Love at the Beacon Bar

mariamchristmas

I spend most of my time alone…here in New York City, a city of 8.4 million people.  Sometimes I get very lonely and sometimes I feel forgotten.  None of this is Mariam’s fault.  She works very hard at Mount Sinai…slowly but steadily toward total retirement which should happen sometime after the middle of May.  Sometime around my birthday.  The birthday when I will turn 70!

Mariam and I have a routine of sorts.  We often meet at the Beacon Bar which is a four minutes walk for me, if the lights are in my favor.  I will have glass or two of Greenpoint IPA and Mariam will have a Chardonnay…all this before Happy Hour is over at 6 pm.

Last evening, just as the prices were about to rise and after we had spoken to a few of our new friends, Mariam turned to me and said something that was unexpected…and desperately needed.

Okay, it’s a few days after Valentine’s Day.  And this year we agreed not to exchange Hallmark cards (and she doesn’t really care for chocolates).  We knew how we felt about one another…we’ve been through a lot.  She saved my life when I was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003 by finding the best hematologist in the City.

So, what did she say to me?  What did she say that still rings in my ears and especially in my heart?

She turned to me and said:

“I love you, you know.  My heart is full of you.”  I looked at her somewhat mute.  I mumbled that I loved her as well, but I didn’t have that special phrasing that makes a special moment so endearing…and so lasting.

I had never heard it said quite like that before.  There is no Hallmark card that could take the place of that short statement.  No $30.00 dozen of red roses from the corner deli (the heads will sag in two days) that could have smelled better that the scent of words of love…like the ones Mariam said to me…yesterday afternoon, the day after Valentines Day.

Some sentiments don’t need a day on the calendar to guide you.  The special ones come from the moment.  The heart is the only guide you will ever need.

rodeoyuma

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Two Trees

2 trees

A man and woman have four children–two boys and two girls.  The same seed…the same egg.

One boy grows up, attends college and eventually becomes a doctor and later joins Doctors Without Borders.  His brother sits in a small cell at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY.  He did something unspeakable to an eleven year old girl.  He has tats that identify him as a member of a gang based in Albany.  Many of his friends sit in similar cells–in similar jails–in three different states.

One of girls grows up and after sampling life in an New England college decides to join a cloistered convent and eventually will take a vow of silence and chastity.  Her sister walks the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Anyone can buy her love and affection for $50.  She has several dozen needle marks on her arms and thighs.

The same seed…the same egg.

Two trees started life in a forgotten corner of the Adirondack forest.  They are rooted only nine inches apart.  Perhaps both from the same white pine that dropped its seed-laden cone seven years ago.

Now, one tree has added three inches of new growth to its needles in the Spring of 2016.  The other tree, a brother?…a sister? has turned completely brown.  It will not be utilizing photosynthesis again, ever.  It is the only dead tree in this small part of the forest.

Why does one living entity flourish and the other, linked by a genetic code, lose the spark of life?

Didn’t the alluring Cinderella have several despicable sisters?  Jeffery Dahmer had a sibling.  Cain and Abel were brothers.

Nature or Nurture?

Or, is it just an inexplicable aspect of life in general?  A question that has no answer–a riddle that has no solution–a prayer that has gone unheard…

boyandgirlholdinghands

[Source: Google search]

 

Gathering Dust

IceAxe

I was dusting some items in our home the other day.  If you find that unusual, you should see the amount of dust that can accumulate in a house that was empty for almost six months.  We weren’t even here.  So, where did it come from?  And, it’s not that we keep an unclean home.  I can’t tell you how many boxes of Swiffer Sweeper we have been through. (I can’t tell you how much we recommend this state-of-the-art product!)

That’s another story.

I ran my finger along the top of one the most precious items I own.  It’s an ice axe.  I bought it in the spring of 1964, when I was getting ready to join my brother on the Juneau Icefield for the summer.

I found a bit of white…a bit of dust on my finger.  How could I have not attended to this most coveted item…in my cleaning?

You must understand something.  You can’t get these ice axes anymore.  Oh, maybe in some tiny Swiss alpine shop in Zermatt, but not here…unless you’re willing to pay an outrageous price.  This ice axe is made of ash (maybe hickory), the kind that Edmund Hillary used on Everest in 1953…on the first ascent (maybe).  What you get today, if you find yourself ordering an ice axe, it will be made of anodized aluminum or carbon fiber or some sort of alloy devised by NASA for the International Space Station.

But, my ice axe (note to reader:  it is not called an  “ice pick”.  That is so gauche a term.  It’s an ice axe…so no further discussion here, ok.) An ice axe of an old classic style that you see now in Museums of Alpine History.

Yes, I ran my finger along the top and found dust.  Not so surprising, unless you’re like me…items from earlier years rarely collected dust.  Once I put away the toys of childhood, they stayed mostly out of sight…and therefore out of mind.  There is an exception or two: my Lionel locomotive and a Lone Ranger lunch box.  But, the ice axe was somehow different.  It represented a transition from youth to adulthood and I often would stare at it, up there on the wall reflecting back on the times that were brighter, better, more youthful, full of energy and promise.  I climbed nameless peaks with it in my right hand and even saved myself from falling into a crevasse on a July day in 1964.

This was a special item I owned. I even went into my fathers forbidden workshop and wood burned my initials into the shaft:  P.J.EGAN.  My childhood girlfriend stood by be as I did that.  She kissed it for good luck (al least in my memory she did).  Later, I rubbed boiled Linseed Oil into the wood until my forearm ached.

It was an object of utility, craftsmanship, art and beauty.

Then, when my wife and I moved to the Adirondacks in 2011, I took the ice axe and mounted it on the wall.  It was several weeks until I realized what it was that I had done.  I hung up my ice axe.  This is the ultimate “well, I’m done with that stage of my life” moment.  It’s like when you hand your car keys to your child because you can’t drive anymore…safely.  But, I wasn’t that old…was I?

I walked over to my “alpine bookshelf” and looked at the titles and saw the hardware: the pitons, carabiners and chocks…tools of a rock climber.  I was fairly good in the 1970’s.  They were coated in a thin layer of dust.

I picked up Direttissima, by Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston (someone you should google someday when it’s raining and you want to read about a tragic, enigmatic person), and, again, I blew enough dust off the top pages that I began to sneeze like it was a late summer day in a field of ragweed.

AlpineBooks

So, this was my past?  This is was what I have left of my glory days on the glaciers, in the bars of Juneau…and watching Eagles soar at 10:00 pm when I was fishing out of Auk Bay?

Dusty books and a very special dusty ice axe…mounted on a thinly paneled wall in our home?

This was me once:

In the Col Looking West (2)

Are the glory days really behind us…gathering dust?

 

 

 

A Rock, A Pumpkin And The Grateful Dead

“May I top you up?”

                      –Anonymous bartender.

“You can’t top that!”

     –Patrick Egan

People like to put things on top of things.  Nature likes to just leave things where they were put originally.

I remember one afternoon, in mid-October, 1997, (if you need something more precise).  Mariam and I were visiting my brother, Dan, at his newish house on a hill just south of Ithaca, NY.  He asked:

“Did you hear about the pumpkin?”

The pumpkin?  Is there a special pumpkin?”

“Yes, the one on top of the McGraw Tower Spire, on the campus of Cornell University.  Someone managed to get a hallowed out pumpkin on the very top of the spire.  No one knows how it was done, and no one has taken credit for doing it.  Right now, the main suspects are Engineering majors.  Want to see it?”

He reached for his TV remote and clicked on a community access channel set up by someone in the technology department.  It’s called a “webcam”.  The camera is fixed on the top of the spire so people can see the pumpkin.”

There it was, a pumpkin (later estimated to weigh about sixty pounds) sitting on the tip of one of the main spires on Cornell’s beautiful campus.

Pumpkin2

[Source: Google search]

This coming October, the prank will celebrating its 19th anniversary.  It’s listed as one of the top five college pranks in history, according to a Web search.  To this day, no one has claimed to be responsible.  And, how it was done remains a mystery.

I’ll have to admit, it looked pretty cool up there, a giant orange sphere, crowning a majestic tower.  But, like I said, how it was done is still a mystery.  The slate roof is very steep, there were no sounds of helicopters.  It made the Networks and enjoyed six months of fame before it came crashing down during an attempt to remove it.

A small piece of it sits in an office of a Professor of Psychology…that is the last word I could find on it.

I remember, when I was a child playing with blocks, I tried to see how high I could stack the assorted shapes until they fell.  I think my record was about 3 1/2 feet!  Not bad for an 8-year old.

But, the pumpkin was quite a feat.  Unequalled in its originality.

A few days ago, we were driving through southern Utah.  We had spent the night in Monument Valley and we were passing through a cool little village named Mexican Hat.

“Interesting name,” said Mariam.

A few minutes later, as we made our way to western Colorado, we passed a spectacular rock formation.  It was a “balancing rock” and it resembled a sombrero.

“So much for the strange name for that town,” I said.

I took a few photos.  I stared at it and it seemed to me like it was moments away from falling.  Would I witness such a thing?  I walked gently back to the car…I didn’t want my foot steps to move the cap rock and destroy this awesome natural rock formation.

MexicanRock2

[Further away than it looks]

It didn’t look real in a way.  How could nature alone keep that rock balanced there?  I knew the general geological idea; a more erosion resistant rock sat on a column of more easily eroded sedimentary rock.

The beauty of this rock was in its color, its location among the stratified rocks, and its delicacy.  It’s very existence was precarious.  A small earthquake and its gone forever.

I thought about the pumpkin atop the spire at Cornell.  Some very bright individuals found a way to accomplish that feat.  But, here, in the barren landscape of Utah, was something that just sat in one place for tens of thousands of years while the wind and water took away its sandstone base.  Nature does that.  It has a breathless way of creating scenery that could never be painted, piled, constructed, engineered or sculpted by the hand of a human.

Nature exists without us and resists our attempts to make it more spectacular.  We are modern beings who are mere observers.  We drive through a place or walk a path and see what the earth has done…by doing nothing, simply being.

We’re strangers here, even though we came from these very elements that make up the ground we leave our tracks on.  Our natural states have left most of us.  From what I’ve seen on my travels, there are only a handful of individuals who truly make an attempt to blend into the environment…I’ve yet to actually meet these rare individuals…but I’m sure they’re out there.  People who have taken the time and made the effort to leave the car behind and walk into places off the paved byways.

I’m convinced that the Native Americans were quite well attuned to the natural world as they saw and experienced it.  For some reason, I thought about a few lines in the Grateful Dead song, Ripple.  The words are by Robert Hunter.  The music is by Jerry Garcia:

“Ripple in still water

When there is no pebble tossed

Nor wind to blow…

There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night

And if you go, no one may follow

That path is for your steps alone…”

 A pumpkin on top of a Cornell spire.  A majestic rock, balanced on a sandstone column in Utah.  A child’s stack of wooden blocks.  A Grateful Dead song about one’s journey through life and seeing ripples in a pond…ripples began by nothing.  It all comes together in a strange way.  At least I think so.

Nothing, of course, is not really the proper word.  The natural world contains more unbelievable phenomena than you could possibly see in a thousands lifetimes.

MexicanRock1

[A closer look]

A Night At The Opera

AmargosaOperaHouse

I sat in the Amargosa Opera House.  Half the seats were filled with ticket holders.  I looked around at the fantastic murals, I moved one seat away from the heat of the pot-belly stove and I watched the red curtain.  It was 7:05 pm on Saturday night.  There would not be an opera here tonight, no arias and no recitatives.  It would be an evening of ballet, with one ballerina, only one.  I didn’t care if the dancer was a few minutes late.  The ambience was enough for me.  We had parked the r-pod and had a room in the Amargosa Hotel for the night, the last room that was available.  It would be a three minute walk to our room…and a real bed.

OperaStage

Did I mention that the Hotel is in the middle of the Amargosa Desert?  Did I mention that the Opera House is a relic, a treasure, a fading memory and a rising star?  Did I mention that it is located in a crossroads called Death Valley Junction?

I should mention that the ‘town’ has a population of five humans, a very present cat…and I’m certain, more than a few ghosts.

The Opera House was built in the 1920’s when the Junction served as a focus of railroads that served several mines in the mountains that stand silently so close and so far.

PeelingPaint

[A door next to the Opera House]

The story goes: One day, in 1972, a New York City ballerina, Marta Becket was on tour.  She and her husband had a flat tire near the Junction.  She poked through the ruins of the old theater.  She had a vision.  She stayed on and repaired the old building…that had no roof.  She looked at the whitewashed walls and had a another vision.  She was an artist as well as a dancer.  She leased the structure, that was slowly falling apart, mud-filled and the victim of years of sand and scorpions…and began painting unbelievable murals on the walls.  And she danced there.  If no real person was in the audience, she danced to the audience that was painted on the walls.

OperaMurals

The show went on…

The show is still going on.  Marta is now 91 years old.  But the sound of toe-shoes once again can be heard on the wooden stage.  The stage that is still lit by lights that are fashioned from coffee cans.  Jenna McClintock has taken on the mantle from the frail Marta Becket.

BalletJennaMcClintock

[Jenna McClintock]

For an hour and a half, I sat transfixed by this tiny essence of pure art in the middle of an unforgiving desert.  Places like this are hard to find in the world today.  A place where the pretty ballerina will smile out to the darkness that may have a hundred people…or just three.  Pure art is like that.  It exists on its own.  If you are in the right place at the right time, you can watch it unfold…but it will unfold with you or without you…like the sunrise I would watch the next morning.

MartaSign

I was up before dawn on Sunday.  I walked a short distance from the little cluster of buildings that made up the Junction to watch the sun lift up and over the mountains of the desert.

I sat on an old telephone pole and took a picture of the sun as it crept over the distant ridge.  I looked back at the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House.  Mariam was still asleep.

Marta and the other four permanent residents were over there somewhere.

Somewhere, two ballerinas sleep.  One was nearing her final dance in life…and one was just getting warmed up.

SunriseAmargosa

[Sunrise over the Amargosa Desert]

 

 

The Road To Zzyzx And Down The Boulevard Of Dreams

BlvdDreams

I wrote a version of this post several days ago, before I went to this Place of Healing, before I walked along the Boulevard of Dreams.   After the visit, I deleted most of what I had written…and began again.

Yes, I began again when I made the right turn off I-15 and took the road to Zzyzx.  I was taking a drive that thousands of people took, from the mid-1940’s until 1974.  Me? I was going to write about arriving at a ghost town of a health spa, a place of healing.  I was going to describe how I felt the need to wash away the sins of my youth and expunge the guilt of my impure and sin-laden thoughts.  I am Irish and raised a Catholic…I carried my guilt like a biker’s tattoo.  I find the idea of “cleansing” of body and soul, an interesting concept.  The ritual of washing away impurities and rebirth is a very ancient practice.  The Christians have Baptism and the River Jordan.  The Hindu have the Ganges River.  The Native American’s have the sweat lodge.  The Jewish people, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, gather for the Tashlich, and symbolically cast pieces of bread into flowing water to atone for transgressions.  As a former teacher, I simply erased the chalk board to begin something new.

But, my problems were not the kind that would draw me to this mecca in the emptiness of the Mojave Desert, to be cured of my aliments by a supposed man of God, a self-described healer.

Preachers and healers, hucksters and quacks, gurus, life guides and snake-oil salesmen have fascinated me for a long time.  I sometimes wish I lived in the days of Billy Sunday or Aimee Semple McPherson.  I wanted to hear the real Bible-thumpers who, sweating and strutting on a wooden stage under a circus tent, would tell me that Satan had my soul and my impure thoughts would send my soul to bake and fry for all time.

I accepted this guilt/burden for many years.  But, I never fully understood, until I was well into middle age, that instead of being a path to freedom, those kinds of beliefs can keep you from growing in countless ways.

After a bumpy ride along a blinding white salt flat called Soda Lake, I saw the palms a few miles away.  This was Zzyzx.  This was my destination.

This location, in the heart of the Mojave Desert has been providing water for travelers for over a thousand years.  The indigenous people would stop here on their journey across the desert to fill their gourds and rest.  One Chemehuevi woman is thought to be buried here.

blvdofDreams

But something troubled me.  I was merely a tourist here.  I arrived with a notebook and two digital cameras.  I did not arrive the way that most people did, for several decades, clutching a Bible in their hands and a prayer in their hearts…and a tumor or a case of TB or nervous exhaustion or a void where their soul used to be.

I needed to rethink the reason for my pilgrimage.  I needed to get inside the mindset of a true believer…a true sufferer…a desperate human being hoping to get mind and body repaired.  I didn’t want to be a mere tourist…I wanted to feel the dread of fear and the elation of hope that the pilgrims of the mid-century, had experienced.

I had to get imaginative…I had to get creative…I had to invite into my heart and mind, the suffering of thousands.

These were the real people who came, praying for their own lives or the lives of a loved one.  For many, I’m sure that making the journey to this health resort with the strange name, was their last hope for a cure or a blessing from the founder, Curtis Howe Springer.

RoadSignZzyzx

He named his establishment Zzyzx Mineral Springs. Why Zzyzx?  The story is that he chose the name because it would be the last word on a list of geographical destinations. Is it the last word in the average dictionary? Not in my copy of Merriam-Webster. The last word in my book is zygote.

They heard Springers voice on the AM radio station, broadcasting out of Mexico with 50,000 watts of power.  The sick and the lame could hear him in Los Angeles.  You could hear him in Chicago.  You could even hear his reassuring voice in Bangor, Maine.

The main avenue leading to the bath houses, cabins, meeting room, dining hall was the Boulevard of Dreams.  I stood at the base of the sign and began the walk, past the old pond that once had a spraying fountain.  Now, the fountain was a mere pile of rocks.

PondZ

[The Pond with the broken fountain]

blvdofDreams

[The Boulevard of Dreams]

I let my mind drift back to 1953, or 1959, or the year I was born, 1947.  I put myself in the mind of a pilgrim seeking a cure.  Maybe my mother was seriously ill, perhaps my wife had a growth in her breast, possibly my father returned from the war in Europe with a changed mind.  I began to feel the power of hope.  What lay ahead of me, the baths, the healing waters, the relaxation…the great white plain of Soda Lake, blinding in its glare from the Mojave sun…what lay ahead of me would save me or someone I did not want to lose to the shadow of death.

OriginalRooms

[One of the many original apartments…now in ruins]

Hidden behind a grove of palm trees was the original bathhouse.  Everything was empty…cracked and broken cement and peeling adobe.  I stood over the individual “tubs” where the ill could soak themselves in the briny solution of desert minerals.

MineralBaths

[The old mineral baths]

I poked about the old buildings.  Some structures have been restored and are now part of a Desert Studies facility of the University of California.  A few students strolled past us and went onto the parking lot, got into a black Taurus, and drove away.  Now, Mariam and I were the only people in the area.  I stopped at an old table on the Boulevard and looked up at the old bell tower.  I assume this once rang to call the patients and guests to prayer or a meeting or to a meal.

BellTower

[The bell tower.  Original part of the structure..??]

Were we really the only presence here?  I began to feel that we were not totally alone.  I felt that the ghosts of patients and preachers, children and adults, the sane and the insane, were walking among the palms alongside us.

No, we were not alone here.  Too much energy, pain, prayer, hope, loss, death, disease, promises, disappointments, grief and joy dwelt along the Boulevard of Dreams.

We drove away, leaving the little settlement to the rightful residents…the spirits of those who came with only a plea for life.

 

 

 

Unfortunate Souls

UnfortunateSoulsPlaque

One afternoon, in the late 19th Century, the fifteen year old brother of Maria Moreno complained about the way she was dancing.  She got angry.  His response was to say: “So, shoot me.”  Maria, who was sixteen went into her house and brought her father’s rifle.  She shot and killed her brother.  He should have let her dance anyway she wanted.  Maria was convicted and sentenced to the Yuma Territorial Prison.

One evening, again the late 19th Century, Elera Estrada, found out that her lover was being unfaithful.  She cut his heart out and threw it in his face.  She claimed in court that he fell onto her knife.  The jury didn’t buy her story.  Elvira was sent to the Yuma Territorial Prison.  Excuse the graphic description, I’m just writing about what I read.

EleraEstrada

[Not your everyday crime]

ElviraEstrada

[An everyday crime]

On Saturday, February 13, I parked our red Ford Escape and Mariam and I paid a small fee to tour the few buildings that was all that remained of the infamous prison.  I tried to imagine what a newly convicted person would feel like when we entered.

They would not have passed through a gift shop that carried hand lotions, lip balm, dream-catchers (made in China), post cards and books of the Wicked Women and Outlaws of the Old West.

They would not have entered a courtyard that was planted with blooming flowers and palm trees.  Inside the museum, there were display cases exhibiting the stories of the more colorful and interesting inmates.

There was a photo and story of Pearl Hart, a misguided train robber who teamed up with a guy named Boot.  They robbed one train and took away $421 in loot.  Both were captured and sent to different prisons.  Boot escaped and disappeared from the history books.  Hart went on to try her hand at acting.  She failed at that as well.  Her revolver was on display behind glass.

PearlHart

[Pearl tried her hand on the New York stage.]

This must have been a dismal place to serve time.  The cells, each holding six inmates must have been unbearably hot…Yuma is a very hot city.

There was the solitary confinement called the Dark Cell.  One poor soul spent 120 days in this room without light.  He emerged a “model prisoner” and never gave anyone any trouble after that.  My guess is that he had lost much of his reason inside this hellish enclosure.  That’s just my guess.

DarkHole

[The Dark Cell]

I tried to write down the names of the unfortunate souls who committed a crime, some hideous, like murder, and some that are not serious enough to require incarceration, like adultery.  I tried to look into the eyes of these men and women who suffered for what they did.  If you’re a religious person, consider that they paid twice for their sins, once in Yuma and again in Hell.  The two were the same if you looked deep enough into the eyes…those dark, wet, frightening, scared and pitiful eyes.  The eyes of people like Barney K. Riggs, Trinidad Verdugo, Henry Wilson, Donald Waters, Daniel Morin, R.L. McDonald, Jennie McCleary, Georgie Clifford, Pearl Hart and Frank Leslie.  There were too many to write down…too many to remember.

FrankLeslie

[A woman wrote to him while he was in prison. They married.]

The prison was opened in 1876.  The first inmate was William Hall.  In 1889, Manuel Fimbres gave birth to a child while a prisoner.  In 1899, Pearl Hart was behind bars.

The prison closed in 1909.

I stood in the court-yard and tried to imagine the conditions…but it just didn’t get inside me.  Nearby, the truck traffic on I-8 drowned out any chance for quiet reflection.  A lot of traffic was crossing the Colorado River (what’s left of it) in and out of California.  On a nearby hill was a casino.  A bike path wound its way alongside the river.  The parking lot was half-filled with SUV’s…most with out-of-state plates.  Ours was one of them, easy to spot because of the two bikes mounted on the roof.

We drove down a small road (perhaps a hundred yards) and walked to the Old Prison Cemetery. Here are 104 small mounds, most are covered with rocks.  None are marked. These are the unfortunate souls who died up on the hill, inside the stone walls, of Tuberculosis, snake bites, murder, suicide and executions.

I stood and took a photo, noticing my shadow falling across the graves.  I looked to my right and noticed my car with the bikes, sitting in the hot sun…alone.  There were no visitors to this part of the prison exhibits.  I wondered if anyone ever came here to visit a distant descendant, take a pebble as a souvenir, read the plaque, swat the flies, apply SPF or to mumble a prayer for these unfortunate souls whose bones mixed with the sand and dust beneath the baked rocks.

MyShadowonGraves

[The Prison Cemetery]

CarAtGraveyardYuma

[In the distance: A Ford Escape. Irony?]

There certainly was death beneath my feet, but there was also death in the eyes of those in the haunting photographs.  Those eyes.  Look at those eyes.

For a moment, they were forced to look at a camera…and in a sense into a society they mostly rejected.

But, for whatever despicable deed they committed, it occurred to me that each of them was born of a woman who loved them, for however briefly, before they grew up and found out what terror life can hold.

For a short time, they were fortunate souls.