Daily writing prompt
If you were going to open up a shop, what would you sell?

Yesterday my wife and I went on a frolicking detour. Our trip was part of our effort to visit towns and cities within an hour’s drive that we had not been to. It’s interesting to see how our older New England industrial cities have reimagined their downtowns after the industries that developed them disappeared. There is lots of fine architecture and attractive city design. But creating a viable second act that attracts residents and visitors can be challenging. It requires a willingness to reimagine your civic space, a bit of guile, and economic wherewithal.

I like poking into shops and seeing how the buyers work to keep their offerings unique and their business formulas fresh. But I especially like looking at public art in these cities.

We found a neat little coffee shop and bookstore combined with public art at Cat Alley in Manchester, New Hampshire. The true treat was how local artists had decorated the alley with a series of cat-themed murals.

One might suspect that If I owned a shop, it would sell carvings, but a shop like the one we visited would be more like it. They had an extensive children’s area with programs, carefully curated books, a neat little cafe area, and an interesting gift section. I can’t imagine it would be easy for a manager to juggle all the activities, but I, the old Folkie I am, would add evening folk performers and poetry readings at the cafe.

Hey! What can I say once a coffeehouse performer…well you know how it goes. Remember to toss some green into the basket for the guitarist, man.


I was living in a little rathole on the backside of Boston’s Beacon Hill. Its principal amenity was a solitary window looking out onto the street. It was cheap, and after a few beers, you stopped paying attention to the upstairs neighbors alternately screwing or fighting.

If the above description sounds a bit over the top, I assure you that I leave out details you’d prefer not to know. Besides, I spent as little time in the “studio apartment” as I could, most of the rest of it on the street, in local coffeehouses, bars, donut shops, and friends’ homes.

In my mind, I still see the view down the street that afternoon, the long view towards the base of the hill and the river beyond; my friend Chuck was overflowing describing to me the variety, type, and quality of the compositions he’d be able to write after he married his young lady; a minor Rothschild heir. I’d met Carla once. Briefly. Chuck tried to keep her away from his scrubby friends on the “Hill.” It was a goal I was sympathetic towards, knowing exactly how forlorn a bunch we were. But Carla was fussing over Chuck’s rumpled appearance and unbrushed hair. She was taking him to a haberdashery for a nice suit. Something Carla could present him to Mommy and Daddy in. She was sure that he’d clean up nicely.

Trust me; I felt happy for Chuck. All his friends assumed that Carla would “make something” of Chuck. And we all knew that you couldn’t sit in the coffeehouse all afternoon for the rest of your life scribbling our sonatas that you never finished. He’d wind up as a mid-level executive in Daddy’s company, drive home to an upper-tier suburb, play with the kids, sit in the study, and try to compose for an hour every night. Carla would eventually grow bored with the routine; he’d no longer be the exciting rebel she married. 

What happened then was the subject of our group’s conversations when Chuck was not around. Depending on who was painting the canvas of Chuck’s future, Carla would leave him, take the kids and return to mummsie and dadums, or Chuck would, in a herculean effort, produce a grand opus and become an acclaimed composer of elevator music—the variations on themes repeated over and over. Depending on how silly, how drunk, or how despairing we felt, this could roll on for hours.

We were jealous, Chuck had found a way out, and we exercised this petty spite like sticking pins in a fetish doll to create pain.

The wedding came, and we were, of course, not invited. So Chuck disappeared, never to be seen again, and we moved on to other activities, and some of us even left the well-worn ruts we had worn into the streets of Beacon Hill.

Stealin’, Stealin’

I was obsessed with themes in my earlier life, well I guess I am still. The principal feature of some was the brevity of their influence. Weeks, or months. But others provide enduring backgrounds to life. I can slip into different mindsets because they are mine, having experienced them.

I’ve noticed some people lock away their experiences. A friend who made it big in finance prefers not to be reminded of an old lifestyle in the 1970s. Another was a budding artist, but she likes to conceal the past in her current career as a corporate climber. One, staunchly Conservative, prefers not to associate with me at all; afraid that I’ll out him for his left-wing past? So it goes.

The trouble may be that it’s not all sweetness and light in our pasts. We have dark nooks and crannies, and embracing the past can be a challenge. Years ago, when I was deep into my life as an upcoming practicing anthropologist, an old friend showed up on my doorstep. He and his girlfriend were directly out of my Folkie past – complete to the gigantic straw “Mad Hatter” top hat he was wearing. For several hours while they visited, I had a sort of existential double vision. My wife discovered who Wes was (me in my on the road days); my two-year-old son found enchantment with the huge top hat, and I began a long process of reintegrating my old persona.

Here’s some advice. Embrace it, make yourself complete by rolling the old you’s into one. And if you haven’t had the time yet to mess up, you have a lot to look toward. As Wes the Folkie would put it:

Stealin’, stealin’, pretty momma don’t you tell on me

I’m stealin’ back to my same old used to be.”

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