for Copán.

Yet, interestingly, little Quiriguá managed to conquer Copán and sacrifice its god/king, 18 Rabbit, in the 8th century AD.

Detail of a Stela

It doesn’t take long to visit Quiriguá: I took about an hour and a half, some of which time was eating my lunch, consisting of a bottle of mineral water and a small bag of corn chips. (I skipped a lot of meals during this trip because of all the time I spent on the road.)

My hired car was waiting for me in the parking lot, and the driver was pleased that he’d be able to get back to Copán before nightfall.

The Year of the Camellia

Camellia Japonica at Descanso Gardens

On Saturday, Martine and I went to Descanso Gardens. We were amazed at the lushness of the camellia forest after the torrential rains of the last six weeks. And, to make things better, there was also an exhibition of particularly beautiful camellia blossoms. It was a good day, something like the old days, which ended when a sudden switch was thrown and Martine was too depressed to enjoy anything. I hope this is a portent of better days to come for her.

I have finally succumbed to the cold, rainy weather and come down with a nasty cold. It’s as if my body were down a quart of the oil it needs to run. But this too shall pass.

Award-Winning Camellia Blooms

Actually, I’m surprised I haven’t come down with something earlier. The temperature has not edged much above 60° Fahrenheit (16° Celsius) since I’ve returned from Guatemala. Moreover, this is the rainiest winter we have seen for a couple of decades, it seems.

 

An Unforeseen Difficulty

A Protest Around La Unión Hold Up My Trip

As I have written before, the biggest transportation problem on my trip was getting from Copán, Honduras to Rio Dulce, Guatemala. In the end, I was right. There had at one time been shuttle buses that made the trip, but either they had been canceled or occurred only during certain times. In the end, I cut a deal with a Honduran travel agency called Baseline Tours out of the Café ViaVia to hire a car and driver to:

  1. Drive me to Rio Dulce
  2. Allow for a one- or two-hour stopover at the Maya ruins of Quiriguá on the way

I wound up paying 1,700 Guatemalan quetzales (about $217) for a car and driver to take me there. I could have taken public transportation for much cheaper, but it would have thrown a monkey wrench into my schedule. I would have had to take a collectívo to the Guatemalan border at El Florido, a Litegua bus to Chiquimula, and an (unspecified) second class bus to Quirigua, where I would have had to spend the night. And then, I would have had to face the chore of a bus from Quiriguá to Morales, and from Morales to Rio Dulce. So I spent the money and adhered to my schedule.

Except there was one little unforeseen difficulty. Midway between El Florido and Chiquimula, the highway was closed in both directions because the residents of La Unión were protesting en masse some government dictate or malfeasance. For an hour and a half, I sat in the car reading my Kindle when—quite suddenly—the local police (shown above) started letting traffic through.

It is not unusual to find whole towns in Latin America shutting down access to and from their towns while they make their point to the government. Bolivia is particularly notorious for this type of action.

In the end, I got to Quiriguá and Rio Dulce with time to spare. It was not an accident that I left early, around 8 AM, to allow for this sort of hindrance.

 

GRUBERG: The Papa Bach Story 2

Bookmarks from the Reincarnation of Papa Bach

When Ted and Eva Riedel left Los Angeles in the mid 1970s, the bookstore was taken over by a “poet” named John Harris. I use the quotes around the word poet because I have found nothing on the Internet either by or about him that was not written by his friend, fellow poet William Mohr. It was around this time that I stopped hanging out at Papa Bach’s Bookstore. I missed Ted and Eva, and I had my doubts about the new management. This was mostly because I noticed that the stock on sale started to thin out: I no longer found it a good source for the material I was seeking.

Still, in its second incarnation, Papa Bach had some influence. In his book Literary L.A., Lionel Rolfe writes:

Papa Bach was significant, I think, because it was the closest thing Los Angeles ever had to a City Lights bookstore and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’m not sure that Harris himself would have thought he was on that level, for the synergy of Ferlinghetti and San Francisco are a peculiar and special chemistry. But John Harris was a good if not great poet, and his Papa Bach was a bookstore, a cultural center, a publisher and an important link between many things. Harris made no bones about it; he had burned out.

Papa Bach was to limp along for another ten years or so, but the heart of it as a bookstore was no longer there. I was not and still am not interested in Harris’s poetry events or publications: It was the merchandise that had drawn me. Once the bookshelves started showing lots of blank space between isolated books, I knew that the end was in sight.

For a while, the building occupied by Papa Bach’s became “The Writer’s Computer Store,” which I assumed was a shill for Apple software products. Then the building was torn down and replaced by an Enterprise Rent-a-Car agency.

 

 

GRUBERG: The Papa Bach Story 1

Original (1960s) Bookmark from Papa Bach Books

It was early 1967: I was still exploring my new Los Angeles home on foot and by bus. (It was to be almost twenty years before I began to drive.) On the north side of Santa Monica Boulevard, just west of Sawtelle, sat a big bookstore with a sign that said Papa Bach Paperbacks. Even at that early juncture, I was a bookstore aficionado of long standing, a habitué of Schroeder’s on Public Square in Cleveland and the Dartmouth College Bookstore in Hanover, New Hampshire.

I still have the books I bought that day: It was a two-volume set, the Vintage Turgenev comprising seven of the Russian author’s novels: Smoke, Fathers and Sons, First Love (in Volume 1), On the Eve, Rudin, A Quiet Spot, and Diary of a Superfluous Man (in Volume 2). The two books cost $1.65 and $1.95 respectively.

It wasn’t long before I moved to an apartment near Mississippi and Sawtelle, just four or five blocks south of Papa Bach’s. For the six months or so that I lived there, I had to catch the bus to UCLA across the street from the bookstore. In addition, there was a nifty used bookstore called West L.A. Books just across Sawtelle. During that time, I stopped in at Papa Bach’s at least four times a week, each time coming out with one or more purchases. I was in hog heaven.

The Picture of Bach That Was on the Logo came from a German Stamp

I got to know the original owners, Ted and Eva Riedel, and spent hours talking books with them. They had a quote contest in which, if you guessed the book it came from, you got a copy of the book. The first quote, if I remember rightly, was from Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Not only was I the all-time winner, but I volunteered to letter the quotes myself with a Magic Marker on a roll of paper that was displayed near the cash register.

Alas, Paradise does not last forever. In the early 1970s, Ted and Eva sold the bookstore and moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Ted told me that he planned to start a Papa Bach Bookstore there, but I have found no evidence that that ever happened. I even checked out the Jackson Hole phonebook when I was there in 2008, but found no listing for Papa Bach or the Riedels. I liked them, so I can only hope that things went all right for them.

Tomorrow, I will describe the bookstore under its new owners.

BTW, the GRUBERG on the bookmark is a mnemonic for their phone number at that time, namely 478-2374.

 

The Copán Ruling Dynasty

 

Altar L with God/Kings of Copán

When I first began traveling in Maya lands, the Maya did not appear to have a history. Now that so many of their glyphs have been translated, we see that—particularly in the Classic Period between AD 600 and and some point in the 9th century AD, most of the major archeological sites not only had a history, but a rich one as well.

The first event recorded at Copán in Honduras was in 321 BC on Altar I. There was a founder of a dynasty called K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ who ruled between 416 and 437 AD. Then there were two unnamed rulers before K’altuun Hix dedicated a carved step inside the Papagaya Structure around 480 AD. There were two more unnamed rulers before Balam Nehn (524-532 AD) and Wil Ohl K’inich (532-551 AD).  After an unnamed Ruler 9, we have a filled-chronology that takes us all the way to 822 AD:

  • Moon Jaguar (553-578)
  • K’ak’ Chan Yopaat (578-628)
  • Smoke Imix (628-695)
  • Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, better known as 18 Rabbit (695-738)
  • K’ak’ Joplaj Chan K’awiil, better known as Smoke Monkey (738-749)
  • K’ak Yipyaj Chan K’awiil better known as Smoke Shell (749-763)
  • Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, better known as Yax Pac (763-820)
  • Ukit Took’ (began reign in 822 AD)

It was Ukit Took’, the last known ruler of Copán, who dedicated Altar L, shown above, identifying his predecessors. There are no known dates at Copán after 822 AD.

What happened in 822? The kingship failed for various reasons, as it did around then through most of the adjacent area, for environmental reasons (probably drought), overpopulation, and a change in the form of governance.

As alien as the dynastic names above may seem, the chronology is surer than that of many European dynasties of the period. The calendar was sacred to the Maya, so they were sure to note the exact date that events occurred—and that didn’t even happen in most European countries of the Dark Ages.