Train yard

The building was an ancient mill building overlooking the Boston and Maine railroad tracks in Charlestown. A coffin maker, a butcher block company, and various other woodworking concerns took up most of the space. On the third floor, a cluster of artist lofts provided cheap studio space for a mixture of painters, ceramic artists, a weaver, a poet, and one woodcarver – me. Monday through Friday, the building hummed with activity from about 6 AM till 6 PM.
Afterward, most of the activity was in the railyard separating Charlestown from Somerville. The crash and bang of boxcars being sorted could run through the night. But the mill building and all its adjacent buildings were silent, the parking lots empty. It was not the most savory of Boston neighborhoods. The lack of evening and weekend activity was why the landlord tolerated the art studios. We weren’t supposed to live in them, but live tenants seemed to discourage unauthorized visits.
It was a small community centered on periodic parties, impromptu gatherings, and small gatherings on the roof.
The land across the tracks rose towards a large hill on the Somerville side. Behind us, on the Boston side, the land tended upwards to where the Bunker Hill Monument stood. Our building stood on a wide flat spot that stretched away to the north. The unplanned effect of this was panoramic views of sunrises and sunsets that could astound. It was not uncommon to wander up there and meet another resident in silent contemplation. For me, it was like being back on the water either in coastal waters or in the deep flow of the Gulf Stream. Here, unlike on Beacon Hill, you had an impressive horizon view.
I charmed my female friends with Hibachi cooked dinners at sunset on that roof. When our small community was in gather mode, it made a unique setting for parties, with the oft-repeated reminder to guests to stay away from the edge. The views proved that you could not hang the urban experience of life in Boston from one peg on the rack. It wasn’t that simple.
I eventually moved away. I moved because of romantic entanglements – there was none. No girlfriend, no matter how interested, would ever stay more than one night. I served at sea where the ship’s sounds always surrounded. I was also noisy New York City bred. The noise of freight being switched below on the train tracks was something I slept through. Not my hoped for girlfriends. The more involved invited me to their quieter homes. But the issue of my home always remained. So eventually, I moved.

I detoured to the old neighborhood late last summer. The building is still there, But it looks like it’s been converted to upscale “lofts.” I imagine that with lots of insulation and triple-glazed windows, you could filter out much of the noise. With the price, I am sure that those units come with hardworking painters, ceramic artists, poets, painters, and carvers can’t afford the cost of listening to the freight cars below.

Christmas Tree Hunts – II

Chapter three – The Quilted Woodlot

 A few years after the “Shotgun Christmas,” I was introduced to another Christmas tree hunt style. My first wife’s family was from a small island on the Maine coast. It was their tradition to go to their wood lot and hunt out a tree. They were teetotalers, so I expected no Schnapps, and nobody in that family hunted, so shotguns were out. We walked into the woods equipped with snowshoes and bow saws. This family was quite particular about their tree. Only Balsams deserved consideration, and those had to be perfect. My family’s criteria for trees were out of place here. It seemed that every tree I pointed out had some fatal flaw I couldn’t see. This pattern worked out to be an ongoing theme in the marriage, but I was not yet aware. In any case, the wood lot became quilted by our snowshoe tracks that afternoon. By dusk, it looked rather like one giant spruce covered waffle.

At last, on the very edge of the lot, we spotted the perfect tree. Then came the final test: would Mommy like it? I was cold and wishing for some of George’s schnapps by this time; hell, I’d of been happy to have a shotgun. I listened to them, discussing whether Mommy would like the perfect balsam. After about forty minutes of this, they decided to hike through the lot to the other side to view several other candidates. I decided to stay and watch the sun go down. As they traipsed away, I thought about my frozen feet, hands, and nose. I looked at the saw; I looked at the tree. I went to the perfect tree and started cutting. Sometime later, they traipsed back through the lot and said: “We decided to take this one” as the tree fell. After that, I avoided spending Christmas with my in-laws.

Venus Callipygea

How to put this delicately; my wife resembled the Venus Callipygea. Poised and posed, one heel raised, glancing back to examine her stockings. Breaking the suspense, she glanced up at me and demurely asked: “Lou, do you want the casserole tomorrow or the turkey empanadas?”
Gazing at my wife of thirty-some-odd years, I diverted my attention from her graceful form and replied: “Ummm, the turkey?”
Marriage – that great compromise between desire and practicality.

O’Dark Thirty

Was it ” Mr. wakey wakey” on his rounds for watchstanders? No. 

There were no vibrations of a ship, always alive. Reaching out, I don’t find wooden ceiling planks. I’m not aboard Psyche; I’d feel the movement of water through the hull.

 I know when and where I’m not. It’s not Navy, and it’s not Maine. It’s still O’dark thirty, that’s why I thought back to waking for the mid-watch. Everyone’s favorite, midnight till four AM. There’s a crack of light from the hall outside; I’m home. The blackout curtains my wife insists on creating a bedroom so deep in darkness that its disorienting.

The trouble waking isn’t new. It’s been a feature of my life on and off since college. An assignment in American Literature to read Slaughterhouse Five initiated it. Like Billy Pilgrim, I seem to float between critical points in life. The waking uncertainty went away in grad school. But it had resurfaced with the curtains.

It’s not so much that I’d fear waking in those two times or places. It’s the uncertainty of where else my soul might range that scares me.

International Talk Like A Pirate Day

This is it, folks! Your opportunity to talk like a pirate – International Talk Like A Pirate Day, September 19th! If you need tuition beyond the basic ARRRR, or aye matey, you’d “be smart as paint” to hustle over to Netflix. Watch the actor Robert Newton use Dorset and Cornish English to simulate what many believe may have been the basis for at least some pirate patois. Treasure Island movies are a great place to start.

It’s important to point out that the actual pirates of the “Golden Age of Piracy” were diverse. There were Europeans, Native Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Arabs, and Africans. Anyone who could handle a belaying pin, lay a gun, and drink Kill Devil Rum. Oh, and have a larcenous spirit. 

Real pirate talk probably was a linguistic wonderland of international four-letter words, descriptive phrases, and nasty things to tell someone to do.

Of course, I have a personal stake in all this having an ancestor hung for Piracy in the Caribbean, and others who sailed with Morgan to raid Panama – Gentleman of Fortune they were!

Mind you, “Porch Pirates” stealing Amazon packages aren’t dues-paying members of the Brethren of the Coast. They are scabs!

The Bevel Gauge

Before starting full-time studies at Boston University, I worked various jobs to pay my part-time tuition at the Metropolitan College. Some of that work was as a personal attendant for older people. There was the doctor who thought he was still in practice in Dorchester and the former wool shipping magnate who dragged me to all the finest private clubs in the Boston area, and at last, there was the ship carpenter.
John was the son of a ship carpenter who had worked in the East Boston shipyard of Donald McKay. John’s dad has worked on many of Mckay’s clipper ships. John himself had been a carpenter in several New England shipyards and was proudest of the work he had done during World War II in the South Portland shipyards building Liberty ships for the war effort.

This job did not pay me as well as babysitting the well to do. John’s brother controlled the purse strings and held them tightly closed for his brother’s care. His brother and nephew Paul where all the family John had, and where John was garrulous and generous, the brother was tightlipped and would play games with pay if you didn’t watch. But he paid in cash each week, and that made the tuition bill disappear all that much faster.
John was a motor mouth, but on topics he knew, ship carpentry, his stories were fascinating. He’d been his father’s apprentice late in the old man’s life and had learned old school methods alongside newer ones. His love in later years had been finish carpentry, and once a month or so, John would have the nephew and I dig out the old tool chest that had been his father’s and tell us about each tool and the tricks of how to use them. He maintained that the marine carpenter’s most needed tool was the bevel gauge. The bevel gauge is a long flat metal piece with a slot in the middle. Into the slot fits a bolt and a closure nut on a long brass and hardwood handle. Adjusting the nut and changing the sliding metal piece’s angle allows you to approximate almost any angle you need. Being that there were so many odd angles in marine cabinetwork, John maintained that you could not do without it. ” ninety degrees? Those are hard to find on a boat.”

The nephew, Paul, was a young man in search of a life. His father wanted him in finance with him. But he loved to hear the stories John told about shipyard work and also loved to quiz me about my interest in history and anthropology. His preferred companions were his uncle John and me. We could make an afternoon fly by swapping tales. By four-thirty in the afternoon, I’d leave to go home, feed my cat, and get ready for evening classes.
It was a good year. I had time to study on the job, good companionship, and cash every Friday. It couldn’t last. One day I showed up to find that John had been taken to the hospital. Two weeks later, Paul called to tell me that John had died, and the ceremonies had been family only. Then he told me that his father was planning on selling the tool chest and all the contents. He hoped to “recoup” some of the expenses of the funeral. I thought it was sad that a family heirloom chest of tools dating to the 1840s was going to go to auction, rather than stay in the family.
Paul asked me: ” Dad has no idea of what’s in the chest, and I want something to remember my uncle by. If I took just one tool, which do you think it should be?”
We discussed it. In the chest were a set of well-crafted saws, chisels, and a number of handmade wooden planes. But when we turned all the options over and over, we realized that it had to be John’s well-used bevel gauge, the indispensable tool.
The next semester I began to study full time as an anthropology major at Boston University. I heard nothing further from John’s brother or from his nephew.
Years later, though, I read an article in one of the Boston paper’s Sunday magazines; in the article, there was a photo of John’s nephew in his law office. In a case prominently set on the wall was John’s bevel gauge. The caption read: “My uncle’s bevel gauge is a reminder to me that not everything in life is square or plumb; nor does it need to be.”
Well, it’s true. We are a society that prefers things square, plumb and regular; just so in their place. But life isn’t that neat, and that’s where a sort of mental version of the bevel gauge comes in handy.

The Berry Bowl

I learned about berry bowls my first fall in Maine. Some friends invited me to go searching for the makings.
Berry bowls, I asked “is it alcoholic?” No, it was a large clear jar or brandy snifter filled with reminders of the outdoors that you would take indoors to the ill. Especially in the winter, they served as reminders of more pleasant times during the summer.
A berry bowl would preferably contain different types of moss and evergreen plants. Especially favored for the arrangements were teaberry ( gaultheria procumbens), bearberry ( arstostaphylos uva ursi), partridge berry ( mitchella repens), or cranberries. These plants are favored for their with their bright red berries. The moss and plants would be moistened and arranged in the bowl. The top of the bowl, snifter, or jar would be covered with something clear, like a plastic wrap, to slow moisture loss. In a sunny window, a berry bowl would last the entire winter.
There were as many variations on the theme as there were people who made them. Some people added variety to the bowl with bits of lichen-covered twigs.
I make a berry bowl in this large snifter every fall. In the one pictured here are teaberry, princess pine, and a bit of cranberry. I used an assortment of mosses for different greens. The stone is for contrast with the living components.
Some years I’ve added sundews ( hard to keep going inside) and small pitcher plants. If you try this, remember that you want the berry bowl moist, but not soaking, and it does need a sunny spot; don’t leave it sealed tight in the sun.
If you don’t have an area of your own to gather from many of the listed items, are available online. Please don’t go picking in the woodlands. In many places, laws prohibit the gathering of wild and native plants.

I make one or more every fall, and they serve to remind me of old friends and good times. In January and February, they serve as reminders that spring is coming.

Watching the Clock

It’s a bit uncanny the way Sam and Xenia watch the kitchen clock. Their regular meal times are flexible in the morning, depending on who gets up first. Beeing that they are such accomplished actors the time is carefully recorded.

Their feeding time in the evening is a routine that cannot be deviated from. Every evening at five pm, they are supposed to get fed. Yes, I know what you are going to say – their internal clocks and guts tell them it time for food. We suspected it for ages until we began to notice first the cat, and then the dog looking intently at the clock above the fridge.
Here is the scenario. Xenia ( Her Imperial Majesty, Empress of all she surveys, Defender of the Faith, Tzarina of Tokyo, and the Fair Isles) strolls into the kitchen at 4:40, glances at the clock and strolls towards the garden door. At 4:45 on walks, Sam ( Captain of the Palace Guard, Generalissimo of all Imperial troops, and Archduke of Trasimere) looks at the clock, then strolls towards the garden door to watch the birds. They confer. At 4:55, they make a group appearance in the kitchen – they look up to the clock, and offer you a meaningful look. At 5 pm, the cat checks the clock a final time and then starts weaving between the legs of whoever is preparing dinner. The dog does the passive resistance thing by merely blocking your path to wherever you need to go.
Of course, you do the wise thing and feed them. Can the two merely watch the clock? Or can they watch it and understand the time? This or close variations of it happen every night.
By the way, Xenia is not known as the Warrior Princess for nothing. I’m not going to get clawed for suggesting to her that she’s illiterate, and can’t tell time.

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